Government to act on over-representation of Gypsies and Travellers in prison

5 January 2018
law scales

The Government has promised to “explain or change” the “disparities” between ethnic groups and their representation in prison, following a wide ranging reviewof black and ethnic minority people and the criminal justice system.

The review was led by David Lammy MP, who found that BAME men and women – including Gypsies and Travellers – where far more likely to be in prison or youth custody than the wider population.

The Labour MP for Tottenham also found that “Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are overlooked too often” which makes it difficult to understand the full extent of the inequalities they face. The Review has called for this to be changed “as soon as possible”.

David Lammy also spoke at the Traveller Movement conference late last year, where he said that there were not enough BAME magistrates and that the government needed to act to correct this. He said that more Gypsies and Travellers should be supported to become magistrates.

david lammy

(Picture caption: David Lammy MP at the Traveller Movement conference)

Responding to the Lammy Review, David Lidington, the Secretary of State for Justice admitted that “data quality” needed to be improved on some minority prisoner groups, including black women and Gypsies and Travellers and that once the disparities became clear that they needed to be scrutinised and changed – if possible.

 “We are already moving to publish more and better data and will adopt a co-ordinated approach to improving data quality to determine where disparities occur and why,” said David Lidington.

“In addition, the Government has adopted the principle of “explain or change” to identify and objectively assess disparities, and then decide whether and how changes need to be applied.”

“We feel this principle is particularly valuable in relation to smaller groups in the criminal justice system, such as Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, and BAME women.”

The Traveller Movement, an organisation that seeks to improve Gypsy, Irish Traveller and Roma (GTR) outcomes and quality of life, welcomed the government’s commitment to “review the potential further breakdown of data” collection. This will contribute greatly to the little official data that currently exists surrounding GRT communities in the justice system, they say.

As of February 2017, the government had already committed to adopting the 18+1 ethnicity categories of the 2011 census to identify disparities in the prison and youth custody population (which includes Gypsy or Irish Traveller as a separate category), as a result of the joint campaigning of the Traveller Movement, The Irish Chaplaincy, and key politicians such as Kate Green MP.

kate green

(Picture caption: Kate Green, Labour MP and Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers)

The Traveller Movement  said it welcomed the Government’s commitment to build on this and to “review the potential further breakdown of data”, building on the adoption of the 18+1 ethnicity categories, and would encourage them to begin this review as soon as the first dataset is available in early 2018.

“Of course, it is imperative that this data is used properly and followed up with effective responses from officials in charge,” they added.

The Traveller Movement’s report this year in to GTR children in youth custody found that they were significantly more likely than other ethnic groups to report feeling unsafe and victimised by other young people and staff. GTR children are disproportionately represented in the Youth offending system.

Cultural awareness will be needed to implement strategies that will improve figures relating to GTR members in custody. The Traveller Movement will be seeking to find out how exactly GTR communities will be catered for and considered in this journey to improve outcomes for BME communities.

Yvonne MacNamara, CEO of the Traveller Movement, said that David Lidington has acknowledged that the government will be judged on its actions, as well as its words; Effective data monitoring is only the beginning.

“Even against a backdrop of a decreasing number of children being held in custody, GTR children remain disproportionately high,” she said.

“GTR children comprise 12% and 7% of Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions respectively. This cannot continue. Moving forward, we need to ensure that data reviews are truly meaningful and that consideration of GTR specific strategies is taken at every step. That is the only way that we will see real change”

Kate Green MP, chair of the Gypsy Traveller and Roma parliamentary group, said that the Lammy report was unequivocal about the poor outcomes for Gypsy Traveller and Roma young people in the criminal justice system. 

“Effective data is essential to understanding the factors behind offending behaviour, and in order to design the solutions that best address the needs and experiences of those from Gypsy and Traveller communities,” she said.

“Systems must be put in place to ensure that the 18+1 census categories are applied across all sectors of the justice system, including all police forces, the Criminal Justice System, probation and youth offending teams, and the youth and adult secure estate.”

jim davies

(Picture caption: Jim Davies, former police officer and Romany Gypsy campaigner)

However Jim Davies, a Romany Gypsy campaigner and former police officer, said he was “sceptical” about the government’s commitment to act and that the racism against Gypsies and Travellers in the Criminal Justice system was “deeply ingrained”.

“From a Romany and Traveller perspective, the Criminal Justice System is a system predicated on the notion that we are a criminal group not ethnic groups,” said Jim Davies – the former chair of the Association of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Police Officers.

“Despite the progress made in very recent years, particularly in policing, this remains the pervasive ideology. It is deeply ingrained. It is part of the very fabric of the system and results in enormous inequality and discrimination.”

“To change this will require major systemic change which will be an expensive and painful process for all involved. Does the desire and will to go through such change exist? I have my doubts. Given that even Romanies and Travellers working within the Criminal Justice System on the whole are unwilling to ethnically self-identify out of fear of how they will be treated, the recommendations of the Lammy report and the Governments response don’t really seem to have grasped the depth of the problem in relation to us.

“Still, any attempt to change things for the better should be welcomed and this is definitely a step in the right direction. We should judge though by what people do, not what they say they will do. As much as I hope my scepticism is misplaced, I will remain sceptical until I see actual positive change in the day to day lives of Romanies and Travellers.”