In a range of documents and speeches, Travellers have been branded illiterate, violent and lawless by MPs and councillors over the last two years, as a deepening housing crisis has led to an increase in roadside encampments.
At least 22 councils have sought temporary or permanent borough-wide injunctions that ban “persons unknown” from camping anywhere on public land in their area, a power that campaigners argue criminalises those who have nowhere else to live.
Other politicians have called on the government to go one step further and implement the “Irish option”, which would make unauthorised encampments, currently a civil matter, a criminal offence.Debby Kennett, a spokeswoman for London Gypsies and Travellers (LGT), said: “We have experienced local councillors making highly discriminatory remarks about Gypsies and Travellers both at council meetings and on social media which are inflammatory and rooted in negative racist stereotypes.” Kennett said a severe shortage of official sites at which Travellers could stay had led to an increase in the number of unauthorised caravan sites. Campaigners say it is particularly worrying that politicians have responded to this by seeking borough-wide bans that attempt to criminalise the community’s way of life and create an “us v them” mentality.
Abbie Kirkby, the advice and policy manager of the charity Friends, Families and Travellers, said elected officials were fanning the flames of racial hatred against these groups. “Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are ethnic groups and to use sweeping statements against them is totally unacceptable, just as it would be for any other ethnic group,” she said.
MP Kate Green, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, said: “Using stigmatising and discriminatory language against Gypsies and Travellers has been described as the last acceptable form of racism. It’s disgusting, divisive and wrong. Political leaders have a special responsibility to be careful in what they say and do. Instead of blaming whole communities, they should address the chronic shortage of legal stopping places and the poor access to public services that lead to unequal outcomes for Gypsy and Traveller families.”