Why we must not treat Gypsies and Travellers as pariahs

JANE BASHAM, chief executive of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality, puts the events at Dale Farm into historical perspective

The word ‘pariah’, meaning social outcast, comes from a time of much more rigid social system which made certain groups of people ‘pariahs’. The word first appears in the English vocabulary in 1613 (its origins are believed to be Tamil). The UK only stopped executing Gypsies, just for being Gypsies, in the late 17th century.

The recent events at Dale Farm should lead us to reflect on the term and the way we treat the Gypsy and Traveller community in Britain today.

The fact that successive arguments by politicians and authorities in respect of Dale Farm are centred on planning law breaches really misses a fundamental point – the failure by successive local councils and governments to meet the accommodation needs of this community and the relentless way in which governments have continued to legislate against it over the years.

The Caravan Sites Act 1960 was introduced to control private caravan sites but its impact was that Gypsies and Travellers found it difficult to buy land to live and winter on. This meant more were pushed onto the roadside. As a result of research into the impact of this act on the community, the 1968 Caravan Sites Act was passed. This placed a duty on local councils to provide accommodation. This was when larger sites were developed, with little or no consultation with the community. ‘Like Indians on a reservation, we are’ a Gypsy man on a site said to me.

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Local councils provided a minimum number of pitches. The rules and conditions imposed on those living on pitches are often incompatible with the culture of this community. Rather they are developed to pacify and meet the needs and expectations of the settled community.

The 1994 Criminal Justice & Public Order Act removed the duty on local councils to provide sites and enhanced theirs and the powers of police to evict. The government at this time said Gypsies and Travellers should buy their own land and set up sites. This is what they did at Dale Farm.

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Research shows that more than 90% of planning applications submitted by Gypsies and Travellers are turned down, against 20% of those submitted by non-Travellers. Every planning application submitted by the Travellers on Dale Farm has been turned down. What is not widely reported about the ‘green belt’ land at Dale Farm is that, prior to it being bought legally by Travellers, it operated as a scrap yard

The fact that arguments focus on whether they continue to be Travellers when they are settled also fails to understand the concept of ethnic origin that applies to all of us. Gypsies and Travellers, whether of Romani heritage or Irish, are an ethnic group. This ethnic identity remains part of us, so if, for example, as a white British person I moved to France my heritage and ethnic identity would not change. This is distinct to nationality, which can be acquired through adherence. Just because people from the Gypsy and Traveller community ‘settle’ therefore does not mean they lose their ethnic identity.

For this community life in a ‘house’ is an alien concept. Those that do live in houses have often had no option, having chosen a house as opposed to living by the roadside primarily for access to health and education services.

Life by the roadside nowadays is very different to many years ago. We must let go of this image of wagon and horses and recognise the impact of the legislation and wider societal progress. Roadside living is far more dangerous and in the main the non-Traveller community have become less tolerant, for the pariah syndrome has once again taken root.

Harassment by neighbours, councils and the Police are also drivers. Those who do live in houses, and there are many in Suffolk, tell me that often they do not tell their neighbours about their heritage, because of their daily lived life of racism and racist abuse.

Despite the Association of Chief Police Officers saying there is no evidence to support claims of increased crime when the Travellers move into an area this community is blamed for a whole raft of criminal activities. Myths and stories are accepted as facts. The criminal actions of a few are used to demonise an entire ethnic group.

It is clear that leaving the provision of sites to local councils’ discretion just does not work. Suffolk, for example, was identified under the Housing Act in 2004 as needing an additional 151 pitches (probably a rather reserved figure) to meet the needs of this community. To my knowledge no additional pitches have been provided. Do we as residents of Suffolk care about these families and their unmet needs? Do we care that families on Dale Farm have nowhere to go?

It is a shame that Suffolk, with its history of and commitment to tolerance and equality, is not in a position to welcome one or two families from Dale Farm, to help get their children back in school and to protect the vulnerable.

Rather it seems Suffolk is gearing itself to move them on.

There is an impact locally on the Gypsy and Traveller community. Some people tell me they are fearful of more negative press impacting on them, that they are portrayed as law breakers, that our local authorities and police will take a leaf out of Basildon Council’s book adopting more aggressive approaches to evictions than ever before. Who is addressing, on their behalf, the failure of government to include this community in its Big Society ideology?

We like to think we live in a civilised society. Yet in a time of cuts this government is prepared to spend millions on getting rid, rather than evolving humane and people-centred solutions. It is a sad indictment on our society when laws to protect space (planning) seem to take precedence over laws to protect children, mothers, fathers, families - human beings.

Gypsies and Travellers are not pariahs. They are our fellow citizens and deserve better of us.

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