Check out our last newsletter, which details all the fun and goings on from the last National Forum meeting in March!
Click HERE to read all about it!
Check out our last newsletter, which details all the fun and goings on from the last National Forum meeting in March!
Click HERE to read all about it!
Response to the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee inquiry into the general principles of the Housing (Wales) Bill. January 2014
1.1 The Travelling Ahead project, hosted by Save the Children, was established in 2009 with the aims of supporting and promoting the participation and rights of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children and young people to have say in decision making and influence services, policy and legislation which affect their day to day lives.
1.2 The project has supported the development of local Gypsy, Roma and Traveller youth forums and groups around Wales and hosts a twice yearly national forum for these young people to meet and work together on issues of shared concern alongside policy, training and advocacy work. For more information see our website www.travellingahead.org.uk
1.3 We are pleased to provide a response to this inquiry by the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee into the general principles of the Housing (Wales) Bill.
1.4 Our comments relate specifically to those new duties set out in Part Three of the Bill dealing with meeting the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in Wales.
To read the full response, click this PDF document: Travelling Ahead response Stage 1 Housing Wales Bill Jan 2014
So it’s been a while since I last updated you – it’s been a very busy time! On 19th October, our Travelling Ahead National Gypsy & Traveller Youth Forum met for the third time. The Forum was brilliant, despite the squeeze on jobs and finances, 8 of our 13 local forums were able to attend and seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves. The day focused on the Forum’s first major project, producing a film looking at negative media portrayal of Gypsies and Travellers. Over the summer we interviewed young people from across South Wales on this issue and the draft film which we showed the National Forum went down well. Having discussed a possible title, a few additions and some sound editing, the young people were ready to talk about launching it!
The National Forum Film launch
The film will be launched in a public area. This was decided because the whole idea of producing the film was to change the attitudes of the general public. In launching it publicly, we hope that passers-by will watch the new film (and some others from the Travelling Ahead project). We hope to be able to share the date and location of the screening next week, though I can say that it will be before Christmas. Young people at the National Forum said that they would really like the opportunity to talk to journalists about their film and some of the problems they face with negative media coverage. After the event we will offer journalists an opportunity to keep in touch with the project and give young people the opportunity to be media spokespeople on issues in future. We will also invite interested journalists to a training session in the new year.
One of the main reasons for the young people deciding to run this media project was because of bullying that they have faced as a result of high-profile programmes like Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Some of the young people we work with told us that the programme had increased, or even initiated, bullying – as seems to have happened across the UK. At the National Forum, one young person talked to us about particular problems they had had in their school in Blaenau Gwent. The problem stemmed from the school’s treatment of the slurs ‘pikey’ or ‘gyppo’. This young person is obviously outraged and wound up by other pupils using these insults, yet teachers are not treating them as racist terms on the same basis as other words used against other racial groups. This can often lead to retaliation from Gypsies and Travellers and expulsions. These groups have the highest rate of school exclusions of any groups in society, yet when the Children’s Commissioner for England investigated these exclusions they found that 100% of Gypsy and Traveller expulsions were overturned at appeal. We will be supporting this young person and the local Traveller Education staff to ensure that school staff are made fully aware of their responsibilities and provide equality for Gypsies and Travellers.
Full time vs Part time education – a false comparison
Another issue that was brought up at the National Forum was that of one local authority’s attempts to provide full time education for young Gypsies and Travellers in their area. Currently, a proportion of young people in that area attend a classroom outside of mainstream education for almost 20 hours per week. Save the Children fully supports the child’s right to an education and we are against the principle of segregated education. However, this classroom is a pragmatic solution to ensure that young people are able to receive some level of curriculum education in a culturally appropriate manner. The Council has decided to strictly maintain that these children need to enter full time mainstream education, rather than this part time provision. On the face of it, this seems sensible. However, in reality there are some major issues involved with this proposal. Firstly, the Council has entirely neglected to inform the parents and pupils of this proposal. Secondly, the choice is not between part time or full time provision. Families have chosen to send their children to school part time because they believe that the children also experience a far more relevant and culturally appropriate education at home or at work. The home learning is considered far more valuable than secondary education. Furthermore, the relationships that parents have built with specialist teachers are a major reason why these children attend the classroom. In mainstream education, these relationships may not exist. Therefore, it is far more likely that the choice will become full time education or no school education (after primary school). The young people approached us at the National Forum to ask for help. They want a full explanation about what is happening from the Council and they would like the Council to understand the impact that it will have on them. We will be writing a letter to the Council shortly. We believe that children must be consulted on decisions that affect them. We also believe in the child’s right to an education and will offer to work with the Council to understand the value of a classroom system as a temporary gateway for pupils into the mainstream education system. The Council also needs to understand and value the home learning environment and the Flexi-schooling guidelines set out by the Welsh Government.
