Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
The Revival of Romani Lobbying
in Great Britain

by Dr. Thomas A. Acton

The first year of the new Labour Government has been somewhat disappointing for the Romani organisations and their friends in Britain. Most worrying has been the moral panic whipped up by the government and the Daily Mail about Romani asylum-seekers from the Czech and Slovak Republics. The government is widely believed to have been leaking confidential details from asylum-seekers' papers to try to discredit them. Junior Home Office minister Mike O'Brien went on the radio to urge ferry companies effectively to discriminate racially against Roma seeking legally to travel on pre-paid tickets to the United Kingdom. He accepted racist assertions by the Slovakian government that there was no discrimination against Roma in Slovakia - that lying about being economic migrants was the sort of thing Roma did! He asserted no Roma would be accepted from these countries and shipped as many home as he could without the benefit of legal advice, and accused lawyers who tried to help of being corrupt. So far at least eight asylum-seekers from these countries have had their applications accepted and more are accepted. No apology has been forthcoming, however, from the Home Office.

Within the country, although there have been bold promises from junior education minister Estelle Morris on improving access to education (ACERT, 1998), there has been no real progress on giving Travelling Gypsies more secure places to station their caravans. There has been no move to repeal the anti-Gypsy sections 1994 "Criminal Justice Act" of the Conservatives or their planning measures to stop Gypsies camping on their own land, although helpful guidance to avoid unnecessary eviction has been promised. Administrative discretion is, however, no substitute for human rights.

Against this background there has been a widespread movement, spearheaded by major charities and by lawyers dealing with Gypsy causes to create pressure to bring forward a new private member's bill next year.

One of the first new moves after the election of the new government was a conference, named  Land, People and Freedom, organised on 18 June 1997 by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). This conference, focused on Gypsies and Travellers, but with implications for the whole community, grew out of the NCVO's Rural Anti-racism project.  It brought together both Traditional and New Traveller communities to discuss with professionals  issues affecting their communities such as  traditional and current land usage, cultural and historical identities, and issues of distinction, discrimination and prejudice. Legal and planning issues were also examined along with innovative ways to enable access to services. Women's and young people's issues were raised, especially in the context of  sharing good practice on self-help issues and education and awareness raising (Acton, Samblas and Coke, 1998).

Nearly 150 Travellers, liaison workers, practitioners and policy makers from a wide variety of voluntary and statutory sectors attended, aiming to both take and give by:

- enhancing their knowledge of Traveller issues, as they were articulated by knowledgeable Travellers,

- discussing  issues that concern them and making recommendations for future policy.

The conference sought to address and overcome the false dichotomy that sometimes seems to exist between most mainstream struggles for equality and Traveller liaison work. The aim was to ensure that rural race equality work takes account of the discrimination and prejudice faced by Gypsies and Travellers.

The issues were explored not only by key speakers and  in workshops, but also through music and song in live performance by Gypsy and Traveller musicians, emphasising that freedom is a matter of cultural identity as much as of policy issues. The musicians included the Polish Romani refugee group Roma from the Roads of Europe, as well as Ted Atkinson and Ted O'Gaillie with traditional Romany and Irish music. Outside the conference hall there a variety of exhibitors displayed arts and crafts, and a bookstall sold nearly £1000-worth of books. The variety of Traveller communities attending, both Traditional and New, was able to act as a catalyst for ongoing collaboration and networking.

Keynote speakers included Eli Frankham of the National Romany Rights Association who gave a spirited defence of traditional Gypsy life on a platform with Bernard Bayldon from Friends, Families and Travellers who spoke from the inside about New Traveller culture. Two young women Travellers, from different communities, Hester Hedges and Eloise Abbott, spoke about changing life-styles, while Catherine Joyce, from the pioneering community development project Pavee Point in Dublin brought an Irish perspective to women's participation in education. Finally, Peter Mercer, president of GCECWCR, (Gypsy Council for Education, Culture, Welfare and Civil Rights) and British representative on the International Romani Union presidium showed how the problems faced by Travellers occur in many countries and have to be tackled at a European level.

