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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 12 June 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Scottish Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2016, Student Support, Improving the Lives of Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers, Decision Time, Orkambi


Improving the Lives of Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-12690, in the name of Angela Constance, on improving the lives of Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers.


The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities (Angela Constance)

I welcome members of the Gypsy Traveller community who are joining us in the public gallery. I understand that they have travelled from Aberdeenshire, from North and South Lanarkshire, from East Ayrshire, from my own constituency in West Lothian and from the Cairntow site in Edinburgh. As I did in a recent debate that was secured by Mary Fee MSP, I start by saying to every member of the Gypsy Traveller community who is with us today, and to every member of the Gypsy Traveller community the length and breadth of Scotland—this is your Parliament. Like all citizens of Scotland, you deserve the very best representation from your elected politicians.

Over the years, Parliament has had three inquiries and has returned time and time again to the issues of inequality and racism and their consequences for the Gypsy Traveller community. More recently, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee focused on Gypsy Travellers to mark human rights day, in December last year, and Mary Fee led an excellent members’ business debate only a few weeks ago. Some of the Gypsy Travellers who are here today have been directly involved in those meetings and inquiries. I thank them for their input over many years and for not allowing us to forget about the inequalities that they face and the human rights that are they are, as yet, unable to enjoy.

It is fair to say that there has been plenty of talk but insufficient action. We have made some progress, but it has been patchy and inconsistent—to be frank, it has quite simply not been good enough. That has to change. As we mark the centenary of votes for women, I am reminded of the motto of the suffrage movement, which fits well with our aim to improve the lives of Gypsy Travellers: this has to be about “deeds not words”. I put on record the Scottish Government’s clear and unwavering commitment to improving the lives of Gypsy Travellers.

As members will recall, the independent race equality adviser Kaliani Lyle, who published her report in December 2017, reported that, on every indicator of what is required to live a happy, productive and fulfilled life, Gypsy Travellers are worse off than any other community in Scotland. When we published “A Fairer Scotland for All: Race Equality Action Plan 2017-21” in the same month, I acknowledged that we needed to do much more to develop what I called a radical new approach that will bring about change on a much shorter timescale.

That is the context for the creation of the new ministerial working group, which I chair and which brings together ministers with responsibilities for housing, education, employment and health. The job of the ministerial working group is to develop a radical new approach across Government and to bring about real change at a much faster pace. Our approach is firmly rooted in human rights. We will, therefore, take full account of the recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which challenges state partners to

“ensure a systematic and coherent approach in addressing the challenges that”

members of Gypsy Traveller communities

“continue to face”.

The ministerial working group has met twice this year. The first meeting focused on accommodation. We looked at a range of issues including site provision and site standards. Since then, we have published a review of site standards ahead of the minimum standards coming into effect this month. We have also been working on a set of proposals to ensure that the planning system better meets the needs of the community. The second meeting of the ministerial working group focused on education. We heard directly from Davie Donaldson, a young Gypsy Traveller who is the driving force behind the new young Gypsy Traveller assembly. He gave us a powerful insight into the experiences of young Gypsy Travellers in our schools and education system.

This year, we will have two further meetings, at which we will focus on employment and health. Early next year, we will share a draft set of actions, which we will discuss with the community and those who work with it. By this time next year, we will publish a concrete set of actions to be delivered in the current parliamentary session. It will not just be warm words or more of the same, because that has not worked and the status quo is not an option. We must be bold, innovative and radical if we are to make tangible improvements that will impact positively on our Gypsy Travellers.

Kaliani Lyle’s report made it clear that delivering genuine improvements in the life chances of Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers over a relatively short period will be dependent on that community’s involvement as full partners in planning and delivery. I could not agree more. Therefore, in the race equality action plan, we have said:

“We will establish a mechanism to ensure continued engagement”

with members of the Gypsy Traveller community.

Over the past few months, working with the community and trusted partners in both the public and third sectors, we have identified a strong desire among women to become more active in their personal lives as well as more engaged with civic matters at a local and national level. I am therefore delighted to announce that we will invest £100,000 in a new Gypsy Traveller women’s voices project, which will engage with women to build their confidence and capacity and to encourage participation in daily and public life in Scotland while focusing on the issues that matter most to them.

The Minority Ethnic Carers of People Project will run the Gypsy Traveller women’s voices project alongside its existing Gypsy Traveller support project, which we have funded for a number of years. It will offer a range of learning, development and support opportunities to empower women collaboratively in that most marginalised of communities. I am looking forward to working closely with those remarkable women to improve their lived experiences and life chances and those of their families over the months and years ahead.

The Gypsy Traveller women’s voices project will complement the new young Gypsy Traveller assembly, which we recently welcomed to this Parliament. Over the next two years, we will continue to provide direct financial and practical support to the young Gypsy Traveller assembly, to strengthen its participation in decisions that affect members’ lives. That will include a programme of training and mentoring, which will be tailored to the needs of individual members in the group as a whole.

I hope that our support for those two new pieces of work demonstrates that we are serious in our endeavours to work with the community to develop actions that meet their needs and aspirations, which we will deliver in appropriate and culturally sensitive ways.

This is an ideal time to have this important debate for three reasons. First, the new cross-party group on Gypsy Travellers will have its first meeting tomorrow. I thank Mary Fee for establishing the group and the MECOPP team for providing secretariat support. I will follow the group’s progress with great interest and, if I may be so bold, I look forward to an invitation to contribute to the group.

Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

This may be the invitation.

Mary Fee

It is, Presiding Officer. The cabinet secretary is more than welcome to attend every meeting of the cross-party group on Gypsy Travellers.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Well done, Ms Fee.

Angela Constance

I thank Ms Fee; she is very kind. In all seriousness, I welcome the additional scrutiny, as well as support, that I hope the cross-party group will bring to the work of the ministerial working group.

Secondly, this is a timely debate because the community wellbeing board of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has recently approved a paper supporting the work of the ministerial working group. Having discussed the issue with Councillor Whitham, who is the convener of the board—she, too, joins us in the public gallery—and Councillor Evison, who is COSLA’s president, I am confident that we have their full support.

Last but not least, I am delighted that we are having the debate today because June is Gypsy Roma Traveller history month, which we are marking for the first time in Scotland. The Scottish Government is proud to support two days of events in Edinburgh next week that will showcase and celebrate Gypsy Roma Traveller history and culture and stimulate discussion with a variety of audiences, including schoolchildren and leaders of public bodies. I hope that the events will play a part in challenging stereotypes and reducing discrimination.

Before I finish, I draw attention to the intolerable levels of prejudice and hostility that our Gypsy Traveller communities experience on a daily basis. Such is the fear of a verbal or physical attack that many people choose to hide their identity at school or at work. I have been struck by what I have heard from young people, who have described the difficult decision of whether to come out as a Gypsy Traveller or to hide their identity, to stay safe and feel safe. Hostile attitudes and behaviours have absolutely no place in a modern and inclusive Scotland. We no longer tolerate any other forms of racist abuse and we must all challenge discrimination against Gypsy Travellers whenever we encounter it, whether that is here in this Parliament, in our constituencies or as we go about our daily lives.

I reinforce two key points on which I have already touched. First, I restate my absolute commitment and that of the Scottish Government to do much, much more to address the poor outcomes and discrimination that the communities continue to experience, and to do so quickly, because that is long overdue. Secondly, I explicitly seek the active support of this Parliament as a whole and of every member who has been elected to it. I sincerely hope that we can work together across political, geographical and organisational boundaries to improve the lives of Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller communities and to put an end to what the Scottish Human Rights Commission has rightly described as

“the last bastion of respectable racism”.—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 6 December 2012; c 777.]

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the contribution that Gypsy/Travellers have made to Scottish history and continue to make to the country’s culture and heritage; notes that June 2018 sees Scotland celebrating Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month for the first time; is united in the view that there is no place for any form of racism in a modern and inclusive Scotland, and condemns all forms of prejudice and discrimination towards Gypsy/Travellers; supports the work of the new Ministerial Working Group on Gypsy/Travellers, which aims to ensure a systematic and coherent approach to improving outcomes for Gypsy/Travellers across the country in line with the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD); recognises the importance of direct engagement with Gypsy/Traveller people; congratulates the Young Gypsy Traveller Assembly in strengthening the voice of young Gypsy/Travellers; commends COSLA’s commitment to transforming the life chances of Gypsy/Travellers across the country, and looks forward to working together within a human rights framework to accelerate improvements for this community.


