Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 19 May 2016
Committee on Housing and Homelessness
I remind witnesses and colleagues that their mobile phones should be turned off or put on flight mode please. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
The opening statement that the witnesses have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I welcome Ms Ronnie Fay, Ms Mary Brigid McCann, Ms Missie Collins and Mr. Eamonn McCann, representatives of Pavee Point, and thank them for their attendance. We have received their opening submission, which has been circulated to colleagues. I invite them to address the meeting and then I am sure colleagues will have a number of questions for them.
Ms Ronnie Fay:
Pavee Point is delighted to have the opportunity to make a presentation to the committee, and we welcome the fact that the accommodation needs of Travellers and Roma are included in the overall discussions on the housing crisis. Today we focus explicitly on Traveller accommodation. However, we encourage the committee to examine the housing needs of the Roma community at a later stage in its deliberations.
Travellers experience marginalisation, discrimination and racism on the basis of their ethnicity at individual and institutional levels. Local authorities have continuously failed to provide permanent, safe and adequate Traveller-specific accommodation, which they are responsible for. Paradoxically, local authorities use health and safety issues as a basis for ongoing Traveller evictions. Subsequent to the tragic fire on a Traveller site in Carrickmines in 2015, a national fire safety audit of Traveller accommodation was rolled out. Even though we received an assurance that the audits would not result in forced evictions, a number of evictions have taken place throughout the country, leaving families homeless or forcing people to stay at the homes and bays of extended family members.
The lack of prioritisation and political will is illustrated in the cuts to the Traveller accommodation budget. Between 2008 and 2013, the Traveller accommodation budget was cut from €40 million to €4 million. This is a staggering 90%. Even more shockingly, there was an underspend of 36% of the allocated Traveller accommodation budgets by local authorities.
The Government's statistics obscure the reality of homelessness and accommodation conditions within the Traveller community. The term "sharing" when used with reference to houses and halting bays is a euphemism for chronic overcrowding. The term "basic service," when used with reference to bays, refers to sites that are often flooded and rat-infested and lack sufficient facilities. The term "unauthorised site" refers to Travellers who are forced to live at the roadside due to a lack of access to private rented accommodation, social housing and Traveller-specific accommodation. These Travellers are, in effect, homeless, but they are excluded from Government statistics on homelessness. This is wholly unacceptable. Travellers who are homeless need to be categorised accordingly and their housing and accommodation needs must be met in a timely manner.
According to the 2013 report of the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee, 361 Traveller families lived on "unauthorised sites," 188 Traveller families lived on "basic service" bays, 182 families shared permanent halting sites, 17 families shared basic service bays or transient halting sites, and 663 Traveller families shared houses. This means that roughly 5,500, or 18.6%, of the Traveller population are in need of proper accommodation provision. If one uses the census 2011 figures, this would be the equivalent of 853,415 of the general population in need of housing, yet the Traveller accommodation situation has not been regarded as a housing crisis.
Recently there has been a significant decrease in the number of Traveller families living in private rented accommodation. Between 2013 and 2015, 237 Traveller families left private rented accommodation. This figure correlates with an increase of 200 Traveller families sharing houses and an increase of 173 families on unauthorised sites. It is clear that Traveller families are responding to the accommodation crisis by relocating to sites that are already overcrowded, unsafe and uninhabitable.
In order to address these issues, we recommend the establishment of a statutory Traveller agency with powers to approve and enforce local authority five-year accommodation plans; the introduction of a monitoring and evaluation framework with associated sanctions, ensuring full expenditure of funds allocated to local authorities for Traveller-specific accommodation; an increased provision and appropriate resourcing of accessible, suitable and culturally appropriate accommodation for Travellers and Roma; a reinstatement of the Traveller accommodation budget to 2008 levels, at a minimum of €40 million; a moratorium on evictions and on the use of the Housing (Miscellaneous) Provisions Act 2002 until the accommodation needs of all Travellers on the housing list have been met; the abandonment of the use of the terms "sharing," "basic" services, and "unauthorised sites" in order to provide an accurate reflection of the housing and accommodation crisis; and the inclusion of Travellers in Government statistics on homelessness.
We thank the committee for its attention and the opportunity to discuss these matters further.
