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Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month: a time for reflection and solidarity

Highlighting our response to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Every year in June, a minority of people celebrate Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history month. Established in Britain in 2008 as a way of raising awareness of these diverse communities and their contributions to society, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history month offers us an occasion to reflect on the importance and value of cultural heritage, the positive contributions that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people make to British Society and raise awareness of the racism that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people experience. Usually, June is the month for celebration, but this year it might be the month for commemoration.

Since the 16th century, legislation has been used to control the nomadic traditions and customs of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in Britain. Today, an increasing lack of authorised stopping places, and a failure of the planning laws to provide a realistic method for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people to set up their own sites, means that there are approximately 3000 families who have no legal and safe place to stop.

Unauthorized encampments, those stopping places which families set up on carparks, playing fields or by the roadside, occur as a direct result of the laws that have been implemented to limit freedoms and the development of authorised encampments. Although the practice of ‘nomadism’ is a protected characteristic for some communities, current policy means that families who travel across the country can encounter significant hardships that impact on their health, wellbeing, education, and employment. Despite these hardships, many families continue to practice their cultures and traditions.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

In November 2019, the Home Office launched a consultation ‘Strengthening police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments’ which proposed to introduce new legislation to criminalise those living on carparks, playing fields or by the roadside. The resultant Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, published on 9th March, introduced new powers that enable police to seize the homes of people who set up an unauthorised encampment and to imprison those who continue to break the law.

With no alternative provision, the message of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is clear; the cultures and traditions of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities will no longer be tolerated in Britain.

On 17th May, the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Social Work Association was asked to write a statement to the Human Rights Joint Committee (who met on 19th May) explaining why we thought that this situation and the government’s response was wrong. Drawing our own research, we explained why the introduction of The Bill represents a significant threat to the health and welfare of children and adults.  

We explained that last year, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children were 3.33 times more likely to be referred to social services, 3 times more likely to experience an Initial Child Protection Conference and Child Protection Plan and 2.55 times more likely to enter state care than any other child. We also explained that if this Bill was fully introduced to seize the homes of 3000 families, these figures could increase providing clear examples of institutional racism, state violence, control and ethnic cleansing.

In health, we explained that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller adults experience some of the poorest health outcomes of any group in society. Accommodation insecurity, the conditions of their living environment, community participation and discrimination all play key roles in exacerbating these poor health outcomes. Our research also shows that accommodation insecurity negatively impacts on the physical and mental health of Romani and Traveller adults. We then described how The Bill would create further accommodation insecurity, adversely affecting the health and wellbeing of those living on unauthorised encampments, thus undermining equality legislation and duty.

In addition to the significant impact that The Bill will have on health, wellbeing, human rights and the right to private family life, we pointed out that The Bill is likely to have a significant economic impact as the number of referrals to police, social care, health and housing services increases. We explained in our statement that a more appropriate Social Return on Investment would be to divert the money needed to implement the Bill, to seize homes and criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, to fund the development of Early Help, grassroots organising and the provision of authorised enactments, affordable accommodation provision and the support needed to safeguard safety, health, education and employment.

Who knows what the Human Rights Joint Committee will decide? We just hope that as we enter Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history month, they will be more aware of the need for policy action to only support opportunities to stand with families and raise awareness of environmental hazards and the social determinants of inequality in pursuit of a more sustainable human rights-based solution.

Throughout Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history month the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Social Work Association will post a rage of information here to help others to reflect on the value of cultural heritage, anti-racist practice and the social divisions causes by centuries of hate speech. We will start by hearing from some of our members who will explain why joining the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Social Work Association was important to them.