There is a large Gypsy/Traveller population in the UK which is divided into different groups, often referred to as Romanichals, Gypsies and Travellers. "Travellers" is the term usually used to refer to those originating from Scotland and Ireland.
Historically Gypsies have always been described in official discourse as a problem. The “Gypsy problem” is recorded in legislation such as the 1530 and 1554 Egyptians Act designed to stop immigration, deport Gypsies, or else face imprisonment or execution. The Poor Law of 1596 tried to prohibit nomadism and there are numerous pieces of legislation in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries targeted at Tynkers and Gypsies. In these pieces of legislation the stereotypes of Gypsies/Travellers are evident as various groups deemed socially undesirable are all lumped together e.g. vagabonds, rogues, vagrants, hawkers, people involved in palmistry, tent and caravan dwellers. The prevailing official representation was that of outsiders, outcasts, criminals and parasites.
It is not surprising, given the official view, that Gypsies/Travellers in the UK have been subjected to ongoing persecution, prosecution, and racial harassment. Down through the centuries Gypsies/Travellers in Britain experienced imprisonment, deportation and execution. However, as Mayall (1995) points out, the reality of Gypsy/Traveller relations with the majority population is more complex and ambiguous at local level, where the law was not always implemented or was interpreted leniently. Mayall and others point out that examples of good relations and tolerance are unlikely to have been recorded in official records so that the negative aspects, while true, may not reveal the full picture.
The earlier responses to Gypsies/Travellers in Britain were within the framework of addressing vagrancy. Later, with a greater shift to local government, Gypsy/Traveller issues began to be addressed in relation to issues such as accommodation, health and education.
In the U.K., local authorities have a responsibility to provide accommodation for Gypsies/Travellers. The 1960 Caravan Sites Act empowered local authorities to provide sites but few councils did so. The 1968 Caravan Sites Act made it a duty for local authorities to use those powers to provide "adequate accommodation" for Gypsies "residing in or resorting to their area." The term "Gypsies" was used to refer to "persons of nomadic habit of life whatever their race or origin . . ." but it excluded travelling showmen or people engaged in circuses.
But there is still a huge shortfall in site provision, with an estimated 40% of nomadic families without legal halting sites. Gypsies also face sanctions for camping within "designated areas" (i.e. areas where a local authority can demonstrate that it has already provided accommodation for Gypsies there). Gypsies and their support groups have challenged this, accusing the authorities of discriminatory policies in conflict with the 1976 Act. In 1994 the introduction of Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, ostensibly to counter 'New Age Travellers', added further difficulties for Travellers/Gypsies.
There have been some progressive developments in the area of education for Gypsies/Travellers in the United Kingdom, partly because of developments in the provision of education in the context of a multi-ethnic society, and partly because of specific positive active measures for Travellers/Gypsies. Nevertheless there remains a major challenge to improve continuity and progression for many Gypsies/Travellers within the schooling system.
Towards the end of 1997 the arrival in Dover of 234 Roma from the Czech Republic and Slovakia seeking political asylum in Britain provoked an outburst of anti-Gypsy racism. The Dover Express referred to them as "freeloaders and spongers". The Daily Mail headline ran "Ministers warn Slovak Gypsies, Keep Out". One commentator stated: "Britain's reaction of disdain and dismissal reflected an attitude so ingrained across the Continent that it hardly occurs to Europeans to consider it racism." (James Walsh, Time, Nov. 3, 1997)
A writer in The Observer stated: "Everyone, it seems, has decided the Gypsies are not refugees but economic migrants seeking to improve their lot. And the anger has been nationwide." It also quoted the chief executive of the Refugee Council, who said that the name Gypsies feeds people preconceived prejudices about their lifestyle (The Observer, 21 October, 1997).