The repressive laws were not repealed in the UK
until the 18th century. As the age of laissez-faire came in the
19th century, Gypsies, though still outcaste, were left alone to trade
more peacably with local people. In the 20th century, however, economic
changes made some of their trades obsolete, and the land shortage closed
ever more of their old stopping places, leading to a campaign for sites
by Norman Dodds MP in the 1950s. Motorisation masked the effect of site
closures for a while, but could not do so forever. Wealthier Gypsies began
to buy land of their own to stop on, but this was cut off by the 1960 Caravan
Sites (Control of Development) Act. In the 1960s the pressure for the continual
eviction of Gypsies with bulldozers and private security firms reached
crisis point. In 1964 the leader of the Labour group on Birmingham Council
called for "the extermination of the impossibles."
This crisis led to new forms of pressure group politics. The original
Gypsy Council was founded on 11th December 1966. Its secretary until 1971
was Grattan Puxon, later secretary of the World Romani Congress. Linking
all Travellers, regardless of ethnic origin, the Gypsy Council demanded
l) Camping sites in every county open to all Travellers
2) Equal rights to education, work and houses
3) Equal standing through respect between ourselves and our settled
After a wide-ranging campaign of resistance to evictions, a new
Caravan Sites Act was passed in 1968, ordering counties and London Boroughs
to provide sites for all Gypsies residing in or resorting to their areas
- but gave them in exchange new powers to move on "surplus" Gypsies once
they were "designated" as having either been exempted from, or as having
satisfied the requirements of the Act. These "designation" powers applied
only to Gypsies and were greatly resented, especially when, contrary to
the government's promise, they were granted before all Gypsies in an area
had a place to stay.
Progress was slow till 1977, when after a report by Sir John Cripps,
the government agreed to pay local authorities 100% of the capital cost
of provision. Even so many dragged their feet; not till 1986 did a court
condemn a council, West Glamorgan CC, for not providing. In the same year,
however, after the so-called "Battle of the Beanfield" where a large group
of New Age Travellers evicted from festival sites trespassed on a field
with crops, panic measures added to the 1986 Public Order Act gave the
police almost instant powers of eviction - powers so draconian that most
chief constables will rarely use them.
"New Age Travellers" originated in the 1960s from the Hippy Festival
culture, but grew greatly in the 1980s because of homelessness. They are
very diverse, and include people of many ethnicities, including some of
Gypsy background. Their unpopularity led the government to target them,
and then to repeal the 1968 Caravan Sites Act altogether. In August 1992
a consultation paper on this received a massive response. Ministers claimed
that no useful suggestions were made, thus making it clear that the scale
of response was just too great for their civil servants to brief them effectively.
Independent scrutiny has shown that 93% of County Councils, 92% of London
Boroughs and Metropolitan Authorities and 71% pf District Councils responding,
believed the government's proposals would increase rather than "reduce
the nuisance of illegal encampments".
Ministers, however, breaking precedent, chose
to repeal the 1968 Caravan Sites Act in a Criminal Justice Bill, which
was passed in 1994. This also ended "designation" but since the Criminal
Justice Bill also beefs up the 1986 Public Order Act to give police and
local authorities virtual complete discretion to move Travellers from any
highway or land they do not own, this makes little difference. Changes
in planning law have also made it much harder for Gypsies to get permission
to camp on their own land.
Nevertheless, since the 1968 Act, the proportion of nomadic Travellers
with legal encampments has risen from under 10% to around 62%. In 1994
in England the Department of the Environment counted 5951 Gypsy caravans
on local authority sites, 3271 on legal private sites, with only 3838 still
on unauthorised encampments. There are about another 50 legal sites in
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, making perhaps 10,000 caravans legally
sited in the UK as a whole. Current government policy is likely to freeze
this figure, leaving about another 5000 families with nowhere legal to
go. A series of challenges to this are being mounted in the European Court
of Human Rights.
The first Gypsy Council caravan school was run
in the summer of 1967 in East London on an old airfield by Thomas Acton,
then a student, now Reader in Romani Studies at the University of Greenwich.
For six weeks volunteers did pre-literacy and general teaching, and in
September some of the children attended a state school for the first time.
At the same time a fierce struggle went on to ensure that the Gypsies were
not evicted from the airfield. Eventually the leader of the Gypsies, John
Brazil, became warden of a site in nearby Hainault to which many of the
families moved, and where Yul Brynner (himself partly of Romani origin)
funded a school project.
Until the mid-1970s volunteers were the driving force of the Gypsy Education
movement. Volunteers tried to pave the way into the state school system
which used to keep Gypsy children out, but also insisted that respect be
paid to the culture of the Travellers even in the classroom. After its
foundation in 1970, the National Gypsy Education Council pressed the government
and local education authorities to make better provision, and run a nationwide
summer school campaign. From 1973, an offshoot, ACERT
(the Advisory Council for the Education of Romanies and other Travellers)
competed with a similar campaign. The Department of Education and Science
began to hold regular short courses for teachers who might meet Gypsies
in school. But most Gypsy children still did not get into school.
In August 1977 Traveller children stopping in Croydon
applied to go to school, but were refused by the LEA, which said it would
not take in any roadside children. This was found to be legal under the
1944 Education Act. After a campaign by the National Gypsy Education Council,
however, the government blocked this loophole in its 1980 Education Act
and pointed out in a circular that its "freedom of choice" section applied
to Gypsies, too. Nonetheless a 1983 HMI report "The Education of Travellers'
Children" suggested that as many as 10,000 Gypsy children were still not
getting any educational provision, especially at secondary level. The need
for better educational provision, respecting the Travellers' culture, was
endorsed again in 1985 by the Swann report on the education of ethnic minorities.
By the late 1980s the emphasis had shifted firmly from voluntary provision
to provision within the state education system and the number of teachers
grew greatly. In 1990 the government started a new system of specific grants
for Traveller Education (replacing a previous pooling system). By the mid
1990s there were around 500 specialist teachers besides many more who had
Gypsy children in their ordinary classes.