Two new reports, prepared by the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups (NFGLG), with the assistance of academic colleagues, ask hard questions of the coalition government.
The European Commission (EC) gave the UK government an ‘overall poor rating’ for the progress report it delivered in 2012 on its Roma integration strategy. The EC uses ‘Roma’ as an umbrella term and includes within it a wide range of communities including Gypsies and Travellers. Now two reports prepared by the NFGLG examine the lack of UK progress on Roma integration from the vantage point of those who are ‘experts by experience’. Taken together, they go a long way to explain why the UK is earning such a bad reputation in Europe. The authors have worked hard to marshal all the facts about the extreme vulnerability and marginalisation of the UK’s Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities. This is data that the Department for Communities and Local Government, having abandoned any targeted equalities strategy for BME communities in favour of a ‘mainstreaming approach’, have manifestly failed to gather. The reports, which were launched in October at a parliamentary meeting hosted by Andrew George, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsy Roma and Travellers, provide chapter and verse on the English government’s disappointing record – though the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales (but not Northern Ireland) fare better and are given due credit for establishing a higher baseline for Gypsy and Traveller inclusion.
What really stirs you about these two reports is that they are written in the methodical, factual language associated with academic or town hall reports, and yet still leave you burning with anger. The researchers are utterly conscientious in their approach, collating the facts of Roma marginalisation in five areas: discrimination, accommodation, education, health and employment. In difficult terrain, they have attempted to be positive and fair, identifying much good practice, particular in Wales which is the only one of the four nations to have drawn up a clear Roma Integration Strategy and a framework for action. Without anger or rhetoric, the facts work upon the reader, and build up into a comprehensive indictment of the coalition government’s sidelining of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The reports leave you frustrated.
Is this government incompetent (asleep on the job), indifferent (equalities just isn’t their thing) or is, the visceral hatred of Gypsies and Travellers, often expressed by Conservative councillors and voters in the shires, driving a harsh assimilationist agenda with the drivers cruelly unconcerned about the consequences of their crusade, particularly on the young and the elderly?
These are just a few of the questions that jump out of the pages.
1. National Roma Integration Strategy (NRIS): What is the government doing to respond to EC criticisms of its failure to set up proper mechanisms to monitor Roma integration? And what precisely is the ethos of the Ministerial Working Group on preventing and tackling inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers (note, Roma not included in the title), given that it didn’t even manage to meet the deadline established by the EU for the submission of its NRIS? (It later published a list of twenty-eight ‘proposed commitments’). It has just emerged that the Ministerial Working Group has not met since April 2012 and does not plan to do so in the near future. Can the government account for the fact that major streams of EU structural funding, from the Cohesion Fund and the European Social Fund, for instance, that are dedicated to disadvantaged groups, including the Roma, have failed to ‘trickle down’ into communities or make any real change to the quality of life of Travellers, Gypsies and Roma?
2. Ethnic monitoring: Gypsies and Travellers were included as an ethnic group for the first time in the 2011 census. Given this, why has the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) failed to recognise or categorise Gypsies and Travellers, let alone the Roma, as an ethnic minority. The DWP’s stance means that Gypsies, Travellers and Roma are not included in national data sets or research relating to ethnic groups? Why is the Department of Health still working on the sixteen ethnic minority categories of the 2001 census, ensuring that possible discrimination against Gypsy, Travellers and Roma is not monitored by the NHS in England and Wales? (Scotland fares better here.) And why has the Department of Education failed to include Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children within the criteria for the Pupil Premium which provides extra resources in schools to meet the needs of disadvantaged children?
3. Consultation on changes to the planning law: What is the agenda driving the government’s current consultation to change the definition of ‘Traveller’ within planning laws. This consultation is provoking consternation within Gypsy and Traveller communities who believe that the legal definition of Traveller as an ethnic group is under threat from the mechanical narrow definitions currently suggested by the government as part of this planning consultation.
Is it the same agenda that has led to a catastrophic decline in the number and quality of places and permanent sites and stopping places, not least through the impact of the Localism Act? It returned decisions on Traveller site provision to local authorities while removing the Regional Strategy Framework which outlined local authority duties in this respect, with the possibility of central government intervention and the setting of targets.
4. Scrap Metal Dealers Act (2013): What measures, if any, were taken to assess the possible discriminatory impact of the licensing of the scrap industry through the Scrap Metal Dealers Act (2013)? This has made it difficult for nomadic families who engage in such activities to continue their trade, given that each local authority now sets its own fee for licences thereby discriminating against those with a nomadic lifestyle who work across local authorities. Why is the government destroying the recycling component of the ‘travellers economy’, rather than enhancing it? Why doesn’t the government respond to the sensible request for a licence that can cover more than one district or borough?
5. Exploitation: What, if any, attention is the government paying to growing levels of exploitation of the Roma community, both from unscrupulous landlords and from discriminatory employers, gang-masters and recruitment agencies? Has the government considered that welfare benefit changes will have the perverse impact of forcing Roma into the hands of unscrupulous employers in the informal economy?
6. Education: Why has the government failed to recognise the vital work carried out by Traveller Education Support Services (TESS) and why is it so keen to repeal section 444 (6) of the 1996 Education Act which currently protects parents who remove their children from school from prosecution if their job requires them to travel? Is the government’s real intention to criminalise Traveller parents or force their children into home education, so Gypsy and Traveller kids won’t have an opportunity to mix with other kids? There is no evidence that the proposed repeal would increase the school attendance of nomadic travellers and all existing research shows that flexibility is the key to improving school outcomes.
7. Rights of the child: What is the Department of Education doing to address the fact that nine out of ten children from a Gypsy, Traveller or Roma background have suffered racial abuse and nearly two thirds have been bullied or physically attacked. How can a ‘mainstreaming’ approach that fails to recognise ‘ethnic need’, deal with a social reality whereby Gypsy and Traveller children are more likely to experience early death, poor childhood development and are over-represented in the 200,000 children living in poverty?
8. Health and life expectancy: What is the government doing to address the fact that life expectancy of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities is at least ten to twelve years less than general population? Will the government act now to investigate why these communities are using health services less than other groups, why some health agencies refuse to register them and will the government address concerns that some private companies, competing to win NHS contracts, may not include services to Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities? Also, can the NHS ensure that the data it provides on maternal deaths includes data on these communities? A current London review of maternal deaths, subsumed Gypsies and Travellers into the reporting category ‘white’.
Thanks to the NFGLG, we are in a better position to support Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities in their fight for respect and rights. Having posed the questions for us, it’s now up to all of us to press for answers.
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