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Pontins blacklisted Gypsies and Travellers - they are not alone

Gypsies and Travellers have to be included in efforts to tackle racism in the UK

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Image Credit: N Chadwick

Downing Street recently denounced holiday park operator Pontins after it was revealed that its staff were ordered to actively prevent people with Irish surnames booking accommodation at its centres.

The firm operated a blacklist of ‘undesirable guests’ consisting of 40 Irish surnames and circulated it to its booking operators. Staff monitored phone calls and refused or cancelled bookings from customers with Irish accents and Pontins' commercial vehicle policy excluded Gypsies and Travellers from its holiday parks. The actions have been labelled as a clear example of anti-traveller discrimination, and are a breach of the 2010 Equality Act.

Many have been quick to denounce the actions of Pontins and it is not surprising to see why. This blatant example of racial discrimination feels like something out of the history books. In fact, it is hauntingly familiar to the signs you would have seen in hotel windows some 50 years ago, barring entry to Irish and Black customers. Such forms of prejudice towards Gypsies and Travellers have probably been considered by a lot of the population to be a thing of the long gone past.

However, this well-publicised incident is just a symptom of a much wider culture of discrimination towards this community within the UK. Gypsies and Travellers face a disproportionate level of prejudice in our society, but what makes this worse is that to a great extent this hostility is trivialised, without recognition of its harm.

"Individuals, corporations and public bodies are failing to tackle the stark inequalities faced by the Traveller community, and in some cases, such as Pontins, are even actively discriminating against them."

Research by the leading charity, The Traveller Movement, in 2017 found that, from the Gypsies and Travellers they contacted, 91 percent had experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity and 77 percent had experienced hate speech or a hate crime. Numbers like this are not an indication of a small group of individuals with well publicised views, but of a large portion of the population actively holding hostile opinions of this community that they are alarmingly unafraid to express.

Incidences within the hospitality sector in particular are unfortunately not limited to Pontins. The same survey also found that 55 percent of respondents had been denied services because they were Gypsies, Roma or Travellers. Similar cases can be seen across the country in pubs, hotels and restaurants. In 2019, a Pizza Express restaurant in Doncaster refused entry to a family because they were Travellers, and other companies such as Wetherspoons have previously come under fire for taking similar action. Proprietors continue to falsely stereotype this entire community as troublemakers or as a danger.

These instances are not just limited to the hospitality sector. In fact, this discrimination is widespread across all of society. A 2019 inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee found that “Gypsies, Travellers and Roma are among the most disadvantaged people in the country and have poor outcomes in key areas such as health and education”. School pupils from this group had the lowest attainment of all backgrounds, and the University of Bedfordshire found that life expectancy is 10–12 years lower than the non-traveller population. Some of these problems appear to stem from actively travelling or living on traveller sites, but, crucially, not all of them. Prejudice and discrimination play an active and unacceptable role in these figures.

Individuals, corporations and public bodies are failing to tackle the stark inequalities faced by the Traveller community, and in some cases, such as Pontins, are even actively discriminating against them.

As a society, we continue to cast Gypsies and Travellers as free spirits or as criminals, and these stereotypes are fuelling a culture that sees intolerance towards these groups as acceptable. Documentaries and news articles often focus on a small minority of Gypsies and Travellers, rather than the majority of upstanding citizens who suffer the most from these false perceptions. Overall, these attitudes are facilitating the discrimination, disadvantage, and hatred faced by the members of this community each day. The actions of Pontins may have been well publicised, but they are not alone.

As important discussions about racism within the UK continue to be had, it is crucial that Gypsies and Travellers are included in the debate. It is about time that both the government and all of us as individuals stop sweeping the intolerance faced by Gypsies and Travellers under the carpet, and begin to consider how we can support this community to stop incidents of this nature.

The actions of Pontins that have been brought to light this week have been rightfully criticised. However, they must not be quickly forgotten; instead, they should be used as a catalyst to ensure that discrimination like this, faced by Gypsies and Travellers in all aspects of UK life, can be eradicated.

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