Earlier this week, a young Romany Gypsy made the news when he wrote a letter to new Scottish Tory MP Douglas Ross. Ross had been asked a question during a Core Politics video interview, later reported in the Telegraph, and gave an appalling answer:
Given the hypothetical chance to be Prime Minister and do anything – anything, without consequences – Ross chose ‘tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers‘.
Not ‘end poverty’. Not reduce inequality or fix an NHS broken by years of Tory predations. Not even the Tory daydreams of reduced immigration or a good Brexit deal. Ross said his one and only priority would be to make things tougher for travellers.
Ben Bennett, a 13-year-old Nottinghamshire man – when you talk to him, ‘boy’ is inappropriate – wrote his moving and shocking letter asking Ross why he wanted to target one ethnic group and outlining some of the costs and prejudices he and his family face daily:
Ben and his family kindly agreed to be interviewed by the SKWAWKBOX so that we could bring you the fuller story that clearly lay behind this remarkable letter. We expected to be moved and impressed – but we got far more than we anticipated.
The conversation revealed not just an impressive young man standing up for himself and his community, but a glimpse into the daily reality faced by a family and a group caused by what they describe as ‘the last acceptable form of racism‘.
We’ll let Ben, a remarkably poised and articulate young man who featured prominently on Channel 5’s Gypsy Kids show, talk first:
Ben, thanks for your time. When you read the comment by Douglas Ross, how did you feel?
When I saw that comment I was quite shocked, because why would he want to single out one community. I felt like that was about me because I’m a member of that community and I’ve done nothing wrong. It was very hurtful.
I can only imagine. You mentioned in the letter that you’ve been to 12 different schools – is that because you’ve moved about?
No, not at all. I’ve been to so many different schools because of discrimination by teachers – they often refuse to teach me because of my ethnicity, they’re not comfortable having me in the class. I was always polite, respectful and worked hard, but they talked down to me because of my ethnicity – they seemed to feel that just having me in the class put other pupils at risk.
But that’s out and out racism, isn’t it? They’d never think of doing that with a black, Asian or Jewish pupil.
I don’t understand why being prejudiced against any community is ok – at the end of the day there’s no acceptable form, but it feels like prejudice against gypsy travellers [GTs] is accepted.
People like Douglas Ross have this stereotypical image that we’re all criminals and leave rubbish everywhere – but if he actually met anyone from the t community he’d see we’re just like everyone else. People from his community do bad things but it doesn’t mean I’m going to pick on him because someone broke into my house. We’re not all thieves and fly-tippers.
Have you had any bad reaction to your letter on social media?
I’ve not really had any grief – really I’ve been shocked at how much positive feedback I’ve had. That’s been really encouraging because if I can continue with the work I’m doing, I can help put a stop to inequality in the world. That’s is something I’d like to achieve.
And the TV show?
The show has been a really positive experience but there has been some negative backlash from it, especially at school – I’m not at school just now because of the latest incident. Me being featured in it is a way for me to say what our community needs. They say they’ve made changes but being isolated at school hasn’t changed.
What happened in the latest incident?
Me and my sister were walking to school one day – it’ll be featured on the show on the 25 September so I’m not supposed to give too much away, but we were attacked by sixteen lads on school property. The teachers didn’t do anything.
You mentioned highlighting what your community needs – what are the most pressing?
Accommodation, healthcare, education. Acceptance within communities. We can’t register with a GP with no fixed address. We can’t get accepted in school because of prejudice, there are no social housing sites for travellers – and the government restricts us to prevent us getting planning permission. My dad will tell you more about it.
Ben, that’s brilliant. Is there anything you’d like to say to round off?
Ardua ad astra – through struggle to the stars. I have that on my Twitter profile.
Ben’s mum, Nathalie [N] and dad Richard [R] then took over and elaborated – and what they revealed was staggering:
I’m already shocked by what I’ve heard – that discrimination against GTs is not only common but accepted. Can you tell me more?
N: It really is the last acceptable form of racism – Ben just doesn’t get how that can be allowed, so he takes all types of racism on. I wouldn’t say he’s an ‘activist’ but he’s very active.
He was invited to Parliament as he featured prominently in GK. They saw him on TV and was invited. We met Angus Robertson, Jeremy Corbyn, several other politicians and celebrities, spoke to them about the challenges and discrimination we face.
Tell me some more about those?
