Friday, October 28, 2011


Where Now For Travellers?

Before taking a political stand, I usually know the facts. I read a lot, I listen, I think about it. I’m wary of politicians who appeal to ‘common sense’ or ‘gut instinct’ and don’t let the facts get in the way. But I have to admit that, while I followed some news stories about the Dale Farm Travellers, I don’t know a lot about Gypsy and Roma people, so I’m writing more from gut instinct than informed research. And my Liberal gut instinct’s that when the law singles out a particular group of people to bully, it’s just plain wrong.

I know people broke the law; I don’t have a simple solution. But ask yourself – in all the years you’ve heard of planning disputes, NIMBYism or flouted regulations, have you ever heard of someone who built a conservatory without planning permission having it pulled down by riot police at a cost of £18 million? Or the tanks being sent in to blow up those Tescos which are two hectares too big?

The argument about Dale Farm went on for ten years, as far as I can make out, so what was the hurry to send in over a hundred riot police to taser people, cutting the electricity supply where there are ill and dying people, and then the police dragging them out on stretchers? It seems less like enforcing the law and more just ‘Let’s show these awkward Gypsies who’s in bloody charge’. I’ve had ill and dying family members – most of us have. And even if they were guilty of terrible crimes, I wouldn’t want them treated like that in their dying days. But what were they guilty of? Not getting planning permission. It seems horribly wrong to do that to anyone, let alone mostly law-abiding people who just don’t happen to conform, or even to wish it on – to take a hypothetical example for which I would in no way wish – the Basildon Councillors who stuck their noses in the air and denied that planning permission to have a gang of thugs break into their hospices and drag them into the gardens when it’s their time, just so they know what it’s like.

And, look, I may not know much about travellers, but even I can spot the piss-taking in Basildon Council’s mealy-mouthed claims that they’d offered (bricks and mortar) accommodation to children and old people in pretence that they weren’t being evil. First, they’re travellers, so, yeah, great start. And second – take away people’s children? Lock up their aged parents? Send everyone in between to a completely different part of the country? Have you noticed that the more socially conservative politicians are, the more they’re the sort who prate about ‘family values’, the more they want to break up actual, real, breathing families? Just as it’s the ones who most shout about ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ who gang up to destroy any old traditions and cultures of which coincidentally they personally are not members.

I’ve often heard people attack travellers on the grounds that they’re not prejudiced, goodness me no, but it’s just ‘for the sake of the children’. The Dale Farm eviction seems to have given the lie to that, with every evictee basically told to fuck off hundreds of miles away. So how does that go for kids’ schooling, or healthcare? I don’t know what arrangements travellers usually make for those things, but the organs of the state seem to be deliberately making it as difficult for them to sort it out as possible.

Bad Laws Are Made To Be Broken

Pretty much the founding principle of Liberalism is controlling arbitrary power – standing up to bullies. If I see a group of big bullies pushing around a vulnerable group that most people hate for no good reason, my instinct’s always with the underdog whether or not I know or like them. And when people have piously prated that the hundreds of taser-wielding riot police at dawn were only upholding the Rule of Law, they know fuck all about the Rule of Law. Because that’s a Liberal founding principle, too, and it depends on equality before the law and not having the law side with one group against another. If the law happens only to heavily penalise one group, then what reason do they have to obey it?

I’m a strong supporter of the Coalition Government, though I wish the first time we’ve been in government for the best part of a century didn’t coincide with the most god-awful economic mess for the worst part of a century. In trying to clean up that mess, the Coalition Government’s doing a lot of things that I don’t like, but which are necessary, or at least defensible, and people who pretend it’s morally rather than practically wrong are usually just posing (while my view of the Labour MPs who ran up the bill and now run away from it is rarely printable). There’s very little the Government’s done, even the more Tory enclaves of it, that I’d say ‘No, that makes me ashamed’. But last year, coincidentally the same week that the United Nations was criticising the French Government for being evil shits [that’s your actual UN report I’m quoting] to travellers, I heard that the Coalition was going to remove the requirement for local councils to provide sites for travellers, and I was sickened. There’s no excuse for rushing to do this. It’s been in place for decades; it seems inadequate and something that a lot of councils try to get around as much as they can anyway; and if you take it away, suddenly there’s a great excuse and great pressure to push around one of the few groups it’s still acceptable to be horribly racist about. How many other communities have their needs explicitly excluded by law? I remember it was a little over a year ago, because I remember when I asked a Liberal Democrat minister why we’d agreed to this, and then another. I’d tell you what they said, but it may be a sign of how indefensible this policy is that thirteen months later, I’ve yet to have an answer – and that’s the only time that’s ever happened, in two decades of my holding senior Lib Dems to account. So if you’re reading, consider this a public reminder, eh?

I should, however, direct you to the Statement on Dale Farm eviction by Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, which while hardly forceful does at least regret what happened:
“We suspect that many of those who support the eviction would prefer it if the authorised site were removed as well.
“Bearing in mind reports on this case both from the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission and UN Human Rights Commission, we hope that this will give the country and the Government in particular, the opportunity to reflect upon the intense difficulties for Gypsy Roma Travellers to find lawful sites on which they can live. The Government acknowledges that at least 1 in 5 of all Travellers are forced to live on unauthorised sites because there are insufficient authorised sites nationwide.
“It should be noted that whatever is happening in respect of the eviction of Travellers at Dale Farm, the remainder of Dale Farm will continue to be an authorised Travellers’ site.
“We hope that the Local Authority will meet its statutory obligations to the families who will be evicted as a result of their actions.”

If regular readers are wondering why I’m blogging quite a bit at the moment, but much more with Doctor Who reviews rather than my usually more even balance of politics and TV, it’s because (hey ho) I’m not at all well. And when I’ve got pretty much no mental, physical or emotional energy to spare, that has a huge effect on my writing. Often I just don’t do any of it; but also, immersing myself in Doctor Who makes me less unhappy, while engaging in politics does the reverse. Despite that, I’ve been meaning to write about this all week, because – aside from Andrew George’s cross-party concern – I’ve not seen any other Lib Dems writing about it and, basically, I thought it was wrong and wanted there to be at least one.

Update: I’ve had this post by Matt Pearson recommended to me; it strikes a similar tone (if less sweary), but with more facts and a quite remarkable amount of Tesco (which makes Richard suggesting my line above even more appropriate than I thought).

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I share some of your concerns - however demolition of properties built without planning permission does happen (including one rather well known person's conservatory!):

Get well soon :-)
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