Friday Book: Travelling on a new-age vision

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The Independent Culture
GAINING GROUND: LAW REFORM FOR GYPSIES AND TRAVELLERS

EDITED BY RACHEL MORRIS AND LUKE CLEMENTS,

UNIVERSITY OF HERTFORDSHIRE PRESS, pounds 17

THIS BOOK helps to fill a gap among the works devoted to the law and the travellers. The Home Secretary would do well to read it soon. With contributions from such eminent traveller specialists as Donald Kenrick, Chris Johnson, Bill Forrester and Alan Masters, it has a fine pedigree. The reputation of the Traveller Law Research Unit at Cardiff Law School, where the editors work, is already high, and this volume will enhance it further.

The collection covers education, accommodation and site provision, eviction and criminal justice, planning, and the health and social services. Its underlying message is obvious. As a society, we would far rather that travellers remained invisible. If they won't, they must suffer for it.

Yet the book goes far beyond a catalogue of injustices, and thereby lies its strength. Although the law as it applies is summarised, and some pretty dreadful examples are given, far more significant are the intentions of the law and possible ways forward.

Take the planning process, as an example. It is clear to anyone with a jot of knowledge that the provision of enough properly-run sites would prevent the overwhelming majority of cases of illegal stopping by travellers. Currently, over 60 per cent of traditional travelling people are on legal sites. The problem lies with the remaining 40 per cent, or with the majority's wish to retain their traditional lifestyle.

If local authorities had obeyed the 1968 Caravan Sites Act and provided legal stopping places, there would be little difficulty now. The argument that it had to go because it failed to work is only as valid as saying that anti-burglary laws should be scrapped because burglary still takes place.

It is almost impossible for gypsies to find a way through the planning process (even assuming they have the money to buy and develop land). Two thirds of local authorities do not have local plans in which gypsies even appear. At present, any planning inspector who does not like them can find loopholes large enough to drive through a lorry and caravan. Discrimination is rife, and irresponsible public pressure almost always wins. Some authorities, which used to evict travellers from their area just before the routine traveller count was due to take place, now use that count to justify not having a site at all.

This book shows there are sensible ways forward to providing travelling people with somewhere to stop, permanently or temporarily, without causing problems. For instance, what about set-aside farmland? The approach should not be "How can we prevent this development?" but "How can we meet the needs?"

There should be parity in planning between traveller sites and housing. It is not acceptable to discriminate against travellers simply because they live in caravans - which, it could be argued, are much less damaging to the countryside than estates. The tendency to create sites on land containing chemical dumps, or alongside sewerage works and other unpleasant neighbours, should not be tolerated for travellers any more than for other people.

The book has a very useful chapter on how the needs of travellers can be met without upsetting anyone else. Having "no land available" is not a reason for neglect: there are always small family groups which would welcome somewhere to put their two or three trailers. Any local authority or legal practice dealing with such matters would find very helpful advice in this, as in all the chapters.

The book's one weakness - and doubtless Jack Straw would agree - lies in its sections on crime. There is very little about the involvement of a minority (the crucial word) of travelling people in crime. It is a difficult area, but much better brought into the open than ignored. Only then can people see that travellers are not "all criminals".

Another major omission here is the fact that many travellers are themselves the victims of horrendous crimes, which are not brought to the attention of police. Of course, it could be claimed that this evidence is only anecdotal. But so it will remain until non-travellers understand the nature of the awful protection rackets and Mafia-like criminal groups which prey on travellers.

Overall, this is a very important book: accurate, well-researched, dispassionately written. It should be on the shelves of every law practice and council office, police station, hospital and education authority in the country. It can be dipped into as and when necessary, as well as being studied in order to gain the overall picture. Anyone who does this will gain ground in their understanding of, and their dealings with, travelling people.

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