It’s not just Pontins though – is it?

16 February 2024
It’s not just Pontins though – is it?

The Travellers’ Times investigates yesterday’s damning report by the equalities watchdog about anti-Traveller discrimination by Pontins and finds that certain ‘unlawful discriminatory practices’ are still being used by other brand-name holiday camp operators.

The equalities watchdog’s forensic investigative report into Pontins unlawful discrimination against Irish Travellers, published yesterday, will have left the holiday camp industry reeling, as the report has implications that go far wider than Pontins. 

But first, let’s make no bones about how damning the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s report is. Investigators working for the commission found enough hard evidence to say – on the balance of probabilities - that from 2013 to 2018 Pontins staff operated an official policy designed to bar Irish Travellers from its holiday camps.

It didn’t matter if you had never caused any trouble before, or even if you had never even visited a Pontins holiday camp before, if the staff suspected you were an Irish Traveller/Pavee you were barred and your booking refused – or cancelled if it had already gone through. Pontins had a list of common Irish Traveller names which would flag up ‘Irish Traveller status’ and to back this up its staff would also check addresses of potential Irish Traveller guests on Google maps to see if they lived in or near caravan parks, and also rely on their interpretation of an Irish Traveller accent if the booking was taken over the phone – the Commission says, adding that there were over 100 unexplained entries on a Pontins No Longer Welcome database relating to guests who lived on a caravan park, including on registered Traveller sites.

Pontins must now, says the Commission, apologise to the Romany and Traveller community, commit to a zero tolerance towards discrimination, engage with Romany and Traveller groups at the highest level, and prepare an action plan for the purpose of avoiding repetition or continuation of the unlawful discriminations. The first draft of the action plan must be given to the EHRC by 5pm on Tuesday 9 April 2024. Failure to do so will mean the Commission could apply for an injunction to prevent unlawful discrimination – and failure to comply with an injunction could lead to criminal charges.

But the damning report goes wider than Pontins because one of the unlawful indirect discriminations, that the Commissions investigators found, was Pontins claimed use of the electoral register to ‘prove’ potential guests’ names and addresses. I say ‘claimed’ because the Commission are satisfied that Pontins used this screening tool simply as an excuse to ban potential guests it already suspected to be Irish Travellers. Yet, the Commission also found that even ‘genuinely’ using the electoral register as a confirmation of name and address was both flawed and indirectly discriminatory against Romanies and Irish Travellers, because – citing Traveller Movement evidence given to the investigators – people from these communities are less likely to be on the electoral register than the wider population. Pontins told the Commission that the use of the electoral register was “industry standard” and the Commission has now duly warned that:

“All other holiday sector operators should also remove electoral roll terms and conditions and replace them with a proportionate identity check on arrival that allows for a range of identification methods.”

Yet the Travellers' Times checked the rival holiday camp operator Butlin’s terms and conditions earlier today, and we found this in the “small print”:

“We (Butlin’s) require evidence of identity and address details for all guests aged 18 and over. We reserve the right to check that any guests who are resident in the UK appear on the electoral register.”

Butlin's terms and conditions - screenshot 2pm 16/02/2024

The Travellers’ Times has no evidence to suggest that Butlin’s is, or was, using the electoral register in any other than a ‘genuine’ way – that is to systematically check the identity and address of potential guests regardless of their ethnicity – yet Butlin’s have faced discrimination claims before. In an article published in 2018, the Travellers’ Times  revealed that Butlin’s had settled out of court after being accused of discriminating against Travellers.

In a statement given to the Travellers' Times, a Butlin’s spokesperson said: “We welcome guests from all backgrounds to our resorts and do not discriminate against any groups. We’re in regular contact with the Equality and Human Right Commission and are reviewing our T&Cs.”

So it seems that the wheels of justice are turning as the implications of the Commission's report filters through the holiday camp industry – and it’s been a long time coming. Eight years ago, in January 2016, a Mr O’Leary – an Irish Traveller living in Camden - spoke to the Travellers’ Times about being refused service by not just one, but two holiday camp operators.

Mr O’Leary had first booked and paid for his Christmas holiday at Butlin’s for himself, his wife and children and for other members of his immediate family a few months before they were due to go. They were planning to have a change and spend the Christmas break together in a holiday camp.

Instead, their Christmas was “ruined” when they received a letter– addressed directly to Mr and Mrs O’Leary - six days before they were due to go to Butlin’s, telling them that the holiday had been cancelled because they were not on the electoral register.

“We had already started packing, getting the presents ready to take with us, the children were looking forward to it and then the letter arrived telling us we couldn’t go,” says Mr O’Leary. “We are on the electoral register, we have lived in the same house in Camden for 20 years. If they had a problem then why didn’t Butlin's contact us before? Why take three and a half months?”

Mr O’Leary then tried ringing the manager of the holiday camp and offered to take the proof of the address and identification documents of all the family members he had booked to his office but was told that if he did so they would call the police.

“I wasn’t angry or shouting,” says Mr O’Leary. “I thought it was something that could be sorted out. I was in shock when I realised that they were not going to be reasonable. Instead, they threatened to get me arrested if I showed up with my documents. They said I was not welcome in any of their camps.”

