by Jonathan Lee
A political party in the UK is defined by its members and its representatives. Regardless of the leader, the real character of a party is found in the policies it puts forward, and the things that its cabinet members, MPs, and local councillors do and say. In the Labour Party, the about turn the party took from being the neoliberal centre-right party of Tony Blair, to the democratic socialist party of Jeremy Corbyn was brought about by the will of its members. The elected politicians of the Labour Party do not always see eye-to-eye with their leader, but if you look at the collective things they say and do, and the policies they propose, there is a broad consensus on certain values which tell you the nature of the party as a whole. The same can be said of the Conservative Party. You can read more here if you want a ten year history of Conservative hate speech against Romani and Traveller people.
The following is a summary of Conservative policies which have affected Gypsies, Roma, & Travellers during the time the Conservatives have been in power.
Changed Planning Laws to Remove Ethnic Protections for Gypsies & Travellers
In August 2015, the Conservative government, now with a new parliamentary majority, changed planning laws to redefine Gypsies and Travellers as “persons of nomadic habit of life whatever their race or origin”. Not only removing the ethnic component, the changes also limited the definition to only those who regularly travel. Any ethnic Gypsies or Travellers who did not travel, whether through choice, age, or sickness, were no longer protected by ethnic status in the planning process. It meant that Romani and Traveller people suddenly had to define their ethnicity by how they live. It changed the system to deny people their own identity whilst persecuting them for it at the same time.
Removed Duty on Councils to Provide Gypsy & Traveller Sites
The same 2015 amendment to the planning rules also restricted the number of new sites which could be built in local council areas. The planning changes severely restricted the number of sites which could be built on Green Belt land, delivering on an earlier Tory election promise to limit Gypsy & Traveller sites.
The last Conservative government had already repealed most of the duties of local authorities to provide official sites with the Criminal Justice Act in 1994. But under the 2015 planning amendments, the circumstances in which temporary permission for Gypsy sites could be given in the Green Belt was severely restricted. Furthermore, the new planning laws removed the requirement for an up-to-date five-year supply of deliverable sites as a significant material consideration in planning decisions involving the grant of temporary planning permission in sensitive areas. From 2015 onwards, local councils were expected to “very strictly limit” any new Gypsy & Traveller sites in open countryside.
deny people their own identity whilst persecuting them for it at the same time.
The Conservatives further removed the duty on councils to assess the accommodation needs for GRT through Section 124 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016. This removed the duty on local authorities to assess the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their area as a specific category (a duty created during a Labour government with the Housing Act 2004).
Cuts to Traveller Education Services
Cuts to Traveller Education Services began almost immediately after the Conservatives took power. By 2011, almost half of England’s 127 local authorities had completely abolished their Traveller Education Services or drastically cut their staff levels. The speed and scale of the cuts drew protests from the National Association of Teachers of Travellers (NATT+), with the joint president Linda Lewins commenting at the time: “I’m gobsmacked by the speed at which it has happened, I’m watching 20 years of hard work being pulled apart.” Her association was forced to close entirely in October 2018, after nearly every Traveller Education Service in England was cut or closed by the Conservative government.
Cuts to Legal Aid
In 2012 the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LAPSO) was passed which, amongst other things, cut the provision of legal aid for numerous areas of law such as welfare, housing, family and debt. The act also changed the rules which automatically made those receiving benefits eligible for legal aid. The number of people receiving aid through the early legal advice scheme in the year before the cuts was 573, 737. In 2017-18 it was down to 140,091.
Removing legal aid is an assault on the democratic rights of ordinary people, one which disproportionately affects Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers.
When the cuts were first made, the government of the day proposed that advice agencies could plug the gap. What happened instead was that the advice agencies were also decimated by cuts in local authority funding alongside legal aid firms, law centres, and citizens advice bureau. The agencies which rely on non-governmental, often charitable, funding are just unable to support everyone who applies.
Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers who already had unequal access to justice because of structural discrimination, were now significantly less likely to receive free legal advice or representation. Without legal aid most people who need legal help, with housing or planning issues for example, must either cough up the money for expensive lawyers or simply give up. It affects all sorts of areas of life where you might experience discrimination, but now no longer have the tools to fight against it. Access to justice is something that should be available to all citizens in a well functioning democracy. Removing legal aid is an assault on the democratic rights of ordinary people, one which disproportionately affects Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers.
