The Conservatives today publish unworkable plans for dealing with the highly sensitive issue of unauthorized Gypsy and Traveller sites by giving police a power of arrest for intentional trespass. They also mean to dispose of Human Rights protection, missing the point that backing down on rights for unpopular groups means that the prospects would also be minimized for others, such as the elderly in social care.
The proposals miss another point, for as many councils have demonstrated, these explosive situations are capable of small-scale solution in ways which relieve community tensions and ensure Gypsy and Traveller communities have access to basic health and education services.
The measures councils are taking also save money. Councils currently spend £18 million annually on evicting Gypsies and Travellers from unauthorised sites, yet case studies demonstrate the benefits of sufficient legal site provision and the creation of trust: council spending on evictions drops, in one instance from £200,000 to £5000 annually; Council Tax paid by Gypsies and Travellers creates a revenue source.
Human rights issues are presented in Conservative policy as the flaw in the current system, yet experts tell us that most Gypsy and Traveller planning decisions are made on planning grounds, not on a human rights basis.
But the real human rights issue is much harder edged: the life experience and life expectancy of these communities is hard to disregard once you have the information, for Gypsies and Travellers are among the most deprived groups in Britain in terms of access to healthcare and education. This remains true despite the efforts of successive governments. Health is poor – estimates have put average life expectancy as low as 50 years – and Gypsy and Traveller children have the poorest outcomes of any group in success at GCSE level. Gypsy and Traveller mothers are 20 times more likely than the rest of the population to have experienced the death of a child.
These needs are best met on authorized sites, which can be established with the good will of settled communities provided the ground work is done to build good relationships. Many local authorities have been leading the way on this too, establishing well managed sites that allow communities to live together and follow their respective lifestyles without conflict.
Forcible removal of people from sites does not solve the problem of their accommodation or welfare. It is most probable that these proposals will cost local authorities more money and simply promote conflict and force movement with little chance of making a positive difference. Some people need to have a group to blame and these policy proposals will feed their prejudices. Conservative councils are amongst those modeling a positive approach and it will be unfortunate if their experience is ignored by the approach taken as a result of this policy paper.