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Letter to Editor: Stop the Gypsy witch-hunt in Harlow!

Politics / Sun 14th Sep 2014 at 06:07pm

Sirs,

Harlow TUC will not be condemning unauthorised Traveller encampments as suggested by Robert Halfon MP because it would entail condemning the victims of discrimination. Instead, we prefer to look at the root causes and history of today’s Traveller issue and what would be a viable solution.

So we condemn those Tory councils who disobeyed a statutory duty for 26 years by failing to provide any accommodation for Gypsys and Travellers as required by section 6 of the 1968 Caravan Sites Act.

We condemn John Major’s Tory government for repealing the 1968 Act by the enactment of section 80 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, an Act which also encouraged Travellers to buy their own land, although this has proved to be fraught with difficulties.

We also condemn councils for wasting money and police resources on repeatedly moving-on Travellers. A case study published in 2009 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission showed that Bristol City Council reduced their enforcement costs of up to £350,000 per year in the mid-90s to an annual average of £5,000 by providing one permanent and one transit Traveller sites.

In relation to the cost of creating authorised sites the EHRC reported: “Once Gypsies and Travellers are in authorised sites significant returns can also be collected in rent, council tax and utility bills.”
Ian Holder of Bristol City Council’s Housing Services commented: “We were spending anywhere between £200,000-£350,000 annually dealing with the situation. It was unsustainable, so we decided we had to spend to save. Rather than wasting public money on clearups and evictions, we can now focus on getting families access to healthcare and education.”

Consequently, we condemn Brentwood, Southend, Tendring and Thurrock councils for not providing any Traveller accommodation, a defiance which has contributed to ever more unauthorised encampments that Harlow Tories claim has cost our town £41,000.

We further condemn councils, many of them Tory controlled, that refuse 90 per cent of planning applications for private (usually self- or family-owned) Gypsy sites at first hearing, often following orchestrated campaigns by local residents. The settled community experiences only a 20 per cent refusal rate.

All these forms of discrimination has led to a shortage of Traveller pitches. In 2010, research by the EHRC revealed that there was an urgent need for an extra 5821 pitches on authorised sites over the following five years, as well as additional transit pitches to facilitate a nomadic lifestyle.

In 2007 research estimated that around one in four Gypsies and Travellers living in caravans did not have a legal place on which to park their home, and they were, in law, homeless. The disgrace is that just two years later the EHRC revealed that just one square mile of land would be needed to solve the Traveller issue in England.

The shortage of Traveller pitches contrasts with the requirements of sections 225 and 226 of the Housing Act 2004 which placed a duty on local authorities to carry out an assessment of the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers residing in or resorting to their district and to develop plans to meet these identified needs.

Despite the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Department issuing detailed planning policy in 2006 for Gypsies and Travellers in Circular 01/2006, which sought to address under-provision by increasing the number of authorised sites by 2011 and protecting their traditional travelling way of life, little has changed.

The Travellers’ housing needs have been exascerbated by the Localism Bill, a situation which has drawn criticism from the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for the lack of “culturally appropriate housing, both transient and permanent.”

Finally, we condemn Robert Halfon MP for his ongoing campaign against Travellers and to scrap the Human Rights Act of 1998. In 1948 the United Nations voted unanimously for The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which aimed to create respect for civil liberties and avoid a repetition of the Holocaust. What is often forgotten is the Porajmos – the Gypsy Holocaust – which according to some academic research claimed the lives of up to 1.5 million Gypsies.

We realise that the Tories stated opposition to the Human Rights Act includes a hidden agenda. Professor Keith Ewing and John Hendy QC of the Institute of Employment Rights have stated that the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates EU Conventions into UK law. These Conventions would make lawful ‘Days of Action’ against government policies, including a General strike. The Tories austerity agenda has a long way to go and they fear being unable to pronounce major protests and industrial disruption unlawful. So the Tories see Abu Qatadar and Travellers as useful excuses to limit all our rights to protest.

We see discrimination as the engine which drives humanity towards barbarity. We see Traveller rights as part of a much bigger picture to protect the civil liberties of all citizens. Consequently, we say give Travellers and Gypsies the accommodation they need and stop the witch-hunt.

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