By Sam Ruby
New Labour, after much lobbying, and despite the recommendations of a Commons Select Committee, has refused to introduce legislation compelling local councils to provide official sites for gypsies and travellers.
This compulsion existed from 1968 until it was repealed by the Tories under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, a move opposed by Labour at the time.
The policy regime introduced by the Tories has increased the number of unauthorised encampments and helped to further criminalise gypsies and travellers. It has also been the cause of some horrible incidents of - sometimes violent and racist - clashes in villages and towns.
New Labour's policy makes no sense: its own research has shown that within the next five years between 1,000 and 2,000 additional residential pitches will be needed and between 2,000 and 2,500 temporary pitches will also be required.
It only makes sense if New Labour has given in to ingrained and widespread prejudice against gypsies and travellers.
Recently released official documents show that the compulsion to provide sites introduced in 1968 was quickly seen to be unenforceable - derailed by resistance from prejudiced residents. Councils that had no electoral incentive to tackle this prejudice claimed exemptions to the law. The practice of gypsies using unauthorised sites continued. If New Labour now fails to give a lead, what it is doing is nothing less than pandering to anti-gypsy racism. It is a disgrace!
That was the conclusion of long-time activist for the gypsy community Kit Sampson when she gave back her MBE recently: "[this government is] discriminating against a group in a way which means children don't have access to education and men and women and children don't have access to healthcare. This government is exactly like the last one."
She is right. This is a cowardly betrayal.
Backlash against gypsies is routine, the 'respectable' racism perpetrated by respectable people who want to see gypsies evicted from any site that comes within miles of their own families and property. Daily Express headline bemoans the 'plight' of Minety, Wiltshire residents who tried, and failed, to evict 55 travellers from land they owned because they had not got planning permission to put in electricity and water - things they had to do for themselves because the council would not do it for them - and because the site was not in keeping the 'thatched cottage' environment of 'unspoilt' England.