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‘I barely find enough work to feed my kids’ – the Tory manifesto is an attack on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

05 Dec 2019

Illustration by India Joseph

It’s election season and each party has released its manifesto, designed to persuade you to join them in their vision for our country. Because that’s what a manifesto is: the blueprint of how a political party see their citizens and their ideal Britain. The Labour Party’s vision? A solid, inclusive plan with logical, beneficial policies. The vision the Conservative party have for their ideal Britain? Casually typeset in a neat little paragraph with cliché soundbites bolded, is a plan to wipe out the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities.

On page 19 of a 64-page manifesto, in my opinion dedicated to highlighting all the ways working-class, marginalised, left-wing citizens will be persecuted, they say, “We will tackle unauthorised traveller camps. We will give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities. We will make intentional trespass a criminal offence, and we will also give councils greater powers within the planning system.” 

The aggressive language is designed to whip up a frenzy and immediately paints the GRT community as “other” and the enemy. “Tackling” traveller camps, “seizing” property and “protecting our communities” is an unprovoked attack against a minority that the Conservative Party have continuously failed. It confirms the Conservative Party do not count GRT people amongst the British public. 

The Conservative Party has an appalling track record in regard to the GRT community, who number 63,000 in the UK according to the 2011 census. The lack of respect comes from as high as Home Secretary Priti Patel, who stated her desire “to test the appetite to go further” when dealing with “illegal trespassers”. It trickles down to local MPs such as Surrey’s Paul Beresford. He called Travellers “a disease” and for the implementation of harsher police powers. Paul’s comments came less than a month after the Melton Mowbray hate-crime that saw caravans being doused in gasoline and burned to the ground in Leicestershire.  All this from the party that pledges to “protect people from physical attack or harassment” on page 20 of their hypocritical manifesto.

Elena*, 35, a Traveller and mother of four, has been moved on from numerous sites in the past year alone. She describes the impact that unchallenged stereotyping pushed by the Tory agenda has had on her and her family. “People say we’re scammers, we ain’t,” she tells me over the phone. “I barely find enough work to feed my kids because nobody wants Gypsies to work for them. How can I pay tax if I can’t get hired because of who I am? I teach my kids to work hard but they see me turned down for job after job because of who we are.”

Elena references Phillip Owen, Conservative councillor, who branded a Traveller fair in Appleby “a biblical plague” at a Nottinghamshire County Council meeting on 11 July this year. She says: “We’ve been called plagues by the Tories, but nobody cares. Nobody had him up on it […] I always feel like I’ve done something wrong when all I try and do is show my kids that we should be proud of who we are.” 

Frank, 58, is a Traveller and retired roofer who settled into housing in Essex, citing government persecution as the reason he gave up part of his culture. “It wasn’t worth the mental issues… I knew that it was a matter of time before the government made it clear that [they think] we’re pests,” he explains to me.  “My whole family are Travellers, but I’m the first that settled. It’s shameful for me but I had no choice. I couldn’t put the kids through the shouting and carry-on every time we found a site.”

“I knew that it was a matter of time before the government made it clear that they think we’re pests”

Frank, Traveller

The disruption and trauma caused to Traveller children is overlooked and ignored when Conservatives pile on GRT people. The idea that children are witnessing government sanctioned actions against them each time they find a site is outrageous. “The kids schooling was always getting messed around,” Frank goes on. “The school would tell the authorities that we were camped up there. I thought it would be easier for the kids […] but for Gypsies it’s getting worse.” Frank’s situation may be set to become the norm as the Conservatives plan to do away with more sites. Having to make drastic cultural change due to prejudiced policies by a political party who does nothing to aid and accommodate GRT people is not the actions of a civilised country.

And therein is the issue. The Tory Party’s exclusionary stance on Traveller’s rights is essentially criminalising being born GRT. Not only is there a shortage of sites nationally, but the Tories propose to eliminate further sites and allow the police and council to determine whether GRT families will lose their homes and vehicles. The Conservatives’ policies look likely to force GRT families into homelessness, contributing to the recent spike in GRT children being removed from their families, all for the sake of eradicating “illegal trespassers”. 