I thank Ms Fay very much for her opening statement. I am going to take a number of questions and she can then decide the order in which she wishes to answer them. The first question will be from me. The figures she quoted were based on Pavee Point's report of 2013. Will she provide an overview of how matters stand now? She may not have the exact figures but perhaps she could outline the trend. She made the point that the figures quoted represented 5,500 people, or 18%. What is the current position?
I welcome our speakers. I tabled a parliamentary question on funding for Travellers and I received a reply yesterday which may be of assistance. It indicates that the allocation for 2016 is €5.5 million, which is an increase of €1.2 million on the 2015 allocation. Obviously, that is a positive development. I requested details for each local authority from 2013 onward so the figures are up to date. The reply indicates that a significant number of counties do not seem to have applied for funding, which is a matter of concern. If we have a national plan for assisting in Traveller accommodation, then I presume individual counties must have plans and they would obviously place a demand on the Exchequer each year. If that is not happening despite the fact that there are Travellers within each of those communities, then it is a serious matter.
I apologise for the interference from my phone. Those present will understand why I have it with me. However, that is not the call I was expecting. I notice people are laughing. It is no laughing matter.
It appears that counties are not applying. We need to get the facts. It may not be a matter for us but I am of the view that the committee should insist that someone should have oversight in respect of every county with a plan. It may not be a matter for this committee, given the limited time available. However, it is not acceptable that Traveller accommodation needs are not being met at all in some counties despite the fact that there is an obligation to make provision for those needs.
I wish to address another issue raised by the deputation. I live in County Louth. I was a member of Louth County Council in the past but I am not now. When the county council in Louth moved to evict Travellers from an illegal site, no prior notice was given and there was no opportunity to intervene and make the point the deputation has made. I fully support the point that there should be no evictions unless and until there is a proper acceptable place for people to go. That is key. I would make one proviso, however. The local authority had to spend approximately €100,000 on the removal of waste from the site in question in Dundalk. That is a major cost. I have to acknowledge that this is an issue the council should not have to deal with. There is an issue here as well, but I am not lecturing or preaching. I support what the representatives from Pavee Point said. There should be no evictions unless we have a better place to put people. That is critical. I believe this would create security of tenure, even if the places are not up to standard, and obviously these places are not. In any event, we should not move people until we have somewhere decent for them to go. This is a fundamental human rights issue and we must address it. No local authority should move against Travellers without notifying all elected representatives in the area in advance in order that we might have an opportunity to bring things to the notice of the authority or to make representations.
They are human beings. There are children involved and they have basic human rights.
I thank Ms Fay for her presentation. Following on from what the Chairman said, do the witnesses have figures on the accommodation needs and wishes of the Traveller community? Are they looking at living on sites or in houses? Do we know exactly what the figures are for each type of accommodation?
Ms. Fay mentioned the statutory Traveller agency. Could she elaborate on who she would see being part of that agency? On the underspend, were there reasons given for it at all? When there was a decrease in private rented, was that because of rents going up or were there other reasons?
The other issue, which is awful, is that of the public perception of Travellers and the views of certain people in our society on Travellers getting accommodation, whether in the form of a site or whatever. What can we do to address that massive problem? Thinking back to the last time I was in Pavee Point, it was a great celebration. The President, Mr. Higgins, was there. The culture - everything about Traveller life - is not getting out to the general population. What can we do to address that?
Ms Mary Brigid McCann:
In the area where I live and work I have huge contact with the Traveller community, and also I am a Traveller myself. We visit a lot of Traveller families in the area. Even in 2008 and before the recession came in, accommodation was always a problem within the Travelling community. People were coming to us looking for help and we did not have the power to repair or do anything for them. All we could do was report for them. Given the budgets in recent years and all the cuts, the situation is worse now.
The cut in rent allowance for those under 25 has a huge impact on Travellers, given that they marry much younger. That is not to say that people from the settled population do not go out and live and start families. There is overcrowding where I live myself. As Ms Fay outlined, Travellers are moving into private rented accommodation but they are not able to afford the rent. Landlords are putting up the rent. There is the isolation of Travellers in private rented and the discrimination that they face. They are being bullied and their children are not being allowed play with other children in the area. All that has a huge impact on Travellers' mental health as well.
The underspend in some local authorities is also a problem. Travellers would have been one of the groups that did not benefit from the Celtic tiger when Ireland was awash with money. Then in recent budgets, with all the cuts that have been imposed on us, we were the people who were made suffer, along with many others as well.
