High Court backs 'racist' ban on gypsy horse fair

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The Independent Online

A ban on a horse fair at Horsmonden, Kent, was upheld at the High Court in London yesterday, despite opposition from the Gypsy Council, theNational Romany Rights Association and the civil rights group Liberty.

A ban on a horse fair at Horsmonden, Kent, was upheld at the High Court in London yesterday, despite opposition from the Gypsy Council, theNational Romany Rights Association and the civil rights group Liberty.

A parade of gypsy caravans will pass through the village on Sunday in protest at the decision - which was supported by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and which the Romany community believes is racist.

Deputy Judge David Pannick QC rejected claims that the ban imposed by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council was an "over-reaction" and that the fair was "fundamental to one of the ethnic minority groups in Britain".

He said: "The borough council and the Secretary of State considered in the light of the policing concerns that the disruption to the life of the local community was of paramount concern and the need to avoid such disruption should take priority over the interests of the Romany community."

Mr Straw angered gypsies with comments in a radio interview last year, when he said: "Many of these so-called travellers seem to think that it is perfectly OK for them to cause mayhem in an area, to go burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles, causing all kinds of trouble, including defecating in the doorways of firms and so on, and getting away with it."

The Home Secretary said later that he had not been referring to genuine gypsies, but Romany groups remain hostile and believe the views explain Mr Straw's consent to the Horsmonden ban.

The importance of the annual Kent fair, on the second Sunday in September, is a matter of dispute. Unlike the larger Appleby fair in Cumbria, Horsmonden is not protected by Royal Charter, but some gypsies claim it is 400 years old.

Grattan Puxon of the Gypsy Council, which is led by Josie Lee, said Horsmonden was "important to Romany heritage. People talk of their great grandparents having come from Horsmonden. The name Horsmonden means the place of the horse breeders and the horse traders."

But Neil Robins, chairman of Horsmonden parish council, said the fair was originally a celebration of the end of the hop-picking season. Photographs from the 1930s showed no horses present. "This was a hop-picking fair with a small Romany element," he said. "It has become a Romany fair with a major horse-trading element and a boot sale tagged on to it."

The event, which attracted about 3,000 people, had become more dangerous in recent years, he said. Three years ago there was a "knifing incident" and the following year a feud between two families had led to talk of firearms, prompting an armed police blockade.

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