GRT communities have been subjected to constant scorn and stereotyping from all aspects of media. The belief that we are tax-evading, con-artists who destroy land is harmful yet is perpetuated by political parties. We’re used as racist-bargaining chips whenever the Conservatives pander to right-wing extremism. I’ve experienced prejudice and bigotry due to my Gypsy heritage and the Conservative Party is the driving force behind the misinformed, ignorance I have faced. From being the only clients asked to pay first in a busy nail salon to reading Priti Patel’s Dickensian delight at wanting to see how far punishing GRT people can go – our struggle is ignored or believed to be self-inflicted. However, this manifesto has set out the racist intentions of the Tories in black and white.

“I teach my kids to work hard but they see me turned down for job after job because of who we are”

Elena, Traveller

Thinly veiled racism against Gypsies and Travellers is an old Conservative tactic during election season. Human Rights lawyer and advocate of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, Marc Willers QC tells me, “What the government is doing here is wholly predictable – it is stirring up age-old prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers in the hope that it will win votes”. Marc was named Times Lawyer of the Week in May 2019 after his pro-bono work successfully challenged an injunction blocking camping access to over 170 open spaces filed by Bromley Council, an old Conservative Party-trick. He continues, “It’s dog-whistle politics at its worst.” This Gypsy-bait tactic has been used time and time again by the Tories. Almost identical to Priti Patel’s proposal was the pledge to “tackle” problem Travellers in 1992’s Conservative Manifesto. 

There is a general resistance to Traveller needs on the Conservatives part. On the one hand, they’re making the defiant stand to “tackle unauthorised encampments” yet have made no efforts to ensure Traveller sites are given funding from the £1 billion allocated to the Affordable Homes Programme. A programme that encouraged higher chances of home-ownership via joint funding by the government and private investors, part of this programme was to provide more Traveller sites. In a shocking revelation in January this year, they admitted that the Affordable Homes programme had not funded any Traveller sites since it was introduced in 2016. They added, “Registered Providers are still able to access grant funding towards new Traveller sites through the programme, however no bids for this have been submitted.”

So where exactly do the Conservatives want Travellers to live? They’re reluctant to create authorised sites for Travellers, yet hellbent on presenting GRTs as the enemy and that communities must be “protected” from us.  

“The timing of the consultation announcement makes it clear that the government’s motive is to use Gypsies and Travellers to gather votes at election time”

Abbie Kirkby, Family, Friends and Travellers

“Everyone knows that the way to reduce the number of UE [Unauthorised Encampments] is to make adequate site provision for Gypsies and Travellers rather than subject them to a continual cycle of forcible evictions which consigns them and their children to a life of misery and deprivation,” continues Marc. An investigation by Family, Friends and Travellers (FFT), an organisation dedicated to fighting GRT discrimination, led to a discovery that 74% of police believe the current police powers are sufficient, which would suggest that the Conservative pledge of harsher powers is out of sync with what the police would recommend. As many as 65% believed more campsites were the solution. Abbie Kirkby, Advice and Policy Manager at FFT comments, “The evidence we have collected shows that the Home Office is deliberately ignoring police views on unauthorised encampments. The timing of the consultation announcement makes it clear that the government’s motive is to use Gypsies and Travellers to gather votes at election time.”

So why aren’t the Conservative Party liaising with those on the frontlines of GRT rights? Why are we ignored until it’s time to rile up right-wing voters? Should we have to compromise on our culture? Satisfy those who take umbrage with any way of life that isn’t filled with expense write-offs and casual bigotry? 

The Tories gleefully rubbing their hands together at the thought of ridding “their UK” of “plagues“ and “diseases” this could be the first step toward a war on minorities. What’s next? Implementing a two-child limit for the working-class in the name of “austerity”? This is a government led by a man who has full-house in racist bingo. In tirades more commonplace amongst Klansmen than leaders of civilised countries, Boris Johnson has made his views on people of colour very clear and as the lack of punishment indicates, he is backed by pretty much every Tory member. 

The Conservative party have made themselves obvious: a vote for them is a vote for a cleansing-campaign. This is where they intend to begin, let us not find out where they intend to stop

*Name has been changed