The Tory War on Roma, Gypsies and Travellers

Gypsies, Roma and Travellers already experience the worst health and education status of any disadvantaged group in England. Now, the government is trying to define them out of existence with changes to housing legislation.

A GRT protester at a demonstration in Westminster

The government announces that black people must prove they are black by living in majority-black areas. If they move into a white neighbourhood, they will no longer be legally classed as black, and receive no support or protection. Even in an institutionally racist society like ours, such a policy would cause outrage. But something similar is happening to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers right now.

Fifteen-year-old Bonnie is an Irish Traveller living on a permanent site in Stratford, east London. One day she wants to work with disabled children. But if her family stays put so she can complete her education, they will no longer be classed as Travellers for planning purposes, and Bonnie will not be allowed to move into a caravan of her own. Forced to choose between her race, her home and her career, she knows what the government thinks of her and her family: "We're not protected and we're not wanted."

Ethnic Gypsies, Eastern European Roma and Irish Travellers (GRT people) experience "the worst health and education status of any disadvantaged group in England". Ten percent of their children die before their second birthday, and 80 percent before retirement age. Sixty percent of GRT adults are illiterate. They are 20 times more likely to be depressed than the general population, and six times more likely to kill themselves. The government's own studies show that "providing more sites would create better health and education outcomes" for the nation's most impoverished ethnic group.

But rather than providing more sites, the Tory government is defining GRT people out of existence. A change to planning policy last year means that people must travel around for three months of the year to be considered Roma, a Gypsy or a Traveller. People staying in one place to work, or so their children can get an education, or because they are caring for elderly or disabled relatives, or because the police harass them whenever they try to travel, are no longer protected as GRT people for planning purposes. No other ethnic group must prove itself in this way. To add insult to injury, the Housing Bill means local councils no longer have to take special steps to consider the planning needs of GRT people as a minority group.

Genty Lee can trace back her ancestry 500 years. But in the eyes of the law, she is no longer a Gypsy. "We're told we have equal rights," she says. "So our children have the right to go to school and lose their ethnic origin, or the right to lose their education. It's not a choice. They're expecting us to disappear."

Lisa Smith, 24, lives on a permanent site in Worcestershire. She is studying for an MsC in education and works in equality support for schools. But if she is forced to travel around to protect her identity she will be "back to low-paid manual work".

"We should be able to pursue any career we choose, without fearing it will turn against us when we want to make a home," she says.

Tracie

A recently-released census shows that the number of GRT people in the country is still shooting up: there are 1,183 more caravans in England and Wales than this time last year. Yet, without exception, local authorities are using the new definition to show there is "no additional need" for GRT site provision.

Tracie's caravan is poky but immaculate. A pet songbird chirps in the corner. Her family have lived in Newham for 150 years, but she says the borough's politicians "are not for the poor" and will leap at any opportunity to ostracise Gypsies and Travellers. (Newham's Labour Mayor Robin Wales has been accused of indulging in "racist banter" about Gypsies in a council meeting, but a Newham Council spokesperson said his comments were innocuous and not meant to cause offence). The site where she lives is already overcrowded; the Gypsies who live there were shunted out of "the biggest demolition site in Europe" to make way for high-rise apartments during the Olympic Park redevelopment.

"This place is a Portakabin, really," she says. "We've had massive issues with drainage, flooding and damp in the bathrooms. And now they want to take away everything."

In the next five years, Newham Council admit, at least four young Travellers already living in the borough will need their own pitches. In 2008, they identified a need for up to 19 new pitches over the next few years. There are "a number of families living on doubled-up pitches", and conditions are already cramped.

But by deliberately applying a harsh interpretation of the new rules, the council claims "it can be argued that none of the Gypsy and Traveller households living on the public site in Newham meet the new planning definition of a Gypsy or Traveller, as they do not travel for work purposes or have not ceased to travel temporarily". As a result, there will be no new pitches put in place for these young people. There will be no new pitches built at all until at least 2032, because the council can now claim that the Gypsies on the Parkway site simply do not exist.

There is now little chance that Tracie and her family will be able to find a suitable home, away from damp and sewage in a caravan with walls that do not tremble in the wind. She cannot travel around to secure Gypsy status – and, one day, a home for her daughter – because she works for a charity supporting other GRT people, and because her daughter is in school.

Debby Kennett is a member of the London Gypsy and Travellers Unit, which works closely with Gypsies on the Newham site. She says the Gypsies were misled by private inspectors working on behalf of the council, who presented life-determining questions about trips around the country as off-hand enquiries. "People don't always understand the significance of the questions, why they're being asked them, or what the information is being used for. It's incredibly perverse," she says.

Though Ealing has a maximum capacity of 48 caravans, there are now 49 mobile homes on Ealing turf, a 36 percent increase since last year. There is one key site in Ealing, which the council admits is "in need of modernisation", owing to sewage and access problems and its location in the middle of a barren industrial estate. One woman lives with two disabled sons and has asked the council for a wooden shelter to house them; another family has been waiting over a year for their toilet to be fixed. On both of these sites, 50 percent of GRT people are under the age of 18. The average school-leaving age among Travellers is just 12.6 years: these are young people who urgently need to stay in one place to gain an education. This young population is growing fast, yet an assessment of the Ealing site found – surprise, surprise – "no additional need".

READ: I Moved to the UK from New York to Marry a Gypsy

As is largely the case in wider society, GRT men are more likely to travel for work, while women remain at home as mothers and carers. Traveller Shay Clipson, a trustee of the National Alliance of Gypsy Traveller & Roma Women, points out the "heart-breaking" cruelty of a system which punishes women for helping "relatives who've stopped travelling to end their days in comfort and dignity". GRT people already have a life expectancy ten to 15 years shorter than the general population; now, they're not even being allowed to die as they choose.

