The UN Rapporteur’s mission to the UK, unpopular groups – and a round-up of more reviews

I suppose it’s not that surprising that some Conservative MPs have been spluttering over breakfast as they read that Raquel Rolnik, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, has been over here in the UK, examining whether we are providing adequate housing to particular groups – among them disabled people, homeless Roma, Gypsies and Travellers.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2411881/UN-officials-sent-check-bedroom-tax-houses-provide-adequate-standard-living.html

While MPs spilt their cornflakes I must admit I had a very pleasant (but frugal!) breakfast with Ms Rolnik and her team, along with Candy Sheridan, the Irish Traveller spokeswoman who rose to prominence challenging the eviction at Dale Farm – but who has spent months since patiently chronicling living conditions roadside there, as well as elsewhere, for her community, as well as that of Romani Gypsies. I was there because of my book, which came out just a month ago, which chronicles the parlous state of housing for the communities. Indeed, of the four families I followed in some depth, over the last few years, only one has secure accommodation. All four have experienced eviction within the last two years. This Wednesday I will attend Ms Rolnik’s press conference – not forgetting, of course, another important story she is covering – the bedroom tax – which is hitting disabled people, and their carers, harder than most. 

And a quick round-up of other news. A very welcome appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, along with afore-mentioned Candy Sheridan, and Romani Janie Codona, to talk about the book. You can listen to the interview with Jenni Murray here: 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b038xx76

And big thanks to the great (poet and journalist) Damian le Bas for a typically thoughtful review of my book here, on the Travellers Times website, in which he writes: “Katharine Quarmby has done an excellent job in observing the current situation around Gypsies and Travellers on the ground. I grew up immersed in the actual grass roots politics of the British countryside, in a time when Parish Councils would still think nothing of posting flyers encouraging people to mobilise in order to get the Gypsies out of the village.

In truth, little has changed below the surface: lingering behind the media-savvy talk of the green belt, “inappropriate development” and poorly-chosen sites is the brute fact of communities who struggle to understand each other, and who therefore tend to snap back into a confrontational pose whenever the going gets tough. Quarmby acknowledges that Travellers pulling onto village greens and cricket pitches is bad news for everyone involved, and observations like this should let readers know that rather than being blindly pro-Traveller she, like all of us, genuinely wants to see the situation improve.

My only concern is that the very people who would most benefit from reading this book have already made up their minds, but where there’s the slightest trace of empathy across the garden fence or the barbed wire bounds of the Gypsy site, there always will be the hope of a better future.” I couldn’t have put it better myself – full review here. 

http://www.travellerstimes.org.uk/list.aspx?c=00619ef1-21e2-40aa-8d5e-f7c38586d32f&n=45b62be3-5976-4ce6-ae82-0f4f3606ce99&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Another very perceptive review here, by the wonderful social affairs journalist Fran Abrams here, in the New Statesman, in which she kindly calls the book an “an important book that raises bigger issues about socially isolated and alienated groups everywhere. It underlines a truth – that a sense of “otherness” brings with it a dividend: it binds families and it binds communities.”

Read the full review here: http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/08/road-again

No Place to Call Home – book reviews

A round-up of reviews here. 

Ian Birrell, who also reviewed my last book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, posted a very thoughtful review in the Observer. He concluded that it was “An important book by an impressive journalist” although he did feel there was a bit too much reporting from Dale Farm which does form the spine of the narrative. But he did feel it painted a rightfully bleak picture of the bleak social exclusion in which so many Romanies and Travellers lives – although there’s lots of fun to be had as well in the communities! Read the full review here: 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/26/no-place-home-quarmby-review

In the Guardian, Rose George said that the book was “forcefully written” and concludes: “As an exposure of the modern troubles of these unique, tight-knit communities of Travellers, it sets you travelling on the right road.” Interestingly, she felt that I was sentimental at times about the communities. I disagree, of course; I feel that I let their feelings show, as fellow human beings. But it’s a fair review: 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/16/no-place-call-home-travellers?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

