Meeting date: Thursday, May 24, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 24 May 2018
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller Community, Ferry Services (Northern Isles), Draft Revised National Outcomes, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller Community
- Ferry Services (Northern Isles)
- Draft Revised National Outcomes
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller Community
The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S1M-10202, in the name of Mary Fee, on celebrating Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller community. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament celebrates what it sees as the rich social and cultural contribution that the Gypsy/Traveller community has made to society in Scotland since the 12th century; acknowledges that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has estimated that the country's Gypsy/Traveller population is between 15,000 to 20,000; understands that the term, “Gypsy/Traveller”, refers to distinct groups, including Romany Gypsies, Scottish and Irish travellers, and others who regard travelling as being part of their ethnic identity; believes that they experience a variety of issues related to provision of adequate housing and access to public health services, with a much higher proportion rating their health as “bad” or “very bad” compared with the national average; believes that this contributes to a male life expectancy of 55 years, 12 years shorter than the average; understands that they are a disproportionately marginalised and discriminated group and are stigmatised by inaccurate myths and stereotyping about their culture; notes with distress that the most recent statistics from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey suggests that 31% of people would be “unhappy or very unhappy” about a close relative marrying a Gypsy/Traveller, and that 35% said that a Gypsy/Traveller would be “very/fairly unsuitable” as a primary school teacher, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to increase its commitment to eliminating discrimination against the Scottish Gypsy/Traveller community in West Scotland and throughout the country through strengthening existing equality legislation and providing greater support for inclusivity and equality training to ensure greater protection.12:53
I welcome members of the Gypsy Traveller community who have travelled across Scotland to be in the gallery for this afternoon’s debate, and I thank the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities for her commitment to eradicating all forms of discrimination that is experienced by the Gypsy Traveller community in Scotland. The Scottish Government’s decision to establish a ministerial working group on Gypsy Travellers is an important, positive and welcome step in the right direction. I also thank members from all parties for supporting my motion.
I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity this afternoon to celebrate the rich cultural contribution of the Gypsy Traveller community to Scottish society throughout the centuries, as well as to highlight the enduring discriminatory attitudes towards Gypsy Travellers.
It is important to state from the outset that the Scottish Gypsy Traveller community is not homogeneous, but is a diverse and vibrant community of peoples, composed of a variety of distinct groups, each of which has its unique culture, history and traditions. The community includes Highland and lowland Scottish Travellers, occupational travellers, Romanichals, Irish Travellers, English Gypsies and Welsh Kale. Some members of the community choose to live a fully nomadic lifestyle and are constantly on the road, and others choose to travel for part of the year and live in traditional brick-and-mortar homes for the rest of the year.
I am proud that my West Scotland region has a tangible connection to the Gypsy Traveller community, who enrich the cultural fabric of my region. There are two residential sites for Gypsy Travellers in the region, at Dennystoun Forge in Dumbarton and the Redburn site in Irvine.
On the subject of residential sites, I welcome the publication of the Scottish Government’s “Improving Gypsy/Traveller Sites—Guidance on minimum sites standards, and site tenants’ core rights and responsibilities: Progress Report”, but I am extremely disheartened and disappointed by the lack of progress that has been made in improving the standard of residential Gypsy Traveller sites in Scotland over the past three years.
The first written evidence of the presence of Gypsy Travellers in Scotland dates to the late 15th century, but it is commonly believed that the origins of Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller population can be traced to the Celtic age.
The Gypsy Traveller community is a tight-knit community with a strong sense of cultural identity. It is a community with strong oral traditions, and through storytelling and singing down through the centuries, Gypsy Travellers in Scotland have shared their histories and passed down their traditions from generation to generation. The strong oral traditions have facilitated the continuation of the historical language of the Gypsy Traveller—Cant.
Scottish Gypsy Travellers have played an important role in contributing to the rich tapestry of our modern national history since the 15th century but, regrettably, discrimination against our Gypsy Traveller community remains the last bastion of acceptable racism in Scotland. Since my election to Parliament in 2011, I have continually raised the stubbornly high levels of discrimination and the range of inequalities that the Gypsy Traveller community in Scotland experiences.
I want to share with members a small anecdote that shows the discrimination that members of the Gypsy Traveller community face daily. In the previous session of the Parliament, when I was convener of the Equal Opportunities committee, we invited a group of women from the Gypsy Traveller community to an event in the Scottish Parliament. In the afternoon, before they came to the Parliament, the women and their children decided to go for lunch at an Italian restaurant not too far from here, on the Royal Mile.
