The government’s response to a United Nations inquiry into the proposed mass eviction of Travellers in Dale Farm, Essex, has been condemned as inadequate and misleading.
In April 2010, the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rodnik, who reports to the UN’s Human Rights Council on states’ compliance with non-discrimination norms in housing, wrote to the British Ambassador to the UN about the proposed mass eviction of Gypsies and Travellers from land they own at Dale Farm, Essex. Her letter followed the May 2009 refusal by the Supreme Court to intervene in Basildon Council’s planned eviction, involving the UK’s largest Traveller community. The case also attracted the UN’s Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AFGE), which supported the Travellers’ plea to stay on their land.
In her letter, the Special Rapporteur reminded the Ambassador of the UK’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) not to carry out forced evictions and to ensure legal safeguards and human rights protection, including a home, for persons facing eviction. She questioned Basildon Council’s selection of the private bailiff company Constant and Co for the eviction, citing allegations that in evictions of Travellers elsewhere, bailiffs from the company had burned chalets and caravans and had racially abused residents, leading a High Court judge to criticise the Council for ‘inappropriately’ continuing to use the company. She also referred to the lack of any enforceable legal duty on local authorities to provide sites for Travellers.
The Special Rapporteur went on to request answers to a number of specific questions about the proposed evictions, including the number of people to be affected, whether appropriate consultations took place, and whether suitable and culturally adequate accommodation is to be provided and compensation offered to displaced residents. The Ambassador was given sixty days to respond.
Responsibility for drafting the reply was given to Andrew Stunell MP, the Communities and Local Government minister with responsibility for Gypsies and Travellers. His draft reply points out that ‘a significant part of the site has planning permission’ and that residents on that part do not face eviction, but accepts that about ninety families, comprising around 300 people, face eviction, and that Basildon Council have appointed Constant and Co to carry out the eviction despite the High Court’s criticism of the company. The draft letter claims that ‘the individual needs of each family will be considered before any eviction. Basildon DC is working with Essex County Council (the education and social services authority) and the South Essex Primary Care Trust (the health authority) to ensure any specific needs are addressed’. It also says that, in rehousing anyone made homeless by the eviction, the local authority would ‘have to take account of, among other factors, any cultural aversion to bricks and mortar accommodation. Where a homeless applicant has a mobile home and is homeless only for lack of a lawful site to place it and live in it, the local authority would be expected to try and find a suitable site, so far as possible’.
But according to Liberal peer Eric Avebury, the government’s draft reply ignores the endemic shortage of sites for Gypsies and Travellers in England, and while making much of the alleged illegality of the Travellers’ occupation, it fails to point out that the illegally occupied land is a former scrapyard, not a site of outstanding natural beauty. Nor does it address the acute medical and educational needs of residents, and the combination of local authority cuts and endemic prejudice which has eroded provision of specialist education and welfare services for Gypsy and Traveller children.
Lord Avebury points out that, contrary to the impression given by the minister’s letter to the Special Rapporteur, Basildon District Council has not offered residents they intend to evict any alternative sites. Although a number of sites were being looked at in confidential meetings with the government’s Homes and Communities Agency, including land formerly used as firing ranges by the Ministry of Defence, the Council pulled out of the meetings after the discussions were leaked to the press. Meanwhile, forty-seven per cent of Gypsies and Travellers in Essex are homeless, over twice the national average, and appeals are being lodged against decisions to offer the Dale Farm Travellers ‘bricks and mortar’ or nothing on eviction. The new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, has scrapped the targets for additional sites set by Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) and Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments (GTANA), leaving local authorities with no mechanism for allocating land for Gypsy and Traveller sites. To make matters worse, Pickles has proposed new powers for police to remove and arrest ‘criminal’ trespassers – measures which will compound the insecurity of Travellers forced into unauthorised ‘side-of-the-road’ sites by the eviction.
Avebury quotes the concern about evictions of Gypsies and Travellers expressed in the 2010 fourth periodic report of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), which refers to ‘an excessive emphasis on enforcement … [which] has been shown to damage race relations’. Since the minister refused to amend the draft reply to the Special Rapporteur in the light of his comments, Lord Avebury has written direct to the Special Rapporteur to correct what he sees as an inadequate and misleading government response.
Voices in the Gypsy and Traveller community say that, with no more legal sites planned and an increasingly draconian attitude to illegal sites, the government is set on the destruction of the Traveller identity and way of life.
On Thursday 2 December 2010, Tony Ball, head of Basildon Council, will update a full council meeting on the Dale Farm eviction operation. Read the letter that has been sent to all council members by Dale Farm campaigners here (pdf file, 52kb)
For information on the developments at Dale Farm, see Grattan Puxon’s blog