Travelling People in the UK
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
Demography
Needs
Behaviour
Invisibility

On these pages the term 'Travelling People' is generally used (unless another term was employed in quoted source material or a more specific term is appropriate). This is not intended to suggest that they are a homogenous, mono-cultural community; the term is meant by us to encompass:

  • The minority ethnic groups known as Gypsies - whether English, Scottish or Welsh - and Irish Travellers; whether mobile, of limited mobility, or no longer living a nomadic way of life but living in housing or in caravans on public or private sites.
  • So-called 'new' Travellers, some of whom are second, third, even fourth generation Travellers and/or in some cases have Gypsy or Traveller antecedents.

Gypsies have been a recognised ethnic group for the purposes of British race relations legislation since 1988 (CRE V Dutton); Irish Travellers since August 2000 in England and Wales (O'Leary v Allied Domecq) and since 1997 in Northern Ireland.

There is no official figure for the number of Travelling People in the United Kingdom. The Council of Europe overall estimate (in 1987) was between 80,000 - 110,000. Government statistics on 'Gypsy' caravan counts in England can be found on the UK government's website. Such counts do not include 'new' Travellers, Gypsies living in houses (whether temporarily or not) other Travelling People not considered to be 'Gypsies', or Travelling People elsewhere in England. Separate figures collected by local Traveller Education Services (TESs) show many more families and children than do the official counts. Based upon this evidence an OFSTED Report on The Education of Travelling Children (1996) estimated that the number of Travelling children in England was in the region of 50,000.

In 1999 there were 329 public Gypsy sites in England with a total of 5,387 pitches. Whilst there is no official record of the number of private Gypsy sites in the UK, it is estimated that there are approximately 1,200 (lawful and unlawful) in England. The twice yearly Gypsy counts reveal that approximately one third live on sites which lack planning permission and are referred to as 'unauthorised'. Of these about 70% are described as settled (i.e. likely to have been on the site for some time and wishing to stay) and 30% as 'transit' i.e. relatively mobile.

The Welsh Office ceased to undertake the biannual count of caravans in 1997, but a recent piece of research on Traveller Children and Educational Need in Wales (1998) - published by the School of Education at Cardiff University - identified twice as many Travelling children in Wales than did the last governmental counts, at approximately 2,000; and suggests that many more Travelling children (i.e. those currently in housing) are also not included. There are currently around 20 public sites in Wales.

The number of Travellers in Northern Ireland is estimated to be between 1200 and 1300 (or 0.07% of the total population in the area). As with other counts, these figures are assumed to an underestimation due to the mobility of Travellers, the understandable reluctance of some to give full information, and a failure to count many Travellers living in standard housing. At the time of the 1993 census in Northern Ireland, 68% of Travellers were on authorised sites, 30% on unauthorised and 2% on private sites.

According to a survey undertaken by the Traveller Section of the Save the Children Fund (SCF) in Scotland in 1996, there were 35 local authority sites in Scotland provided exclusively for Travelling People with the support of a 100% Scottish Office grant, containing 503 pitches; SCF estimated that there were a further 30 to 40 private sites. SCF also estimate that there are currently between 10 and 15 thousand Travelling People living in Scotland. Estimations as to how many are living in what form of accommodation are in a 2001 Scottish Executive report.

With regard to the demography of Travelling People as collated by various government departments, there have been various criticisms of the count from official agencies and Gypsy representative groups. In particular, there is doubt as to whether the count provides adequate measures of the need for, and provision of sites and concern about the accuracy of the data. Information about Gypsies is also needed for other purposes, not only in the housing field but also for the provision of education and health services. In a study of the methodology of 'the count', the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys were critical of the reliability of the figures produced; their recommendations included:

  • Families and children should be counted rather than caravans.
  • Projections should be made of the future population and their needs.
  • Those 'counted' should be interviewed as to their needs and desires.
  • A national survey might be taken to obtain information not available from 'the counts'

None of these recommendations have been implemented. In the meantime, it is clear that official estimates of the number of Travelling People in England and Wales should be viewed with caution. They are not counted by all authorities; those that do undertake the count may not include those whom they deem not to be 'Gypsies'; other counts by statutory and voluntary educational bodies put the numbers much higher, at least double the official numbers; and the figures do not, as the Government's own 1991 research recognised, say anything about the people counted or about their needs and aspirations. On the basis of the above, and having particular regard to the counts carried out by local education authorities of Traveller children (which have generally been considered more accurate than most counts) it appears likely that the Traveller population of the United Kingdom is in the region of 200,000 persons.

