Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 8 March 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Provision of Traveller Accommodation: Discussion
No. 6 is a discussion of the provision of Traveller accommodation with reference to the review of funding for Traveller-specific accommodation and the implementation of Traveller accommodation programmes. I remind members that we will have two sessions on this topic today. For the first session, we welcome from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, and Mr. David Kelly. From the Housing Agency, we welcome Mr. John O'Connor, Mr. David Silke and Ms Roslyn Molloy.
Before we begin, I draw attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
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 Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy English, to make his opening statement.
I thank the committee for inviting me here today to speak about the implementation of the Traveller accommodation programmes. It is timely to have this discussion now and it is a worthwhile focus for the committee over the months ahead.
I thank the committee for its interest in the area.
In accordance with the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998, housing authorities are responsible for the assessment of the accommodation needs of Travellers and the preparation, adoption and implementation of multi-annual Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs, in their areas. My Department’s role is to ensure there are adequate structures and supports in place to assist the authorities in providing such accommodation, including a national framework of policy, legislation and funding. Under section 10 of the Act, housing authorities are required to prepare and adopt a TAP for their respective areas for a five-year period or such shorter period as the Minister may direct. These programmes provide a roadmap for local authority investment priorities over the period. They also form the basis for the allocation of funding from my Department for Traveller-specific accommodation such as group housing and halting sites. Section 10 of the Act also requires relevant housing authorities to review their TAPs at least once in each three-year period, or at such time as the Minister with responsibility may direct. A local authority also has discretion to initiate a review at any time during the period of its TAP.
Over the past ten years, from 2008 to 2017, my Department has recouped in excess of €105 million to local authorities from a capital budget of €156.8 million. This represents a 67% drawdown on capital funding by local authorities collectively. Capital funding of €12 million has been provided by my Department for Traveller-specific accommodation in 2018, which is an increase of €3 million on the 2017 allocation, and a similar increase on the 2016 allocation. We would all agree it is an area we want to see increased funding in, which is part of the reason we are here. The budget allocation has increased gradually over the past number of years. It took a hit like all social housing projects during the years of the downturn. I am committed, as Minister of State, with the Department and the committee, to trying to restore the funding over time but also find improved ways of spending it.
Given the increased capital budgets allowing for the provision of Traveller-specific accommodation and also the fact that we are now approaching our fifth TAP commencing in 2019, it was opportune to explore issues and barriers to the delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation. My Department is particularly concerned about the underspend in this area, given the demand of Traveller-specific accommodation from the Traveller community. Rebuilding Ireland, the Government’s action plan on housing and homelessness, committed the Housing Agency to undertake an expert, independent review of capital and current funding for Traveller-specific accommodation to date. This review was to have regard to targets contained in the local authority Traveller accommodation programmes and units delivered, the current status of accommodation funded and funding provided for accommodation maintenance and other supports. The purpose of this was to provide factual information, analysis and identification of particular challenges, as a key platform to undertake an audit of implementation and delivery of the TAPs with a focus on appropriate supply of accommodation.
The Housing Agency submitted its report to my Department in June 2017. The report was subsequently considered by the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC. This committee has a statutory responsibility to advise me, as the responsible Minister of State, on matters concerning Traveller accommodation. The NTACC subsequently recommended to me that an expert group, independent from the NTACC, be established to examine and make recommendations on issues regarding Traveller accommodation policy, strategy and implementation. I fully support this recommendation. The NTACC is meeting later today to consider the terms of reference for the work of the expert group. A second meeting is scheduled for later in the month. It is my intention to establish this group as soon as possible with a view to it concluding its work within a short timeframe. If we can get the terms of reference agreed in today's meeting or the one before the end of March, there is no reason we cannot pick the members of the expert group soon afterwards to get their work under way. There is no reason that work cannot be completed in a three-month or four-month timeframe. I will not dictate to the NTACC how to do its work but I met the chairman and I have asked it to expedite its work because we have a lot of research done in the report we will discuss today. Hopefully the expert panel can get on with its work quite quickly after that.
I look forward to the report arising from the expert group’s work which should provide an insight into issues while also providing a platform for a future plan for the delivery of safe and culturally appropriate accommodation. The Department will consider any recommendations made by the expert group to improve the delivery of Traveller accommodation nationally and to ensure that full use is made of the increasing level of funding available for investment in Traveller accommodation. I will reinforce the point that the aim is to increase the funding but also to make sure we are spending it. When one analyses the report, one sees the percentage that is not being spent. It is not good enough. It is not acceptable. We have to change the way we are doing our business. We have to change the relationship between local authorities and the Traveller community and the settled community and find new ways to make it happen a lot faster. There are different reasons this money is not being spent. We have to find ways to make sure it is spent and that everyone carries out their duties and responsibilities in this area. I am delighted the committee is taking it on as an area of work over the next number of months to monitor the work of the expert panel. When we get the recommendations back from the expert group, which I hope we will get in the summer, we will make quick decisions as a Department. We will not hang around. The aim is to make the changes this year, if at all possible.
Mr. John O'Connor:
We are pleased to be here this morning to assist the committee in its examination of the issues facing us in Traveller accommodation. The agency’s vision is that everyone is able to live in good quality and affordable accommodation. To this end, our research team has undertaken and commissioned a number of studies on Traveller accommodation, working closely with the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee. Traveller accommodation has been planned and provided for under multi-annual Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs, since 2000. Each local authority’s programme establishes the scale of the need for Traveller accommodation in the area and the investments over a five-year period that will assist in meeting this need. To date, three TAPs have been completed and the fourth runs from 2014 to the end of 2018. The current programme for Government highlighted the need for an assessment of the Traveller accommodation programmes. This commitment was included in Rebuilding Ireland, the action plan for housing and homelessness, in which the Housing Agency was tasked with commissioning an independent review for the period from 2000 to the end of 2016. The review was to include targets contained in the local authority Traveller accommodation programmes, the actual homes delivered, the current status of the accommodation funded and the funding provided for accommodation, maintenance and other supports. Where targets were not met, analysis was undertaken to identify the reasons for them not being met in order to identify particular challenges that need to be addressed to underpin future progress. The terms of reference for the study and research is in appendix 1.
The agency commissioned an independent review to address these questions, which was undertaken by RSM. The review was based on available administrative information kept centrally and by local government. Local authorities were also asked their views on the implementation of the Traveller accommodation programmes to evaluate progress made under the respective programmes and to identify factors that impede the delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation. Informed by the results, a second phase of the research involved consultation with 11 different Traveller representative groups, at a local and national level, and seven local authorities. This element of the review explored the issues raised by survey respondents in greater depth and identified other concerns expressed by key stakeholders regarding the operation of the Traveller accommodation programmes.
The key findings of the review of funding for Traveller-specific accommodation found that over the period 2000 to 2016, €356 million was spent on providing 6,394 Traveller-specific homes, an average of 376 homes per year. This was below the targets set, which if achieved would have seen an average of 494 Traveller-specific homes provided per annum. In all but one TAP period, spending was below the budget allocation. The summary details are provided in appendix 2 of the submission to the committee. The review found that local authorities are regularly refurbishing properties under the TAPs. In fact, the share of the funding consumed by refurbishments and maintenance of the existing stock is higher in more recent TAP periods compared with the earlier programmes. The reported level of demolition of properties that are in the region of 12 to 16 years old suggests a significant rate of deterioration of homes. Local authority staff consulted as part of the review suggested that the growing need for repairs on existing Traveller-specific housing was slowing the delivery of new homes. The review notes that the level of targeted provision has increased from one TAP period to the next but that the level of allocated funding is below the levels set in the earlier programmes.
When local authorities were asked for their views on the standard of Traveller-specific accommodation in their area, some interesting points emerged. Almost all respondents, in the first survey of local authorities, felt the standard of accommodation provided to Travellers was good. However, when probed, the local authorities consulted reported a mix quality of accommodation, from good to poor accommodation. Local authorities used a variety of ways to monitor the condition of homes delivered under the Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs, but many participants agreed that condition surveys should be carried out more regularly.
In terms of two specific questions, the first of which is why Traveller-specific properties fall into disrepair, local authorities ranked the most common causes for this as general wear and tear, resident related, both accidental and intentional, and external factors such as criminal damage and extreme weather conditions. Most importantly, as to why there are delays in delivering on Traveller accommodation programme targets, Traveller representatives and local authority employees cited extensive delays in the planning process as a principal cause for the underprovision of homes, that is, the planning process was highlighted as the principal reason for the underdelivery. The process of assessing the need for Traveller accommodation was another key area of concern. Travellers tend to experience higher rates of household growth compared with the settled population. A level of need is identified at the outset of a Traveller accommodation programme and homes are provided on this basis. However, by the time local authorities deliver the planned Traveller accommodation, the homes provided are sometimes insufficient to meet the need on the ground due to changes in household circumstances since the assessment. Stakeholders suggested that better engagement with Travellers and clear guidance to local authorities on the assessment of need would lead to improved outcomes.