In my area we have 50 houses but we have about 60 families, so overcrowding is a problem. Playgrounds are a huge problem as well. We do not have any playgrounds or any stuff like that. There is not enough Traveller-specific accommodation getting built. We are working with an extended family at the minute and they were looking for a group housing scheme but their needs have not been met. They are being kind of let into a housing estate. They are being phased in, with four or five doors left in between each of their houses. I do not think that is very fair to them if they want to live as an extended family. They are Travellers and their culture has to be respected as well. There is also a temporary site in our area that is well over 25 years there.
We did a mapping exercise a couple of weeks ago around the Carrickmines incident. Overcrowding was a problem, with electric wires just running everywhere and taking over, and there was overloading of sockets as well. People are coming to us looking for support but we are limited in what we can do. We have many Departments and every single one of them has a responsibility to all the people in Ireland but also to the Travelling community. When I look at a Traveller accommodation, in my experience that responsibility has not been met.
Another thing we face in our area is that, when young married couples come out of private rented and move into a caravan at the back of some of our houses, they are being charged €20 rent based on income. Even though it is a separate family with a separate income and a separate home, the income is assessed. We are charged €20 even though the young married couple might not have any facilities, water, or electrics.
At a recent meeting, a person told me that a tenant is given the right to reside in a property and the supply of water and electricity is not his or her concern. The younger generation feel very disappointed that they are being charged for something but are not getting anything in return.
Ms Missie Collins:
We visit families to promote health. Travellers are living in very bad conditions; some have no running water or showers for washing. I visit families in private accommodation. I know a mother of three children who is living in an apartment and is isolated from her extended family. She has a box room and one bedroom for her three children, herself and her husband. She cries every time we visit her because she wants a small garden for the children to play in. She would welcome a site with group housing. Who knows better than me what such families need?
I went through the same experience 24 years ago when I moved to live in an area with only tigíns. I campaigned for the houses in which we live now, to which Ms McCann referred. Everybody has to take into consideration the fact that unless housing for Travellers improves, there will be more suicides and mothers suffering mental health breakdowns. People are crying out for help.
Ms Ronnie Fay:
The national Traveller accommodation consultative committee was established under the auspices of the former Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and, as the committee knows, it publishes annual accounts. The 2015 report is available online, and that is where I have pulled some of the most recent statistics from. The last published report I received was for 2013, which is why I referred to that report.
There are a number of issues. The data is presented in such a way as to hide the analysis and reality. Our argument is that it needs to be much clearer in order that people realise what is behind the data. We are calling for an ethnic identifier in schemes such as HAP and other administrative information systems so that we can determine where Travellers, Roma and other minority ethnic groups are living to determine whether they are over-represented in particular sectors or areas of provision. The overall data is quite problematic in terms of how it is presented.
I have provided a background paper which is much more detailed, but I do not know whether the committee has seen it. It needs to be recognised that the demographics of the Traveller community are significantly different from those of the general population. Some 42% of Travellers are under 15 years of age and only 3% are aged over 65 years. There is a significant youth population. If we do not make provision and plan for communities, we will be hostages to fortune in the future. It is a bad use of resources.
The all-Ireland Traveller health study found that the composition of Traveller households varies. Some 20% of Traveller women have had five or more children, compared to 2.6% of the general population. It is ironic that the youngest families who have the greatest number of children are living in the smallest spaces with the fewest facilities. That has a major impact on the quality of life of Travellers and their life expectancy and mortality and morbidity rates. That context needs to be taken into account.
I refer to funding. I attended the hearing of the Universal Periodic Review on Ireland in Geneva last week. The State report noted that there had been an increase in funding from €4 million to €5.5 million. That looks great, but what it did not say was that there had been a 90% decrease between 2008 and 2013. In our experience, funding was never really the problem, even though it may be a problem now because of the impact of austerity. Traditionally, the budgets were never spent.
