Lord Avebury

Address to the ACERT AGM 2010

September 25th 2010

I’m supposed to be giving a ‘coalition update’, and whoever thought up that title may have imagined that as a member of one of the coalition parties I would have some idea of what has been going on behind the scenes. Let me admit frankly that I have no inside knowledge and know only what I read in the papers. Ministers are aware of my interest in the rights of Gypsies and Travellers over the last half century, but none have been in touch or asked my advice. I did see the way the wind was blowing when Caroline Spelman published her ‘Open Source Planning Green Paper’ before the election and wrote to her with some detailed criticisms. But she didn’t respond, and the communications with Ministers since the election have been one-sided.

The title for the discussion today, ‘All Change’ makes me think of getting to the end of the No 3 bus route in leafy Norwood. My great great great grandfather used to visit the wood from which Norwood got its name, and he wrote in his journal in 1790:

“Gipsies have frequented this wood since time immemorial. Everyone has heard of Norwood Gipsies”.

So at that time, 220 years ago, there was plenty of space in what is now outer London for Gypsies to stop, and the settled population accepted that they had a right to do so. By the time I got into the Commons 48 years ago, Norwood and other suburbs had become densely built up, and there was very little unused land where Gypsies could stop for a few weeks, on their way to or from seasonal agricultural work in Kent. As a result, there were tensions between the Gypsies and settled populations in the periphery of what was to become Greater London. The champion of the Gypsies in the fifties and early sixties, until he died on 1965, was Norman Dodds , the MP for Erith & Crayford. His constituency was next door to mine, and we had similar problems, with Gypsies parking on the grass verges of major roads and other unsuitable places, because our councils hadn’t provided land and facilities where they could stop legitimately. The answer was to require them to provide enough sites for Gypsies ‘residing or resorting to their area’, and when I was lucky enough to win a place in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills in 1968, that was the subject I chose. I was on good terms with Dick Crossman MP, the Minister if Housing and Local Government, and Arthur Skeffington MP, the Parliamentary Secretary, and they ensured that my Caravan Sites Bill, though only No 6 in the ballot, was given extra time.

If that legislation had been left in place, there would have been adequate accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers throughout England and Wales by now. Local authorities dragged their feet at first, but once the power of Ministerial direction started to be used, there was a marked acceleration in the rate of provision.

Unfortunately, in the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994, the duty to provide sites was repealed, and the inevitable result was a growing shortfall in accommodation for the less well-off families. Those who could afford it bought and developed small amounts of land on which they applied retrospectively for planning permission, and a few were successful, or at least partly successful in getting temporary permission. The majority recognised that except for recreational purposes, the nomadic life was no longer a viable option. Given the choice, Gypsies would settle down on one site, treating it as home. The 20% who don’t live on authorised sites and who are legally homeless will have far greater difficulty accessing public services of all kinds including specifically education, and their homelessness is a major reason why Gypsies and Travellers score so highly in any measure of disadvantage.

Under the previous Government, after seven years of doing nothing, there was at last an effort to quantify the number of sites required in every local authority to ensure that every Traveller family would have a home. The Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments, followed by public inquiries and the imposition of a minimum level of 15 pitches to every district regardless of the estimate of locally-arising need was a process that yielded a fairly calculated obligation on every local authority. But the six years of work that had gone into that process was scrapped by Eric Pickles when he wrote to local authorities telling them to ignore Circular 1/2006. Every local authority is now free to decide on first principles whether it will give permission for any Gypsy sites and if so, how many. This means that there will be endless arguments about need, with no agreed criteria to assess the numbers. It will be a repeat of the experience after 1994, when there was a similar planning vacuum, but the effects may be even more drastic this time round, because of the declared intention to strengthen the powers of councils to deal with unauthorised encampments in the Localism Bill coming down the track. The CLG claim that in the absence of local targets, or of any agreed methodology for deciding the numbers, they are

“encouraging local authorities to provide, in consultation with the local community, an appropriate number of sites that reflect local and historic demand”.

