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Gipsies demand for land-grab law sparks fury

MSPs urged to back right-to-buy law

Stuart Nicolson
Scottish Daily Mail, 22nd June 2005

Gipsy travellers yesterday demanded a 'right-to-buy' law to force Councils to help them buy land for camps. The move would see them gain community ownership of land similar to that granted to crofters in the Highlands and Islands. It would also let them apply for home improvement grants. More than 1 million of tax-payers' money has been lavished on gipsies and travellers in Scotland in the past year. Right-to-buy laws for crofters have proved highly controversial and paved the way for so-called 'hostile land-grabs'. In such cases, the legislation has given crofters the right to try to buy the land they farm - even where the owner does not want to sell it. A similar scheme for gipsy travellers would prove even more controversial.

Yesterday, gipsy leaders met MSPs to call for new laws that would make local authorities earmark land for sale to travelling families. However, last night Tory MSP Ted Brocklebank said the proposals should not result in taxpayers paying more to fund gipsy traveller sites. He added: "I don't see why society should pay for or support then in that way. They should be treated with the same respect and abide by the same rules as other people."

The travellers' campaign is bound to increase fears that communities blighted by illegal encampments will be helpless to block permanent sites. The proposal also follows concerns raised last week that police are refusing to remove travellers from unauthorised sites amid fears of breaching new harassment guidelines.

MSPs last night backed the right-to-buy plan after travellers' groups addressed members of Holyrood's Equal Opportunities Committee.

Andrew Ryder, of the Gipsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition, said Scotland should guarantee travellers' rights by taking similar steps to those at Westminster. Plans have been drawn up in England to designate gipsy lodgings as permanent homes thus preventing gipsies from being moved on. Mr Ryder said: "There is a need for an obligation for Councils to identify land travellers can buy." There are 32 sites across Scotland which Councils have set aside for use by the country's 2,000 travelling people.

Meanwhile, the number of illegal travellers' camps in Scotland has soared. Earlier this month, travellers set up an illegal camp in Dollar, Clackmannanshire. One concerned resident, who had to call police to move them on, last night expressed horror at the prospect of a gipsy land-grab. He said: "This opens up the possibility of travellers profiteering at the expense of legitimate landowners. They could simply pick a prime site, set up camp then demand public funds to buy it at a knockdown price. And the landowner could do nothing about it. It's outrageous."

Such sites have doubled in the past three years, with travellers' groups saying they have no option but to set up unauthorised encampments because facilities on official Council sites are inadequate.

The Gipsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition is drafting proposed legislation that could be introduced through a Member's Bill or be attached to existing proposals, such as the Scottish Executive's proposed housing legislation.

Liberal Democrat MSP Nora Radcliffe who sits on the Equal Opportunity Committee said it was likely committee members would now table amendments to the Executive's Housing Bill to give gipsy travellers rights to a permanent home. She said: "The Bill could be amended to redefine what is meant by a home. Gipsy caravans could be redefined as permanent home, which would open up the way for them getting things such as home improvement grants. It would change the way they are treated, giving them the same rights as any home dweller."

Sandra White, a Nationalist MSP and committee member, said she would support any moves to give travellers the right to buy land.

Mr Ryder said it was unacceptable that many traveller sites were located next to motorway flyovers or rubbish dumps. He added: "It is a disgrace that inn the 21st century we are corralling people to live in such marginal spaces. Decent sites are the key to improved education and healthcare and the key to increasing employment."

MSPs on the committee yesterday heard from gipsy travellers who said that bullying against young members of the community was not being taken seriously enough in schools. The committee hearing coincided with the publication of a report by Save the Children (Scotland) that found 92 percent of young travellers, some as young as seven, had been bullied because of their cultural identity.

Further Information:

To contact the UK and Ireland Gipsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition

E-mail: info@travellerslaw.org.uk  or visit the website: http://www.travellerslaw.org.uk

Scottish Daily Mail www.dailymail.co.uk