Newham mayor and deputy mayor accused of ‘racist banter’ about Travellers
- Credit: Archant
Comments made by the mayor and deputy mayor during a discussion of Gypsy and Traveller sites in the borough have been condemned as “racist” and “disgusting”.
Charity London Gypsy and Traveller Unit (LGTU) said it had written a formal complaint to both Newham Council and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) after being shocked by the remarks made during a cabinet meeting in East Ham Town Hall on Thursday last week.
Before agreeing an item on the agenda at that meeting which stated “no need has been demonstrated for new gypsy-traveller [sic] accommodation at the present time”, deputy mayor Lester Hudson asked if he could have the addresses of the objectors.
Mayor Sir Robin Wales replied: “I think what Lester is saying is that we would be very happy to set up a site right next to their house.”
Debby Kennett, joint-CEO of LGTU, said the comments are indicative of a form of prejudice “still deemed acceptable”.
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“It’s casual racist banter,” she said. “Why should they be at ease making remarks like that? They should know better.
“It wouldn’t be acceptable to make a comment like that about anyone else.”
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Debby said she hopes an investigation is begun after LGTU complained to both Newham Council and EHRC because the comments need to be “confronted”.
For Lisa Smith, of Parkway Crescent, Stratford, the remarks show Gypsies and Travellers are not treated the same as other residents of the borough.
“We have never felt supported by the Newham mayor and now his attitudes towards Gypsies and Travellers are out in public,” Lisa, who is a Romany Gypsy, said.
“It’s disgusting. We would like a public apology from the mayor and a meeting with him to talk about our need for more sites.”
The 39-year-old also objected to the council’s passing of the item on Gypsy and Traveller sites.
“We are shocked that the council has said there isn’t any need for more Traveller pitches when there is a whole young generation growing up who need a pitch,” she said.
“The accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers is not a joke, it is a very serious issue for all the Traveller community.”
Mike Doherty, the editor of the Travellers’ Times magazine, said the furore shows how deep-rooted prejudice against that community is.
“It’s often called the last acceptable form of racism,” he said. “People don’t think [Gypsies and Travellers] will complain.
“Such is the prejudice, they probably don’t think they can even read.”
He went on to highlight the ethnic diversity of Newham and branded it “disgraceful” that one group should be “singled out”.
“What if they said it about another racial group?” he asked. “Or about poor people?”
In response to the Recorder article, deputy mayor Cllr Lester Hudson said: “I was absolutely serious when I asked to understand more about objectors to our approach, not the objective.
“I am proud of the fact that Newham Council has previously established an authorised public site for Gypsies and Travellers and has made a detailed analysis of the needs of these communities locally.
“Other local authorities could learn much from Newham’s approach and should do much more to help those communities. There is too much ‘Nimbyism’ in society where people will posture on serious issues without taking positive action or difficult decisions.
“I wanted to know whether the local authority of any objector had made a significant commitment to Gypsies and Travellers as Newham Council has. I would be happy to see a dedicated public site for Gypsies and Travellers established by every local authority in the country.”
A spokesperson for Newham Council added: “The mayor was simply agreeing with the deputy mayor. He has long held the view that there is too much ‘Nimbyism’ in society where people will posture on serious issues without taking positive action or difficult decisions.”
Newham Green Party leader Rachel Collinson, meanwhile, said she will be calling for the mayor to resign.
“I was aghast when I read Robin Wales’ comments that suggested people would not want to live next door to a certain race,” she said. “I wondered if I had somehow started reading a back issue of a paper from the 1930s.”