“I am a hard-working man, none of my family have ever caused trouble for Butlin's or anywhere else in the past. I’ve never even been there before.”

Mr O’Leary then tried to book with Pontins, the rival holiday camp operator, in an effort to salvage the family’s holiday but was refused service there as well.

“I tried to book over the phone but the man said the O’Leary name had flagged up on the computer and he wasn’t going to book the holiday. I asked why and he said ‘I don’t have to tell you that’.”

“This is discrimination,” says Mr O’Leary. “I reckon our name is on some kind of Traveller black list. They ruined our holiday and I will see them in court or whatever it takes.”

At the time Butlin’s provided us with this statement:

"Our terms and conditions have been in place for many years, and guests regularly return year after year and enjoy family holidays with us.

As with all large party sizes for breaks around the festive period, our terms state that all UK-based adults in the party must appear on the Electoral Register. For those who live outside the UK, we ask for proof of address for all adults in the group.

It is essential that we can be certain who our guests are. The safety and security of all those who visit a Butlin's resort is our primary concern.”

In the case of Pontins, it seems that Mr O’Leary was nearly right and there was such a black list - alongside a policy of routinely refusing service to Irish Travellers - but his surname O’Leary was not on that list, although O’Brien, O’Connell, O’Donnell, O’Donoghue, O’Mahoney and O’Reilly were.

The Pontins Traveller name black list - used as evidence in the Equalities and Human Rights Commission's investigation (Public domain)

The Traveller Movement then complained to the Commission on Mr O’Leary’s behalf and provided him with expert legal advice from a discrimination specialist law firm and a top barrister. Unfortunately, The Travellers’ Times understands that because one of Mr O’Leary’s fellow guests was not on the electoral register – it was advised that he could lose his case after a costly court battle with Butlin’s. If a similar case as Mr O’Leary’s arose today, that legal advice – in light of the Commission’s warning about the use of electoral registers – could well be different.

The Travellers’ Times approached the Traveller Movement for comment.

Yvonne MacNamara, CEO of the Traveller Movement, said:

"The Traveller Movement welcomes the Equalities and Human Rights Commission's (EHRC) decision to serve Pontins with an unlawful act notice, such blatant racist practice cannot go unchecked. We hope this sends a strong message to the hospitality sector that anti-Romani (Gypsy), Roma and Irish Traveller racism is unacceptable and that we will not allow it to continue.

We do have reservations as to how much this decision will affect racist practice in the hospitality sector. We successfully took JD Wetherspoons PLC to court over refusal of service in 2015 and since the Pontins investigation by the EHRC we have dealt with a number of refusal of service cases. The EHRC and the Equalities Act need stronger teeth in tackling discrimination and we welcome reforms to enable this change.

This racist behaviour is given a green light by politicians and parties who continue to perpetuate and enable racism towards Romani (Gypsy), Roma and Irish Travellers. This week we have made complaints to both the Parliamentary standards commissioner and the Labour party regarding racism from Tory and Labour politicians and are yet to see any action taken.”

In a statement Baroness Kishwer Falkner, Chairwoman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, said:

“Holidays should be time that we all look forward to the most. They should be time spent with families and friends, making memories and recharging our batteries. There will be limits on what we can do, set perhaps by time, money and geography. Our race or ethnic group should never be a limit.

But that is what members of the Irish Traveller community faced when they tried to book holidays with Pontins.

At Pontins, race discrimination was company policy that staff had to follow. Holidaymakers were routinely discriminated against when Pontins felt their name, accent or address indicated they were part of this ethnic group.

Pontins considered people they thought may be part of the Irish Traveller community to be ‘undesirable’. The term ‘undesirable’ was integrated into their data systems and included in their policies. Pontins refused or cancelled bookings from people they deemed ‘undesirable’. In doing so, Pontins deliberately, openly and repeatedly broke the law.

The discrimination faced by Irish Travellers, and other members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, has no place in 21st-century Britain. The impact of the discrimination faced by those who were refused bookings at Pontins cannot be overstated. People told us that the experience was ‘painful’ and made them feel ‘dehumanised’.

As the equality regulator for Great Britain, it is our mission to ensure people are treated equally and fairly. Our investigation, with the help of a brave whistleblower, has shown that Pontins comprehensively failed to treat its customers equally and fairly. At the Equality and Human Rights Commission, we will always challenge such discrimination.

Pontins broke the law. Pontins must now put right their wrongs. We will continue to hold them, and others who think they are above the law, to account.”

Britannia Jinky Jersey Ltd, who own Pontins, said in a statement:

“We are in the process of reviewing the unlawful act notice and investigation report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The specific incidents reported by the EHRC are historic issues predating 2018. The call centre where the incidents took place has closed and the majority of the staff involved have now left Pontins.

We apologise to all who may have been affected. Pontins is committed to ensuring ongoing compliance with the Equality Act 2010.”

Mike Doherty/TT News

(Photograph by Eirian Evans, CC BY-SA 2.0,