Political Campaign in Britain Targets Gypsies and Travellers
22 July 2005
According to a report by the Guardian newspaper on March 3, 2005 Michael Howard has published a seven point plant to curb illegal Gypsy and Travellers' encampments. Mr Howard's new policy came amid growing furore revolving around the instalment of facilities such as water and electricity on land occupied by Travellers before applying for planning permission. Similar to the draft Unauthorized Encampments in Northern Ireland, the plan suggests making unauthorised camping by Travellers on private land a criminal offence, giving the police a fast track to eviction. The Conservatives also inferred that if they are elected, they would consider scrapping human rights legislation arguing that they disagree with "special rules for special interest groups". Additionally, the Conservatives hope to give councils new powers to ensure the quick removal of caravans from illegal sites and give them the ability to use compulsory purchase orders to stop land being bought by Travellers. The Conservative leader reportedly has stated that "[p]eople claim it's racist to raise this issue. It is not, it is nothing to do with race. It is about standing up for the right values."
Traveller NGOs in the UK have responded that the current crisis of unauthorised encampments was exacerbated when Michael Howard, acting as Home Secretary in 1994, overturned the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, thereby removing the statutory duty of councils to provide sites. Without a legal duty to provide camps, the number of council pitches has fallen. According to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister there is a need for 4,500 extra pitches in England and Wales.
On March 9th, 2005 the Sun began a lengthy media "campaign" targeting Gypsies and Travellers in the U.K. Spurred by Michael Howard's recent announcement of his seven point plan the Sun published a series of articles declaring "war on Gypsy free-for-all" and calling for "a reversal of the human rights laws behind this madness, a halt to retrospective planning consent given by councils to Gypsy camps and an insistence that planning laws apply to everyone." Articles in the Sun continued throughout the month of March with headlines such as "Stamp on the Camps" and issuing a "coupon" petition in which readers could cut out, sign and send to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott a pre-made form calling for the three points noted above. Several organisations, including the ERRC and the Gypsy and Traveller Reform Coalition, issued complaints to the Press Complaints Commission. Both the ERRC and the Gypsy and Traveller Reform Coalition drew attention to the possibility of such a campaign inciting racial hatred. The Commission for Racial Equality, which does not have any legal powers to take action against or investigate matters relating to the content of the media, has also contacted the Press Complaints Commission asking the PCC to revise its code of practice. According to the CRE the Metropolitan Police are collecting details to make one incitement complaint. To make a complaint regarding the Sun's coverage please contact Nick Williams who is leading on the issue via Bethnal Green police station at + 44 20 7 515 1212. Callers need to quote the following reference number: 42073/62005.
On a more positive note, Sylvia Dunn, a Gypsy woman, stepped forward and made history as the first Romani candidate to stand in general election and, in opposition to Michael Howard, stated "I want to live under the law of this country and be judged by it. Why then does Michael Howard plan to withdraw the law that provides my protection?"