Days before his 16th birthday a fortnight ago, Johnny Delaney
was beaten to death on a playing field in Ellesmere Port, not far
from the caravan site where his family live.
His mother, Winifred, believes he was killed for “being a
gypsy”. Two teenagers have been charged with murder. No good comes
from violence but, perhaps, the publicity that surrounds the trial
will train a spotlight on the rampant racism shown towards the
UK’s 300,000 travellers – a group marked by a high infant
mortality rate, poor health, poverty and illiteracy. Official
concern about social exclusion has yet to include them .
Johnny left school at 12 to work with his father laying roads. A
non-traveller friend said: “He used to hate being called a gypsy.
At the end of the day everybody is the same.”
The truth, of course, is that we’re not the same. The
issue is how to value difference while upholding common principles
such as a child’s right to schooling.
After the failure of two private members bills’ to provide
adequate sites for travellers last month, an all-party group on
traveller law reform was established in the House of Commons. The
lack of sites is a growing problem. Thirty per cent of travellers
are forced to camp out illegally and are constantly moved on,
sometimes violently, at a cost of up to £18m each year. Ann
Bagehot of the Gypsy Council argues that, instead, they should be
given home bases where those who are dysfunctional can receive
parental, educational and social service support. Recruiting more
social workers from the traveller community itself might also
The economics are scandalous. Only £16m is to be spent over
two years on transit but not permanent sites. According to one
estimate £123m is needed over 30 years just to maintain the
308 sites now in use.
For years, campaigners have pressed for a task force. The
optimistic signs are that the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000
requires all public authorities to assess the way that their
policies affect minorities. The Commission for Racial Equality,
under its new head, Trevor Phillips, is determined that gypsies
should be included in that appraisal.
Cards have been left at the spot where Johnny Delaney died. One
reads: “From a person who is appalled that this could happen.”
Sorrow isn’t enough. After 40 years of campaigning,
it’s time for radical institutional change.