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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most