There will be plenty of fallout from these issues and from various other aspects of the Travelling Ahead project over the coming months but the important thing is that young people are now approaching us through their National Forum and asking us to help them challenge inequality and racism. This can only be a healthy progression.
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.
The education of young people is a fundamental right that everyone should be able to expect, wherever they live and whoever they are. In Wales, we expect that children have access to adequate compulsory education until they are 16. Most people would expect this education to happen in the school environment. However, in practice there are approximately 1000 children in Wales educated at home, rather than in school. There is not a problem with this in theory as many parents simply believe that their children can get a better and more appropriate education outside the normal school system. In recent years though, Save the Children and education professionals have raised concerns with the Welsh Government about the monitoring and assessment of home schooling.
Educators from across Wales have become increasingly worried about the trend towards Gypsy and Traveller children being withdrawn from schools to be home educated. The source of the worry is that these educators know that some of the families who are pledging to home educate their children, have little education themselves. Furthermore, current regulations do not require Local Authorities (LAs) to have even annual meetings with home educators and parents to discuss what is being taught or learnt. Our concern is that some children are not receiving their right to an education and the current legal position allows it to happen without consequences. In reality, the vast majority of those who are home schooled probably receive a good standard of education but we are convinced that some children are withdrawn from school early and do not receive further education – sometimes from the age of 11.
The Travelling Ahead project raised these concerns, as part of the All-Wales Traveller Education Forum, with Leighton Andrews AM as much as two years ago. We are very pleased to see that the Welsh Government has indeed decided to consult on changes to the Elective Home Education system. The consultation suggests two major changes:
Firstly, all children who are to be home educated must be registered with the LA in the area they live in. Currently, providing accurate numbers of children in this situation can be difficult as there is no requirement on parents to notify the LA. If these changes are adopted, it will be the duty of parents to notify the LA and there will be a duty on the LA to keep an accurate formal register of home educated children. Crucially, if a parent fails to convince the LA that the child will be receiving an adequate education, the request to home educate can be refused.
Secondly, the LA must visit home educated children annually to monitor and assess the standard and appropriateness of the education they are receiving. There will be no requirement for home educated children to follow the curriculum or to undertake school assessments or exams. Again, if the visit fails to convince the LA that the child is receiving an adequate education, the home schooling arrangement can be revoked.
Save the Children welcomes these changes, though more work does need to be done by the Welsh Government to ensure that those monitoring the home education can properly assess the standard. The changes above may seem like common sense to many but until now these loopholes have existed to allow young people to effectively circumvent the Education Act 1994. Gypsies and Travellers will benefit from these changes as it is crucial that young people have access to education if they are to fulfil their potential. It is in the best interests of the majority of children to participate in the schooling process.
However, despite this progress, there are fundamental issues that still need to be addressed. The most relevant of which is, ‘why would Gypsy or Traveller parents want to withdraw their children from education?’
There are many reasons why this might happen but ultimately many make that decision because school is not seen as relevant or welcoming enough for their child to participate. We do still see bullying of young Gypsies and Travellers in our schools (especially after Big Fat Gypsy Weddings) but the lack of appreciation of these communities is perhaps more damaging. Gypsies are occasionally mentioned in passing during teaching of the Holocaust but there is little taught about the origins of these communities or their valuable contributions to agriculture and the industrial revolution as a mobile and willing workforce. When teaching about the slave trade it usually exclusively about the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, ignoring the Gypsies who have been repeatedly enslaved in Eastern Europe. There is also very little recognition of the cultural value of Gypsy and Traveller communities in twenty-first century society.