The Gypsy Traveller women and their children were shown to seats by a member of the waiting staff, but before they had an opportunity to order any food, they were asked to leave the restaurant, on the request of the manager. The manager said that he was concerned that the presence of the women in his restaurant would deter other customers from patronising his restaurant. His prejudice was sparked simply by how the women were dressed. He judged them to be Gypsy Travellers and therefore, based on their ethnicity, he refused to serve them and asked them to leave. That is just one stark example of the discrimination and racism that members of the Gypsy Traveller community experience every day.
Social attitudes to Gypsy Travellers in Scotland remain an area of grave concern. The recent Scottish social attitudes survey of public attitudes to discrimination and positive action in Scotland revealed that just under a third of Scots would be unhappy if a relative married or formed a long-term relationship with a Gypsy Traveller, and that 34 per cent of people believe that a Gypsy Traveller is unsuitable to be a primary school teacher. The figures are staggering and should be viewed as simply unacceptable in Scotland in 2018.
It is evident that there is still much work to be done to educate and inform society about the rich contribution that Gypsy Traveller culture has made to our shared history. There is still much more to do to call out and challenge discrimination and offensive behaviour towards Gypsy Travellers. We must commit to meaningful action to protect the Gypsy Traveller community’s distinct nomadic way of living, and we must work to tackle the often blatant and always ill-informed discrimination that is experienced every single day by Gypsy Travellers across the length and breadth of Scotland.
I look forward to listening to members’ speeches in the debate.
I ask the people in the gallery not to clap, boo, hiss or cheer. Thank you very much.
We move to open debate. Speeches should be of four minutes, please—we are quite tight for time.13:00
I thank Mary Fee for bringing this important debate to the chamber, and pay personal tribute to her for the work that she has done to keep the issue at the top of the agenda in Parliament.
I also declare an interest—possibly for the two of us—as we are honorary members of the Showmen’s Guild, which is a great honour for us both.
I commend to members a lovely document, which I have here, called “Gypsy Traveller history in Scotland”, written by Shamus McPhee and produced by the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services. It is a smashing document that gives real insight into and understanding of 1,000 years of discrimination in Scotland—some of it by Governments, which is incredibly worrying because it was not so long ago.
The document tells us how the Gypsy Traveller community was treated in Scotland and shames us all. In her speech, Mary Fee talked about the first official record of Gypsy Travellers. It is in this document, and I will read it. It begins:
“Considered to be the first official record of Gypsies in Scotland and noted in the Book of the Treasurer to the King, James IV in 1505. A sum of £7 is ‘paid to the Egyptians by the King’s command’, whether for entertainment or because they are pilgrims carrying out penance remains unclear.”
That is one of the very first documented facts. It continues:
“In 1506, Anthony Gavino (‘Earl of Little Egypt’) receives a letter of commendation from King James to his uncle, King of Denmark. This assures the Gypsies safe passage to Denmark. They are thought to carry a papal order from Rome urging some degree of sympathy.”
We have not moved on much from then, and we need to do so much more, considering that so much of what they faced is still being perpetrated, even by elected members. We all have something to learn.
A few weeks ago, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities and I visited the South Lanarkshire Council Gypsy Traveller education project in Larkhall. The visit was organised and run by the young Gypsy Traveller children, who are succeeding in all areas of their lives and gaining qualifications because of the project. It clearly demonstrated the value of doing things a wee bit differently, and how we should not expect people to fit into how we do things; we should make things flexible enough for us and the system to fit their lifestyle. It is amazing to see the work that is being done, and I pay tribute to Mrs Bernstein, who is the teacher. She is from Larkhall academy and has a team working with her. She is an absolute inspiration and has changed lives through the project.
The Equalities and Human Rights Committee has kept a focus on the issue during the past few years, but we have not focused much on the culture, songs, storytelling and the richness of the life that is lived. In a Proclaimers song called “Scotland’s Story”, they tell us
“We’re all Scotland’s story and we’re all worth the same”.
We should all be worth the same, irrespective of how we choose to live our lives.
On that visit to Larkhall with the cabinet secretary a few weeks ago, we met a lot of young people and some very articulate young women. The cabinet secretary was asked a straightforward question: “How is what you’re doing going to make a difference for me?” I know that the cabinet secretary has her working group and there are other aspects to that. She is now working with Davie Donaldson and the young Gypsy Travellers assembly in Parliament, which is a great advance. At the committee last year, Shamus McPhee asked us where is the Gypsy Traveller’s voice in what we are doing. Hopefully, we now have that voice, and it is a young voice.