The Deputy Presiding Officer

I gently say to people in the public gallery that, although I understand why you wish to applaud, that is not permitted in the Scottish Parliament. I make that rebuke very gently, I hope.


Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

Only last month, I spoke in Mary Fee’s members’ business debate on Gypsy Travellers, in which we heard insightful speeches from members about what needs to be done to improve the lives of people in the community. I was greatly encouraged by the cross-party support that was shown in that debate, and I am pleased that the issue is finally getting the attention that it deserves.

As a member of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, I have been made well aware of the issues that affect the Gypsy Traveller community, whether we are talking about housing, education, employment or health. The Scottish Parliament has a long history in relation to the topic. In 2001, the Equal Opportunities Committee carried out an inquiry into Gypsy Travellers and public sector policies. In 2012 and 2013, two reports were published, on which the Equalities and Human Rights Committee took evidence last June.

The committee wanted to assess the progress that has been made, and we heard from members of the Gypsy Traveller community. Davie Donaldson told the committee that, since the Scottish Parliament’s inception,

“very little has changed ... The situation has remained completely stagnant.”—[Official Report, Equalities and Human Rights Committee, 7 December 2017; c 3.]

I should say, in all fairness, that, when she spoke in last month’s debate, the cabinet secretary was honest about the lack of progress. She said that progress

“has been patchy and inconsistent”.—[Official Report, 24 May 2018; c 43.]

I recognise the work that is being done through the establishment of a new ministerial group and the young Gypsy Traveller assembly, which I sincerely hope will provide the step change that is needed. I recognise that the group is working with the community, and I hope that a balance is struck between bridging the gaps in public service provision and maintaining people’s traditional way of life. As I say in my amendment, I support those moves but I think that it is vital that “measurable indicators” are used to review the progress that is being made.

Central to the lack of progress is a lingering sense that it is okay to be discriminatory towards Gypsy Travellers. Although, in Scotland, public attitudes to diversity and to ethnic minorities have improved greatly over the past 20 years, the worrying exception to the trend seems to be attitudes to the Gypsy Traveller community.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

While Annie Wells is making that point, can she confirm whether her colleague Douglas Ross has had any disciplinary action taken against him or whether he has undertaken any diversity training following the frankly shameful comment that he made last year?

Annie Wells

I do not set the disciplinary arrangements for my party, but I know that Mr Ross has made an apology. In this Parliament, I speak on my own behalf. I want to make sure that we create the cross-party consensus that we have had so far in previous debates here on the subject. The Government will have my and the Scottish Conservatives’ full support for that.

The most recent Scottish social attitudes survey showed that 31 per cent of people in Scotland would be unhappy if a relative married someone from the Gypsy Traveller community and that 34 per cent of people thought that a Gypsy Traveller would be unsuitable to be a primary school teacher. We have seen such attitudes simmer into popular culture. In 2012, we saw how Channel 4’s “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings” series came under fire after it was blamed for an increase in bullying and negative stereotyping of Gypsy Traveller communities. We should shine a light on those communities—not for entertainment but to celebrate the rich cultural contribution that they have made to Scottish society since as far back as the 12th century.

As Mary Fee emphasised in her members’ business debate on the subject, the Gypsy Traveller community is extremely diverse and vibrant, and it is characterised by a strong sense of cultural identity. Often absent from history or misrepresented, it is a culture with a rich variety of languages and a strong oral tradition, with stories being passed down from generation to generation. Some groups are highly mobile, moving on when work opportunities have been exhausted, while others live permanently in one area—sometimes in traditional bricks-and-mortar homes—and travel for only a few weeks or months of the year.

When I was reading old committee reports, it was the written evidence of Gypsy Traveller Nadia Foy that made me truly understand the importance of identity and tradition to her community. She said:

“For us, ‘travelling’ is not just physically moving, it is a state of mind ... we often say it’s ‘in our blood’.”

That is why I, too, welcome the first ever Gypsy Roma Traveller history month in Scotland, which is taking place this month. l look forward to hearing more about it.

When it comes to alienation from public services, the impact of marginalisation is clear, and obvious boundaries remain—a fact that is magnified by a culture of self-reliance and the likelihood that some families will have no permanent address. Accessing service provision can therefore be difficult.

Many Gypsy Travellers often face difficulties in trying to visit a general practitioner. Evidence from the 2012 committee inquiry highlighted the fact that some Gypsy Travellers will travel as far as 300 miles to see a dentist or a doctor whom they trust and know will see them. The impact of that is clear: many Gypsy Travellers experience inexcusable health inequalities and a lower life expectancy The age profile of Gypsy Travellers is much younger, with only 28 per cent of the population being aged 45 and over, compared with 44 per cent of the population as a whole. In 2012, a number of suggestions were made regarding outreach initiatives and health visits to sites at which patients could be put in direct contact with health professionals. I would be extremely grateful if the cabinet secretary could let us hear more about that and about what work is being done now.

We know that there can be difficulties in accessing education services when travelling. In addressing those difficulties, we can see what work can be done to expand initial efforts to provide flexible alternatives to school-based learning. I also look forward to hearing from the cabinet secretary about the bridging programmes that will assist younger members of the community to transition into mainstream education. As was shown during the committee’s evidence sessions, bullying and discrimination remain huge barriers to learning in schools. Gypsy Traveller children continue to be singled out, with many hiding their ethnicity in order to get through school. Again, I look forward to hearing more about what will be done to assist schools in being better prepared to respond to Gypsy Traveller needs and to counter discrimination.

On housing, minimum standards for council-assigned sites are not being met, with many being built in undesirable and unsafe locations, often on unpopular brownfield sites. Many sites experience issues with dampness, mould and access to water. I am therefore pleased that the Scottish Government has been proactive in addressing the situation by working with local authorities and with COSLA, and I look forward to seeing how partnership working will bring about innovative practice in that area.

I reiterate my support for the Scottish Government’s motion. It is welcome that the lives of members of the Gypsy Traveller community are more prominent in discussions across the Parliament, as it is only by highlighting their issues that we will begin to progress their lives among our communities in a fairer way.

The ministerial working group is also a step in the right direction. I urge the Scottish Government to continue to be open and transparent about the work of the group, for the benefit of not only members but, more important, the Gypsy Traveller community. Sadly, the Gypsy Traveller community is still stereotyped in many walks of life. However, by working together, we can preserve the traditions of a traditional community in the modern world.

I move amendment S5M-12690.1, to insert after “Discrimination (CERD)”:

“; calls on the Scottish Government to regularly review progress and provide measurable indicators by which to do so”.


Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for introducing this important debate, which is appropriately timed as it falls during Gypsy Roma Traveller history month and follows on from Mary Fee’s recent members’ business debate.

I commend Mary Fee for her passionate campaigning to improve the lives of members of the Gypsy Traveller community, which is not a single community but is comprised of diverse groups, each with its own unique culture and history. Before I met Mary, I was aware of her work in the field of equalities and knew that she was a champion for seldom-heard voices, so I am very proud to be sitting next to Mary today.

We are here not just to thank one another. I thank the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the MECOPP carers centre as well as campaigning organisations such as the Gypsy Council, the Scottish Gypsy Traveller Association, the Scottish Gypsy Traveller law reform coalition and the young Gypsy Traveller assembly. I join the cabinet secretary in welcoming the Gypsy Travellers who are here in the Parliament today or who are watching the debate, wherever they may be. It is great news that the cabinet secretary has cleared her diary to be available for future meetings of the cross-party group on Gypsy Travellers.

Gloria Buckley MBE, who is a Traveller and a tireless campaigner for the Gypsy Traveller community, said:

“We are one community—the Travellers and our settled neighbours. We’ve all got something in common: we want our children to be healthy and educated.”

As many of us begin to organise events in support of the great get together in memory of the late Jo Cox MP, the sentiment that there is more that unites us than divides us is very much on our minds. The huge importance of family to the Gypsy Traveller community is a value that many people in Scotland share. We want our loved ones to be looked after in illness and old age, and we want our children to be healthy, safe and educated.

