Lisa Smith says the Government need to think again about ‘gypsy status’

29 July 2016
Lisa Smith says the Government need to think again about ‘gypsy status’

Romany Gypsy Lisa Smith lives on a Traveller site and works for her local council in its education department. Lisa no longer wants to ‘travel’ and here she tells us why the government’s new planning laws could force her to make a choice; between her chosen career, or being forced back on the road and into low paid employment.

(Photograph – Lisa Smith at the Gypsy, Pavee and Traveller rally in London in June (c) Natasha Quarmby Fields of Light Photography)

We are the UKs oldest ethnic minorities and have been part of British culture for hundreds of years and we are here to stay, but despite us being legally recognised as an ethnic minority under the Equality Act, it seems that this law is not being applied to us as it is meant to protect us from unfair treatment and promote a fairer and equal society.

The ‘gypsy status’ definition in the new government planning laws does not cater for Gypsies and Irish Travellers like me who have stopped travelling and have taken up settled employment, but who still want to continue living in a trailer on a local authority or private site to keep our traditional lifestyle.

‘Gypsy status’ means that Gypsies and Travellers are being forced into positions where we have to choose between going for employment that means living in one place - like a teacher or nurse - or leaving mainstream employment to travel in order to be able to seek planning permission to qualify for a Gypsy site.

The whole concept of ‘gypsy status’ restricts us Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers who want to continue to live our traditional way of life -  in trailers, chalets and mobiles on a Gypsy and Traveller site - to low paid manual work like agricultural seasonal work that has traditionally been carried out by our communities. We should not be placed in this situation and should have the ability to pursue any career we choose without fear of this going against us when it comes to seeking planning permission for a Gypsy site.

'gypsy status' denies upward social mobility for our communities

In this way the whole concept of 'gypsy status' denies upward social mobility for our communities. I'm in fulltime employment and what ‘gypsy status’ says to me is that to be a fully participating member of society means I am going to be denied the right to live my traditional way of life on a Traveller site and when applying for planning permission, the fact that I am integrated in society will go against my planning application.

I think that this needs to be reconsidered by a Government who say that they are committed to making Britain a fairer and equal society.

The Government says it’s introduced planning changes to make the system fairer for everyone but in reality it’s always been hard for Gypsies and Travellers to get planning permission in any areas.

It took my family five years to get planning permission with two appeals. When we moved on, a petition and website was set up that urged people to sign the petition ‘to get the Gypsies out of Leigh-Sinton’. After we eventually got planning permission the parish council put on a fundraiser to hire a helicopter to take an arial view photograph to see what was happening inside our home.

There is a damaging perception that Gypsy and Travellers get 'special treatment' and the media and shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings have been hugely detrimental to our communities the negative portrayal of us in the media adds to the construction of our identity and inevitably affects how policy makers develop policy towards us in all domains like health accommodation and education. I believe that ‘gypsy status’ is part and parcel of this and the Government need to broaden their perceptions of Gypsies and Travellers and are relying on outdated stereo-types. The issue should not be a matter of receiving special treatment but a matter of receiving equal human rights .

Does the government not understand that true Equality does not mean treating everyone the same but means giving people different opportunity to get to the same point?  ‘One size fits all’ approaches in planning and in education completely ignore that Gypsies and Travellers are already at a disadvantage through discrimination and need the government to take positive measures to enable us to overcome unfair obstacles and barriers.

“So what has happened to the Government’s promise that Every Child Matters?”

The Government’s new planning laws also state that the best interests of the child, personal circumstances and unmet need are unlikely to clearly outweigh harm to the green belt – or to any ‘green open spaces’ - so as to establish the very special circumstances needed for a successful planning application for a Traveller site. So what has happened to the Government’s promise that Every Child Matters?  Does it not apply to Gypsy and Traveller families with children needing somewhere to legally put their trailers? There is a severe shortage of appropriate stopping places for us, and without even the most basic needs met how can you expect our children to achieve in education when research shows that mainstream education approaches continue to fail even sedentary Gypsies and Travellers? This new definition will further damage our children's access to education. This is also exacerbated by the massive cuts in Traveller education services across the country, which previously supported access to schools for mobile and settled Gypsy and Traveller families and in general helped parents to achieve the basic human right of an education free from racism and discrimination. Traveller education services are good source of social capital and the removal of these has lead to an increase in the exclusion of Gypsy and Travellers in schools and academies. 

Our former nomadic way of life has been criminalised by legislation that has sought to assimilate us and the current changes in ‘gypsy status’ and planning laws are yet again another attempt to redefine us out of existence by stopping us from settling.

What this all comes down to is issue of power.  There is a lack of political will to create any type of real systematic change and the issue seems to be that there  are no votes to be gained by making education and accommodation truly  accessible to Travellers. We want to work together and help create policy - not have policy made about us.

(c) Lisa Smith