Sarah Spencer: Gypsies and the challenges of diversity

From a lecture to the British Institute of Human Rights by the deputy chair of the Commission for Racial Equality
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The Independent Online

There is a common misconception that all Gypsies and travellers live on the road. In practice, through choice or reluctant necessity, many now live in permanent housing. But this is an anathema for most - who may not want to travel frequently, or at all, but do want to live in a caravan, on a site, in a community of family and friends. It may be a caravan that no longer has the means to move, but it has the proximity to the outdoor world that bricks and mortar exclude. So for some, nomadism is a way of life; for others, it is a state of mind. As one man termed the prospect of living in a house: "It's like catching a wild bird off a tree and putting him in a cage - it's not your life".

There is a common misconception that all Gypsies and travellers live on the road. In practice, through choice or reluctant necessity, many now live in permanent housing. But this is an anathema for most - who may not want to travel frequently, or at all, but do want to live in a caravan, on a site, in a community of family and friends. It may be a caravan that no longer has the means to move, but it has the proximity to the outdoor world that bricks and mortar exclude. So for some, nomadism is a way of life; for others, it is a state of mind. As one man termed the prospect of living in a house: "It's like catching a wild bird off a tree and putting him in a cage - it's not your life".

Many of us would not choose to live in a caravan. We may find it difficult to understand why it is so important to the families in these communities. But that is the challenge of diversity: to respect the right to be different.

The Human Rights Act is beginning to ensure that the rights of Gypsies and travellers to live in caravans, and the right of the children to continuity of education, are given due weight in planning and housing decisions. The duty on public bodies to promote racial equality and good race relations, under the Race Relations Act, has the potential to drive good practice across the public sector.

The underlying problem is the prejudice against Gypsies and travellers. Where that is fuelled by press reporting, the impact of the Press Complaints Commission needs to be felt. Where resentment arises from unauthorised encampments, it can be addressed by the provision of suitable, legal sites. This will meet the needs of Gypsies and travellers but also address the concerns of other residents.

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