Priti Patel has been accused of inciting racial hatred after branding Travellers “criminal and violent”, sparking demands for a public apology.
The home secretary also claimed a police officer had been “effectively murdered by a Traveller family” – apparently referring to the killing of PC Andrew Harper, who was dragged to his death behind a getaway car last August.
In fact, his teenage killers were cleared of murder and convicted of manslaughter. After the verdict, a senior police officer appealed for an end to the prejudice that made it acceptable to label the Travelling community “inherently criminal”.
Yet Ms Patel, in a Zoom meeting with Jewish leaders, said she was determined to stamp out the “criminality that takes place and that has happened through Traveller communities and unauthorised encampments”.
“We have seen criminality, violence taking place. We saw one particular Traveller criminal – I can't go into the details of this – but, basically, we saw a police officer that was effectively murdered through a robbery that took place by a Traveller family,” she said.
Simon Woolley, a former Downing Street race adviser, condemned the comments as “wrong, reckless and at worst dangerous, because this type of language easily stirs up racial hatred”.
And John McDonnell, the former Labour shadow Chancellor, said: “Abusing Travellers seems to be an acceptable form of racism in the Conservative party. Let me make it clear. It isn’t and the Home Secretary should apologise.”
The two are among more than 80 leading academics, race equality organisations, and politicians who have signed a letter to Ms Patel, urging her to retract her “hate speech”.
Coordinated by The Traveller Movement, the letter calls for her to take part in ‘unconscious bias training’ – something many Tory MPs are refusing to do – saying: “Clearly, it is desperately needed.”
The killing, and the teenagers’ lack of remorse, was condemned by leading members of the Traveller community, but immediately provoked fears that it was being exploited to stir up longstanding prejudices.
The three convicted are not Travellers - two are reportedly from English Romani backgrounds - and are not believed to be related.
Meanwhile, Ms Patel is preparing to unveil new anti-Traveller laws, with a proposal to criminalise unauthorised camps.
Lord Woolley, who was advisor to Theresa May’s Racial Disparity Unit, told The Independent that the crime rate among Travellers was “lower than the national average”.
“So to demonise a whole community as the Home Secretary has done is simply wrong, reckless and at worst dangerous, because this type of language easily stirs up racial hatred.
“This is a community which, along with the Roma community, is perhaps the most abused and demonised in society and which most needs respect and protection under the law.”
“I hope that, on reflection, the Home Secretary will see that this potentially stirs up racial hatred and will be humble enough to apologise.”
The protest letter reads: “We consider your comments during this meeting to constitute hate speech as it brands an entire ethnic group as criminal and violent.
“You have a duty as a public figure to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and encourage good relations between all groups.”
It adds: “We call for an immediate retraction of these comments, and a public apology made directly to all Traveller, Gypsy and Roma people.”
Among the signatories are MPs and peers in the all-party group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma and the groups Travellers Against Racism, Irish in Britain and the Gypsy Roma Traveller Social Work Association.
In the meeting earlier this month, with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Ms Patel argued crime on Traveller sites was “very different to Gypsy and Roma communities”, saying: “The two are absolutely separate.”
The Home Office has been approached to respond to the criticisms.