There is much more detail in the review itself. I have only provided headline results. We are happy to answer any questions which members may have or to provide further details as required.
I thank the Minister of State and Mr. O'Connor for their presentations. I have a couple of comments and specific questions. First, I welcome the report. It is an important publication. There is not necessarily much new information in it in terms of what we know anecdotally from our own experience, but I welcome that it lays out clearly and unequivocally the problems that the Traveller accommodation programmes have been experiencing.
I also welcome the Minister of State's proposals to set up an expert group and his desire for that expert group to report back in a speedy fashion. In my view, it would be good if all changes, if there are any arising out of that, would be implemented well in advance of next year's local government elections so that can inform the new Traveller accommodation programmes.
I also want to put on record that if the Minister of State comes back with positive proposals that will address some of the problems outlined in the report, he will have my party's full support, both here and in local authorities, but I would also like to see this committee play a constructive role over the period of time of that expert group and the subsequent policy or legislative changes. That is a positive contribution we could make.
The report confirms the scandal of the way in which Traveller accommodation programmes are rolled out by most local authorities. Some local authorities are worse than others, but that just has to be stated. While the Minister of State correctly said that in the most recent period there was a 67% drawdown, in fact, last year was the worst year of drawdown that I am aware of. A total of 45% of funding was drawn down last year by local authorities. That is the largest underspend in recent times. It also means, both in 2016 and 2017, that none of the modest funding increases by Government were spent. The amount of money that was spent last year is marginally above that spent the year before, which was marginally above that spent the year before that, and people are not taking advantage of those modest increases, which is a real problem.
We have to be honest about this. Our problems are twofold, namely, some politicians and some county managers or senior managers. I note Mr. O'Connor states the problem is the planning process. The planning process is an abstract element. It is what people do or do not do with that process that is the real problem. We must get into the business of naming and shaming - not for party political advantage - those local authorities and individuals who are denying people access to adequate and appropriate accommodation, because that is what this is really about.
It is not enough for us to talk about volume. We need to see this money spent and we need to see more money allocated, but we also need to talk about quality. The comments that the report and Mr. O'Connor highlighted in terms of maintenance are really important. The South Dublin County Council area, part of which I represent, would have a reputation as having maybe a better record of Traveller accommodation provision than some local authority areas, but I have recently visited half of the 11 sites in my half of the local authority area and one could describe few of those sites as adequate. Meaning no disrespect to the good people who are living there, I would not live in them. The quality of the accommodation and the services in those locations are not adequate and quality is key. Choice is also key. Where Traveller families want Traveller-specific accommodation, that must be provided in appropriate locations. Where people want other choices, those should be provided, within reason and within resources.
What has the Minister of State, Deputy English, and the Department been doing over the past two years since this Government was formed to address the current underspends? Particularly last year, how is it that local authorities can get away with a 45% underspend? Some local authorities are spending nothing. South Dublin County Council - I will name and shame the local authority area I am in - spent not a single cent of its €1 million plus allocation last year. What role is the Minister of State and his officials playing to address that? Notwithstanding the fact that the Minister of State has a review group, what will he do this year to ensure that when we look at the figures at the end of 2018, we do not have the same problem?
In terms of the research report, will Mr. O'Connor be more specific about the problems? I understand him citing the planning process. What bits of the planning process is Mr. O'Connor referring to? Is it that councillors are delaying Part VIII planning applications? Is it that managers are not bringing forward Part VIII applications? Is it that councillors or managers are blocking section 183 land disposals? What are the problems? If we are to overcome them in policy and legislative changes, we need to know what those are.
I thank the Chair for her comments. First, I welcome the positivity of Deputy Ó Broin and his party towards what we are trying to do here with the expert review recommended by the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC. The NTACC is the policy group which would make recommendations to me and I work closely with it. Like that, if positive suggestions come forward, we will certainly move on them as quickly as we possibly can. I welcome the support of Deputy Ó Broin, and I am sure others here, for us to do that. I want to put that on the record too. At the start, I stated that I welcome the committee's interest in this area because all of us together, politically, need to work on this because it is quite clear that some areas are failing in their duties on this and we will have to make these changes if necessary or find new ways to do our business as quickly as we possibly can.
On the specific question of what we are doing to try to get the money spent, the number one priority has been to get increased resources allocated. We have been working on that across social housing projects, including Traveller-specific accommodation. It is a welcome increase in funding, but it is not much use if we do not get it spent where we want it. There was an underspend last year. We tried to use that in recent months and allocated it to buy other accommodation which can be used for Traveller-specific accommodation as well. It should end up in the right place but it is not the project we wanted to happen. We are engaging directly with some local authorities in specific areas to track projects that should be moving through the system and that are not. I myself visited a number of sites recently. I will do more of that over the months ahead, try to track them, and push the agenda and push the question mark over what is happening. We have also moved to quarterly reports to try to follow and monitor the money and make sure it is being spent because it is not good enough that we say in the Dáil come September or October that only 50% has been spent and that we hope to spend it before Christmas when that does not happen. We will track those projects more clearly. We are bringing greater focus to this.
Looking at the report, the issues include site selection and planning. For whatever reason, I would say there is a lack of commitment in certain counties. There is no point in denying that. There is also the issue of effective assessment of the needs. There is much work to be done with all the various groups and stakeholders on assessment of the genuine needs and demand for Traveller-specific accommodation versus traditional social housing and getting that accommodation right. In some cases there is also a need to address the issue of overcrowding. Often some of these issues are just not resolved and then we get inaction. As a Department, we are trying to focus on the areas where money has been allocated and where projects are not moving forward. We are also focusing on trying to drive that through and deal with the issues that are blocking some of the delivery. In some cases it means we need to have much more consultation to strengthen the relationship with members of the Traveller community, certainly on some sites, and try to work more closely through local authorities.
In some cases those relationships have disintegrated as opposed to getting better. We are trying to work on that because we will not get action here if we do not change the system and that connection or relationship as well.
They are the key areas. In terms of policy changes, it involves working with the NTACC to bring in those changes. There was the initial report analysing what has happened over recent years. There have been numerous reports over the past 20 years from different committees. I read some of the reports from the early 1990s and the issues have not changed very much. That is the reason for having the expert group. It should be a small panel of independent experts. Nobody has any nominating rights to that group and it is to be hoped we will get the expertise we need to make decisions. It will make recommendations to us to enable us to make the changes, whether they relate to planning, site selection, working with local authorities or whatever it takes.
The report also mentions the monitoring, which is tracking that money and making sure it is spent. They are the types of changes we have made in general to the social housing spend across the various sites and programmes. It is about tracking the money and putting a project management team in place if necessary to make it happen. The same emphasis will be brought to Traveller-specific accommodation as well.
Mr. John O'Connor:
In response to Deputy Ó Broin, I will stick to the findings of the report in terms of the planning process and its comments on that. There are two areas in the report. One is on page 33 regarding the planning process. According to the report, representatives believe that the requirement for public consultation can result in radically discriminatory comments and feedback from the public, which can block proposals going forward. The concern is that when Traveller accommodation is being provided, part of that involves a public consultation process which does not happen for other accommodation. Furthermore, representatives stated that they believe elected members are campaigning against Traveller accommodation to win elections and that some of these politicians are involved with TACCs for the purpose of opposing Traveller accommodation. They stated that county development plans and other policies are connected with the TAPs, which cause issues when trying to secure land for Traveller accommodation. Sites for Traveller accommodation should be specified in wider county development plans to help secure Traveller-specific accommodation. It is about the consultation process, the development plan and the individual planning applications. Issues were highlighted throughout the planning process. Other parts of the report also deal with it, but these are at a high level.
It is important to note that the 45% underspend last year compares with an overspend in the general social housing budget allocation. In fact, the Department sought an additional €100 million in the Estimates last year because it was ahead of schedule with the albeit very modest social housing targets.
There is an issue here of political leadership. That also applies to us. There is a high-profile case in the media currently, so I have no difficulty raising it. It is in Stillorgan. Recently, county councillors tabled a motion regarding a piece of land that is currently earmarked for Traveller-specific accommodation asking that the land be revalued at the price it would go for in the market if it were not designated for Traveller-specific accommodation. One can see what is happening there. They are trying to say that the piece of land is of too high a value for that purpose, as part of a type of subterfuge to have the council remove it from the Traveller accommodation plan. In such instances I wonder if the Minister and the Department could take a more hands-on role. Clearly such behaviour, no matter how sophisticated the presentation by the advocates of that particularly offensive motion, is designed to undermine the already democratically agreed Traveller accommodation programme in that local authority.
In that context will the Minister consider options such as potentially removing powers from local authorities, be it under Part VIII or section 183, where local authorities have a clear track record, whether it is managers or councillors, of refusing to provide adequate Traveller-specific accommodation? We had detailed discussions about this in the Committee on Housing and Homelessness. None of us wishes to see powers taken away from local government. Most of us are former local authority councillors and we wish to have stronger local government. However, in instances where councils are clearly failing in their statutory obligations there should be consideration of either sanctions or removal of powers from individual local authorities for set periods and of going above their heads to prevent such electioneering and politicking. Is that something the Minister of State is considering or is he hopeful that the expert group will consider it?
