On 25th February 2020 the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Whittaker, “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to implement the recommendations of the report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, published on 5 April 2019.” The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, Gypsy, Roma and Travelling communities face a great deal of marginalisation, which is why I am so grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker—a redoubtable and feisty campaigner in this area—who keeps bringing this before us. I thank her for that. I am glad that we are raising this issue yet again in your Lordships’ House. She has quoted some of the many stats; I can add a few more and I guess that we will all add a few as we go along.
We know that 90% of Traveller children face racial abuse. The Government’s race audit showed that GRT pupils
“had the lowest attainment of all ethnic groups”.
The 2011 census showed that bad health among Gypsy and Traveller communities is twice as high as in other communities in our country. GRT people also have the lowest rate of economic activity of any ethnic group.
It would be simplistic to suggest that there are just one or two causes of this. It is complex—there will be a number of reasons for some of those facts—but what is absolutely clear is that it cannot be right if any of it is based on any sort of discrimination based on ethnicity. As a Christian country rooted in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of humanity—that we are all made in the image and likeness of God—this must surely be at the forefront of our thinking.
The reality is that many parts of our society are tainted with varying degrees of prejudice. Last year, we had a debate in the General Synod of the Church of England. It was sad to hear examples of where, even within the Church, there had been discrimination. It certainly raised with clarity an issue that, for many of us, needs to be faced. That debate urged the Church to fight against racism and hate crime directed at GRT communities, and to urge the media to stop denigrating and victimising these communities.
There is another, good side to this as well, so let us celebrate that. My own diocese has been supporting Roma Christians over recent years by providing a chaplain to the Roma community in Luton, and a variety of Christian denominations have offered hospitality and a place for worship. The Luton Roma Trust, set up in 2015 and supported by various charities, including the Church of England, is making a significant difference. It runs the Roma Community Centre, and the project is managed by Crina Morteanu, a Romanian Roma woman who has a law degree in human rights, with a number of other staff. There are now 1,350 people on its database, and it offers advice on employment, welfare, accommodation, health, schooling for children and finance. It runs a children’s music project and English classes. There are many good things happening, and we need to celebrate the moves that are going on.
This does, however, need to be matched by some action from the Government. I share the confusion of Maria Miller MP, former chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, as to why some recommendations from her committee were dropped by the Government. The Church is one of the largest providers of education in this country, behind the state. Will the Minister explain why the education-specific recommendations were dropped?
I am also concerned by the problems around where people can live, and particularly the actions of eight local authorities to appeal a High Court ruling which overturned their decision to prevent GRT people staying on public land; that is a potential breach of both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Equality Act. The Minister cannot comment on the specific case, but can I tempt her to comment on the general principles in such situations?
Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)…As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said, there is no commitment to piloting pupil passport schemes, with rapid evaluation. There is nothing to enable schools to apply for the pupil premium for children who arrive once term has started. The life chances of boys and girls coming from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities is not equal: it never has been and, from what we read in the government response, is not likely to be in the near future. This is totally unacceptable, and I ask the noble Baroness to do something about it.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-Op): ..As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans highlighted, there is good practice and we should celebrate where there is good practice and acknowledge good work takes place.
Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans asked what was the Government’s view on civil injunctions on Travellers parking on land. That is a matter for the courts to rule in the individual circumstances relating to local authorities..