Government statement on ‘illegal encampments’ causes media furore as Gypsies and Travellers swing into action

12 August 2013

Above: Romany journalist and former Travellers' Times editor Jake Bowers on ITV's Daybreak. He said councils already "have more powers than they need" to move people on.

By Mike Doherty

A statement issued by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) telling councils to “clamp down” on the “blight” of “illegal encampments and unauthorised traveller sites”, was condemned by Gypsy and Traveller groups as “political grandstanding”, sparking off a media furore last Friday.

Gypsy and Traveller organisations got wind of the impending DCLG statement when many of them were contacted with an ‘embargoed’ – or pre-release - copy the day before by TV, radio and press journalists eager to get their reactions.

It is common practise for Government and other corporate organisations to release embargoed statements to journalists a few days before they are officially released, so that the news media is ready to cover a story as soon as it ‘breaks’, or becomes public.

Many Gypsies and Travellers reacted furiously to the Government’s use of the word “blight” to describe Gypsies and Travellers who have no-where secure to site their caravans, or who are fighting the local council in a bid to get planning permission to let them to live on their own land.

In a statement released through the Press Association and published in most of the local and national press, Joseph Jones, chairman of the Gypsy Council, accused the government of “reinforcing negative stereotypes” and “creating tension.”

Romany journalist and former editor of Travellers' Times, Jake Bowers, appeared in several interviews on ITV. He said that councils already "have more powers than they need" to move people on.

The government should use "less of the stick and more of the carrot" by giving enough people legal places to stay, he said, and reminded viewers that the Welsh government has reintroduced the duty on councils to provide sites which once existed in England.

Speaking to the Guardian, Traveller rights campaigner, Candy Sheridan, said that “focusing simply on the settled communities' desires not to have a Gypsy site near them fuels their racism and achieves nothing for the majority of law-abiding Travellers out there waiting for sites or land identification."

A local Romany Gypsy community group called ‘Kushti Bok’ told the Dorset Echo that there was an acute lack of sites in their area. Dorset Romany Traveller, Betty Smith, told the Echo that:“for my people, for all of the Romany, I feel the council have completely failed us and let all our people down.”

The DCLG statement was also a big item on local and national TV and radio. Talking to BBC National News, Matthew Brindley of the Travellers Movement said: “The measures outlined in the guidance do not address the root cause of the issue of unauthorized encampments, which is an under-provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites nationwide. There is a chronic shortage.”

Travellers' Times Editor Damian Le Bas argued with DCLG minister Brandon Lewis on BBC Hereford and Worcestershire and was heartened by the grilling Brandon Lewis received. “The presenter's line was "how can you possibly issue a notice like this when you admit there's a massive shortage of sites?" said Damian Le Bas.

In a further twist, the story gained more ‘legs’ when both the Huffington Post and the Guardian were alerted to the fact that the DCLG had “watered down” the original embargoed press release statement and that the statement published on their website had dropped the word “blight” because of the growing fury from Gypsy and Traveller groups. Responding to this claim, the DCLG told the Huffington Post that the word had been dropped for “technical” reasons and that they “stood by” its use.

Talking to the Guardian, Yvonne MacNamara, the director of the Travellers Movement, said the language used by Pickles was offensive. "Would you call homeless people blight? It's very, very offensive. We're talking about homeless Travellers here being used as a political football."

Did the DCLG “water down” the original embargoed statement released to journalists? The Travellers Times will be using the Freedom of Information Act to investigate the government’s claim that the word “blight” was dropped for “technical reasons”.