It is a sad fact that the settled community can take that much more for granted than our Gypsy Traveller neighbours. On average, the life expectancy of a man from the Gypsy Traveller community is 10 years less than the national average. Gypsy Traveller children are more likely than the general population to have no educational qualifications. Heartbreakingly, Gypsy and Traveller mothers are 20 times more likely than the rest of the population to have experienced the death of a child. Therefore, I agree with the cabinet secretary that we need a radical new approach.

That hardship is suffered against a backdrop of prejudice and discrimination that is so prevalent that it has been called the last acceptable form of racism. In the most recent Scottish social attitudes survey, more than a third of Scots said that they would be unhappy about a close relative marrying a Gypsy Traveller, so it is little wonder that up to 15,000 people do not disclose their Gypsy Traveller identity. The most recent census found that there are more than 4,000 Gypsy Travellers in Scotland, but the actual number is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000.

Tensions between the settled community and the Gypsy Traveller community can often arise when Gypsy Travellers set up in unauthorised settlements. However, given the insufficiency and inadequacy of authorised sites, members of the Gypsy Traveller community are left with no real options. In my local area of South Lanarkshire, there are two authorised Gypsy Traveller sites—they are council sites—but there is a lack of adequate sites across the patch, in neighbouring authorities and across the country. The on-going work by COSLA and the collaborative approach between the Government and COSLA to improve site provision is very welcome because, even when there is provision, it is not always of an acceptable standard—in fact, it rarely is. It is good that we have a commitment from COSLA, but, as it said in its briefing to MSPs, it will take significant investment to bring sites up to standard. I hope that there is a commitment to make that happen.

The Equalities and Human Rights Committee heard one Gypsy Traveller describe the squalid conditions of some sites. That individual gave an example of an authorised site that was, in his words, “overflowing with rats”. When he went to the warden, seeking help because he was concerned for the safety of his young family, the warden told him to get a cat. That same person described the transformative difference that just one person can make when he spoke about a new warden who cared and who got things done, spoke to officials and made things better for the Gypsy Travellers at the site. Although there is a lot of talk about a lack of progress, it is important to recognise the important contributions of those local authority employees who act as friends and champions of the Gypsy Traveller community. Individuals can make a difference, but we cannot afford to have a postcode lottery for Gypsy Travellers whereby they have better experiences in some local authorities than they do in others.

Action by the Scottish Government and Parliament is crucial. For example, the recent legislation to improve site standards is welcome. I spoke in Mary Fee’s members’ business debate about my experience of representing people from the Gypsy Traveller community in my former work as a town planner. I am grateful that the cabinet secretary has made a commitment to improve the planning system. I, Mary Fee and others will be seeking amendments, but I hope that we can do that in a collaborative fashion.

Legislation is important, but piecemeal change is not enough. There have been multiple inquiries in the past 17 years, but there has been little progress. A national strategy on Gypsy Travellers was recommended by the Equal Opportunities Committee back in 2013, but that did not materialise. I am glad that the Scottish Government has now acted on the independent race equality adviser’s call for leadership on the issue and has set up the ministerial working group on Gypsy Travellers. The Scottish Government and Parliament must work together on the issue. Mary Fee’s cross-party group is a positive development. I am pretty confident that it will not just be a talking shop, because we have had enough of that. The voices are certainly there, and I commend the Gypsy Traveller community on its work. It should feel immense pride for the way in which it has organised and campaigned for its communities.

I believe that, with compassion and commitment across Scotland, real change is possible. I am proud to move the amendment in my name and I am pleased to say that we will give the Scottish Government’s motion and the other amendments our full support when we vote on them at decision time.

I move amendment S5M-12690.3, to insert at end:

“, and welcomes the establishment of the Parliament’s first Cross Party Group on Gypsy/Travellers.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I remind members to use full names. I know that it is a friendly debate—it has been so far and I hope that it remains friendly—but use full names, please.


John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Here we are again talking about Gypsy Travellers. I do not want to tell members that I do not enjoy the subject, but I am weary of aspects of it. I hope that that weariness will not surface too much in my speech, but it is a weariness built of frustration because, as I think that the cabinet secretary said, there has been plenty of talk but insufficient action. I will therefore talk about some actions that we can take.

It is important that this is Gypsy Roma Traveller history month, because Gypsy Traveller movement is a root and branch part of Scotland, these islands and Europe.

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

I agree completely with Mr Finnie. I think that some of us do not pay due attention to the influence of some Gypsy Travellers from Scotland not only in these islands but internationally in Europe and elsewhere. For example, Bob Dylan was influenced by an Aberdeen Gypsy Traveller called Jeannie Robertson. Not many folk know that, but why is that the case? We would know that if Jeannie Robertson was from some other group.

John Finnie

Indeed, we would. I thank the minister for highlighting that.

In the limited time that I have, I will mention Shamus McPhee, who is an active member of the Gypsy Traveller community. One of his postcards is on my wall. It commemorates the contribution, service and sacrifice of the Gypsy Traveller community during the first world war and is called “Cannon Fodder”. There is a wide contribution there, and the storytelling tradition is also very important.

The motion talks about there being

“no place for ... racism in a modern and inclusive Scotland”.

Over the weekend, some people may have seen shocking footage from the Ukraine of a Nazi group—which has adopted the same name as a Nazi group that persecuted Jews in the Ukraine during the second world war—attacking a Roma camp. With the spread of social media, it is at our peril that we are complacent about things such as that and the situation in Hungary, the famous photograph of the Paris suburbs with a daubed sign on the end of the building where the Roma were that was to be demolished and, as has been alluded to, the conduct of the Moray MP.

I wish the ministerial working group well; there have been plenty of talks. My amendment inserts at the end of the motion

“and recognises the need for such support”

—there is undoubtedly support for the Gypsy Traveller community from the Scottish Government—

“to be underpinned by measures that enable Gypsy/Travellers’ traditional way of life, including the mapping of stopping-off places and, save in exceptional circumstances, making these available”.

In the recent debate, I talked about how a lot of the language that we use is still flawed—for example, in Government and COSLA documents. If we talk about housing, we are perpetuating the idea that bricks and mortar are the issue. We should be talking about accommodation, which may be a traditional stopping-off place.

Many of the reports have alluded to the fact that, for a long time, people have been told that their health problems would be sorted if they did one thing: if they got a house. That is deeply offensive. If we are really going to throw our weight behind the traditional way of life, we want to get the language correct, and talking about accommodation may be something that we can do. There has been a review and progress has been made. I will shortly be visiting the site at Newtonmore where there has been significant progress, and that is welcome.

Language is also an issue when we talk about “stopping-off places”. I have used the traditional term, but I had a look through some of the documents and some of the terms used were: “negotiated stopping model”, “informal stopping places”, “short-term halting sites” and “stopover sites”. We are talking about accommodation. If we are to reinforce our commitment to supporting a way of life, which is about the provision of accommodation sites, we need to change the mindset. This debate has the potential to be a very positive contribution to that.

I move amendment S5M-12690.2, to insert at end:

“, and recognises the need for such support to be underpinned by measures that enable Gypsy/Travellers’ traditional way of life, including the mapping of stopping-off places and, save in exceptional circumstances, making these available to the Gypsy/Traveller community.”


Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I thank the Government for securing today’s time and for the cabinet secretary’s language in what was a very consensual opening speech. We share a strong sense of common purpose on this matter and I thank her for that. I also put on record my thanks to my friend and colleague Mary Fee. I will be a proud member of the CPG alongside her. She has schooled me in things that I did not know about Gypsy Traveller history and rights, and the lack and deprivation of those.

Most important, I thank our friends and colleagues from the Gypsy Traveller community who are in the gallery this afternoon. They are very much part of the fabric of our country and we are very proud to know them and have them here.

When we think about the term “racism”, we often think about the attacks on European Union migrants in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, which were fuelled by the irresponsible rhetoric of papers such as the Daily Mail, and the hostile environment policies that led to the Windrush scandal. It comes down to that feeling of othering—that fear of the incomer and of change.

In truth, we are all products of a rich tapestry of immigration and of people moving around these islands, which is very much part of our national identity. We like to think that we are not racist here in Scotland—that we are not like that—but, as Davie Donaldson said in very compelling testimony to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, racism against the Gypsy Traveller community is the last form of acceptable racism in Scotland.