These plenary sessions were chaired by Dr. Thomas Acton, Professor of Romani Studies at the University of Greenwich, who opened the conference with the following words:

"Both  traditional and new Travellers feel battered today, after three years of the Criminal Justice Act. It has not had as large an effect on numbers as feared - the latest Department of Environment figures show that after a fall last year, illegally sited Traveller numbers began to rise again. But the atmosphere was poisoned. Those who find stopping places keep them at the unpredictable discretion of police and local authorities. Those who win planning permissions do so in the face of mean-spirited and grudging opposition.

"What is needed is to create a genuine 'level playing field'. The planning presumption against well-landscaped and designed caravan sites in residential areas ought to go. People have a right to object to environmental hazards or scruffy sites - not to caravans or Travellers as such, nor to Gypsies as such. Gypsies have a right not to face racism; new Travellers do not have lesser moral rights to travel because they are not Romani. There is a special kind of racism against Travellers in rural areas, where farmers and local officials can use their power over land to force generations of families into low-paid agricultural work. All families, and especially all children have a right and need to effective health and education services.

"This will be achieved not by apartheid between Travellers and non-Travellers, or between different kinds of Travellers, but by people getting to know each other and each other's worth and needs. Racism against Gypsies is widespread - but often very shallow, ready to implode the first time a non-Gypsy knows a Gypsy as a personal friend. Getting real multicultural material into schools will help in this.

"We should also remember there are countries where the level of racist attacks against Gypsies is far higher than here. We have some 3000 or so Gypsy refugees from Eastern Europe in this country. As the Pope pointed out when he received a Gypsy delegation in 1991, collaboration between Gypsy groups in different countries can often make governments think twice - and increase international understanding generally. No-one has more to gain from community networking - at local, national and international level - than Travellers."

Workshops in the afternoon, led to practical recommendations. The workshop on  access and self-help, led by Steve Staines of Friends, Families and Travellers and Michelle Cook, Cambridgeshire Traveller Liaison Officer, led to calls for better access for heath services through audio-resources like "talking books", and through better training for social services. The workshop on young people was led by Hester Hedges and Eloise Abbott,  Fiona Earle of the Traveller School Charity and local youth leaders, and came to very similar conclusions. It challenged the education and training systems to deliver more and to listen to young people. Its message on empowerment was echoed by much of the discussion in the workshop on enabling women facilitated by Sylvia Dunn of the National Association of Gypsy Women.

Broadening the vision, and raising the stakes, Dr. Donald Kenrick, the author and linguist, and member of various World Romani Congress commissions and European Union working groups, led a workshop on Gypsies in the new Europe. This workshop called for a new "Marshall Plan" to help Eastern Europe, for the restoration of income support to asylum-seekers, and harmonisation of social security in Europe, and real government support for the strategy of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to ensure democratic control of policing and stop racist violence and persecution against Roma.

All of these issues needed, however, to be underpinned by reforms concerning land, law, and planning. The workshop on legal reform with solicitor Ravi Low-Beer of Gill and Co., solicitors (involved with the Wealden and Kerrier Judicial Reviews, two major appeals against local authority evictions of Travellers) joined with that on Planning issues led by researcher Angus Murdoch and planner Robert Home. The workshop on land use led by Tony Thomson from Friends, Families and Travellers converged on the same issues from a more environmental perspective.

All of these workshops covered the need to organise at local level for mutual support and change, the need to network organisations nationally, and suggestions for specific changes needed:

- "Don't agonise; organise!"  Local groups of Travellers should make sure that evictions not conforming to government guidelines are challenged, and should try to put their case, perhaps through national bodies like GCECWCR and FFT (Friends, Families and Travellers), to local government bodies, from parish councils up to the national local government associations. Many ignore, or are even unaware of the government guidelines.

- Organisations should network, and make use of sources of legal advice like McGrath & Co.'s TAT (Travellers' Advice Team) service, the TLAST (Telephone Legal Advice Service for Travellers) in Cardiff and the ACERT (Advisory Council for the Education of Romanies and Travellers) advice service on local plans. Networks should reflect the diverse needs of nomadic peoples

- There should be reforms in the law and its implementation. Legal safeguards against unnecessary evictions should be introduced. The workshop discussing the law thought that  government advice in the circulars should become regulations mandatory on local authorities, although the workshop discussing land use warned that mediation and dialogue, rather than regulation, hold long-term solutions. The duty of local authorities to provide caravan sites should be restored. Properly sited caravans should be treated as housing which can be provided by housing associations. Restrictive locational criteria in planning should be relaxed so that caravan site development can compete on a level playing field with housing; extension of the green belt into areas traditionally of mixed use should not be used as a weapon against Travellers. Any Bill of Rights should reflect a human right to travel, rather a special position for an odd legal definition of "gypsies".

