Call for forum to protect gypsy rights

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The Independent Online
A LEAKED Government report calls on ministers to set up a national working party on travellers, following an alarming series of violent evictions of gypsy families.

The report to John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the Environment, calls for more legal gypsy sites to be created. "Without such a provision, nomadism does become, by implication, an impossible or criminal way of life," it states.

In recent clashes between travellers and the authorities, police have used CS sprays and sent armed response units to gypsy sites. Last month, a six-year-old gypsy boy died after being run over as travellers were being forcibly evicted from a site.

Lord Avebury, the Liberal Democrat peer with a special interest in human rights issues, said police and local authorities were being too heavy- handed. He is compiling a dossier of incidents to present to Nick Raynsford, the junior environment minister.

He said: "The police are using totally disproportionate resources to deal with problems on gypsy sites, whether in respect of alleged criminal activity or unlawful occupation."

The Government report, commissioned from researchers at Birmingham University, is expected to form the basis for new guidelines on the eviction of travellers. These should be issued to local authorities when the report is published in October.

Local authorities have become increasingly conscious of the dangers of being sued for wrongful eviction and the report notes: "The incorporation into English law of the European Convention of Human Rights will have implications for gypsies' rights, since they are classed as an ethnic group."

The researchers call for a "national forum" to be set up to discuss gypsy issues and help reconcile the needs of travellers with the responsibilities of local authorities and police to uphold the law and the rights of the settled community.

Among the gypsies at present facing eviction is Jim Smith, who has lived in a mobile home on private land in Iver, Buckinghamshire, for 10 years. Mr Smith, along with his wife Jackie and two children, faces eviction by Slough Borough Council today after the local authority bought the land by Compulsory Purchase Order to turn it into a small field.

Mr Smith, who is fighting the eviction, said caravans had been on the site for 50 years.

"The only thing I am asking is to be left alone to live my life in peace," said Mr Smith, 30. "I am gypsy through and through and proud to be it. I honestly couldn't live in a house. We are trying to keep our way of life."

Since the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994, gypsies have experienced far greater difficulty in finding places to live.

The act, which removed the obligation on local authorities to provide public sites, was designed to encourage travellers to buy their own land. But Romany groups said that since the Act was passed, most applications for gypsy sites on newly bought land had been refused planning permission, costing gypsy owners their savings.

There are believed to be an estimated 2,600 illegally parked caravans in Britain at present.

The gypsy community amounts to some 63,000 people. They include Romanies, descended from families who arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries; the Roma, who came from Europe early this century; the Kale, Welsh gypsies; and Scots travellers, descended from nomadic craftspeople.

Travellers and the Law

November 1997: Police use CS spray to prevent travellers in a convoy of 30 vehicles from reaching a site in Lincolnshire. The convoy had been evicted from sites in seven counties over eight weeks.

March 1998: Armed police descend on a gypsy site in Strood, Kent, after reports gypsies had been wielding a shotgun. Jack Byron, five, had been playing cowboys and indians.

May: A six-year-old gypsy boy, Patrick Dooley, dies after being crushed by a vehicle as travellers are forcibly evicted from a site in Edmonton, north London, in the presence of police officers.

June: A pregnant woman, a week past her due date, is informed by local authority officials that she is to be evicted from a gypsy site in Hertfordshire.