A total of 36% was unspent. We believe that is to do with political will, local prejudice, racism, objections by local residents and a lack of sanctions by-----
Ms Ronnie Fay:
The reason we call for an agency is that local authorities are either unwilling or unable to make the provision. The Department dealing with the environment, community and local government oversees that and nothing happens. We are saying that something has to happen. If one looks at what happened in Northern Ireland at the time there was a lot of discrimination in terms of housing provision for Catholics compared to Protestants, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was set up. The issue was taken out of the hands of the local authorities and the executive looked after the needs of the marginalised Catholics at that time. We believe a similar initiative is needed at this point in time. We know it will not be the panacea for everything. Pavee Point is not calling specifically for a Traveller accommodation agency. The all-Ireland health study was published in 2010 but there is no action plan or new, revised Traveller health strategy. There is no strategy in place for the group in Ireland with the worst health inequalities. The cuts to education funding were minus 86%. Accommodation must be seen in the context of the broader cuts to the Traveller sector under the guise of austerity. Lots of political choices were made because Travellers are not visible in the Oireachtas. No Traveller is a Deputy and there has never been one. We have good champions, some of whom are in the room. We have called on the Taoiseach to consider appointing a Traveller representative to the incoming Oireachtas because it is only when one starts to meet people and to hear the reality that things change.
Members probably heard this week that there was a finding against Ireland in terms of the European Social Charter. We were delighted with that. It is a waste of our time and the State's time to fight battles externally. We say let us work together to solve these issues. There are 36,000 Travellers in the Republic of Ireland. They would all fit in the Hogan Stand and yet it is seen as a major political issue. Much of that has to do with the status of Travellers. The question was asked about what could change in terms of public perception. The Government could acknowledge Travellers as a minority ethic group. That would send a clear signal that this is a community that is indigenous to Ireland that needs to be respected, that has its own culture and way of life and should be recognised and respected for what it is. That alone would change the mindset, because what we see is the assimilationist mindset is still there.
Local authority staff think they will force Travellers into houses. That links into the question asked about Traveller-specific accommodation. Local authorities say the majority of Travellers are looking for standard housing. If one is told it will take 20 years to get a group housing scheme and 40 years to get a transient site but a house is available, one could ask what box one will tick if one is a mother with seven children. The reality is that people often find it very hard to survive in those conditions. Members know better than I do, because they are on this committee and have been doing a lot of work in the area, that public policy in terms of social housing is to push people into the private rented sector. There was a huge change in that the number of Travellers in private rented accommodation grew from approximately 2% to 30% up to 2013. As Ms McCann has outlined, the problem is that often they were not there by choice. Significant issues arose in terms of accessing private rented accommodation in the first place. Most landlords did not want Travellers. As members are aware, they did not even want people on rent supplement. As Travellers are generally in receipt of rent supplement that was a double whammy. The Roma are being totally abused because they are often visible. People know they are Roma and they have a really hard time. Three, four and five families are living in very small spaces. What is happening is appalling and we would encourage the committee to look at the issue in more depth.
In terms of private rented accommodation, first, access was really difficult and, second, surviving in it was even more difficult because often Travellers would have had to bribe the landlord to give them the house by paying over the odds and then they would have to top up the monthly rent. People who are dependent on social protection found it hard to survive because they were giving so much.
Young Travellers are getting into serious debt trying to pay bills, which causes a huge amount of stress. In terms of mental health issues, about which Ms Collins spoke, in Traveller culture when young Traveller women have babies, their aunts, sisters, cousins and nieces support them. They are not used to being left on their own, often living in high rise apartments behind gates. They often hide their identity because they are afraid if the landlord finds out they are Travellers, they will be evicted. They tell their children they cannot play with their cousins. They tell their extended family not to visit them and that they will visit them because they do not want their identity disclosed.
Major issues arise in terms of private rented accommodation. What we see from the statistics I got from the website yesterday is that approximately 200 families have left private rented accommodation but they are going back to their families, doubling up and living in very basic conditions. Something has to give in that regard.
The National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC, commissioned a report in 2014 and one of the recommendations was to clarify and agree the demand for Traveller-specific accommodation. The NTACC was asked to develop an agreed annual count and national assessment of need for the development of local Traveller accommodation programmes because what the local authorities say is in their area and what the Travellers know is actually the case is always a contentious issue. We need accurate data, and that comes back to the data mentioned earlier.
Ms Missie Collins:
I have to ask why we are such a problem. It is not as though we dropped in over the past few years. We have been around for centuries. We have our own ways and our own culture, which is strong. To bring children up in living conditions their mammy and daddy are not happy with is the outstanding issue. It puts stress on the mammy and daddy and on the children.
