Pledges to remove unauthorised Travellers’ camps in Britain featured prominently in Tory Facebook adverts ahead of the local elections during May, prompting accusations that the party has used Gypsies and Travellers as “political footballs”.
The Guardian identified 47 Facebook adverts bought by local Conservative candidates since January that promised to oppose unauthorised pitches. The adverts were placed by about 20 different Facebook pages and have been seen at least 440,000 times since January, according to transparency data from the social networking site.
Dan Collins, a newly elected Conservative councillor in Plymouth, placed an advertisement that said: “Travellers on the playing field – Conservatives would have taken action to prevent this. Remember the Labour council did nothing, when you vote at the local elections.”
Another advert, placed by Chris Nelson, who was elected police and crime commissioner in Gloucestershire, read: “Too many Travellers have exploited weaknesses in the law to act with impunity within our law-abiding communities.” The advert also noted that “many established Traveller communities were law-abiding”.
A spokesperson for the Traveller Movement said: “Politicians use Gypsies and Travellers as political footballs to gain votes and curry favour among the local electorate. This contributes to a climate of hostility which sees Gypsy and Traveller people used as scapegoats by their local politicians. We remind election candidates they have a duty to represent all of their prospective constituents, including Gypsy and Traveller people.”
A further two adverts with pledges to take action on Traveller camps were placed by independent candidates. A Guardian search did not show up any such adverts placed by other parties. The adverts placed by Conservative candidates cost between £1,200 and £5,800, according to Facebook.
Matthew Barber, the newly elected PCC in Thames Valley, placed a video in which he read out the following question from a local resident: “Every year we get loads of caravans that turn up. The mess and intimidation is terrible and people are really scared about it. What can we do to tackle this problem?”
Barber put the question to the policing minister, Kit Malthouse, who agreed that Traveller camps were “a problem which seems to tax the Thames Valley but also my constituency next door”.
A number of the adverts cited the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill which is going through parliament. The bill, which was described by the organisation Liberty as an “authoritarian crackdown on Gypsy and Traveller communities”, upgrades trespass from a civil to a criminal offence, and creates a new offence of “residing in a vehicle on land without permission”.
This messaging is seen as a vote winner in rural communities, where nomadic Traveller groups sometimes pitch on private land or local open spaces. Traveller groups say there is a shortfall in official sites provided by local authorities, with 1,696 households on waiting lists for 59 vacant permanent pitch sites, according to research published in January.
Abbie Kirkby, public affairs and policy manager at Friends, Families and Travellers, said: “It is as cruel as it is illogical to campaign to tackle roadside camps when the shortage of places to stop is so severe. The UK needs more permanent pitches and stopping places, along with a set of measures that address the stark inequalities experienced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
“Why do we never see this on election leaflets? Because it’s much easier to scapegoat Travellers than to dismantle structural racism. Everybody needs a place to live.”
In April, Charlotte Nichols, the Labour MP for Warrington North, was forced to apologise after handing out election leaflets that contained a pledge to “deal with Traveller incursions”. The leaflet was destroyed, and Nichols said in a statement that the leaflet did not reflect her “personal values or those of the Labour party”.
Barber said: “The issue of illegal encampments is a significant one in Thames Valley and it is right that politicians, councils and the police take the issue seriously and balance the competing needs of all communities.
“You are right to highlight the unacceptable language and prejudice often expressed on the subject, which is something that I have often challenged. Nevertheless, to ignore unacceptable behaviour from a minority in any community fails to address the problem and often leads to increased prejudice.”
A Tory party spokesperson said the the Conservative Campaign Headquarters did “not run the digital campaigns of local associations”. The other candidates did not respond to requests for comment.