- We should all accept and share responsibility for the environment.

Practical work to move forward to draft legal reforms, and have them backed by the widest possible coalition of interests has been spearheaded by lawyers, and in particular the Traveller Law Research Unit at the University of Cardiff, backed by Luke Clements of Thorpes Solicitors, and a Traveller Advice Team which has been set up by McGrath & Co. in Birmingham, and has networked to get speedy advice to Gypsies threatened with eviction throughout England and Wales (Travellers' Advice Team, 1998). They are keeping up constant pressure on the authorities through appeals over evictions and planning decisions, including the Chapman family's appeal, which was declared admissible by the European Commission on 4th March 1998. The range of Gypsy and other voluntary organisations working for Travellers has been demonstrated by a report from the Churches Commission for Racial Justice, which in its overview of work with Travellers in which Christians are involved, lists 56 different projects (Solly 1998). A major report on "Accommodating Nomadism" has been published by the Northern Ireland Traveller Movement (Molloy 1998).

The Traveller Law Reform Unit has set up a series of Traveller Working Groups (TWIGs) which in turn have set up sub-groups (TWIG-lets), on accommodation and site provision, planning and criminal justice, health and education, and the media. The detailed recommendations from these will be consolidated, and presented in legislateable form to a conference on Traveller Law Reform to be held at Friends House, Euston Road, London on Wednesday February 17th 1999. This should establish a clear, common lobbying programme which can tempt the government into reforming legislation (Travellers Law Research Unit, 1998).

When the 1994 Criminal Justice Act was passed by the Conservative government, repealing the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, Gypsies warned that it would that it would criminalise a third of the nomadic Gypsy people who had no legal place to stop, would endanger existing Council sites and undermine education; in other words, it would take us back to the crises and conflicts of the 1960s. But it has taken us back to the 1960s in another way too.  The crisis has called forth the very thing we have been missing since the old Gypsy Council first split in 1972 - a broadly-based, co-operative movement linking Gypsy organisations, and national anti-racist and civil rights movements, along with the churches and the welfare lobbyists, just as the old Gypsy Council did between 1966 and the peak of its success hosting the first World Romani Congress in 1971. As in the 1960s, it faces a Labour government, newly elected after years of Conservative government. Can this new coalition achieve more than the 1960s one achieved in the 1968 Caravan Sites Act? If the Gypsies, the Gypsy organisations and their lawyers can keep walking in step, they may very well do so.


References

ACERT (Advisory Council for the Education of Romanies and Travellers) 1998 Beyond Reading and Writing - Access to Secondary Education for Travellers Report of a Conference at Oxford Brookes University, September 1997, ACERT, The Moot House, The Stow, Harlow, Essex CM20 3AG

Acton, T., Samblas, C, and Coke, P. 1998 Land People and Freedom Report of a Conference in Peterborough,  June 1997, National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Regent's Wharf, 8 All Saints Road, London N1 9RL

Molloy, S, 1998 Accommodating Travellers Travellers' Movement (Northern Ireland), 30, University Street, Belfast BT7 1FZ

Solly, R. 1998 (June) Gypsies, Travellers and the Church Churches Commission for Racial Justice, Interchurch House, 35-41, Lower Marsh, London SE1 7RL

Travellers Advice Team 1998 (Spring)  TAT News, No.3, McGrath & Co., Solicitors, 135a New Street, Birmingham B2 4QJ

Traveller Law Research Unit, 1998 (April) Travellers' Times, No.5, University of Cardiff Law School, PO Box 427, Cardiff CF1 1XD


Dr. Thomas A. Acton is Professor of Romani Studies, University of Greenwich.
E-mail:  t.a.acton@gre.ac.uk
Web: http://www.gre.ac.uk/~at02/

Posted 14 March 1999.



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