House of Commons Library

Gypsies and Travellers

Published Tuesday, May 8, 2018

This House of Commons Library briefing paper provides an overview of the key issues and policies relating to Gypsy and Traveller communities in England. The paper examines a range of issues including: inequalities, racial discrimination, accommodation needs, illegal encampments, health and education outcomes, employment rates, welfare reform and evidence of over-representation in the criminal justice system.

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This House of Commons Library briefing paper focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on issues and policies relating to Gypsies and Travellers in England. The devolved administrations have their own policies in areas where responsibility is devolved.

Who are Gypsies and Travellers?

The term ‘Gypsies and Travellers’ is difficult to define as it does not constitute a single, homogenous group, but encompasses a range of groups with different histories, cultures and beliefs including: Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers, and Scottish Gypsy Travellers. There are also Traveller groups which are generally regarded as ‘cultural’ rather than ‘ethnic’ Travellers. These include ‘New’ (Age) Travellers and occupational travellers, such as showmen and waterway travellers.

Historically there has been a lack of robust data on Gypsy and Traveller communities. For the first time, the 2011 Census included an ethnic category to collect data on Gypsy, Traveller and Irish Traveller communities. In total around 63,000 people in the UK identified themselves as members of these groups, of which 58,000 were living in England and Wales. The South East region of England had both the largest number of Gypsies and Irish Travellers and the largest number per 10,000 people. However, other sources suggest the 2011 Census figures may be underestimates.

Inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers

Gypsies and Travellers experience some of the worst outcomes of any group, across a wide range of social indicators. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published a number of reports highlighting the multiple inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers. An EHRC review in 2015 concluded that the life chances of Gypsies and Travellers had declined since the Commission’s previous review in 2010. The contributory factors are complex and often inter-related, but may include deprivation, social exclusion and discrimination.

The Coalition Government set up a Ministerial Working Group in November 2010 to look at ways to reduce and tackle the inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers. The Ministerial Group published a Progress Report in April 2012 which included 28 commitments from across Government intended to help mainstream services work more effectively with the Gypsy and Traveller communities. The Government published a further summary of progress against each of the commitments in November 2014.

In October 2017 the Cabinet Office published an overview of the main findings from the first release of data from the Race Disparity Audit. The analysis is intended to increase understanding of the disparities between ethnic groups and inform policies to address them.

Following on from the Race Disparity Audit, the Government has provided £200,000 to fund up to six community-led pilot projects intended to improve outcomes for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in the areas of educational attainment, health and social integration. These projects will be delivered in 2018-19.

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry on ‘Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’.

Racial discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. Romany Gypsies, Scottish Travellers and Irish Travellers have been declared by the courts to be protected as “races” under the Act.

Nevertheless, Gypsies and Travellers continue to face high levels of racial discrimination, contributing to and exacerbating the inequalities they experience.

Hate crime

In July 2016 the Government published a plan for tackling hate crime, setting out actions to: prevent and respond to hate crime; increase reporting of hate crime incidents; and improve support for victims. The Traveller Movement has launched a campaign to raise awareness within the Gypsy and Traveller communities about hate crimes and the need to report them.

The Government has published an Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper. The paper invites views on the Government’s vision for building strong integrated communities. The public consultation closes on 5 June 2018.


Many Gypsies and Travellers now live in settled accommodation and do not travel, or do not travel all of the time, but nonetheless consider travelling to be part of their identity. At the 2011 Census, the majority (76%) of Gypsies and Irish Travellers in England and Wales lived in bricks-and-mortar accommodation, and 24% lived in a caravan or other mobile or temporary structure.

The total number of Traveller caravans in England in July 2017 was 22,792, an increase of 33% since July 2007. The majority (54%) of caravans were on private sites, 29% were on sites operated by local authorities and registered providers of social housing, and 16% were on unauthorised sites. Studies have raised concerns about environmental conditions on some Traveller sites.

Local authorities are no longer required to carry out a specific, separate assessment of the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their local area, although they still have a general duty to assess the housing needs of everyone in their area.


Responsibility for planning for the provision of sufficient Gypsy and Traveller sites in England lies with local authorities, who are best placed to assess the needs of their communities. It is widely acknowledged, though, that there is a national shortage of suitable permanent and transit Traveller sites.

The Government’s planning policy for Traveller sites encourages local authorities to: formulate their own evidence base for Gypsy and Traveller needs; provide their own targets relating to pitches required; and identify a suitable five-year supply of sites to meet those needs. The decision to change the definition of ‘Traveller’ for planning related purposes, so that it excludes those who have permanently ceased travelling, has attracted criticism from the community.

There are challenges in turning evidenced need for accommodation into the provision of new sites, including acquiring appropriate land and overcoming objections from local residents. Research by Gypsy and Traveller organisations in 2016 concluded that local authorities had made insufficient progress in identifying a suitable five-year supply of sites. The advocacy group Friends Families and Travellers (FFT) has called on the Government to re-introduce targets and a statutory duty to meet the assessed accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers.

