A EURO MP who was dragged from Dale Farm by bailiffs has spoken about why he chose to make a public stand that he knew would make him widely unpopular.
Richard Howitt, the Labour Member of the European Parliament for the East of England, sparked controversy in recent weeks with his support for the Dale Farm Travellers and by calling for a mediated solution rather than forced eviction.
His battle with Basildon Council took a dramatic turn with his forced ejection by security staff from a media area next to the site, which he says prevented him from undertaking media interviews critical of the Council.
With the site clearance now almost complete, the Enquirer caught up with the Essex Euro MP to see if he had any regrets about his role in the Dale Farm saga.
“What I regret is that Basildon Council has spent £20million of tax payers money, been shown by successive Court cases to have badly mismanaged the situation all along, but set its face against a mediated solution which could have solved the problem much earlier without the cost and disruption we all witnessed last week,” Mr Howitt said.
“It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to not say anything at all, on an issue which I accept is unpopular with some, but I could see that a violent confrontation was looming and believed the responsible thing to do was to do everything I could as a local, publicly-elected representative to find a better way.
“I offered to mediate and actually managed to secure an alternative site that would have been acceptable to the Dale Farm Travellers, and paid for by a Government quango at no cost to Basildon Council.
“But the Council’s rejection of this option seemed to confirm to me that the Travellers were right when they said they were sincere in seeking alternative sites but it was the Council that simply wanted to drive them over the district boundary.
“I have never condoned illegality throughout the process and consistently called for all sides to obey the rule of law. However, Basildon Council is also happy to sell-off seven green spaces for private housing development because they have got themselves in to a financial mess over their new sports village, but not allow one green space for Travellers.
“That to me looks like discrimination.”
What about his forced ejection from the media compound, images of which were broadcast across the country on rolling news bulletins?
“It’s my opinion that this was unreasonable and unacceptable. I’ve never seen an example of Council officers undertaking what appeared to be a nakedly partisan and politicised act, and one that is clearly disrespectful of an elected representative of more than 20 years’ standing.
“I had permission from Essex Police to be on site and had done everything that I could to notify the council of my presence. The Council told me I could enter if I had an invitation, and I had such an invitation from the BBC. I note that Conservative politicians had the run of the media compound throughout the day, but when I turned up I was physically manhandled off the site. It was appaling.”
Mr Howitt went on to express his concerns about the future for Travellers in the East of England.
“One of the saddest aspects of this whole episode is the impression that the pictures coming out of Wednesday and Thursday’s events at Dale Farm represent Basildon, Essex or Britain. As a Euro MP I want to represent a Britain which is a tolerant and humane society, and am deeply saddened that the actions of the Council challenge that perception not just locally but to my colleagues in Europe and across the world.”