Kept prisoner through mix of threats and supply of 'cider and other things'
FIFTEEN OF the men removed from an Irish Travellers’ camp in Bedfordshire yesterday enjoyed hot showers and food, with support from British Red Cross volunteers, following months or years of living in squalor.
“We’re offering emotional support, where we can. Besides clean clothes and washing kit, we have also supplied table games and DVDs to help them settle,” lead volunteer Lynne Hartley said.
Since Sunday’s dawn raid by 200 police on the Greenacres caravan site on the Slapton Road at Little Billington, police have insisted that the 24 alleged victims had been forced to work laying tarmac or else face retribution. The case has been complicated by the decision of nine of the men not to co-operate with police – and the decision of one of them to return to the camp, saying it was his home – despite the urgings of police.
A woman who refused to be named and who is married to one of the four Travellers still being questioned, rejected the police version of events as “ridiculous”, insisting the men had been paid £30 (€34.90) a day and given somewhere to live.
Undoubtedly, however, the conditions where they stayed were poor, with the men living in dilapidated caravans without water or electricity, or in rundown garden sheds. In one case viewed by police during weeks of covert surveillance, a man was sleeping in a horsebox.
Most if not all of the men are alcoholics or drug-users, with police believing they were kept at the caravan park through a mixture of threats and a supply of urgently needed “cider, and other things”, one source said last night.
Left without nine possible witnesses, the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire constabulary remain confident that they can bring charges. “Nine may have gone, and that is their choice, but the rest are talking to us,” said one source.
Among the remaining 15 are eight Britons, three Poles, one Latvian, one Lithuanian and two other males whose nationalities are unconfirmed at this time because none have identification documents.
The oldest, approached by the alleged criminals, like most of the others, as he drew welfare benefits, is aged 57, while the youngest is 30.
A 17-year-old who is now refusing to help police was reunited yesterday with his family.
The tiny community of Little Billington is in shock, said parish councillor Don Brewin. Greenacres is but one of seven local Traveller encampments, he said:“Far more than anywhere else”.
The numbers living on them, he said, have crept up steadily, helped by Travellers’ victories in planning appeals. “Most of them are fine, quiet people who just get on with their lives,” Brewin said, while adding that Greenacres had a reputation locally.
Privately, some locals said they had been aware that men were living in fear there, though police say it was not until one witness came forward last March or April that a major investigation was begun.
Under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, people found guilty of exacting forced labour could be jailed for up to seven years, while those guilty of holding a person in domestic servitude – locking them in a house – could get 14 years.
Prior to the new law, cases were prosecuted using human trafficking legislation, though the sentences meted out were meagre, with “just six months common in many cases”, said Paul Donohoe of the Anti-Slavery International lobby group.
The new legislation has been used twice before, in previously unreported cases, after police raided Travellers’ encampments in Hampshire and Gloucestershire, though prosecutions in these instances have yet to reach the courts.
Given help, some of those rescued managed to quit alcohol and begin life anew in local authority accommodation. In the months since, however, many have returned to abuse of alcohol.
The Travellers arrested at Greenacres are British-born, with strong family connections in Ireland, though they are not believed to have lived for any substantial period in Ireland “bar visits over to visit relations”, it is understood.
Describing the revelations from Greenacres as “unbelievably awful”, local Conservative MP Andrew Selous expressed his horror.
“There were people living in horseboxes, dog kennels, filthy clothing, shaved heads, mobile phones taken away from them – some with excrement all over them,” he said.
The public has a role to play in dealing with such abuse, he stressed. “If someone offers work below the cost of material and wages, then clearly there is something wrong. If workers look like they haven’t had a square meal for months, then we should all be asking questions,” he added.