, Respect for the law part one: leadingcounsel.co.uk
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Respect for the law part one

It should be obvious that the law should be applied equally to everyone. It should also be crucial that people have to respect the law in order to take advantage of certain benefits which the law gives them. That is not to say that there should be some form of outlawry for criminals, but those who deliberately refuse to follow the system in claiming specific rights should pay the penalty.

Firstly we shall look at flouting ordinary planning procedures. There have been a number of instances of traveller "bank holiday developments". What happens is this. Just after the council offices close on Friday afternoon of the bank holiday, travellers invade a site, typically in the green belt. They literally tarmac it over and install utilities, claiming planning permission either late on Friday afternoon before they enter or retrospectively. They use the three-day weekend to get the work to a state where utilities have already been installed, and so it is too late for the council to stop that happening. Lengthy planning and other battles often taking years then ensue.

On the May Day bank holiday local residents at Meriden, near Solihull in the West Midlands, actually took action to try and prevent one such site from being set up. One of the curiosities is that ordinarily nothing happens. The police take no action, presumably on the basis that this is regarded as a "civil" matter. The travellers, having deliberately sought to flout the system, are immediately given a benefit. To permit this brings the law into disrepute. If utilities are installed in such circumstances then there should be no occupation pending resolution of the planning application. Alternatively they should be routinely removed immediately. That would end the problem at a stroke.

However it is plain that there is little prospect of that changing under existing government policy (albeit that that might change). Freedom of information rules have recently exposed planning guidelines for inspectors which are the culmination of a series of bizarre government efforts to undermine equal application of the law to citizens.

A number have occurred in respect of schools. There are problems with traveller children and their education. However those stem from itinerant lifestyle of the families. That should not be a reason to disadvantage other people. Government guidance suggests that traveller children should be given priority admission to state schools even if they may not be there long. What that fails to recognise is that that means that other children are being deliberately disadvantaged as a result. Similarly the Department for Children, Schools and Families guidance suggests that extra scrutiny should be applied to a decision to expel a traveller child. Why? Presumably no child should be expelled without there being a proper reason. If there is a proper reason, their lifestyle should not be a reason to change that decision. Again this is state-sponsored discrimination. It undermines the idea that rules should apply to all.

Health service rules are similar. The suggestion is that travellers should be allowed to go to the head of the queue without an appointment and have longer appointments than other people. This is spuriously justified on ethnic grounds. However sick people are sick people. Whilst I can see that steps have to be taken to ensure that itinerant people can get proper access to medical treatment, I fail to see why that is inconsistent with them having to wait or why that should justify them having longer appointments. The aim should be to ensure that they get the same opportunity as anyone else.

The new planning rules are preposterous. They suggest that inspectors should effectively take account of the traveller concerns, but not those of the locals. Effectively they suggest that travellers ought to be allowed to erect sites on green belt land. The suggestion is that travellers need caravan sites due to aversion to bricks and mortar pointing out that being "enclosed" can be distressing to people who have been used to living outdoors. That may well be the case, but no doubt many people living in high-rise flats feel enclosed, but does that mean they ought to be allowed to build on the green belt so that they will feel better? If you have an aversion to being unable to buy high-priced clothes does that mean you can shoplift them? No doubt some local authorities fail to make any proper provision for travellers, but the consequences of that should not be visited on hapless communities who are not responsible for the failure. Development rules should be equally applied. It would be quite wrong to prevent someone pursuing a proper development on the grounds that they were a traveller. It is equally wrong to treat them differently the other way round.

Michael J. Booth QC