To come back to the all-Ireland health study, we campaigned for that study. We first campaigned for a health strategy, which took us at least nine years. It should not have taken nine years when we see the state of Travellers' health now. It was launched in 2005. We then campaigned for the all-Ireland health study, which took us another eight years. We carried out a tremendous piece of work on that, and it was done from one end of Ireland to the other. We found out all the answers, and when I held that report over my head on the day it was launched, in the presence of the then Minister, Mary Harney, and many others who were with her, I was the proudest woman in Ireland because I believed something would be done about our health, living conditions, education and so on. Has there been any movement on that since then? No. We will be waiting till death's doing, and our people are dying younger. The suicide rate is seven times higher among Traveller men. How long more must we wait before we see a bit of civilisation in our own country?
Ms Mary Brigid McCann:
As Ms Fay said, what came out of the all-Ireland health study is that we have a very young population. It is time to give back to the Traveller community because we are very disappointed action has not been taken arising from the study, given that it cost €1.4 million and has been sitting on a shelf in the Department of Health ever since.
Another issue that came out of the study was the support for family networks living in a group housing scheme or with extended family that we would not have if we lived in standard housing. From the all-Ireland health study we found also that there were only eight Travellers over the age of 85. If Departments do not act now to give the younger generation a better quality of life, education and accommodation, and ensure there is less discrimination and better job opportunities, including giving the men better jobs, they will not live as long as those in the general population. We see the Government planning for those in the general population, who are living into their 80s and 90s, but Travellers only live to the age of 60 or 64. We need to act now. Many Traveller organisations have been talking about issues for a long time. Their members attended many committees where they raised many issues. Some progress has been made but more needs to be made if Travellers are to live as long as those in the general population.
While this has been answered to an extent, I seek clarification. Were a statutory Traveller agency to be set up, do the witnesses envisage it would deal with the issues of underspending and how some local authorities are not drawing down money at all? Do they envisage such an agency having a wider role than simply with regard to housing? I represent the constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny and money has been put aside at local level for a Traveller horse project in recent budgets but that project is still not up and running. This issue is now entering its third year and although funding has been increased each year in the budget, nothing has been done about it.
The witnesses might also comment on their experience of the health and safety audit that was carried out because I have visited a halting site with a number of caravans that had undergone a health and safety audit. I could not believe it would pass because there were such obvious issues with wires in a highly damp environment in which young kids were staying. I seek Ms Fay's opinion on the audit that was carried out because ,I could not believe it when the local authority told me the caravans had been inspected and had been passed as being safe. I cannot see how anyone could say it was a safe environment for children in particular. The witnesses might comment on that point.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. It is absolutely shocking and unbelievable that the rate of suicide among Traveller men is seven times higher than the average. It is shocking when one hears this in black-and-white terms. If they get a chance, the witnesses might comment on how this issue can be dealt with as this is a national disgrace.
To revert to the issue of Traveller health, the statistics provided by the witnesses are absolutely appalling and shocking. I refer to how only eight members of a community of 36,000 are over the age of 85, how only 3% of the population are over the age of 65 and to the rate of suicide. To what extent do the witnesses associate these statistics with the accommodation problems they face?
Ms Ronnie Fay:
On the issue of the Traveller agency, we think it must drive matters. If one considers that 84% of Travellers are unemployed, there has never been a Traveller training or employment plan but when 14% or 18% of the general population were unemployed, it was like a major crisis and everyone galvanised, rightly, to take action. However, the Travellers keep falling through the cracks. This is why we state that such an agency must consider health, culture and accommodation. It can prioritise accommodation in its first year of operation but our point is we have fabulous policies in place on Travellers but the big gap is between the policy and its implementation. While the policy is in place, there is a gap in implementation and that is where it is falling asunder. That is why we thought that if there was an agency to drive it, to hold people to account and to share good practice, we would be hopeful it might bring about change.
