Homelessness minister apologises for 'racist' comments about rough sleepers

Posted On: 
21st June 2019

Homelessness minister Heather Wheeler has been forced to apologise for making "racist" remarks about rough sleepers.

Heather Wheeler made the remarks before she became a housing minister
UK House of Commons

The South Derbyshire MP said she was sorry for describing homless people in her constituency as "old tinkers" in a series of emails sent before she joined the Government.

In October 2017, Ms Wheeler was found to have dismissed an offer of help from a local community foodbank, describing rough sleepers in her constituency as "the traditional type, old tinkers, knife-cutters wandering through".

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The term "tinker" is considered offensive to members of the Travelling and Gypsy communities.

Michelle Gavin, from leading charity Friends, Families and Travellers said Ms Wheeler's use of the term was "disgraceful".

"The word 'tinker' is a racist term used to put down Irish Travellers. To think that a Government minister is using this language is disgraceful," she said.

"Irish Traveller children should not have grown up in a society where Government ministers show such contempt for their culture, heritage and identity."

Meanwhile, shadow housing minister Alex Cunningham blasted Ms Wheeler for her "shocking and shallow views".

He added: “Government ministers must understand the problems of homelessness in order to fix them, and they’re failing.”

Ms Wheeler said: "I'd like to offer a sincere and heartfelt apology for my use of inappropriate language.

"This was an error of judgement on my part, and is not at all representative of the great cultural contribution and rich heritage that the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities make to this country."

The emails sent by the then-backbench Tory MP were unearthed by an ITV documentary team examining discrepancies in official rough sleeping figures in England.

A spokesperson for Theresa May, said: "It is not language the Prime Minister would ever use and she has rightly apologised."

Ms Wheeler has promised to resign from her role as a housing minister if she fails to reduce rough sleeping by 50% over five years.

In 2018, her own South Derbyshire constituency reported zero rough sleepers.

But the programme, set to air next month, raised concerns that councils were deliberately under-reporting homelessness stats after they spoke to one man who had been living rough in the area for more than three decades.