I will not prejudge what the expert panel will suggest. I and the Department are open minded on this. Whatever it takes to move this forward, we are willing to make the necessary changes if positive suggestions and recommendations come back on which we can get agreement. Ideally, the expert group will bring the report to the NTACC and it will agree with it and make recommendations to us. We can act on that. This committee will be involved and will track that work too. It would be great if we could get agreement in the committee, too, on what we have to do in this area. I will not shy away from what has to be done.
Given the current way money is spent, the current way of tracking this and the current rules that have been in place for a long time, I am not in a position to be able to lecture the councillors. I will certainly engage and work with them on certain projects. We are doing that at official, councillor and political level across all parties. I will try to work with them to work through all our duties in this regard, but I am not in a position to make them do something. I do not have those powers and I do not want to be given those powers. For now, we must try to work through the process we have. I would have preferred if we had moved more quickly with the next stage of work on the expert panel. We agreed last July to do this, yet we are still here in March and it is not up and running. I hope progress will be made this month at the meetings with the NTACC and that we will get the expert panel established so it can report back to us. I do not see any reason that we cannot have a report back in three months. If it says it needs longer, I will listen, but to be honest, I am not interested in waiting months for reports. We want to get moving on this.
As to whether we will make changes before that, there is not much point in going through a process of having a consultative committee such as the NTACC recommending a report and then recommending an expert panel if I just jump in and make my own decisions. I will not do that. I will see what they send back to me first and then we will make decisions on the recommendations. I certainly have views but there is no point in me prejudging their work. That would be a defeatist attitude. However, I would like the committee to be involved in this and to engage with the expert group. The terms of reference have not been agreed yet but I have been clear to the chair of the NTACC that all the Traveller groups should be involved and consulted on that through all the stages, and that they should have a strong say in it. We are trying to work with them to provide their accommodation needs so they must be involved in the process over the next couple of months. It is time to move this forward as quickly as possible.
Deputy Ó Broin has probably mentioned most of the issues. I thank the witnesses for the presentations. Ultimately, money has been allocated by the Government and it simply is not being spent. We must find out why. The Minister is setting up the expert group to examine how we can address this as we move forward. I am not trying to be political but several reports have been promised. We are waiting over a year for reports that we thought we would have by now. Will the Minister of State give a commitment that he will deliver the report of the new expert group in the summer, because other reports for this committee have slipped back?
With regard to the lack of spend, do we know if there is a continuing trend of local authorities not spending the money? It all goes back to planning permission. Do we have an understanding as to whether it is the executives or the public representatives who are preventing the planning permission decisions being made?
I welcome the Minister's engagement on the terms of reference for this panel. Will he allow the committee to make suggestions for the terms of reference? Given what Deputy Ó Broin has said, we have to be realistic with this. If the local authorities are not willing to make the decisions, somebody else will have to make them. That is a regrettable situation that nobody wishes to see. Nobody wishes to see powers taken away from local authorities, but historically they have failed to deal with certain issues because they were too controversial. In the case of waste, that power was taken away from them. Similarly, if local authorities are not prepared to make the hard decisions with regard to Traveller accommodation we will have to find other ways of doing it and we will have to consider that option.
Yes, I believe local authorities must step up and make their decisions.
In certain areas there appears to be a lack of commitment to making decisions about responsibilities. In other areas, there are complications, sites get complicated and matters are never dealt with. Local authorities must be focused. From what I have seen, while there is a commitment, the resources and staff must be supplied to make things happen. That is something my Department is trying to do in certain areas. We are trying to focus on these matters and officials are available to help people arrive at solutions. There is a combination of reasons. Planning, focus and commitment exist and various processes are involved. As Deputy Casey will know as a former councillor and a Deputy, selecting a site can be an issue. We need to deal with such matters. Planning gains can be used to make the planning process a little bit easier. We will examine different solutions.
In terms of making recommendations, one can do so but I do not want the process delayed. Terms of reference will be discussed at our meeting at 2 o'clock today. Some people from that decision-making body will be here and I urge members to use the occasion of this meeting to make suggestions. I am sure my staff will take their suggestions on board. The terms of reference may not be agreed to today but they will be by the end of March. Members of the committee have time to submit suggestions to the members of the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC, or to the Chair of this committee. The members present and any who are listening to this discussion can make suggestions today. I have not dictated the terms of reference. I want them to be as inclusive as possible and to be solution-focused. I also want them to lead to changes that will increase revenue. In some cases, there are legal problems with sites which, again, must be dealt with. There was a reduction in money which meant there was a reduction in the amount of time staff had to work on these projects. We are trying to improve the situation. We must become solution-focused at local authority level. I have discovered cases that have lasted for between 20 and 30 years, which is unacceptable. To be honest, decisions must be made.
We must have a realistic expectation in terms of the number of families that can be accommodated on certain sites. The report has highlighted the need for a genuine assessment and sought greater focus and clarity on same. In some cases, the number of families can increase quite dramatically due to the nature of the accommodation. We must work with the people who live in these communities and ensure they understand what is manageable on a site. We must convey to people the fact that we cannot continue to expand some of the sites and must find suitable accommodation nearby. All sides must move a little in terms of what we can safely accommodate. We must strengthen the relationship with communities and make things easier. That is what we are doing at the moment and we will see whether the expert panel will recommend that changes should be made.
There are two more specific questions. I cannot guarantee the timing. I want the report yesterday. The terms of reference must be signed off this month. Two meetings are scheduled to take place. They could have taken place two months ago but I am not in charge of the schedule. I have asked the chair to convene the meetings as quickly as possible. One meeting will take place this afternoon and a second meeting is scheduled if business cannot be finished today. I hope the terms of reference are cleared in March and that the expert group can be put together in April when they can start their work. I do not see any reason the report cannot be completed and given to us in three months. If it is, then we can deal with this matter over the summer. The report should not take any more than four months. I have no intention of being here in a year's time and still waiting for the report. I cannot promise when it will be completed. Everyone here claims we have not spent enough money, which I accept. We are trying to put the money back in. I want to see the money spent. Clearly, the Government wants this as much as anybody else. We will not delay the delivery of the report. I am not sure whether reports are outstanding but I will check it out.
Questions have been asked about the trend and recommendations. I have addressed the matter. In some areas there are. I get a sense that local authority members want to make progress but they feel they cannot do so for various reasons. I hope the export panel will make suggestions to improve the situation.
Mr. David Silke:
As part of the review, we collected all the information from the local authorities and from the Department in terms of spending. The details can be found at the back of our report. One can see the breakdown for each of the programmes, by local authority. There is a lot of variation in terms of spending. That reflects the fact that local authorities might have spent a small amount of money for a number of years but then spent a lot of money in one year. Projects can take a number of years to be completed. Data can be found at the back of the report to demonstrate same.
The funding is not ring-fenced for Traveller accommodation. If the money is not spent in one year, then it is lost. It is not carried forward and does not accumulate. The budget has been increased. There is no point doing so if the money is not spent.
I want to clarify a point that I made earlier. Public representatives have a role to play and there is an onus on them to make decisions. Executives in some of the local authorities have a role to play sometimes and, equally, they have not pushed for Traveller accommodation. I think the problem is a combination of both. I will not sit here and simply blame public representatives because both the executive and public representatives have significant roles to place in this matter. If the terms of reference identify where the real blockages are, then we can address the problem.
I agree with the Deputy. I have not singled one group over the other. It is a collective. Some local authorities have not delivered for a combination reasons. In some cases that is due to a lack of commitment and focus. I am talking about local authorities as a unit and have not singled out anybody. We need to find ways to deal with the matter. In some cases, there are genuine reasons for a delay.
In terms of making up the shortfall, funding has not been specifically ring-fenced. Money was allocated to some projects two or three years ago. That money is still available if the project moves forward. In a way, the work is ring-fenced.
The money is always spent on housing. In the past couple of months we have attempted to buy housing that might suit Traveller-specific accommodation. The money might not have been spent on specific projects but we make the accommodation available in a roundabout manner. I hope the accommodation will still be delivered somewhere down the line. Yes, the money is still available. If a project is not completed this year or has not been started, we will make sure that the money will be found to complete such projects.
Let me give an example of what really happens. In my constituency of Cork North-Central, there is one site at Nash's Boreen where a family has lived unofficially in a field for nearly 30 years. The family has a child with leukaemia and she must regularly travel to Birmingham for treatment. Thankfully, she is in remission but she still needs to travel regularly. Storm Ophelia was a disaster for that family because it destroyed the roof of their caravan in which they still live. They also do not have a replacement portaloo. The council will not act because the family live unofficially on the site. I can confirm that the family would take Traveller-specific accommodation if it was offered to them and appropriate.
