How Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups are a policy blindspot and why this needs to change – a Citizens Advice Blog

“…overlooked, under-served by policy, and under-researched.”

That’s how National Energy Action (NEA) described the lack of policy engagement with Gypsy, Roma, Traveller groups (GRT) and people who live nomadically. The consequences of this long standing policy blindspot are stark and ongoing.

The NEA’s report showed that GRT groups are more exposed to fuel poverty than the wider population. Early government support for energy bills was not effective in reaching GRT groups and this problem was addressed after advocacy from GRT charities.

At Citizens Advice we’ve been looking at the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and its impact on marginalised clients. Our series An Unequal Crisis has looked at racially minoritised groups, disabled people and impacts on mental health.

In our final blog of the series, I look at what our cost of living data shows for GRT groups. This includes an overview of the clients we see, fuel poverty and foodbank use. I’ll start by reflecting on a key challenge facing policy makers: the lack of robust data on GRT groups. This is as much a problem of exclusion and discrimination as it is of research methods.

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller

GRT is an umbrella term for Romany Gypsies, Scottish Gypsy/Travellers and Irish Travellers. GRT groups are very diverse. They have different histories, nationalities, ethnicities, and religious beliefs. But they often have a shared history of nomadic lifestyles. This means GRT groups face similar challenges even where people are living in static homes rather than sites. This includes systematic racial discrimination which contributes to poor outcomes for GRT groups.

GRT groups face some of the sharpest inequalities in income, health, housing, employment and education. Post exclusion and digital exclusion are also significant barriers for people to access support. Romany Gypsies, Scottish Gypsy /Travellers and Irish Travellers are protected by the Equality Act. This means authorities should consider how policy decisions impact them as part of the Public Sector Equality Duty.

But the example of early government energy bill support showed that’s not always the case. GRT groups are more exposed to fuel poverty because those who live on sites or roadsides don’t have a direct relationship with an energy supplier or may use alternative fuel sources like energy bottles.

This wasn’t factored into the Energy Bill Support Scheme launched in 2022 which was designed for people with a domestic electricity connection. The oversight was addressed by the Alternative Fuel Payment Scheme, and the Energy Support Scheme — Alternative Funding rolled out later in February 2023.

This delay in supporting those more exposed to rising energy prices was an example of policy making “as usual”. The failure to account for marginalised groups who face many overlapping disadvantages due to racial, gendered and ableist inequality means policy solutions can be partial by design.

Where’s the data?

A vital lesson from anti-racist work in the UK has been using demographic data to map the experiences of different groups. This allows us to understand the type and extent of disadvantages racially minoritised groups face in different areas like health, education, housing or the labour market. This data is used to advocate for policies that improve outcomes for racially minoritised groups. At least that’s the theory.

Being able to tell different kinds of stories in policy means we can advocate for different kinds of change.

There are a couple of barriers to having more robust data on GRT groups. It has not always been an option for people to identify as GRT in demographic data collection. This means it’s hard to track outcomes for GRT groups across policy areas. It’s only since 2011 that ‘Gypsy or Irish Traveller’ was an option in the census. ‘Roma’ was included as recently as 2021.

Despite advocacy by the Traveller Movement, the NHS is an ‘example of poor practice’. In the NHS there is no option for people to declare as GRT. The charity Families, Friends and Travellers (FFT) say the ‘starkest inequalities in healthcare access and outcomes’ are on issues such as life expectancy, disability and mental health. But a tailored approach to healthcare is more difficult to attain because of their ‘invisibility in mainstream datasets’.

“Romany and Traveller people face life expectancies between 10 and 25 years shorter than the general population.”

FFT also argue that GRT groups may be ‘reluctant to disclose ethnicity for fear of experiencing discrimination within services.’ This compounds already patchy data collection efforts. It means the experiences and outcomes of GRT groups are underreported in health, education, employment, and housing.

These are not only issues of data collection methods that are not inclusive. The slow pace of change to include GRT groups is itself a product of the long standing discrimination. The social exclusion experienced by GRT people in society is reproduced by exclusion from being counted as groups protected by the Equality Act.

What do we know?

At Citizens Advice our data is impacted by small sample sizes. We see fewer GRT clients than we might expect according to the 2021 census data. We’re also updating our ethnicity categories to reflect the ONS and include “Roma” for future data collection.

Since October 2022, we’ve seen just under 1,300 Gypsy and Irish Traveller clients versus 168,000 of all other racially minoritised clients. This makes it difficult to do comparisons that show robust disparities between white and racially minoritised groups as we’ve done elsewhere.

The data we do have supports the findings of the NEA, the Traveller Movement and Friends, Family and Travellers. I’ve also used Evidence Forms created by advisors at Local Citizens Advice that provide qualitative detail about our clients.

Irish or Gypsy Traveller people we’ve helped

  • Between Oct 22- Oct 23, we’ve seen more Irish or Gypsy Traveller women (68%) than men (32%).
  • 65% of Irish or Gypsy Traveller clients have a disability or long term health condition (65%). This is a higher rate of disability (physical, mental health or illnesses lasting or expected to last 12 months or more) when compared to 19.3% of people in England and 21% in Wales according to the 2021 census.
  • This is also a higher rate of disability when compared with all clients coming to Citizens Advice of whom 47% have a disability or long term health condition.
  • This trend is driven by people who require support to apply for the disability benefit Personal Independence Payment (PIP) — the top issue for all our clients. Irish or Gypsy Travellers also come to us for this issue more than the rest of our clients (26% vs 20%).
  • Accessing Food banks is the second most common advice issue for Gypsy and Irish Travellers. Evidence Forms show that Gypsy and Irish Traveller clients are spending more of their income on rising fuel costs and less on food which is driving food bank use.
  • Charitable support is most commonly sought by Gypsy or Irish Traveller women (76%), of which (43%) are lone parent households.
  • The third issue Gypsy and Irish Traveller clients come to Citizens Advice about is fuel related. We see clients struggling with the increased cost of gas and electricity on sites, lack of access to government support, energy arrears and the need for fuel vouchers.
  • Schemes like the Household Support Fund which are meant to be for vulnerable families dealing with the cost-of-living crisis are inaccessible to those without a fixed address like many GRT people.

What next?

At Citizens Advice we’ve been sounding the alarm about how this winter might be worse than the one just gone by. The energy price cap is still 60% higher than winter 2021. With no more direct government support people can expect to pay the same, if not more, for their energy this winter.

For GRT groups unable to access support and struggling with the increased cost of living, the situation is more challenging. One thing which should be addressed immediately is ensuring support designed for those struggling with the cost of living is accessible to people without a fixed address or who are digitally excluded.

In the longer term, data collection needs to improve in order to bolster the ability of government, regulators and local authorities to understand and address the disparities. Improved data can and should lead to the provision of more targeted and specialist support for GRT groups.

Editor’s Note

This blog is shared by kind permission of Dr Nadya Ali, Senior Policy & EDI Officer, Citizens Advice.