LRC Opinion

UK Traveller Community Facing Sustained Discrimination

In an era of multiculturalism and diversity in the UK, underscored by the recent government commissioned race report, and celebrated by Black History month in October and LGBT history month in February, one ethnic group has been sidelined and marginalized in society in recent decades.

The traveller community have faced persistent discrimination and predujice, measured in a range of factors. This has been further highlighted in the news cycle by two particular stories – Labour MP’s Charlotte Nichols recent party leaflet, and the implications of the new police powers bill.

But first, some background. It is estimated roughly 300,000 travellers live in the UK, including significant communities in the London boroughs of Harrow and Brent, some dating back to the 1850s. Under the Equality Act of 2010, travellers are considered a “protected characteristic”, forbidding discrimination based on ethnic origin, among other factors. 

Despite this, prejudice against travellers is commonplace in modern day Britain. A 2017 YouGov poll, published by advocacy group The Traveller Movement, exposed various negative and discriminatory societal views held against the community. Only a third (34%) of respondents (the wider public) consider travellers to be an ‘ethnic group’.

Only 41% would be happy for their child having a “playdate” at the home of a traveller friend, whilst 42% would be unhappy with a close-relative having a long-term relationship with a traveller.  Shockingly, 13% believe pubs should ban travellers from entry.

The same report, titled “The Last Acceptable Form of Racism?”, also summarized that 70% of travellers faced discrimination regarding education, 49% regarding employment, and 30% regarding healthcare. 55% had been refused services due to their ethnicity, whilst 77% had experienced hate speech or a hate crime. 76% had hid their ethnicity at some point to avoid further discrimination. 

This report is not wholly groundbreaking and instead reinforces long-held research evidencing pervasive attitudes of an anti-traveller culture. Nine out of ten children have suffered racial abuse. A 2004 report found the group were castigated as “unsightly, dirty, or unhygienic”. After 15-year-old traveller Jonny Delaney was attacked and killed in 2003, the judge refused to rule the killing as “racially motivated”.

In March, a whistleblower at holiday firm Pontins revealed a company “blacklist” of “undesirable guests” with mainly Irish surnames, investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Such practices were part of the company policy.

As mentioned, this discrimination has entered the news cycle in both a sharp and developing sense. Primarily, this occurred after a slip-up by Labour’s Charlotte Nichols, MP for Warrington North since 2019. Last week, Nichols was pictured with an official party leaflet in her constituency, detailing various policy aims. 

One of the bullet points listed “dealing with traveller incursions”. Incursions is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “an invasion or attack, especially a sudden or brief one”. This language is clearly problematic and ostracizes travellers as a threatening and harmful group.

Nichols was criticized on social media, including by Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley as “vile and obviously racist”, demanding an  “apology and appropriate disciplinary action”. Nichols quickly offered an “unreserved apology” whilst Labour, typically portrayed as the party for diversity, promised to destroy the leaflets. Nichols said she was unaware of the “problematic definition” of the language used, but anyhow, it was a shocking PR move and a total blunder. 

Compounded to this, the various socioeconomic implications of the new police powers bill, a ’mammoth’ piece of legislation already embroiled in controversy and outrage, have damning effects for travellers. The bill includes a clause giving the police powers to seize vehicles, which could potentially encompass homes, and issue £2,500 fines, or 3 months imprisonment, for the offence of trespass. 

Trespass has traditionally been a civil offence in the UK, so this legal change has severe impacts for travellers across the country. A report by Friends, Families and Travellers concluded the bill “compounds inequalities”, “disproportionately affects minority ethnic groups”, and blamed a lack of space for travellers originally, slashed by the Conservatives, for the issues in the first place. 

Spokesperson Abbie Kirkby said “the cruelty is unfathomable, nobody should be imprisoned for the crime of having nowhere to go”.

In a society supposedly intent on rightfully celebrating and embracing multi-ethnicity and diversity, this is a serious shortfall. Two things would have to occur to swell this tide of discrimination.

Firstly, political parties must be better educated and regulated on party material containing language that is directly discriminatory to a group protected under the Equalities Act.

Secondly, provisions of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill must be revised to protect the traveller community as an ethnic group, with greater consultation and dialogue. In this current culture and environment, whether either of these is feasible or attainable is another question entirely.