The irony is that Gypsies and Travellers are not incomers. They have a rich cultural identity that spans a millennium in this country. Shamus McPhee, whom John Finnie referred to, has written an excellent history of the Gypsy Traveller relationship with Scotland. It goes back to the 11th century, when they settled in Scotland and were initially referred to as tinklers. Sometimes they were mistaken for Spaniards or Egyptians, but they were treated with reverence to the point that, in 1506, a letter of safe passage was written for the earl of the Egyptians—as he was known—to travel through Denmark.

The position changed dramatically in 1541, when the first anti-Gypsy law was passed in this country and it suddenly became legal to drown or strangle a Gypsy. We talk a lot about hostile environment policies, but that takes the biscuit. We are not quite as severe now, but there are still throwbacks to that time, and such prejudice permeates our culture. Davie Donaldson gave a harrowing example from when he sat on a youth forum in Aberdeen, which involved an interface with the local authority on planning. The officials and elected members did not know that he was a Traveller. When he asked about Travellers’ rights and the need for sites around Aberdeen, a senior member of the council said, “Son, nobody cares about the effing tinks.” That level of racism is still at large in our society.

Such racism comes from a political imbalance. The nomadic nature of Travellers who still shift means that they are disenfranchised. They are unlikely to register to vote, so politicians are unlikely to try to appeal to them and are more likely to appease constituents who are concerned about where Travellers are moving to. As an answer to that, we have seen social experiments such as Bobbin Mill, which has a fantastic and dynamic community but is where people have lived in the worst housing conditions imaginable and have had to defrost pipes in the winter.

We have heard a lot about health inequalities and about access to education—people are still being left behind and we are not addressing their particular needs. We have heard the statistics about social prejudices. Being a Traveller is a protected characteristic, but we do not often treat it as such, so I am happy to support the Government’s motion and all the amendments.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I ask for a tight four minutes from everybody in the open debate.


Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

In Gypsy Roma Traveller history month, it is appropriate that we have set aside time for the debate and for asking what we can do to improve outcomes for the Gypsy Traveller community. The previous census told us that about 4,200 people in Scotland identify themselves as part of that group, although people in organisations that work with the community believe that the figure is closer to 20,000.

Gypsy Travellers in Scotland are a diverse group with a long and distinct history that dates from at least as early as the 12th century. In the community, written records survive from 1492. However, despite that long history, Gypsy Travellers in Scotland have been legally recognised as a distinct ethnic group only since September 2008. Being appropriately recognised and respected as a distinct ethnic group affords members of the community further protection under the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics, which include ethnic origin.

In December, we on the Equalities and Human Rights Committee heard harrowing and saddening evidence from the Gypsy Traveller community. The discrimination that this marginalised community has to face daily violates their human rights, and we must stamp it out.

As we have heard today, the Scottish Government has set up a ministerial working group, which has met twice and will report its findings early next year. That report will set out the group’s achievements and progress to implement the priorities that it has identified.

The group will work to address inequalities in housing, education, health, social services, employment and community cohesion. One action that interests me is the potential work with young people, in this year of young people, to tackle discriminatory portrayals of the community in the media.

The group will consider how to improve engagement with the Gypsy Traveller community, which is essential if we are even to think about tackling all the other issues. We often speak about lived experience, consultation and engagement. Those things are vital for the community.

Shamus McPhee, who has been referred to, gave an example of that when he told the committee about local authority sites. Gypsy Travellers who live on sites that councils own must be provided with secure tenancy agreements. However, Shamus McPhee said:

“Gypsy Travellers who live on local authority sites in Scotland tend to be bound by a Scottish secure tenancy agreement, which limits them to 12 weeks a year in which they can travel off site. That is a violation of their right to freedom of movement. If they can go off site for only 12 weeks of the year before forfeiting their tenancy on a local authority site, that is an impediment to their ability to lead their cultural lifestyle.”—[Official Report, Equalities and Human Rights Committee, 7 December 2017; c 12.]

Communication is therefore essential.

We know that there is work to do; it would do Gypsy Travellers all over Scotland a disservice if we pretended that everything is fine. It was really good to hear the cabinet secretary speak about the progress that she wants, and we all share that vision.

It is also good to see some local authorities with Gypsy Traveller strategies working with young people’s liaison officers, interagency groups and site improvement plans. However, we need a firm commitment from all local authorities not to wait to do as they are told by the Scottish Government but to take immediate action to support an isolated community that has the worst health outcomes, the most horrific living conditions, disproportionate rates of depression and mental illness and the poorest educational outcomes in our society.

I welcome the commitments made by the cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government. The amendments from John Finnie, Annie Wells and Monica Lennon are entirely sensible. We need to monitor progress and there should be a mapping of traditional sites. I wish Mary Fee good luck with her cross-party group and I will be there tomorrow.


Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am delighted to take part in the debate. I also acknowledge Mary Fee’s work. I was not able to participate in her members’ business debate, but I was happy to sit and listen. I congratulate her on the passionate and positive campaign that she has run.

Of course everyone is committed to ensuring equality of opportunity for all of Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers, who see themselves as a particularly marginalised group. We have heard that already. Many of them see themselves and their communities as coming from the indigenous Highland Travellers—the showmen or funfair Travellers—whom we see and have become used to. Their history, culture and identity all need to be protected and respected.

I concur with my colleagues that Gypsy Travellers and their families suffer inequalities in health, education and all the areas in which they are not given opportunities. Those are enormous barriers for children to accessing and obtaining education and employment. Therefore, it is essential that we work together to address the issue and try to support Gypsy children to ensure that they feel confident and do not suffer any further from those barriers.

I am encouraged that the Scottish Government has established a ministerial working group on Gypsy Travellers. The group’s aim is to work to get rid of some of the inequalities in housing, education, health and employment. By working together, we can achieve much and get results from that ministerial working group. I look forward to seeing what happens in the not-too-distant future.

A good number of the Travellers are actively involved in business. Many of them are successful business individuals with an entrepreneurial flourish and the ownership of organisations the length and breadth of the country. Another section of the community has become successful in the acting and music worlds because their family and ethnic roots have, with all that culture round about them, taught them from childhood. The entertainment industry has done well by having many of them participate.

There are also individuals such as the famous Billy Welch from Darlington, who talks about the Appleby horse fair, to which tens of thousands of individuals go. Although tourists come and support that, there is still a stigma and many people want to try to hide their roots. We have heard that that also happens in the education system.

The biggest stigma that we have to deal with is in relation to ensuring that Travelling people feel that they are part of the community. Many of them have set up their own businesses and become successful in shipyards and car dealerships or as scrap merchants and caravan suppliers, as well as in many other businesses. Mr Welch himself said:

“We are true business people … We don’t just tarmac, or sell beds and windows. We do big business. We just keep quiet about it.”

Many have gone out and shown that they can be entrepreneurs more widely and it is dreadful to think that there is still an unconscious bias against the Traveller community.

I still find it difficult to believe that some communities come into conflict with the Gypsy Travellers and what they are trying to achieve. There are real opportunities, which we should seize, to ensure that there is no clash of lifestyle. I have witnessed the success of purpose-built sites, such as the Double Dykes site in my old area of Perth and Kinross, which provided opportunities. However, more sites require to be made.

I applaud the Scottish Government for what it has done so far to ensure that Gypsy Travellers are respected and have the opportunities that they deserve. They are entitled to life chances, opportunities and respect.


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

It gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate on improving the lives of Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers. I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to ensuring equality of opportunity for all Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers, which has included the creation of a ministerial working group to develop a programme of work to improve the prospects and outcomes for the community.

There is no place in Scotland for the discrimination that our Gypsy Traveller communities face, which other members have described today as the last acceptable form of racism. We no longer tolerate other forms of racist abuse and we must all challenge discrimination towards the Gypsy Traveller community whenever we encounter it in this chamber, in our surgeries and in our local communities. I am sure that, as elected members, we all have examples of doing that.

I pay tribute to two women: Mary Fee, as others have mentioned, for her passion on this subject, and Christina McKelvie, who I know is gutted at not being able to make today’s debate and who has always raised the issue.

I am chair of the cross-party group on racial equality, which held a session last September at which Article 12’s Michael Molden and Lynne Tammi made a presentation. We heard how the Gypsy Traveller community is among the most marginalised in Scotland and is frequently unable to enjoy the human rights that others take for granted. Lynne told us about the casual discrimination that is faced by the Gypsy Traveller community; she spoke about the TV programme that Annie Wells also mentioned, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”, along with its connotations. Michael told us about the bullying that he experienced at school—which still goes on—and anyone who was at the meeting would have had to have a heart of stone not to be moved by what he told us. Diversity and equality training in schools came up, especially if people are seasonally schooled. The Amnesty International Scotland school programme can be used and school resources could be developed in partnership with Show Racism the Red Card. The cross-party group had a really good discussion, which we will follow up, and I will be a member of Mary Fee’s group.

