Colin Turbett: Social work's role in strengthening Scotland's Gypsy Traveller community

Social worker and author Colin Turbett recaps a recent event aimed at bringing a number of parties together to better understand the issues facing the traveller community

BACK in March, some 70 representatives from across and beyond Scotland’s social work community came together in Glasgow’s Caledonian University for a busy afternoon to look at their roles in advancing the case of the country’s oldest and longest-neglected ethnic minority. 

The day was enhanced by the presence of a number of Gypsy Travellers who expertly lent their experiences and summed up some of the challenges they face. Chaired by journalist Lesley Riddoch, presentations were made by leaders in the field: activists Shamus and Roseanna McPhee, and Ken MacLennan, a social worker whose landmark Legal case (K MacLennan v GTEIP) secured legal recognition for the ethnic minority status of Scottish Gypsy Travellers.  

All three were involved with myself in compiling the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (Iriss) paper which, as a tool for moving matters forward, was the focus of the afternoon. Work on all this has centrally involved Trisha Hall of the Scottish Association of Social Workers (SASW) – SASW co-sponsored the event and continues to play a lead role in planning follow-up campaigning and activity.

Feedback from the event has shown that many present were hearing about the institutional racism faced by Gypsy Travellers for the first time and if that is taken back into their organisations it can only be helpful. 

Workshops looking at social work practice using case examples proved lively events, as did 'World Café' presentations when attendees could hear a range of organisations present their roles in working with Gypsy Travellers: the Scottish Human Rights Commission, MEECOP (the Minority Ethnic Carers of People Project) and Article 12 (a project involved with young Gypsy Travellers). 

One option taken up by many involved was a walkthrough of a series of exhibitions guided by Roseanna McPhee: a Holocaust Memorial Day satellite exhibition (Communities Together - Build a Bridge) on Roma and Scottish Gypsy Travellers; MECOPP's Moving Minds Exhibition; and David McPhee’s (of Perth and Kinross Council) World War exhibition.

Finally, the Insight writers formed a panel to answer questions and hear comments before folk singer Elena Piras wooed everyone with her beautiful rendition of Burns' 'Aye Fond Kiss' to end the day.

The event’s outcomes can only be measured by progress made in taking forward the issues raised. Feedback from the event has shown that many present were hearing about the institutional racism faced by Gypsy Travellers for the first time and if that is taken back into their organisations it can only be helpful. 

However, the 'great and the good' of Scotland’s social work community were largely absent despite invitation, so the organisers now plan to take the message out to them and continue this important discussion.  

Read more – Gypsy Traveller advocacy groups welcome new @scotgov guidance for local authorities

One unforeseen but important issue raised concerned the historic abuse Gypsy Travellers suffered when taken away from their families and culture in past times, and how this might now be highlighted.

Key points from the Insight included:

- Legal recognition in recent years has confirmed Scotland's Gypsy Travellers as a distinct ethnic minority with their own history, culture and customs. Their contribution to Scotland’s cultural diversity should be respected and valued.

- This history, up to present times, involves oppression, denial of identity and culture, and generally poor treatment by public sector bodies.

- State agencies including those involved in health, social care and social work, must incorporate culturally sensitive practice into their services to Scottish Gypsy Travellers.

- Human rights approaches are pivotal to efforts to provide culturally sensitive services.

The 'great and the good' of Scotland’s social work community were largely absent despite invitation, so the organisers now plan to take the message out to them and continue this important discussion.

- Local authorities and health partnerships should provide specialised Scottish Gypsy Traveller awareness training for social work staff who might encounter community members.

- Evidence shows that effective advocacy can provide a better experience of services by Scottish Gypsy Traveller users. Such services should be funded, promoted and the subject of common referral.

- Regulatory and inspection bodies (SSSC, Care Inspectorate, Audit Scotland) should include considerations of culturally sensitive practice in their scrutiny functions and findings.

- All agencies must consider how to engage participation from Scottish Gypsy Travellers, for example, staff and foster-carer recruitment, local and national policy makers, and local user forums.

- The social work profession, founded on a basis of anti-oppressive practice and social justice, should lead in the effort to improve public services for Scotland's Gypsy Travellers.
 
The IRISS guide 'Gypsy Travellers: Human Rights and Social Work’s Role' can be found here, or hard copies can be obtained from: IRISS, Brunswick House, 51 Wilson St., Glasgow G1 1UZ.

Picture courtesy of Tony Walmsley

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