We are still early into a new Parliament and MPs who had previously been obliged to operate within a much more constrained or disciplined environment, under pressure to pay attention to the priorities and preferences of their coalition partners have suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves off a leash that must have felt very tight at times. One example of this was a debate that took place on the 10th June on the subject of Gypsies and Travellers (Local Communities). I cannot believe how out of touch some of the members of Parliament that participated in this debate are. They are supposed to represent all of their constituents including any Gypsies & Travellers that are resident in the area yet their words indicate that not only do they not wish to represent the interests of such communities, but actually they would seek to diminish these men, women and children. The opening speech was by Philip Hollobone who is well known for speaking in an outrageous and disrespectful manner about Gypsies and Travellers. His lengthy speech which was predictably shot through with ignorant rants was followed by Gary Streeter who said:
“Does my hon. Friend share my bafflement that Travellers are treated as a vulnerable community when, in fact, most of them have far greater wealth than we in this room will ever have? The point is not about ethnicity or where Travellers may originate from, but about their behaviour. Our constituents are concerned not about the fact that they have chosen a nomadic lifestyle, but about their behaviour and disruption to the local community when they arrive. I have not yet met a serving police officer who does not say that when Travellers are in town, there is a spike in local crime.”
This is shockingly out of touch. The first issue is the relative wealth of MPs and the Travellers who Mr Streeter apparently knows well enough to speak about in statistical terms. I have no idea how he can speak with this level of confidence about his fellow MPs, let alone a dispersed and diverse community of Gypsies and Travellers spread across Western Europe. Perhaps he has based his opinion on a few Channel 4 TV programmes that are as representative of this much misunderstood community as TOWIE is of the residents of Essex? What we do know is that many of the 650 MPs in the House of Commons are Multi Millionaires and all receive a minimum wage of £65,000 which is 3 times the average wages across the UK. I have only met a small number of Gypsies but the ones I have met have had life experiences that are some distance from the privilege and security of the small number of MPs that spoke in Wednesdays debate. These were Philip Hollobone, Sharon Hodgson, Gary Streeter, James Wharton, Andrew Slaughter, Graham Evans, Steve Reed, Tim Loughton, Chris Heaton-Harris, Helen Whatley, Philip Davies and Julian Sturdy. In addition to their basic remuneration many MPs have expense claims far in excess of this sum as well as state funded second homes. Amongst this group at least one was previously a barrister, and another earned an additional 23,000 from outside interests last year on a rate of about £300 per hour. On that basis alone I would suggest that Gary Streeter is talking complete nonsense!
The second issue is the reason for mentioning wealth. Surely the law and Parliament should be blind to the wealth of the residents within each of the constituencies across the UK. It really doesn’t matter how wealthy constituents are, their MP is supposed to represent them without fear or favour. On the basis of this speech, Mr Streeter is in the wrong job.
Thirdly Mr Streeter seems to be suggesting that wealth somehow prevents people from being vulnerable? Would he apply the same test to a wealthy widow or aged merchant banker under attack in their home and argue that the Police are not needed, because these people are not really vulnerable?
Finally Mr Streeter seems to be suggesting that whenever he meets Police Officers he speaks to them about Travellers and that the crime spike that all of them speak to him about are all as a result of crimes caused by Gypsies and Traveller. Does Mr Streeter never hear about the attacks on the travelling community like I do? Why is Mr Streeter so distant from his own constituents, even if they are temporary visitors that he only learns about their lives through Police Officers who for good reason are not paid to monitor peaceful coexistence between communities? Is he simply hearing what he wants to hear?
If these comments had been made by some opinionated drinkers in a local pub, we would have been free to move to another table, or another pub. We might even have taken issue with the prejudice on display and suggested the person speaking should consider if their words are really credible. Because Gary Streeter and his chums who are supposed to provide leadership in our communities and across our nation have the protection of Parliamentary Privilege and security, we cannot even do that.