A couple of miles down the road on Spring Lane in Blackpool a site with ten bays has been built. I believe the Minister visited the location before Christmas. Two new generations live at the site. There are 31 families, comprising 126 people, 59 of whom are under the age of 12. The under-12s do not have a safe place to play. As many as 25 people do not have proper access to toilets or washing facilities. A national fire safety audit was carried out in the aftermath of the Carrickmines fire. The audit outlined that there were huge ongoing fire risks at the site in Blackpool. Some remedial steps have been taken since the publication of the audit. When there is such overcrowding, one cannot say that the issue has been properly addressed. Again, the site suffered a lot of damage when Storm Ophelia struck and as many as 20 caravans were severely affected. The council has offered second-hand caravans as replacements. The second-hand caravans are single glazed and are not the right fit for the site. The root of this problem is the 50:50 rule. In other words, the Department will pay 50% and the council will pay 50%. The council budgets have been slashed. Therefore, when one must spend on such a scale, the council can only offer second-hand caravans that are completely inadequate.
I now refer to the bigger picture. As many as 4,700 Travellers in this State live in shared or overcrowded accommodation. Traveller homelessness is also 11 times higher than that suffered by the rest of the population. Therefore, it is no surprise that the European Committee on Social Rights ruled against this State less than two years ago. In a landmark judgment, the committee found that the Government had violated Travellers' rights under the European Social Charter. It also stated that there was insufficient provision of accommodation, inadequate accommodation and an inadequate protection of rights in cases of eviction.
It was stated that funding took a bit of a hit during the downturn. That is a bit of an understatement. Pavee Point states that in 2008, €40 million was allocated for Traveller accommodation and in 2013 it was down to €4 million. This is a 90% cut when cuts to social programmes across the board and cuts to Government spending across the board for the State as a whole were closer to 4% or 5%. There has been a failure by successive Governments and on the local authority front, with the track record of some local authorities being particularly poor in this regard.
The discussion seems to be focusing on the idea of taking powers out of the hands of councils. Normally, I am very reluctant even to consider the idea of taking powers out of the hands of local councils, but where councils are not doing their job and human rights are not being respected, it is a different matter. Traveller organisations have raised the idea of An Bord Pleanála or other national bodies having the power to act on these issues. I would like to see more of a democratic check on this whereby whatever body might be put in place would have democratic representation, and this would include representation for Traveller organisations and groups that represent the interests of Travellers. I would like the witnesses to comment further on this idea because we are getting to the stage where it will need serious discussion and debate.
Deputy Barry has raised several issues specific to Cork and more general issues. I am not familiar with the case of the individual caravan in the field but I will certainly get it checked out. There is no reason for anyone to be living in a caravan without a roof. I would be surprised if it were the case and I would be disappointed with the situation. It is something we will look into. I would be surprised if it were exactly like that. It would not be good enough and it is not acceptable. There are plenty of schemes to deal with it and to accommodate those people properly. If it has been going on for 30 years, there is obviously a lot of history of which I am unaware and which the Deputy has probably not shared with the committee meeting. We will check this out. There is a difficulty in some cases with local authorities assisting families or people on unofficial sites, but in many cases they find a way to do so and step in, even when it is unofficial, to try to make the place safe and bring it up to a liveable standard, even though it is not permanent accommodation. I have visited unofficial sites where work has been done. It is not just because it is unofficial, but I am sure we will get to the bottom of the story.
I have visited Spring Lane and I have met most of the families there. I spent a few hours there with the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. We had quite a good engagement with all the families living there. I believe it is a site on which we can make progress. The site has a lot of history over a long number of years, and there is a combination of reasons that activity has not happened in the way it should. It is a case of getting all sides together around the table to make some decisions. Some realities also have to be faced. I spoke to families that day and we had a genuine conversation. While they might like to have all of their family members living on that one site, they recognise it might not be possible. We had this chat and discussion with them. It is about bringing this to a resolution and making progress. From what I can see, there is great potential to address the issue in Spring Lane, but it has gone on long enough. We met some of the council officials that day and my officials have visited Cork since. The Department of Justice and Equality is very keen to work with us on this, as are other Departments. I am determined we will find solutions for the specific site and all of the families living there. It will need greater co-operation from all sides and greater engagement. There have been many attempts to have this engagement but, for whatever reason, it has not happened satisfactorily. I am determined to take a personal interest in it and use it as a test case so that we can change this, and rightly so. I will not go into the whole history of the site here today, but it does have a lot of history and people have to take responsibility for this also. We will deal with this also.
The Deputy is right to say the budget for Traveller-specific accommodation was slashed. No one is denying this. Social housing capital across the board was slashed. This is why we have difficulties. I have been trying to say this for a long time. I wish we had a magic wand to put the money back earlier. We did not have the money, but as soon as the money came back, we tried to pump it into social housing through all the various schemes, including Traveller-specific accommodation. It is the only scheme of its nature with ring-fenced money. The budget needs to be increased and we will do this. Many of the other social housing provisions and budgets also provide accommodation for members of the Traveller community. We want to have more in the specific area of Traveller accommodation and we are doing this. No one is denying that the money was hit hard. This is factual. This was the case across every Department for a long number of years because there was no money. This is the bottom line. Thankfully, we are back in a situation now where people are working very hard and contributing taxes, so taxes are back up and we can spend the money wisely. Now that we have this increased money, it is important that we spend it wisely and that we get it spent and get results. This is why we have these reviews. This is what we are trying to do. That is what this conversation is trying to focus on.
The Deputy asked me to comment on what the recommendations should be. I am not going there because that defeats the purpose of setting up an expert group. I hope it comes back with solutions we can use and recommend. I welcome the support expressed here and ask people to do this if the report comes back with recommendations. The National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC, is the advisory group to me, or whoever has responsibility at the time. I work with it and listen to it. When it asked for this expert group, I agreed immediately. We will make a quick decision on this. It is not something on which we will delay.
With regard to Storm Ophelia and the damage it and other storms did to accommodation, we have asked local authorities to leave resources for specific accommodation needs that have been damaged and to let us know about it so we can make money available. There has been a review of the loan and grant scheme for the purchase of caravans. That was completed in the autumn. I signed off on it this week, and it will be available to committee members to look at once it goes to the NTACC today. It has to get first view of it. It includes recommendations on the scheme. If we can make changes here and have a standard model for how the scheme operates throughout the country, it could be very successful. It has worked very well in some areas and very badly in others. It should be able to provide a solution for people who have substandard caravans. It is a way of being able to get a grant or loan towards purchasing a new or second-hand caravan. We will work on this. Again, this is something people pay for themselves. We just operate a loan or grant scheme and we are happy to do so. I would like to see it working in a much better way. It is a good report, which the committee will get, and it might be something the members might want to discuss at the next committee meeting. We could not get it signed off in time for today.
Mr. David Silke:
I thank Deputy Barry for his comments. It is important to say with regard to the individual family living in the field that the Traveller population has grown over the past 20 or 30 years and the number of families living in unauthorised sites has remained constant at approximately 500. It is a big issue that has not been dealt with over time. A lot of Travellers have moved into Traveller-specific accommodation or standard local authority accommodation, but a substantial group of families are still living in unauthorised sites which, as has been described, are very unsuitable for people to live in. I hope the expert group will be able to examine what can be done to help these families.
An issue regarding Spring Lane was also mentioned. This is reflected in the report we conducted on the need to consult Traveller families about their long-term requirements. As families grow, their requirements change, and Travellers have a tradition of living close to their families. This is something on which local authorities need to reflect in their planning process to ensure Traveller-specific accommodation can deal with it.
I am concerned that I heard the Minister of State say that while he accepts there were cuts, there were cuts across the board. The budget was cut from €40 million to €4 million. This is a 90% cut. Politicians' pay was not cut by 90%. It was cut, but not by 90%. Other programmes were cut, and I might have opposed those cuts, but they were cut by far less than Travellers' programmes were cut, including education, training and youth programmes. I can reel out the statistics. There were cuts of 60%, 70%, 80% and 90%. We look at what needs to be done going forward, but we will not get things right unless we accept what happened in the past, and the fact the cuts made to Traveller programmes were on a scale not seen by other programmes in the country and were way above and completely disproportionate to the cuts implemented in other areas.
I oppose all these cuts, but this by far the most. I am asking the Minister of State to comment on that.
I will not get into petty arguments about politicians' wages and so on. Politicians' wages are linked to Civil Service grades and the cuts were implemented across the board. The reason they are linked is so that it is not our decision. That is how it is and most people agree with that process. Deputy Barry might not but this is not the place to deal with that. I have already said that the budget in this area was cut by too much. Every Department was cut and many programmes were slashed by the same percentage. I do not have the percentage of every budget cut in every Department across the board. I am saying they were cut too much. The reason we are here is to ensure that if the money is put back in, we can ensure it is spent. If Deputy Barry wants a history lesson, that is grand, and we can do it another day. I am focused, however, on how we spend money in the future and how we make the changes.
