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Home Secretary accused of 'hate speech' against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

Community demands apology from Priti Patel for "unacceptable and discriminatory" comments...

Image by Mary Turner. With permission of Friends, Families and Travellers

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 25 September, 2020

The Traveller community accused home secretary Priti Patel of “hate speech” against their community and demanded an apology for comments that appeared to link them to criminal and violent behaviour.

They were made during an online debate with the Board of Deputies of British Jews about a lack of authorised sites for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities.

Patel drew a distinction between Gypsy Roma people and Travellers encamped on unauthorised sites where, she said, “we have seen criminality and violence taking place”.

In an apparent reference to the three members of a Traveller community recently jailed for the manslaughter of police officer Andrew Harper she added: “We saw one particular Traveller criminal [sic], a police officer that was effectively murdered through a robbery that took place by a traveller family.”

The Traveller Movement, a charity that campaigns for the rights of the GRT community, said the comments perpetuated prejudice and discrimination.

In an open letter to Patel signed by race equality campaigners, academics and several MPs and founding members of the BASW Cymru-initiated Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Social Work Association, it said: “These comments are completely unacceptable and discriminatory in the extreme, especially coming from a Home Secretary.

“We consider your comments during this meeting to constitute hate speech as it brands an entire ethnic group as criminal and violent.”

The home secretary’s words, the letter continues, “not only pit ethnic groups against one another; they also single out an entire ethnic group as criminal and violent.”

It adds: “How can these communities rely on their experiences being taken seriously when the Home Secretary is wilfully uttering hate speech?  

“We call for an immediate retraction of these comments, and a public apology made directly to all Traveller, Gypsy and Roma people.”

The Home Office has been contacted by PSW magazine for a response.

Last year, Patel launched a consultation on whether to give police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of people on unauthorised caravan sites.

During the online debate, Gillian Merron, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, expressed concern about treatment of the GRT community “due to our shared history of persecution”.

BASW passed a motion at its Annual General Meeting in support of the GRT community. It said the government in England and Wales “has fuelled the fire of racism by proposing to criminalise overnight stopping, despite the police not supporting such legislation”.

Prejudice against the GRT community has been described as “the last acceptable form of racism” by the Commission for Racial Equality.

Look out for October’s edition of Professional Social Work magazine where a social worker and member of the GRT community speaks out.

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.