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Needs

Travelling people have been specifically targeted by United Kingdom legislation since the Elizabethan times and more recently their way of life has been affected as an indirect consequence of legislation directed at other goals (most notably the Town and Country Planning Acts). An example of recent legislation aimed at Travelling People (in England and Wales) is the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; in particular, section 80 removed the possibility of central Government subsidy for the construction of Gypsy sites, and created new criminal offences for camping on land. Many research projects have suggested that there is a significant link between the poor health of Travelling People and the poor conditions of the sites they occupy; thus it is suggested that the withdrawal of state support for site construction may exacerbate this problem. Section 80 also repealed the duty on local authorities to make provision for Gypsies, and anecdotal evidence suggests that in consequence many sites have fallen into disrepair or indeed been closed.

As a result it is likely that many Travelling People have, not entirely willingly, moved into housing, because of the increased difficulty in gaining access to secure and safe sites. It has also been suggested that high levels of illiteracy amongst Travelling People are in part a consequence of repeated evictions and resultant school changes. Adverse effects upon the health and welfare of Travelling People as an indirect legislative consequence appear to be numerous; it has for instance been suggested that the new GP contracts (following the NHS and Community Care Act 1990) meant that GPs were penalised if they failed to meet certain immunisation targets. Travelling People have low immunisation rates and accordingly the new contracts may have acted as a disincentive to register them on GP lists.

New legislation may, however, be of indirect benefit to Travelling People, and in this category it appears that the Health Act 1999 may prove important. Section 25, for instance, creates a duty on Health Authorities to prepare Health Improvement Plans in conjunction with local authorities. The consultation paper Our Healthier Nation (1998) , which preceded the legislation, identified the causes of ill health as being primarily: i) 'social and economic', and in this category it included poverty, employment, social exclusion; and ii) 'environmental', and in this category it included air quality, housing, water quality and social environment. The available research suggests that Travelling People experience a level of deprivation in these areas which is possibly without parallel.

The consultation paper proposed four national targets to improve health, namely: the reduction of heart disease and strokes; accidents; cancer deaths and mental ill health. Research indicates that Travelling People experience a particularly high incidence of three of these conditions (cancer probably being the exception ), and many Travelling children may be especially prone to disabling accidents as a consequence of the very poor environmental conditions in which they live.

The opportunity that Health Improvement Plans may present to Travelling People appears to be underscored by the Local Government Act 1999 which gives legislative force to the Government's 'best value' programme by placing a duty on local authorities 'to secure continuous improvement in the way in which [their] functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness'. The overwhelming evidence concerning the poor delivery of health and social welfare services to Travelling People, and more particularly the excessive sums spent by public bodies on 'non-toleration' and eviction policies, suggests that these are unsustainable within 'best value' principles.

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Behaviour

It is a measure of the acceptability in modern UK society of generalising and/or being racist about Travelling People that we feel the need to include here to acknowledge and discuss what should be baldly obvious: some people in every community behave 'badly'. Press coverage almost inevitably asks questions / makes comment on 'badly behaved' Gypsies and Travellers. Of course there are some, just as there are some in the 'settled' communities. They represent a highly visible, but very small percentage of Travelling People (almost certainly less than 5%, according to police and other sources, no more and no less than non-Travelling People). The majority of Travelling People live out of the way on small sites, often without any proper facilities and often in environmentally harmful situations (i.e. industrial areas, by former refuse sites, under motorway flyovers etc: land no-one else is prepared to use).

The 'high visibility' of the very few badly behaved encampments arise because of the enormous media interest in them: vivid front page pictures across local papers. Such encampments are in fact rare, but seem much more common because of the enormous media coverage they attract. Just because there are some badly behaved individuals within a group, does not mean that this should dominate all discussion on that group's deprived position. That the issue is always raised is an indicator of the scale of racism in press coverage about Gypsies and Travellers. The media do not, for instance, raise the issue of Yardi gangsters or riots in the north of England every time an issue arises concerning the discrimination faced by Black and Asian people.

One third of all Travellers have nowhere lawful to camp and are forced to live 'illegally'. There are laws to deal with aggressive people or people who deliberately dump refuse, no matter who they are: the problem in the context of Travelling People - similar to that in respect of student populations - is that the police and local authorities often encourage the worst behaved by taking no action, knowing that they will move off into someone else's area soon: this failure to act harms the position of the vast majority of law abiding Travelling People, since they are then assumed also to be at fault.

Forthcoming TLRU research (At What Cost? published by the Policy Press on 4 September 2002) indicates that it costs at least �18 million per annum of UK taxpayers' money (including that paid by Gypsies and Travellers themselves) for the same people to be moved round and round the country and thereby denied access to services and safe stopping places. Changing the law to make it even easier to move encampments on will only result in more encampments.

