MPs Accused Of ‘Scapegoating’ Travellers And Gypsies

By Aaron Walawalkar, News and Digital Editor 30 Jan 2020
Discrimination, Institutions, Justice
Labour MP Zarah Sultana. Credit: YouTube.

An MP has accused her colleagues of ‘dehumanising’ Travellers and Gypsies during a debate over planning policies towards unauthorised encampments.

Traveller groups were compared to the “Sicilian mafia” in a Westminster Hall debate around alleged unfairness in the planning system on Wednesday (29 January).

It comes as campaign groups urge politicians to not to use stereotypes towards Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and for the Commons Speaker to moderate MPs’ “hostile language“.

The debate was called by Kettering MP Philip Hollobone (Con) – who alleged that the government planning policy on Travellers grants them “preferential treatment”.

“The present policy regarding Travellers does not respect the interests of the settled community,” he said. “The Government go on to say that in respect of Traveller sites, their aim is to reduce tensions between the settled and Traveller communities in plan-making and planning decisions.

“I say to the Minister that far from reducing tensions, the present planning system is inflaming them.”

The debate heard numerous anecdotes from Conservative MPs about instances where constituents had complained to them about unauthorised encampments.

Conservative MP Sir Paul Beresford spoke of an incident in 2003 when Travellers squatted without permission on a patch of green-belt land in his Mole Valley constituency. They have remained in place since while applying to the council for retrospective planning permission.

He went on to compare such behaviour to “what one expects of the Sicilian Mafia”.

Responding, Labour MP Zarah Sultana said: “I have listened with alarm at what [Mr Hollobone] and other Conservative Members have said.

“Gypsies and Traveller communities are not a problem that needs to be tackled, nor should legislation crack down on them.

“They are citizens entitled to equal treatment and the protection of their way of life. The dehumanising language we have heard should have no place in society or in the halls of power.”

She added: “I know what it is like to be part of a scapegoated community.

“According to research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 22 percent of people openly express negative feelings towards Muslims, while 44 percent openly express negative feelings towards Gypsies.”

She said that underlying cause of issue is “inadequate provision” of Traveller sites.

Planning Policy and ‘Unauthorised Encampments’

A caravan in a field. Image Credit: Tom Hodgkins / Flickr.

A caravan in a field. Image Credit: Tom Hodgkins / Flickr.

The government has a specific planning policy towards Traveller sites aimed at facilitating “the traditional and nomadic way of life of Travellers while respecting the interests of the settled community”.

It requires local authorities to actively plan to ensure there are enough land and sites for their Traveller populations to live in.

Census data shows that the UK is home to around 63,000 Irish Travellers and Gypsies. Around a third (22,792) live in caravans, with the majority living in housing.

The latest government figures reveal the vast majority (88 percent) of caravans were on authorised public or privately owned sites. Nine percent were on unauthorised sites owned by Travellers, and three percent were on unauthorised encampments not owned by Travellers.

The Home Office is consulting on granting police new powers to arrest and seize property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised caravan sites.

Campaigners and human rights groups have said this move would be discriminatory and would have a “devastating impact on Gypsy and Traveller communities who have been part of British life since before the 16th century, yet face some of the greatest inequalities of any group in England and Wales”.

They argue that what is driving unauthorised encampments is a lack of adequate site provision for Gypsies and Travellers.

In 2017, the BBC reported that fewer than a third of the required number of Gypsy and Traveller pitches in England had been built – with some funding going unspent.

Chelsea McDonagh from the Traveller Movement told EachOther she was “frustrated” that the debate “didn’t tackle the root causes of the issue – only the issue around unlawful encampments”.

“But that is only the minority and makes up only a small percentage of Travellers,” she added.

“Their [the MPs] focus is on punitive measures, rather than intervention and engagement.

“The community is not an issue to be ‘tackled’. This [rhetoric] further marginalises people and pushes them apart. It does not help.”

  • The Home Office consultation ends on 4 March. Human rights group Liberty has set up a tool to help you respond.  Access it here