John Bowers: Who is to blame for our conflict with Middle England?

With a general election looming, Michael Howard has come back to finish the job he started

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If a week is a long time in politics, 11 years ago must seem like prehistory to Michael Howard. As a Gypsy with a greater ability to know about the past than see the future, I'd like to jolt his memory. Because as home secretary in late 1994, Howard created many of the powers he now believes are required to deal with unauthorised Gypsy and traveller encampments.

If a week is a long time in politics, 11 years ago must seem like prehistory to Michael Howard. As a Gypsy with a greater ability to know about the past than see the future, I'd like to jolt his memory. Because as home secretary in late 1994, Howard created many of the powers he now believes are required to deal with unauthorised Gypsy and traveller encampments.

In the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, Howard made trespass a criminal offence, strengthened police powers of eviction and removed the statutory duty to provide sites for Gypsies and travellers. And it was the last Tory government that created the 1/94 planning circular that encouraged Gypsies and travellers to buy their own land. Gypsy and traveller activists didn't need clairvoyant powers to predict Howard would be guilty of "cultural cleansing", outlawing an ancient way of life and putting rural communities into conflict. And everything they predicted has come to pass.

As a result, public Gypsy sites have become overcrowded, forcing many young Gypsies and travellers into a cycle of trespass and eviction that has left us with the lowest levels of literacy and the worst health of any ethnic minority. The Public Order Act has also brought Romany Gypsies and Irish travellers into more conflict with our settled neighbours than at any time in recent history.

The conflict now being played out in the villages of Middle England and the pages of the press is one that Howard is directly responsible for. But the trouble is, Romany Gypsies and Irish travellers cannot be legislated away. Law can do many things, but it can't extinguish a people or their needs unless it is backed up by state violence and force. Even then, it is unlikely to succeed, as any historian could tell you.

Take, for example, the 1554 "Egyptians Act" which forbade Gypsies from entering England and imposed the death penalty on those of us who remained in the country for more than a month. Didn't quite deal with the problem, did it? The 1597 Vagrancy Act, which made it possible for those that "will not be reformed of their roguish kind of life" to be conveyed to "parts beyond the seas", didn't quite do it either. The 1994 Criminal Justice Act was similarly ineffective.

And so with a general election looming, Howard has come back to finish the job he started. But where the gallows and the transportation ships failed, so will any new powers he might give himself as a Tory prime minister, whether that's repealing the Human Rights Act, removing the perfectly legal option of applying for retrospective planning permission or increasing planning enforcement powers. Because even though the council Gypsy sites are full, and stopping at the side of the road is criminalised, the fact remains that people still require somewhere to sleep at night. And if that somewhere is a piece of land that we have bought ourselves, then it is as good a place as any.

But where the laws will fail, the rhetoric is succeeding. The myths about Gypsies exploiting the planning system are being repeated as facts throughout the media. But the discrimination is even more intense in the planning system.

Far from allowing them greater rights, the planning system routinely discriminates against Gypsies and travellers. In 1997, research by the Advisory Committee on the Education of Romanies and travellers showed that, whereas 80 per cent of all planning applications from the settled community were accepted, 90 per cent of Gypsy and traveller applications were initially rejected. Gypsies and travellers aren't so much playing the planning system as demanding equality from it. And if we have to buy first and apply for permission later in order to make our case, then that's something we've been forced to do.

If Michael Howard truly doesn't believe in "special rules for special interest groups", he should read - and accept - the case law that defines Romany Gypsies and Irish travellers as ethnic minorities and campaign for race relations legislation to apply to the media.

But he is right when he says: "It's not fair that there's one rule for travellers and another for everyone else." We've survived draconian legislation and unfair planning policy that has made our ancient way of life practically impossible. If the way a society treats its minorities is a litmus test of its civilisation, Britain has proved to be a particularly acidic country towards Gypsies and travellers. And if Michael Howard's slick brand of vitriol ever makes it into Downing Street, yet another deep scar will be etched into an already painful history.

In this coming election, Gypsies and travellers are set to become a political football, but we've never been ones to back down from a fight. Now he's set out his game plan, Howard has reminded every one of Britain's 300,000 Gypsies and travellers of his past record. And just like people everywhere who value diversity over bigotry, he's provided a timely reminder of exactly which direction we should all be kicking.

The writer is a Romany journalist

hastingsef@hotmail.com

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