Mass Gypsy eviction looms in Essex

Dale Farm residents warn of "ethnic cleansing".

Around 30 miles east of central London, one of the largest evictions in recent British history is looming. More than 90 families at Dale Farm, Europe's biggest gypsy site, expect to be served with a 28-day enforcement notice any day now, after the Home Office earlier this month awarded a £4.65m special grant to Essex Police to assist with an eviction that could cost as much as £17.5m.

The history of Dale Farm is long and has been fraught with tension over the last decade. One section of the farm has been occupied legally by Gypsies since the 1960s, but in 2002 conflict arose when a number of Irish Traveller families moved on to a patch of land next the legal site.

Though they had purchased the land, they were refused planning permission by Basildon Council on the grounds that it was on the green belt. The council has since been embroiled in a battle to remove around 52 properties from the section of the farm without planning permission.

According to the travellers, although the land is classed as green belt, it was a concreted scrapyard before they moved on to it. They say they each pay on average £950 in council tax per year, and allege that the refusal to grant them planning permission, far from being anything to do with the green belt, is driven by an undercurrent of prejudice from local politicians.

"What we've always objected to is that they're treating us as a block of people -- travellers -- to be evicted en masse as an ethnic group," says 72-year-old Grattan Puxon, secretary of the Dale Farm Residents Association. "That's why we call it ethnic cleansing."

Puxon, who helped found the Gypsy Council in 1966, says the residents association recently sent Basildon Council detailed reports on the welfare and medical status of each person who would be affected by the eviction. Their hope was that exceptions would be made for those who were elderly, unwell or with young children.

"We sent them the medical reports of 300 people, including a bedridden old man on the point of death; another 80-year-old man; a woman with triplets; a young mother who recently had a miscarriage; and numerous very small children," he says. "The committee was given 40 minutes to consider all these reports -- about eight seconds per report. Having done that they said they couldn't find any exceptions."

In 2008, a High Court judgment ruled that the eviction would be legal, though expressed concern that the site would be disproportionately "cleared" with little concern for children and those in ill-health.

Two years later, in 2010, a letter was sent directly to the UK government from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It urged the government and its institutions to "consider suspending any planned eviction until an adequate solution is achieved".

Concern has also been raised about the bailiffs hired by Basildon Council to carry out the eviction. Constant & Co, who describe themselves as a "one-stop shop" for the clearance of traveller sites, were criticised by a High Court judge for "unacceptable" conduct after one previous Gypsy eviction in 2004, and were present during a separate incident the same year when a caravan was set on fire. Calls to Constant & Co for a comment went unheeded. However a spokesperson for Basildon Council said the council had used the company in the past and that there had been "no issues".

There will be "no burning of any items on site during the operation," according to the council, who will pay Constant & Co an estimated figure of over £2m for their services, with a further £6m set aside for other costs. At the same time, last year the council announced they were looking to make £505,000 cuts to services and were also braced for up to 100 job losses. On top of the council's £8m, an additional £9.5m has been made available for policing costs, almost half of which has been raised by central government.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said ministers agreed to fund policing the eviction only after advice from Essex Police was "carefully considered" by government ministers. While addressing human rights concerns, Basildon Council said they had already given an undertaking to the High Court providing for the health, education and care needs of the families affected, and staunchly refuted any claims of racial prejudice.

"The proposed site clearance at Dale Farm is driven by the need to uphold planning law and nothing more, a decision upheld by the courts," said the council's Conservative leader, Councillor Tony Ball. "To suggest otherwise is simply wrong, irresponsible and shows a lack of understanding for the situation."

For the 90 or so families at Dale Farm, the weeks ahead will be crucial.

They are currently seeking a judicial review of the eviction, and the moment they are served with their 28-day enforcement notice will form what they call Camp Constant -- a "non-violent defence" that will include a human shield around the area to be evicted. If the judicial review fails, not only will a serious confrontation with bailiffs and police be inevitable, but the future for many families at Dale Farm will be rendered uncertain.

"Even although alternative land has been identified, until planning permission is granted they will have nowhere lawful to move to," said Keith Lomax, the solicitor acting on behalf of Dale Farm.

"There are residents who have such significant personal circumstances -- including serious medical problems -- that it is manifestly unreasonable and disproportionate in human rights terms to put them out onto the road."

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London. His website is here

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British mental health is in crisis

The headlines about "parity of esteem" between mental and physical health remain just that, warns Benedict Cooper. 

I don’t need to look very far to find the little black marks on this government’s mental health record. Just down the road, in fact. A short bus journey away from my flat in Nottingham is the Queens Medical Centre, once the largest hospital in Europe, now an embattled giant.

Not only has the QMC’s formerly world-renowned dermatology service been reduced to a nub since private provider Circle took over – but that’s for another day – it has lost two whole mental health wards in the past year. Add this to the closure of two more wards on the other side of town at the City Hospital, the closure of the Enright Close rehabilitation centre in Newark, plus two more centres proposed for closure in the imminent future, and you’re left with a city already with half as many inpatient mental health beds as it had a year ago and some very concerned citizens.

Not that Nottingham is alone - anything but. Over 2,100 mental health beds had been closed in England between April 2011 and last summer. Everywhere you go there are wards being shuttered; patients are being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get treatment in wards often well over-capacity, incidents of violence against mental health workers is increasing, police officers are becoming de facto frontline mental health crisis teams, and cuts to community services’ budgets are piling the pressure on sufferers and staff alike.

