Saturday, November 20, 2010
Irish Traveller Movement in Britain Conference
This is a time of crisis and uncertainty for the GRT community, when the policies that were being developed and implemented by the previous Government over a period of six years have been shredded, and the mantra of localism means that targets for providing sites for homeless Travellers have been abandoned permanently. Travellers themselves are being blamed for unauthorised developments, at a time when the Government has made sure that local authorities will hardly ever grant planning permission for sites. The Government has torn up Circular 01/2006 without issuing any guidance on planning, and homeless Travellers – which means anyone not on an authorised site – have no alternative but to take their chance on the most suitable bits of land available.
We saw what was coming in a document issued by Caroline Spelman MP before the election, when she was Tory spokesperson on Communities and Local Government, and we wrote to her at the end of March arguing that scrapping the targets would derail the timetable for eliminating unauthorised encampments, increasing tension between Travellers and local communities, and ensuring that Travellers, already the most disadvantaged of any ethnic group, would have even greater difficulty in accessing public services including health and education. The ITMB has given examples of what’s happening already: Central Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Bournemouth and Poole, Epping Forest and London, have all reduced the allocations they had been given following a detailed and painstaking approach to ascertain the provision required of each local authority and the timetable for that provision. When Mr Pickles gave them a free hand to decide what they would do, it was back to 1994 when a previous Tory Government repealed the obligation to provide sites in the Caravan Sites Act 1968.
Where the local authority plans to allow fewer sites than were calculated as necessary in the GTANA, the inevitable result will be more unauthorised sites, the reverse of what the Government say they’re trying to achieve. The Government’s change of policy has already attracted the attention of the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, which finds in its current report on the UK that
“An excessive emphasis on enforcement (ie eviction) involving often protracted and expensive litigation, instead of seeking forward-looking solutions in consultation with all members of the local community, has..... been shown to damage race relations”
And they recommended that
“the UK... encourage local authorities to treat enforcement measures... as a last resort, and to privilege wherever possible.... mutually acceptable solutions”.
It will be interesting to see how the Government replies to this advice, and also how the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing reacts to the Government’s response to his letter of allegations, largely on the treatment of people living on the Dale Farm site. Throwing the residents off the site, at a cost of up to £10 million for the police alone according to the local paper, plus fees of £2.5 million for the notorious bailiffs Constant & Co, plus the medical and social costs down the line, is a shameless and inhuman way of dealing with the problem.
Meanwhile as you know, the High Court has ruled that Mr Pickles acted unlawfully in scrapping the regional targets because he acted without Parliamentary approval. Anonymous sources in the DCLG say Mr Pickles isn’t going to bother with an appeal, because legislation to be introduced next month will put things right. In other words, its OK for the Government to break the law, and then change it retrospectively to cancel the illegality. We will see whether Parliament agrees with his arrogant new doctrine that Ministers don’t need to bother with the law, because if the courts rule against them, they can just alter the law.
Mr Pickles also intends to introduce stronger planning enforcement powers for local authorities to deal with breaches of planning control and for limiting the opportunities for retrospective planning applications. So at the same time as making sure there won’t be enough lawful sites anywhere in the country, he’s arranging for Travellers who are left out in the cold to be constantly moved on without regard to the immense harm they will suffer, especially the children.
If families know they’re at risk of being evicted at very short notice, they will be reluctant to send their children to school. We were pleased to see that education did comparatively well in the Spending Review, with an extension from 2012-13 to 15 hours per week of free early education and care to all disadvantaged two year old children, as the cornerstone of a new focus on the foundation years before school;
a new premium worth £2.5 billion targeted on the educational development of disadvantaged pupils, and
the 5 to 16s schools budget rising by 0.1 per cent in real terms each year
But if GRT children don’t attend school, and there are no specialist Traveller Teachers, how is this money going to benefit them? The pupil absence statistics published a couple of weeks ago tell us that absence rates are highest of all ethnic groups for Irish Travellers at 23% and we know that the real figures are probably much worse, because of the reluctance of GRT pupils and their parents to declare themselves.
The local authority does have a statutory requirement under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 to monitor and assess the impact of their policies on children from a GRT background. Assuming that the Government aren’t going to water down this obligation, and bearing in mind that GRT children are the lowest achieving groups at all Key Stages, we need to know what strategies the Government are going to adopt with a view to eliminating under-achievement, and in particular, what they intend doing about projects launched by the previous administration.
We did have a meeting with the Minister who deals with Traveller education, Nick Gibb MP on October 14, which I had been asking for it ever since the election. He had offered us half an hour, but we continued for well over an hour, and it appeared that he was genuinely interested in what the Traveller teachers’ representatives had to say. The Coalition policy says we are going to make a vigorous attack on disadvantage, but I got the impression that the DfE hadn’t got around to deciding what to do in practical terms. This came out plainly at the third Gypsy and Traveller Educational Forum held at the DfE, and I’m optimistic that GRT families too have begun to realise that to escape from poverty and disadvantage they need a big educational upgrade. We heard about the work being done in Canterbury and neighbouring authorities in Kent, where Gypsy children have no problem in ascribing, numbers have shot up, bullying has gone down, and achievement is steadily improving.
I have also been asking for a meeting since the election with Andrew Stunell MP, the Minister at the DCLG who deals with Travellers. I did have a one-to-one chat with him a few weeks ago, but he is still not prepared to have a round table discussion with stakeholders, pending the appearance of policy statements expected before the end of the year.
The CLG’s Business Plan 2022-15, published last week, says the Coalition’s priorities include meeting people’s housing aspirations and giving local people and communities far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which they live. We say we will support the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in communities. But what if most local authorities, armed with greater powers taken over from Whitehall, decide to ignore the aspirations of Travellers as they have always done in the past? There are to be strong incentives for local authorities to build new homes, and there will be financial incentives in 2011-12 and after to provide new sites for Travellers, but previous experience shows that cost isn’t the main deterrent.
What the CLG do say is that local parish councils or neighbourhood forums will bring forward ‘neighbourhood plans’ in which “Local and historic demand” is the new benchmark for site provision for Gypsies and Travellers. You can imagine that few of these bodies are going to come forward with plans for a Traveller site in their area, and when I had a look at a few neighbourhood forum meeting minutes last weekend and I found none. This could be the subject of more systematic information gathering, to see what’s happening on the ground.
If the neighbourhood forum does come up with a proposal for a Traveller site, then under the Localism Bill due to come before Parliament, local electors could trigger a referendum vetoing the proposal. In fact, this idea could make it difficult for councils to adopt plans for the benefit of any minority, and not just for Travellers.
In London, the Mayor reduced the number of pitches to be provided from 538 in the original plan to 238 in the revised plan of March 2010, and then in a further so-called “Minor alteration” to zero in September 2010. He intends to develop “a different policy approach that will enable boroughs and stakeholders to meet required needs in light of local circumstances”. The boroughs will no doubt hold interminable consultations on their required needs, also coming up with the answer zero. I have asked the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to investigate whether the Mayor has acted unlawfully in failing to carry out an equality impact assessment of this proposal.
Let me end on a positive note. We have all been asking for the GRT communities to be consulted on the far-reaching policy changes being developed by the CLG, and the Department have now invited the Gypsy Council , the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups, The Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, Friends Families and Travellers and the All Party Parliamentary Group Secretary, to a meeting to discuss their concerns and put forward their views about the Cross Departmental working groups, and the Big Society Agenda on November 24. Many of the Government’s policies are set in stone already, but at least the principle of consultation may allow the GRT communities to modify those which are under development, not only in the CLG but also in the Department for Education .