When humans behave like animals

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yesterday's launch of new Conservative proposals to crack down on travellers was burnished by association with events in Berkshire the previous day. By coincidence, 80 police officers had descended on six sites outside Reading and evicted 500 travellers. Escorted to the Berkshire border by police on motorcycles, the idea, presumably, was that these people would take their troubles elsewhere. Instead, many are reported to have already made their way back.

Yesterday's launch of new Conservative proposals to crack down on travellers was burnished by association with events in Berkshire the previous day. By coincidence, 80 police officers had descended on six sites outside Reading and evicted 500 travellers. Escorted to the Berkshire border by police on motorcycles, the idea, presumably, was that these people would take their troubles elsewhere. Instead, many are reported to have already made their way back.

The behaviour that has made these guests so unwelcome is familiar. Reports of crime, damage to property and litter in the vicinity of the sites abounded. One site had been set up on a 100-year-old cricket pitch, causing the local male residents deep distress.

Whatever opinion you may have of cricket-obsessed Englishmen, the fact is that village cricket is an English tradition. If travellers wish to have their traditions respected, then they surely ought to return the compliment. Instead, they reportedly defecated around the cricket pavilion. A vicar confirmed that he too had been disgusted to find that the back of his church had also been used as a toilet.

Sylvia Dunn, a spokesperson for women gypsies, made no apologies for such hazards to public health, and instead suggested that "gaujis stopped their cars and used lay-bys as lavatories." Her more serious point was that "transit sites with proper facilities would stop these problems overnight". She says that if councils would offer, for a small charge, to supply portable loos and rubbish collection, then travellers would gladly accept.

But that was not the case in Hawick, in Scotland, where in August local housing officials and councillors abandoned plans to spend £342,000 on an official camp site. The scheme has been aborted after housing authorities were advised that it would not be economically viable. The camp would have to attract 640 caravans per season to cover running costs of £28,500. The nearest comparable site, in Peebles, had attracted just 15 customers during 1999, and made £675 in rent.

Hughie Smith, president of the National Gypsy Council, says that the reason for the poor take-up in Peebles is because local authorities have been concentrating on discouraging travellers, while providing the sites as a smokescreen for their true intentions. He does not say how this policy has been pursued, but there is no evidence that the Hawick councillors adopted the desperate measures recently used by a certain Derek Mead.

Mr Mead had asked a group of travellers to leave his land, and while they had agreed that they would, there was no sign of them actually intending to do so. The Somerset farmer, with a group of friends, sprayed an encampment of 60 travellers with ten tons of pig slurry after he had claimed that police ignored his pleas for help in moving them on. Riot police and a helicopter intervened to stop the onslaught, and suggested to Mr Mead that he may find himself faced with the bill for the police operation.

These, and other incidents over the summer, come in what has been a disastrous year for gypsies and travellers in Britain. First there was the public outcry over the life imprisonment of Tony Martin, who shot dead the young traveller Fred Barras while he was burgling his home. The saga hardened the public's belief that the law is "soft on travellers", as did the hysteria which broke out over Romanian gypsies who had come to Britain and were begging with their children.

It is this popular resentment that both the Tories and Labour are tapping into when they talk of toughening up attitudes to travellers. Shadow environment minister, Archie Norman, presented his Common Sense on Travellers document with the intention of catering to just these resentments.

His policies include: tackling open breaches of the law by travellers, including trespass, untaxed vehicles and unleashed dogs; streamlining evictions; three-month radius bans; withdrawal of income support from travellers subject to eviction orders who refuse to move; greater scrutiny of the educational supervision of travellers' children; and reforms to make it easier for landowners to gain compensation for damage to property.

Which all sounds only fair and right doesn't it? Except in context, of course. And the context is this. Since mediaeval times travelling people have been persecuted in Britain, but also tolerated because of their expertise as horse traders. Their traditional ways of earning livings have been eroded almost totally in the last century, which is why they have been an increasingly easy target for abuse.

A new wave of draconian measures was brought in, in 1994, with the notorious Criminal Justice Act. It is estimated that between 1986 and 1993, 67 per cent of traditional travellers sites disappeared, some of which had served their purpose for thousands of years. Although officially travellers are encouraged to set up their own sites, they are in practice usually refused planning permission.

The Europe-wide context is even nastier. More than half a million gypsies were murdered in the Holocaust, while in the Czech Republic 62 per cent of gypsy children were placed in schools for the mentally disabled.

Thousands of gypsies were forced to flee their homes in Kosovo, while in Romania in the post-Ceausescu period horrific mob-violence has become the norm and resulted in hundreds of deaths. In the face of such persecution, these people were described by Jack Straw as "so-called travellers" who he vilified for "burgling, breaking into vehicles, defecating in doorways".

Which brings us back to that most common and disgusting of complaints against the gypsies and the travellers - that concerning excrement. This manure which keeps on coming up, as a weapon used by or against the travellers, is very much a dirty protest, used by the desperate who respond to the stripping of their humanity by behaving like animals.

There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence which suggests that the behaviour of gypsies and travellers is getting worse. On a recent visit to a site in Southall, south London, I found it disgusting too. There was rubbish everywhere, and faeces as well. There were resentful, dangerous-looking adults slouching about, and grim-mouthed children. There was no doubt that the meagre livings gleaned by these people were through crime.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I opened the front door a couple of days later to find a young Irish traveller asking for knives and scissors for his father round the corner to sharpen. I gave him the knives and they came back, sharpened, 20 minutes later. He asked if I'd a lawn-mower, for his father would service that too. I handed it over, wondering if I'd see it again. He brought it back, cleaned and fixed, and asked me for his payment. He had no change and said he would bring me back the fiver owed. This time I really didn't expect to see him, but I did.

Frankly, what amazes me is that against the hounding they have received, this family has managed somehow to maintain a working, travelling family. If I was treated in the way that he was, I wouldn't be standing on my front doorstep being charming and straightforward. I fear that I'd be defecating too. Travellers nowadays have nothing left but their defiance. These latest measures are a full-on attempt to take that away from them too.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

Comments