On 2nd April 2014 Baroness Whitaker tabled a question for short debate: ‘ to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to mark International Roma Day.’
The Bishop of St Albans gave a speech highlighting the work being undertaken in Luton in support of the Roma community in the diocese of St Albans, He also focused on the need to improve educational opportunities for Roma children.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for securing this debate, and give my sincere apologies for arriving just after she had started her speech. I am sorry; I had been told that we were starting around 6 pm so I ran down the Corridors to get here.
I am very glad that we are thinking about how we mark International Roma Day next week. As the noble Baroness said, I was glad to be one of the signatories of the letter that was published on 17 February in the Telegraph, highlighting the forced eviction of Roma in Cluj-Napoca in Romania. I then tabled a Question to ask the Minister whether any representations had been made to the Government of Romania, and in particular if she would urge the Romanian Government to enforce the decision of the Cluj-Napoca county court that the evictions targeting the Roma community were illegal.
I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s reply and for the assurance that the British embassy there was monitoring these and other forced evictions of Roma, although I was concerned to learn that the decision of the Cluj-Napoca court was subject to appeal. Is the Minister able to give us any update on what has happened since then? Is she able to tell us about the response of the local government following the British embassy visit to Cluj on 11 February, when the issue of forced evictions was raised? Will she also tell us more about the progress being made by the partnership with the local NGO to develop projects aimed at preventing disadvantaged Roma children leaving school before the minimum age?
The situation in Romania is worrying but similar situations can be found in many other countries and they are equally worrying. The danger is that we spend quite a lot of time thinking about the problems elsewhere rather than focusing on some of the very evident problems that we have here. Britain is rightly proud of its long and honourable tradition of welcoming immigrants and fighting discrimination. If International Roma Day is to have any real significance, there needs to be some action behind it.
I know something of the background because in my own diocese we have a Roma congregation. When you meet people from that congregation, you will find that stories of discrimination are commonplace. The Roma church in Luton meets in a United Reformed Church building—it is one of those ecumenical initiatives that we are all involved in nowadays. The leadership is shared between one of my own clergy, the Reverend Martin Burrell, and some of the Roma men from the congregation. The church began meeting in May 2011; it has an average weekly congregation of around 70 people; and it has children’s programmes for different age groups. All the congregation are Romanian in their ethnic roots, although many did not come directly from Romania to the UK.
They are not a homogeneous group—they come from different parts of Romania and belong to different family groups—yet many share similar stories of rejection and racism. There is a certain unwillingness to talk about it, as they want to fit in and, not surprisingly, want to be viewed as normal—as just regular people in the community. There is no doubt that the Roma’s historic problems with integration have been compounded by some confusion, certainly in the popular mind, over Roma and Romania and some of the current issues around migration, especially at a time when the economy here has not been in such good health.
There have been a significant number of Roma economic migrants, especially since 2007. Interestingly enough, the majority would describe themselves as Christian. Therefore, the Church of England has a particular responsibility to engage with them, to minister to them, to provide them with a safe place to meet and worship, and to help and support them in all the practicalities of life towards integration into the wider community.
It is encouraging that some members of that congregation are making significant progress in integrating and building their lives here in the UK, although others are still struggling to break through. Local churches are seeking to provide holistic service to this community, in which multiple, complex needs are evident. Such needs include difficulties in accessing education, employment, social services and medical care. Part of the problem is a language barrier to being able to benefit from much needed help. For these, the provision of translation allows discussions with doctors, schoolteachers and so on that would otherwise be very difficult.
There is a great deal of work for those of us in the churches and the voluntary sector to do, and we are applying ourselves to it and engaging with it. However, there is a vital role to play for Her Majesty’s Government. Tackling the current paucity of employment opportunities for the Roma must be prioritised if long-term social cohesion is to be achieved. I believe that there is a large potential workforce of young, intelligent and willing people whose skills, if they can be linked to needs on the ground, could be a huge benefit to us all. Literacy and language barriers often form some of the difficulties, so we need to do more to make available to Roma people work opportunities that perhaps do not require the highest level of spoken English or literacy at the same time as focusing on education.
The report, They Go the Extra Mile, produced by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, pointed out that Roma pupils have the lowest attainment rate of any ethnic group at GCSE and that the highest rates of formal and legal exclusion were for children from Roma, Irish Traveller and Caribbean backgrounds. The level of fixed-term exclusion is worryingly high for these groups, compared with the 5% of children from the general population who have a fixed-term exclusion. The level for Roma Traveller children is 15%.
