Socialist Worker

The experience of Gypsies and Travellers in Britain

Emma Nuttall from the Friends, Families and Travellers charity works with English Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers. She spoke to Sadie Robinson about the struggles they endure

Issue No. 2116

Gypsies and Travellers in Britain are socially excluded, powerless and often quite dispersed. The lack of resources and services available to them has a drastic impact on their lives. Educational achievement among Gypsies and Travellers is the lowest of any ethnic group in Britain.

They have the highest rate of infant mortality, the lowest life expectancy and higher rates of maternal deaths. Gypsies and Travellers live between ten and 12 years less than the settled population. They have higher rates of anxiety and depression.

You're incredibly vulnerable if you're camped out on the roadside. We've had cases where people have been firebombed.

I think the tabloid press encourages people to see Gypsies and Travellers as not being human. This makes them victims of the last socially acceptable racism. But the reality is that where there are well established sites there are usually no problems.

Currently there are about 4,500 Gypsy and Traveller families in England that don't have an official site to live on. So they stop on the roadside and get moved on. We've worked with some families that have been moved over 50 times in a year.


The tabloid newspapers say it's outrageous that families are living on the roadside but they don't ask why the families are there – they haven't got an authorised site to live on.

This makes it very difficult to access education, employment and healthcare, not to mention basics like electricity and running water.

Local authorities used to have a duty to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers under the 1968 Caravan Sites Act. People paid council tax and paid rent to live there.

The Tories' Criminal Justice Act in 1994 changed this. They thought that it was too costly to provide sites and that Gypsies and Travellers should buy their own land.

The act also recommended that local authorities should identify which land would be suitable for Gypsy and Traveller sites. But this wasn't compulsory – and only one local authority followed the advice.

This meant that whatever land Gypsies or Travellers bought was disputed. People would pressure councillors and say they didn't want gypsies living near them. Councillors wouldn't identify land that could be used for sites.

The Housing Act in 2004 introduced a duty on councils to do what they called a 'Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs assessment'.

The act said that once the councils worked out how many pitches on sites were needed, the local authority had to allocate suitable land to meet that need. Their housing strategy would also have to say how the sites would be delivered.

But the problem is that, where many Travellers have bought land, they haven't managed to obtain planning permission.

The main stumbling block with the 2004 act is the length of time the process takes. It is so slow. Meanwhile you've got thousands of families stuck on the roadside.

For more about the work of Friends, Families and Travellers, go to »

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