Video: the anti-Gypsy debate that shamed MPs

hansard grt

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

and more:

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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  1. This is an age old difficulty. I won’t say problem because that is not the right word, but I do have some observations. Before retiring to Frnce a lived in a small Buckinghamshire village. We modifed and extended our bungalow and the last change involved planning permission, An expensive and time consuming operation. Shortly after this was completed, the travellers arrived in a field on the edge of the village. Initially large caravans were towed onto the land, followed by water and electrical installations, followed by static mobile homes. Planning permission sought? None.
    My husband a retired cop reported an increase in petty theft including mostly the small village stores.
    Question they have new vans and large mostly new or newish caravans value approximately £50k, how much income tax are they paying?
    On a clearance of a site in Windsor one traveller wife said “we don’t mix with local people”. Helpful to their cause? I think not.
    On a site near Beaconsfield created for them, they stripped out the amenities, so no toilets. Furthermore on investigation in the wood behind the site a car stripping organisation was found. Cars such as Ferraris stolen and stripped down for shipping abroad. Consequence the site was closed.
    Moving on an illegal occupation is difficult. They have a lawyer in Northampton and play the children in school card.
    The above are some of the difficulties encountered when dealing with travellers. I do not have any answers to the above but I do think a dialogue is needed and I do think they need to they must represent 50% of that dialogue.
    On a final note also on the edge of the village there lived a Gypsy King who my husband met when he served some summons on him. Mostly unpaid fines so trivial matters. They subsequently became great pals and had the deepest respect for each other.

    1. Seeing the appalling racism that settled people demonstrate towards travellers I don’t blame them for not wanting to mix. Remember this is something that goes back centuries and you are definitely blaming the victim.

      And of course the settled community is totally free of crime…

      People bang on about the mess caused by travellers, yet by far the worst polluters are farmers, poisoning water causes with effluent. Foxhunting kill wildlife, damage the countryside and intimidate anybody who challenges them but if ever there was a group immune to prosecution it’s them.

    2. Just a couple of thoughts Mrs Fraser. How do you know these people don’t pay tax? and more importantly, how do we know you do pay yours? Furthermore, you should know that is illegal for a police officer to discuss criminal cases with unauthorised persons, relatives or not.
      Misconduct in public office and perverting the course of justice spring to mind. As a fine upstanding citizen of this wonderful country of ours, I think you should do your duty and turn yourselves in. Luckily I know of a good lawyer,
      He is based in Northhampton (AKA sin city) and reputedly works for our traveller friends. Since undoubtedly, your not eligible for legal aid you may need to sell some items, cars etc to pay his/her fees. I am sure the local travelling community will be happy put a value on these items, as you did theirs. They may ask you to buy some pegs or heather though, as a gesture of goodwill. Alternatively, you might find gainful employment with them in their car dismantling business. Ferrari is a fine marque to work on so I hear. I hope you recover from your travaux (no pun intended) soon. In the meantime, you will be pleased to hear you have been nominated for membership of the BBC. Pip pip

  2. Honourable mentions should also go to Kate Green, Andy Slaughter and David Linden who also made decent contributions.

    Frankly some Labour MPs were just as bad, Stephen Pound and Geoffrey Robinson in particular.

    Worst of all was Philip Davies who actually said that the disproportionate number of GRT prisoners is proof that traveller are more likely to commit crime. He said that only the ‘politically correct’ could believe that it was due to the racism of the ‘justice’ system but that ‘we in our heart of hearts’ knew the truth. Straight out of the BNP phrasebook. I wonder what conclusion he draws from the disproportionate number of black people in prisons?

    I tweeted about his contributions and he’s twice retweeted me, seems like he’s proud of being a racist.

  3. I am pleased to confirm that Sh*t er.. sorry Sir Paul Beresford MP and
    Julian Knight MP have been nominated and confirmed as founder members the BBC. The British Bigots Club. Furthermore, due to their Stirling work as in the above, both “members” are awarded the glorious accolade; D.C.& G ( Dunning Kruger & Glans designation) Accordingly they are entitled to refer to these awards on their official and personal correspondence. Further nominations are welcome but will subject to the strictest vetting procedures.

  4. Wasn’t a duty previously placed on local authorities to provide land which was then replaced with a responsibility? In the current climate few local authorities are able to do because they are struggling to full fill their statutory duties due to budgets being slashed.

    1. Legal duty to provide sites was removed in early 90s and pointedly wasn’t reinstated during 13 years of Labour government. As well as the funding issue councils are also confronted with NIMBYs at the first hint of a travellers’ site so it’s perhaps not surprising that councils bottle it. Still not acceptable though and the difficulties described above for travellers trying to get planning permission to build their own sites makes things worse

  5. The problem is that so many travellers cause problems, squatting on land is a HUGE problem especially when you get it back & it’s a disgusting mess.

    The travellers that don’t commit crimes & use the proper designated sites aren’t a problem & need protecting at all costs.

    The ones who commit endless crimes need locking up, their vans taken & crushed to stop them reoffending.

    Look at what happened in Cromer during August bank holiday weekend within hours of the travellers arriving & closing the biggest car park by occupying it a girl was raped and over 50 other crimes committed. This is why people don’t want them around and why all travellers get painted with the same brush too

    If you want to end discrimination the lock up the criminals & you solve the problem.

  6. I am a Romany gypsy and I’m lucky enough to own land to live on otherwise this county I was born in dose not care about me and foreigners have more rights. The problem is that no one cares no one helps and everyone wants rid you want to solve the problem and save money then MAKE US somewhere to live make more sites and places to go and you wouldn’t have the problem but why would you when you don’t give a dam

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