The Times review, by Fay Schlesinger, can only be seen behind the paywall, but to sum up, the reporter concurs that it is difficult to report from both sides of the conflict as one side inevitably feels hard done by. She runs through the history in the book and does a fair summary of the book, concluding that while I attempt to write a dispassionate history of both sides of the conflict, I end up on the side of the Travellers (you must judge that for yourselves of course!). If you have a subscription you can read it here: 

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/books/non-fiction/article3841137.ece

The review by the Herald, in Scotland, is a very thoughtful run-through of the main issues facing Gypsies, Roma and Travellers today and historically, concluding: “Even in households where anti-Semitism and Islamophobia would be unacceptable, slurs against Gypsies and Travellers are still allowed to propagate, which is why Quarmby’s book deserves to be given due prominence. Without greater under-standing there will be more, and bloodier, Dale Farms will follow.” It rightly, in my mind, states that racism against travelling people is the last accepted form of racism in this country. 

You can read the full review here: 

http://www.heraldscotland.com/books-poetry/reviews/katharine-quarmby-no-place-to-call-home-oneworld.21901309

No Place to Call Home – publication

No Place to Call Home will be published next Thursday – after pretty much 18 months work on it, and not much else, and some years before that, of course, spending time with the Romani Gypsy and Traveller communities (and, in later times, getting to know some of the newly arrived Roma as well). 

The Observer newspaper ran an extract from one of the chapters, about one of the most difficult conflicts around Gypsies and the settled community I have covered, in the Midlands last Sunday. You can read it here: 

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/04/gypsies-belong-here-meriden-travellers

That particular conflict continues, with an ongoing inquiry, which the Communities Secretary himself has called in as a decision on which he will personally decide. 

Looking back over the last seven years, since I first visited a Traveller site, what have I learnt? I’ve met wonderful, friendly and warm-hearted people both from the Gypsy and Traveller communities and the settled community, and I’ve witnessed many officials, council workers, some politicians, campaigners and police officers trying to make things better for all concerned. I’ve also witnessed racism, hostility, and a wish to ratchet up conflict, rather than reach a solution that benefits everybody. 

I’d like to see a conflict resolution model applied to the vexed issue of accommodation for the communities, and for people without a home to be treated with more compassion. As one young disabled, homeless Gypsy told me recently, “We would die rather than move onto a cricket pitch, most of us would. You would have to be really desperate to do something like that.” We need better solutions than that to a homelessness problem that is benefitting nobody – I think everyone can at least agree on that. So maybe that’s the place to start from – because everyone, in the end, wants a place they can call home. 

 

 

 

Disability hate crime and Gypsies and Travellers

I was at the Home Office yesterday, attending a meeting to look at the implementation of the Equality Commission’s report on disability targeted harassment in the police service, in my role as one of the advisors to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the National Policing Improvement Agency on this subject. I was really heartened to see both the commitment to change by senior police officers and their interest in the subject. We’ve come a long way from my first days investigating disability hate crime in 2007, when police officers would deny that disability hate crime existed. I can’t say much about the specific proposals but expect good work to come through on perpetrators, motivations and more linking up with other agencies. I am pushing for the Crown Prosecution Service Scrutiny Panels to start dip-sampling safeguarding cases – cases of so-called ‘vulnerable adult’ abuse that get lost in the safeguarding system and rarely reach the police. I believe that is where the missing disability hate crime cases are – and we need to find them and prosecute the perpetrators.

