Kevin McNamara: Champion for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities

 

15 August 2017 / Andrew Ryder

The former Labour MP Kevin McNamara has died aged 82 after a short illness. McNamara, who represented Hull North in Westminster from 1966 to 2005, was born in Liverpool. During his career McNamara held a number of senior roles, he chaired select committees and held portfolios in opposition including shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland between 1987 and 1994. McNamara had a strong reputation for promoting human rights and being an independent and courageous thinker, it was these qualities which drew his interest to the plight of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Kevin McNamara was the first chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsies, Roma and Travellers from 2002 to 2005, a group which he established with the Liberal peer Lord Avebury and Conservative MP David Atkinson. This was an important development as for many years Lord Avebury had had little support from parliamentary colleagues in the defence of Traveller rights and with the abolition of the statutory duty to provide Traveller sites in 1994 the situation for Gypsies and Travellers worsened. The All Party Parliamentary Group enabled Gypsy and Traveller voices to be heard in parliament and community representatives were able to meet Government ministers and lobby for reform. Numerous meetings took place, often facilitated by Kevin McNamara and his equally committed researcher Martin Collins.

A key part of McNamara’s work involved promoting the Traveller Law Reform Bill, a draft law formulated by Cardiff University Law School and Gypsy and Traveller community leaders. The bill sought to place a duty on councils to provide and facilitate Traveller sites. In 2004 during a debate on the Housing Bill in which the Government intended to promote its ‘Decent Homes For All’ agenda McNamara called upon the then Labour Government to use the bill to address Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs, which at that stage seemed to be absent from the ‘Decent Homes For All’ agenda. In the debate McNamara referred to a letter from the Commission for Racial Equality which argued the Government risked failing to promote equality of opportunity and adequately address potential racial discrimination, by failing to sufficiently deal with Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs. In a powerful and persuasive line from his speech McNamara declared:

“That letter presents a powerful argument that the Government cannot afford to ignore if they value our commitment to social inclusion and our pledge to create decent homes for all. The word "all" should, and must, include the Gypsy and Traveller community” (Source: Hansard 12 Jan 2004 : Column 595).

 

The work of Kevin McNamara and his colleagues in the All Party Parliamentary Group and the grassroots campaign that come forth from the Traveller Law Reform Bill (Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition) was instrumental in leading the then Labour Government introducing a new planning circular on Gypsy/Traveller accommodation and placing their needs within regional spatial strategies. McNamara also worked actively to reduce community tensions which the sites shortage had exacerbated and was an important broker in the joint Declaration of the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition and Cottenham Residents' Association. Tensions had emerged in Cottenham due to the development of unauthorised pitches and a negative campaign of opposition, however through dialogue and mediation a joint statement was agreed between settled residents and Gypsies and Travellers which noted that the shortage of sites had had a negative impact on the social inclusion of Gypsies and Travellers, had caused inconvenience for the settled community and led to a deterioration in community relations and that a policy which delivered authorised sites was an important component of any solution. The ground-breaking dialogue was commended by the Commission for Racial Equality, Bishop Patrick O'Donaghue of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, Michael Evans, Bishop of East Anglia and the Right Reverend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford. This was important because it signalled that common ground and understanding could be found between communities who ostensibly seemed to be at loggerheads. (See Early Day Motion 1538 Cottenham Residents, Gypsy, Traveller Declaration, 17/7/2004 tabled by Kevin McNamara).

Sadly not everyone warmed to McNamara’s work to reduce community tensions. McNamara's very last act as an MP was to denounce Michael Howard, then Conservative leader, and the attacks he made on Gypsies and Travellers in the run up to the 2005 general election. Howard claimed Gypsies and Travellers were breaking the rules and taking advantage of the human rights act, and promised greater enforcement but had nothing to say about more sites.  Many interpreted these actions by Howard, probably crafted by Howard’s electoral strategist Lynton Crosby, as surfing the resentment stoked by the Sun newspaper’s infamous ‘Stamp on the Camps' articles. McNamara stated in protest at Howard’s actions:

"There is, I feel, a whiff of persecution about the way the Roma (Gypsies and Travellers) have been treated throughout Europe. They are easily discernible, they are an easy target to attack, to blame all sorts of difficulties on - to appeal to people's basest motives and I really do feel there is the whiff of the gas chambers about this."

McNamara’s remarks prompted the Daily Mail to jump to Howard’s defence and stiffly rebuke McNamara, comments which appeared on the Mail’s front page no less and which appeared on his very last day as an MP before his retirement. McNamara felt this was not a bad way to end his political career as an MP defending a community he was deeply concerned for. He will be greatly missed by his friends and family including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

By Andrew Ryder

Andrew Ryder is a researcher and former policy worker for the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition (2002 – 2006).

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