May 11 Where do we come from? Where do we go? Travellers tales The debate, attended by 49 people, discussed the problems faced by the traveller community and the differences between their culture and the "settled" community. The panel was Hilda Brazil (former chairman of the Surrey Gypsy Traveller Communities Forum), John Hockley (former chairman of the forum, now working for the county council looking after traveller sites) and Lalage Grundy (current forum chairman). LALAGE Grundy opened the debate by reminding us that there was no way we can recognise who is a gypsy. You might be sitting next to one now... The forum represents a broad group of people covering Romany gypsies, Irish travellers and Roma and New Age Travellers. John Hockley told us that there are around 10 to 12,000 gypsies in Surrey, although the census shows only 2,500. Most are based in houses, not travelling. Surrey County Council runs 15 sites. Guildford has three of these. That is not enough. The small sites have room for between three and seventeen plots. Few outsiders come to the sites and there is only one way in and one way out. The pitches are concrete with basic utilities and sheds. The usual rent is £75 to £100 and council tax is payable on top. People have to pay high charges for electricity. They are not free and not cheap. Hilda Brazil is a settled Romany and has lived in Effingham all her life. She has served as a councillor and worked with young people in the criminal justice system. She went to school from the ages of five to 14 and although she is established in Effingham has always been part of a separate community. The gypsy community is as diverse as the wider community. We "rip each other's hearts out". They have the same problems as everyone. The Romani language is broken and each community speaks it with different dialects. Most gypsies are related. "Surrey is my home". There is a lot of prejudice towards gypsies. This led in Europe to them being sent to the concentration camps in the Second World War, where they had higher death rates than anyone, including the Jews. Should we use the term gypsies? Lalage spoke how in her work at conferences there would always be a long discussion about what terminology they should use. It is best to ask because you do not know what group people belong to. Sites were mostly built 30 to 35 years ago. They are mostly located where approval would not be given to build housing near motorways, power stations etc. They are rarely on mains electricity and conditions are basic. Yet they are fastidious in their habits and will be shunned by other gypsies if they are not clean. Few people want to live near gypsies.
Many Romani have settled down to allow their children to be educated but education achievement remains low. For travelling people there is a problem attending school. For more settled families there are cultural problems with mixing of sexes in schools. They live for 10 to 15 years less than the general population and constitute 1% of the population. It is legal to travel but illegal to stop at unregulated sites and there are not enough regulated ones. If gypsies do not travel for three months in each year then under the law they are not recognised as gypsies so there is pressure to carry on travelling. If new plots are proposed people say they are in favour of them but not near them. There are no transit sites in Surrey. Sussex has some and Surrey County Council has agreed on the need to provide them but the problem is where. Negotiated stopping places could be a compromise where people would pay to stop and basic services provided. It would deal with the problem of rubbish and fly tipping. If people could stay for six weeks then their children could attend school and they could go to a doctor. Traveller sites are all full and have long waiting lists. Hate speech and racism is a huge problem. Press reports often have positive stories about gypsies buried under controversial headlines. One MP was quoted as describing gypsies as "disgusting" although on being challenged said he was misquoted. The program Big Fat Gypsy Weddings contributed to the stereotypes people hold and raised the prejudice towards gypsy children in schools. Gypsy society is changing but at a slower rate than the society around them. The man is still the head of the household. Woking borough councillor Kevin Davis, in the audience, described how he was instrumental in trying to set up a traveller site on Byfleet. It showed a "terrifying rate of racism in the community". 350 people came to protest at the HG Wells Centre and the councillors needed to be escorted by six security guards. Gypsy society is not perfect but who are? "You are only as good as the worst person representing your community". Aggression breeds aggression and we can only change ourselves.