Thursday, April 1, 2010



Wednesday 31 March 2010
By Paul Donovan.

Tories have never liked the travelling community. At the last general election in 2005, then Tory leader Michael Howard made a point of attacking Irish travellers and Gypsies.

Now the party has issued a green paper which looks to reverse the limited gains that have been made over the last decade or so.

Many of today's problems were caused by the last Tory government's repeal of the Caravans Act 1968, which imposed a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide sites.

As a result, the travelling community was put into a state of perpetual motion, moving from one local authority to the next. There was no incentive for any local authority to provide sites.

There are estimated to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Gypsies and travellers in the UK.

To put the accommodation needs in perspective, the Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that one square mile of land across England would provide enough authorised sites.

The Labour government has since called on local authorities to identify land suitable for sites and to build suitable accommodation for travellers.

This process has slowly been taking root across the country, accompanied by a number of scare stories in the tabloid press about compulsory purchase orders and travellers moving in on middle England.

Conservative-controlled authorities' reluctance to act in the spirit of this guidance was best illustrated by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who recently reduced the provision of sites in the London Plan from 538 to 238.

Originally travellers' groups had been pushing for 807 sites, the boroughs for 238.

In October Johnson accepted 538, but now the lower figure has been adopted.

The Tories' new green paper illustrates their desire to return to their early 1990s position on the travelling community.

The paper stresses a criminal justice approach, seeking to strengthen local authorities' powers to move travellers on, while removing any obligation to provide sites.

In a letter to The Conservative communities spokeswoman Caroline Spellman, Lord Eric Avebury warns: "If this document is used by Conservatives in local or national election campaigns, it will provoke community tensions, as occurred at the last general election when negative Conservative policies, less extreme than the present green paper, aroused great concern among Gypsies and travellers and an increase in racism in schools and the wider community."

But the Labour government, rather than standing its ground over this threat, has issued guidance on anti-social behaviour within the Gypsy and travelling community.

The guidance points to the use of Asbos, acceptable behaviour contracts and injunctions. It specifies particular offending behaviour such as fly-tipping, noise, straying livestock and untaxed vehicles.

The fact is that the travelling community is one of the most discriminated-against groups in British society.

Statistics show the community receiving second-class health care, limited educational opportunities and it has an over-representation among the prison population.

Some of the official data makes for shocking reading, with life expectancy among travellers 10 years less than for the settled population and self-reported mental illness standing at 19 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in the general population.

The travelling population also has the highest number of miscarriages among Britain's ethnic groups, with a rate of 29 per cent compared with 16 per cent for the general population.

Premature deaths of older offspring are 18 per cent, compared with 1 per cent for the general population.

There has been some progress over recent years to address some of the travelling community's problems, most notably over site provision and health care.

Slowly but surely the world of Gypsies and travellers is becoming better known to the wider community. It must be hoped that greater tolerance will follow.

What is not needed now is a gutter-based election campaign with political parties competing to see who can be toughest on one of the most marginalised groups in society. Pandering to prejudice and the desire of some to scapegoat minorities in order to win cheap votes will help no-one.

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