Lord Avebury and the Traveller Community of Dale Farm
With people like Nick Clegg at the head of the Liberal Democrats, it is often difficult to muster up sympathy for the party – but not enough time is spared for the Lib Dems who have spent their whole working lives opposing the Tories, only to have their party’s top brass emulate the nasty party lock, stock and barrel.
Back in the 1960s and 70s, when his constituency of 8 years in Bromley voted the Conservatives back in, Lubbock infamously said: “In 1962 the wise, far-seeing people of Orpington elected me as their Member; in 1970 the fools threw me out”. His victory, however, was an important in-road for the Liberal Democrats, and the by-election was dubbed the “first Liberal Democrat revival” (pdf).
Some 45 years later Nick Clegg was outlining his vision for a Liberal Democrat revival. In 2007 he told the Guardian that “The Liberal Democrats must redefine themselves as an anti-establishment and forward-looking party”.
Even his most hardened critics realise that what he probably didn’t see with his forward-looking party was that he’d be Deputy Prime Minister to a government who are now implicated in the imminent eviction of hundreds of people in Wickford, Essex.
Writing about this, Lord Avebury said:
In the next few weeks, some but not all the families living on this site ate going to be kicked out, at a cost of over £10 million, £6.85 million on which is being subsidised by the Home Office and Communities and Local Government. [...] There is nowhere else in the county to which the evicted Travellers could move, so they will be on a roadside facing new harassment, with endless disruption to family life and interruption to the children’s education.
The peer had always known of the Tories’ mistrust of the gypsy and traveller communities. Before the last election, he wrote a letter to the then shadow secretary of state for communities and local government, saying:
The Conservatives evidently failed to seek advice from established experts or members of the Gypsy and Traveller community, contrary to good practice in policy formation generally, and on ethnic minorities in particular.
There is no acknowledgement of the exclusion suffered by Gypsies and Travellers, which as the EHRC and others have demonstrated is primarily caused by a national shortage of sites – made worse by the last Conservative Government’s repeal of the duty to provide sites contained in the Caravan Sites Act 1968.
One month later his party leader signed a deal forming a government with the Conservative party, and since then barely a sigh has left the mouth of Nick Clegg, nor any Liberal Democrat who made Minister back in May 2010, about Dale Farm.
The closest had been from Andrew Stunell, a Communities Minister, who in October 2010 said that legal changes were “set to be made [meaning] that those travellers who play by the rules will get more protection against eviction, putting them on an equal footing to those living on other residential caravan sites or in council houses” (My emphasis).
His absence of late, however, has been noted. Stunell made a statement to Lord Avebury, in response to a question made to him in May this year on the subject of Roma integration, where, in Lord Avebury’s words, his “statement omits mention of”:
1. the Government’s scrapping of Regional Strategies, making it certain that more Gypsies & Travellers have nowhere to live;
2. Their legislation making it easier for local authorities to kick Gypsies and Travellers off sites they occupy in breach of the planning laws because there is nowhere else for them to go, and
3. The subsidisation of Basildon to the tune of millions of £ to facilitate the eviction of GRT families from a site they have occupied peacefully for many years.
The crucial thing here is this last point that Stunell neglected to mention: that is his government’s complicity in evicting the families of Dale Farm.
Basildon Council have a vendetta against these traveller families, and the coalition government is facilitating that. Though they really ought to, the council does not feel they have to provide alternative accommodation, which, as Lord Avebury pointed out some time ago, will bring about “enormous costs for additional health, social security and children’s services for years down the line, and the life chances of the young people affected will be permanently impaired.”
It’s figures like Lord Avebury that remind us there are principled people in the Liberal Democrats being shafted just as hard as the people they represent nationally.