The first recommendation of the report, backed up by the Children’s Commissioner, concluded:
“We share Ministers’ conviction that a child’s background should not limit our shared expectations of their achievement. We believe that this holds as true for behaviour as for academic attainment. We therefore recommend that all parts of the education system that disproportionately and adversely affect the most vulnerable children remain priorities for action. This includes the large differences in rates of exclusion”.
I have no doubt that there are some complex cultural reasons why we are facing some of these difficulties. I am not naive; I know many teachers who are working with populations which come to this country. Therefore, the education, support and resourcing of heads and teachers is vital if we are to lower the level of exclusion and raise the level of academic achievement. Can the Minister tell us whether the Department for Education has any particular plans to help work and support in this specific area?
Of course, I am well aware that funding is, as always, tight but is there any opportunity for us to create posts for Roma community champions who can model good citizenship to their own people and help with integration? The creation of drop-in centres where there are significant Roma populations to provide advice and education could also have a dramatic impact in preventing current inefficient practices and reducing crime, thereby saving money.
I hope that we will have some assurance from Her Majesty’s Government about a more considered response on the European Roma integration strategy, which the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, mentioned a few moments ago. That is a really important way forward.
Finally, I was very heartened by what was news to me but will probably be familiar to all Members of your Lordships’ House: the foundation of the Gypsy Roma Traveller Police Association. Through this new association, members of the police force—men and women of varying seniority—work together to encourage one another in their commitment to their own vocation as police officers and to help recruitment. This is an important aspect of how we can integrate Roma more into our communities. I know that the local branch has just been launched down in Kent. Can the Minister tell us if there are any other ways in which we could strengthen and encourage the formation of other branches of this police association throughout the country?
Baroness Warsi responded to the debate for the Government:
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con): [extract].. Where a local authority has concerns about the Roma population, I would encourage it to work with local voluntary organisations—and, indeed, faith groups, as mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans—to find local solutions. Local areas no longer need to wait to be told by Whitehall what they should be doing. Towns and cities with Roma populations have started to demonstrate the progress that can be made by engaging with these projects. This approach is underpinned by our strong anti-discrimination and hate crime laws which protect all individuals from racial and other forms of discrimination and racially motivated attacks….
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans asked about specific support on education. Almost one in two children from Roma or Gypsy families, including those from EU accession countries, benefit from the pupil premium, since this community has a high proportion of families eligible for free school meals. Families may also be helped through the receipt of particular benefits. Children from Roma families will also have other needs including English as an additional language. Local authorities can allocate a proportion of their funding to schools on the basis of the number of pupils in each school who have English as an additional language. I have already mentioned the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers, on which the noble Baroness sits.
I shall take back the comments in relation to the Gypsy Roma Traveller Police Association and see whether we can learn from that best practice. Unfortunately, I cannot give the right reverend Prelate an update about the evictions in Cluj. I do not know whether the appeal has been heard or what the outcome has been, but I shall write to him if there has been any progress….
Ultimately, this comes down to how we integrate all communities. There is no doubt, from what we have heard and from my own reading, of the level of discrimination that appears to follow the Roma community. I have referred to a number of interventions in individual areas. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, was suggesting that that is probably not the solution overall; there has to be a much broader approach to how we integrate communities into broader communities and make the case for the benefits that brings. A phrase which I coined in relation to the persecution of minorities in the Middle East was that, ultimately, “persecution is bad for business”—it is bad for progress overall. It is important first, to make the case that persecution per se is something that we must stand against, and to make the economic case for why integration is essential for everybody else’s development.
I hope that noble Lords will be left today with the clear impression that, at home and abroad, we are working to improve the lives of Roma. I reassure all noble Lords that the persecution of minority communities is not, and will not be, tolerated by this Government. That includes the continued marginalisation and exclusion of Roma people. We want to see Roma families enjoy the same education and healthcare opportunities that are afforded to all European citizens, particularly those within our own British communities.
As International Roma Day approaches, I reiterate our commitment to working closely with our partners in Europe and though our embassies to improve the situation of Roma. In this country, we shall continue with our policies to create the conditions for integration for all communities, including Roma, and we shall ensure that the suffering of the Roma community is never forgotten.