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

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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.

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