As for the issue of fire safety, there were two elements to the initiative, which we welcomed warmly. Moreover, we hope it now will be integrated into the work of the local Traveller accommodation consultative committees and the development of Traveller accommodation programmes in the future because it must be perceived not merely as a crisis measure but must be sustainable. One suggestion we have put forward is for a core module in the primary health care programmes to be on health and fire safety because programmes in this regard have worked for many years and at Christmas and Hallowe'en, fire safety alerts and so on always have been carried out. We were disappointed because we had higher expectations and as the Deputy rightly noted, they consisted of limited visual audits in which someone walked onto the site and looked around. We would suggest it is a starting point but should not be an endpoint and that a more thorough process is needed. However, the second part of the initiative was the development of Traveller fire safety awareness training. That has been more successful and has been particularly successful when it has been rolled out and run in partnership with Traveller organisations. The fire service has been very open but the problem often has been with local authorities. As the initiative was being organised through the local authorities, there were gaps because a local authority might ring a site in the morning to say it wanted the people there to go to a particular place. It was totally ridiculous and highly disrespectful. It was as though no one had anything else to do and that people's time is not important.
It was also a lost opportunity not to work through the Traveller community development programmes because they, and the primary health care programmes, would provide a mechanism and have the best relationship with Travellers. If one wants to be effective, therefore, one should talk to the people who are affected and give them advice.
As regards accommodation, the National Traveller Health Strategy stated:
There is little doubt that the living conditions of Travellers are probably the single greatest influence on health status. Stress, infectious disease, including respiratory disease, and accidents are all closely related to the Traveller living environment. It is clear that an immediate improvement in the living conditions of Travellers is a prerequisite to the general improvement of health status.
That is from the National Traveller Health Strategy. The All-Ireland Traveller Health Study, which was published in 2010, undertaken by the Departments of health both here and in Northern Ireland and done by University College Dublin, stated: "What we can say is that the better accommodated the Traveller family, the better the health status." There is a clear link, therefore, between the accommodation and health situations. That is why we are so disappointed at the inaction since the publication of the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study. We think it was a missed opportunity to build on the momentum.
Suicide accounts of 11% of all Traveller deaths, which is a very large percentage. We are disappointed because before the national suicide prevention strategy, Connecting for Life, was published, we made a submission to it highlighting certain matters. We ended up with one sentence which referred to Travellers and other vulnerable groups. That is very disappointing. They talk about evidence-based policy making, yet the evidence is that 11% of Traveller deaths arise from suicide. We felt that aspect should have been given greater priority and targeting.
Each county has to develop a local implementation plan and we are calling for Travellers to be represented on those, given the suicide profile. We are also seeking an ethnic identifier, so that we will know what the outcomes are and where issues arise. From the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study we know that there is an excess number of Traveller deaths compared to the general population. Cancer, respiratory disease or heart disease do not attack Travellers differently from anybody else. However, we know that there is discrimination in getting access to services, and also in the quality of service that Travellers receive. That has been documented independently in the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study.
There are 134 extra Traveller deaths every year. If one compares Travellers to the general population, there should be 54 deaths annually, but there are 188. This is due to institutional discrimination and racism. That is the reality. People are being forced to live in really bad conditions. It is bad for one's health to be born poor or to become poor. That has all been documented. We see a Traveller community that is most marginalised and one can see it in their health, life expectancy and mortality rates.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. For those of us who represent constituencies with significant Traveller communities, we spend a lot of time working on exactly the issues that Ms Fay has outlined. We are well aware of them but it is important to have them on the record here.
I wish to express support for Traveller agencies, specifically in ensuring that local authorities meet their statutory obligations. Some local authorities have a better record than others. If we were to have such an agency, or if this committee were to recommend such a thing, it would be important to have a carrot and stick approach. Local authorities have this function and in an ideal situation they should get on with that job. Where they do not meet those functions within specific timelines, however, this agency would have the authority to step in. Through emergency powers already on the Statute Book - which, for example, the Minister used for planning and procurement in the rapid-builds in Poppintree - the agency and managers could go over the heads of a local authority and councillors where they do not meet their obligations. If it was done in that focused way, most local authorities would probably start moving much more quickly on fulfilling their own obligations. That is an argument that is almost beyond making at this stage.
I have a couple of questions. Given the level of need out there and the poor condition of many Traveller-specific sites of a range of types, if the budget was returned to €40 million, even phased in over a short period, would that be enough?
I know it is the minimum requirement but what are Pavee Point’s thoughts on this? As I work with many Travellers in the Dublin mid-west community, I know there is a section of the Traveller community which, by choice, wants to live in private rented or council accommodation. There are people who are left with no choice. However, there are those who want to make that choice too. I am acutely aware that this group is having particular difficulties with the current rental crisis. They are experiencing the rental crisis like everybody else, but the additional barriers they experience in seeking alternative accommodation are higher. Has Pavee Point any specific recommendation on this which the committee could examine?