Many Gypsy and Traveller families we have spoken to simply don’t see the value of secondary education. The general belief is that if children can read, write and count to a basic level there isn’t often much need to complete formal education. GCSEs are rarely seen to be important if the young people have already been lined-up to takeover the family business. In fact, the consultation states that, “case law has broadly described suitable education as one that ‘primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child’s options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so‘.”
It is that last section which educators and Save the Children are keen to stress. There is nothing wrong with Gypsy and Traveller families providing home education, or planning for a future without the need for GCSEs or other qualifications. However, even the best laid plans often go awry and it is crucial that these young people are able to have a back-up plan when it is needed.
Save the Children will continue to monitor developments and update the blog accordingly. If you would like to comment on the consultation, you can do by following this link:
Save the Children welcomes the Welsh Government’s Homes for Wales White Paper, as it promotes equality of opportunity for all and seeks to ensure that children have a good standard of living to allow them to fulfil their potential. We are particularly pleased to note the proposed introduction of a duty on local authorities to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites where there is need (henceforth referred to as ‘the duty’). Save the Children has worked with these communities in Wales since the 1970s and the importance of access to Gypsy and Traveller sites has always been of paramount importance. Through good quality sites, children and young people are better able to access education, healthcare, youth and community facilities, and become more integrated into society, which will benefit everyone in Wales.
In the process of writing this consultation response, we spoke to key organisations and individuals working with these communities and spoke directly to 47 community members. Their comments and thoughts are included throughout this submission and as Appendix 1.
Through our Travelling Ahead project, we often talk to children and families who have been made homeless by the lack of Gypsy and Traveller sites in Wales. Ensuring that local authorities are obligated to provide sites for their Gypsy and Traveller residents will go some way towards this legislation’s stated aims of “[preventing] homelessness from happening in the first place” and “[ending] family homelessness by 2019,” amongst these communities.
Para 17(ii), referring to the proposed introduction of a statutory duty to provide sites for Gypsy and Traveller communities, is extremely welcome and necessary. Since 1994, Save the Children and other organisations have campaigned with, and on behalf of, Gypsies and Travellers to have this duty re-introduced (it was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994).
During our consultation sessions in preparation for writing this submission, 100% of Gypsies and Travellers thought that this duty needs to be introduced.
However, some respondents expressed concerns over the wording, “where there is evidence of a clear need for new sites.” These families asked how the Welsh Government will check that local authorities are producing robust monitoring procedures to capture this evidence. Furthermore, some respondents worried that even if this evidence was compiled, local authorities would simply fail to find adequate and available land for Gypsy and Traveller sites.
Many respondents expressed their doubts that the reinstatement of ‘the duty’ on its own will actually lead to an improvement in the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites in Wales, though they all agreed that the reintroduction was necessary if more sites were to be built. As stated in the consultation response from the Community Law Partnership, the existence of a similar duty between 1968-1994 did lead to 350 new sites across the UK that probably wouldn’t otherwise exist. However, during that period and since, demand has outstripped supply. There are already hundreds of homeless Gypsy and Traveller families in Wales, with a projected population growth of around 4% per annum. Therefore, without swift action to address this shortfall, the situation will continue to deteriorate.
Some of the Gypsies and Travellers we consulted asked why the White Paper does not consider consequences for local authorities who fail to make adequate provision for some of their most vulnerable and socially excluded citizens. Opinion was split between whether local authorities who fail to provide the necessary sites should be taken to court or have their decisions overturned by central government. It may be possible that court proceedings would be initiated under Equalities legislation or that the National Planning Inspectorate be given the power to overrule planning permission refusals in local authorities where evidenced need has not been met.
