Briefing paper for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsies and Travellers

Briefing paper given on Thursday 9 December.


The inequalities experienced by Gypsy and Traveller communities are widely documented (EHRC Research Report No 9: 2009, EHRC Triennial Review: 2010) and it is not the intention of this paper to reiterate or review these findings.

Most of the public discourse in relation to Gypsies and Travellers however focuses on two specific areas – lack of appropriate site provision and poor educational attainments – to the exclusion of the many other areas where life outcomes for Gypsies and Travellers are poorer than for any other minority ethnic group in UK society today.

Sometimes the invisibility of Gypsies and Travellers within discourses concerning issues such as community empowerment, participation in health and social care service planning and delivery, access to justice and democratic engagement is attributed to the lack of robust data. There is, currently, no ethnic monitoring of Gypsies and Travellers within the National Health Service, nor is there ethnic monitoring of Gypsies and Travellers in relation to local democratic participation nor, for example, appointments to public offices. This means that much of the evidence concerning persistent and systematic exclusion of travelling communities is partial or anecdotal.

The strong focus on site provision (or lack of it) can detract from a wider understanding of the key drivers of the inequalities that Gypsies and Travellers experience in virtually every walk of life. There is, without doubt, a deeply embedded societal racism against Gypsies and Travellers which runs like a hideous thread through the whole fabric of our society and which feeds individual and institutional discrimination against the travelling communities.

This paper contends that it is only by tackling this deeply rooted racism that real progress will be made in the other areas of inequality.

Site provision – why is this seen as the Holy Grail?

It is easy to see why so much attention is focused on this area of inequality. It is shocking that in 21st century Britain up to 25,000 people living in caravans and trailers have no legal site on which to place their home but instead are subjected to constant and repeated eviction from one place they shouldn’t be to another  place they shouldn’t be. Apart from the cost in terms of the human misery that this creates we spend an estimated £18 million per annum, just moving people around aimlessly.

Various techniques have been used, through Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments, to quantify the shortfall and considerable expertise has been deployed, from inside and outside academia, to come up with a definitive figure. It is not the purpose of this paper to get into the detail of actual figures so let us simply say that the estimated shortfall is around 5,000 to 6,000 pitches. Setting this into the context of the new bricks and mortar housing that may be required over the next decade (up to 3 million new homes) it can be seen that the provision of a mere 5,000 or so Gypsy/Traveller pitches should not be a major issue – we simply need to provide one Gypsy/Traveller pitch for every 600 new homes!

The fact that it is a major issue however reflects, not the lack of suitable land to use for new sites but the fact that, for the most part, local authorities are unwilling to provide sites, or grant permission for privately owned sites, within their area. Although the Coalition Government has made the welcome announcement that it intends to reintroduce grants for site provision next year, it should be remembered that the existence of site grants under the previous administration actually achieved little more than facilitating the refurbishment of some existing sites. The net increase in pitches achieved was negligible.

The essential reason why local authorities have been unwilling or unable to provide new sites is that there is enormous prejudice from people in the settled community against Gypsies and Travellers. A MORI poll conducted in 2003 on behalf of Stonewall showed that over a third of respondents admitted to be prejudiced against Gypsies and Travellers. Wherever a new site is proposed it is inevitable that a vociferous and hostile opposition will be mounted by members of the local settled community. The normal pattern is that, whatever the original intentions of the local authority, local politicians will get cold feet once the anti-placards start to appear and the proposal will be dropped or refused planning permission.

Whilst some attempts have been made to look at techniques for bringing proposals forward so as not to precipitate such polarised opposition there has been no systematic attempt by political leaders, at either local or national level, to tackle the root causes of the prejudice. On the contrary, the need for site provision has been framed more within a context of enabling more effective enforcement of unauthorised camping than the more positive objective of meeting the basic human need for secure accommodation.

Unacceptable as it may be to have a situation where up to 25,000 people from the travelling communities are, in effect, homeless they still only represent around 8.5% of the Gypsy/Traveller population in the UK. The remaining 91.5% still experience many barriers to inclusion as a result of the racism and discrimination that exists against members of the travelling communities.

Whilst it is undeniably important to tackle the issue of site provision, focusing upon this one aspect of Gypsy/Traveller inequality must not become a fig leaf to cover our lack of concern about all the other areas, particularly the underpinning issues of racism, prejudice and chronic exclusion.

Chronically excluded groups and the Big Society

Whilst all the major political parties, and most individuals, support concepts of equality and fairness, it is a fact that some people are much more ‘unequal’ than others. Initiatives based around ‘empowerment’, ‘participation’ and ’voice’ can be most beneficial to those people who already have a little bit of power, who are already joined in to community networks and who already have some voice within those networks, but they can leave other groups – the chronically excluded – totally untouched. As a result these groups can become even more disempowered, with fewer choices and even poorer life outcomes.

Chronically excluded groups may include Gypsies and Travellers, street homeless people, asylum seekers, ex-offenders leaving custody and other groups. We could have a debate about which groups in society fall within the category of ‘chronic exclusion’ but unless this phenomenon is recognised and acknowledged, with targeted resources to address the issues, we will never achieve the equal and fair society to which most of us aspire.

The reality is that it is much easier to achieve community development within those communities that are already, to some extent, joined into existing processes and structures. It is easier to achieve the participation of those who already have a voice and who have used it within existing community networks. If we simply do the easy stuff however and fail to address those excluded and marginalised groups referred to above then we jeopardise the achievement of the Big Society vision – to be effective the Big Society has also to be an Inclusive Society. The unwitting exclusion of marginalised groups from the Big Society is likely to lead to added community tensions and a less cohesive and effective society.

What are the core beliefs and values that inform our actions?

Many words have been written and spoken about Gypsy and Traveller issues by politicians, opinion formers, academics and others. But these tend to focus on actions and initiatives that might be taken to address perceived ‘problems’ e.g. the provision of authorised sites to address the problem of trespass and unauthorised encampments.

There are, however, more fundamental questions that we as a society should be addressing in order to inform and to provide a proper strategic framework for the various individual actions that are taken. There has been a tendency to avoid facing up to these questions to date but it is essential that we do so in order to have a sound ethical basis for the policy approaches that are to be adopted –

Do we believe that the inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers should be addressed within the mainstream of our efforts to tackle and eliminate Race Inequality in all walks of life?

Are we prepared to acknowledge and celebrate Gypsy and Traveller culture, and try to create an environment in which it can flourish, or are we seeking to secure the assimilation of Gypsies and Travellers into mainstream culture (in other words the whole ‘multiculturalism’ debate, which to date does not ever seem to have been applied to the travelling communities)?

Do we accept nomadism as a legitimate way of life in 21st century Britain? Are we seeking to create an environment that allows nomadism to continue and to thrive or are we trying to bring it to an end by making it difficult or impossible to continue that lifestyle?

There are, doubtless, other questions that we should be asking ourselves but unless we are clear and honest about our basic values and beliefs on these sorts of issues then any initiatives that are taken will have been taken in a policy vacuum.

Now that the Coalition Government has published its Equality Strategy (2nd December 2010) in which it has announced the setting up of a cross Government Ministerial working group to address the extreme inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers there is an unique opportunity for these questions properly to be addressed. I therefore recommend that the All Party Parliamentary Group requests the responsible Minister, Andrew Stunell MP, to ensure that the new working group considers these overarching issues in order to provide a strategic framework for the more detailed policy initiatives that might be pursued.

Chris Whitwell


Friends, Families and Travellers

3 December 2010

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