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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 October, 2004, 03:42 GMT 04:42 UK
What this Traveller girl wants
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Shannon Collins with campaigner Noelette Keane
Shannon Collins with campaigner Noelette Keane
Shannon Collins is eight years old and knows what she wants. It starts with a separate toilet for her family. Next comes electricity.

But Shannon's big problem is that she has been to more than a dozen schools so far.

She is a member of an Irish Traveller community which says it has nowhere to stop - so her education has been chaotic as she has shuttled between London, Brighton and their current base in Middlesbrough.

Despite this, she is as bright and articulate an eight-year-old as you are likely to meet. When she grows up, she wants to be a campaigner for Travellers' rights - and it shows in how she talks.

"I live on a site where there is one toilet shared by seven families," she says. "It's a disgrace. We need more sites and we need them now.

What that comes down to is the right to have accommodation - if one third of all Travellers in the UK are in unauthorised encampments, how can they be expected to find and stay in a school
Noelette Keane, Irish Traveller Movement
"We'd like to return to London but there is nowhere for us there either."

There are children like Shannon throughout the Gypsy and Travelling communities in the UK - hopping from one school to another.

The problem today, say campaigners, is there is such a shortage of sites that education is more disjointed than ever.

The irony of this is more and more communities want to live on sites they own or control because they want to get children in to schools and improve their life chances.

Noelette Keane of the Irish Traveller Movement says the statistics down the years speak for themselves: mortality rates are higher than for the general population and Gypsy/Traveller children suffer the most problems in education.

"There is lower access and therefore lower achievement," she says.

"And what that comes down to is the right to have accommodation. If one third of all Travellers in the UK are in unauthorised encampments, how can they be expected to find and stay in a school?"

Panic in the shires

Later this month, a select committee report is expected to be critical of the government and support widespread expert opinion, including that of police chiefs, that there are too few sites for Britain's historic nomadic communities, the result of complex changes to land use and the law.

This in turn now appears to be creating a panic among Travellers, leading to a massive increase in illegal encampments. In turn, there are rising tensions with settled rural communities, more clashes and more evictions.

Campaigners hope the report will pressure ministers to accept their main call that local councils should once again be obliged to provide sites - or at the very least help Travellers establish their own.

Supporters of this strategy say it would rapidly reduce local tensions and provide a springboard to tackling other problems - like education.

Amendment introduced

This week the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister introduced an amendment to the current Housing Bill which may force councils to assess the housing needs of Travellers. However, ministers have not given their full support to the current campaign.

The Commission for Racial Equality, the equality watchdog, is also wading in. It is gathering evidence of how public bodies treat Travellers, with CRE chairman Trevor Phillips describing discrimination against Gypsies as the "last 'respectable' form of racism in Britain".

Looking at public bodies
Looking at sites
Reviewing evictions
Seeking evidence from all parties
"We need to find out exactly what is happening on the ground in local authorities - are they providing sites?" he says. "If so, are these close to basic facilities such as schools and health services?"

Andrew Ryder of the Traveller Law Reform Coalition says the Housing Bill amendment is a start - but with evictions and feelings running high, a lot more needs to be done.

"A lot of people want to find a solution that will benefit Travellers themselves as well as the settled communities," he says. "We need to have people sitting down and talking about how they can find rational solutions."

This does not mean forcing Travellers into bricks and mortar, says Andrew Ryder; it means politically enabling them to live their lives and protect their culture.

However, there appear to be few signs of rapprochement between settled and travelling communities after a summer of high tensions.

While a unique deal has been reached in Cambridgeshire which now sees some residents working with the Traveller law campaign, in other places the two communities remain a world apart.

Andrew Bennett MP, chairman of the committee writing that report, is somewhat more blunt.

"Some of the most difficult meetings I have had as an MP have been over Gypsies. Many in the general public have two views. They want to employ them because it means cheap labour - but they don't want to live near them."


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