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Thursday, August 19, 1999 Published at 22:08 GMT 23:08 UK

UK Politics

Straw reported to race watchdog

Mr Straw claims criminals are masquerading as law-abiding gypsies

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw talking to BBC Radio West Midlands
Home Secretary Jack Straw has been reported to the Commission for Racial Equality following his comments about criminal gangs of travellers.

The home secretary told a local radio station some groups of travellers were causing havoc in local communities, trading on a sentimental "gypsy" image while committing serious crimes.

Professor Thomas Acton: "This whole thing is a fantasy"
Traveller support groups condemned his comments, but a Home Office spokeswoman said: "This is not about attacking a racial group. This is talking about people who commit crimes."

Downing Street has defended Mr Straw, saying his comments were directed at people who broke the law and his record for countering racism was second to none.

'Travelling troublemakers'

The BBC's Mark Mardell: "Mr Straw has crossed a line"
Mr Straw told BBC Radio West Midlands: "Many of these so-called travellers seem to think that it is perfectly OK for them to cause mayhem in an area, to go burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles, causing all kinds of trouble, including defecating in the doorways of firms and so on, and getting away with it.

"Travellers have traded on the sentiment, they've masqueraded as law-abiding gypsies, when many of them are not."

[ image: Gypsy representatives say they are outraged by Mr Straw's comments]
Gypsy representatives say they are outraged by Mr Straw's comments
His remarks, made some four weeks ago, came shortly after a major armed police operation was mounted in the area after fears of trouble at a travellers' wedding.

The Commission for Racial Equality said it had received a complaint from the Friends, Families and Travellers Advice and Information Unit with regards to Mr Straw's comments.

A statement by the commission said: "The Commission for Racial Equality actively opposes any stereotyping of gypsies or travellers because this can damage race relations by creating and reinforcing prejudice."

BBC Political Correspondent Carole Walker: "Mr Straw has provoked anger"
Susan Alexander, spokesperson for the Friends, Families and Travellers Advice and Information Unit, told the BBC: "Nobody is condoning criminal activity, and we are not suggesting for one moment that there isn't criminal activity within the traveller community.

"However, that does that not justify the whole community being branded as criminals.

"No other section of the community would be treated in that way."

Lord Bassam: "He is not racist"
But shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe partially defended Mr Straw, saying she would "not quarrel with his remarks".

She told the BBC: "As long as he is saying that they apply to some and not all travellers, as long as he was restricting his remarks they are more understandable.

"But he's the home secretary, he's a statesman and he's got to be very careful to put his remarks in context."

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Richard Allan has described Mr Straw's remarks as "alarming".

'Stereotypical tripe'

Chris Johnson, a lawyer on the Travellers' Advice Team, told The Times newspaper: "I find Mr Straw's comments incredible.

Professor Thomas Acton: "This whole thing is a fantasy"
"He was making such racist assumptions about a whole community and showed enormous ignorance about travellers' issues."

Charles Smith, Chairman of the Gypsy Council of Britain, said he was also angered by the home secretary's remarks.

"He is accusing all travellers of going thieving and burgling. Just imagine what the reaction would be if he had said it about black people. Jack Straw is talking absolutely stereotypical tripe."

Mr Straw attracted controversy earlier this year when he said people in Liverpool "were always up to something."

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