Bristol Shelter Traveller's Unit Closes.
Is Save The Children Next?
With an elbow here and a de-funding there, a host of underhand manipulations are going on to eradicate groups campaigning for Travellers’ rights. You’ll never get to hear about them in the media but then that’s the nature of current politics.
Squall 5, Oct/Nov 1993, pp. 4-5.
There are very few national charities and organisations that have taken up an active public role in preventing this Government from criminalising squatting and travelling.
Readers of SQUALL will already be aware that charities such as SHELTER have been reluctant to make any statements on squatting, afraid of the media-manipulated nightmares associated with it. The reasons, according to workers with the group, are finances and funding. When John Battle, Shadow Housing Minister, spoke up for Travellers at a recent conference on housing, a SHELTER delegate was overheard saying to a colleague: “Why does John concern himself with non-issues?”
The harsh reality for charities involved in housing is that they rely heavily on the public’s sympathy and sentiment for the homeless. In the minds of the general public this does not include Squatters and Travellers, although the charities themselves say that both are a reflection of homelessness. The consistently hyped association between travelling/squatting and criminality leaves a lingering public impression that is hard to dismantle. For although it is a short sighted assessment, housing charities are keen not to fall foul of the adverse image effect of ‘dirtying their hands’.
As a result of this situation only three national organisations have set up units to campaign for the rights of travelling people. These are LIBERTY, SAVE THE CHILDREN and BRISTOL SHELTER, of which the latter two are the most involved at street level.
Although SHELTER’S head office in London has steered well clear of traveller campaigns, one of its satellite regional groups has become extremely active. Originally commissioned to write a book on the subject, Jenny Smith at BRISTOL SHELTER became a vociferous and well-connected campaigner on behalf of Travellers. Such was her involvement with the issue, that SHELTER allowed her to effectively operate as a travelling peoples unit, as well as working on her EEC- funded book.
In August 1992, after the Castlemorton Common Festival had brought bitter media attacks on travellers, she was sidelined onto housing duties until the furore died down. She was then allowed to return to her work with the travellers.
In May of this year, Jenny Smith happened to be travelling along the M5 at the time when the Police had stopped a convoy of Travellers on the motorway (see News Of The Sqews). She stopped to see what was going on, was photographed by a newspaper and ended up giving an interview to BBC Radio 2. She was careful not to criticise the police, speaking instead of the rights of people to travel.
She finished her book, entitled ‘A Right to Travel And a Right To Stop’, in July and then continued with her work as a traveller unit.
At the end of September, SQUALL phoned the unit only to hear an answer machine announce that “sadly the Travellers unit has closed down”. The regional BRISTOL SHELTER office say that as Jenny Smith had finished her book and with the commissioned period thus over, she had been returned to normal housing duties and the Travellers’ section closed down. BRISTOL SHELTER also said that an application had been sent to Sheila MacKechnie, head of SHELTER in London, asking that a Traveller unit be allowed to continue operation, although no word has been heard back on a decision.
Although Jenny Smith herself was unavailable for comment, SQUALL made some enquiries to find out whether this official reason for shunting her away from work with travellers was the whole story.
What emerged was a far more alarming scenario. Apparently, after the M5 episode, the Police had made complaints to both BRISTOL SHELTER and SHELTER in London, about her work along the lines of: ‘Why is she helping travellers when official efforts are being made to discourage them?’ On top of this a number of donors to SHELTER had found out about her work and halted their donations saying: “We have given money to SHELTER all our lives but, in protest, we will do so no more.”
Although there is no direct proof, and with elbows like this there rarely is, it has also been suggested that the DOE, who are themselves major contributors to the SHELTER coffers, has expressed its annoyance with her work.
The upshot of this behind-the-scenes pressure, is that the vast contact network Jenny Smith has built up into an active and effective traveller support unit, is to be wasted by pulling her out of the issue.
This is not an isolated incident however, for according to sources, the Gypsy Unit of the SAVE THE CHILDREN charity is also the subject of insidious objections. Word is out that Ann Bagehot, one the prime movers on the unit, may be retired early and the unit closed down. Apparently, moves are afoot to try and discredit the unit’s work by implying that it is of a political nature and therefore inconsistent with its charity status. There is no doubt what will happen if SAVE THE CHILDREN are forced to decide whether to forego their Gypsy Unit or their charity status.
Traveller groups like SAVE THE CHILDREN and BRISTOL SHELTER are (were?) small outfits with enthusiasm, accomplishing much. But being small means that you are easier to get rid of without a public fuss.
The Commission for Racial Equality consider that: "The Government's proposals are both contradictory and unworkable, and are a direct attack on the Gypsy way of life." Although campaign groups cannot match the media resources of the Government, they do have an enthusiasm for justice that can prove embarrassing. At the cost of only a few veiled threats, a few words in the right ear and the withdrawal of funding, they can be quietly removed from the scene.
As a consequence, there are less and less opportunities for people at street level to affect the politics in this country. Slowly but surely, with the might of superior resources and the manipulative control of information, our powers as individuals to have any say in this so-called democracy, are being eroded in ways hidden from our attention.