N: It’s about getting other people to take GT people at face value rather than judging a whole community, so they stop putting barriers in place to hold people back and hinder community cohesion.
We need to enable integration in education and proper access to health. We need to break down stereotypes, help gypsy people get access to services and train national bodies to do better – to dismiss myths and get rid of fear.
It’s horrendous to think it’s 2017 and people who are in a position to change things for the better making flippant remarks that have such an impact on people’s lives.
R: Douglas Ross only displayed what a lot of MPs think. There was an MP’s leaflet going round that included being a traveller in a list of anti-social behaviour. Ben got that pamphlet removed – the MP was told to by police for inciting racism – but all Ben got was a nasty letter from the MP.
It’s only the GT community where instead of trying to create community cohesion they jump straight to enforcement – enforce enforce enforce. The definition of a traveller, for planning permission purposes, is that you travel – this forces people onto road to get planning permission and the only proof they’ll accept that you’re travelling is eviction and enforcement notices. That’s forcing travellers to become a nuisance to get proof of being a traveller!
We pay council tax per caravan, they’ve got money to build sites – did you know it would only need one sq mile to house whole traveller community?
Wait, what – a single square mile for the whole community in the country?!
R: Yes, all of us. The GTAA [Gypsy-Traveller Accommodation Assessment] relies on caravan count, not how many people are living in them, it’s not fit for purpose. There are 15,000 traveller families in Nottinghamshire and out of 15,000 families there are 3,000 children missing from education. We’ve raised it with the County Council – they don’t even know any figures and they have no intention of helping kids attend school. And it’s not just Nottinghamshire, it’s a national problem.
Under Labour there were teaching assistants who got involved with kids and families. It worked – 95% of all traveller children attended school. But the Conservative government removed that.
Nationwide there are three hundred thousand children of traveller heritage not attending school. If they can’t get to school and get their GCSEs, then they can’t go on courses, get a qualification, an NVQ etc. From 5 years of age, traveller children are put on a path to a life of begging for services and support.
It’s not just our kids. One in four travelling women either risk death or die because they can’t get injection to combat rejection if their baby has a different blood group – doctors refuse to register us.
Everyone wants to move the problem on. The cancer survival rate for GTs is 1% – you can’t get screening and if you’ve got no education, even if you can get medication you can’t read the prescription or the instructions.
Education is a massive issue. 86% of the traveller community aged over 40 is illiterate, only 6% of gypsy or traveller kids is offered any form of education.
Parents want so much for their kids to be educated, they realise they’ve got no future without it. People say we don’t but it’s a load of rubbish. All the people we deal with are absolutely on their knees in despair with it – and only 5% of travellers are on the move. 15% live in caravans but most stay in one place. Those who move do so because they’ve no choice. We pay our dues – our taxes, council tax, VAT the same as anyone else. But we get far less in return.
Take the fly-tipping accusation, for example. Everyone’s entitled to waste disposal but local authorities ban vans and stop us taking our rubbish to the tip.
But education is the biggest single issue, just massive. Out of a GT community of 1,500,000 in this country, single figures of GT children have 5 A-C grades at GCSE. That’s not single-figure percentages – that’s single figures, fewer than ten.
It’s always about exclusion. There are 1.5 million GT people in this country and we’ve been here since at least 1512 – and we’re still excluded. Under Henry VIII, it used to be a crime punishable by death just to be a gypsy – and that only went off the statute books around 1900.
That’s why we started Gypsy Life, to help Gypsy Travellers to help ourselves to access what we need – and to change things.
A community of one and a half million people part of the fabric of this country for half a millennium – routinely treated in ways that would have mass protests in the street were such treatment directed at any other ethnic group.
And most of us are completely ignorant about it – or worse still, like Douglas Ross, we endorse, foster or emulate it.
Ross was described by BBC News on Friday as ‘apologising’ for his comment. But listen to his statement below and see whether you can hear the words ‘sorry’, ‘apologise’ or even ‘regret’:
Instead, he quickly returns to the issue and – the only time he even uses the word ‘unfortunate’ – says it’s unfortunate that he can’t talk about Gypsy Travellers in that way without being called a bigot and a racist.
If it’s an apology at all – and that’s a huge stretch – it’s a mealy-mouthed, self-justifying one. As for Ross’ comments being racist and bigoted, we’ll let the reader decide – but if he had made such comments against Pakistani, black or Jewish people, the SKWAWKBOX suspects he’d be forced to resign, not equivocate for a few minutes on radio.
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