The key thing is that we are putting the money back in and that we do so as quickly as possible. I have spoken to committees repeatedly on the need to put the business case together to show that it can be spent. When I look for more money for this area, whether within the departmental budget or with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, I have to be able to show that we can spend it and that we will get it spent. If we can change the system and I can show that money can be spent, I will spend it on high-quality accommodation, and rightly so. If it has proper design and accommodates the needs of the Traveller community, then we can get more money. It is about being able to strengthen our position so as, first, to spend what we have, and second, win more money because that money has to be won and secured.
I am conscious of time. It was agreed in private session that we did not need to put a five-minute time limit on questions and answers as we usually do, but Deputy Barry has had 16 minutes and we are averaging around 12 minutes per person, which means we will eat into the second session of today's meeting. I ask members to ask questions which have not been asked and try to keep their contributions brief. I will have to move on from Deputy Barry as there are other speakers, three members of the committee and three non-members who wish to come in. I have included Senator Colette Kelleher as a member as she is substituting for Senator Grace O'Sullivan. Those remaining to speak are Deputy Cowen and Senators Kelleher and Boyhan, then Deputies Ellis and Ó Cuív and Senator Warfield. I ask members to bear in mind that we will eat into the second session if they do not keep contributions brief.
I have a brief question for Mr. O'Connor regarding the figures he gave for accommodation provided. Notwithstanding that they are below what was provided for, does he have a breakdown of the types provided? The units provided may not have been in line with the Traveller accommodation committee recommendations from the local authority. Management might have overridden the recommendations and offered conventional accommodation. Is there a breakdown by accommodation type and was it at variance with the recommendation of the local committee?
I am keen for Mr. O'Connor to see if it is possible to provide detail associated with the recommendation of a Traveller accommodation committee in the local authority and whether the accommodation provided was in line with that or whether the recommendation overridden and conventional accommodation directed by the executive.
I thank the Minister of State. We have had discussions and one led to the commitment to review the Act. A lot of statistics have been cited but we have to reiterate them because of the scale of the crisis for Traveller families. According to the last local authority count of 2016, almost 7,000 Travellers are either sharing housing, are in bays or are living in unauthorised halting sites. In 2016, the Residential Tenancies Board found that 82% of landlords consulted were unwilling to rent to Travellers while the local authority plan for Traveller accommodation has a preference for rental. Its preference is for rental but the landlords will not let. This is a massive problem. According to the 2016 census, seven times more Travellers are living in overcrowded situations compared with the general population. That has a knock-on effect on safety. I am sure that when the Minister of State visited Spring Lane, he saw how close and overcrowded it was and how overloaded the electricity is. They are death traps. It is happening in sites throughout the country and is something that resulted in the Carrickmines tragedy. According to the local Traveller accommodation plans, there is unspent money, which we have already discussed, but there is also money that has not been drawn down.
Does the Minister of State accept the scale of the problem and its urgency? It is an important point of understanding. The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act provides no sanctions against local authorities which do not take measures to provide accommodation for Travellers. According to the European Commission in 2002, that may weaken effectiveness. We know that it weakens effectiveness. We have heard all the statistics and the individual stories and situations. We must recognise the scale of the problem and the fact that the Act is not working. We have the review but it is disappointing that the group has not met yet. The report has to come as soon as possible. Every day that passes is a day longer for people living in inadequacy. There must be a sense of recognising that we have a massive problem and there must be a sense of urgency.
Deputy Barry mentioned the European Committee of Social Rights. There have been serial violations of Article 16 of the charter, which have been identified on five different grounds. This is writ large in Europe. I have just become a member of the Council of Europe. It is mortifying and shaming for all of us to be justifying what is not happening for people in terms of accommodation. We are very sensitive to what others think of us, but they do not think much of our record on Traveller accommodation. There is a lack of sanctions or will, money is not being spent and there is delay and waste. There is a huge lack of trust among the Traveller community that anything can or will happen and their trust is further breached with every day that passes. I want to get a sense of urgency from the Minister of State and for the expert group to meet. He is the Minister of State, he should tell them it has to be done within three months. Let us just get on with it and build the faith that we need. According to the census, the Traveller population of Ireland is 30,000 but it is probably more like 40,000. That is not a large number of people. Had we the will to do this right, we could do so.
I know Senator Kelleher's commitment to this. We have had a number of meetings on the subject and I know her commitment is genuine, so I will respond to her in that positive context. I also want the expert panel to be up and running. I have had a couple of meetings with the chair and members of the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee before Christmas and since in an effort to make that happen. I believe it is meeting today and I hope it will sign off on terms of reference today, and if not, at its next meeting. I have asked its members to do that. It is my advisory group. They are the people I want to sign off on the terms of reference. That is what they are there for. I cannot make them do it, but I know that they want to. Any issues have been sorted out and I expect that it will happen this week. All the members of the group are genuine and want the expert group to be set up. If it does not happen today, I believe it will happen during the month at its next meeting. I have made it clear that I want a report back as quickly as possible which is as much as I can do. After the members have been chosen and my Department has signed off on them, as it must do, my message to them will be to try to finish in three months. I do not see why it could not do that. A lot of good work has already been done with the agency report as well as other reports in recent years. Much evidence has been gathered, some of which Senator Kelleher quoted. There is plenty of information. We are looking for it to come back with recommendations on how to change this.
Senator Kelleher referred to the lack of trust. We are trying to change the system to build that trust back up and to earn it. I have also made it clear to all the stakeholders that there must be change and movement on all sides.
We must change the working relationship and decision-making process in some areas. As I stated, I met families living in the Spring Lane site, with which Senator Kelleher is also familiar, and made it clear to them that not all of the solutions they seek are feasible. I told them we had to find common ground and that there must be agreement to change. The families agreed to amend their position and more meetings with them are to be held. We must understand that there is no magic wand which will fulfil every desire but we can and must make a lot of progress. Some sites may not be able to accommodate all the families who wish to live there and we must accept that, move on and do something rather than do nothing. If we can strengthen the relationship and trust, we will be able to make progress and I wish to try to do so.
Many local authorities genuinely want to help on this issue, although some have not followed through on previous commitments. However, I acknowledge that previous Governments put money into this area when funding was available, which was probably in 2004 and 2005. I may not always compliment previous Fianna Fáil-led Governments but they allocated money to this issue and put plans in place for Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs, that could deliver up to 10,000 units, which would deal with much of the demand that exists. Approximately 10,000 families have a specific Traveller accommodation need and those plans aimed to meet that need. They fell short and delivered fewer than 7,000 but the ambition was there. In some cases the money was allocated but the project did not proceed. We will change the system to ensure such plans are followed through. Communities should realise that previous Governments attempted to invest in this area when resources were available, as will this Government. We must ensure we get the resources. Even when the money was there, we sometimes did not get the desired results. Some brilliant projects came through the system, some of which I have visited and which are managed extremely well. They work much better when caretakers are involved, they are well maintained and all residents agree to a standard of maintenance. That goes down very well and helps to get projects accepted by local communities, which is an area on which we must also work. I have visited other projects that are of very poor standard. I visited sites in Galway on which the accommodation standard is deplorable and unacceptable in terms of current living standards.
Senator Kelleher asked if I accept the scale and urgency of the problem. I accept that there is a serious problem in certain areas and that major changes are needed in that regard. The report presents the demands that exist in each county. Some have done quite well but others have not. The scale and urgency of the problem is very pressing in some counties and less so in others. We must take action where it is needed and that is what we are trying to do. We will not hold back in terms of the urgency required to tackle this issue.
Mr. John O'Connor:
As regards the private rental sector, we, along with the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee and the Residential Tenancies Board, produced a report last year on the experiences of Travellers in private rental accommodation and can make that available to the committee. In broad terms, two thirds of Travellers choose Traveller-specific accommodation or general social housing as their preference, while approximately one third prefer to move into general housing and the private rental sector.
Those seeking private rental accommodation very often do not say they are Travellers because they anticipate possible discrimination. Given there is so much reliance on the private rental sector, it is a serious problem if access to such accommodation is de facto ruled out because of discrimination. People should not have to pretend to be other than who they are. That is a major issue which must be addressed.
I had intended to deal with that point. Across several counties, quite a high percentage of homeless families are from a Traveller background, which proves Senator Kelleher's point about the difficulty in finding rental accommodation.
We do not intend to continue to rely on the private sector but have had no choice in that regard. Although money is being put back into public housing and other schemes, it takes time to get that accommodation up and running and we must, therefore, work with and rely on the private sector to a large extent in the early years. However, it is to be hoped that as we invest far more taxpayers' money into various housing solutions, we will not have to rely upon the private sector to the same extent and it will not have as much power. Senator Kelleher is correct that the figures indicate that quite a high number of families who are on the homeless list or in emergency accommodation are from a Traveller background. That is certainly the case in the greater Dublin region. It has been particularly difficult to get accommodation for those families and that is a reality with which we must try to deal.
