Ustiben report
By Grattan Puxon

Evidence of the way private bailiff companies are endangering children's lives, burning homes and needlessly destroying personal property during the repeated evictions of Gypsy families around Britain will be presented soon to the UK Office of the Deputy Prime Minister by the UK Forum.

Both video and written documentation has been collected and is now being prepared for presentation. This covers not only film of heavy machinery and riot police invading private yards but the resulting mess left behind when topsoil has been scraped away and embankments erected to prevent re-entry. Officials agreed at a recent second meeting to take a fresh look at what has been going on, says Forum chairman Cliff Codona.

It's widely admitted that recommendations about new need assessments and land searches, aimed at the creation of additional privately owned and council-built caravan sites, will not fill an estimated gap of 4,000 pitches for some years to come.

In this interim period, the Forum has conceded that there are circumstances where land owned in greenbelt areas might have to be vacated. But this should only happen when an acceptable alternative is being provided.

As indicated by the Hovefields judicial review ruling in April, in cases where regional authorities are balking at new duties, failing to consider family circumstances, ignoring human rights, or making racially tainted enforcement decisions, direct action is likely anyway to be halted by the courts.

Basildon Tory leader Malcolm Buckley still wants to spend 5m euro bulldozing 86 homes at Dale Farm. But the legal hurdles, including a judicial review supported by the Commission for Racial Equality, and planning appeals in August, have multiplied the difficulties of this egregious council.

"A child will be killed if this goes on," said Kathleen McCarthy, a Dale Farm resident and vice-chair of the Irish Travellers Movement 2006. "I can't let them drive us off our own land and back onto the road."

For their part, Forum members are determined wholesale ethnic-cleansing as practised by a hardcore of such local councils, who are abusing planning regulations to justify getting rid of Travellers must be stopped. They say among other measures this will require a thorough review, by the ODPM and the Home Office, of the operations carried out by bailiff companies, on behalf of local authorities. Where the law, in particular safety regulations, have been repeatedly broken, bailiff licences should be revoked.

This tougher approach by frontline Travellers, most themselves yard-owners, is being pursued after an acrimonious disbanding of the once-paramount Gypsy & Traveller Law Reform Coalition. Though founded as a unifying initiative, it had after four years become increasingly the domain of non-Gypsy lobbyists out of step with travellers' leaders and lacking connection to the wider Romani movement.

A broadening alliance with Roma in the rest of Europe certainly sharpened the demand for greater self-determination here in Britain. It's no coincidence that the final break with charity- and client-orientated groups follows closely upon the inauguration of the Council of Europe-sponsored European Roma and Travellers Forum, to which the UK Forum is formally linked.

Since then Forum delegate Catherine Beard has been in Vienna, representing the UK Association of Gypsy Women. She took the opportunity to raise with Austrian parliamentarians the racial hostility faced by Gypsies in Britain and will be back to Strasbourg with that message this summer.

"The proper people are now in charge," said Codona, before leaving for a conference in Brussels. "The coalition did what it could but was in my opinion treading too softly and getting nowhere. It had to be replaced."

Forty years after the foundation of the original Gypsy Council, the Travellers' civil rights campaign has again renewed itself. A new generation has arisen which no longer sees itself as a helpless and isolated minority. Instead it's eager to fall into step with a 12-million Romani nation, on the move politically and socially, in all parts of Europe.