Travellers: Left by the wayside
Ecovillage Network UK
evnuk at gaia.org
Mon Aug 23 19:58:18 BST 2004
Left by the wayside
Public hostility and official indifference are forcing many Gypsies and
Travellers to live in third world conditions. David Batty reports
Tuesday August 10, 2004
Imagine you live on a foul-smelling, polluted wasteland with no
electricity, no water and no sanitation. You have no access to family
healthcare. You live in constant fear of being forced to move home in the
face of racism.
This is the situation faced by those who belong to what the chairman of the
Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), Trevor Phillips, recently described
as "probably the single most intensely discriminated against" ethnic group
in the UK - Gypsies and Travellers.
A series of court battles between local authorities and Gypsies and
Travellers has highlighted the terrible conditions in which Britain's
300,000 travelling people often live.
Last week, the high court ruled that a group of Gypsies could stay on a
site they bought a year ago despite installing electricity cables, water
pipes and septic tanks without planning permission from North Wiltshire
district council. The judge, John Weeks QC, sitting at Bristol high court,
said that to avoid suffering unnecessary hardship the 56 men, women and
children could stay on the three-acre field in Minety, Wiltshire, until
after a planning inquiry next February.
Over the past decade the number of such illegal encampments on land
privately owned by Gypsies has risen sharply. There were almost 2,000 last
year - up 40% from 2003.
Campaigners for travelling people blame this increase, and the bitter legal
wrangles they provoke, on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994),
which removed the statutory duty on local councils to provide caravan sites.
There are now just 324 local authority sites where under 6,000 caravans are
pitched. It was intended that the 1994 act would lead to the creation of
more private sites. But government research shows that 90% of planning
applications made by travelling communities are refused, so few new
encampments have been created.
The result is more travelling people being forced to live in unsanitary,
even dangerous, conditions on unauthorised sites, according to Sasha
Barton, senior policy officer (gypsies and travellers) at the CRE.
She said: "The 1994 act had a massive impact on the availability and
reduction in public sites. It was expected that more private sites would be
set up but this didn't happen. This led to more unauthorised encampments
that in turn lead to evictions and planning enforcement disputes.
"With no official address, travelling people cannot start up treatment, and
have no transferable healthcare records. While they do access hospital
accident and emergency departments they don't get preventive healthcare
such as childhood immunisation. Often they only get care once they reach
The CRE is lobbying the government to amend the housing bill to reintroduce
a statutory duty on councils to meet the accommodation needs of Gypsies and
Travellers. The move is backed by the Local Government Association, which
is concerned about the spiralling costs of litigation on small rural councils.
Whatever the motivation, the move is backed by Luke Clements, director of
the traveller law research unit at Cardiff University. He said: "All the
legislation up to 1994 had been to integrate travellers and provide them
with secure sites. Research shows that since the act there's been a
significant decline in the number of sites and the condition they're in.
"New sites have not been built and existing sites have fallen into
disrepair, which has led to more precarious lifestyles with travelling
people forced to move from place to place and camp on poor sites."
Mr Clements, a solicitor and lecturer, said that due to public hostility
and official indifference many official and unofficial sites are situated
on roadsides, near sewage works or tips. "The most worrying aspect is the
poor health of travelling children due to poor sanitation," he said.
"Only around half of the sites have clean water and there's a lot where you
can see raw sewage in puddles. I've come back from sites with a sore throat
for a week. They're effectively living in third world conditions. There's
also a high accident rate among the children due to the poor conditions,
especially those living next to busy roads."
One Traveller, called Mike, told SocietyGuardian.co.uk that a local council
had refused to let them use the septic tanks despite several children
falling ill. He said: "When we had the septic tanks cleaned the council got
an injunction to stop us using them. We have no proper showers. We've only
got running water because one of the local people who lives nearby has let
us attach a water meter to her supply."
Margaret Greenfields, a trustee of the Travellers Aid Trust, said that the
"appalling" conditions on unofficial sites were exacerbated by poor access
to healthcare. "Unofficial sites, particularly those on the roadside may
not get a regular postal delivery if at all," she said. "With the added
problem of poor adult literacy, missed appointments are common."
She said that she knew of cases where people had been turned away from GP
surgeries either due to negative stereotypes about the travelling community
or pressure from local authorities to deny them treatment. She said some
councils fear that if Travellers register with a doctor it will be harder
to move them on or to deny them planning permission.
"High maternal death rates are a serious problem among travelling people,"
said Ms Greenfields. "But if you can't access a GP how can you access
antenatal screening?" She said that there were a few isolated examples of
good practice, such as the National Association of Health Workers with
Travellers and a dedicated health visitor service. But she said health and
social care staff needed more training to improve the quality of care
provided to travelling communities.
"The main stereotype is you cannot work with them, they're going to be
non-compliant," said Ms Greenfields. "There are high levels of ignorance
and fear among care staff. A lot of it's based on fear. Social workers
think they will get attacked by dogs. They're worried about large numbers
of children wandering about, and think traveller people won't necessarily
be honest about their situation.
"I remember one case where a travelling family asked for help from the
local council for their daughter who was disturbed and kept running away.
The local authority wouldn't help them. They said: 'She's a traveller - of
course she'll run away'!"
Over the past four decades a series of small-scale studies has found that
the health and life expectancy of travelling people may be substantially
worse than that of the general population. Perhaps most worryingly,
researchers have repeatedly identified extremely high levels of infant
mortality and stillbirth.
Next month, the Department of Health (DoH) is due to publish a report on
the health of adult Gypsies and Travellers. The research, led by Professor
Glenys Parry at the University of Sheffield, should provide the first
comprehensive national picture of the community's health needs.
Sasha Barton blames the current dearth of information on the failure of
local officials to recognise Gypsies and Travellers as an ethnic group.
"Some people are aware that Romany Gypsies are an ethnic group but not
Irish Travellers," she said.
She hopes that the DoH research will provide health and social care
agencies with the information to provide more appropriate support to
Gypsies and Travellers.
"There are poor outcomes but no statistics that could provide the basis of
policy," she said. "There's a lot more to be done but we hope that the DoH
report marks the start of a more positive attitude towards meeting the
needs of travelling people."
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