I thank the witnesses and the Minister of State for their attendance. This is an important issue, which is one of the reasons for their attendance and why the committee decided to put this in our programme. I apologise for stepping out of the meeting. I was here earlier but had to attend the Seanad Committee of Selection to ratify some transfers and other items. However, I read the submissions and wish to home in on one or two areas. I mainly direct my questions to the Minister of State.
We are told that much of the delay in delivering Traveller accommodation is due to planning issues. As a member of a local authority for many years, I know there are many other reasons for such delay. There are several issues in this regard. We must carry out a root and branch analysis of all planning applications that have gone through a Part VIII process for approval and determine the stage such applications are at. Every local authority has included a Traveller accommodation programme, TAP, in its county development plan, as all members are aware. However, in many cases that is where it stops. The programme is included in the plan and all involved agree that the box has been ticked and the local authority has a Traveller accommodation programme. However, in some cases nothing further happens.
I wish to acknowledge that there are some very good Traveller accommodation set-ups. I lived very close to one with which its residents and the local community are exceptionally happy. As the Chair is aware, that Traveller accommodation, beside the soldiers and sailors public park in Monkstown, is very much a success story. Councillors, including myself, in conjunction with the council executive, decided to put a playground at the entrance to the Traveller accommodation site. The playground is used by everybody, regardless of their colour, creed, status, religion or anything else. It is a clear example that where resources and structures are put in place, such projects can be successful. The playground is being used. The Chair is familiar with it. Children know no division and do not seek divides among people. The commonality in that project is play and engagement, and Traveller children and other children - there is no such thing as ordinary children - are all engaging there. It is an example of how the siting of Traveller accommodation is of great importance. The people who live there are happy, as are local residents and the council. It is a beautiful park and a lovely playground. Such success can happen but requires engagement and constructive thinking. Many people asked why a playground would be situated there but children were playing in it within days of it being opened. I cite that example because I am familiar with it and pay tribute to those from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council who were involved in the project.
All members know of very successful Traveller accommodation in their own areas. We must get the model and sizing right. We must get people who are happy to live there. However, several Traveller accommodation sites which I have recently visited contain empty units that are boarded up with metal shuttering. When I contact the local authority regarding such units, I am given reasons such as suggested antisocial behaviour or inter-family rivalry. However, the Traveller community, their advocates, the Department and the committee must ask why such Traveller accommodation units are empty and why we cannot bridge the divide and get them reopened.
Perhaps the Minister of State might reconsider reviewing how many Part VIII applications have been made in each the 31 local authorities and how many have been approved. Part VIII applications have a continuous life. They do not end but, rather, stay there. They are approved. We should see why we cannot take action in regard to some of the approved Part VIII applications because to do so makes sense. They have been through a public consultation process and should be progressed. It is a big issue. Local councillors have let some programmes down. There has been opposition from all parties and none to some applications, which is unsatisfactory. However, there are successful projects throughout the country to which we must look and ask why they are successful. I cite the example in Monkstown Avenue which has a community playground at the entrance to the Traveller accommodation. The Travellers, the community and the council are happy. That is what we should be achieving everywhere and I ask the Minister of State to consider the example set by that site. We should conduct an analysis of all current Part VIII applications and then go back to the local authorities, tell them that engagement and consultation has been carried out, issues in regard to the acquisition of the necessary lands have been dealt with, and demand a scheme from each local authority. It would be great to be able to say that within the next few months we would have a scheme from each of the 31 local authorities. We must start somewhere, and that would be a start.
I thank the Senator for his comments. There are a number of reasons for delays in delivering projects. One is the planning process and another is site selection. There needs to be a commitment from all sides to make it happen as well as a conversation with all the various stakeholders about the realistic possibilities on a specific site and what is possible on a particular site.
The Senator mentioned that there are vacant properties. There can be different reasons that. We might not want to use a property or it might have been offered and it was refused for accommodation purposes, which happens with all social housing projects. In other cases, it relates to the management of the site, estate or accommodation in question. Rather than walk away from some of these problems because they are difficult to solve, we need to get around the table and solve them. From what I can see, in some cases due to the fact that everyone is very busy, they get put to one side for a while and suddenly that period becomes a year and then two years. We need bring focus to this issue through this committee, the expert group and the work of the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC, and track progress.
The Senator is correct regarding the need for an analysis of Part VIII proposals. We do a good deal of work on that in the Department. I can get the Senator a report on that. We track those proposals. I was asked by colleagues earlier what we are doing to make these happen while we are waiting for a new report. Part of that involves tracking some proposals that have been allocated money, granted planning permission and that have gone through the Part VIII process. We do that. I will get the Senator a report on that.
Like the Senator, I have seen plenty of projects that have worked extremely well and there has been a great acceptance of the various estates and projects by communities. That generally happens when they are well designed, built and maintained and everybody agrees to look after their area and then does so. With many social housing projects, regardless of whether they are Traveller-specific, there are difficulties with the planning process and with them being accepted by some communities. That applies to social housing projects across the board. Often we try to be upfront with members in explaining the reasons for delays on certain sites for rapid build housing. It can sometimes be down to a difficulty with planning and in getting a project accepted by a community. That is something we are working on to see if we can improve that process and bring more planning gain to it.
As the Senator said, a playground is a great example of a project that worked very well. That is a planning gain. That is the type of project we are looking at. It comes down to putting in place the right resources and the right team of people. Without doubt, the management and maintenance of accommodation and maintaining it to a high standard and quality for all the right reasons makes all these projects much more acceptable and we should also be able to get them through the system much more quickly. I will come back to the Senator with an analysis of the Part VIII proposals.
Neither I nor the Minister, Deputy Murphy or any of those in my Department are happy with vacant properties not being used, regardless of the social housing projects for which they were built. They should be utilised. We have made almost €150 million available in recent years to bring voids back into use. Most long-term voids have been dealt with, although there are still some short-term ones, and that includes Traveller-specific accommodation. It is not acceptable that accommodation that is available and ready for use lies empty. I cannot be any clearer than that. We have been very clear in sending out that message. Generally, local authority managers and teams accept that also and they have worked hard to bring many properties back into use. We have brought more than 7,000 voids that had been lying idle for a number of years back into the system. That is progress. It is not often talked about but it is good progress. We had voids in the first instance because of a lack of resources but we cannot let that happen again. We have made it clear to the local authorities that we must have a high level of maintenance to keep these properties in use all the time and to have a quick turnaround in their use. I understand the Senator's point, namely, that in certain areas specific accommodation can lie idle for other reasons as well, but that needs to be dealt with and not merely put to one side.
I would make two requests of the Minister of State for the benefit of this committee. He might report back on these requests as soon as he possibly can. I request an analysis of current voids in every Traveller accommodation scheme in the country. There are only 31 local authorities. My second request is that he would provide us with a comprehensive report of the proposals that have gone through the Part VIII process, which involves a public consultation planning process - in essence, the Part VIII proposals that have been completed. We should consider those two sets of analysis first because that is something we can achieve and turn around pretty quickly. The committee would be very interested in those two pieces of analysis.
I am delighted we are discussing this issue. The number of disgraceful situations around the country speaks for itself. We have a major problem. We had the Carrickmines situation which was one of the greatest avoidable tragedies that took place in this country. The aftermath of it, when the alternative accommodation was opposed by the local community, told us a lot.
The Bishop's Field halting site in Galway was found to be overcrowded on foot of an examination of it. Nothing is happening about it. There is a worse case in that a temporary halting site was provided on the Curragh Line beside a very large disused tip head, which had been used for Galway city for many years, and the Minister of State will be aware of the dangers associated with that. Galway County Council got planning permission of three years' duration for it. I supported that application at the time. The council did nothing in that three-year period, and a month prior to the end of the three-year period, it applied for a new permanent permission on an unsuitable site. We had the unusual situation of the Travellers and the local community traders going into the council and stating that the site could not be made permanent but that they accepted there should be an extension of the permission because there was nowhere else for them to go. They were literally put up against the wall. That was about four years ago. An Bord Pleanála scarified them and gave Galway City Council one year - the site is in Galway County Council's jurisdiction - to resolve the issue. Three years later the council has been in default on that. I must be critical of Galway County Council as it has not pursued enforcement in that respect with the same energy with which it would pursue other people who broke the law.
We have to face up to the facts. We cannot pussyfoot around this issue. There are local authorities throughout the country that will do anything to avoid facing up to this issue and then they wonder why there are illegal sites. I am not talking about the illegal one that this council has, which is the ultimate disgrace, but the reason people in other circumstances are forced to have unofficial halting sites. A procession of Travellers call to the clinic I hold in Galway every Monday. They find it harder than others to get private rented accommodation. Families with children in any event find it harder than families without children to get rented accommodation. I apologise for being long in making this point but I am sure the same issue is replicated around the country. There is also a feeling among those in the local authorities that do the job well that they will get a non-solvable problem because people will migrate from the local authority areas that are avoiding their responsibilities into the areas that are dealing with what they should be dealing with.
