Travelling Ahead : A Welsh project working with young people from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

The Calm Before The Storm

Tag Archive: Human Rights

  1. The Calm Before The Storm

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    It is exactly twelve months ago this Friday that the eviction of Dale Farm shocked many members of the public, Human Rights organisations and Gypsies and Travellers alike. In its wake, the UK Coalition government has been stirring up populist feeling with increasingly hostile policies and rhetoric aimed at Gypsies and Travellers. In Wales, however, things have been very different indeed. Where the Department for Communities and Local Government have clamped down on planning policies, Gypsy and Traveller site funding, and pitch creation targets in England, the Welsh Government have done almost the polar opposite.

     

    Deep in the bowels of the Welsh Government, legislation and policies are being formulated to reinstate the duty on local authorities to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites, to ensure that residents of local authority sites are finally afforded equal security of tenure with other social housing tenants (though this was actually achieved in England in 2011), to revise the guidance relating to unauthorised encampments, and various education changes to ensure Gypsy and Traveller children achieve an adequate education.

     

    For all these steps forward, it is sometimes frustrating to see the sheer time it can take to implement changes. Part of this is the impatient youth in me having met families suffering through the absence of these policies but it is also a growing, nagging, sense that the longer these changes take to adopt the stronger the populist voice of the UK Government is felt. Already I have heard comments in meetings about concerns over creating “too attractive” an atmosphere in Wales for Gypsies and Travellers, for fear of creating “another Dale Farm”. Rather worryingly, some of those making these comments are supposedly those representing the Human Rights of protected groups such as Gypsies and Travellers.

     

    No matter how ridiculous the “another Dale Farm” statement may sound to you or I, it is certainly an opinion that is gaining ground. In Wales (though i’m sure it’s true also of the other devolved administrations), there is also a fear of being too much out on a limb. Small deviations from Westminster policy is often seen as a source of pride but compounding differences, say through a collection of more compassionate policies, can be seen as dangerous. Though I do not think we will see any of these developing policies being scrapped or shelved, we should all be watchful that the detail does not mask new inequalities or provide convenient get-out clauses for public authorities who have historically made frequent use of them.

     

    Looking back at Dale Farm twelve months ago, many of us hoped it wouldn’t happen again but felt that the political will and legislation wasn’t there to prevent a reoccurance. Over the next twelve months we will hopefully have the legislative infrastructure in place in Wales but we will still need to grapple with the thorny issue of political will. We all know that political will mirrors public opinion, for obvious reasons. Therefore, we either have to convince politicians to go out on that limb and hope that public opinion changes to reward their gamble or we need to substantially change public opinion first.

     

    At our last National Forum event in March, one young man from Flintshire asked me “what will this forum actually achieve, for me, in my area? It’s all good to talk about the media and changing things but will it stop the people in my school calling me a pikey?”  In all honesty, I think this is likely to be a generational change, which will require a collection of inspired young Gypsies and Travellers to take the issue forward themselves, a cadre of commited Human Rights advocates and activists, the legislation that is being introduced over the next year to encourage a proliferation of small sites able to access local services and the resulting generation of the general public who grew up with, or near, Gypsies and Travellers. Only then will the public realise that, actually, their communities are just like any other – good and bad in every one. Our next National Forum will take place on Friday, where I hope we can go some way towards inspiring that next generation of Gypsies and Travellers to self-advocate for their rights and to get engaged with making those necessary changes. Is there an easy fix? No, but find me a Civil Rights struggle that was easy.

  2. Banished

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    Sitting in this family’s immaculate trailer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were being hosted in a show-home. However, in place of the all-smiles salesman sit Mr & Mrs Clark (not their real names) with worry and frustration on their faces. Worry because they’re living on an unauthorised encampment – their fourth in the last 12 months. Frustration because here they are talking to me, yet logic and reason has not helped them thus far.

    Mr & Mrs Clark have 5 children, all under 10 years of age. Those of primary age are all enrolled in the local school but were busy enjoying their summer holidays freedom when I arrived (despite the terrible weather). All too often people will tell me how Travellers don’t go to school. Well, some Travellers certainly don’t but in this case you couldn’t be further from the truth. Mr Clark has photographs showing the two generations before him attending the local school, just as he did, and just as his children do now. The Clark family are amongst the most genuinely nomadic families that I have worked with as they will often travel from Ireland, across South Wales, and into England to visit family for illness, funerals or marriages. However, they always return to their home, which currently consists of an unused cul-de-sac on a quiet business park in South Wales.

    The family have sealed papers on a shelf behind them as we talk. After 45 minutes of discussion about their children’s welfare and the need for stable accommodation, they ask if i’d like to see them. They break the seal and pass them over. Instinctively, I know what this means – “will you read them for us?” I ask if they’d like me to explain what I think the papers say and the couple agree. Very quickly it became apparent to me that these aren’t the kind of papers that you keep sealed on a shelf – they are papers that relate to eviction proceedings.

