The Guardian view on anti-Traveller prejudice: the aim must be inclusion | Editorial

By criminalising their lifestyle, the government will push Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people closer to the edge

There is nothing new about prejudice against the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community: it dates back centuries. The fury and hurt caused by a “joke” made by the comedian Jimmy Carr, who described the murder of hundreds of thousands of Romany and Sinti Gypsies by the Nazis as a “positive” in a Netflix special in December, is a blunt reminder of its persistence.

Ministers are among those to have voiced strong disapproval. Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, pointed out that Ofcom, the UK regulator, would soon gain increased powers over streaming services. But Carr’s routine, and the laughter that was the initial reaction to the offensive section, provide clear evidence that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) people – of whom the last census recorded that there are 58,000 in England and Wales – are still widely regarded as a legitimate target for attitudes that would be seen as unacceptable if aimed at other minorities. One recent study found that 44.6% of those surveyed viewed GRT people negatively – more than any other minority ethnic group.

In education, employment and health, GRT people suffer some of the worst outcomes of any group in the UK. The community’s young people have the highest rates of absence from school and are the least likely to go to university. They are also overrepresented in the criminal justice system. But it is the issue of housing and land that lies at the heart of many difficulties.

“Everyone seems to know where we shouldn’t be, but no one knows where we should be,” said Joe Jones, chair of the Gypsy Council, a few months ago. He was talking on the 10th anniversary of the eviction of 80 families from the Dale Farm unauthorised Traveller site in Essex. The pitched battle between police and activists was an experience that some former residents say they have yet to recover from. Since the obligation to provide sufficient sites for the various GRT communities was removed from local authorities in the 1990s, such local disputes have served to increase tensions and alienation.

The acronym GRT is useful, but the people it refers to are far from a homogeneous group. English Romanichal Gypsies, Irish Travellers and more recent Romany immigrants from the European Union are culturally distinct populations with different experiences and needs. Some people with this heritage have chosen a settled way of life. The prejudice that many experience is not straightforward, and combines elements of racism with hostility to immigration and the EU.

Tackling chronic economic disadvantage is an obvious first step towards reducing their marginalised status, and the sense of stigma that some vividly describe. The gulf that divides those in the UK who own assets, including residential property, from those who don’t is socially corrosive. The supply of affordable housing must be increased. To threaten Travellers with new criminal sanctions, as the police bill currently going through parliament does, while refusing to ensure that they have adequate space to live on, is punitive and likely to be self-defeating – reinforcing the cycle of exclusion.

Other repressive measures introduced by the current government, including the requirement for voter ID, will also disproportionately affect those with nomadic lifestyles. Rather than forcing GRT people closer to the edge of society, the policy goal should be inclusion. Given their diversity, and the range of local conditions in the places where they live, mayors and councils ought to be tasked with finding solutions, and given resources to do so. Stronger efforts to improve outcomes for this severely disadvantaged group are overdue.



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