Will the cabinet secretary, in her summing up, say what she is doing to make that difference, so that when I go back to that education project, I can tell that young woman about the difference that we are making for her?13:04
I thank Mary Fee for bringing this important debate to the chamber.
As a member of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, I had the privilege last year of listening to members of the Gypsy Traveller community to mark human rights day. To quote Davie Donaldson, a member of the Gypsy Traveller community who gave evidence that day, 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.]
To that end, we must see a step change.
Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller population is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000. Despite that, and despite the fact that the community has lived in Scotland since the 12th century, Gypsy Travellers remain one of the most marginalised and isolated communities in Scotland. As Mary Fee highlighted, a recent Scottish social attitudes survey suggested that 31 per cent of people would be “unhappy or very unhappy” about a close relative marrying a Gypsy Traveller and 34 per cent said that a Gypsy Traveller would be “very/fairly unsuitable” as a primary school teacher. Those statistics suggest that discrimination towards that group is still very much accepted, being described as the last bastion of acceptable racism.
The impact of that marginalisation is clear, and there are obvious boundaries between Gypsy Travellers and public services. Basic health needs are not being met, with many Gypsy Travellers facing difficulties when trying to visit a general practitioner; some travel as far as 300 miles to see a dentist or doctor whom they trust and who they know will see them. The impact of that is clear, as many Gypsy Travellers experience inexcusable health inequalities and lower life expectancy. The age profile of Gypsy Travellers is much younger than that of the population as a whole, with only 28 per cent of their population aged 45 and over, compared with 44 per cent of the population as a whole.
With regard to housing, the accommodation situation for many Gypsy Traveller communities is described as remaining dire. Many council-assigned sites are built in undesirable and unsafe locations, often on unpopular brownfield sites that are unsuitable for commercial or residential use. Many sites often experience issues with dampness, mould and access to water. It was good to hear from Christina McKelvie about the great work that is being done in Larkhall, because education must also be a priority and we must urgently improve the educational outcomes for young Gypsy Travellers.
I am, of course, extremely pleased that a ministerial working group has been established to improve the lives of Gypsy Traveller communities. As the racial equality action plan states, a radical new approach is now needed—something that I whole-heartedly support. I would like to see regular reviews of the work that is being done. Reviews should be open and transparent and the group should continue to work closely with the Travelling community in order to scope policy.
I again thank Mary Fee for bringing this debate to the chamber. In 2001, the first committee report on Gypsy Travellers was published, and it is clear that a lot more work still needs to be done. All parties in the chamber want to see action on this. Gypsy Travellers must always have a right to their traditional way of life, but we must work with that to improve the lives of those in the community, whether it be their housing, health or education.13:08
I, too, congratulate Mary Fee on bringing this subject to the attention of the Parliament. She is a long-standing advocate and supporter of the Gypsy Traveller community and it is right that we recognise that today.
The disadvantage and discrimination experienced by the Gypsy Traveller community in Scotland is widespread with regard to access to housing, healthcare, employment and educational opportunities. It has been claimed that the discrimination against this community feels like the last acceptable form of racism—that has been mentioned already by members, because the maltreatment, harassment and community tension suffered by Gypsy Travellers is far more normalised and accepted than what is directed at other ethnic minority groups.
I will give a couple of examples. How would members have felt if, when they were children at school, they had one day received a letter from their teacher informing them that there was no point in teaching them as they were just going to end up tarmacking the roads anyway? Imagine the distress of a young man who is excited at the prospect of contributing to a community planning executive meeting only to be told, “Here’s your first lesson: nobody cares about the tinks”. Can members imagine being made to feel so ashamed of their ethnicity that they would not tell people about their background until they knew them well enough to hope that they would not react badly?
Those are just a few of the shocking experiences that have been relayed by members of the Gypsy Traveller community. They are examples of the daily discrimination that they face, and I am saddened to say that they are just a snapshot of the wider problem. Nobody deserves to be made to feel that they are less, especially because of their ethnicity. What should concern us is how reinforced and circular many of these instances are.
The lack of sufficient transit sites for Travellers usually means that they are compelled to stop somewhere that is probably not suitable, which brings them into conflict with the local community. I know that councils have tried to address that and some good work is being done, but a national solution might be needed to overcome the problem.
Poor health is a significant issue within the Travelling community yet, as Annie Wells mentioned, people experience great difficulty in accessing public health services, with GPs and dentists sometimes refusing even to register them as patients.
As we can imagine, experiencing such treatment so often and in so many areas of life has a devastating impact. Although little Scotland-specific data exists on the health of Gypsy Travellers, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission confirms that rates of mental ill health in the community are much higher than those in the wider population. The closest specific figures that we have to hand demonstrate the distressing correlation between inequality and mental health. Suicide among Irish Travellers was found to be six times the rate of the wider population, and a staggering 11 per cent of the community are lost to suicide. Life expectancy is alarming low at an average of only 55 years, as I think Mary Fee mentioned.
Many of us in the Scottish Parliament have shown that the concept of Scottishness is elastic enough to include all and any who wish to live and work in this wonderful country. Indeed, my great-great-grandfather Daniel Coffey came from County Tipperary in Ireland, probably around the famine years, and settled in Kilmarnock. My Irish friends have reminded me constantly of the links that I have with the Travelling community there. Perhaps most of us are migrants if we look back far enough.
In this Parliament, we have striven to welcome migrants and show our appreciation for the positive contribution that they have made in enriching and improving Scottish society. Colleagues have fought against the unjust deportation of those who have made their lives here, and we worked together to support a bill offering pardons to gay men with historical convictions. Can our one Scotland, many cultures ideal reach out and embrace the Travelling community, too? I think that it can, and it must, with a little bit of mutual respect for differing traditions.
“Tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers”
might be the solution for some misguided politicians, but it would not take us one step forward in proclaiming ourselves to be the inclusive society that we aspire to be.
I thank my colleague Mary Fee once again for raising the issue in Parliament. Let us hope that our deeds reflect the positive vision that our words promise to so many of our Traveller companions in Scotland.13:13
I join colleagues in congratulating Mary Fee on bringing her motion to the chamber for debate. I recognise her on-going work on the matter and I fondly recall our time together on the Equal Opportunities Committee in the previous session of Parliament. People have asked, “What changed?” The two reports on the subject that came from that committee used, I understand, some of the strongest language that had been used in parliamentary reports. They were compiled on a consensual, cross-party basis and they gave a very clear steer. If I sound frustrated when I discuss the subject, it is because I am frustrated.
However, let us try to focus on some positives. The motion is entitled “Celebrating Scotland’s Gypsy/Traveller Community”. The Proclaimers song that Christina McKelvie talked about includes a lengthy list of groups. Here, we are all a mongrel race, and I mean that as an absolute compliment and not in any way offensively. A rich social and cultural contribution has been made, but it is unknown and undervalued. To many, it is a case of out of sight, out of mind.
I am very fond of advocates for the Gypsy Traveller movement, including Article 12, which does tremendous work. One of its resources that came out last year is called “Till Doomsday in the Afternoon: Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland”, which could be part of the curriculum for excellence. The description of it states that it is to
“raise awareness and understanding of the history, culture and traditions of the Scottish Gypsy/Traveller and work with young people to identify and seek solutions to the key ‘flashpoints’ that often occur between Gypsy/Travellers and the ‘settled’ community.”
Self-identification is very important. People choose to identify themselves as they think best fits their circumstances. It is sadly the case that a number of Gypsy Travellers choose not to identify themselves as such or give their address for reasons of discrimination.
In the very short time that I have, I will allude to a response that I received from the cabinet secretary to a question that I posed last week about traditional stopping-off points. I was grateful for the response, which I think it is worth putting on the record. The cabinet sectary stated:
“The Scottish Government recognises the rights of the Gypsy Traveller community to a travelling lifestyle that is part of their way of life, tradition and history.”—[Official Report, 16 May 2018; c 15.]
I am from rural Inverness-shire. I remember that there were two stopping-off places there. One was at Muirshearlich in a wooded area, but that is now surrounded by a fence and has a large house in it. The other was at the roadside near Spean Bridge, but it is now fenced off and has livestock in it.
There were hundreds if not thousands of such places across Scotland. I have said before—and I will keep saying—that a lot of sites were stopped at the time of the new age travellers. Many of those people are now back doing their merchant banking job or other jobs in the City of London; that was a lifestyle choice for a while, but it interfered with our indigenous nomadic population. There are opportunities for public bodies, local authorities and the roads authority to look at that.
On housing need and demand assessments, I am grateful for the Government’s report and, like others, I feel that a lot more could be done.
I want to single out one group among local authorities, and that is not the ones that are listed in the report but the ones that are not listed in the report. The reality is that local authorities have the responsibility, directly or indirectly, for sites. A lot of them are doing their very best, but a number of local authorities have their heads down and are doing zero—hee-haw.
We need a more collaborative approach. That should mean that housing need and demand assessments—perhaps even the term “housing” is unhelpful—should be done on a collaborative, cross-boundary basis, because that is the way that we will progress the issue.
No one is born prejudiced. Education is the key to this. I am grateful for all the work that is taking place and I hope that we will see some positive results in the near future.13:18
I thank Mary Fee for bringing this debate to the chamber to celebrate Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller community. I know that the subject is very close to her heart.
Gypsy Travellers are a unique part of Scotland’s population. They speak a wide range of languages and have unique cultural traditions that are passed down from generation to generation.
In the 2011 census, 4,200 people identified themselves as Gypsy Travellers, but charities and organisations that work closely with the Gypsy community believe that that number is a vast underestimate and that the community comprises up to 20,000 people. Regardless of their number, Gypsy Travellers have a deeply embedded history in Scotland that is thought to go back to the 12th century.
During my time on the Public Petitions Committee in the previous parliamentary session, we heard evidence from Jess Smith, a Scottish Gypsy Traveller who lodged a petition calling on the Scottish Government to support the restoration and preservation of the heart of quartz overlooking Loch Fyne, in Argyll and Bute. Those ancient stones, which are locally referred to as the Tinkers’ Heart, were often used by Gypsy Travellers for marriage ceremonies and christenings. Although its origins are unconfirmed, one account indicates that the heart was created by Gypsy Traveller women to commemorate the lives that were lost during the Jacobite rising of 1745. However, the ancient site had been under threat for several decades. In 1928, the Tinkers’ Heart was covered up by workmen from the local council during road works, but, following protests from landowners and Gypsy Travellers, it was restored.
In 2008, the posts and wire that surrounded the heart were damaged, which inspired Jess Smith to lodge the petition to protect and restore the site, as well as to call for its being listed. The wave of support from the local community, landlords, the local council and the Parliament indicated an increased recognition of the importance of preserving that unique part of history and culture. The Tinkers’ Heart is the only existing monument that Scottish Travellers have, and, although it is not a big site, it has crucial historical, religious and cultural significance. Given the prominent discrimination against Gypsy Travellers, it is crucial that the site remains appreciated along with Gypsy Traveller history and culture.
The Public Petitions Committee worked closely with Jess Smith, and I am extremely proud of the outcome of the petition. Jess fought extremely hard to protect the site, which led to a public consultation in 2015 that eventually led to the site being added to the schedule of monuments by Historic Environment Scotland. Jess was subsequently nominated for a Scottish heritage angel award in 2017, in recognition of her work to safeguard the Tinkers’ Heart. She has published several novels, and work detailing her fight for the Tinkers’ Heart.
The committee visited the site of the Tinkers’ Heart, on the hills overlooking Loch Fyne, and my lasting memory of Jess will always be from that day. We were both leaning over the fence that surrounds the site. It was a stunning day, the sky was clear and we could see for miles. She had the biggest smile on her face—I could see the utter joy and pride radiate from her as we discussed the significance of the heart. The site is integral to Scottish history, and it was evident just how much the heart meant to her. Knowing that such a vital part of her culture had been saved for future generations to enjoy clearly meant so much.
Although attitudes may slowly be changing, we still have several issues to tackle. A large number of people in the Traveller community continue to face daily struggles with accommodation, eviction, discrimination and harassment. All too often, the threat of abuse or violence is never far away. The evidence that the Equalities and Human Rights Committee heard also highlighted the fear that surrounds people openly identifying as being a Gypsy or Traveller. When we add to that the lack of suitable residential sites—many are of poor quality and are poorly located—it is easy to see the many barriers to integration that exist.
We are at a critical point. We have the capacity to improve the lives of a portion of the Scottish population who are struggling with employment, education and healthcare. Moving forward, we need to understand better the needs of these communities in order to begin to tackle the many faces of discrimination.
Once again, I thank Mary Fee for bringing the debate to the chamber, and I reiterate the importance of understanding and appreciating Scotland’s rich cultural history and the relationship between the land and its people.13:22
I, too, thank Mary Fee. Without wanting to sound overly gushing, I note that the issue is very close to her heart and that she has played a fundamental role in helping other members of this Parliament from different parts of Scotland understand the issues that the community faces. I know that she is working hard on the issue, and I would like to think that we all support her in that work.
A lot of the statistics that I was going to mention in relation to prejudice and people’s attitudes in Scotland have been mentioned already. However, I point to Anas Sarwar’s recent event to launch “No Problem Here: Racism in Scotland”, which is a collection of academic essays on prejudice and discrimination in Scotland. The conclusion is that, in this country, we have a tendency to sweep discrimination and prejudice under the rug, which often distorts our understanding of their existence. Saying that we are an open, modern and liberal country is not the same as being one. I draw attention particularly to an essay by Colin Clark, which I commend to members. It notes that discrimination is particularly evident in the labour market, in education and in the housing and transport sectors.
I was a member of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, and, as others have mentioned, we took a lot of evidence from the community. Davie Donaldson has been mentioned, and I was struck by his evidence. He said that he was the only person from his peer group that he knew had gone to university. It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of people in the Gypsy Traveller community in Scotland, and he is an advocate for that group—a well-known one, at that. If he says that he is the only person he knows who has gone to university, surely there is a problem. That is not representative of wider society.
I was very moved by the evidence that we heard. If the sort of language that is directed at the Gypsy Traveller community was directed at the Jewish community, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community or black and minority ethnic communities, there would be a public outcry. Therefore, it is correct to say that it is the last socially acceptable form of racism in Scotland, and probably in western Europe.
Some good work has been done in the West Scotland region, which I share with Mary Fee. In my local area, North Lanarkshire Council has taken steps to work and engage with the community. The site in Irvine is a good example of that. However, that does not mean that the situation is perfect, and there are still a lot of bad practices in other parts of Scotland. I extend an open invitation to members of the communities in Irvine and Dumbarton to come and see me if they wish. I would love to visit them and hear about the day-to-day issues that they face.
There are problems and errors, and it would be remiss of us to have the debate without talking about them. However, there is poor behaviour in every settled community—it is not limited to one part of society or another. There are people throughout Scotland who do not respect the environment or their neighbours.
Yesterday, we had a debate on housing and the conditions that people live in. It is wrong to stereotype, and there are many myths about the Gypsy Traveller community. Perhaps reality television has played a part in that, which is not particularly helpful. It has stereotyped the community and turned its life into entertainment. It is not entertaining for people who are afraid to go to school because of bullying or for teachers who cannot get work because of their ethnicity.
More can be done. As someone said, prejudice is born out of fear and a lack of understanding. As humans, we are intrinsically afraid of cultures, customs traditions and languages that we do not understand or share, so education will be key.
We are short on time, so I will close by making a plea. There is a working group. However, having been in the Parliament only a few years, I get the impression that a lot of the discussion has already happened and that commitments and promises have been made. It is not for me to be the Gypsy Traveller community’s voice, but the last thing that it wants is more empty promises and warm words from politicians. It wants action, and I will be fully supportive of any action that is taken.16:26
Like other members, I thank Mary Fee for securing this important debate and for being a strong voice for the Gypsy Traveller community since she was elected to the Parliament, in 2011. It is to Scotland’s shame that, despite its positive contribution to society, the Gypsy Traveller community continues to experience appalling discrimination. Its experience of prejudice has been described as the last acceptable form of racism.
Sadly, a person’s first experience of discrimination often occurs in childhood. At an evidence-taking session in December last year, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee heard from a member of the Gypsy Traveller community who described being treated like an animal by his teachers at school. We have heard that such discrimination follows Gypsy Travellers into adulthood. As Mary Fee highlighted, the Scottish social attitudes survey tells us that more than one third of Scots believe that Gypsy Travellers should not educate our children.
That is why the work that Christina McKelvie highlighted with her constituents in Larkhall is important. In this year of young people, it is important that we use education to break down barriers. The work that Mrs Bernstein, her colleagues and the students are doing is wonderful, and it is great to see so many young people in the gallery today.
My contact with members of the Gypsy Traveller community has largely been through my work as a town planner, which was my job before I became a politician. From other members’ speeches, we know that there is a severe lack of housing sites for the Gypsy Traveller community. Several years ago, I worked closely with a family who own land and had, for decades, been using it as a pitch for caravans. I will not go into all the technical aspects of the situation but, eventually, when the family approached the council to have the arrangement formalised, they were told that they could not get a certificate of lawfulness and that, in fact, an enforcement notice had been served on the site many years previously. When we asked to see the records of that, we found that they had not been kept.
I was thinking about that case last night. People were very emotional at the time. With the family’s assistance, I was able to produce death certificates that showed the address as that site, as well as letters from GPs and social workers and letters of support from an MSP, a councillor and the family’s neighbours and friends, which showed that they were very much a part of the community and that the site was their home. Despite all that, the application was refused. Eventually, there was an appeal to the Scottish Government, which was successful.
That site was in North Lanarkshire, which is now part of the region for which I am an MSP, and the council’s figures on Gypsy Traveller housing provision have not got any better. The sites that were closed a number of years ago remain closed, and new sites have not opened.
I am delighted that the cabinet secretary is here. I know about her commitment to equalities, but will she say something about the Planning (Scotland) Bill in her closing remarks? There is a big opportunity to include Gypsy Travellers at the heart of what we are doing with the planning system.
I still do not feel entirely confident that we are getting there, but the debate allows us to keep the issues at the top of the agenda. We can make progress, but the sites still do not meet the Scottish Housing Regulator’s standards, and more needs to be done about that. However, we need to respect the diverse wishes of the Gypsy Traveller community and accommodate those who wish to have their own sites and land through the housing need and demand assessment process, and through planning.
I am grateful that I have been able to take part in this short debate.
If members want to hear the cabinet secretary respond in her allotted time, I will have to extend the debate a little. I am, therefore, minded to accept, under rule 8.14.3 of the standing orders, a motion without notice to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. That is with the assurance that the cabinet secretary will not speak for 30 minutes.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Mary Fee]
Motion agreed to.13:31
Today, we have in the gallery members of our Gypsy Traveller community from Aberdeen, Angus, Aviemore, Clydebank and West Lothian, and representation from the young Gypsy Traveller assembly. They include Mr Davie Donaldson and the indefatigable Mrs Bernstein from the Larkhall Gypsy Traveller education programme.
I welcome our guests to the Scottish Parliament. This is their Parliament, and they have absolutely every right to be here and to expect the absolute best representation from their parliamentarians. We are here to do a job: we are here to represent all of Scotland, and that includes the Gypsy Traveller community in all its diversity.
I, too, congratulate Mary Fee on securing this debate. Many members have repeated that she has been a passionate champion of the Scottish Gypsy Traveller community for many years. I am genuinely looking forward to the cross-party working group that she will establish and lead in the near future, because it is very important that there is a cross-party working group to support and proclaim the voice of the Gypsy Traveller community and that it works alongside the ministerial working group.
Mary Fee’s motion rightly starts by referring to the “social and cultural contribution” of the Gypsy Traveller community. We have heard from Christina McKelvie, Willie Coffey and David Torrance that that community is very much part and parcel of Scotland’s story. It cares deeply about the heritage and history of our country and the land. Like others, I want to celebrate the contribution that Gypsy Traveller heritage makes to the cultural life of Scotland.
I am delighted that next month there will be the launch of the annual celebration of Gypsy Roma Traveller history month in Scotland. John Finnie touched on a very important point. That community’s contribution, cultural heritage and history are largely unknown, and we should, of course, shine a light on a history that we should all be very proud of. I hope that doing that will play a part in challenging stereotypes and reducing the discrimination that that community faces daily.
The Gypsy Traveller community in Scotland continues to face intolerable levels of prejudice and hostility, and that absolutely has to change. I know that there has been a lot of talk and insufficient action, and that we have had three parliamentary inquiries. Although some progress has been made—it would be unfair not to pay tribute to that—it has been patchy and inconsistent and, frankly, not good enough. That is why I have established the ministerial working group, which brings together ministers with responsibility for housing, education, employment and health. The group, which I chair, will develop and drive forward radical new approaches across Government and will bring real change at a much faster pace.
I stress that we are not doing that work in splendid isolation, in an office or a cupboard somewhere in the Parliament or down at St Andrew’s house. We will publish the minutes of the ministerial working group and we will keep the Equalities and Human Rights Committee and the Parliament fully informed. We invite guests to take part in the group, and we have particular themed discussions. Over and above that, there is the work that goes on outwith the working group, such as the engagement that I have had with the Scottish Traveller education programme, my visit to Larkhall, my visit yesterday to a site at Redding industrial estate in Falkirk and the contact that I have had with the Minority Ethnic Carers of People Project. I also expect other ministers right across Government to have contact with stakeholder organisations and individual members of the community. I know that a number of my colleagues have had the pleasure of meeting the young Gypsy Travellers assembly.
One important point about the ministerial working group relates to partnership working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. I met COSLA this morning to hear about the work that it is doing across local government to tap into local leadership, because we need local champions to stand up in council chambers and face down and call out discrimination whenever and wherever it exists. This morning, I met Councillor Witham, who is COSLA’s community wellbeing spokesperson and who chairs its wellbeing board. She apprised me of the paper that COSLA has produced, the engagement that it has had with Mr Donaldson and some of the pragmatic potential solutions that it is prepared to look at.
More deeply than that, it is crucial that the two spheres of Government in Scotland—the Scottish Government and local government—work together and challenge each other, and that we find ways to actively demonstrate that we are taking a human rights approach to improving the lives of members of the Gypsy Traveller community. We have started to have that conversation with each other. For me, human rights are at the core of everything that we do, but the issue is how we implement them and how they make a difference out there for the real people and real communities whom we serve.
To respond to Jamie Greene, I take very seriously the point that there have been a number of inquiries. The absolutely last thing that I would ever want to be involved in is a process in which people feel a level of disengagement and feel that they have heard it all before. With the cross-party support of the Parliament, I want the message from the debate to be that we are absolutely serious, and I will take Jamie Greene at his word when it comes to his support. When we, at local or national level, have to make very difficult decisions, I hope that we will have the support of the Parliament and that we will go forward as one to make a difference.
Many members touched on the results of the Scottish social attitudes survey, which are indeed a wake-up call. We have to recognise that fear of discrimination and actual discrimination prevent those in the Gypsy Traveller community from accessing essential public services that they have every right to access, and that that in turn contributes to and exacerbates the poor outcomes that they experience. Our public services therefore need to have a greater awareness of Gypsy Traveller culture and of the needs of the community, and we need to ensure that, right across the public sector, we are better equipped to understand and respond to such needs. I hope that it goes without saying that we do not tolerate any other forms of racist abuse or insidious discrimination and so we must all challenge all forms of discrimination towards the Gypsy Traveller community whenever and wherever they exist.
I reiterate that site standards are minimum standards. I share other members’ disappointment that such standards have not been met across all the sites in Scotland. I say very clearly to the Parliament that the Government has been very proactive in publishing the report and in stating our position in it. We will not demur when there are difficulties, we will not turn the other way when things fall below an acceptable standard and we will not sweep any issue under the carpet. We have written to every local authority and social landlord site provider to make it clear that we expect improvements to be made as soon as possible. The Scottish Housing Regulator has a statutory role in that, and it must play a part in ensuring that social landlords meet the standards that are now part of the Scottish social housing charter and that all site providers maintain their sites to those standards. I also expect site providers to work with residents to keep them informed of progress.
I know that there are many issues about housing needs assessments, lack of provision and the types of provision that are available. We are actively doing work on traditional halting stops, in which Mr Stewart, the Minister for Local Government and Housing, has a particular interest. I know that, in his work with COSLA, Mr Donaldson has pointed to very good and innovative practice and leads on negotiated stopping points. That is very interesting work that we should look at very carefully.
Quite clearly, much more work needs to be done on health and education. For me, the key thing is that our services are able to reach out when they should be doing so and that we provide flexible services that offer opportunities in which the Gypsy Traveller community can take part without fear of disadvantage or discrimination. I am probably stretching your patience, Presiding Officer, but I would also like to point out the Government’s new commitment, in the child poverty delivery plan, to invest an initial £0.5 million to work directly with the community, families and other partners to create a more tailored approach to early years and early education programmes.
I appreciate that there will perhaps be many issues—for example, those on planning—that I have not been able to go into. There will be a stage 1 debate on the Planning (Scotland) Bill next week, and I hope that members will take that opportunity to speak about and reflect on the needs of the Gypsy Traveller community. How we work with members of the community to improve their lives and opportunities and take their voices to heart is not an issue that is just for a members’ business debate—important though that is—but must be at the heart of every debate that we have in the Parliament.
I am very grateful to all members who have participated in the debate and thank them for their contributions. Not only is it is imperative that we shine a light on what John Finnie described as the sheer and utter frustration that has been experienced, but, as Willie Coffey said, we need to go forward as one Scotland and ensure that members of the Gypsy Traveller community—whom we, as members, represent—can live happier, healthier and wealthier lives in which they can play a full role in the next stage of Scotland’s story.13:44 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—