|>>|| No. 26516
...It is important to state that it is not communities that commit crimes but individuals. Those convicted are squarely Henry Long, Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole, not thousands of innocent people who share their heritage. Tarring all Travellers with the brush of these men’s callousness is as unfair as tarring all Catholics for paedophile priests or all eskimos for daft militant wog attacks.
Yet to completely ignore the cultural context of this crime is wrong. Henry Long, the ringleader, was removed from school at the age of 12; he followed his father and grandfather into the thieving “trade”. Albert Bowers left school at 11 and before the trial had already picked up three youth convictions. These young men could not read or write. For years they had not known school or structure. Their education was in petty crime.
Such problems do not solely beset Travellers but they are far more prevalent among Traveller communities. If we want to be a country where all are treated the same, where all live by the same rules and where the state does its best to furnish each with a decent chance in life, we have to end the squeamishness that prevents open talk about Travellers. This squeamishness is down to two fears. First, the fear of retribution. After the verdict on PC Harper’s death it emerged that the judge, Mr Justice Edis, brought the first trial to a temporary halt over an alleged potential plot to intimidate jurors. Extra security measures were brought in. Jurors were referred to by number not name. One juror was dismissed for acting oddly in court, mouthing pleasantries at the defendants. Whether she was motivated by misplaced friendliness or fear of someone up in that public gallery we do not know, but most will not be shocked by revelations of intimidation.
The fear of the bullet, the knife, the burnt-out car; this helps the lawless elements of Traveller culture maintain a certain power, and gives the law-abiding majority of Travellers a terrible name.
The second fear is that of being labelled racist. Since the Equality Act 2010 recognised Gypsy, Roma and Travellers as ethnic minorities, race has been used to shield this culture from due scrutiny. Sensible questions about why those within these groups are more likely to be in prison, more likely to be illiterate or more likely to suffer domestic violence prompt cries of racism. In April a Channel 4 Dispatches programme titled The Truth About Traveller Crime was dubbed “dehumanising” by activists and investigated by Ofcom. Desperate not to offend, the authorities turn a culturally sensitive blind eye.
The fears hush most into silence, and the silence means the stand-off between Travellers and the rest of society continues uneasily. Many feel disquieted to see the mobile homes rolling on to a local beauty spot, a portent too often of littering, mess, anti-social behaviour. Meanwhile those in Traveller communities are hardly “living their best lives”. Travellers die about ten years earlier than the rest of us. They have higher rates of chronic illness. Their suicide rates are six times higher.
You might argue that they choose to live like this, but the babies born into that life don’t. Many are destined to repeat the same pattern: leave school in your early teens, drift into a life of odd jobs and petty crime, never move beyond the circles you were raised in. As long as the culturally sensitive force-field exists around Travellers, these children are abandoned to a fate that should not be tolerated in 21st-century Britain.
It is a scandal that some Gypsy and Traveller children are taken out of school at primary age; that some start work as young as ten; that about 65 per cent of Traveller children are persistently absent from school; that they have the lowest attainment of all ethnic groups throughout their school years and are far more likely to be excluded. Are we to be surprised when they choose crime?
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