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Gypsies need to design and carry out needs assessments if they are to receive better services, writes Len Smith

Needs assessments are being carried out in many councils to gauge the shortfall in site provision for gypsies and travellers. These needs assessments (NAs) are intended to look into all areas of need for these highly marginalised groups. Accommodation, access to statutory services such as education and health as well as other services, should be part of the agenda.

Government guidance should emphasise that an NA must consult with the end user. As these groups have distinct cultures, it is also vital that any questionnaire must have culturally sensitive questions. So the gypsy and traveller community really must have input into the survey design.

Unfortunately, gypsy support groups find that many councils are asking inexperienced and seemingly insensitive organisations to tender for NAs. Many ignore (perhaps because the tender brief also ignores) the cultural differences, and the need to involve the gypsy community when designing assessments. The ensuing assessments, if they elicit any answers, will be shallow and valueless.

This is a pity, because there are excellent models already out there, such as the Cambridge Sub-Regional Area Gypsy and Traveller Needs Assessment being carried out by Anglia Ruskin and Buckinghamshire Chilterns Universities. This model involved the gypsy and traveller communities from the start, and fully trained gypsy and traveller community interviewers. This has built capacity within the community in an innovative way. The model has succeeded in drawing out cogent and useful data.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which ordered these assessments, must ensure that NAs which do not involve the very people they seek to survey, should reassess again using a successful model.

The results of these NAs will decide the life chances of gypsies and travellers, perhaps for decades to come. It seems criminal to ignore that fact in the face of advice from the communities themselves, who are, after all, the real experts.

Len Smith is a gypsy activist

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