Immediately after the election I wrote, as Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsies and Travellers, to Grant Shapps MP at the CLG, and to Sarah Teather MP at the Department of Education, asking for meetings to discuss their policies on Gypsies and Travellers. In the letter to Sarah Teather I reminded her that in the Coalition Manifesto we promised additional resources for disadvantaged children, and as everybody knows, Gypsies are at the bottom of the league table whatever the measure chosen. The Government’s attention has been concentrated on free schools and academies; the National Strategies are due to end in March 2011; the ECM (Every Child Matters) information is out of date, and Traveller Support Services are being run down.

The figures we do have show that the gap in achievement between Gypsy and Traveller children and the national average at GCSE level is 41%, and is getting wider. At the end of primary education GRT children constitute the highest proportion of dropouts, and they top the statistical tables in relation to NEET young people. They constitute the highest percentage of pupils excluded from schools, partly because they are vulnerable to pervasive racist bullying.

What can be done to remedy this disastrous picture, by a Government which is committed to attacking disadvantage? We do at last have dates with the responsible Ministers as you know – in the CLG, I have a one-to-one meeting at his request with Andrew Stunell MP on October 14 as a curtain-raiser to a meeting with organisations on a date to be arranged shortly after that, and in the Department for Education, its Nick Gibb with representatives of ACERT and NATT on the same day, whether by accident or design. I could be forgiven for guessing it wrong when the list of Ministerial responsibilities first came out, since neither of the Departments listed Gypsies and Travellers as responsibilities of any of their Ministers.

There are at least two other opportunities for getting some other opinions expressed on the Coalition’s policies. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing has written an allegation letter concerning the rights of the residents on the Dale Farm site, and a copy of the letter together with the draft reply submitted for approval by Andrew Stunell MP came to my notice. I sent a note of advice to the Minister on the background to Dale Farm and was assured by his Private Secretary that it had been laid before him, but that he hadn’t amended the text. I therefore sent the note direct to the Special Rapporteur, drawing her attention to the likelihood that if the eviction goes ahead the children would lose their places in local schools. And as many local authorities had decided not to retain separate Traveller Education Services now that the money is no longer ring-fenced, TESs were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the services they had always provided for Travellers on unauthorised site. My note said:

“Without question, the most vulnerable children in these communities will be the increasing numbers forced to live on unauthorised sites, where there will be little if any contact with schools and educational welfare services. This abuse of the children’s human rights means that the UK will be in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, yet there are no plans within the Department of Education to address these specific needs of the GRT communities. This is a matter which the Special Rapporteur may wish to call to the attention of the Committee on the Rights of the Child.”

I had a friendly acknowledgement from the Special Rapporteur’s Secretariat

The second opportunity we should have had for highlighting the appalling plight of Gypsies and Travellers, and the manner in which their life chances are being worsened by deliberate Government policy, is that two relevant inquiries are being undertaken by Select Committees. The CLG Committee is looking into the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies, and the All-Party Group in common with other organisations has submitted evidence. There is also an inquiry by the Education Select Committee, which has started to

“….. examine current issues in safeguarding, including accountability, inspection and the Munro Review of child protection, as well as looking at the policy direction of the new Government”.

We didn’t submit evidence on this one, underlining the need for greater vigilance in monitoring what’s happening in Parliament.

There’s more bad news to come, such as the criminalisation of trespass and amendments to planning laws to make evictions easier. This is not going to be an easy year, but close links between ACERT and the APPG will be the key to ensuring that we react promptly and effectively to the proposals that affect GRT communities.

Only yesterday we heard from Sylvia Ingmire of the Roma Support Group, on the London Councils’ proposed “repatriation” of the grants to voluntary organisations for cross-borough and pan-London services including specialist education. This money, £26 million, will be available for the Boroughs to spend as they choose, so the proposal is likely to have a severe impact on the services now provided for Roma.

So we need to consider how the Coalition’s declared intention of making additional resources available for disadvantaged children can be reconciled with cuts in the services now provided for GRT children. It will be an interesting discussion with the Minister on October 14.

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