Priti Patel – Playing the Race Card

The Conservatives are playing the race card yet again, using prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers to launch a consultation document in the run up to the election to assess whether the police should be able immediately to confiscate the vehicles and property of “anyone whom they suspect to be trespassing on land with the purpose of residing on it”.

It is sad, however that this racist election stunt should distract attention from real progress that has been made toward improving community relations. The Anglican Synod this year called on every diocese to appoint a chaplain for Travellers, Gypsies and Roma, and to eliminate discrimination, and to explore the use of church land for Traveller sites. Also this year the House of Commons Women and Equalities committee issued a report on its inquiry into the inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. It concluded that “Leadership from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government … has been lacking” and called on the Cabinet Office “to create a specific work stream for eliminating Gypsy and Traveller inequalities”. Patel’s consultation runs contrary to this consensus approach from sensible people of all parties.

The Conservatives though are not talking about increasing site provision and measures to address the shortfall in sites. The National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners rejected calls for a clampdown on unauthorised sites and said “criminalisation of Travellers was not the answer”. It instead called for a “significant increase” in the number of permanent and temporary sites across the country.” Police submissions to the consultation obtained by the community organisation Friends Families and Travellers under freedom of information legislation, showed that 75% of police responses indicated that their current powers were sufficient and/or proportionate. Additionally, 84% did not support the criminalisation of unauthorised encampments and 65% said lack of site provision was the real problem.

Let us not forget that the current shortage of sites stems from the decision of the Conservatives in 1994 to scrap the duty on local authorities to provide sites. The last Labour government included Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in regional spatial strategies with regional targets for site provision but under the Coalition government this framework and targets were unravelled, hence we continue to have a shortage of sites causing severe hardship for Gypsy and Traveller families and the inconvenience of authorised camps for the wider community because Gypsy and Traveller families cannot find authorised sites to stay on. The Conservatives seem to think that subjecting families to a constant cycle of eviction and doing nothing to find them decent homes is the solution.

It takes a certain kind of politician to ignore the facts and advice from bodies like the police and to instead seek to demonise a vulnerable minority to pick up votes. In the past some Conservatives have been active in cross party work through the All Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, the Conservative David Atkinson MP was the founding chairperson of the group set up in 2003 and Lord (Tim) Boswell has been one of its most active members. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups have been impressed by the chairing of the women and equalities committee inquiry under Maria Miller a Conservative and former minister. We should also not forget the former Conservative mayor of Stowe on the Wold, Vera Norwood, who stood up against racist attempts to end the local Traveller fair in her town and was re-elected despite being de-selected for doing so, and went on to become President of the Gypsy Council, a community organisation running since 1966. It would appear Patel is at odds with this kind of conservatism. In support of the proposal Patel stated “Unauthorised encampments can cause misery to those who live nearby, with reports of damage to property, noise, abuse and littering. The public want their communities protected and for the police to crack down on trespassers. Our proposals aim to ensure these encampments can be challenged and removed as quickly as possible.” Talk of crackdowns whilst neglecting to call for new sites mirrors the desperate campaign Michael Howard, then Conservative leader, ran in the 2005 general election when he, like Patel, sought to surf widespread public hostility to Gypsies and Travellers by demonising this community and deceptively claiming they were taking advantage of the Human Rights Act. Playing the race card on the Gypsy and Traveller issue is sadly nothing new.

In its manifesto Labour states “The Conservatives have fanned the flames of racism, using difference to divide. They have made BAME people pay the price for their austerity project and scapegoated refugees and migrants”. Decent traditional Conservatives have worked with Labour councillors to produce planning solutions that work. In preserving the values of the post-war Welfare State, the Labour Party is actually more conservative of traditional British values of fair play for everyone than the opportunist, racist and populist clique that have taken over the Tory Party.

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