Sorry Andrew Selous MP, But Gypsies & Travellers Will Not Be Assimilated

By Jonathan Lee

Meet Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire, Andrew Selous.

Andrew recently took a break from opposing gay marriage, overseeing prison cuts, calling for benefits cutsfor non-english speakers, and claiming disabled people work hard because they’re grateful just to have a job, and turned his attention to Romani Gypsies and Travellers.

On 13th November, he proposed a bill in the Commons to convert existing sites for Gypsies and Travellers into settled accommodation, remove any obligation on local authorities to build more permanent sites, and make unauthorised encampments a criminal offence.

He also added a bit about making provision for the education of Gypsy & Traveller children, which is nice.

Andrew began his oration with: “I present this motion to Parliament today because current Traveller law, created with the best of intentions since the Caravans Sites Act 1968, is not working.

The Caravans Sites Acts 1968, often referred to as the “reservations act” amongst Gypsies & Travellers put a duty on local authorities to provide sites for the community. However, it did not stipulate anything about assessing the local need for sites, nor the adequacy of such sites. This meant authorities could designate anywhere as an official site and then evict any Gypsies or Travellers in the area who did not go there.

It was a start. The act at least recognised the obligation for local authorities to provide sites, and with amendments could have improved the lives of Gypsies & Travellers and settled residents. Unfortunately the act was effectively repealed by John Major’s Conservative government through the 1994 Criminal Justice & Public Order Act. Laws passed since the Caravans Sites Act have hardly had the best intentions for the welfare of Gypsies and Travellers, rather they have served to exclude us from public spaces, criminalise our mode of living, or assimilate our culture.

Andrew’s proposed bill has a bit of all three in it.

His reason for proposing this bill is because a parliamentarian, he says, is someone who must represent all of their constituents “whatever their identity.” But also because of the off-the-scale criminality reportedly faced by the residents of his home county constituency of South West Bedfordshire.

“I would not claim for one moment that such crimes are committed by one section of the community alone – of course they are not. There is good and bad in every group across our society” reassured Andrew.

This slimy, sycophantic soundbite has been trotted out for decades by patronising politicians, and is usually a preface to racist tirades. Selous went on to talk about the “constant fear” his settled constituents live in because of the criminality of Travellers, the lawless sites where Gypsies live in third-world squalor, as well as making a thinly veiled accusation that Gypsies and Travellers abuse their children.

He talks about the “deplorable accommodation” on some private sites and the disgrace that this is tolerated“in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.” But instead of listening to what expert organisations and charities which work with Gypsies & Travellers have to say on the matter (hint: it’s not ‘shut down all the sites’), he takes the role of the Tory social reformer upon his broad, reluctant shoulders, and decides he knows best based on his narrow Little England experience of a handful of Traveller families.

The increasing number of private, sublet sites are certainly open to abuse. Summary rent increases, lack of tenancy agreements or deposits, and lack of oversight from the local authorities can leave families at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords. These landlords may also be Gypsies or Travellers themselves and have standing in the local community which gives them further power over those they sublet to. It is an unworkable situation which should be clamped down on through the provision of local council run sites which meet the needs of local Gypsies & Travellers.

The proposed bill would effectively ban council run sites by changing the periodic local authority reviews which tell councils they must provide separate Traveller sites. Instead, proposes Andrew Selous MP, “local authorities would have a duty to provide enough settled accommodation for everyone – Travellers and settled residents alike.”

I really struggle to keep a straight face when a Tory politician says that chronically underfunded local authorities will magic new accommodation out of a hat for Travellers in place of existing sites. The government doesn’t even come close to providing enough housing to meet general demand as it is, and local settled populations are hardly known for their warm welcome to announcements of new Traveller accommodation in their area.

The conversion of current Traveller sites to settled accommodation, argues Selous, would “allow greater integration on existing sites.” Are they going to have settled families move in alongside Gypsies and Travellers? Unlikely. So the process of assimilating the twenty-something percent  of Gypsies and Travellers who have not conformed to the bricks and mortar lifestyle would begin by creating a segregated Gypsy housing project.

 (St. Michael’s Travellers site in Brighton is a mix of 12 permanent and 21 transit pitches.)

For his next trick, Mr. Selous says his bill will require local authorities to provide temporary stopping sites “where there is a demonstrable need”, having already removed the requirement to provide permanent sites. But one does not necessarily equal the other, and a demonstrable need to provide said sites is suitably vague enough that no council would ever need to build one.

Andrew’s proposed bill, having made provision to remove Gypsies & Travellers living in untidy caravans from public view, and bulldoze the remaining permanent sites, would enforce a criminal offence for unauthorised encampments. So anyone camping or sleeping in trailers or cars on land that does not belong to them would consequently face a charge in a criminal court. For those less familiar with the differences between civil and criminal law: civil offences concern disputes over the rights and property of individual people or organisations, no one goes to prison for civil offences; criminal offences on the other hand are prosecuted by the state in order to protect society from things like burglary, sexual assault, murder, and fraud. No one should face criminal charges for a land use dispute, civil law is designed for such cases.

The last part of the bill is actually quite good. It calls for measures to address the dismal educational outcomes for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, and proposes the teaching of Gypsy culture and heritage throughout schools in a similar way to Black History Month is covered in some areas. In the context of the rest of this proposed bill however, it comes across as just another Tory distraction tactic.

(Key stage 4 statistics, Department for Education, UK Race Disparity Audit 2017)

The Prime Minister’s race disparity audit revealed that Gypsies and Travellers have the worst educational outcomes of any group in our society.  Andrew Selous said “I was so concerned about this that I asked the Children’s Commissioner for England to visit one of my local schools, which is attended by many Traveller children”. Bless.

As my great-uncle Tom Russell used to say – “fasten up your shirt in case your heart falls out”.

Sorry Andrew Selous MP, but we will not accept your draconian, assimilatory Traveller laws proposed under the disguise of humane judicial reform. We will not be taken in by your supposed wisdom derived from a conservative slice of Bedfordshire, at the complete disregard for repeated calls from civil society for more sites, and more engagement in negotiated stopping.  And I can’t speak for all Gypsies and Travellers, but personally, I will not tug-the-forelock and take it from a smug, homophobic, religious fundamentalist, austerity-enabling Tory such as you.

Originally published in the Norwich Radical.

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