Exclusive interview: Tory MP’s traveller shame and the ‘last acceptable racism’

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:

benb letter

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.

bb ar.jpg
The Bennett family with then-SNP MP Angus Robertson

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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  1. Thank you for highlighting this. We have travelling families passing through in the area where I live. They never make a mess or cause any bother and are very shy, keeping themselves to themselves. I get really sick of people who live in another areas telling of the ‘damage’ and ‘chaos’ these families have supposedly caused which is blatantly untrue. Local Authorities used to have a duty to provide land for travelling and gypsy families but this then became optional so is rarely provided and has caused problems. I would not like to see this way of life become history and some of the travelling families passing through have the old style caravans which are lovely to see, in addition to the modern ones.


  2. My dad was an upholster he used to recover the gypsy travellers caravan bunks. He never had any problems with them in all the years he was dealing with them they always paid him and were kind and respectful. Their caravans were spotless. It is a way of life for these people why should they have to change very soon the way this government is treating poor people caravans and tents are all that’s will be available to people

  3. Ben sounds like a remarkable young man.

    Sad to say, it’s not the last form of racism though. Cornish people are relentlessly targeted with ignorance, prejudice and discrimination. Their language, history and culture either denied or ridiculed. These are among the poorest people in the EU who have hitherto relied on EU funding in the absence of national government investment. They are being socially cleansed from their own ancient lands.

    Ironically, in statistical questionnaires generated by Cornwall Council, Romany Gypsies and Cornish people are lumped together as a category – even though there is no historical connection between them and Cornish people belong to the same family of nations as the Welsh and Bretons.

    There is a lot of work required to remedy all of this and it’s unlikely to happen with the Tories in power. The Labour record, too, is pretty dismal. Also (and I hate to say this), the general public just do not care about these particular ethnic minorities and so it is all too easy to sweep the issues under the carpet.

    I wish Ben all success with his awareness campaign and hope he eventually becomes an MP.

  4. A very articulate piece by the young man. I am someone who knows the difference between the Gypsy and the modern term traveller. Like anything else it only takes a very small minority to cause mayhem for the rest of their community. In our area for instance the anti social behaviour of the few for the last two years has caused untold health issues on the local community. Illegal burning of rubbish, drug dealing, dog fighting, cock, fighting, Theft. intimidation. Gangsterism. Animal cruelty. Running street fights. Generally young thugs out of control with no respect for anybody or anything. Even people from their own sites have no control over these thugs. They openly brag how much they earn from their illegal activities while simply giving two fingers to the law and the people around them. These scumbags do not represent the whole travelling community but their behaviour and reputation has gone before them, It has got that bad that the emergency services take armed police onto their property to deal with incidents of fire etc. The authorities this week have gone in very hard and will now jail those involved. Sadly the damage these people have caused is a long way from ever being repaired. People tolerate so much before the hit back in this country but that point has been past in our area, The innocent will suffer as usual. Brexit was a great excuse to unleash the worst scum in Britain, They are openly targeting different racial groups and the government are looking the other way. Until the travelling community reign in these thugs and gangsters the excuse will always be there. We are moving into less tolerant times in Britain and other parts of Europe. It is exactly like it was pre 1939. People turned in on themselves then. I was born in Southern Ireland and living in Britain from1960/61 was not easy then either. I know the travellers around here need to clean their act up and sort out the morons in their midst. The final straw for me was the time not long back when they cut through the main power supply cable to the hospital to steak the copper cable. It cost over £200K to repair and replace. Not to mention the lives put at risk by the two thieves who were out of their heads on drugs and drink. The police did not manage to catch them but the people of the area pointed out that a lynch mob was waiting to sort them out and they disappeared. This again does seem to have tarred a whole community through the actions of the few. Every other day there is a report in the local paper of travellers simply tuning up and parking on land, or car parks , even inside a factory yard and demanding thousands of pounds to leave or they will wreck the place. This is why people are being so prejudiced against the travelling community. It will only get worse, There are a lot of tensions between community groups in the country at the moment, I hope common sense can prevail and w can all find a way forward. but it is difficult. I noticed some time ago the Gypsy community even had their own policeman. maybe this is what the travelling community needs. More integration and less discrimination. At this moment in our area the tension between travellers and the people who live here is at a dangerously high level and I am afraid with good reason. I am glad this issue has been highlighted again. Sadly the people who are the cause of the trouble won’t answer their charges, The ones I have spoken to are just poorly educated, immature, and easily led into thinking their is a life on easy street. that includes the girls as well. too many lack aspiration other than to be mothers. A lot of talent slipping through the net.

  5. I used to work with travellers in Scotland and the West Midlands. As Ben says, traveller society is made up of layers, just like settled people – some are the aristos, with flash trailers, Capo di Monte china and new vans or lorries, and some are drawn to crime or drugs, vulnerable, suffering mental health problems and unable to make a living. I worked with teachers in mobile schools and the enthusiasm and commitment of the kids and their parents proved to me that travellers do care about education. While I was working on Slackey Lane site in Walsall, I passed as a taveller and was not surprised when I went to meet a councillor and asked his secretary for a glass of water. She refused.I obviously wasn’t human.

  6. Douglas Ross should be suspended by his Party, or better still be expelled if he doesn’t make a public apology to the Romany people. How dare he!
    Romany travellers sometimes stop for a couple of days on a wide, secluded verge on the major road that bypasses our small village. Two of their immaculate, traditional caravans, handsome horses and a young, extremely friendly German shepherd dog, were here last week. The huge horses were i top condition, with long, silky manes and tails, and feathery ankles. I asked a Roma man for permission to take a photo. He said that it was customary to give a donation. Fair enough; but we only had a two pound coin, which he accepted.
    I love to see them, they never cause a problem or leave any rubbish.

  7. Well done for talking to Ben and his family. The local ‘news’paper’s web site frequently posts dogwhistle articles about travellers, always highlighting when they’ve had to ark up on some ‘public’ land paid for by the ‘taxpayer’. They always helpfully leave the comments section open and, bloody hell, ‘last acceptable form of racism’ really doesn’t even begin to cover what turns up there. Honestly, it’s frightening.

    People forget that gypsies probably suffered as much as Jewish people as a proportion of population during the holocaust but that doesn’t seem to raise any sympathy. Racism against travellers should be a massive issue but it simply doesn’t get a mention, apart from places like this.

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