The House of Commons held a debate last night on the ‘problem’ of Gypsy Travellers (GRTs). It was a disgrace.
In August, the SKWAWKBOX published an exclusive interview with a 13-yr-old GRT young man named Ben Bennett. Ben had featured in the news after he wrote to new Scottish Tory MP Douglas Ross, who had said in a video interview that if he could do anything ‘with no consequences’ it would be to clamp down harder on Gypsy Travellers:
Ross later gave a form of apology for his comments, but used it as an opportunity to reiterate his apparently-generalised perception of GRTs as a problem.
Based on last night’s debate, many other Tory MPs share the same bigotry.
Tory minister Alok Sharma launched the debate with careful language, apparently keen to make sure he wasn’t seen as making sweeping statements about all Gypsies. But his colleagues seemed to have missed the memo.
Conservative MP after Conservative MP stood up to describe travellers – as a whole, not individuals – as a problem. One, Sir Paul Beresford, actually described the Deputy Speaker’s decision to limit his contribution to five minutes as ‘discrimination’ – before going on to make offensive generalisations about a community that experiences genuine discrimination:
That is discrimination, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will have to talk extremely quickly…
Surrey, and Mole Valley in particular, have had considerable and unpleasant experience of Travellers. Most are not Romani Gypsies. Most have very strong Irish accents…
One site is on inherited land. The other was bought with cash, from whatever source. At the weekend, people arrived with caravans, trucks, bulldozers, loads of rubble, piping, electrical wiring and so on. By the end of Sunday, they had installed an electricity supply and tapped into a water supply, whether legally or not…
The third group consists of the true Travellers on whom we have been concentrating this evening, who are an expensive menace to my local authorities, parish councils and farmers.
Beresford apparently has no evidence that the cash used to buy a piece of land was dishonestly obtained or that the water supply was illegally accessed – yet phrased his statement to imply that they might be. He also talked of travellers putting in ‘hopeless planning applications’. We’ll come back to that.
A refrain that came up repeatedly from Tory MPs, in some cases word for word, was that there is ‘one law for Travellers’ and another for ‘settled’ residents. We’ll come back to that, too.
Tory MP Julian Knight’s contribution was noteworthy. In just under four minutes, he:
- described Travellers in terms of something that his local Solihull council had to ‘defend’ against
- described ‘criminal and antisocial behaviour’ without any acknowledgement that individuals commit crimes, not a whole people group
- spoke repeatedly of ‘incursions’ – a word which means invasion or attack
- spoke of rubbish being brought from Birmingham, where a faithless council has forced refuse workers to take industrial action, and dumped in Solihull as if only Travellers could be responsible
- laments that neighbouring Sandwell has been able to drive Travellers out more effectively than Solihull
- talks of Travellers being ‘chased from park to park’ – without the remotest recognition of the distress this might cause the people being chased
- criticises the Travellers for ‘circumventing’ court orders by – the horror of it – spending time with other Travellers and not necessarily splitting up again in the exact same groupings as before. In other words, by exercising the right to associate freely that we’d all take for granted
- asks for the ‘bar’ to be lowered to allow police and communities to more effectively harry them
- complains about the cost of ‘traveller-proofing’ public spaces and the impact on the locals’ enjoyment of them when councils are digging trenches, erecting bollards and removing trees – without, apparently, a moment’s thought for how this must look to Travellers or where they are supposed to go if local authorities keep ‘proofing’ public spaces against them
Shamefully, few voices were raised to defend the GRT community or to point out the bigotry inherent in the generalised accusations being made against Travellers. Two who did were from the June 2017 intake: Stockton South Labour MP Paul Williams and his estimable North-west Durham colleague Laura Pidcock. Ms Pidcock said what I was thinking as I watched this shameful debate:
There should not be an othering of those communities. I know that this may be a controversial point, but imagine if there were a general debate on black people and local communities. We can hear how nonsensical that would sound to an outside observer.
Having worked alongside Gypsy and Traveller communities for many years, I know that tired and powerful stereotypes about them still exist, such as that they will put a curse on us, that they do not pay their taxes—a slur that I am very disappointed to say I heard shouted from the Government Benches during the debate— that they are more violent or that they are dirty, unruly or strange for wanting to be nomadic. We need to challenge the persistent argument that there are legitimate and non-legitimate Travellers…
There is little understanding among policy makers and legislators about nomadism historically or in contemporary life. There is often a judgmental snobbery about Gypsy and Traveller communities and traditions, which means that legislation starts from the presumption that a settled life in bricks and mortar is culturally superior.
