The news that London Mayor Boris Johnson has cut the provision for Gypsy and Traveller sites in the London Plan from 538 to 238 has been greeted with dismay in the travelling community.
In the original draft London Plan put out for consultation last October, the Mayor settled on the figure of 538 as a compromise between the 807 pitches sought by the travelling community and 238 figure put forward by the boroughs.
Clearly in this pre-election period the Mayor has now come down strongly on the side of the boroughs and settled community, where there are no doubt more potential votes than among travellers. However, the Mayor’s office have sought to spin the 50 per cent cut as a “minor” alteration.
“Such significant reductions from the original London Gypsy and Traveller Accomodation Needs Assessment (GTANA) guideline number of pitches will have an extremely negative impact on the Gypsy and Traveller communities accommodation, health and education needs," said a spokesperson for the Irish Traveller Movement.."The government and the Gypsy and Traveller community have both stated that the Mayor’s office should seek the original number of pitches recommended by GTAN."
Not to be outdone in the battle to be perceived as the “toughest” on travellers, John Denham, the Communities Secretary, put out guidance to local councils and police on how specifically to deal with anti-social behaviour from the Gypsy and Traveller Community. The guidance points to the use of anti-social behaviour orders (asbos), acceptable behaviour contracts and injunctions. The guidance specifies particular offending behaviours like fly-tipping, noise, straying livestock and untaxed vehicles. The minister has also urged local councils to use the government money available to provide authorised sites for the travelling community.
The Conservative Party has never been slow to use the travelling community as a political football in the past. Then Conservative leader Michael Howard brought up the subject in the last general election campaign of 2005. The approach amounts to exploiting a minority group or put another way playing to the irrational fear of the other so prevalent amongst many in the population. It panders to a need to for some to find a scapegoat for their own ills.
The Labour Government to its credit has attempted to get to grips with the question of lack of sites for the travelling community. Ever since the Caravans Act 1968 – placing an obligation on local authorities to provide sites - was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the travelling community has been in a state of perpetual motion being moved on from one authority to another. There was no incentive to provide sites. The guidance from government calling for land to be identified and sites constructed was a definite move forward, not that it has ever exactly been a political priority.
The latest offering in the form of the Conservative’s green paper on Gypsies and Travellers seeks to remove the provisions put in place, emphasising instead a public order approach, giving more powers to local authorities and the police to move the travelling community on. It is in reality a back to the future approach, returning to the mid 1990s position.
In a letter to the Conservative Communities spokesperson 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.”
There are estimated to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers in the UK, As the Equality and Human Rights Commission has pointed out it would take one square mile of land across all of England to provide all Gypsy and Traveller families with sufficient authorised sites.
The reality of the travelling community reveals the most discriminated against group in the UK.
As well as shortage of accomodation, the community struggles to get proper health care.
In the area of mental health, self reported mental illness is 19 per cent compared to 9 per cent in the general population.
The travelling population has the highest level of maternal deaths among ethnic groups, with a miscarriage rate of 29 per cent compared to 16 per cent for the general population. Premature deaths of older offspring are 18 per cent compared to 1 per cent for the general population.
As a result of this discrimination the life expectancy of travellers is on average 10 years less than in the settled population. In Ireland, just 3 per cent of the travelling population live over 65.
There is discrimination suffered in the education system. The story of Irish Traveller Kathleen Stoke’s youngest son is instructive. All four of her children have been bullied at schools. Her youngest son fought back and was expelled. “When he went to another school, my second eldest advised him not to say that he was a traveller,” said Kathleen, who lives in Dagenham. “He hasn’t, so now he is just seen as being Irish and is not bullied.”
Irish Travellers are also over represented in the prison population. Traveller project manager for the Irish Chaplaincy Father Joe Browne recently revealed how 50 per cent of 1,000 Irish prisoners held in British jails come from the travelling community. Travellers are often remanded into custody rather than given bail because the authories do not recognise the address provided. The lack of literacy among many travellers makes life in the form bound life of prison very difficult. The prison authories often block compassionate leave for travellers for events like funerals, claiming that they are likely to escape. The Irish Chaplaincy now has the funding for a one year project to look more deeply into the discrimination against travellers within the criminal justice system.
All of these areas show the travelling community being openly discriminated against. Irish Travellers lets not forget are part of the Irish community. Discrimination against travellers should be confronted and the policy to provide sites vigorously pursued. Parties that seek to use this already marginalised group as a poltical football certainly do not deserve the Irish vote come election day