Halted progress on a UK National Roma Integration Strategy
Every EU member state with the exception of Malta (because of an absence of any permanent Romani population) and the UK have submitted a National Roma Integration Strategy (NRIS) to the European Commission. In 2011, the Commission passed its EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies which required all European Member States to create plans to end discrimination and better include Romani and Traveller people in their countries. The Conservative UK government argued that these things are already sufficiently covered in existing UK legislation, and that there was no need for a specific strategy to overcome the exclusion of Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers.
Their response to the EU said that they believe the problems faced by Gypsies, Roma, & Travellers will not be fixed
“by singling out specific groups for special treatment. We are moving away from a centrally dictated approach towards one in which the Government encourages local areas to take the lead. Government will act only exceptionally.”
This is called mainstreaming. And the problem with mainstreaming something like the inclusion of severely marginalised ethnic groups is that there ends up being very little responsibility on anyone to actually do anything about it. Especially in a multicountry state like the UK where devolution means you might benefit more from GRT policies and strategies in one geographic over another. For example, the Welsh Government has written its own NRIS which means more money is specifically spent on GRT policy issues.
Increase of Police Powers to Deal with Unauthorised Encampments.
In February 2019, Sajid Javid announced plans to beef up powers granted to police to deal with unauthorised encampments (unauthorised encampments being any roadside stopping of Gypsies or Travellers which doesn’t have the express permission of the local authority). The new police powers will allow officers to intervene in cases where two or more trailers are parked on public land (the previous threshold was six). They will also have the power to ban specific individuals from returning to a certain site for a year (previously the maximum was three months).
Most Gypsy & Traveller families stop on unauthorised sites because they simply have nowhere else to go.
Most Gypsy & Traveller families stop on unauthorised sites because they simply have nowhere else to go. Roadside stopping was long ago made illegal, many of the ancient stopping sites are barred, bouldered, or gated off to stop them gaining access, and there is no duty on councils to provide halting sites for Gypsies & Travellers who still live a nomadic lifestyle.
In recent years there have been an increasing number of council-wide injunctions against “persons unknown”, which are aimed at Gypsies and Travellers, under this Conservative government. In the last two years more than 32 councils in England have obtained court injunctions to stop Gypsies & Travellers camping on public land. Those who stop illegally on land under a court injunction can face a fine, imprisonment, and having their property seized. These blanket-bans are specifically aimed at Gypsy and Traveller families and solve none of the root problems which force them to stay on public land (a severe lack of sites). Families are being driven from one local authority area to the next. “The problem is, if the next borough has the same injunction in place, they then have to move again,” says human rights barrister Marc Willers. “There’s nowhere else for them to go. They’re being driven into the sea.”
Priti Patel Proposals to Criminalise Trespass
This is not such a new idea. The Tories promised this back in 2010 and it’s been floated a few times since, most recently in November 2018 by Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire Andrew Selous. It has since made it into the Conservative’s election manifesto, so perhaps should be treated a little more seriously.
“The Ireland option” as it has often been referred to in Conservative circles (due to the Republic of Ireland criminalising trespass to prosecute Travellers in 2002) would allow the police to confiscate on sight the vehicles of anyone suspected to be trespassing on public land with the “purpose of residing on it”. So this doesn’t apply, for example, to a Conservative councillor stopped in their mercedes on the side of the road, this is specifically aimed at people in the UK who live a nomadic life. It criminalises travelling and it is completely discriminatory. In case we were in any doubt, the new Tory manifesto spells it out for us:
We will tackle unauthorised traveller camps… give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities… make intentional trespass a criminal offence, and we will also give councils greater powers within the planning system.
If you want to see how this could affect the lives of travelling families, see what @RoadsideMum has to say about it on Twitter.
This will make me illegal, at all times, anywhere. Even with landowner permission. Even roadside. Even as clean, quiet and respectful as I may be. My home can be destroyed. Just *in case* I were to decide to start making a mess (after all this time). 1/https://t.co/ah5E6tLGng
— Roadside Mum (@RoadsideMum) November 4, 2019
It’s been the same anti-Romani, anti-Traveller rhetoric from the Tories for almost a decade. It’s been one racist policy after another, trying to win votes from Little England by cracking down on Gypsies & Travellers. It’s been never-ending austerity measures, it’s been cuts to GRT services. From top to bottom, the Conservative Party has, and will continue to be, institutionally racist towards Romani people and Travellers. They’re not even trying to win the votes of Gypsies, Roma, & Travellers, nor do they deserve them. We can’t afford another five years of this lot. Don’t give them the chance.
Featured image by Elizabeth Blanchet, via Travellers’ Times
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