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Gypsies, Travellers and Roma: Racism and Discrimination

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to reports of the blacklisting of Irish Travellers by Pontins, what steps they are taking to tackle racism and discrimination against Gypsies, Travellers and Roma.

No one should be discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity. It is right that the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Pontins investigate and address this. To date, we have funded GATE Herts with £150,000 to tackle the discrimination that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities experience.

My Lords, I declare my interest in the register. I have spoken to many Roma, Gypsy and Traveller leaders, such as Zeljko Jovanovic from the Roma Initiatives Office and Yvonne MacNamara from the Traveller Movement. They tell me that it is not just the scandal at Pontins that concerns them but the growing mental health crisis in their communities, which has been exacerbated by Covid-19, not least because many are self-employed and not eligible for furlough, and therefore their incomes have completely dried up. Will the Minister agree to meet with me and representatives of these communities to urgently deal with this crisis?

My Lords, I am delighted by the answers my noble friend has given, but will he make it clear that, when the police Bill eventually leaves this House, its provisions will fully support the continued flourishing and existence of Gypsy and Traveller communities?

My Lords, any measures introduced, including those in the Bill, would be undertaken in compliance with equality and human rights legislation.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the EHRC. As noble Lords will know, we signed a legally binding agreement with Pontins to prevent racial discrimination and will take further enforcement action if needed. The problem is that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups face particular discrimination in housing, with a severe shortage of adequate sites. New police powers in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will reduce the ability of these communities to reside somewhere. What steps are the Government taking with local authorities to increase authorised sites for these groups?

My Lords, the Government’s policies to improve site provision are working. There are now 356 transit pitches provided by local authorities and private registered providers. That is up 41% on January 2010. Local authorities and registered providers, including housing associations, can bid for funding for permanent Traveller sites or transit sites from the £11.5 billion affordable homes programme.

I declare an interest by referring your Lordships to my name. I had wondered why I was never able to book a Pontins holiday, even in the dead of winter, and now I know. Thanks to the EHRC and the whistleblower, the mystery is solved. My question is on education. Children from the Traveller community pre pandemic were the most behind of any group of children, and now they have missed even more education. Please can the Minister take us through the specific education booster plans that the Government are putting in place to bring children in Traveller families up to speed so that they have real choices for work as adults, especially the girls, as this is what levelling- up really looks like?

My Lords, I point to the £400,000 invested by my department in education and training programmes for over 100 Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children and young people to receive extra tuition to catch up on lost learning during the pandemic. This is in addition to the £700 million provided by the Department for Education for the most disadvantaged young people, including Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, to access high-quality tuition. We are working on a cross-Whitehall GRT strategy to further improve the life chances of this community.

My Lords, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, as it stands, will have a devastating effect on nomadic Gypsy and Traveller communities. Clause 4 enables the police to seize a family’s home. This is discrimination on a grand scale. Can the Minister say what other section of people living in our country will be targeted in this inhumane way?

The Bill is not the draconian legislation that it is painted as by the noble Baroness. The focus is on people who wilfully break the law, wilfully trespass on property, and wilfully damage public amenities. They are a very small minority. Regarding property, the police will need to consider their obligations around human rights legislation.

My Lords, my good friend Conor McGinn, the Member of Parliament for St Helens North, was asked by Pontins to make representation to get its sites open last year, only to then discover that, as a McGinn, if he tried to book a holiday, he and his family would not be welcome at any Pontins holiday camp since his name was on the banned list. This is a scandal against Gypsies, Travellers and Roma people. Does the Minister agree, and can he discuss with colleagues in government whether the laws are strong enough to ensure that the people who have perpetuated this disgusting racism are prevented from doing so again, either at Pontins or any other company that they may work for or be associated with in the future?

I join the noble Lord in condemning those actions. I am very glad that his name was not caught up in that ridiculous policy. It is important that a full review of hate crime is carried out. The Law Commission started it last year and will be reporting to Ministers shortly on whether we need to build on the approach taken by the current hate crime action plan.

My Lords, following my noble friend’s comments regarding the Law Commission report on hate crime, and the consideration of proposals for reform, which the Government will be bringing forward this year, can he offer assurance that there will be thoroughgoing support and protection for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, which—[Inaudible]—as demonstrated by the race disparity audit that we set up?

My Lords, on 15 February, the Minister gave me a helpful reply concerning roadside evictions of people from the Travelling community. What progress has been made in the discussions that he said he would be having with local authorities to ensure that, at least during the pandemic, there would be no further roadside evictions and that there would be access to safe water and safe sanitation? Given that he told the House that a cross-departmental review was taking place, can he confirm that this was announced originally in June 2019? When will it be published?

I wrote to local authorities emphasising the need to take a negotiated, stopping-model approach, which has been taken up by a number of local authorities during the pandemic. I commit that the cross-departmental strategy will be forthcoming. Obviously the focus has been on the Covid-19 pandemic.

What note are Her Majesty’s Government taking, in respect of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, of the fact that over 75% of police respondents to the Home Office consultation did not support the proposed new criminal offence of trespass with intent to reside?

I note the points around that consultation, but 66% of local authorities that responded to the 2019 consultation were in favour of introducing a new criminal offence for those who reside on unauthorised encampments, and 94% supported one or more of the proposed amendments in the Bill under consideration.

Research published by the FFT in January 2021 found that there were only 59 permanent and 42 transit pitches available across England. In response to the new police and crime Bill and proposals to allow for greater enforcement against unauthorised encampments, what provisions are being made to provide authorised sites for the GRT community? I am happy for the Minister to write to me if he does not have the figures to hand.

My Lords, Part 4 of the Bill essentially seeks to make something that is a civil offence into a criminal offence. It is based on a similar change in law undertaken in the Republic of Ireland some years ago. I will write to the right reverend Prelate with the specific figures, but looking at transit site provision in addition to the 356 transit pitches that exist will be part of the upcoming cross-Whitehall GRT strategy.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the House’s first session of Oral Questions to the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office. There will be three Questions, with 10 minutes allowed for each. We will proceed in the same way as for Oral Questions.