The programme for Government contains 62 recommendations on housing, none of which relates to Travellers or Traveller accommodation. Will Pavee Point put on record its thoughts on this? While there are clearly broader issues such as health, etc, this committee's function is to make a report in a short time to the Dáil and to the Minister specifically on housing issues and to find ways of alleviating the most immediate housing needs of all sections of society, including those of Travellers.
Like my other colleagues, I thank Pavee Point for attending the committee. It was one of the most powerful, honest and raw submissions we have received. It has certainly laid a marker for every member.
After the tragic circumstances last October when ten members of the Traveller community, including two babies, lost their lives, has there been any immediate improvement in accommodation for the Traveller community? There was such an outrage across the country at the time. Did that outrage die off after a couple of weeks with the Traveller community left mourning the loved ones it lost?
As a new Deputy from Waterford, it is obvious the political will to deal with this issue is not there. I am not hinting at any one party but, across the board, the political will does not seem to be there. This will have to seriously change.
We all watch television programmes relating to the Traveller community, such as “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings”. After listening to Pavee Point, they certainly do not portray what Traveller life is like in Ireland or in England. There is a perception that many Travellers are very wealthy by focusing on the big weddings, the christenings and the outfits. This is not doing the Traveller community in Ireland any favours.
Pavee Point recommended the establishment of a statutory Traveller agency with powers to approve and enforce local authority five-year Traveller accommodation plans. Do the five-year Traveller accommodation plans done by local authorities meet the real needs of the community? When one tries to enforce a plan that is flawed to start with, one is not going to get to where one wants. Do we need a national audit rather than just the sum of individual local authorities?
Ms Mary Brigid McCann:
The “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings” programme did not do us any favours, particularly given we have young girls wanting to get married and go out and spend on dresses. I remember last year I was phoned for a radio interview about first communions and confirmations. In the pre-interview, I was talking about discrimination when it comes to celebrations, such as how we could not get a function room and other problems. I explained extended family is very good to us when organising communions, confirmations and there was a good sense of support among the community. The interviewer said that, while I was good on other subjects, this was not what they wanted on communions and confirmations. She wanted me to turn around to say we spend between €5,000 and €6,000 on such a thing. The reality is that many Travellers cannot afford to spend such amounts.
Supplementary welfare, including confirmation and first communion grants, has been cut. Many people, not just Travellers, in the area I know depended on them. They are now gone so people must go to moneylenders to get the few euro to get their children organised. When you have a family, you know the struggle you go through. Children want and want and never give. It is only what you can give them, so it is a struggle. I have experienced it. The programme certainly did not do us any favours and did not show the real-life stories of not being able to book a hotel or a function room. There are many other things out there. That is not what we want. A few years ago, a Minister spoke about lavish communions and the grants were stopped. It did not send out a very good message. I do not approve of them. They did not do us any favours as mothers.
Mr. Eamonn McCann:
We welcome the additional resources this year, but when one breaks it down into concrete terms, there are 30 units. This is based on the chartered surveyors' estimate. One would have 30 units for €5.5 million. In our paper, Ms Fay referred to a need for 5,500 units, so it would take about 170 years to catch up at the current rate.
The five-year plans from 2000 to 2004 and from 2005 to 2008 dealt with legacy issues highlighted in the task force report of 1995. By 2008, we had caught up to some extent in respect of some legacy issues. However, it did not take account of the natural growth that was taking place.
In respect of Travellers' experiences after the Carrickmines tragedy, people lose their identity when we call it "Carrickmines." We are talking about the Connors, Lynch and Gilbert families and the grieving they are going through. It is not helpful to put it in the context of generalised statements. I work in Wicklow so I know the situation. Across the country, there is a mixture relating to local authorities. Some local authorities returned the funding while others did not do so. Some use the full funding while others try to get additional funding. It would be the same with the Connors, Lynch and Gilbert families. On one hand, the outpouring of grief was fantastic and they received a lot of support, but some hotels closed, and we cannot close our eyes to that either.
