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Lisa Smith, Gypsies and Travellers consultation
courtesy of Lisa Smith

Why Gypsies and Travellers like me fight for a better future in the UK

The British government’s proposals to criminalise encampments threatens our nomadic way of life, entrenches racism, and upholds dangerous stereotypes

Lisa Smith is the YTT editor of Travellers’ Times, and the chairperson for The Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers

It seems to be a Conservative tradition, during election campaigns, to vilify Romany Gypsies and Travellers. On November 5 2019, in the run up to the general election, Priti Patel announced proposals to criminalise unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller encampments. Make no mistake – this is a direct attack on the UK’s Gypsies and Travellers, and amounts to nothing more than legislative cleansing. Until successive Conservative governments began working on it, trespass was a civil and trivial matter. Now, it’s being proposed to be treated as a crime so serious that on mere suspicion you can lose your home.

In April, the House of Commons Women and Equalities committee concluded its inquiry into the inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities. It decided that the government had “comprehensively failed” Gypsy and Traveller communities, and that “leadership from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government … has been lacking”. The committee called on the Cabinet Office “to create a specific work stream for eliminating Gypsy and Traveller inequalities”.

One of the biggest issues facing Gypsy and Traveller families is finding suitable culturally appropriate accommodation and the struggle to find this accommodation has been one with a long bitter history. 

Unauthorised camping is a symptom of the lack of a coherent strategy across government, local and national. The Criminal Justice Act 1994 criminalised unauthorised camping and gave the police extensive powers. It also strengthened police powers to evict Gypsy encampments and removed the statutory duty on local councils to provide caravan sites established under the 1968 Caravan Sites Act. 

It didn’t solve the problem, and neither will the proposals in the consultation. In fact, in response to Dominic Raab’s consultation launched in 2018, around powers for dealing with unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller camps, the National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners rejected calls for a clampdown on unauthorised sites and said “criminalisation of Travellers was not the answer”. It instead called for a “significant increase” in the number of permanent and temporary sites across the country.

Nothing is being done to deal with the root cause of unauthorised encampments for Gypsies and Travellers, and instead, what we are seeing is the result of years of neglect. There is a lack of political will to address the chronic shortage of site provision across the country and this can partly be explained by widespread anti-gypsyism and prejudice.

I’ve seen that racial discrimination and social exclusion are common experiences in the lives of Gypsy and Traveller people, and many families find themselves living on the margins of society as a result. In 2018, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) carried out research on social attitudes that found that 44 per cent of the British public openly expressed negative feelings towards Gypsies, Roma and Travellers; more than any other protected characteristic group in society. While the UK has legislation that specifically addresses discrimination, such as the Equality Act 2010, there remains an evident gap between what the legislation says and lived experience.

The EHRC’s ‘Is England Fairer’ report states that: “Britain is fortunate to have a strong equality and human rights legal framework to protect people from discrimination and violations of their basic rights and freedoms. However, the experiences of many people across England, Scotland and Wales often do not reflect what is set out in law.” The report revealed that the life chances of Gypsy and Traveller people have declined since the Commission’s last progress review in 2010, citing deprivation, social invisibility, stigma, and stereotyping as contributing factors to these outcomes.

It seems like we're in a catch 22 – current government policy recommends that Travellers should house themselves on their own land. But when families like my own attempt to do so, they are often denied planning permission. The government's own studies show that over 80 per cent of planning applications from settled people are granted consent, while more than 90 per cent of applications from Gypsies are refused.

It took my family five long and stressful years and two appeals to get planning permission for a small family site. When we moved on the plot of land we had purchased on the outskirts of the village, a website was set up that urged people to sign a petition for our ‘removal’. During the planning process the local villagers put on a community  fundraiser fete to hire a helicopter to take an aerial view photograph of our site because google maps didn’t provide them with what they felt was an up to date enough photo for an upcoming planning meeting. There was deep set suspicion about who we were and a concern that their house prices would go down in value.  

There is a damaging perception that Gypsy and Travellers get ‘special treatment’ under planning law and the media and sensationalist shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and fear mongering headlines describing us as ‘swarms’ and ‘invaders’ has added to the social construction of our identity and this inevitably affects how policy makers develop policy towards us in all domains of life including health, education and accommodation. I believe that the government needs to broaden their perceptions of Gypsies and Travellers –right now, it’s relying on outdated stereotypes.

The consultation is clearly deliberately discriminatory. Pro campaigners argue relentlessly that it will stop littering and anti-social behaviour but there are plenty of laws and police powers to prosecute these crimes already. The proposals in the consultation are unnecessary, and will threaten our ancient nomadic tradition and encourage further discrimination against us. 

The Women and Equalities inquiry was a serious and thorough effort to improve the situation for the benefit of everyone. This consultation, with its online survey app format and leading questions, is just the opposite. It’s so poorly put together it makes me question if the intention was to actually go ahead with this, or if it is nothing more than performative oppression. Nevertheless – you can show your support for our community by keeping up to date with our fight in our own media, making your voice heard as an ally in this consultation, and refusing to hear the stereotypes that hold us back.