Co-operative support needed for nomadic communities

‘As a movement, we should be prepared to get our hands dirty, learn more about each other and be real co-operators’

‘Gypsy, Roma and Traveller’ (GRT) is the official terminology used within UK national legislation. Many individuals and organisations within the UK and some other countries proudly use this terminology to describe themselves. However, some Roma organisations in Europe reject the use of the word ‘gypsy’. Since opinions vary on this, Co-op News would like to reassure its readers that no offence is meant by this terminology.

The plight of GRT – Gypsy, Roma and Traveller – communities remains a desperate one, despite increasing awareness of the need for change. 

Recent campaigns include the GRT Welcome Here pledge card, asking MPs and individuals to commit to challenging all forms of racism against GRT communities. Labour /Co-op MPs who have signed up include Anneliese Dodds, Alex Sobel and Lloyd Russell-Moyle. 

A Pledge For Schools is currently aiming to improve access and outcomes for the children of travelling communities across the country. There are anti-bullying and training initiatives to fight discrimination in schools and colleges and the government has invested £10m to build new local authority Traveller sites. 

But GRT communities still face some of the highest levels of racially motivated abuse, social and economic deprivation, and poor access to health and employment in the UK. 

A recent survey led by the Centre on the Dynamics of Diversity, and supported by the Friends, Families and Travellers charity, makes grim reading. Some 62% of those who responded had experienced racial abuse, and 37% had been physically attacked. More than half had no educational qualifications, and 85% were in precarious employment, compared with 19% of white British men. GRT men were over 12 times more likely to suffer from more than two physical health conditions than white British men; and Roma people had the highest risk of not being able to access health and social care services.

Alongside this, there is a risk from legislation. A few years ago, GRT campaigners led protests against Section 4 of the Conservatives’ 2021 Policing Bill and its threats to nomadic life in the UK. The Bill gives the police power to seize Gypsy, Roma and Irish traveller homes, and subject the community to heavy fines.

All of this comes as no surprise to long-time GRT activist Cheryl Barrott, who is from an Irish Traveller background. At 63, the former community social worker is the newly elected chair of UK co-op apex Co-operatives UK. She co-chairs the Co-op Party’s (dis)Ability network and is a former Co-operative Party NEC member. Barrott is also a co-founder of Change AGEnts, a co-operative network empowering older people and co-founder of the newly launched Co-operative Guild of Social and Community Workers, which is aiming to build a new framework for social care. 

I last spoke to her three years ago. Since then, she says, there has been little progress in terms of better outcomes for the GRT community: “Increasingly, newspapers like the Daily Mail regularly report on incidents within the traveller community with a particular slant. If there is a story about a gypsy or a traveller, you can guarantee it’s a negative one.”

But there is some good news. Minister for levelling up, Dehenna Davison MP, recently announced £10m of funding for Traveller sites to be split between nine councils across England, including Kent, Lancaster, Cornwall, Swindon and Preston. Councils are also using the funding to refurbish existing transit and permanent sites to help improve living conditions for residents. Improvements under way range from rebuilding to new infrastructure dependent on need – including stabling for horses, improved utilities and play areas for children.

Barrott has particular praise for Labour-led Preston City Council, part of the Co-operative Councils’ Innovations Network. Its Leighton Street Traveller Site has been awarded £337,220 to refurbish and improve the condition of the site, including the upgrade of electrical equipment giving residents greater control over their energy bills and running costs of the site. 

Related: Preston Council transfers Travellers’ site into co-op management

“Preston City Council is a good model. As part of their community wealth building programme, they allowed the Gypsies to own their own site via a co-operative.”

She would like to see this co-operative approach adopted elsewhere. 

“If Gypsies can buy their own land and sites with adequate water drainage, gas and all regulated within the law by Gypsies for Gypsies then why would there be a problem? They would be moving between accessible sites and it would also help the current housing crisis for people who are nomadic. You could also then have better access to education. Kids can learn via iPad these days so why can’t we set up co-op schools for nomads? There are ways of designing these services.” 

However, the fact remains that many more council-run Traveller sites across England and Wales desperately need upgrading after decades of neglect. The national charity Friends, Families and Travellers said that of the 16 grants given, only one had been awarded to build much-needed new transit sites, and that much more needed to be done.

“I am happy that the money is being allocated, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the situation that people are in. It just puts a little sticking-plaster on the wound,” says Barrott. 

She adds: “It doesn’t resolve the cultural attitudes or the understanding of people’s situations either. It doesn’t bring people together and doesn’t assume that people belong in a community even if it is nomadic. If Labour gets into government next year I want them to work with the people in these communities. I hope that they will empower people with lived experience who know what they need and do their best to provide it.”

After decades of community activism and tireless campaigning for the GRT community, Barrott has just been elected as the new chair of Co-operatives UK – an achievement she is very proud of.

 “The oil and glue of the co-op movement is Co-operatives UK. It’s one of the most important parts of the UK’s co-op architecture and we are really diversifying as people like me are now in the mainstream,” she says. 

“We don’t want to be ghettoised either. Being someone of Traveller heritage doesn’t mean that is all I am interested in. To me, this is one of the most important things I have ever done. I am hoping more women – maybe with a disability or of working-class or GRT heritage – will say: ‘Look, she’s done it, so can I’.”

Barrott is hoping the co-operative movement can be at the forefront of tackling the immense challenges and inequalities still faced by her community – and says that in her new role she will be doing her very best to ensure that happens: “What the co-op movement could do is to work in partnership with GRT organisations and communities to set up co-op services and businesses so GRT people are in control,”
she says.

“Part of the strategy of Co-operatives UK is Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Practically, that means more co-working. We are looking at how we can work more with Co-op Development Agencies. We should work with people and do things with people rather than to people. We should be spending more time working with people in poverty and getting our hands dirty. As a movement, we should be prepared to learn more about each other and be real co-operators, reconciling conflict and being champions for nomadic people.”