openDemocracyUK: Opinion

"We have politicians again using us as cannon fodder"

The chair of the Gypsy Council speaks out against Tory attempts to "segregate and criminalise".

Joe Jones
11 December 2019
A choir singing at Gypsy, Romany and Traveller history month, Cardiff
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Romani Arts

I’m a Romany Gypsy. Over many years, I have been affected by every policy that rolls out of government.

In 1968, the Caravans Act came about. That put a duty on every Local Authority to provide a permanent caravan site for every Gypsy and Traveller in an area. It was a very slow process, even in those days, as Councils had developed a loophole: if they had a meeting every year about provision and looked at potential sites, they had ‘intentions to provide’. There were a few that provided. These were well over-subscribed.

So there were still loads of families on the road. All over London, we stopped everywhere, on old derelict plots of ground. There were many evictions, we even tried to defy these actions, by putting our children in bailiffs’ JCB front buckets and daring them to move us; barricading ourselves in with car tyres and setting them on fire.

But eventually they moved us on. Sometimes convoying us across boundary lines, where the local police would try the same, but someone would always break away and find a place to open up. The word would get around and when the darkness fell, We would pull in and the process would start all over again.

Throughout the Seventies local Councils used the local media to create hostility throughout the general population, throughout the country, to stop permanent sites being provided. Even the local pubs had signs saying no Gypsies or Travellers were welcome. When sites were identified, residents formed protests, and they were dropped.

It did not matter where we stopped. Councils and the media created unrest. Endless movement. I remember a councillor pulling up in his car and with such venom, looked at the children and said, “why don’t you live like proper human beings?”, then drove off at speed.

I’ll never forget the look on those children’s faces. Police would harass us by pulling up our motors, lifting our bonnets, searching our caravans in morning raids, turfing the children out of bed, even in the snow and rain. We would stand outside, with police dogs keeping us at bay. But this was normal to us, we accepted it as our day to day existence, even our children accepted it as normal.

Then designation came. It was very close to what the government are proposing today: if you don’t move, you were arrested. Your wife and children went into bed and breakfast, your animals and stock went into the pound. In the morning, you are taken from the police station, to the court house, fined and had to pay for the bed and breakfast, along with the pound duty, for your animals and stock and your motor and trailer. It was a tough time. If you did not have the money, you moved. It brought us in conflict with the police at times.

In 1994, the duty on local councils to provide sites was scrapped. In its place, we were told to provide for ourselves. Local Authorities were asked to identify land suitable for Gypsy and Traveller occupation, but this was not a legal requirement, so that’s where it all failed, along with a very slow uptake, as we had to save to buy the land.

But once we had the money, the problem was, we knew nothing about greenbelt, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Areas of Outstanding Beauty, or agricultural land. Nothing at all, we bought what we could afford and pulled on it, in family units, some bigger than others. But then there was the hurdle of the planning system. Local residents, councillors, media, again creating unrest and hatred.

It took my family and myself ten years to gain the relevant planning required. It passed at council level, but the residents had them take it back, then the planning inspectorate gave it to us, then the residents had it taken back again. After two high court challenges, we finally, ten years later, gained our planning permission.

It was exhausting, expensive and led to ill health. At times I think, was it really worth it? Yes it was, as my grandchildren went to school, gained health care, a permanent home. With stability. We have integrated after nineteen years. My children have businesses, pay taxes, council tax, insurance and created employment for the local community.

In all my life I have faced hostility and racism, towards my family and myself. No matter were we moved to, the local authorities, police, community and media tell me it’s the wrong place for the likes of us, but when I ask where the right place is, they suddenly become dumb or abusive.

Now we have politicians again using us as cannon fodder for votes. Priti Patel, Michael Gove and many more, asking to criminalise us. But I ask, what have we done so wrong to politics and society, to be treated in such a way?

When the problem is in fact, a political one, locally and nationally. We have become Britain’s untouchables, through the lack of provision and political failures. Criminalising us is a crime. It’s a racist act. What power do we have politically? We are constantly being pushed out, onto the periphery of society, being forced to live where no one would ever live.

The more we try to integrate ourselves, the more the politicians push to segregate and criminalise us.

Surely, it’s time there was a political will to provide appropriate places for us to become full members of society, to be allowed to contribute to society. It’s not for the want of trying. But, who is actually being anti-social? Who is being hostile? Who is creating the negative atmosphere?

Those who are roadside? Are homeless? No different than a homeless person in a shop doorway, cardboard box or tent? They have no permanent base to call home.

We want that. But this government has chosen to further add to the problem, by criminalising us. It’s a racially motivated act: there are already good powers that work to evict unauthorised sites.

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