    “…the hearing with take place at 2:30pm on the 30th July 2012…” – a quick glace at the date on my watch – “…that’s the day before yesterday,” I say. My colleague rings the court. The injuction was indeed approved in court during the alloted time, no doubt the case against the family strengthened by their non-appearance in court. This family had no idea that court proceedings had even begun yet eviction action could be taken any day now.

    Worse, the whole district of the city that they are living in has been covered by the injunction, meaning that the family’s 5 children will now be forced to find a new school in September. This is the 4th generation of the Clark family that has attended this school yet that counts for little. In effect, if the family return to this area of the city they will be liable for prosecution and jail time. The family have been banished. The worry and frustration has intensified but at least they now have a measure of the beast that moves in the dark corridors of County Hall.

    This local authority regularly says that by providing one site for Gypsies and Travellers, they are “doing their bit.” What is rarely discussed is that this existing site is full and only has 7 pitches for trailers. As a result, many families are pushed around the county limits by eviction after eviction. Other local authorities in Wales are also repeat offenders of this kind but this latest eviction has highlighted the methods that will be used if no-one is looking.

    This family has been slighted. These proceedings have been quick, harsh, coincided with the summer holidays when teachers – the family’s usual point of contact within the council are on leave – and operated without the family’s knowledge or understanding. There is no point delivering legal papers to a family that can’t read them. That is, unless they aren’t meant to be read.

    Ultimately, the Clark family is living on land that doesn’t belong to them so possession actions are to be expected. However, no one has sufficiently answered the question of where this family is supposed to go now. With 5 young children, no running water, no toilets, and the children’s link to education now due to be severed, won’t this do more harm than good? My concern is that repeated evictions and setting up home in unsuitable / dangerous locations in future threaten the development of these children and, furthermore, influence these young citizens to feel that society doesn’t value them. Ask yourself, how does that scenario benefit anyone?

    John

  3. The Olympics Legacy – Forgotten Families?

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    Tomorrow, Cardiff stages the first events of the Olympic Games 2012. Sitting here watching the Olympics security operation and the logo-clad lamp-posts, it would be extremely difficult to forget about the sporting spectacle that is about to be unleashed on the UK. The world media’s cameras are firmly pointed at London for the next few weeeks but there is a hidden story that most athletics-enthusiasts will miss this summer.

    During the Dale Farm eviction and its aftermath, the public and media have often debated where Gypsies and Travellers should live, rarely reaching any meaningful conclusions. The problem generally centres around these communities struggling to achieve planning permission to legally pitch their trailers. But what happens when Gypsies and Travellers already have planning permission and own land that Councils wish to use for other purposes? Compulsory Purchase Orders.

    The Olympic village today sits on a site that was, until 2005, called Clays Lane. Back in Singapore, 2005, when London was read out as the host for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games there was no immediate connection to what this would mean for this forgotten area of London. In time, it meant that the Gypsy site at Clays Lane was bought by Compulsory Purchase Order and the family forced to live in a gigantic building site for years. The family was eventually given a new site in Newham but only after successive delays and impacts on health.

    Lisa, one of the former Clays Lane residents said, “We’ve been four and a half years now living on Europe’s biggest building site. I’m 36, and I feel 100. I’m out of breath. Two minutes after you’ve cleaned it’s dusty again. Kids round here have developed asthma. The stress has been unbelievable. Just for two weeks of sport. I was happy about London getting the Olympics, but we haven’t been treated right as a community. They wouldn’t have done it to any other people. No-one’s even offered us a free ticket.”

    Even now, these families have only been given temporary planning permission at their new location. That’s on a site which the residents say wasn’t built to a decent standard. These families had a home, a permanent home, which was taken away from them. The Olympics 2012 has cost the UK taxayer £9 billion but no-one thought to find these families somewhere to stable to live as part of that huge budget.

    Time and again, especially during a recession, families are told that there simply isn’t the budget to provide the amount of Gypsy or Traveller sites required. That is despite the fact that you can house families cheaper on sites than you can in bricks and mortar; that the cost of building sites is less than clearing and policing illegal encampments; or that billions can be found for the right kind of expenditure. The lack of sites is not a finance issues, it is a policy decision.

    I am hopeful that the Welsh Government’s proposed Housing Bill, with its duty on local authorities to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites, will start to arrest this policy but only time will tell. If you’re able to respond to the Welsh Government’s consultation on this bill, please do so here.

    To find out more about the Clays Lane site from the residents who lived there, you can read this New Statesman blog from last week.

    John