Anti-Gypsy politico heads Roma national strategy

By Grattan Puxon
7 March 2014

Inclusion may now be his mantra but Secretary of State Eric Pickles, the UK politician whose hands guide our EU-inspired National Strategy, has long had a reputation as a Gypsy-chaser and excluder.

Pickles built that reputation in the 1980s when as Tory-leader in Bradford he drove Travellers from their encampments in the city. He's been adding to it ever since.

Nevertheless, it's to him Britain's burgeoning 500,000 Roma and Traveller population must look to for succour – at least until the present Coalition Government departs from office next year.

It was Pickles who provided the funding for the original police-led and lately thwarted Dale Farm evictions. Only last month he was rebuffed by the High Court over an ill-conceived attempt to clear Dale Farm die-hards from their land, three winters after the first £10m failed removal operation.

Basildon council, with Pickles' backing, overstepped the law according to the Environmental Agency when they dug up a large part of the Dale Farm estate in 2011. Undeterred, the same political partners attempted recently to do a frail widow out of her right to appeal against a further Enforcement Notice.

Brushing aside a proposal by Dale Farm Residents Association to create a temporary stopping place there, they sought to force elderly Mary Flynn to abandon the roadside she and her caravan-dwelling neighbours have occupied for three winters, without water, electricity or proper sanitation. This is a private lane which leads back to the pitted and toxic wasteland  where formerly stood their scores of chalet-homes, community building and chapel.

Thanks to Davies Gore Lomax (incorporated into Lester Morrill),  who have acted for Dale Farm for a decade, Mrs Flynn has been able to stand her ground. Counsel argued refusal of an appeal hearing breached Mrs Flynn's Article 8 entitlement to respect of her home and private life.

Mr Justice Lewis concluded Pickles and co had erred in failing to consider whether Mrs Flynn had an implied licence to live on the road.  He therefore granted her leave to seek a judicial review, which is likely to be heard this summer.

Undaunted Pickles blogs that its time to review the Human Rights Act and wants police and local councils to seize and remove unlawfully sited caravans. As a front-bench minister he's trashed previous Labour Government legislation designed to meet the needs of homeless Roma and Travellers.

Pickles has also gone along with cuts to the Traveller Education programme.  Yet prides himself on promoting good practice in schools and says he'll achieve lasting improvements through working with Gypsy and Traveller communities.

"We must ensure," Pickles is quoted as saying in an introduction to the National Strategy, "that no-one, or no one-group, is held back or left on the margins."

True, some community outreach work has been encouraged and a premium  is available to schools with Roma pupils. On the Ethnic Minority Advisory Group at the Department for Work and Pensions, Roma are now represented by the Irish Traveller Movement.

Yet it's Pickles the local politician who last year gave chase to Travellers on the road at Montnessing in his Brentwood constituency. Families settled in the town are bitter towards their MP for threatening long-established Romani-owned sites once deemed secure.  Will he repeat what he did in Bradford?

In contradiction to that assumption, the Secretary of State has offered to showcase just such family-owned sites as a means of promoting best practice.

One can only conclude that Pickles is a Janus-like figure who simultaneously faces both ways. Meanwhile, his National Strategy is being carefully monitored by the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups. Their forthcoming report is expected to detail some of its inadequacies, as well as modest successes.

22 March 11am in Parliament Square
Petition to 10 Downing Street and
parade up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square

7 April 12 noon St John's Church, Waterloo
followed by march to EU offices at Millbank

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