By Adela Suliman
LONDON - Britain is "failing" its itinerant traveller communities by not providing them with safe places to live, lawmakers and charities said on Tuesday.
Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, recognised as distinct ethnic groups under British law, are traditionally nomadic, but campaigners say a lack of spaces for them to camp means many are effectively homeless.
They are among the lowest achieving ethnic groups in schools and also have low life expectancy. About two-thirds report bad health linked to poor living conditions, the National Inclusion Health Board found in 2016.
"We are failing travellers," lawmaker Andrew Selous of the ruling Conservative party told parliament during a debate.
"Government ministers and the officials responsible for this policy area should be hanging their heads in shame."
A shortage of sites is forcing travellers to set up caravans on unauthorised sites and public land, said Sarah Mann, director of Friends, Families and Travellers, a charity that works to end discrimination.
"Many traditional stopping places and green lanes where Gypsy and traveller families have stopped for centuries have systematically been closed off, forcing Gypsy and traveller families to stop in public spaces," Mann told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Everyone needs a place to live and local authorities must begin to allocate land."
Lawmakers called during the debate for a change of government policy that would address both the needs of travellers and settled communities.
"We should always deal with these issues with humanity, with decency and with respect but we also need to see equality under the law," said Selous.
In June, the government concluded a consultation into the effectiveness of powers for dealing with unauthorised encampments by travelling communities.
"We have received a substantial response, with over 2,000 representations, which signals how strongly people feel about this issue," said the minister for housing, Kit Malthouse, in parliament on Tuesday.
"We remain committed to working with the Home Office (interior ministry) and the Ministry of Justice to consider all representations before deciding on the way forward."
An annual government count found that overall, 84 percent of traveller caravans in England were on authorised land and 16 percent were on unauthorised land in 2017 - the same as the 2016 count.