It’s particularly twisted when you think back to solemn promises from on high to work towards “parity of esteem” for mental health – i.e. that it should be held in equal regard as, say, cancer in terms of seriousness and resources. But that’s becoming one of those useful hollow axioms somehow totally disconnected from reality.

NHS England boss Simon Stevens hails the plan of “injecting purchasing power into mental health services to support the move to parity of esteem”; Jeremy Hunt believes “nothing less than true parity of esteem must be our goal”; and in the House of Commons nearly 18 months ago David Cameron went as far as to say “In terms of whether mental health should have parity of esteem with other forms of health care, yes it should, and we have legislated to make that the case”. 

Odd then, that the president of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), Dr Michael Shooter, unveiling a major report, “Psychological therapies and parity of esteem: from commitment to reality” nine months later, should say that the gulf between mental and physical health treatment “must be urgently addressed”.  Could there be some disparity at work, between medical reality and government healthtalk?

One of the rhetorical justifications for closures is the fact that surveys show patients preferring to be treated at home, and that with proper early intervention pressure can be reduced on hospital beds. But with overall bed occupancy rates at their highest ever level and the average occupancy in acute admissions wards at 104 per cent - the RCP’s recommended rate is 85 per cent - somehow these ideas don’t seem as important as straight funding and capacity arguments.

Not to say the home-treatment, early-intervention arguments aren’t valid. Integrated community and hospital care has long been the goal, not least in mental health with its multifarious fragments. Indeed, former senior policy advisor at the Department of Health and founder of the Centre for Applied Research and Evaluation International Foundation (Careif) Dr Albert Persaud tells me as early as 2000 there were policies in place for bringing together the various crisis, home, hospital and community services, but much of that work is now unravelling.

“We were on the right path,” he says. “These are people with complex problems who need complex treatment and there were policies for what this should look like. We were creating a movement in mental health which was going to become as powerful as in cancer. We should be building on that now, not looking at what’s been cut”.

But looking at cuts is an unavoidable fact of life in 2015. After a peak of funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in 2010, spending fell in real terms by £50 million in the first three years of the Coalition. And in July this year ITV News and children’s mental health charity YoungMinds revealed a total funding cut of £85 million from trusts’ and local authorities’ mental health budgets for children and teenagers since 2010 - a drop of £35 million last year alone. Is it just me, or given all this, and with 75 per cent of the trusts surveyed revealing they had frozen or cut their mental health budgets between 2013-14 and 2014-15, does Stevens’ talk of purchasing “power” sound like a bit of a sick joke?

Not least when you look at figures uncovered by Labour over the weekend, which show the trend is continuing in all areas of mental health. Responses from 130 CCGs revealed a fall in the average proportion of total budgets allocated to mental health, from 11 per cent last year to 10 per cent in 2015/16. Which might not sound a lot in austerity era Britain, but Dr Persaud says this is a major blow after five years of squeezed budgets. “A change of 1 per cent in mental health is big money,” he says. “We’re into the realms of having less staff and having whole services removed. The more you cut and the longer you cut for, the impact is that it will cost more to reinstate these services”.

Mohsin Khan, trainee psychiatrist and founding member of pressure group NHS Survival, says the disparity in funding is now of critical importance. He says: “As a psychiatrist, I've seen the pressures we face, for instance bed pressures or longer waits for children to be seen in clinic. 92 per cent of people with physical health problems receive the care they need - compared to only 36 per cent of those with mental health problems. Yet there are more people with mental health problems than with heart problems”.

The funding picture in NHS trusts is alarming enough. But it sits in yet a wider context: the drastic belt-tightening local authorities and by extension, community mental health services have endured and will continue to endure. And this certainly cannot be ignored: in its interim report this July, the Commission on acute adult psychiatric care in England cited cuts to community services and discharge delays as the number one debilitating factor in finding beds for mental health patients.

And last but not least, there’s the role of the DWP. First there’s what the Wellcome Trust describes as “humiliating and pointless” - and I’ll add, draconian - psychological conditioning on jobseekers, championed by Iain Duncan Smith, which Wellcome Trusts says far from helping people back to work in fact perpetuate “notions of psychological failure”. Not only have vulnerable people been humiliated into proving their mental health conditions in order to draw benefits, figures released earlier in the year, featured in a Radio 4 File on Four special, show that in the first quarter of 2014 out of 15,955 people sanctioned by the DWP, 9,851 had mental health problems – more than 100 a day. And the mental distress attached to the latest proposals - for a woman who has been raped to then potentially have to prove it at a Jobcentre - is almost too sinister to contemplate.

Precarious times to be mentally ill. I found a post on care feedback site Patient Opinion when I was researching this article, by the daughter of a man being moved on from a Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP) centre set for closure, who had no idea what was happening next. Under the ‘Initial feelings’ section she had clicked ‘angry, anxious, disappointed, isolated, let down and worried’. The usual reasons were given for the confusion. “Patients and carers tell us that they would prefer to stay at home rather than come into hospital”, the responder said at one point. After four months of this it fizzled out and the daughter, presumably, gave up. But her final post said it all.

“There is no future for my dad just a slow decline before our eyes. We are without doubt powerless – there is no closure just grief”.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.