Save the Children believes that the re-introduction of ‘the duty’ is crucial for the cohesion of Welsh communities. However, it is just as important that the Welsh Government does all it can to ensure that local authorities provide the necessary increase in sites. The Caravan Sites Act 1968 previously introduced this duty, before it was repealed in 1994, but it took many years of local authority inaction before sites began to be built. Without appropriate punitive measures against local authorities that fail to provide sites, we fear that this may happen again. The Welsh Government must establish a mechanism for the enforcement of ‘the duty,’ if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and prevent the current stalemate around Gypsy and Traveller site provision within the LDP process.
Save the Children is aware of several current cases where families are forced into a cycle of evictions due to the failure of local authorities to provide necessary sites. Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs assessments across Wales have identified pitch shortfalls, yet LDPs fail to find the necessary land for site development. In North Wales, the accommodation needs assessment has yet not been adopted despite being completed in 2011. In other counties, families have been evicted from entire areas to prevent future illegal encampments, despite their children being enrolled in local schools and GPs. Local residents’ ‘Action Groups’ are regularly set up and championed by local authority Councillors to oppose suggested Gypsy or Traveller sites. It is against this backdrop that ‘the duty’ will be introduced. Without enforcement of ‘the duty’, it is likely that local authorities will continue this impasse.
There will always be need for some publicly provided sites, as not all Gypsies or Travellers have the means to buy their own land and develop a site. However, in addition to social sites, as provided and maintained by the local authority, many Gypsies and Travellers would prefer to live on small, privately-owned sites. As the consultation response from Wrexham Citizens Advice Bureau explains, these families face an extremely difficult task obtaining planning permission for this usage. The Welsh Government should work with local authorities to ensure that these families are provided with support when choosing the location of their sites to ensure the maximum chance of obtaining planning permission.
The White Paper states that the Welsh Government will make a “concerted effort” to, “identify surplus public land and buildings that could be utilised for other purposes. This includes the development of a database of publicly-owned land.” The Welsh Government should consider using this land for Gypsy and Traveller sites within local authorities who fail to meet the need for appropriate accommodation.
Save the Children applauds the Welsh Government’s recognition that providing adequate and appropriate homes is of paramount importance for all young people. The paper itself rightly states that, “for children, a home is vital for health and for their development before and during formal education. Poor housing can have a significant impact upon what they achieve, which in turn affects their prospects and the opportunities they have throughout their lives.” Surprisingly, the White Paper makes no mention of the Welsh Government’s own Travelling to a Better Future: Framework for Action, which also states the need for Gypsy and Traveller sites across Wales.
In addition to our work around the need for Gypsy and Traveller sites, we are increasingly concerned about the housing conditions experienced by Roma migrants. We have been given anecdotal evidence that the problems of overcrowding and rogue landlords – as outlined in the White Paper – particularly apply to these communities in South Wales. Therefore, we are pleased to note Welsh Government’s commitment to legislate for “a national, mandatory, registration and accreditation scheme for private landlords, letting and management agents based on agreed Codes of Practice, and ensure every tenant has a written tenancy agreement.” Roma families arriving in Wales are likely to view substandard conditions as an improvement on their previous circumstances, and as such, monitoring needs to be undertaken to ensure that these families report rogue landlords. Education workers and Health Visitors are crucial professionals who can help to identify potential issues around accommodation through the home visits they undertake. These professionals have shared concerns about overcrowded, damp, and poor quality housing that children are growing up living in. Save the Children is particularly concerned about the health impacts that these children are likely to suffer in this environment, preventing them from fulfilling their potential.
The White Paper also features a section relating to Fuel Poverty but makes no mention about how it relates to Gypsies and Travellers living on caravan sites. During our consultation process, we asked nine Gypsies and Travellers if they thought they used more than 10% of their income on fuel for heating. All of them said that this was comfortably the case, all estimating that they spent at least 20% of their income on gas bottles for their trailers.