I move from two members who have fought the case for a long time to a former colleague who is now an MP, Douglas Ross, who was mentioned by Ruth Maguire. He was invited to that cross-party group session following his remarks that were widely circulated in the media. He did not attend, but I would like to put on record that Adam Tomkins attended and engaged in the discussion and covered for his colleague; in the spirit of cross-party working, I thank him for that.

As many members have said, there is a lot of diversity among the Gypsy Traveller community in Scotland; different groups speak a variety of languages and hold to distinct customs and traditions. I welcome the fact that the ministerial working group will take that on board and will help with the challenges that members of those communities continue to face.

I am running out of time, but I want to talk about my constituency area of North Lanarkshire. I visited the council’s website today and will read out exactly what it said about sites for Gypsy Traveller communities:

“Traditionally there are two kinds of sites provided for the gypsies and travelling community according to length of stay - transient and long stay. North Lanarkshire Council at one time had three sites at Mossend, Annathill and Plains. This gave a combined pitch total of 52. Two sites have since been closed leaving only one official site at Plains, which had capacity for 16 pitches. This particular site was a long term stay site and also had facilities for disabled gypsies and travellers. The site has not been in use for several years following low demand and major vandalism to the site which rendered it uninhabitable. A housing needs assessment is currently being undertaken to determine the extent of demand or need for further provision.”

That is absolutely shocking; it basically says that there is no provision. I welcome the fact that the council is reviewing the situation and I have asked it to make sure that there is provision as soon as possible. I hope that the working group will help it to do that.


Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

Last December, Parliament approved the race equality action plan, which goes to the heart of what we try to do every day in this place—to ensure that Scotland, as a progressive, inclusive nation, treats all of our citizens equally, no matter what their race or background. As we have heard, as part of that plan the Scottish Government set up a ministerial working group to identify the priorities and enact the changes required to improve the lives of our Gypsy Traveller communities. However, improvement must be practical, tangible and a process that identifies a multifaceted approach to ensure that real equality is delivered.

Unfortunately, society has a negative attitude towards the Gypsy Traveller community. The majority of that negative attitude is based on stereotype, conjecture, misunderstanding and, it has to be said, downright ignorance. As has been alluded to, it does not help when certain members of society say that Gypsies are, in the words of Douglas Ross MP, a blight on our communities that needs to be dealt with. Rather than focus on what can be done to improve equality, Mr Ross said that if he were to become Prime Minister for the day, his top priority would be

“tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers”.

Thankfully, there is about as much chance of me running the line at the world cup final as there is of Douglas Ross becoming Prime Minister. However, that kind of attitude towards Gypsy Traveller communities creates more barriers than it helps to bring down. That is an issue that must be addressed in order for the necessary improvements to be made.

What are we doing, and what can be done, to make those improvements? One example comes from the Public Petitions Committee in the previous session of Parliament. In 2015, Jess Smith from the Travelling community petitioned the Scottish Parliament regarding the Tinkers’ Heart, which is the title still used for it. The Tinkers’ Heart is a pattern of quartz stones laid at a crossroads in the Cairndow area of Argyll, which is thought to be more than 250 years old and has been used by generations of Scottish Travellers as a wedding place and for children to be blessed.

The monument, which was in danger of being lost due to years of cattle grazing and disregard by the wealthy landowner, was given a lifeline by Historic Scotland, primarily as the result of Jess Smith’s petition and the work of the Public Petitions Committee, but also because of the intervention of the local MSP Mike Russell, and subsequently the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop. I am delighted to say that the Tinkers’ Heart is now designated a monument of national importance and stands as a reminder of the Gypsy Traveller community’s contribution to Scotland’s rich cultural heritage.

Taking steps to recognise the Travelling communities as part of Scotland’s cultural heritage and diversity is an important section of the path to equality. It is important to understand that those people, because they are citizens like the rest of us, have rights and responsibilities, too. Access to health and education is a priority, and it is important that people from the Gypsy Traveller communities are afforded every opportunity to integrate with the communities in which they are living at the time, and have a chance to contribute to the already diverse landscape that we have across Scotland. Falkirk Council, for example, has a Travelling persons site located in my constituency, which I believe the cabinet secretary visited recently. I visited the site a few years ago and this is a timely reminder that I am overdue a return visit.

The site is monitored by closed-circuit television and a Travelling persons officer is based there Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. Each of the 15 pitches has access to a chalet with washing and toilet facilities. As we have heard, as part of the process, the progress report and guidance on minimum site standards and site tenants’ core rights and responsibilities was published last month. That included a survey that was undertaken between August 2017 and March 2018. At the time that the survey was done, Falkirk was one of only two self-assessments that showed compliance with the standards. However, improvements can still be made. Taking on board the points in the executive summary of the report, more can and should be done to ensure that the welfare of tenants on those sites is taken into consideration. Be it safety, or ensuring that people are treated fairly and with respect, this is all part of ensuring that improvements are made to the standard that we would all expect.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr MacDonald, but I am afraid that you must conclude.


Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I welcome the debate on improving the lives of Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers. Positive steps have been taken to acknowledge the contribution that Gypsy Travellers make to Scotland. However, as many members have said, much more needs to be done at every level of government.

I acknowledge the work of my colleague Mary Fee on this issue. Following her members’ business debate a few weeks ago celebrating Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller community, she has worked to set up a cross-party group on Scottish Gypsy Travellers, which will have its first meeting tomorrow. That is to be welcomed. The group will provide a forum to discuss issues faced by the community and, hopefully, make the recommendations that are felt necessary for action.

It is estimated that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 Gypsy Travellers in Scotland, and the community has made a rich social and cultural contribution to our society. However, much more work is needed to improve the lives of Gypsy Travellers, as has been said today.

It is clear from some of the statistics that were highlighted in Mary Fee’s members’ business debate that the community faces inequality. It is shocking that male life expectancy in the Gypsy Traveller community is 55 years—12 years shorter than the average across Scotland. We know that that inequality is rooted in a variety of issues, including the provision of adequate accommodation and access to public health services. Accommodation and health services are human rights and gaining access to them should not be hindered by a person’s background. Clearly, work is needed to overcome the barriers that Gypsy Travellers face in getting the services that they need.

Mr Alan Seath, a planning adviser, highlighted the importance of Gypsy Travellers being in control of their land and their homes. He emphasised the need to aid the Gypsy Traveller community, with a focus on design, layout and greater site provision, instead of enforcement and eviction. He stated that a more positive outlook in the planning system, with robust policies, would assist, along with well-informed housing needs and demand assessment.

We must recognise the simple fact that Gypsy Travellers are discriminated against in Scotland and we should not attempt to sweep that issue under the carpet. Everyone will have heard inaccurate stereotypes about Gypsy Travellers; for some reason, that is almost tolerated whereas other forms of racism are not. We must recognise that for what it is—prejudice, pure and simple.

I was shocked that the survey on social attitudes that Monica Lennon mentioned found that 31 per cent of people in Scotland would be “unhappy or very unhappy” if a close relative married a Gypsy Traveller and that 35 per cent said that a Gypsy Traveller would be “unsuitable” as a primary schoolteacher. It is clear that more work is needed to change those attitudes.

It is encouraging to see the Parliament come together to unite

“in the view that there is no place for any form of racism in a modern and inclusive Scotland”.

The commitment to direct engagement with the Gypsy Traveller communities that we have heard from the Scottish Government is the right step to take, and I hope that we can see a more joined-up Government address the many issues we have heard about here today.


David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

I welcome the Scottish Government’s debate this afternoon, which has allowed us to discuss the issues that are faced by Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller community. I also welcome the establishment of the ministerial working group on Gypsy Travellers as a positive step in creating a more inclusive Scotland.

Scotland has one of the best human rights records in the world. It remains the best country in Europe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex-plus equality and human rights. Our fairer Scotland action plan sets out unprecedented measures to tackle child poverty. Our equally safe strategy begins to delve deep into the best methods by which to eradicate violence and discrimination against women and girls. The slow transition of some social security powers from reserved to devolved has allowed the Scottish Government to finally have our say over that matter, and the Scottish Government has been able to work closely with disabled groups to deliver Scotland’s commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That is all relevant.