At the end of the meeting I had a chat to one of the Government’s senior advisors on hate crime. I wanted to know whether there was any data on crimes committed against Gypsies and Travellers. There isn’t really for several reasons. One is that until the 2011 Census Gypsies, Roma and Travellers couldn’t even define themselves as such – they had to tick the ‘white other’ box. I have to tick the mixed race ‘other’ box myself, as a half-Iranian, and it always irritates me but I understand we are a small-ish community. This isn’t true of Gypsies and Travellers- they are one of the biggest minority ethnic groups in the country – without even mentioning the ever-growing Roma community. And the British Crime Survey, which proved so useful to me when I was scoping the scale of disability hate crime (before it was being collected by police forces) is useless when it comes to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers – because it visits households and not, apparently, sites. So their experience of crime is uncollected – and therefore little, or nothing is done about it. As a senior police officer told me a few years ago, if crime isn’t measured, it can’t become a target to be tackled. So crimes against these communities will remain the lowest of priorities.

We are half-way up the mountain on tackling disability hate crime. We are not even on the foothills when it comes to tackling crimes against these communities.

Looking back, looking forward

This is my first blog here and, given the time of year, I wanted to use it to reflect on a very full year – and to anticipate a little of what 2012 is likely to bring.

In June 2011 my first book for adults, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, was published (Portobello Press, 2011) and launched to a kindly audience of faces at the Department of Health. Many of my great friends from the disability movement were there – my ally and colleague on the Disability Hate Crime Network, Stephen Brookes, Mike Smith and others from the Equality Commission, Mandy Sanghera, who has done so much to combat honour-based violence, John Pring, whose own book, Longcare Survivors, was also published this year and my very patient family, who have accompanied me to many crime locations over the last few years, as I researched my book.

I went on to speak about the book at Stoke Newington Literary Festival (a very rainy day, and thanks to Richard Rieser, who drove all the way back from Cornwall to discuss Scapegoat with me there), then later at Hay and Edinburgh. I’ve been humbled by the generosity of the audiences too – so many brilliant disabled people, experts in their field, who have taken the time to come and talk to me at the festivals and conferences I’ve attended this year, to discuss particular themes of the book. I’ve discussed the troubling semantics of mate crime with Joanna Perry, now of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe but latterly at the Crown Prosecution Service, friendship theory with Ruth Bashall, who runs Disability Action Waltham Forest and other themes with Bert Massie (the former chair of the Disability Rights Commission, who set me on the right road for disability rights many years ago) and others, too numerous to mention.

Next year I’m already speaking at Bath, Bristol, Yeovil and Glasgow Festivals – but I’m also researching my next book, on Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, both in the UK and abroad. Having reported on Dale Farm for the last five years, it was a bit of a shock to arrive there in August this year and find that activists had ensconsed themselves for Dale Farm’s last stand. Later, of course, I was there, reporting for the Economist, as the eviction finally happened, at great economic and social cost. That’s part of the story I intend to tell, – but also the story of Meriden, where a small number of Scottish Gypsies are living, and how their presence has split the village, and further afield, travelling to France and Eastern Europe to tell the wider story of Roma persecution.

I do feel very lucky, to have been given the opportunity to tell these stories of two different parts of our community, and even be paid, albeit not very much, to do so. It’s a privilege – and despite the recession, and the hardship it has brought us all, somehow, these stories deserve to be told, told well, and told truthfully.

I’ve thought long and hard about the question that this kind of story-telling poses me as a journalist and writer too – is it legitimate for me to do so, when I’m not a Gypsy, when my personal experience of disability is more limited than that of so many other people I have interviewed? Well, I wouldn’t be writing the stories if I didn’t feel that I could, or should. I think my skills as an investigative journalist can bring something else to the mix. I can’t (and won’t) tell my personal story – that’s for individual Gypsies and Travellers to do – but I can convince a wider audience that their individual tales have a context that needs explaining – in how society treats them, how the criminal justice system treats them, and what the legacy of history is. That’s legitimate, I think – my work is a small part of the collective narrative, complementing the many wonderful memoirs, written by Gypsies and Travellers, and their growing academic work on the issue. And if it serves to educate a somewhat jaded public, which has only seen Dale Farm and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding this year, I hope that’s worth doing.