The new definition will "split families apart", says Shay. This is ironic, because "Gypsy values and Tory values aren't a million miles apart. We have family values and we're not a drain on social services, because we look after our people ourselves and don't claim benefits. Women are going to struggle because they want their children to go to school and they want to look after their elderly relatives."

Some women will be trapped on increasingly overcrowded, unsanitary sites, living on top of adult children the government refuses to acknowledge. Others will be forced onto polluted, dangerous roadside encampments and away from healthcare and maternity services. GRT women have the highest maternal death rate of any ethnic group, and one in five GRT women has seen a child die. Up to 80 percent have experienced direct physical abuse, and on the road they are separated from counselling and support services.

The company that carries out GRT needs assessments admits it is now "difficult to consider the future needs" of children, as "it will be very hard to evidence whether or not they will travel in the future". In other words, until they can "prove" their ethnicity by leaving home, no child will be able to call themselves a Gypsy or a Traveller in the eyes of planning law.

Children like Bonnie are being asked to choose between their ethnicity and their future. Bonnie herself is not ready to sacrifice her identity as a Gypsy just because the government demands it – "It's against the law, but it's in our blood" – but she shouldn't have to make that choice. As more than one person tells me, this is "social engineering", or even "social cleansing".

"It's been tough out there for a long time, and this government has made it particularly tough, especially for the most vulnerable," says the UK's leading expert on GRT law, Marc Willers. "They're doubly vulnerable and doubly damned."

Marc is helping GRT people fight the government's new protocols on several fronts, and his opinion on the new definition is clear: "It's ill thought out, it's poorly drafted and it's discriminatory." He adds that the Housing Bill is only going to make things worse for GRT people: "History shows that local authorities are very bad at catering for Gypsies and Travellers when it's a free for all."

To Marc, both policies are "mood music" backing a surge in anti-GRT sentiment. His clients, for instance, are being repeatedly refused legal aid. "Barking mad," he says, though he seems pretty resigned to a total lack of official support. There is not much history of political organisation among GRT people: "We're a fragmented people, because that's the way the government wants us," says Traveller musician Thomas McCarthy. But the Tories' recent assault on their identity has forced Gypsies, Roma and Travellers to bond across ethnic, regional and national divides.

A crowd of 200 GRT people gathered outside David Cameron's front door this weekend to present a petition demanding that the policy be reversed. It's the most cross-generational protest I've ever attended. Great-grandmothers and toddlers clutch the same placards, though the picnic atmosphere masks undercurrents of anger and fear. Almost all of the organisers are women, and there are children everywhere. "People say we want to steal their children," says one speaker. A member of the crowd shouts back: "We'd rather they took some of this lot away." People laugh.

The Travellers arrive in style, on traditional horse-drawn carts, but the Met Police soon rock up and tell the organisers they can't park their carts at the side of the road. So we march round and round Parliament Square in aimless circles. "Well, we're used to being moved on to make way for other people," says Genty Lee, who helped to organise the protest.

Lisa, a Traveller who lives on a permanent site in Bow, is a force of nature behind the megaphone, roaring slogans and chants at the crowd. "I have five children," she tells me, her voice a little hoarse from screaming at the Downing Street crash barriers. "Where's their future?"

Grandmother May is just as angry: "For 37 years since I came over from Ireland, I've been dragging my children round from council to council trying to get stopping places, and every single one of them did not give a shit. And now they want to do away with us altogether." She draws breath. "We aren't rich people, but we worked from the ground up until the government forced us off the road. Now they're taking away our work. Give us back our homes, give us back our lives and leave us alone."

A delegation of GRT children are grudgingly ushered into Downing Street by rifle-toting police to deliver their petition, and that's the end of the day. "We haven't got a voice. We're nobodies," says Lisa. "A lot of Travellers are frightened of the government because the government has caused them so much harm. But we're not going to stop fighting."

Now that their ethnicity is being legally stripped away, many GRT people will be driven into conventional council housing. The government has previously acknowledged the "psychological harm" suffered by travelling people who are forced to live in bricks-and-mortar homes, and this harm has been proven by psychiatric tests. Some GRT people will also be forced into unauthorised encampments as they move around to "prove" their ethnicity, creating unnecessary tensions with settled communities. Many GRT people fear there will be more Dale Farm-style explosions of violence as a result of the new policy. More children will be hit by cars near roadside encampments, and more will choke to an early death on petrol fumes.

The government acknowledges that the new definition "will not reduce the number of households seeking to live on sites in caravans". These policies are a get-out-of-jail free card for local councils that view GRT people as an unwanted burden, and a vote-winner for Conservative politicians pandering to the prejudices of middle England. In 2008, one in three UK citizens openly admitted they were prejudiced against GRT people. "People think we're dirty," says Bonnie, 15 years old and already resigned to hatred.

A government spokesman told me: "We're determined to ensure fairness in the planning system so everyone abides by the same rules. Our reforms strengthen the hand of councils." But this is lowest-common-denominator austerity politics at its most perverse. Even if you believe the country's most marginalised people deserve no special protection, surely the response should be to provide more protection for other groups, not wipe out GRT rights?

Shay Clipson fears the new policies will increase the rates of "racially motivated hate crimes" by "accentuating the sense in the settled community that we shouldn't be here". She worries for her family and for future generations of Travellers, "pushed aside, excluded, hated for being born".

Planning restrictions and prejudice have made it impossible for many GRT to live their traditional way of life, and now they are being forced back out of mainstream education and employment. In Gaelic, Irish Travellers call themselves an lucht siúil, "the walking people". But just because they've been forced to stop walking, that shouldn't mean they lose their name.

@hashtagbroom

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