Fighting financial exclusion in the Gypsy and Traveller community
Gypsies and Travellers in Britain are already marginalised, but face further problems when it comes to obtaining home and car insurance, or even banking access. The FT takes a rare inside look at the Traveller community to see how it is fighting to overcome financial exclusion and what the problem says about our financial institutions and society more generally
Produced, directed and filmed by Petros Gioumpasis. Reporting by Robert Wright. Additional footage by Reuters and Getty Images
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They tried to hide us. They put banks up around the sites, high fences around us. They're excluding us from society, not including us. We're the forgotten people.
This Gypsy and Traveller's site is one of hundreds across the UK. It's wedged next to a recycling plant and a fire brigade training school that sometimes smothers it in smoke. But for the people who live here, the site is crucial to their identity.
Bricks and mortar is no good to a Traveller. When we're living in houses we're locked in like we're a bird in a cage.
But Gipsies and Travellers face another constraint, financial exclusion. An address here can make it extraordinarily difficult to get home insurance, car insurance, or even a bank account. And that means some of the most marginalised people in Britain face higher risks and higher costs and have less chance of living a stable, prosperous life. In this film, we're going to look at how Gipsies and Travellers are fighting to overcome these issues and what the problem reveals about our financial institutions and our society.
The next plot up, after this one, that's my sister-in-law.
So it's, basically, we've got a lot of family around here. And it's a beautiful thing to have family around you.
Terry Green is one of tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of people in England who call themselves Gipsies or Travellers. He spent 28 years trying to move out of his council house to somewhere like this site near Maresfield in East Sussex.
We used to live in a lay-by there before that site was built. For three year we lived in that lay-by. And then we moved back off, and I went travelling.
And then we came back to this site again. And then the council came and told us that we couldn't live together as a family unit. And they give us an ultimatum that I get off or both of us get off.
And they moved us off of there. They gave us a house. And for 28 years, I've been... I was trying to get out of that house. I just didn't want to live there at all.
Yet, after Green won his battle to find a pitch in a caravan site he found himself embroiled in a new struggle. Green's motor insurance provider cancelled his cover as soon as he switched his address to a Gypsy site.
I phoned 54 insurance companies. And they turned me down flat because when they said, where do you live, the address... when I said a caravan site, no. No. No. And that's all I had, 54 times. We can't get insurance on our caravans. We can't get our home contents insurance. We can't get nothing. They sent a letter saying we cancelled your insurance because you didn't tell us the truth, where you lived. I said, but I told you it was a caravan site. But you didn't tell us it was a Gypsy site.
This kind of discrimination makes it difficult to live and work.
The thing is, when you're a travelling man you're brought up not to just do one thing. You've got to learn more than one job, so you could be doing roofing, tree work, bricking, tarmacking. You've got to learn to put your hands around everything. It's not just one thing in life because, every day, everything's getting harder. Unless you've got a solid performance job, that's it. And that's why...
That's why we basically want the kids to get a good education, a good education, because our way of life is diminishing.
20 years ago, a similar problem, very hard for housing association tenants to get contents insurance for their homes. They were routinely being told, we don't provide. We don't provide.
The difference being there were 4mn of them. So, eventually, the insurers thought, there's a market here. We should devise a specialist product. And some of the smaller groups went into that market. And it's now quite successfully served.
The problem for Gypsy Travellers is that, as a group, they're not as large. And, also, they're very marginalised in society. I would love it for a fintech company to come along and champion their rights and say, yes, these people are just as entitled to access financial products and insurance as anyone else. And the way that they live their lives shouldn't be a factor in that.
Accounts like Green's are very familiar to Emma Nuttall of Friends, Families, and Travellers, a group that works against discrimination.
It's really, on every Gypsies and Travellers face severe social exclusion. Gipsies and Travellers have the highest infant mortality rates, the lowest life expectancy, the lowest educational attainment out of any groups in the UK.