Two weeks ago in the chamber, I spoke about a small but deeply important part of Scotland’s population. I worked closely with Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller community during my time on the Public Petitions Committee in the previous parliamentary session and while a member of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee this session. I am proud of the work that those committees have done for the Gypsy Traveller community and of the individuals who gave evidence to protect and preserve the heart of quartz in Argyll and Bute, known locally as the Tinkers’ Heart—ancient stones that are an integral part of Scotland’s history and culture.

However, that case is just one success in a sea of several challenges. When the Equalities and Human Rights Committee heard evidence from members of the Gypsy Traveller community in December, we were disappointed to hear that, although the Scottish Government and Scottish society in general have made progress in rhetoric, that is not being translated into practice. Reports from previous parliamentary sessions and committee meetings support that trend. In some areas, very little has changed. In other areas, discrimination, marginalisation and hardship have increased.

There appears to be a fundamental gap in Scotland’s human rights and equalities reputation. We currently have enshrined in our laws provisions for every member of Scottish society. We have taken steps to create a more inclusive Scotland, regardless of people’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability. However, it seems that the Gypsy Traveller community has not been benefiting from our human rights and equalities provisions, despite the fact that, as a society, we are making progress to tackle hate crime and discrimination on a wider scale. In that sense, our country is failing Gypsy Traveller communities.

The issues that Gypsy Traveller communities face are accurately and well documented. Access to appropriate healthcare is a major indicator of the depth of discrimination that the community faces. Those who lead a nomadic life are often denied access to healthcare by GPs, and those who have given up their nomadism and have moved into permanent housing continue to face challenges in registering for GPs due to stigma. Mental health services, in particular, are restricted, even though suicide rates for Gypsy Traveller men are disproportionately high. That issue is not helped by restricted access to education, employment and housing.

The community faces prejudice regarding access to suitable sites, including permanent, transit and temporary sites. Institutional racism plays a huge role in that, coupled with there being no reference to Gypsy Traveller communities in planning processes. One young person who gave evidence to the committee referred to an incident in which their camp at Kinloch Rannoch—on grounds that are integral to the Gypsy Traveller culture—was shut down. It is now illegal to camp there.

In education, young Gypsy Travellers are forced to hide their ethnicity for fear of discrimination, leading some to call for strong affirmative action to challenge institutional racism, as well as transitional phases for members of the Gypsy Traveller community who are looking to join mainstream educational facilities.

To reiterate what my colleague, and Equalities and Human Rights Committee convener, Christina McKelvie has said, we need to learn from the past to inform our actions in the future. I very much hope that the ministerial working group on Gypsy Travellers will begin to address some of the challenges that the community faces. Amnesty International’s report found that strengthened political leadership was required at national and local levels to bridge the gap between local communities, public agencies and local authorities. That is consistent with the evidence that the committee heard from members of the Gypsy Traveller community.

We need to better appreciate Gypsy Traveller history and culture as an asset and resource to Scotland’s economy and society, and we need to embrace European and international recommendations so that we can create a truly inclusive Scotland for everyone.


John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I am very pleased to take part in the debate. Although I am no longer on the committee that deals with the subject, I was on the Equal Opportunities Committee in 2013 when we produced the report “Where Gypsy/Travellers Live”. I just looked at the summary of that report and it does not make any more pleasant reading now than it did then.

At that time, we said that we were frustrated by the lack of progress in ensuring proper education, health and, especially, accommodation for the community, and I fear that progress has continued to be slow. There were some hard-hitting quotes in the report, not least from the then committee convener, Mary Fee. She spoke for the whole committee when she said:

“We visited ... sites across Scotland ... and were appalled at some of the squalid conditions endured by tenants who pay rent and council tax for sub-standard services.”

There was also a quote from the Scottish Human Rights Commission that described discrimination against Gypsy Travellers as

“the last bastion of respectable racism”.—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 6 December 2012; c 777.]

Of course, it is not respectable or acceptable, but it is seen as acceptable in some circles, including parts of the media.

There are a number of minority groups in Scotland that are discriminated against or, at least, disadvantaged, and some of those groups are quite large. I remain convinced that the Gypsy Traveller community is unusual in being such a small and disadvantaged group that is still so openly discriminated against.

It is good that the ministerial working group has been set up since the publication of the report, as it was our feeling that we needed strong Government leadership, and that we should not just leave to local government new site provision and other requirements. As well as Mary Fee, I commend John Finnie and others who have pursued the matter over the years and who will not let it go. We felt that the pressure on some local councils was such that it really needed Scottish Government leadership to “support”—the word that we used—local authorities and elected representatives.

On a wider point, I am convinced that we all have a responsibility to speak out when we come up against racist remarks. I accept that terminology can vary and that some people use words that we might not be comfortable with out of habit rather than evil intent. However, when it comes to traditional stopping places that might be unapproved or unauthorised, it is certainly not helpful to say that they are illegal. The word “illegal” can be used very loosely at times and can carry a stigma that is deliberately damaging.

Sometimes we, as individuals, need to intervene and say something about words that are being used. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in Edinburgh when I heard racist remarks at the next table. They were not about Gypsy Travellers but another racial group. I felt that I could not sit there and let it go; I really had to say something. I did not find that particularly easy and I was not sure what reaction I was going to get. As it turned out, we had a reasonably civilised discussion.

We can all do our bit in attempting to change attitudes. Just this afternoon, the young people who led time for reflection reminded us not to let prejudice go unchallenged. It might be easier here in Parliament, where we have broad agreement on the subject, but it can be difficult outside if we find ourselves in a group of people who are being openly racist.

I commend the members who are leading progress on this issue. I am glad that the Government is taking it seriously and it certainly has the support of many of us on the back benches who are not directly involved.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Alex Cole-Hamilton referred to the Gypsy Traveller community as being disengaged from the political process. During the 1995 Perth and Kinross by-election, which brought Roseanna Cunningham her parliamentary debut when she won it from the Tories, one of the things that I was given to do as a campaigner was to go and talk to the Travellers who were just outside Milnathort. I found a group of well-engaged people who had some focused and relevant questions to ask of the person who called at their door to ask for their vote. We had an animated discussion, followed by a welcome cup of tea and a biscuit. I am sure that, although I did meet a Conservative voter among them, I can use the singular word.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I was not suggesting that the Gypsy Traveller community is not engaged politically. The political class infers that they are not engaged politically, so politicians do not reach out to them.

Stewart Stevenson

I hope that, between us, we have made the point that we neglect the involvement of anyone in our society at our peril, including the Gypsy and Traveller community.

As my name is Stewart, it would be perilous for me to be disconnected. When my father was a GP and the Travellers used to come for the berries and the tattie howking later in the year, three names came to the door—the McPhees, the McAlindens and, of course, the Stewarts, who are a well-established Scots Traveller family. I have a wheen of people in my family who are called Stewart and I also have McPhees in my family. I do not know whether they were Travellers in either case, but I certainly cannot disregard the possibility.

The key thing that those people exhibited that we should tak tent of is that they were self-sufficient. They could teach us a lot about how to make the most of our circumstances and attributes. The rest of us often lie back while those who travel and seek work and success where they can find it are much stronger people in some ways.

Kevin Stewart referred to Jeannie Robertson, so I will, in turn, refer to Belle Stewart from Blairgowrie, who was a well-known Scots folk singer from a Travelling family. Just to illustrate how prejudice works in rather curious and irrational ways, in the early 1980s Belle Stewart went to the Sidmouth festival to sing at the festival’s invitation. Among the people attending were new age travellers, not Travellers in the traditional sense. They did not believe that Belle Stewart could possibly be a Traveller because she was far too clean. Is that not another example of the kind of prejudice that was embedded in the people that she met there?

Belle Stewart’s biography was written by her daughter and it captures the Travelling spirit and the spirit of Belle Stewart. It is called “Queen Amang the Heather”.


John Finnie

It has been a productive debate and, lest there be any dubiety, I absolutely do not doubt the commitment of the ministerial working group. The Government is displaying welcome leadership, as is my colleague Mary Fee through the cross-party group. I hope that she has booked a big room for tomorrow, because her meeting will be well attended. We have heard members say that there has been plenty of talk and insufficient action, that we need deeds, not words, and that we must take a radical new approach. A radical new approach is what I would like to see.