As we know, children can suffer serious health impacts from living in cold conditions including Asthma and other respiratory illnesses. We also know that educational achievement and mental health can be affected by living in these conditions. Yet Gypsies and Travellers do not seem to be included in measures designed to address Fuel Poverty. These families struggle in a similar way to rural households as they can not access mains gas. However, whilst the White Paper seems to suggest a greater emphasis on insulation will address the problem of Fuel Poverty, it is difficult to see how caravans can be insulated enough to prevent these families having to spend such a large percentage of their income to keep their children warm.
Save the Children is also pleased to see that the Welsh Government intends to remove the intentionality test for families with children. In the past, Gypsy and Traveller families have been omitted from homelessness application processes because they have been deemed to have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’. This change is a very positive step for the right of children to a good enough standard of living, as these children will not be evicted with little prospect of stable and appropriate accommodation.
We are, however, concerned about the practicalities of the new ‘homelessness solutions’ duty. Although around 60% of Gypsies and Travellers live in bricks and mortar housing, the vast majority of community members we work with have expressed their desire to live in trailers. Many families have moved into bricks and mortar for the benefit of sick or elderly relatives, or to ensure that their children can receive a stable education. In addition, some families have accepted bricks and mortar when faced with the alternative cycle of evictions from unauthorised encampments. All Gypsies and Travellers resident on unauthorised encampments are statutorily homeless and, as such, subject to this homelessness duty. The White Paper seems to suggest that local authorities will be able to offer bricks and mortar accommodation to these families, rather than the preferred Gypsy or Traveller site. If this offer is refused, the White Paper suggests that families would no longer be eligible for support under the homelessness duty, sacrificing the family’s right to social housing. This is despite some Gypsy and Traveller families experiencing a “cultural aversion to housing.”
Furthermore, the White Paper states that, “if a period of six months expires without a housing solution being achieved, the local authority would need to accept a statutory homelessness application.” However, this statement does not make it clear how this would relate to Gypsy and Traveller families living on unauthorised encampments. The encampment itself, given that all other sites in the local authority were full or unavailable, would show that there is need for Gypsy and Traveller sites but if the local authority fails to identify land for a new site, this family may remain on an unauthorised site for six months. Once that time expires, the White Paper suggests that the application must be accepted by the local authority, and therefore, a new site built.
Save the Children welcomes the Welsh Government’s Homes for Wales Housing White Paper and its recommendations around improvements to the housing system, the statutory duty to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites, preventing family homelessness, setting standards for the private and public rented sector, and the new homelessness duty.
Parents and children who we consulted, especially about ‘the duty’, fundamentally agreed and supported the Welsh Government’s plans to reform the housing sector in this way. Some of their thoughts and comments are summarised in Appendix 1.
 Reference to Clarke vs Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, 2002. More information here: http://www.lgtu.org.uk/Gypsies,%20Travellers%20aversion%20to%20conventional%20housing%20Johnson%20-%20LGTF.pdf
For more information about the Travelling Ahead project and the situation facing young Gypsies and Travellers in Wales, please visit www.travellingahead.org.uk or contact us on the details at the top of this document.
About Save the Children
Save the Children works in more than 120 countries. We save children’s lives. We fight for their rights. We help them fulfil their potential.
In the UK Save the Children works to ensure that the rights of children are protected, promoted and respected in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and other international human rights instruments. We believe no child should have their childhood experiences or life chances damaged by living in poverty.