And financial exclusion is another area that, yes, Gipsies and Travellers do face. A lot of our clients are homeless Gipsies, nomadic Gipsies and Travellers because of the shortage of authorised sites to stop on. So they don't have a fixed address. They're statutorily homeless. And it does present difficulties, getting bank accounts.
A client of ours went into an insurance broker on the high street to get insurance for the caravan that she lived in. And she had illiteracy issues, so the insurance broker filled out the form for her. And there was a question on the form which said do you live on a Gypsy site? Well, the broker didn't realise that she was a Traveller and never asked the question. I mean, that is an illegal, discriminatory question. But, so, the client didn't know that the question was even on the form.
And later down the line, she had a burglary, and she went to the insurance company to pay out. And they refused her. So, and we did actually refer the case to the financial ombudsman, and she won the case. And she got paid.
In general, financial inclusion is a policy area where there's actually a great deal of political consensus. It's a good thing. And there's a great deal of appetite to do more of it for fairly obvious reasons, right? On the Labour side, they see it as an issue of social justice, equality of opportunity. On the Conservative side they feel that people getting that first step on the financial ladder is an important part of people becoming Conservative.
The thing that UK politics struggles to process, when they're thinking about how to help people from a Gypsy, Roma, or Traveller background is that we have this, in some ways, quite liberal approach of, look, if you have... whatever you want to do, once you've closed the door of your house, fine, right, provided that you buy into the central British thing of having your house with a door that you close behind you. And something, I think, about the nomadic lifestyle breaks that British assumption about what liberal integration looks like. And I think that's, not just in finance, but in general, one of the reasons why people from a Gypsy, Roma, or Traveller background are so poorly served in the UK.
The problems affect groups that have long been among the most marginalised in society, in Britain and Europe, more generally, for centuries. In mainland Europe, the persecution reached its nadir in the Nazis killing of hundreds of thousands of Roma, as they're often called in Europe, during the Holocaust.
Brian Belton, an academic and writer of Romany Gypsy descent, tries to unpick what he says is a very complex picture of labels and identity among Gipsies and Travellers in the UK and Ireland. Gipsies, whose name is short for Egyptian, but whose origin is uncertain, first appeared in the historical record around 1500, Belton says. Irish Travellers are a more recent addition. Some families arrived as recently as the 1970s to build motorways and ended up travelling because of the challenges of finding housing.
They came along, first of all, with the building of the canals, probably before that, but, also, the East London Docks were basically built by Irish labour. Then there was the railways and the roads. So these waves of Irish immigration into this country brought with them what you would call a Traveller population. And some of them became Travellers because of the access to housing. The '60s and '70s was pretty terrible.
But, Belton goes on, some discrimination takes the form of generalised prejudice against anyone who lives in a caravan. There was particular suffering during the coronavirus pandemic, he says.
When the pandemic come around, the site owners, not all of them, but appreciable numbers of them started to enforce the holiday rent rules and were throwing these people off the sites for three months. So you have to... something within the bylaws, so you can't be there for three months of the year. You see, so they're a group of people that were given a problem because of the way they... not necessarily chosen to live. Some of them have, but some of them, they've been obliged to live in this way.
There are separate stereotypes and prejudices, according to Belton, concerning Gipsies, as an ethnic group.
Gipsies are expected to be attracted to work laying tarmac, the black stuff, and to be naturally gifted boxers. Belton is proud of his Gypsy heritage, but he doesn't see any reason why he should desert his comfortable terraced house for a caravan.
I get called a traitor because I don't live in a caravan, that I should have... it is my blood to be nomadic. And my argument is, well, there's other ways of being nomadic than being around the country. I'm a Gypsy with a library. I'm a Gypsy with a PhD. I'm a Gypsy who went to university.
Now, that doesn't get associated. I don't fit the nice raggle-taggle Gypsy mode. And that's the same sort of myth, it's a similar myth, that I've got to live in a caravan. Most Gipsies in Europe do not live in caravans.