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Invisibility

Although a great deal of work has been done over time and in various localities which examines the health and well-being of Travelling People, they appear to be invisible within mainstream studies. In recent years Government White and Green Papers have set out to address inequalities in the health of different sectors of the population, with particular reference to black and ethnic minority groups, by recognising and understanding differing needs with the assistance of the relevant communities. Resulting guidance, Assessing health needs of people from minority ethnic groups, suggested that an eponymous book would assist those working towards health needs assessment, in that the book claims to:

  1. Set ethnic minority health firmly in the Government's health inequalities agenda.
  2. Provide a framework for health needs assessment.
  3. Address the setting of priorities.
  4. Provide examples of good practice.
  5. Highlight the experiences of community groups.

In Chapter 1, co-editor Veena Bahl notes that the current 'public health agenda is set to tackle root causes of illness and reduce inequalities in health. The key determinants of health - income, employment, housing, social exclusion, pollution, minority ethnic status and gender - are important issues when tackling the health of minority ethnic groups' . The ethnic composition of the population of England and Wales is identified in the book as being 94.1% white, with the remaining 5.9% of the population being categorised as: Black African 7.1, Black Caribbean 16.9, Black 'Other' 60, Indian 28.1, Pakistani 15.4, Bangladeshi 5.5, Chinese 5, 'Other' Asian 6.5, 'Other' 9.5 These figures are based on the National Census for 1991, in which neither Gypsies nor other Travellers were included as an ethnic or other societal grouping within a distinct category; nor were they in the 2001 Census.

Therefore they remain, throughout the book, invisible, although on the basis that they number at least 150,000 they would score approximately 5% on the above table. While their health needs are as diverse as the rest of the population, they also have distinct needs, and may require particular forms of service delivery for those needs; none of which is alluded to in this Government guidance. For example, the book identifies infant mortality rates among some ethnic minorities as being high (i.e. the perinatal mortality rate of Pakistani babies is almost double that of white babies ); research done in Northern Ireland showing that the rate for Traveller babies is seven times that of the settled population is not included. Chapter 20 on 'Refugees' uses a number of minority ethnic groups to illustrate health needs and issues, yet never mentions the many Roma people who have sought asylum from the persecution and prejudice that they encountered in Central and Eastern Europe. Accommodation is expressed in the book in the context of housing, and no other form of accommodation is contemplated.

While the work is undoubtedly useful for health practitioners and managers in working towards equality for most health service users, the sedentarist focus ensures that the needs of Travelling People will continue not to be considered or assessed by many health authorities and so, therefore, to be unmet. In Wales, similarly, the Government states in its latest health policy document Better Health, Better Wales that their vision is to 'improve the health and well-being of people in Wales through strategies which promote and protect health, reduce inequalities in access to health services, and provide effective and efficient health services � Health is influenced by a complex interaction of lifestyle and environmental factors which must be taken into account if real collaboration is to be achieved. This is a long term challenge, which will involve collaboration across public services, voluntary and private sectors, and communities'.

One of the values underpinning this manifesto agenda item is that every person should have equal and fair access to treatment and services according to their needs and regardless of where they live. Travelling People are, once again, considered only by implication when minority ethnic groups are discussed, and all references to the importance of a 'healthy environment' is focussed on housing. The question asked in the consultation was 'How should housing policies be developed to take account of community safety and sustainable health, particularly where there are concentrations of substandard houses?'. Due to their different form of accommodation, many Travelling People are likely to go unnoticed within such considerations.

These types of 'invisibility' have very real implications for the way in which Travelling People can access services, and affects the extent to which services are tailored to meet their needs. As an example, the City and County of Cardiff Social Services Department Social Care Plan 1998-2001 was designed to:

  • examine the needs of the population;
  • identify how those needs are currently met and how various agencies interact to meet them;
  • examine monitoring of service delivery for quality control and maintenance;
  • identify how available resources can best be used to provide services; and
  • specify the strategic purchasing intentions for adult service users, including support for unpaid carers.

In the Plan, the ethnic minority population of the area is identified using the 1991 Census of Population which, as previously identified, does not expressly comprise Travelling People. Therefore neither Gypsies nor Travellers are included by the Council in their ethnic minority population estimate of 17,924 people. Similarly, all references to accommodation in the document are specifically to 'housing'. Service User Groups, for which specific Service Development Plans are laid out, include carers, older people, people with physical disabilities, people with a mental illness and people with drug or alcohol related problems. The Service Objective for people with physical disabilities is that they have a right to lead a life free from discrimination and a right of equal access to opportunities. The Objective for people with learning disabilities is that they should be enabled to lead life to its fullest potential, enjoying basic human rights, dignity, self respect, choice in deciding how and with whom they live, and opportunities for participating in social and work activity; and that appropriate housing should be secured. Travelling People and their needs were not identified anywhere in the Draft Plan. The Housing Department noted during consultation on the Draft that Travelling People were not mentioned, and so the final version of the Plan includes a two sentence reference to Gypsies and Travellers; that their different culture and needs should be acknowledged and provided for. No details are given as to what these might comprise.

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