I am grateful to my colleague John Mason for mentioning the traditional stopping-off places because, if we are embracing the issue of the travelling lifestyle and are genuinely lending it our support, the question of stopping places will need to be addressed. I have talked many times about what might be seen as the tension between local and central Government, with central Government not wishing to tread on the toes of the local authorities, which have responsibility for planning. Permitted development does not seem to be a big issue in agriculture, but perhaps that says a lot about who is putting the plans into practice.

We must listen to people’s voices. We have heard the women’s voices, and I am delighted to hear that MECOPP is getting money. It does a lot of tremendously good work and was of great assistance to me on a previous occasion when I was on the Equal Opportunities Committee, and I know the work that it does in North Argyll in my region.

I want to say something that might be seen as strange or even controversial. Can we involve men, please? I am delighted that Davie Donaldson is now involved but, although we know from listening to witnesses that there is no shortage of strong women with well-informed opinions, I find when I go to visit sites that I do not see many men. That may be to do with when I visit, but it is important to get everyone involved.

As regards the amendments, I think that Annie Wells’s point about measurable indicators is entirely reasonable, but I am not a great one for statistics—we can manipulate them to say what we want. I am interested in things such as quality of life, which is not so easily measurable. That includes life expectancy, which greatly affects all impoverished communities.

Social attitudes are important, and changing them is about education. I particularly liked hearing about flexible alternatives to school-based learning. I absolutely support that. If someone is out and about with their family in the countryside, as Travellers are, that is a tremendous education. The idea that it is all about academic achievement is deeply flawed.

Monica Lennon talked about a number of groups, and I have touched on MECOPP. I also want to mention Article 12 in Scotland. A lot of powerful young women are involved in Lynne Tammi’s work with that group.

Alex Cole-Hamilton used the phrase “hostile environment policies”. Although the hostile environment policy was not meant to relate specifically to the Gypsy Traveller community, the term encompasses many of the attitudes that they have faced all these years. I remember once meeting a senior official about accommodation for the Gypsy Traveller community. The business was conducted officially, but on my departure he put a paternal hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “There’s no votes in this for you, John.” That is not what this should be about. We should be doing things because they are right. I was particularly taken by what Monica Lennon said about things changing when a warden who cared was on the scene.

I do not doubt the care that anyone in the chamber has for the Gypsy Traveller community, but we evidence that care by our actions, so I am happy to support the amendments from other members. I hope that the very nature of our engagement in this debate and in previous debates is indicative of how we go ahead, and that we will go ahead together to try to improve things.


Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to close this afternoon’s debate on behalf of Scottish Labour, celebrating the contribution of Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller community to our nation’s shared history. I, too, welcome the Gypsy Travellers to the public gallery. I hope not only that they have enjoyed the debate but that they have taken heart from the commitment that has been demonstrated by all of us. We have heard a range of speeches from across the chamber, and I will reflect briefly on some of them in my closing remarks. I apologise if I miss anyone out.

John Finnie rightly highlighted stopping places as a crucial issue for Gypsy Travellers and their lifestyles. I share his weariness at the lack of progress. David Torrance and Angus MacDonald spoke about the Tinkers’ Heart. David Torrance also spoke about the lack of human rights that the community experiences.

Alex Rowley spoke about health inequalities and the lack of access to support and care. He also spoke about the key role that planning can play. Alex Cole-Hamilton spoke about Shamus McPhee and the work that he has done to bring alive the history of Gypsy Travellers through his stories and his art. Gail Ross spoke about the horrific living conditions that Gypsy Travellers endure. Very few of us fully understand just how horrific those living conditions are unless we have actually seen them.

John Mason highlighted some of the findings of the 2013 report. We were both members of the Equal Opportunities Committee at that time, and I appreciated all the work that John Mason did when I was the convener. He was a powerful advocate on behalf of the Gypsy Traveller community.

It is right that we recognise and celebrate the rich culture of the Gypsy Traveller community. During my recent members’ business debate, we heard speeches from across the chamber that celebrated the unique history, culture and lifestyle of Gypsy Travellers. Parliament came together on that day to support the community, and it has done so again today. It is important that we work constructively with one another across Parliament to further improve the lived experiences of Gypsy Travellers throughout Scotland.

There is much work to be done. I know that the cabinet secretary is a dedicated and committed advocate for the Gypsy Traveller community, and I, too, welcome the establishment of the Scottish Government’s ministerial working group on Gypsy Travellers. I also welcome the cabinet secretary’s opening remarks and her commitment that there will be action, not more warm words.

The Gypsy Traveller women’s voices project will be a valuable asset, as will the continuing work of Davie Donaldson and the young Gypsy Traveller assembly. I also welcome the update from the cabinet secretary on the meetings of the ministerial working group, and I look forward to establishing a close working relationship when the cross-party group is formed, tomorrow.

During the first session of the reconvened Scottish Parliament, back in 2001, the Equal Opportunities Committee held an inquiry into Gypsy Travellers and public sector policies in Scotland. When discussing the 2001 report, young Gypsy Traveller activist Davie Donaldson stated that, over the past 17 years, “nothing has changed”. We would rightly not accept such a lack of action and a lack of progress with regard to any other minority ethnic group in Scotland.

I accept that some progress has been made. Good practice exists in the inclusion of Gypsy Traveller children in education, and some progress has been made with health records. However, without building on and developing that progress, we risk either standing still or losing momentum. That frustrates the community, and it frustrates me.

It is right that we recognise and celebrate the rich and vibrant contribution of the Gypsy Traveller community in Scotland. I am glad that, tomorrow afternoon, I will convene the first meeting of the Parliament’s cross-party group on Scottish Gypsy Travellers. I am also glad that the cabinet secretary has expressed her personal commitment to improving the lives of the Gypsy Traveller community.

However, we must not and cannot be complacent. The community does not need rhetoric; it needs action. It is time for the Scottish Government to show real leadership. It must now take the opportunity to publish its long-overdue national strategy for Gypsy Travellers and begin close engagement with the community in working to improve tangibly the lives of Gypsy Travellers throughout Scotland.


Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Mary Fee has called for action, not rhetoric; I add my voice to those wise words. I commend Mary Fee for establishing the cross-party group. Running a cross-party group is hard work—trust me, I know—but it is rewarding, too, especially when there is consensus.

The cabinet secretary used phrases such as, “There has been a lot of talk and not a lot of action,” and, “It is not good enough,” as well as saying

“this has to be about ‘deeds not words’”


“the status quo is not an option.”

How true, Presiding Officer.

There is no denying that the Gypsy Traveller community has faced a plethora of issues for a long time, and it is right that we use our parliamentary time to look at some of the depressing failures. However, we should also take the opportunity to celebrate the Gypsy Traveller community and its culture, traditions and historic place in Scotland, which, as Annie Wells and Alex Cole-Hamilton have said, go back hundreds if not thousands of years. Yes, there are issues, and I will go into some of them, but we should emerge from the debate with a positive view of the future. As Alexander Stewart has said, let us celebrate the great sense of entrepreneurialism and pride in the traditions that exist in a community that is as diverse as any other.

As I have said many times before in other debates in the chamber, we must take the public with us. It would be remiss of us to have a debate about Gypsy Travellers and ignore the root causes of so much of the disagreement and apathy among local councils and settled communities in dealing with the issue of sites. Much of that is down to misinformed views born out of prejudice, bad experiences, poor community relations, inherent prejudice and, on occasion, a mutually negative lack of understanding of the needs and views of those on both sides of many difficult arguments.

Today’s debate has thrown light on a number of the day-to-day issues affecting Gypsy Travellers, and I will touch on a number of them. Health figures reveal that 38 per cent of Gypsy Travellers have long-term illnesses compared with 26 per cent of the rest of the population. It is also frequently reported that Gypsy Traveller men and women live 10 and 12 years less than the general population, which is a disgrace.

I point to the great work of the Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre, which is an Irish non-governmental organisation. It has carried out studies into the community and has found that 11 per cent of all Traveller deaths in Ireland are attributed to suicide. The suicide rate among Travellers is six or seven times higher than the rate among the settled community in Ireland. I do not know what the figure is for Scotland, but I suspect that it is not great either. The question is why that is the case and what we will do to address the situation.