I apologise for my absence but I had to step out of the meeting. I compliment the witnesses on their forthright presentation, which was enlightening. There are a good number of Travellers in Tuam, Athenry and Ballinasloe in east Galway, where I am from. There is a place in Tuam called Brú Bhríde that works fairly well. Have the witnesses examples or models of things that well for them so that we could model the good things and try to replicate them across communities? I do not need to know them now. I was particularly taken with the presentation from Ms Collins, for which I compliment her.
Ms Ronnie Fay:
Deputy Ó Broin is correct that not all Travellers want to live on group housing schemes or on halting sites and the issue he has raised is choice. They need to have a real choice and one of the problems is they have not had it, which is why there was a increase in private rented accommodation from 2% of Travellers to 27% between 2002 and 2013. There has since been an exodus because of costs, racism, mental health and children's issues. That is not a choice, no more than it is for the general community. We encourage the Government to have a public social housing programme and build homes. We also encourage the inclusion of a clause in respect of community gain. If Traveller accommodation is being built, given the high rate of unemployment, could a percentage of Travellers not be employed as labourers, landscapers and so on? These measures, which are relevant and possible and which would give added value, should be examined.
I was on record as saying regarding Carrickmines that we had gone from bouquets to boulders within a week, which should not be forgotten. There was significant solidarity, which was important because it showed Travellers that people care. Within a week, a small number of people, and it is always a minority, objected to the development of an emergency facility for them there. Goodwill does not last long and we want institutional mechanisms that will guarantee Travellers their human rights and protect them from discrimination, racism and hostility.
The Deputy is dead right regarding the programme for Government that we are disappointed about the lack of visibility in it of Travellers and Roma. That is not unrelated to the fact that they are not visible in most political parties and there is no public representative from those backgrounds at national level. We had some in Tuam, for example, at urban district council level but these people do not get elected. It is difficult when one considers the Traveller population and how dispersed it is. That will not happen without affirmative action and, therefore, we would like quotas. It is ironic that in Romania, for example, seats are reserved in parliament for Roma. Roma representation is, therefore, guaranteed. These issues could also be addressed.
With regard to the question about good examples, the Civil Service internship scheme was wonderful but the problem was it was only for six months and when it ended, that was it. That could be mainstreamed. It is not rocket science. Much of this is documented but it has to be put into practice.
In one of our recommendations, we propose that the Housing Agency should undertake a specific study of the current Traveller accommodation crisis, to be published by August 2017, and to carry out an independent national assessment of the state of Traveller-specific accommodation. I would hope that would get us over the "We said, you said" interaction and local authorities hiding figures. There are many recommendations and I only highlighted some we hope might address the issue.
Our big concern is that Travellers are increasingly becoming more segregated and there is increased ghettoisation of Travellers. I recall when I first started working with Travellers in 1984, there was a football pitch and a playground in Avila Park, Finglas. There is nothing but houses there now. The proposal is to build houses on every spare bit of land, which can lead to all sorts of conflict, including inter-family conflict, because incompatible families are often forced together. That is a hostage to fortune.
The resources that were wasted on the evictions in Dundalk, for example, could be put into positive developments. Let us get over this. It is not insurmountable. Traveller organisations at national and local level are ready, willing and able to work with the State. We need to be given the opportunity.
The programme for Government refers to the development of the national Traveller-Roma inclusion strategy, which is part of a European framework, and we are hopeful that something will come out of that but that cannot be seen to let everybody else off the hook. The Department of Health has to produce a new national Traveller health strategy.
It has not allowed the Traveller Health Advisory Committee to meet since October 2012. It is disgraceful. In terms of accommodation, we need the agency and we hope the committee will recommend that. It is not an accommodation agency, it is an agency within its brief and it could maybe focus on accommodation in its first year of being. We need stuff in health, education and across the board.
I thank the committee for giving us the opportunity this morning and I encourage it to look at the Roma issue in its deliberations. I remind people that at the end of the day we are talking about travellers as human beings who have a right to human rights. That is all we are asking for - basis human rights.
I thank Ms Fay. That concludes this section. I thank the members of Pavee Point for their attendance here today and for their presentations, including their submission to the committee. I reiterate that this is a very short lived committee - a couple of months. It is due to report in the middle of June and its primary focus is housing and homelessness. We are very conscious from the contributions the witnesses have made today that the housing and homelessness issue facing travellers has consequential effects in terms of health, mental health, suicide and so forth. The witnesses made those points very vividly to the committee here today. I thank them for their presentations.