Catholics challenge Labour and Conservatives over policies on Gypsies

By staff writers
April 21, 2010

A Catholic group has said that the Conservative and Labour parties may undermine progress towards a 'more equal and more cohesive society' with their policies on Gypsy and Traveller communities.

The statement from the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ)comes in light of their failure to address the 'serious marginalisation and disadvantage' of Gypsies and Travellers and of policies toward them which are punitive.

Since 2005, the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) has been calling attention to the prejudice, discrimination and disadvantage suffered by Gypsy and Traveller communities, and the lack of suitable accommodation and security of tenure on existing local authority sites.

This position was officially confirmed when the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a review last year.

The review pointed out that overt racism towards Gypsies and Travellers is still common. It went on to describe their ‘severe wide-ranging and mutually reinforcing inequalities and problems,’ including: early death; poorer health and inadequate health care; educational under-achievement; poverty and unemployment; high suicide rates; unfair treatment by the criminal justice system and lack of access to culturally appropriate support services for the most vulnerable.

The EHRC Review also argued that "the lack of suitable, secure accommodation underpins many of the inequalities which Gypsy and Traveller communities experience."

In a statement the CARJ said: "In the light of the serious marginalisation and disadvantage of Gypsy and Traveller communities, we are concerned that recent initiatives by the Conservative Party and the Labour Government may undermine progress towards a more equal and more cohesive society.

The group says that both the main political parties, in their recent initiatives regarding Gypsies and Travellers, have concentrated on efforts at curbing anti-social behaviour without seriously addressing the deeper issues of racism, disadvantage and the severe shortage of sites.

Conservative policy toward Travellers and Gypsies involves stronger enforcement powers to tackle unauthorised development and illegal trespass, a new criminal offence of intentional trespass and the requirement for Travellers to make a contribution to the appropriate cost of services on authorised sites.

They have also suggested replacing the Human Rights Act with a new British Bill of Rights, which would address some of the current difficulties in evicting trespassers from private and public property.

The Tories would introduce a legal framework, similar to that which exists in the Irish Republic, to enable councils to remove unauthorised dwellings. This would allow councils to tackle the problem of unauthorised sites including both those built on land owned by travellers and land which is not.

The Government’s new Guidance on Anti-Social Behaviour associated with Gypsies and Travellers is similarly punitive, CARJ says, and ignores any reference to inequalities and shortage of sites.

On 23 March 2010, the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) published guidance for local authorities, the police and other agencies, setting out the strong powers which are available to them in dealing with anti-social behaviour associated with Gypsies and Travellers.

These powers include Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs) and Injunctions. The guidance makes clear what action can be taken on policing and prevention, fly-tipping, noise, straying livestock and untaxed vehicles. The Minister also welcomed new planning rules which will speed up the enforcement process so that quicker action can be taken against developments without planning permission such as unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller sites.

The group says the Conservative Party's proposals cause greater concern because they involve legislative changes (including human rights legislation), while the government’s guidance concentrates on using existing legislation.

"Nonetheless, both initiatives concentrate on enforcement powers addressed primarily at the behaviour of Gypsies and Travellers. Neither seriously addresses the prejudice, discrimination and disadvantage suffered by these communities or the intractable difficulty experienced in trying to provide appropriate numbers of sites and how this might be overcome" CARJ says

"Both initiatives, if put into practice without seriously addressing the shortage of sites, could create a negative atmosphere and undermine the difficult consensus that is gradually being developed in some local areas.

"CARJ accepts and shares the underlying intent behind the new initiatives of the Conservative Party and the Government - to move toward a society characterised by law and order, mutual respect and social cohesion. However, this will not be accomplished by imposing punitive restrictions on extremely marginalised and vulnerable groups, without seriously addressing the causes of their marginalisation and vulnerability".


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