It’s an election year. Which means it’s time for the Conservatives to attack their favourite victimised minority. For such a tiny minority in British society, Travellers certainly attract a disproportionate amount of Middle England’s ire. Not content with passing the Criminal Justice Act in 1994, which removed the requirement for local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies, the Tories have continued to hound this vulnerable and socially excluded group for no reason other than that they are a convenient and popular target. Five years ago, Michael Howard launched a media campaign to repeal the Human Rights Act in an effort to prevent Travellers from applying for retrospective planning permission. Now the party is banging that same drum, seeking this time to replace the HRA with a British Bill of Rights.
The one sliver of a silver lining in all of this is that the green paper suggests compensating councils for new caravan sites. However, if the concerns of local people angry at squatters are to be met, whilst respecting the rights, freedoms and dignity of Gypsies, then councils must once again be required to provide sites for Travellers. It is a common misconception that Travellers like to travel. The Roma and Irish Gypsies I spoke to whilst working on a documentary for Indymedia all reported that whilst the road was ‘in their blood’, they desired to settle, build links with the local communities, send their children to local schools and take up paid employment. This, they reported, was consistently hampered by authorities attempting to evict them from their sites.
Of the Travellers I spoke to, most said they maintained good relations with the local population. The only hostility they came up against was from the council – where three BNP members had recently been elected – and from the media. Much of the reporting on Gypsies in the right-wing tabloids is nothing short of legitimised racism. Replace the word Gypsy with Black, Asian or Jewish and the headlines would be instantly unprintable. The first step to answering the Traveller Question has to be in providing decent, legal sites for them to stay. The second, countering the misconceptions, lies and outright prejudices of wider society, will take much longer.