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Improving access to justice for Gypsies and Travellers is vital in the fight against discrimination

With the shocking rise in hate crime in the wake of the recent Brexit vote – including attacks on Gypsies – the launch of the Equality & Social Justice Unit (ESJU) is all the more significant and timely.

The ESJU, which is funded by the Open Society Foundation, initially for two years, was recently launched at a House of Commons event in June. The unit, hosted by campaigning group, the Traveller Movement, aims to improve access to justice for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, to empower and equip individuals and other organisations to challenge unlawful discrimination and human rights abuses and promote equality. Something of this kind has been needed for decades.

Earlier this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a review Is England Fairer which highlighted the issues faced by four of the country’s most disadvantaged groups: Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, homeless people, people with learning disabilities, and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

With regard to Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, amongst other things, the review found:

  • That the difference in attainment levels between Gypsy and Roma children and White pupils appears to have widened;
  • Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are among those most likely to be excluded from school, with exclusion rates four to five times higher than the national average; and are vulnerable to bullying;
  • Compared with the general population, Gypsies and Travellers are significantly more likely to suffer from poor health; this is exacerbated by the fact that many remain unregistered with GPs;
  • Gypsies, Roma and Irish Travellers in prison are more likely to report feeling unsafe, victimised by other prisoners and staff and to have been physically restrained or segregated.

The reasons for these and other poor life outcomes are complex, but discrimination is a key and continuing factor which cannot be ignored. It comes as no surprise that a survey this year of Gypsies, Travellers and Roma conducted by the Traveller Movement found that 98% of respondents reported experiencing discrimination because they were community members. Despite this, 74% of respondents said they had not looked for help and 71% said they had not considered any legal advice or advocacy after experiencing discrimination.

Neighbours, police forces, local authorities and contributors to social media were all mentioned as subjecting people to discrimination with the greatest discrimination felt to be in education and through hate speech and hate crime. Respondents cited a distrust of the police, a feeling that complaining would only make matters worse and that such incidents occurred so often that it would not be worth taking action as reasons for not complaining or seeking help.

As a senior policy officer at the (then) Commission for Racial Equality, I travelled around Great Britain, meeting Gypsies and Travellers, discussing their concerns and experiences and identifying priorities for action; now in my current role as a civil liberties lawyer, I have seen directly the disadvantage, discrimination and mistreatment that Gypsies and Travellers face, yet each time I come across it it shocks me afresh.

I have recently acted in a number of claims in which the police have used excessive and inappropriate force when attending incidents on Gypsy/Traveller sites. In one case, multiple officers attended in riot gear to arrest two individuals – who in a ‘usual suspects’ type of way they had linked to a spate of recent robberies when in fact the actual culprits bore little or no resemblance to the suspects.

In doing so the officers smashed every single window in each of the caravans belonging to their family (including their parents, who were elderly and not in good health), ransacked the contents breaking valuables and irreplaceable items of sentimental value, beat the suspects senseless and arrested, detained and charged them on the scantest of evidence, before dropping the case swiftly after being challenged to provide any substantive evidence in support of the case. Their complaint was upheld and the case settled out of court.

I am also acting in cases where pubs refuse service to Irish Travellers, either for as blatant a reason that they are Travellers or for a superficial reason which belies that. Sadly, the publicans involved seem genuinely unaware of or recalcitrant about the fact that this is discrimination of the most direct kind.

Many people I come across see Gypsies and Travellers as people making a lifestyle choice rather than being members of protected ethnic groups; to stereotype Gypsies and Travellers and use derogatory terms relating to these groups in everyday parlance is still acceptable in a way that is no longer true of other ethnic groups.

For decades individuals and organisations have been campaigning to change things and to reduce discrimination and improve life outcomes. At the recent ESJU launch, landmark legal successes were highlighted and celebrated including the cases which established Gypsies, Irish and then Scottish Travellers as distinct ethnic groups who should benefit from anti-discrimination legislation, that local authorities have a power to provide services to children in need regardless of if they have travelled outside that physical area and that pub chain Wetherspoons was discriminatory by refusing pub access to Irish Travellers and those with them.

All too often Gypsies and Travellers are not aware of their legal rights, or do not know where to turn or trust others to help them. The creation of the ESJU is an important step in challenging the prejudice these groups continue to face in their daily lives. The ESJU will provide support and advocacy, as well as empowering individuals by providing training on legal rights. It will also support a small number of individuals to bring legal cases in particularly important areas. Priorities include hate speech and hate crime, education, discrimination in goods and services and policing and criminal justice; publicising successful outcomes will be key. Bringing successful cases will both empower the community but also, I hope, begin to change the culture of discrimination that still persists.

Sasha Barton is a member of the ESJU’s Expert Advisory Group. This article first appeared in the Law Society Gazette.