UK Gypsies and Travellers – a community under pressure

Search “define gypsy” online and Google’s first hit is The website’s ’top definition’ describes gypsies as the “f-----g scum of the earth.” Beyond that kind of hate speech, which is commonly faced by Gypsies and Travellers, these groups in Britain are coming under new pressure from the authorities – with the fear of new evictions.

Roma make up Europe’s largest ethnic minority and the UK is home to 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers. Known collectively as ‘GRTs’, they are amongst the most marginalised people in Europe, suffering high levels of exclusion and discrimination.

In the UK, GRTs experience extreme levels of poverty and inequality, poor educational provisions, lower educational outcomes and lower life expectancy.

“We’ve been slow to respond to discrimination in the past,” GRT rights campaigner Shay Clipson tells Equal Times. “But now we’re taking people to task. We’ve had enough.”

Clipson is waging a petition campaign on 38 Degrees against an obscure change to the UK government’s planning policy definition of ’Gypsy or Traveller’, which “threatens [the groups’] very existence,” she says.

Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers in the UK are recognised as ethnic minority groups and are supposedly protected by the 2010 Equalities Act. And yet last August, the definition of ’Gypsy or Traveller’ changed in the government’s planning policy for traveller sites.

The policy sets out guidelines for councils to follow when assessing the need for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Prior to August 2015, the definition of ’Gypsy or Traveller’ – which an individual must fall under to be eligible for a mobile home or caravan site – was as follows:

“Persons of a nomadic habit of life [for economic purposes] whatever their race or origin, including such persons who on grounds only of their own or their family’s or dependents’ educational or health needs or old age have ceased to travel temporarily or permanently...”
Paragraph 15 of Circular 1/06

The critical change is that the words “or permanently’” have been removed; and this small edit poses serious challenges for Gypsies and Travellers. It means that those who have ceased to travel permanently - for whatever reason - may lose any realistic chance of obtaining planning permission for a site on which they can lawfully station their caravan.

Thus the fear of new mass evictions as at Dale Farm, near Basildon, east of London, in September 2011, when about 200 Irish Travellers were forced out, sparking widespread international outrage.


“Ethnic cleansing”

The majority of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK are in fact settled. Moving around is increasingly difficult due to the absence of stopping places and a lack of jobs. And discrimination makes a ’nomadic habit of life’ doubly difficult. By settling in one place, Gypsies and Travellers have access to stable employment, healthcare, other vital services and education.

But with many GRTs set to lose their status as a result of the policy change, the petition states that the new definition is an attempt “to artificially reduce the number of Gypsies and Travellers at the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen,” therefore eliminating the need for sites.

“I’d call it ethnic cleansing,” says Clipson. “No guns or bloodshed, but it’s the iron fist in the velvet glove, making it impossible for people to exist and practise their cultural way of life.”

Campaigners see GRTs being placed in a Catch 22. “We are being required to stay on the road to keep our cultural identity,” says Clipson, “but then there is nowhere to legally stop.” On the other hand, staying settled may mean losing the chance to obtain permission for a caravan site, being evicted and facing an uncertain future.

Human rights barrister Marc Willers said in an article for the Travellers’ Times that “the concept of Gypsy status can be seen to restrict those ethnic Gypsies and Travellers who wish to continue living in caravans to low-paid and manual work.

“Ethnic Gypsies and Travellers... should have the ability to pursue any career they choose without fear of being disenfranchised when it comes to seeking planning permission for a Gypsy site,” Willers said.

And it’s the vulnerable who are most likely to suffer most, says Willers, speaking to Equal Times. They include people who can’t travel due to sickness, disability or old age. Single mothers are also at risk, he says, as they are much less likely or able to travel for work. The threat of upheaval or homelessness, then, is biggest for those already at risk.

Willers believes these changes to the planning law are against Gypsies’ and Travellers’ fundamental rights. The Equality Act protects ethnic minorities from discrimination and affords respect for cultural traditions.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights promises respect for private and family life and home; and Article 14 safeguards equality of the sexes. The looming Brexit referendum in June could make enforcement of that provision a delicate issue at the moment.

While no legal challenge has yet been brought against this new definition, there is a recent example of a successful challenge to the Government’s treatment of Gypsies and Travellers.

In January 2015, the High Court ruled that the government had been discriminating against Romany Gypsies, and the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, was found guilty of breaking the Equality Act and breaching human rights in two cases – of a disabled mother and a single mother. The judge ruled that the government had “discriminated unlawfully against a racial group.”

With cases such as this setting the tone, many GRT activists think the time has come to speak up against “the last acceptable racism,” as Mike Doherty of the Traveller Movement called discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers in a recent article for the Guardian.

“The traditional way of coping,” Doherty tells Equal Times, “was to hide your ethnicity and hanker together but, more and more, we’re seeing people coming out and saying ’I am a Gypsy or Traveller’, rather than ’I come from that background’.”

“It’ll be a long, long battle,” Clipson tells Equal Times, “but people need to understand that we are like everyone else. At seven o’clock we’re putting the kids to bed, walking the dog. We go to work, pay tax, save our money in the bank.” It should not need to be stated, but the vast majority of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK are law-abiding citizens who reside on legal sites or in houses.

Clipson’s petition against the changes to planning law has almost reached its goal of 4,000 signatories, and a protest outside the Houses of Parliament - “the first of its kind,” says Clipson – has been organised for 21 May.

Josie O’Driscoll, chair of the steering group organising the “lively but peaceful” protest, says the march “will send a message to the government that enough is enough. The last ‘acceptable’ form of racism is no longer accepted by GRTs in the UK.”