Unauthorised encampments and developments

In July 2017, there were 3,721 caravans on unauthorised sites. Of these, 2,197 caravans were on land owned by Travellers and 1,524 caravans were on land not owned by Travellers. The number of caravans on unauthorised sites increased by 7% from July 2016 to July 2017. The proportion of Traveller caravans on unauthorised sites has fallen from 23% in July 2007 to 16% in July 2017.

Unauthorised sites are frequently a source of tension between the travelling and settled communities. Public bodies have a range of powers to deal with unauthorised sites. Some local authority areas have adopted a ‘negotiated stopping’ approach to travelling families as an alternative to legal action.

In April 2018, the Government launched a consultation on powers for dealing with unauthorised development and encampments. The consultation seeks views on whether public authorities can use existing enforcement powers more effectively, and whether these powers should be strengthened. The consultation is open until 15 June 2018.

Health needs

A number of studies have identified the poor health experiences of Gypsy and Traveller groups compared with the general population, including higher rates of mortality, morbidity and long-term health conditions, low child immunisation levels, and a higher prevalence of anxiety and depression. A range of factors, such as poor accommodation, discrimination, poor health literacy, and a lack of cultural awareness and understanding by health professionals of Gypsy and Traveller health and social needs, are thought to create barriers to accessing healthcare.

The National Inclusion Health Board has called for more joined up working by local authorities, the NHS and responsible health agencies, and local public health services to improve the health outcomes of Gypsies and Travellers. It also emphasised the importance of building community cohesion in order to develop a healthy and sustainable environment for the Traveller community. The Royal College of General Practioners has published a toolkit on commissioning for socially excluded groups. NHS England has published a leaflet for Gypsy and Travellers communities to explain how they can register with a doctor.

The Department of Health and Social Care has commissioned research to investigate approaches to community engagement that are most likely to enhance trust between Gypsy/Travellers and mainstream health services. The project is due to report later in 2018.


Children from Gypsy and Traveller communities attain and progress significantly below the national average throughout compulsory education. In 2017, 22% of pupils from Irish Traveller backgrounds and 11% from Gypsy and Roma backgrounds attained GCSEs in English and Maths at grade 4/C or above, compared to 64% of pupils nationally. Gypsy and Traveller pupils also have a high rate of school exclusions and report high levels of bullying and racial abuse.

Children who are travelling may be dual-registered (ie. on the roll of more than one school at the same time), may enrol at a school at their current location, or may be home educated. Local authorities are required to have a Fair Access Protocol to help place children who need a school place outside the normal admissions rounds. Department for Education guidance stresses the importance of providing additional support to address the needs of children from groups at higher risk of exclusion.

Employment and training

The 2011 Census found that Gypsy or Irish Traveller was the ethnic group with the lowest employment rates and highest levels of economic inactivity. Of those who were economically active, Gypsies and Irish Travellers were more likely to be unemployed (20%) and self-employed (25%) then the general population in England and Wales.

Over half of economically inactive Gypsies and Irish Travellers were either looking after the home or family (31%) or were long term-sick or disabled (28%). Inactive Gypsies and Travellers were significantly less likely to be students or retired than the general population.

There is evidence that Gypsies and Travellers face barriers in accessing employment. The Coalition Government implemented measures intended to increase Gypsy and Traveller access to mainstream employment services, and to improve data collection on Gypsies and Travellers.

1,000 Gypsies and Irish Travellers started apprenticeships in England in the six years between 2011/12 and 2016/17. The ‘5 Cities Project’, launched in February 2018, aims to increase the number of people in underrepresented groups who take up apprenticeships.

Benefits and tax credits

Very limited information is available on receipt of benefits and tax credits by Gypsies and Travellers. 2011 Census data suggests higher levels of need among the Gypsy and Traveller community compared with the population as a whole. Anecdotal and qualitative evidence, on the other hand, indicates that historically, Gypsies and Travellers have made little use of Jobcentre Plus services, and may have a cultural bias against claiming out-of-work benefits.

Major changes to the benefits system are currently underway, and groups representing Gypsies and Travellers are concerned that welfare reforms “pose a significantly greater risk of negatively impacting on Gypsies and Travellers”.

Criminal justice system

There are problems establishing exactly how many Gypsies and Travellers are in prison or in the youth justice system. However, a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, published in 2014, found that prisoners who identified as Gypsy or Traveller were significantly over-represented in the prison population and were more likely to have concerns about their safety and to have suffered victimisation. There is also evidence that Gypsy and Traveller children are significantly over-represented in the youth justice system.

An independent review, chaired by David Lammy MP, has investigated the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals in the criminal justice system. The final report of the review, published on 8 September 2017, sets out 35 recommendations to reform the system. The Government’s response to the review commits to publish more and better data on race and ethnicity where possible. It will also set up a Race and Ethnicity Board, chaired by the Ministry of Justice, to monitor the implementation of recommendations as well as contributing to the Government’s wider work around tackling racial disparities.


Commons Briefing papers CBP-8083

Authors: Hannah Cromarty; Oliver Hawkins; Steven Kennedy; Andy Powell; Douglas Pyper; Nerys Roberts; Pat Strickland; Alex Bate; Cassie Barton; Gabrielle Garton Grimwood

Topic: Ethnic groups

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