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Thursday, August 19, 1999 Published at 18:25 GMT 19:25 UK

UK Politics

Straw accused of 'racism'

Mr Straw claims criminals are masquerading as law-abiding gypsies

Travellers leaders have accused Home Secretary Jack Straw of racism after remarks he made about criminal gangs of travellers.

Mr Straw has provoked a storm of controversy after telling a BBC radio station that groups of travellers were trading on a sentimental "gypsy" image while committing serious crimes.

He has been reported to the Commission for Racial Equality, and police are investigating a complaint about his remarks.

Susan Alexander, of the Travellers Advice and Information Unit, said Mr Straw's remarks highlighted "institutional racism at the highest levels of government".

[ image: Gypsy representatives say they are outraged by Mr Straw's comments]
Gypsy representatives say they are outraged by Mr Straw's comments
She added: "Whether it is intentional or not it will have had a very negative effect and we feel that government ministers or other people in prominent public positions should be responsible and take care about what they say."

But cabinet colleagues were quick to defend the Home Secretary, who has a long record of campaigning against racism.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said: "I have known Jack Straw for an awful long while and there is not a racist sinew in his body.

"He is tough on crime, wherever it is committed and by whom. But that is what the country wants."

Travellers 'trade on sentiment'

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw talking to BBC radio news
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."

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.

Downing Street said the Home Secretary's remarks were directed not at Gypsies or travellers in general, but at people who broke the law.

Racial equality complaint

The Commission for Racial Equality said it had received a complaint about the comments from the Friends, Families and Travellers Advice and Information Unit.

In a statement the commission said it "actively opposes any stereotyping of gypsies or travellers because this can damage race relations by creating and reinforcing prejudice".

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

"He was making such racist assumptions about a whole community and showed enormous ignorance about travellers' issues.

The BBC's Carole Walker reports: "He's been accused of promoting negative stereotypes"
"He seemed to think that only Romany Gypsies were true travellers."

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."

Unlikely defender

Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe passed up the chance to score political points off 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."

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

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