Williams’ contribution focused on the health disadvantages faced by GRT people:
I made a pledge to my constituents that I would work to tackle inequalities and injustices in our society. Healthcare occupies a special place in our country, but universal care cannot simply adopt a universal approach. In our communities, it is often the case that those with the greatest health needs are those least likely to access NHS services.
Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are more than twice as likely as others to suffer from a long-term health condition, their infant mortality rates are high and, most worryingly, the suicide rate among Irish Travellers is six times higher than that of the wider population.
The two MPs’ full contributions can be found here and are well worth reading.
But their empathy for the problems faced by the GRT community was, sadly, the exception rather than the rule in a debate in which all too many MPs – and almost all the Tories who spoke – were happy to repeat ‘tired and powerful’ tropes that blight the lives of a community that considers anti-Traveller prejudice to be the ‘last acceptable form of racism’.
Richard and Nathalie Bennett, the parents of Ben mentioned at the start of this article, run Gypsy Life, an organisation set up to help GRT people overcome the many challenges they face. They spoke to the SKWAWKBOX about their experience watching the debate – and about the dissonant reality that lies behind the Tories’ ‘tired and powerful’ slurs.
Clearly distressed and angry at what they had heard, both Nathalie and Richard praised the contributions of Laura Pidcock and Paul Williams but told a bleak story otherwise:
Watching that debate last night was so depressing and frustrating – it just summed up what the GRT community faces every day. They kept saying we receive preferential treatment compared to the settled community – but in most cases we are the settled community. Only a small percentage of GRT travel – and in many cases it’s because they have to.
There was a lot of talk about planning permission and about ‘incursions’. What they don’t tell you is that the system is set up to force travellers to keep moving and to camp illegally when they stop.
81% of GRT planning applications are rejected. 81%! And of the 19% that succeed, over 99% succeed only on appeal. Councils don’t want us camping in their area – but they
If we can’t get planning permission to live a settled life within our culture, what are we supposed to do? But it’s more than that. Laura Pidcock referred to the fact that planning policy is part of the problem – shall I tell you how that works?
Councils get £23,000 each time we put down a concrete slab – and they charge the same council tax as for a house. So all those complaints about the cost to communities caused by GRT groups – if they treated us like anyone else they’d actually make money.
But they don’t. Under the law, to get planning permission just to put concrete slabs for hard standing on a piece of land you own, you have to prove you’re Travellers – and do you know the only proof the law accepts? Proof of evictions – so the law locks Travellers into a cycle where their only chance of getting planning permission to live according to their culture [as opposed to forsaking it and just living in a house] is to camp illegally and be evicted.
Being forced to live a nomadic life has a huge impact on GRT communities – on education and healthcare especially. Cancer survival rates among CRT people are as low as one percent. GPs still refuse to take people onto their books on the grounds that they are Travellers – in as many words.
Our children face discrimination at school when they get there. North Nottinghamshire alone has almost three thousand children missing from its education system, which is a massive safeguarding issue as well as devastating for their education.
There are around 1.5 million Travellers in the UK. Out of that community, the number of children with 5 A-C grades at GCSE is below ten. That’s the number – not the percentage.
We’re not people who want to march and protest but is that what we have to do to get anything to change? We face huge discrimination and the government doesn’t seem to want to do anything about it.
It’s overwhelming. We face hatred everywhere we go and the government has an opportunity to do something about it – yet they choose to focus on the smallest of the problems, illegal encampments.
My grandfather was a war hero, both my parents served in the armed forces and we suffered terribly in the holocaust, but we’re still not accepted and we’re only recognised negatively.
I’ve watched my kids go through hell at school and be made to feel weird, not just by other kids but by adults as well. White British society isn’t perfect – so why focus on Gypsies?
Every day of my life I meet people who are prejudiced against me in some way. It’s ridiculous – but the government clearly sees us the same way. We’re labelled and encampments aren’t really the issue – people wouldn’t want us living near them even in a house.
It’s that word ‘NIMBY’ – ‘not in my back yard’. It sounds harmless enough, but in our case it means racist. Councils could actually profit from treating us like human beings – and they still don’t do it. That shows their real motivation.
We’re an ethnic group, but people feel free to discriminate. If we stop travelling, they say we’re not Travellers but that’s not our name for ourselves, it’s what people gave us. Gypsy comes from ‘Egyptian’. We call ourselves Romanichal.
Can you imagine people saying the same about black or Asian people? Saying they all drive big cars and that sort of thing?
If you’re in an MP’s constituency, you’re their constituent – but they don’t treat us like we are – and hearing those MPs talking about us like that was soul-destroying.
There isn’t a constituency in the country that doesn’t have Gypsies or Travellers – they’re ignoring huge numbers of people. Their people – but you’d never have guessed that from most of the debate last night.
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