I believe in solutions to problems. We should stand back and take stock of a problem. The first consideration is the Traveller accommodation programme, TAP. For the moment, that should be left as it is. The local authorities should be allowed to prepare the TAP in the same way that they prepare the county plans. I presume that is subject to oversight by the Minister of State's Department or by the new planning regulator just as the rest of the plan will be. However, we must face up to a reality. In more than 90% of all other planning proposals, once the local authority elected members are finished with the proposed planning, the decision on individual planning proposals is not a matter for the local authority members. I would not altogether agree with Deputy Barry in that it is an unusual feature - it is exclusively because we are talking about local authority lands - that the permission is granted by a vote of the members as opposed to an independent body, namely, the executives in the council acting off their own bat or, if it is contentious, inevitably, An Bord Pleanála. Therefore, my firm belief is that this is not working. We threw money at this issue in the 2000s, as the Minister of State rightly pointed out, because we were told that a lack of funding was the problem, but that did not work. Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that planning for Traveller housing should go to where most planning proposals go if they are contentious, namely, to An Bord Pleanála, and it would be legally obliged to have regard to the TAP in making its decisions.
I hear about a long process being involved.
In County Galway the planning application for the Apple data centre is still very contentious. The vast majority of people want it to go ahead. In looking at the rules, the Government was very quick to state it would make adjustments. The reality is this Traveller planning issue has been going on for years and we have not made any decisions. Wishing and hoping people will do what people will not do is a waste of time. I am not convinced many local authority members want this particular power because, let us be honest about it, many of their constituents would rather close their eyes to a human rights injustice than see a hard decision made that might in some way impinge on them. It is time for decisions. If I thought we would get a decision and a process in place by the autumn of this year, I would be pleased, knowing the way the system works. Beyond this would be totally unacceptable.
We thought that by getting Travellers to avail of a voluntary housing company they set up themselves, we would get around this problem, but a new problem has arisen. To transfer local authority land to the voluntary housing company, a vote of the local authority is required. The council votes on the Traveller accommodation programme, TAP, and adopts it. After this, it should be like all other planning decisions. My belief is if we really want to tackle this problem, we should take the local authority members out of individual planning decisions.
How many of all the thousands of planning applications made to a local authority would go through if they had to go to local authority membership votes? How many of them would be subject to such pressure that they would be put on the long finger? Make it the same as everything else, whereby it is a third party system with An Bord Pleanála. The present system is archaic and anomalous. Why have democracy in this case when in no other planning cases do we have this type of democracy? We have democracy in the plan, but we do not have it in the executive decision on individual planning.
The Traveller accommodation budget in 2008 was approximately €40 million, and last year it was approximately €8.7 million. It has increased a small bit this year, but not by a great deal. What level of increase does the Minister of State hope for? It is clear we need to get back to 2008 levels at a minimum. If all social housing budgets were cut by 90%, why has the restoration for general housing need been far greater than the restoration of funding for Traveller accommodation? The performance against the drawdown on the part of local authorities was actually much greater when there was far greater money around in 2008.
Deputy Ó Cuív is absolutely right. There are too many disgraceful cases and this is why we are here. There are some great projects and some have been very successful, but some of the sites I have visited are nothing short of disgraceful, and I agree with the Deputy on this. He went through the history of a particular Galway site, which I have also visited. It is a failure - there is no other way to put it - that it has dragged on for so long. I find it hard to believe solutions cannot be found in the city of Galway to find accommodation for people. It is not acceptable and it is something we must deal with.
In saying this, while the site is temporary and people are there without permission now, the accommodation is not acceptable either. In some cases, people possibly cannot wait for a solution for the site without finding new accommodation and putting it on the site, because some of the accommodation is just disgraceful. It is not acceptable and people should not be asked to live in it. I have made this clear to the local authority also and we will deal with it to find solutions. There are different forms of temporary solution.
What the Deputy said is discussed in his clinics reflects what a lot of us also see in our clinics. A high percentage of people from a Traveller background find it extremely difficult. This is what Senator Kelleher also said earlier and I agree. There is a similar occurrence in my clinics. Again, this is why we are here and why we are bringing the focus of the committee, my focus and the focus of various experts to this through the NTACC to try to make this happen and make changes. It has been going on for a long time. I read reports from the early 1990s and before that, and we have not moved on enough on this. There have been some great projects in this time but not enough. This is not because of a shortage of money. It is because the progress was not there.
I agree the TAP is a good process to identify and make commitments on needs but it does not always make the selection of sites and deal with this end of it. I know from being involved as a councillor in my early days that there was difficulty in finding transient sites. If we are to bring solutions here, we also need to have some transient sites to accommodate in a much better way, which is acceptable to everybody, the culture of moving around from county to county, with proper transient sites that are well serviced and maintained for people who can book in and out. It would be much better than an ad hocsite without planning that can cause difficulties for everybody involved. The TAP process is good from this perspective. It does not always deal with planning issues or site selection, which is part of the problem also.
The Deputy has suggested solutions, which I will bring to the expert group. I will not prejudge its work, but a range of people here have suggested various solutions and they can all be looked at. It is very clear to me that everybody here wants solutions and wants to put us in a position to be able to spend money, and this is what we also want to do.
I agree absolutely that it has gone on too long. Originally we agreed to set up the first report and this has been completed for almost a year. Last July, I was asked if I would agree to an expert panel that would make changes that we would have to work on and I agreed absolutely. I agreed with it that day and did not wait for a second meeting. This process is taking longer than I would have liked, but we are at a stage now where an expert panel can be established quite soon, and there is no reason it should not report in the summer with decisions being made in the autumn at the latest. We are on the same timelines here. I do not see any reason for slippage. A lot of the evidence and research we need has been gathered, and it is just to make some firm recommendations and decisions. I am happy to work with the committee and share the process with it throughout the system. Someone asked about coming back and there is no problem. I will come back as often as the committee wants me to on this issue. We all have to refocus here, because the standard of accommodation in some of these cases is not acceptable. Again, I want to be very clear that it needs everybody, all stakeholders and all sides, working together to find solutions.
With regard to whether we make quick changes on data centres, this is not technically true. We set out a commitment to make changes, the same as I have set out today. These changes must go through the Houses of the Oireachtas and they will be in the Seanad on Report Stage, with some recommendations and amendments that may not pass. We have not made the changes but we have made a commitment. Likewise, I am making a very strong commitment here, as is the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, that we want changes to make this happen and get this money spent and make this progress. This is what we can do as a Government. The process has to go through the Houses and I respect the process. I recognise the commitment of the committee in this area. It can be difficult for some people, but the committee is very strong and clear on this, and it is good to have this support in doing our work.
To answer Senator Warfield, I did not go into the percentage of every budget. They have all been slashed too much across all of the services, never mind just housing. Any budget for providing services, including education, to people who need them have been cut and slashed far too much. The aim here is to put the money back in as quickly as possible. I do not have a target of what I want to get back to. When the money was allocated by previous Governments, they were complimented on it but it was not always spent. Over a five-year TAP process we saw money spent in the last two years but not necessarily in the first three years, and the reports reflect this. There have been various degrees of 80% and 90%, and it probably hovers at approximately 80% in most years. It is not enough and it has dropped a lot lower in recent years.
I have no problem fighting for an increased budget, and we will get it because there is a commitment. It has been gradually increasing over recent years, with an extra €3 million this year. It will not be enough, but if we cannot spend what we have, it will not help me make the argument for more money. This is why I want to be able to have a stronger business case so that when I go to my Department for various discussions on social housing projects and when we go to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to look for more money, and we have a lot of money ring-fenced for housing in the coming years, we are able to show, as we have to be able to, that we can spend it in a proper and high-quality way, with high design that is acceptable to everybody and brings in solutions. This commitment is there.
Eventually, we probably need to go beyond the money allocated in 2008 and 2009, when we can get there, but this is about the process of making sure we get it spent and that we can find Traveller-specific accommodation that is acceptable to the Traveller community and that the members of the community like and want, that they are part of that decision-making process, and that they also understand that some sites have a limited amount of space and some do not. However, we must plan enough to deal with the demand for Traveller-specific accommodation and other types of accommodation they want according to various research.
There was one last question about performance. We will try to track the performance of the various local authorities in this. Some of them are extremely good at this and put considerable work into it. Some local authorities have met barriers they have not been able to overcome. We are trying to help them through that. Not all local authorities have the same commitment. There is a variance. We want a standard approach across the system. Everybody needs to live up to their responsibilities here. In some cases there is an avoidance of responsibility. In some cases it can be difficult to get solutions. That is no reason not to find solutions. We need to make it happen.
Mr. John O'Connor:
In response to Deputy Ó Cuív, the report highlighted the long delays in the provision of Traveller accommodation. That is a major issue in delivering new Traveller accommodation and improving the quality of existing Traveller accommodation.
In response to Senator Warfield, the underspend was highlighted by the report and needs to be addressed.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, Mr. David Kelly from the Department, and Mr. John O'Connor, Mr. David Silke and Ms Roslyn Molloy from the Housing Agency for attending again this morning and for their ongoing engagement. We look forward to receiving the further clarification the members requested.
