Leading Article: A shift to persecutory mode

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GYPSIES arouse strong feelings. For some people they are romantic vagabonds, descendants of the magicians and snake charmers of the ancient East who retain contact with nature and access to mysteries that the rest of us have lost. Others fear them as outsiders with an alien language and impenetrable customs who pose an ill-defined threat to our ordered society. This ambivalence goes back centuries, and has caused gypsies to be alternately protected and persecuted.

The Government is now proposing to shift from a protective to a persecutory mode. Alarmed by public reaction to the summer festivals of the so-called New Age travellers, it wants to criminalise illegal camping and free local councils of the obligation to provide sites under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. Its plans are foolish, unworkable and liable to cause more problems than they solve.

It is not necessary to romanticise gypsies to accept that they are a distinct ethnic group, even if now somewhat diluted. Their itinerant way of life is fundamental to their culture. To attempt to integrate them into society, which is the implicit aim of the Government's proposals, is to threaten them with destruction. The effort would put new burdens on the police, local authorities and in all probability the public purse, especially if housing has to be found for those pushed off the road.

The Government's mistake is to lump together gypsies and travellers. While it is difficult to make a distinction in law, there is little problem in practice. Travellers are usually drop-outs from conventional society, often only for a summer or two. Those who cause a nuisance move in large numbers in search of parties, drugs, noise and social security benefits. Gypsies move more quietly in smaller numbers in search of work. They draw the dole only when they fail to find employment, which is probably no more frequently than the rest of the population. No doubt there are criminals among them, but probably proportionately fewer than in conventional


Whether gypsies should be regarded as enriching us by their cultural challenge or as a manageable nuisance is largely a matter of opinion, but those local authorities that have tried to respond to their needs have found them no great threat or burden. In all they number only about 13,500.

The problem with the 1968 Act is not that it has failed but that it has not been given a fair chance. Because of inertia, local resistance, lack of ministerial pressure and constant changes in local government structures, many local authorities have only just begun to provide sites. At least another five years of constructive effort are needed to see what happens when the Act is properly implemented. So far there is no evidence that designated sites are invaded by casual campers and travellers, or that demand must invariably outstrip supply.

Nobody should object to more stringent laws against illegal camping and against noisy, destructive festivals. Landowners and local residents are entitled to better protection than they have had so far. There is, however, no need to declare war on gypsies. The people to consult are the local officials and liaison officers who actually deal with them. Before going any further, the Government should invite these experts to London to bring some realism into the debate.