Earlier this month Michael Howard unveiled some spectacularly crude propaganda against travellers, alleging that Roma and other travelling people are given preferential treatment over the settled community when it comes to planning permission. This is because of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into
British law by the Human Rights Act 1998, which guarantees the right to home life.
If Howard’s claim were true we might say, so what? Maybe travellers should be granted some slack so that they can make a home for themselves. However, it isn’t true. Article 8 specifically allows councils to take into account “the rights and freedoms of others” including the “settled community”, before granting planning permission. On only one occasion since the Act became law has a council given planning permission to a traveller site because of Article 8.
In fact, travellers receive discriminatory, rather than preferential treatment. More than 90% of planning applications from travellers are refused, and two-thirds of appeals fail.
There is only a “problem” with “illegal” sites because there are not enough “legal” ones and travellers are forced to move on so often.
Actually blame for this lies squarely at the door of Michael Howard himself, who as Home Secretary in 1994 removed the obligation on local authorities to provide sites for travellers.
Tory councils needed no more prompting, and even now some are puffing hot air about refusing to provide more sites even if the government reintroduces the obligation to do so (which looks unlikely). Where sites are established in Tory areas, a tide of filth flows over them from the mouths of MPs like John Baron of Billericay. Now Howard proposes to change or abolish the Human Rights Act, merely to stop travellers from having anywhere to live.
Labour spokespeople have exaggerated the Tory proposals for effect, one even saying they had “a whiff of the gas chambers about them”. Pre-election hyperbole... perhaps. Then again, let’s remember the comments of Andrew Mackay, Tory MP for Bracknell, three years ago. He said publicly that all travellers are “scum” who should not have the same human rights as the rest of the species — in other words, that they are sub-human.
Of course, the Tories are being foolish. They have shot their quiverful of poisoned arrows before the real campaign begins, and the next month will be dominated by debate about who can best manage capitalism while dropping a few crumbs from the table to the majority of people — not something it is possible to believe the Tories can do at the moment.
However, they will succeed, unless they are strongly refuted, in further poisoning politics in this country with racism and bigotry. To quote Peter Hain (not someone we quote often in this paper), Howard is indulging in “dog-whistle politics”. Blow a stridently racist note and the bigot vote will come running, wagging their verminous tails, to their natural home, the Conservative Party.
The New Labour response, basically “We don’t agree that travellers shouldn’t have human rights but we will prosecute the anti-social ones” (Home Office press releases ad nauseam) is inadequate to clean away the resulting smears of racist filth. The labour movement will have to combat this new upsurge of racism with a straightforward anti-racist campaign in solidarity with travellers.