The Conservatives have been accused of “fanning the flames of racism” against Gypsies, Roma and Travellers ahead of the UK general election on Thursday.
The complaints come as openDemocracy research reveals that Tory candidates across the country have made inflammatory and discriminatory statements about Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in their campaign material.
Labour and the SNP have described openDemocracy’s findings as “disgusting” and the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has said it is “sickening to see them stir up prejudice against vulnerable, disadvantaged Travellers.”
Accusing the Conservative party of trying to “criminalise Gypsies to hide their own failures,” Joe Jones, chair of the Gypsy Council said: “They are using us the same as they do the immigrants and everyone else: as cannon fodder for political favour.”
Meanwhile the Scottish Traveller advocate Davie Donaldson said: “This is the worst election I have ever seen in terms of rhetoric towards Gypsy/Traveller people. The division coming out is causing real real worry.”
He added: “It’s a poison which infects the Conservative party.”
openDemocracy’s investigation into anti-Traveller propaganda during the election has revealed that:
- Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has listed cracking down on “illegal traveller incursions” as a key election priority.
- Tory candidates have promoted films on Facebook which single out and criticise the Traveller community, including one with Home Secretary Priti Patel suggesting communities live “in fear” of Travellers.
- Tory candidates have put opposition to Gypsy and Traveller camps at the centre of their campaigns – including support for new laws which Traveller groups say are designed to criminalise them.
- One Tory candidate, in Crewe and Nantwich, led a demonstration against the local Gypsy/Traveller community.
- Another Tory candidate in South West Bedfordshire has backed proposals which, according to a community spokesperson, amount to “forced assimilation”.
Senior Tory appointees not standing for election, including the government’s anti-semitism tsar, have also been accused of singling out Travellers as an ethnic group.
openDemocracy’s findings come after a series of controversies about the Conservatives’ treatment of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community. They also come in the wake of recent attacks against Travellers.
Last month, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a consultation on creating a new offence of “trespassing while setting up an unauthorised encampment” – an initiative which has been described as “legislative cleansing” by the journalist George Monbiot.
The legislation will, among other things, give police powers to confiscate Traveller property, and critics say it is specifically designed to criminalise communities that have in many cases used the land for longer than settled communities.
Asked by openDemocracy to respond to allegations that the proposed new law is aimed at “criminalising an ethnic group,” Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “The public want their communities protected and for the police to crack down on trespassers.”
“Our proposals aim to ensure that [unauthorised] encampments can be challenged and removed as quickly as possible.”
A spokesperson for Ms Patel also highlighted the Conservative manifesto, which states: “We will tackle unauthorised traveller camps. We will 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. We will make intentional trespass a criminal offence.”
Responding to the Home Office consultation, the human rights group Friends, Families, and Travellers, said: “The proposals 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 added that the Priti Patel’s assertions about unlawful behaviour in unauthorised encampments “focus on the behaviour of a minority, yet tar all Gypsies and Travellers with the same brush. This is dangerous and discriminatory rhetoric.”
“It is no coincidence that this announcement comes in the wake of a general election. If there was a real appetite to address the issue of unauthorised encampments, the government would have invested in site provision. Yet, for over a decade we have seen little to no progress in this area. Criminalising families who have no place to go is inhumane and wrong.”
Leading anti-Traveller protests in key marginals
In the Labour-Tory marginal seat of Crewe and Nantwich, the Conservative candidate Dr Keiran Mullan has spent hundreds of pounds promoting two separate videos on Facebook in which he criticises the local Gypsy and Traveller community for stopping on a park in Nantwich.
Dr Mullan has also been described by a local as “spearheading” a campaign against Travellers camping on the park, including leading a protest in September which was attended by 250 people, according to the local paper.
In the videos, Mullan describes a Traveller encampment on the park as “illegal”, despite the fact that trespass isn’t a crime.
The human rights group Friends, Families and Travellers has told openDemocracy that the claim that Traveller encampments are illegal has long been part of a strategy to vilify Gypsy and Traveller groups.
