A GYPSY leader says he fears new legislation will encourage further prejudice against the traveller community and could threaten the future of Appleby Fair.

Billy Welch, from Darlington, who is one of the fair’s organisers, has warned home secretary Priti Patel the Appleby event is threatened by measures in the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which was voted on by MPs on Monday.

“It’s going to encourage the racist and bigoted people in this world,” said Mr Welch. “They will think they are justified in what they’re doing and make it worse.

“The last time a law like this was introduced it was in pre-war Germany and it was the Nazis that introduced it.

“Vehicles and houses would be confiscated and people put in prison. I’m not suggesting the Government is going to do that but this is how ethnic cleansing began, with a similar sort of law."

He added: “It’s very worrying. People are anxious.

"They want to know if this happens, what happens next.”

Mr Welch has written to Ms Patel about his concerns.

The bill, which passed its third reading on Monday, would mean police could confiscate travellers’ homes if they did not immediately move on if local people complained, he said. Because of a shortage of approved sites, members of the community can struggle to find somewhere legal to stop on their way to the event.

He added it would give police the power to arrest people on the back of “hearsay”.

He wrote to Ms Patel: “The bill as it stands creates a new criminal offence. A person who does not immediately leave a piece of public or private land when asked to do so (based only on ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they have, or will, cause damage, disturbance or disruption) may be arrested, fined, and imprisoned and have their vehicles confiscated.

“Although the bill makes no reference to ethnicity, this provision will in effect make criminals of law-abiding Gypsies and Travellers as well as homeless people and ‘wild-campers’ who live in vans, because the offence is in refusing to leave, which requires no evidence of antisocial behaviour, but merely suspicion that it is likely.”

Speaking to the Northern Echo, he added: "This is a majority picking on minorities to make themselves popular and they haven't stopped to think about what they are doing."

In a letter responding to Mr Welch's, Ms Patel said: "The Government's overarching aim is to ensure fair and equal treatment for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, in a way that facilitates their traditional and nomadic way of life while also respecting the interests of the wider community.

"We are equally clear that we will not tolerate law breaking and we are determined to ensure police have the powers they need to support and serve their communities.

"The new criminal offence is targeted at those who cause significant damage, disruption and distress to landowners and communities and who do not leave land when asked to do so. It will apply to anyone trespassing in the conditions specified and enforcement will not be based on ethnicity or race."

The Northern Echo contacted the Home Office for comment.

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