The bottom line, he says, is that Gipsies, Travellers, and anyone living a nomadic life are treated as outsiders.
Britain is still a colonial society. So what we do is we portray people as them and us. They become the pariahs. They become the ones who are to blame, that lower group.
It's happened in other societies, with other groups of people. It's a caste system, in a way. And then we preen that, as Gipsies, say, yes, that's correct. We're not like you.
But even playing a bit more by mainstream society's rules doesn't necessarily resolve all the financial issues facing Gipsies and Travellers.
Most of the people on here are Gipsies, but there's a few Travellers on, as well.
At the site where he lives, on the edge of Darlington, in northeast England, Billy Welch, one of the community's best-known figures, explains why so many Gipsies end up self-employed.
The reason why we're all self-employed is because nobody will employ us. One of my sons has just finished college, totally out of the norm. And he went and he passed with flying colours.
And then he had to do a year's work experience. And so he had to be employed by a another... a qualified plumber or a company for a year or two, so he got work experience, like being an apprentice. And he couldn't get... nobody would employ him. Absolutely nobody, at all, would employ him.
He says tensions between Gipsies and settled communities, including problems over the setting up of caravan sites, often stem from mutual misunderstanding. Unusually, at the site in Darlington, the local council doesn't run the facility directly, but has contracted the work out to Welch. He says such arrangements have an important role to play in improving the lot of Gypsy and Travellers communities.
Sometimes people from the settler community can misunderstand us or vice versa. We can misunderstand them, do you know what I mean? And it causes... sometimes it can cause friction.
But Darlington County Council understand that, and they understand by working with the Gipsies and Travellers, like myself, and co-ordinating things, and running things by me. They'll say, Billy, we've got this idea. And what do you think of this? I'll say, yes, it's a good idea, but don't do it maybe in that direction. Do it this way. Tweak it a little bit.
Do it, and it will work better. Do you know what I mean? Brilliant. By working with the Gipsies and Travellers, it's worked well.
Yet, the residents of sites elsewhere, like this one in Bow, in east London, still believe they're being shut out of the system and feel a deep sense of injustice.
Marian Mahoney, a Traveller living here, can't understand why it's impossible for her to insure the contents of the chalet and fixed caravan she inhabits here.
They don't find a caravan or a static home as safe as what they would wood, bricks and mortar. And some people do find it very difficult to get their home insurance. Even insurance for your funeral, they find it very bad.
A lot of Travellers just don't bother with funeral plans and things like that because even then the funeral directors will say to you, well, you might move away. They should give me an ultimatum, if they do move away, that it'll always be there for them, if they want to do that. Almost anything in life that's - hire purchase, very, very hard to get hire purchase. And very, very hard to get anything, a loan or anything like that, very, very hard.
The Association of British Insurers, the industry's trade body, insists that its members don't discriminate on the basis of customers' ethnicity. They said: "One of the elements insurers need to accurately assess risk when considering cover is a postcode, as this provides a range of information about the area, from flood risk to the volume of road traffic accidents." There were products available for people who couldn't provide a postcode, they went on. "We'd encourage anyone looking for such cover to contact an insurance broker who may be able to help, they said. "Insurers will always abide by the Equality Act," they added.
On a data level any insurer has to price risk. Now, if there's no data available on the risk of insuring people in a particular area or on a Gypsy Traveller site, one insurer pulls out of the market. Another does. That data is getting thinner and thinner.
So you can see why it's convenient for them to say, well, we can't price this risk. Therefore, we can't provide cover to this group who could be high risk. And maybe it's not a market that they feel they need to be in.
I would throw down the gauntlet to the insurance industry and say, you've seen the film. Show us that you're not discriminating against this group of people. All of the piecemeal excuses that you've given for not providing cover for certain postcodes, saying that there's a data blackout, you can't price the risk, invent a product. Team up with a fintech.
