AS jokes go, it was pretty weak in the first place.

A text message, allegedly sent from Cllr Matthew Dean’s phone, suggested that Travellers had stolen the bench on which Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found poisoned back in March, because “they previously had put a tent over it”. As everyone now knows, the bench had been covered, and then removed, by the security forces.

One group who definitely weren’t amused by this poorly-timed attempt at humour was the local Traveller community.

“It’s racist,” one of them contacted me to say.

“It might be funny to say Gypsies stole the bench, but it’s not funny when Gypsies get the blame for every little thing. I’m not saying everyone’s an angel, but we are not always to blame.”

What followed was a thought-provoking conversation.

Let me stress that my reader wasn’t calling the sender of the text deliberately racist.

He was highlighting a wider problem to do with the unthinking way many of us use language. Even me!

Anxious to avoid causing offence at the outset, I asked him: “Do you find the term Gypsy or Traveller preferable?”

“To be honest with you, my name’s David,” came the reply.

That brought me up short, and really made me think about how the labels we use so casually and so naturally can reinforce stereotypes and prejudices when we should be treating people as individuals.

David, 54, owns property and has had difficulty with Wiltshire Council’s planners.

“I have put in planning applications and it’s like ‘the Gypsies want this’, inviting racism before they start,” he told me.

Terms that were once commonly used considered to describe Pakistanis or black people are now totally unacceptable, he pointed out.

“I don’t believe in this day and age they can call me Gypsy. It’s the term they use, and it’s how they are using it.

“They wouldn’t dare say a Muslim family want to put up an extension, yet they still find it perfectly normal to say in a public forum that I am a Gypsy. And nobody bothers about it. This kind of racism is out there all the time.”

David pointed out that he had uncles and cousins who fought in the war and won medals, yet while the Holocaust is still ever-present in the media, there is relatively little fuss made about the fact that the Nazis exterminated 200,000 Roma.

Nowadays, he said, the authorities are constantly making it harder for Travellers to continue their own way of life.

They do it by deliberately letting Traveller sites become run down and by failing to provide enough spaces.

“Their attitude is that you have to be grateful to be living in squalor,” he claimed. They also do it by hounding them from place to place. “They are forcing these families to move out of desperation because there’s nowhere else for them to go.”

Wiltshire Council has closed its only transit site in the county – next to Oak Tree Field at Odstock. It says it intends to create three temporary ‘emergency stopping places’ on publicly-owned land, but has yet to announce where they will be.

Meanwhile it is aiming to sell off or transfer ownership of its permanent Traveller sites in Salisbury, at Dairy House Bridge and Oak Tree Field, and the transit site. It admits they need refurbishing, but says it can’t afford the work.

In some counties, sites are managed by housing associations. Others are owned by private landlords.

“The main problem,” according to the Travellers’ Times website, “is that there are not enough sites, regardless of who runs them.”

I raised the issue with David of the mess left behind in some instances after Travellers move on from parks and public spaces, and his reply was blunt: “The council has not made the provision it should have done.

“If you treat people like animals, they’ll behave like animals. In Wiltshire, where ‘everybody matters’, they’re inflaming racism. It’s getting the Tories votes. They need us to be bogeymen. They say they want us to integrate with society, but if you are shunned and don’t get a level footing, where do you start?

“It’s as if you can be a Gypsy in name only. That’s the eradication of a race.”

It’s not a point of view that you’ll see often in the mainstream press, but I thought it worth sharing with you.