Local councils must, once again, offer gypsies land on which they can settle

Share

Gypsies have a strong claim to be the most reviled community in the whole of Britain. Dark tales about their uncivilised customs, disregard for the law and personal squalor follow them wherever they go. The populist press stoke the fires of resentment by printing vile rumours about their way of life. And they have few champions among polite society. In 1999, when Jack Straw, as Home Secretary, made the outrageous assertion that gypsies regularly defecate in doorways there was a minor furore, but the slur was soon forgotten. As far as Middle England is concerned, gypsies are, and always have been, fair game.

Gypsies have a strong claim to be the most reviled community in the whole of Britain. Dark tales about their uncivilised customs, disregard for the law and personal squalor follow them wherever they go. The populist press stoke the fires of resentment by printing vile rumours about their way of life. And they have few champions among polite society. In 1999, when Jack Straw, as Home Secretary, made the outrageous assertion that gypsies regularly defecate in doorways there was a minor furore, but the slur was soon forgotten. As far as Middle England is concerned, gypsies are, and always have been, fair game.

That, no doubt, explains the hostile response yesterday to a Commons Committee's proposal that local councils should be forced to set aside land for travellers. This has been interpreted as a revolutionary suggestion which, according to one scare-mongering newspaper, would mean "a gypsy camp in every town". All nonsense, of course. In 1968, the Caravan Sites Act imposed a similar obligation on local councils and it did not lead to an explosion in the number of traveller encampments. It did, however, give travellers and gypsies access to basic social services like health care and sanitation.

The reason there have been a number of high-profile court cases over illegal gypsy encampments in the past decade is because the 1994 Criminal Justice Act relieved local councils of their duty to provide such sites. The former Conservative government believed that travellers should be encouraged to buy plots of land, rather than the state providing them. The result was a massive reduction in the number of places where gypsies could go.

But that is not the whole story. Some gypsy communities have done exactly what the government encouraged them to do and bought land from local landowners on which to settle. But these legal settlements are just as hated by locals as illegal ones. Landowners thinking of selling a field to gypsies have been ostracised by their communities. If the gypsies erect even the most basic permanent structures, such as sanitation tanks, near their new homes they are accused of contravening planning laws and taken to court. Residents will not usually rest until the newcomers are evicted. This is the unedifying drama being played out at the moment in the Cambridgeshire town of Cottenham.

Gypsies should not be given special dispensation to flout planning laws, no matter how pressing their circumstances. They must abide by court decisions if they are found guilty. And it is plainly unsustainable for illegal gypsy encampments to continue to spring up across the countryside.

But all of this supports the case for a reversion to the tried and tested policy of compelling local councils to provide sites for travellers. It would solve the land shortage, thereby reducing the number of illegal encampments and preventing the need for bitter legal battles over the rights of gypsies. But John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, does not favour this proposal on the grounds that it would give the travelling community special treatment. Thus gypsies find themselves in a situation where even the Government treats their very existence as a nuisance.

Labour, under Tony Blair, has demonstrated its willingness to pander to populist prejudice many times. Its intransigence over the issue of gypsy camps looks like being an addition to that shameful record. The appalling treatment of travellers in Ireland has shown what can happen when governments fail to take a lead in stamping out persecution and bigotry.

The gypsy lifestyle is not one that most people would want to follow. They have some of the lowest life expectancies in Britain. Their babies go without immunisations. Gypsy women have no access to ante-natal care. And on top of this they are forced to endure appalling abuse, and often racism. If the Government wants to make their life even harder and diminish yet further the chances of absorbing them into the wider community, it is going the right way about it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat