Social services can support travellers through effective monitoring

Acute needs of marginalised Gypsies and Irish Traveller groups could be better addressed by improved use of more information, by Joe Cottrell-Boyce

In 2011 Gypsies and Irish Travellers were for the first time recognised as an ethnic group on the UK census, under the code “W3”. In the wake of the census, many statutory services are following suit and including a “Gypsy or Irish Traveller” category in their own ethnic monitoring procedures.

This recognition is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for a marginalised community with acute needs in terms of housing, healthcare, education and social care.

Gypsies and Irish Travellers are “the most excluded ethnic minority groups in British society today”. Life expectancy is 10-12 years below the national average and 18% of Gypsy and Traveller mothers have experienced the death of a child, compared to less than 1% of the general population. In addition, 25% of Gypsy and Traveller children are not enrolled in education and, for those that do attend, educational attainment is lower than for any other ethnic group.

Research into the social care needs of Gypsies and Travellers has found that a culture of self-reliance means that people often tend to “make do” and not complain rather than seeking support from social services.

Service providers will not necessarily realise that a client comes from a Travelling background and may consequently neglect to consider issues such as low literacy or accommodation difficulties.

In this context it is of great concern that innovative community social work projects such as the Haringey travelling people’s team, which engages Gypsy and Traveller families before crises occur, are falling victim to local government cuts.

In April 2012 the Department for Communities and Local Government published 28 cross-departmental commitments to improve outcomes for Gypsies and Travellers. Key points included tasking the NHS and local governments with identifying ways to include the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in the commissioning of health services and ensuring that the needs of Gypsies and Travellers are reflected in joint strategic needs assessments.

Gypsies and Travellers are also to be specifically highlighted as a vulnerable group in the revised Ofsted framework and will be included in the Department of Work and Pensions’ monitoring system when universal credit is introduced later this year.

But tickboxes on forms can achieve little unless staff are pro-active in their approach to monitoring. This has been demonstrated in the case of the prison service, where a huge disparity exists between two distinct monitoring regimes: prisons themselves have a W3 category on their “P-Nomis” system but it is up to Traveller prisoners to volunteer this information at reception.

Currently only 219 prisoners in England and Wales are registered as W3; 0.2% of the prison population. In contrast, the prison inspectorate makes a point of asking every prisoner surveyed: “Do you consider yourself to be Gypsy/Romany/Traveller?; 5% of prisoners in local prisons responded “yes” to this question.

Effective monitoring can give services more of an insight into their Gypsy and Traveller user group and allow them to reflect on how organisational practices meet the needs of this community.

Being counted is a vital first step to making a community feel like it counts. The kind of pro-active monitoring exemplified by the prison inspectorate is a vital tool for addressing the extreme marginalisation of Gypsy and Traveller communities in the UK.

It is the start of a dialogue with a user group who often feel ignored and unwanted.

Joe Cottrell-Boyce is the policy officer at the Irish chaplaincy in Britain’s Traveller Project, working with Gypsies and Travellers in the criminal justice system.