Straw: I won't back down on gypsies

JACK STRAW yesterday defended his controversial remarks about travellers, insisting that "not one word" of his comments had been unwise.

The Home Secretary, who was accused of racism and of committing a criminal offence under the Public Order legislation for remarks he made on a BBC Radio West Midlands programme on 22 July, insisted that he was right to say that some criminals masqueraded as gypsies.

"It's nothing whatever to do with race, it is to do with . . . people who were masquerading as travellers and who are then committing crimes.

"I do say to people who are sat in armchairs pontificating about this, go out to the West Midlands, go out to Swindon where both the local MPs have been canvassing me for firmer action, go to almost any urban area in the country and see the kind of damage to people's lives which is done by a number of itinerant travellers who masquerade as gypsies."

Yesterday there was little evidence of "thieving, burgling or defecating in doorways" in Swindon and most shoppers appeared uninterested when asked about the problem.

On a site south of the town yesterday, 15 caravans were gathered on a large patch of ground. Inside, a group of women - who said they were Romany gypsies and not New Age travellers - were scrubbing spotless kitchen surfaces. There was no evidence of rubbish among the modern barbecues and gleaming patio furniture.

"Jack Straw should be a sergeant for Hitler," said Shirley Price, who failed to see Mr Straw's distinction between gypsies and "criminal" travellers. "We travel all around the world and it is our life. People should not begrudge us being here for two or three weeks. We are human beings like anyone else."

Her friend Kim Evans, 25, added: " Our problem is that if they hear of one traveller doing something wrong they say everyone is bad. Some of your people [non gypsies] commit crime. We don't thieve. My husband is a horse dealer and we earn just enough money to look after our children." The women said they were law-abiding citizens looking for work in the town. Many of the men do road or building work, or gardening.

Councillor Pete Brown paints a very different picture of the travellers, insisting that they "wreak havoc" in Swindon.

"Mr Straw came here and saw the damage himself," he said. Councillor Brown said that he and the local MPs Julie Drown and Michael Wills had been badgering the Home Secretary about the situation. "We have a serious problem here and it is really upsetting the local community. I used to get calls all through the night with people complaining about the noise and the nuisance."

He illustrated his case by describing an official transit site at nearby Chiseldon, which had been built at a cost of pounds 250,000 to local taxpayers. Today it lies in ruins, covered in rubbish since the travellers left several years ago.

However, Mr Brown could produce little solid evidence of criminal behaviour, mentioning just one occasion two years ago when a group of children were caught stealing sweets.

"They couldn't be prosecuted because they were all under 10. There was nothing we could do. Their parents just said they were terribly sorry they didn't know," he said.

The local police were also unable or unwilling to produce crime figures for the travelling community yesterday. "We deal with criminal behaviour from whatever community it is - itinerant or settled. We do not distinguish," said Assistant Chief Constable Alastair McWhirter.

Mr McWhirter was unwilling to say whether crime had risen or fallen with the arrival of travelling groups. "If I were to say that I would be accused of generalising in the same way that Jack Straw has been accused of generalising. We look after everyone's rights and try and balance the needs of the settled community with those of the travelling community."

John Hickman, chief housing officer for Swindon Borough Council, said his heart sank when he heard Mr Straw bringing Swindon into the argument.

"We have a problem but it is different from many similar authorities and we have developed ways of managing that problem," he said.

Last year there were 27 traveller encampments on council land, with up to 14 so far this year. The council has started using High Court orders to move people on. Unlike magistrates' court orders, these require travellers to leave all council property rather than one particular site. They have also started putting physical deterrents such as bollards on public ground, but this has not deterred many travellers. "There is evidence of intrusion on private land increasing. The problem has not gone away," said Mr Hickman.

Swindon Borough Council does provide an authorised site but the 30 families who live there rarely move on, leaving no room for more itinerant bodies.

Yvonne Roberts, Review, page 4

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