Speaking to openDemocracy, Dr Mullan said: “Residents approached me to help them after seeing a park that is a fantastic local amenity being used repeatedly as camp site. It is not [a] camp site. I couldn’t care less who is using it as a camp site. No one should be. So I helped them. Sorry if people are unhappy with that, but that’s not something I can control.”
‘Communities should not be living in fear’
Marco Longhi, the Conservative candidate in the key marginal seat of Dudley North, promoted a video on Facebook featuring Home Secretary Priti Patel and Dudley South candidate Mike Wood.
In the video, Patel says that Traveller camps cause “a great deal of chaos and harm across our communities,” adding “communities should not be living in fear” and that they are “standing up for the law abiding majority”.
There is no evidence to suggest that crime rates go up when Travellers move into an area.
Speaking to openDemocracy, Mike Wood said: “We are also pushing hard for an authorised transit site (on top of the semi-permanent traveller camp that we have had in Dudley South for many years),” and emphasised that his objection was to unauthorised encampments.
Meanwhile Conservative candidate in Wolverhampton South West Stuart Anderson has opposed planning permission for a Traveller site in his seat, including appearing as Father Christmas at a fundraiser for a group leading objection to the site. Anderson has not replied to our request for comment.
And in another marginal seat, Conservative Douglas Ross, who is re-standing to be MP for Moray in the North East of Scotland, was forced to apologise for saying in 2017 that anti-Gypsy policies would be “his number one priority” if he were prime minister for a day.
‘It’s like a disease’
Sir Paul said his part of Surrey was "attractive to Travellers from afar, and many of those come with a distinct Irish accent".
Writing about the incident, the local media outlet Surrey Live criticised the MP: “When we start using terms like ‘disease’ to describe an entire ethnic group because of the actions of some members of that community, we feed into the sort of intolerance that can turn into something more sinister.”
Mr Beresford did not respond to our request for comment.
Michael Gove: Cracking down on crime… and Travellers
Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has singled out Travellers in a bullet point about crime on his campaign materials, but hasn’t referred to any other ethnic group. In his leaflet, Gove pledges “cracking down on crime, dealing with anti-social behaviour, theft, and burglary, and illegal traveller incursions”:
Similarly, Dr James Davies, Conservative candidate for the Vale of Clwyd constituency, has pledged to “Oppose controversial Gypsy and Traveller sites” on a leaflet in his constituency.
Neither Mr Gove nor Mr Davies has responded to our request for comment.
At least three other Conservative candidates have made criticism of Traveller communities a central feature of their campaigns.
The Conservative candidate in Bristol North West ran a story on his website with the headline “Conservatives push new approach to tackling Travellers”. Meanwhile Conservative candidates Andrew Selous in South West Bedfordshire and Alex Burghart in Brentwood and Ongar have been vocal in their support for legal reforms which opponents say will criminalise Gypsy and Traveller communities.
Andrew Selous also last year proposed a bill which Traveller groups say would have amounted to “forced assimilation” of the Traveller community.
In the bill, Selous pushed for caravan sites to be converted to “settled accommodation,” for unauthorised encampments to become a criminal offence and for local authorities to be released from the obligation to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers.
Asked about his support for Priti Patel’s proposed new law, Burghart said: “I am campaigning to reduce unauthorised developments encampments regardless of who is responsible for them.” Andrew Selous has not responded to our request for comment.
Anti-Semitism tsar ‘legendary for his anti-Gypsyism’
Other senior government appointees who are not standing for election this week have also come under criticism about this issue.
In September, the government appointed the former Labour MP John Mann, as a anti-semitism tsar, appointing him as a cross bench peer. He retains his Labour party membership.
Mann has been criticised for an “anti-social behaviour handbook” he produced in 2007 which discussed problems including ‘Travellers’ and highlighted in bold and red: “The Police have powers to remove any gypsies or Travellers”. In correspondence seen by openDemocracy, the police officer involved referred to the matter as a potential “hate incident”.
On at least two occasions Mann has opposed a Traveller site in his constituency, encouraging residents to “protest profusely”. In 2009, Mann complained in parliament that his constituency would have more Traveller sites than neighbouring areas. Lord Mann said to openDemocracy “there were many more suitable sites in Bassetlaw and nearby.... I identified a range of possible alternative sites to the council”.
