The Gypsy and Traveller communities of the UK frequently crash into the headlines following incidents such as that at Dale Farm. These high profile evictions and the media storms that surround them are symptomatic of a broader underlying problem in British society. There have been Gypsies in Britain for 500 years, but settled and travelling communities have yet to find a way of living together.
A solution will be difficult to find; the rights and interests of these minorities must be carefully weighed against those of the settled communities they live alongside. Careful debate and consideration will not be achieved until the racism and discrimination faced by Gypsies and Travellers is challenged.
The position of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK provides ample evidence that something needs to change. In 2009, life expectancy for Gypsies and Travellers was ten years lower than the national average. Rates of infant mortality were 20 times higher. This is the lowest life expectancy and highest child mortality rate of any ethnic group in the UK. The situation with regards to education is little better. In 2003, less than a quarter of Gypsy and Traveller children obtained five A*-C grade GCSEs compared to a national average of over half. There is clearly a problem.
Any attempt to deal with the issue has been hampered by widespread and deep-rooted prejudice towards Gypsies and Travellers. Both the European Court of Human Rights and the UN have drawn attention to the discrimination these minorities face in the UK. The former Commission for Racial Equality concluded that being a Gypsy or Traveller in twenty-first century Britain is analogous to being a black American in the deep south of the 1950s, such is the level of racism.
There is strong evidence of prejudice in the criminal justice system, immigration authorities, health care provision, education, and planning authorities. The most basic life chances of Gypsies and Travellers are jeopardised by the toleration of bullying in schools, which leads many children to drop out, and by the frequent refusals of NHS practices to register Gypsies and Travellers as patients.
Institutional discrimination reflects widespread public prejudice. A MORI poll in 2003 found that a third of people admitted personal prejudice towards Gypsies and Travellers. In polite conversation, racism towards Gypsies and Travellers is accepted in a way that it would not be towards other groups. The press reflects and reinforces these attitudes. Controversial encampments and incidences of criminality are given disproportionate coverage, whilst leaders of travelling communities a rarely given a platform from which to respond. In general, a stereotyped image is presented of Gypsies and Travellers as dirty, work-shy and criminal.
This stereotype is just that: a stereotype. It does not reflect reality. This is not to deny that Gypsies and Travellers commit crimes and have untidy sites. Some do, just as some settled people break the law, and have untidy gardens. As with any ethnic group, particular incidents cannot be generalised to the community as a whole. There is no evidence that rates of crime are higher among Gypsies and Travellers than the settled community. Gypsies are all but invisible in official statistics: they have only been identified in the census for the first time this year. However, studies that have been carried out, mostly looking at the impact of Gypsies and Travellers within one community, have uniformly concluded that rates of crime did not rise as a result of the presence of these groups and that local settled communities found that their fears before the arrival of the Gypsies and Travellers were largely unfounded.
Despite the dearth of evidence, the stereotyped image of Gypsies and Travellers remains socially acceptable. Emma Nuttall of Friends Families and Travellers, a non-profit organisation, describes prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers as “the last bastion of socially acceptable racism”. A brief trawl through the tabloid press makes it abundantly clear that this is the case. Racial stereotyping and overt hostility is levelled at Gypsies and Travellers that would not be accepted were it directed at other ethnic groups. The traits of a few are generalised to all Gypsies and Travellers in a way that is no longer considered acceptable with other minorities.
These attitudes stifle debate and fuel opposition to any government policy or even charity that seeks to improve the position of Gypsies and Travellers. In 2010 Children in Need was roundly criticised for giving money to a charity initiative providing education to Gypsy children. The negative effects of popular hostility on Gypsy and Traveller communities is perhaps most apparent in opposition to the provision of official caravan sites. There is thought to be a shortage of between 2,000 and 4,500 sites for Gypsies and Travellers. This shortfall forces many into illegal encampments which both denies them access to vital services and further strains relations with settled communities. The shortage of sites is frequently identified as the most significant factor contributing to the poor life chances of Gypsies and Travellers.
Tackling these problems in a fair and effective way demands a careful balancing of the interests of settled and travelling communities. This is not helped by prejudice and racism. Accommodating minorities with very different lifestyles and values to the majority is complex both morally and practically. But Gypsies and Travellers have been in the UK for hundreds of years and they will remain for hundreds to come. It is unacceptable that any minority should fall so far below the level of the majority in health and education. The tensions between the settled and travelling communities must be resolved, and in order to do this the prejudices of the settled majority must be acknowledged and tackled. This is not a complete solution but it is a vital step on the way to achieving to one. Until this step is taken, the problems will remain, and there will be more Dale Farms.