Last week, this column mentioned some of the issues that concern readers — often topics that politicians avoid — and one was Travellers (capital T, see below).
This week Sandbach Tory Matt Wood has written in about Gypsy / Travellers, his basic point being that the issue is not dealt with because of what he calls “political cowardice and correctness”.
Mr Wood is (as far as we can tell) a right wing Tory and we’re far too much wishy washy libertarians to agree with a lot of what he says. But the benefit of not being political (aside from being a bit Green) is that you can find yourself agreeing with everyone at some point, and Mr Wood did direct us to some interesting information.
As we said last week, people generally do not like Travellers setting up camps on spare land, not just because of the mess they leave but because, in some cases, of the petty (and not so petty) law breaking that goes with it.
Most people would think that the law should treat everyone the same: if your granny can be fined for parking on double yellow lines or parking without a ticket on a council car park, so should a band of Travellers. We can see it might be harder with the latter — they’re probably all called Smith and unlikely to answer a letter asking for payment — but the law is the law.
Whenever this topic comes up on social media, someone always chips in with a line about Travellers just being “different” and we’re all just closet racists and should let them be.
We can nail that one now: when the nasty, violent Travellers were in town last year, we contacted the Tuam Herald because Tuam has a high population of Travellers. It said the people we get over here are disliked in Eire and seen as English.They are not representative of the ethnic group known as Travellers (hence the capital T).
So it seems fair to ignore the “they’re just following a different cultural tradition” and agree that they should be made to obey the law, the same as everyone else. Cultural identity is one thing, harassing women and stealing with threats of violence is another.
In his letter, Mr Wood directed us to a Government Select Committee report looking at caravan site provision.
It summed up the nub of the problem very well: English people are happy to employ wandering tradesmen — particularly (we say, not the committee), if a cash in hand transaction is cheaper than paying VAT to a registered trader. The local police have made this same point — the Travellers only hang around because there’s paid work to be had.
On the other hand, people are “appalled” (the committee’s word) at the prospect of Travellers setting up mobile homes anywhere nearby, as can currently be seen at Middlewich.
This is because people fear crime and anti-social behaviour — quite justifiably in many cases — but this in turn means that Gypsies and Travellers move in large groups, for their own safety. (No, really).
So: we have a community of people travelling around, doing work for cash, forced to move in groups because of fear of crime but also committing crimes and not generally prosecuted, and facing a lack of places to park legally (3,500 Gypsies and Travellers, 20% of the travelling community, have no legal place where they can stop their caravan).
There is probably no easy solution but options to promote could be:
● Travellers who break the law to be treated the same as everyone else;
● householders persuaded to stop having small cash jobs done by people knocking door to door; and
● transit sites to be established so Travellers at least have somewhere to go.
But there the simple solutions, at least on the time scale this column is written, seem to end.
The logical conclusion would seem to be to avoid simple solutions: what we really need is to get the Travellers to travel in smaller groups, which means reducing the animosity towards them. Then they might arrive less likely to cause mess and / or trouble. This is possibly where transit sites might come in, if anyone would agree to them being built.
In the other direction, the Travellers need to be more community minded, and report the unruly to the police or, at least, as the evidence from Tuam would suggest, police the unruly themselves — they don’t like involving the authorities.
You see what happened there? We ended up being a bit wishy washy. And of course the rational approach only works if the Travellers you are dealing with are basically ok — which, from our own experience and from the Traveller heartland Tuam, they are not.
So we end up agreeing with Mr Wood: on this particular issue, political correctness is not going to work. But what will?
This is one issue we’re happy to leave with politicians.