Leeds GATE

Working to improve the quality of life for Gypsies and Travellers

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Living without identity – Being trapped out of the system

Helen Jones's picture
By Helen Jones |  March 8, 2013 |

One big challenge we consistently find at Leeds GATE is just how hard the ‘system’ makes it for many Gypsies and Travellers to complete important forms and documents.  I am not talking about being able to read and write, though that is of course a big barrier for some. Rather, it is the demand to provide information and proof that presents a problem. Worse, there is the assumption that this is straightforward which means there is little room to account for those unable to meet these demands.

The big challenge is being ‘trapped out of the system’, where the difficulty in obtaining one piece of information or proof makes it so much harder to get another.  Need proof of ID for a passport?  Send in a driving licence.  Haven’t got a driving licence?  Get one using your passport.  Haven’t got either of these?  Send us a birth certificate.  Haven’t got one?  Get a new one printed using your passport or driving licence details.  Haven’t got that then give us...And so on...

It is of course not just Gypsies and Travellers who have to answer these questions or indeed have difficulties with them. However some elements can be disproportionately more problematic. Take the example of home address. It is usually one of the first questions asked on any application for passport, driving licence or benefits.  Not only do you usually need to provide a permanent one but proof that this is valid.  I’m sure I don’t need to point out how tough it can be getting official letters, from the Council, utilities or Government say, if you are roadside, changing addresses or using care of addresses.

What makes things worse is the limited opportunity to explain difficulties obtaining proof of address or to request flexibility. On most official forms, there is rarely scope to put ‘all the bills are in my former partner’s name or ‘I am on the same plot but the Council only writes to my Mum’ or ‘I can prove my old address but I had to leave there’ as may better reflect the reality. Without an ability to account for this so many are either prevented from, or at least encounter a much longer and more complicated process, in accessing important things like passports and licences, which we are all entitled to.

It is a similar story when engaging with Government or Council agencies by phone or email. The same problem emerges, stemming from the mistaken assumption that these questions and demands are simple for all. ‘Of course you know your previous address’ or ‘who doesn’t have a copy of their birth certificate?’ and ‘everyone knows their National Insurance number’ representing the kind of comments heard far too often.  With this attitude, seen at both the very top by those writing the rules and at the frontline advice centres, it is unsurprising that so many members encounter the frustrations they do.

Sadly there are no obvious or immediate solutions. We cannot of course expect a relaxation of general rules in say passport applications because we ask nicely. Or even by asking less nicely. What we can expect however, is a better appreciation of the fact that some demands, such as relating to addresses or personal information are not so straightforward for all to provide. There consequently needs to be a greater capacity to provide explanation and alternative means to meet these. Challenging assumptions, about how easy the process of obtaining and proving identity is, would be a great place to start.

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