Consultation responses – the need for ‘the duty’
“There aren’t enough sites for Gypsy people. It means young people could continue to live in trailers,” Roseanne; “There should be more sites,” Caitlin, 12, and Tiffany, 9; “Yes, more sites because we have nowhere to go,” Montana; “Yes, as the children grow up they will have nowhere to live otherwise,” Conn; “Yeah, there should be more. More transit sites mean that we can continue ‘Gypsy Ways’,” Tony, Jim and Mary; “Gypsies should be able to have their say in life, they have rights”; “Yes you should make this happen because it’s our culture,” Chelsea, 12; “Yes, I think it is a good idea that the council develops more sites,” Gethyn; “Yes, because we are all the same and need to live somewhere,” Terry, 16;”Yes it is a good idea,” Johnny, 21; “To legalise a site is a really good idea. I support it and I hope it will happen sooner than later. If people don’t have to live an illegal lifestyle is it better for the whole society,” Bridget, 19; “Yes you should do it,” Katie, 14; “Yes, because they need sites,” Lizzy, 14; “I think sites should be provided for Gypsy Travellers because they would have somewhere to live legally. This would prevent them living on other peoples’ land illegally,”; “Yes because we need more space and rights,” Ruby, 12; “Yes there should be more sites,” Kelly; “Yes we definitely need more sites in Wales,” Courtney; “Yes because it would give more room,” Sam; “Yes because there aren’t enough places to live,” Lala, 15; “Yes, the culture of living on a site as a community is important to British culture”; “Yes because family are around on sites,” Chantelle, 16; “Yes, even though I like it better in a house”; “Yes we need planning permission for Travellers’ yards”; “Yes because there are more people in the community and this would give us more places to travel,” Chelsea, 12; “Yes because there’s not many Travellers living on sites cause there isn’t room for them to live anywhere,” Sam, 15; “Yes! There should be more sites!!” Fallon; “Yes, I do think there should be more Gypsy and Traveller sites,” Naomi, 13; “Yes we do need more sites in Wales for our children’s future,” Cherene; “I think the government is doing the right thing on proposing more Gypsy sites in Wales because there is an urgent need for them,” Ruby; “Yes, and why? Because we won’t have anywhere to live!” Courtney, 14; “Yes because it’s Travellers’ rights and family can stay together”; “Yes, I think it is a good idea because we won’t have to stop on sides of roads,” Levi, 13; “Yes there will be less people roaming around and the police called,” Sal, 15.
What should happen if local authorities still don’t provide sites?
The following responses were made:
“Welsh Government should force them,” Roseanne; “Councils should get fined,” Tiffany; “Councillors should be sacked or fined,” Caitlin; “They should be sued”; “Welsh Government will force them,” Conn; “They should be sued for racism,” Tony, Jim and Mary.
Why is it important to have sites?
The following responses were made:
“Because we were brought up to be Gypsy,” Tiffany; “Because we want to travel,” Caitlin; “The Gypsy Ways – our life is disappearing”; “I like to travel”; “It’s important for our children,” Tony, Jim and Mary; “I was born into this life and I want it to continue,” Conn.
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?
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.
It seems to have been a long week since I got back from Brussels. Benjamin Franklin once famously said that, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Benjamin clearly hadn’t heard about Travelling Ahead because if he had, he’d have added that it’s also certain that Travelling Ahead will be ridiculously busy! In the last 7 days, i’ve been helping to organise a National Assembly for Wales Cross-Party Group looking at the health inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, training police officers, visiting families living in deliberatly squalid conditions (we’ll come back to that), and trying to make some progress on the transition of the Travelling Ahead project to a suitable new ‘host’.
For the last week i’ve been deliberating over a blog entry about something that bothered me when I watched the first episode of Thelma’s Gypsy Girls last Wednesday. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it is Firecracker Films’ latest attempt to cash in on their Big Fat Gypsy Weddings success. The specific annoyance was with the quote that Thelma was “giving back” to the community that “made” her. From my point of view, these programmes have certainly made Thelma but she certainly wasn’t giving any dignity or respect back to the Irish Travellers who participated in the episode that I watched. From the point that she addressed her existing staff to let them know the “bad news”: that she would be employing Travellers, her real intention was obvious. Money.
The programme showed us around Thelma’s gigantic house, complete with indoor swimming pool, and it made me think about the vast inequality between her and some of the families that Travelling Ahead works with. On Monday, I visited a site in Carmarthenshire where families are having to put up with living in terrible conditions. The entrance to the site constantly suffers from fly-tipping of fridges, sofas etc. Many of the trailers on the site have had their windows put through – the remnants of disagreements with the current site owner. Used car tyres are stacked up inside the vacant trailers, a vain attempt by families to clean up after rogue ‘tyre recycling’ firms dumped them on the site. Some of the utility blocks leak raw sewage as the landlord fails to maintain them properly. Worst of all, a pile of asbestos was dumped on site in April. Despite contacting the local Council and the landlord, the asbestos was not cleared until last week – three months later. That is despite the fact that it was only stored under a standard taurpaulin, weighed down by a spare tyre, and situated directly opposite a family with three young children. The family I spoke to on site talked about their loss of faith in the system and their loss of will – they admitted that they almost gave in to the landlord who would love to see them leave. As I mentioned earlier, this site is DELIBERATELY squalid. That’s because the landlord would like to raze the site to the ground and build a new Retirement Village, a growth industry right now.