Richard Bennett, who co-runs the organisation Gypsy Life and who lives in Mann’s former constituency, Bassetlaw, told openDemocracy that Mann is “legendary for anti-Gypsyism.”
He added: “The fact that the Tory Party has appointed someone with such a long track record of anti-Gypsyism as their anti-Semitism tsar just shows their disgusting attitude towards racism.”
Lord Mann said he’d received a “huge vote” from the Gypsy/Traveller community when he was an MP and that “no complaints were made” about how he’d represented them, adding “I also represented constituents on allegations of anti Gypsy/Traveller behaviour.” Mann said he opposed the sites because they were in unsuitable locations, that the Bennetts are political opponents of his and that he’d represented the interests of Travellers on many occasions.
He also said the controversial booklet had been endorsed by Nottinghamshire police, and by Gordon Brown when he was prime minister in 2009, and that he regretted the highlighted portion of the pamphlet. He added that the police dismissed the complaint made against him in 2017.
Other high-profile government appointees have also come under criticism for their stance against Gypsy and Traveller communities. In September 2015, Eric Pickles was appointed UK Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues by David Cameron’s government. (Five hundred thousand Gypsies were murdered in the Holocaust.)
In January of the same year, Pickles, in his role as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, had been found in the High Court to have breached the human rights of Gypsies and Travellers by discriminating against them in the planning process, specifically calling Gypsy and Traveller planning applications in from planning departments where other ethnic groups didn’t face the same treatment.
Lord Pickles has not responded to openDemocracy’s request for comment.
Fire in Somerset
Last month three caravans on Traveller sites in Glastonbury, Somerset caught fire within the space of a week. Speaking to Somerset Live, a spokesperson for the Glastonbury community council said that “if reports of deliberate sabotage are correct”, then those responsible were “risking people’s lives”.
In 2017, the local MP, James Heappey had asked Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions to take action against an “endless stream of illegal (sic) Traveller encampments”.
Contacted by openDemocracy, Mr Heappey’s office said he wouldn’t comment on the incident as there is an ongoing criminal investigation, but went on to repeat unsubstantiated local rumours about the victims of the crime, saying “the word locally” is that the people who lived in the caravans were engaged in “criminal” and “drug related activity”.
The victims of the fires could not be contacted to respond to these unsubstantiated rumours. Avon and Somerset Police said that they had no evidence to suggest that the fires were the result of anti-Traveller hate.
Dignity and respect
Commenting on openDemocracy’s research, Kate Green, the Labour candidate in Stetford and Urmstone and a campaigner for Gypsy and Traveller rights, said:
“I'm disgusted at these attitudes to Travellers. Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect, and Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are recognised as ethnic groups under the Equality Act 2010, meaning they're legally protected against race discrimination.”
“Proposals to criminalise trespass are unfair, are opposed by the police, and will prove counterproductive when the real problem is a shortage of legal stopping places made worse by Tory planning rules.”
Tommy Shepherd, SNP candidate in Edinburgh East, called our findings “disgusting but not surprising.”
“Rather than picking on Travellers, [the Tories] ought to concentrate on trying to respect and support their lifestyle, including finding means for their enfranchisement in the democratic process.”
“Having canvassed my local Travellers sit myself, I know for a fact that members of the community are intensely interested in politics. Maybe it’s time somebody listened to them rather than engaging in this grotesque othering.”
Allan Hogarth, head of advocacy at Amnesty International UK, said that: “Divisive language used by any politician has a very real impact on people’s lives all around the country.”
“We would urge all election candidates to choose their words carefully, and to ensure they lead by example by showing respect to all communities.”
And Win Lawless of Irish Community Care, which works with Irish Travelling Communities, pleaded with Tory politicians to change their language in the final week of campaigning: “We ask that people, Gypsies and Travellers with real lives; families, grandparents, children, not be treated as political footballs to benefit political goals. All people from all communities will be living side by side long after the 12th December”.