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Priest fears for Travellers as new anti-trespass law goes through Parliament

10 December 2021

Jonathan Herbert

Graffiti on a Traveller’s caravan

Graffiti on a Traveller’s caravan

CHURCHES will be asked to consider offering sanctuary spaces for Gypsies and Travellers whose way of life will be threatened under the Government’s new law criminalising trespass, which is currently going through Parliament.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill criminalises trespass for the first time in the UK, making it a criminal offence to live on land in a vehicle, including caravans, without consent (News, 17 September). The new Bill is currently in the House of Lords. Attempts to amend the Bill to protect Travellers have not so far succeeded.

The effect of the proposed Bill would be that Travellers would be constantly moved on, which would affect their health and the education of the children, Canon Jonathan Herbert, the chaplain to Gypsies, Travellers and Showmen for Salisbury diocese, warned.

“I really fear for the consequences of the Bill in general,” he said. “Gypsies and Travellers are under increasing pressure from public legislation and lack of sites.”

He is working on a project with the Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, which is considering how to encourage churches to think about offering sanctuary spaces — which could be as simple as access to a water tap, or lavatories, or space in a car park. The sanctuary would be intended as a “brief stopover” rather than long-term access.

“We hope churches might think about offering sanctuary space in response to the Bill. Christians are called to reconciliation and to be peacemakers and offer hospitality to people who are marginalised and isolated, just as Travellers are,” he said.

Many members of the Traveller, Gypsy, and Roma community are Christian: 80 per cent of Romany Gypsies are Christian; many identify as Pentecostal or Anglican. Many of the Irish Traveller community are Roman Catholic, and many Roma are Pentecostal or Salvation Army.

The Churches Network called on all dioceses to create chaplaincies for Travellers and Gypsies, and at least 12 dioceses have responded and are now setting up teams of ecumenical chaplains.

The diocese of Durham has appointed the Revd Nicky Chater as its chaplain to the Traveller communities. Recently retired from the NHS, she is in liaison with local authorities to develop the Sanctuary Stopping Places proposal, as Durham County Council already provides several stopover sites at peak times, although sites are limited. She will make a presentation to the next Durham diocesan synod to encourage discussion about what churches could offer.

A toolkit is also being developed to help people in parishes to think through the issues, and to raise awareness of hostility faced by Travellers.

Covid have swept through some Traveller sites. Many in the community had been vaccinated, Canon Herbert said, but roadside travellers were among the people least likely to have been vacccinated, owing to their disconnection from health-care services.

Most drop-in centres were in urban locations, which also ruled out access to most roadside Travellers, he said.

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