So Thelma Madine and Firecracker Films have both recently moved to plush new premises – the latter opening a California office – whilst Gypsies and Travellers continue to suffer from a lack of new sites, or quality existing sites. As much as those like Thelma talk about “giving back” to the community that made her rich, she has made a programme that sets out to deliberately ridicule the young people taking part rather than dealing with the serious issues that stop these families really participating in society. In Wales alone, we have hundreds of families in need of sites.
Today, one mother spoke openly and honestly at the Cross-Party Group on Gypsies and Travellers about her disaffection from any kind of public engagement in future because “we’ve spoken at meetings like these, we’ve done all the talking but nothing ever gets done.” And she is right, the site she lives on has been earmarked for development for decades. Yet, we’re still no closer to helping these families to live somewhere that they can be sure will not severely impact on their child’s health. The site in question is in Cardiff, a stone’s throw from the National Assembly for Wales, yet when Save the Children took the United Nations Special Rapporteur to the site in 2009 she was absolutely shocked with the conditions. In the intervening three years conditions have only really deteriorated. Imagine waking up on a site where the children play just meteres away from an eroding estuary bank, directly next to a water treatment plant, opposite an iron works, and directly on top of landfill. Furthermore, to get off the site to any community facilities you’re faced by an extremely busy road but no pedestrian crossings, pavements, or street lighting. If that isn’t enough, the walk to the nearest school would require navigating through a busy industrial estate.
If you wonder why people like me are disappointed to see programmes like Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, it’s because they choose to ignore the human cost associated with social exclusion and instead decide to focus on sensational costumes or swearing on camera. I don’t doubt that Firecracker Films would say that they are producing what the public want to see but these communities are being exploited. As these film-makers continue to live in the lap of luxury, families up and down the country are dealing with mould-filled utility blocks, asbestos fly-tipping, and pollution. Nice to see these friends of these communities “giving something back.”
For more on the exploitation of Gypsies and Travellers by Firecracker Films, see here:
So, I find myself in Brussels awaiting the arrival of the Pembrokeshire youth forum and their indefatigable super-teacher Bev Stephens! I had set out this evening with the best intentions of reading piles of documents about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities from across Europe in anticipation of the meetings i’ll be attending tomorrow but after 15 pages, that’s about all my brain could take. Instead, I started the ‘light’ reading I brought with me – ‘The Spirit Level‘ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.
It’s one of those books that i’ve intended to read for months and months but having spotted it on a colleague’s desk on Friday, and knowing that i’d have at least 10 hours on trains during this trip, I finally obtained a copy! No sooner had I sat down to read it this evening than I realised i’d got through 150 pages – for me, that’s an achievement. What was the key to my interest?
Too often when you’re working with minority communities it is easy to lose track of the big picture. Instead, you end up reading piles of documents about those specific communities. The great thing about ‘The Spirit Level‘ is that the underpinning thesis – that inequality leads to most social ills – predicts the conclusions to those reports I failed to read tonight. Gypsies, Roma and Travellers – like all disadvantaged groups in society – will continue to suffer worse outcomes until this inequality is dealt with on a wider level. Much of the discrimination and poor outcomes they face are a symptom of the wider structure of our society.
In fact, the argument about inequality stretches far enough to include the negative attitudes many from these communities hold towards wider society. Chapter 10 begins with a stark warning from history to those who want to pay lip service to GRT inclusion, from Frederick Douglass, the emancipated African-American slave (1886), :
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organised conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
An evening well spent.