Howard stirs race row with attack on Gypsies

Tories accused of bigotry in placing traveller camps on election agenda
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Michael Howard was accused yesterday of "tapping into the deepest vein of bigotry in our society" as he tried to push the issue of unauthorised Gypsy camps into the centre of the pre-election political battle.

Michael Howard was accused yesterday of "tapping into the deepest vein of bigotry in our society" as he tried to push the issue of unauthorised Gypsy camps into the centre of the pre-election political battle.

The Tory leader will deliver a speech tomorrow focusing on 1,855 Gypsy and traveller families who have bought and developed plots of lands where they can camp without obtaining planning permits in advance.

In the past Mr Howard has vehemently denied wanting to make race an election issue, but that is a charge he will face because of his remarks about Gypsies and travellers.

In an advertisement on page 8 of this newspaper, paid for by the Conservative Party, Mr Howard claims: "If you want to build a new home you have to get planning permission first. But if you are a traveller, you can bend planning law - building where you like, thanks to the Human Rights Act."

In tomorrow's speech, he will renew his attack on the Human Rights Act, claiming that it is being used to prevent councils from closing down traveller camps. He will say that local people should decide where they want Gypsies to live, without interference from the Government, and that the police and local councils should have more power to enforce their decisions.

Keith Hill, the minister in charge of planning laws, accused the Tory leader yesterday of indulging in "the politics of the gutter".

He demanded: "Is Michael Howard really saying that he intends to get rid of the Human Rights Act, which offers protection to every citizen in our country? This is an extremely dangerous path to go down.

"This is Michael Howard tapping into what is probably the deepest vein of bigotry in our society - the prejudice against Gypsies and travellers."

The advertisement, and tomorrow's speech which will flesh out Tory policy on illegal campsites, is the latest in a series of eye-catching statements from the Tory leader that have frustrated Labour's high command. They want the election to be fought over the economy and public services.

Mr Howard has wrongfooted Labour by raising a series of one-off issues, including immigration, NHS waiting lists, abortion, and whether prisoners should be allowed to have hard-core pornography.

There are no accurate figures for the number of Gypsies and travellers in Britain, with estimates varying from 82,000 to 300,000. Many Gypsy families live in houses and have integrated. There are about 15,000 families living in caravans, of whom nearly 11,000 are on official sites. About another 2,500 live in temporary camps. The current outcry is about the 12 per cent who have clubbed together to buy land and have developed it without prior permission.

"There is a problem about unauthorised camps, and we have absolute sympathy with the communities that suffer from them," Mr Hill said. "At the same time, local authorities have a responsibility to provide sites but have generally failed. We will work with them to put that right."

Charlie Smith, spokesman for the National Gypsy Council, said: "This advert is absolute nonsense. He [Howard] was responsible for criminalising us in 1994 and now he's trying to finish the job. Since 1994 there are 650 fewer public sites than there were. Where are we supposed to go?"

Additional reporting by Tom Anderson

Comments