Look at the innovation that's going on in the market elsewhere. Nothing is impossible. Show that this is a problem that you care about solving, rather than just turning customers away.
There is very little thought and policy attention given, outside the community itself, to how you might facilitate better access to finance, to schools, to what have you, while still facilitating people's willingness to live as they wish. When, as a government, you want insurance companies or, indeed, any financial system to do something that they do not want to do because they think it is financially risky, that is where you should use your capacity, as the lender of last resort, to incentivise and change the calculation, that it's much better to create the conditions where an insurance company feels relaxed and comfortable with providing insurance to people from a Gypsy, Roma, or Traveller background than it is to have a situation in which the government goes, well, we don't care if you're comfortable with doing it, we're going to force you into doing it anyway.
Warren Lee, a support worker for London Gipsies and Travellers, says there ought to be tighter regulation of the financial services industry to alleviate the problems.
Yes, there needs to be regulation. But, also, there needs to be legislation or internal pressure, as well, from within these organisations, from people within these organisations, to say, this isn't right, what we're doing. We're not... there's a family living in Greenwich that have no insurance on their entire home or any of their cars, and we're not going to give it to them. And neither will the next company, or neither will the next company.
So there needs to be something coming from within that sector to put a check on it. There's only so much that regulation, auditing, and stuff can find. Really. we need the people that work within the financial sector to say, not on my watch.
One of the few recent victories for Gipsies and Travellers was a result of whistleblowing, Lee points out. A worker at Pontins, an operator of holiday camps, told the media that the company used a list of names associated with the Traveller community as the basis for refusing some bookings. But people at the site in Bow see the challenges of getting insurance as part of a wider pattern, that everything is made a bit more complicated and a bit more expensive for Gipsies and Travellers. Frances Jones, one of Marian's neighbours, says her family had little difficulty getting traders insurance for the vehicles used in her partner's scrap metal business, until they changed their address from a normal house to the Bow Traveller site.
I went to renew it, and that's when I got told, sorry, we can't do your insurance. The insurance goes up, literally, £1,000 a year when they realise you live in a caravan site. So you won't afford it, to pay for it. I face a lot because we're trying to work proper, legalise ourselves.
And when we're trying to legalise ourself, we get bounced off. It feels like they're downgrading you because you're trying to be legal. If you get... if you you try and put yourself on insurance for driving a motor with scrap, you have to have a scrap licence.
You have to go through the government to get that. Then you have to go through the government and prove that you're doing this. Then, ultimately, you have to tax register yourself, to just get insurance.
Her biggest worry, though, is for the next generation.
They won't be able to get married. They won't be able to get married, they won't get an extra pitch. They won't get insurance on their car.
But when they come 17 and pass the driving test, which a Traveller girl and boy does, they're getting a car. They can't get in the car. They've got a car sitting there and a driving licence. Can't get no insurance. So they're stuck. It's a very hard situation. I've been through it.
This issue of financial exclusion, it's not something that the government should take its eye off, especially in the cost-of-living crisis. People who are on low incomes are digitally excluded, as well as financially excluded. And this is becoming more and more of a problem, as our lives move online.
You need to have money to have a laptop, a smartphone, a broadband connection, phone credit. The benefit system is digital first. Yet, this really isn't being recognised enough in the corridors of power. And for the poorest, financial literacy, knowing about the choices that you have with your money is certainly a big part of the issue, but not having enough money is probably a bigger problem.
There is little dispute that the UK's Gipsies and Travellers face a hard time obtaining a whole range of financial services. They have unusual difficulty getting cars insured. They seldom have cover for their home contents. Simple products to spread the costs of purchases are often out of reach.
The community is organising to curb abuses, but the financial services industry continues to insist there is no fundamental problem and that they can't help it if Gipsies and Travellers are a poor financial risk. That has left people like Marian Mahoney and Frances Jones worried. They fear that any improvement for the next generation may be far more incremental than the scale of the problem demands.