Education has been the subject of much discussion, and we know that Gypsy Traveller children’s educational attainment is lower than the national trend. Some estimate that only 20 per cent of Gypsy Traveller children of secondary school age attend school regularly, and it is likely that they suffer from the lowest level of attainment of any minority community.

There are themes connecting the barriers to education with their results. Those include a number of issues that we should discuss, including the controversial issue of enforced mobility and interrupted learning. That must be addressed. Anyone who was brought up in a military home will know the effect that interruption as a result of continuous movement from one place to another has on learning. What are we doing to fix that? What flexibility is there in the education system to cater for that lifestyle?

We do not talk enough about the excessive number of exclusions from school or the inadequate school responses to bullying by students, parents and even, on occasion, teachers who simply turn a blind eye to casual harassment. The list goes on, and it includes the lack of validation of Gypsy Traveller culture in our schools, the limited relevance of the curriculum to many Gypsy Traveller pupils and even teachers’ low expectations of them—how sad is that?

On justice, there is a disproportionate use of antisocial behaviour orders against Gypsy Travellers, a high use of remand in custody and cultural dislocation within the prison system. What are we doing to address those issues?

Perhaps we should talk about the elephant in the room. Research by Amnesty International found that the Gypsy Traveller community receives a disproportionate level of media coverage, of which more than half is entirely negative. Much of the discussion is about sites, which we have talked about in the debate, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to address the issues of guidance and standards.

In that context, I think that the Green amendment lacks clarity although I am sympathetic to the intention behind it. The Green amendment refers to

“the mapping of stopping-off places and ... making these available”.

My problem with that is that it does not sound like a co-ordinated strategy for providing suitable and adequate sites. For that reason, we are unable to support the amendment.

John Finnie

I am grateful to the member for his concluding comment. The amendment is intended to propose a direction of travel rather than be prescriptive. This is not legislation that we are talking about; it is a suggestion to the Government about how we might move forward in a consensual way. That is the basis of the amendment.

Jamie Greene

I appreciate the clarification. The amendment could perhaps have been geared to calling for a co-ordinated approach to the provision of adequate and suitable sites rather than making available all stopping places. In our view, many stopping sites are inadequate, which is why I brought the issue up.

The debate has been peppered with talk of race and ethnicity rather than lifestyle choices, and I am pleased about that. We are discussing one of Scotland’s ethnic communities, and the debate should reflect that key point.

Gypsy Travellers have been treated unfairly in the past and they are still being treated unfairly in many respects. I have said before that prejudice is born out of fear. Fear can be overcome only by understanding and mutual respect, and understanding comes through education, leadership and action. It needs not just warm words and sympathetic debates but top-down Government policy that filters its way through Government directorates, policing, the national health service, social services, our education system and local authorities.

It is time to have a frank, sensible and realistic debate about the issues. History has repeated itself far too often and for far too long when it comes to the Gypsy Traveller community. We need fewer words and more action, please.


Angela Constance

I thank all members for their thoughtful and insightful contributions to this afternoon’s debate. I am glad that the debate has been consensual and positive, because that demonstrates that as a Parliament—and, I hope, as a country—we are committed to working together to improve the lives of Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers.

I put on record that I will support the amendments that were lodged by the Labour Party, the Conservatives and Mr Finnie, and that, in response to parliamentary questions, I have already set out how we will take forward the detail of members’ suggestions.

Many members spoke passionately about Gypsy Travellers whom they have met or worked with, in their constituencies or in committees, and about the impact that the opportunity to listen directly to the testimonies of people from the community had on them. As for me, the experiences and testimonies that I have heard about the day-to-day challenges that are faced by individuals and the community collectively are jaw dropping and eye opening.

Annie Wells, Alex Cole-Hamilton and many other members talked powerfully about the need to celebrate Gypsy Traveller heritage and culture. John Finnie said that the Gypsy Traveller heritage is a root-and-branch part of our country and Europe. Angus MacDonald rightly paid tribute to the work that was done to get the Tinker’s Heart recognised as a monument of national importance, and Stewart Stevenson talked about his love of the folk singer Belle Stewart.

I have been particularly struck by the work of Damian Le Bas, who has been writing about his journey to reconnect with his Traveller roots. He has written:

“From the Highlands to the Borders, Scotland has a Gypsy history that has yet to be recognised”.

That is something that we will work hard to change. Damian Le Bas said of his journey:

“Perhaps I might even solve the bizarre contradiction of Britain’s love affair with caravanning, camping and glamping, and its hatred of those who were born to this life, and who largely inspired its adoption as a non-Gypsy pastime. As one Scottish Gypsy Traveller put it: ‘There are 80,000 members of the Caravan Club, but I’m not allowed to travel?’”

I want to pick up on other members’ contributions this afternoon. Monica Lennon and others spoke about the need to improve both the quality and quantity of sites. Fulton MacGregor and Alexander Stewart spoke very powerfully about the need to establish more sites. Although decisions about the provision of Gypsy Traveller sites are made at local level, and such decisions should be based on information from those with local knowledge and accountability, they must also be based on local need. Therefore the issues around local housing strategies and housing demand needs assessments that Alex Rowley touched upon need to be addressed. We very much look forward to progressing those in our partnership with COSLA as well.

I take on board what John Finnie said about both the use of language and the need to reach out to men in the Gypsy Traveller community. What he said in his personal reflections I have thought about in relation to my own engagement: I have indeed had more engagement with women than men in the community. However, research is imminent—particularly on issues around planning—on which men in the community are very keen to work with the Scottish Government.

On language, I accept Mr Finnie’s point that there is perhaps a need to talk more about “accommodation” and not “housing”. On such issues, we will work hand in glove with the community. However, I suggest that, in our striving for practical solutions and actions, we should remember that it is important for us to look at specific suggestions—whether they be on informal halting stops or negotiated stops, on which very interesting work is going on south of the border, in Leeds. Negotiated stopping describes an agreement that is reached between a local authority and members of the Gypsy Traveller community. Along with members of the community, my officials are going to investigate that very practical solution in Leeds this week.

Other members have mentioned issues about site standards. As a Government, we have made our position crystal clear: such standards are consistently not good enough. We have been very proactive in making our views known. The Minister for Local Government and Housing has written to local authorities and registered social landlords and has made it clear that standards are a minimum, and that everyone in Scotland has the right to expect accommodation that is of a good standard—and that includes our Gypsy Traveller community.

Jamie Greene

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

Angela Constance

No, thank you—not just now.

We have published our report, and that is now a matter for the Scottish Housing Regulator

In the time that I have left, I want to touch briefly on education. I have seen some excellent examples of flexible learning opportunities. For example, the Gypsy Traveller education group in Larkhall enables young Gypsy Travellers to get the support that they need to reach their full potential. I am a strong advocate of developing Scotland’s young workforce, because therein lies the route to flexible learning opportunities that can take young people into apprenticeships, further or higher education or the world of work or self-employment. Flexibility and the ability to have non-school-based education opportunities already exist in our education system: we just have to find better ways in which to make them happen more consistently across the country.

I am conscious that many members have spoken very powerfully about the health inequalities that exist in the community. There has been some progress since 2012. We have seen the publication of leaflets to inform members of the community of their rights to register with GPs, and I know that NHS 24 has done a lot of work to raise awareness of practitioners who will try to work with the community in out-of-hours situations. However, there is absolutely no doubt—and let me be crystal clear—that we need to do much more to address the very stark health inequalities and the differences in life expectancy, among other factors, that exist. Fear of discrimination and actual discrimination prevent the Gypsy Traveller community from accessing essential public services, which contributes to poor outcomes.

I want to take full advantage of the fact that this is a Government debate, which means that, as we approach decision time, the chamber is full and all members are in their seats. Quite deliberately, I want to end the debate in the same way that I started it, by saying—on behalf, I hope, of the whole Parliament—to the members of the Gypsy Traveller community who are here with us today and those throughout the length and breadth of Scotland: this is your Parliament, you have every right to be here and, like all citizens of Scotland, you have every right to expect the very highest standards of representation. You have every right to expect every parliamentarian and every councillor to work together for you. Most of all, you have every right to expect those of us who occupy public office and perform public service to work with you to ensure that we end the discrimination and disadvantage, and to ensure that your children have every chance, that your elders are cared for and that your voices are heard.