I welcome from the National Travellers Women's Forum, Ms Bridget Kelly and Ms Maria Joyce; from the Irish Traveller Movement, Ms RoseMarie Maughan and Ms Bridget Casey; from Pavee Point, Mr. Patrick Reilly and Mr. Martin Collins; and from the County and City Management Association, CCMA, Mr. Michael Walsh and Mr. Seamus Hanrahan.
A video of approximately three and a half minutes will be shown as part of the presentation. This will be followed by a short statement. The three organisations have agreed to share their time to accommodate the video.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that Members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or any official by name in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call Ms Maughan to make her presentation.
Ms RoseMarie Maughan:
On behalf of the Irish Traveller Movement and ITM members, we welcome the opportunity to present our perspective on the Traveller accommodation crisis. We are here to bring solutions that have come from our community, and it is unfortunate that we have run out of time within this session due to the overrun in the first session. We are hopeful that we will get the time to outline our solutions in the discussion period.
We welcome the report commissioned by the Minister of State, Deputy English, into funding for Traveller-specific accommodation and the implementation of Traveller accommodation programmes. We also welcome his decision on the advice of the NTACC to review the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act. However, we are mindful that this Act was reviewed in 2004 and today we are bringing the same recommendations to the committee.
Despite the requirements within the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 to address the cultural needs of our community, we have experienced long-term insufficient accommodation provision within the State. As already mentioned, in May 2016, the European Committee of Social Rights found that Ireland was in breach of its obligations regarding provision of accommodation, living conditions and eviction rights by not having the safeguards that should be in place for evictions. In the resolution adopted in October 2016, the committee concluded that Ireland violated Article 16 of the charter under five grounds.
To date no directive or amendment to policy or practice has been put in place by the State to redress those violations. That needs to be addressed by the expert panel as a matter of urgency.
The European Committee of Social Rights also found there was a not insubstantial shortfall of transient accommodation across the country, and of the 1,000 transient bays identified as needed in the 1995 task force report, only 54 are in existence nationwide and are not functioning as proper well-managed transient sites. Hearing the comment and commitment of the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the delivery of transient accommodation is most welcome to the Irish Traveller Movement and its members.
In the 20 years since the Act came into effect, the delivery expected under the overseeing monitoring body, the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC, governed by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, has not happened. In fact, NTACC has overseen consistent underdelivery and underspending. Nothing happens, except that the Travelling community continues to live in Third World conditions. This has not been addressed. We are hoping for charge during the upcoming review of the Act.
Figures are not available to us for 2016 and 2017, but I want to outline some of the trends since the development of the Traveller accommodation programmes which came into place in the year 2000. Although I will focus on the statistics, it is important to note that the community is suffering and many Travellers are living in Third World conditions, with their cultural needs not being recognised and catered for. This must change. My colleagues will focus further on that.
It is welcome that we can broadcast our video because figures paint a picture but seeing people living under those conditions, which they do day in, day out, and seeing little children struggle with them gives the committee members a flavour of the reality that Travellers are facing. During that period the number of Traveller families counted by the State as in need of accommodation has more than doubled. However, the number of Traveller families living on unauthorised halting sites has halved. That looks promising if it were not for the fact that the number of people sharing overcrowded housing rose from approximately 1,000 people in the year 2000 to approximately 4,724 in 2016.
Since the year 2002, there has been an almost threefold increase in the number of Traveller families sharing housing. There has been almost a 16-fold increase in the number of families who are now living in private rented accommodation, which is not permanent secure accommodation. That cannot be deemed as meeting the target in the Traveller accommodation legislation. It is neither permanent nor culturally appropriate accommodation. The number of families in specific group housing schemes has only doubled.
The recent review report found that the option of living in private rented accommodation is "extremely difficult for Traveller families to access", yet we know that some local authorities use private rented housing as the alternative to staying on a waiting list for Travellers wanting culturally appropriate specific homes. These local authorities use the option of private rented accommodation as a means of reaching their targets, which as I have said is not the same as providing permanent, safe, secure and culturally appropriate accommodation for Travellers. The local authorities are not meeting their targets.
There has been a critical rise of homelessness, with 517 Travellers affected, which is 11 times higher than the rise experienced by the general population in the past five years. Homelessness is three times higher for Travellers compared with the doubling of homelessness for the majority population.
The figures clearly show that in the 16 year period up to 2015, the policy adopted set low targets for developing Traveller-specific accommodation, such as halting sites, group housing and transient sites, whereas high targets were set and have been overdelivered on standard housing. There has been a lack of adequate planning for population growth and inaction on overcrowding and homelessness. We have all heard stories and there have been case studies of the impact of overcrowding on the health and safety of families. No child deserves to live in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. We need to identify overcrowding as a problem to be addressed in the planning process throughout the country.
There is no reference to the delivery of transient accommodation to facilitate nomadism. Overall there has been underdelivery of targets for Traveller accommodation by local authorities coupled with underspending of the allocated budgets.
I will discuss in detail areas of consistent underdelivery, use of temporary accommodation and lack of Traveller-specific provision, which is widespread. Some 963 families, comprising approximately 4,700 men, women and children are sharing or living in overcrowded accommodation. The highest recorded numbers in 2016 were in the county council areas of Carlow, Kerry, Limerick, Meath and Wexford, and in Cork City Council. In the review report, local authorities agreed overcrowding was an issue leading to “health and safety concerns” and all stakeholder groups agreed “that the future assessment of need for Traveller families was unfit for purpose".
Twenty-six out of a total of 31 local authorities responded to the survey under the review that we are discussing today, and only 22 had all the data needed to answer all the questions in the survey. This could suggest a level of disregard in some local authorities. Since the Act came into force, only 68% of units were provided and €55 million from the allocated budgets went unspent. We have all heard of the level of underspending and the lack of sanctions for this failure. The local authorities that continue to fail in spending the allocation in their budgets year after year are not directed to address this failure. The failure to spend the money allocated in the budget to address Traveller accommodation must be a priority area to be addressed. We welcome the recommendation of imposing sanctions on local authorities that continue to underspend their budget allocation.
In the past two decades, increasingly regressive eviction legislation has been introduced, whereby speedier and harsher forced evictions are permitted against Travellers or transient families living by the roadside. These eviction laws have been passed and used even though the Government has failed in the past 20 years to implement Traveller accommodation programmes to provide permanent and transient halting sites and other accommodation to Travellers, thereby criminalising and eroding the nomadism which is an important element of the cultural identity of Travellers. That element of Traveller culture needs to be recognised and prioritised as there is no well-managed and maintained transient accommodation to be used for that purpose.
I have some suggested solutions, but to facilitate the showing of the video, I am willing to share them as part of the discussion.
Ms Bridget Kelly:
The National Traveller Women's Forum welcomes the opportunity to address the meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. We will begin the presentation with a video of Ms Angela Delaney speaking of her experience of living on a temporary site outside Galway.
Ms Bridget Kelly:
Angela has first hand experience of living in substandard and dangerous conditions, with rat infestation, contaminated water and no or poor sanitation facilities. Overcrowding and unsafe living conditions are the reality for many Travellers living throughout the country, as well as the isolation they experience by being placed on the outside of towns, often in completely unhealthy environments, such as the dump at Carrowbrowne or near a crumbling cliff in Spring Lane. Spring Lane in Cork is home to 31 families and 12 single adults. The site is seriously overcrowded with very poor sanitation facilities. The living nightmare of sites such as this is having a detrimental impact on Traveller health and well-being and on the right of their children to thrive as equals.
There has been a gross failure of delivery of Traveller accommodation, with no sanctions imposed on local authorities for not meeting their own targets. Even when plans are agreed and funding is available, there are long and unreasonable delays in building getting started, as can be seen with the current situation with Labre Park in Ballyfermot. The high number of families living without permanent accommodation or in inadequate accommodation has particular consequences for Traveller women and children. Women spend more time in the home and are the primary carers so they bear the brunt of having to cope with conditions such as poor or no sanitation, no running water, no refuse collection and especially no safe play areas for the children. Accommodation is one of the key determinants of health, and the appropriate type and standard of Traveller accommodation impacts greatly on life expectancy. According to the all-Ireland Traveller health study, almost one in three households living in temporary accommodation has no sewerage facilities and one in five has no piped water source. A review of fire safety in Traveller accommodation in September 2016 found that 76% did not have a working smoke alarm, 72% did not have a working carbon monoxide alarm and the condition of electrical installations was an issue in 78% of the sites.
According to 2016 Government statistics, 536 families are now living in unofficial, unrecognised and unserviced accommodation and 1,876 families are sharing housing, sharing bays or living on unauthorised or basic service halting sites. Young Travellers are living in dangerous, substandard and inadequate accommodation where there is serious overcrowding. Unauthorised sites are where Travellers are forced to live on the roadside or in other poor environments. We could substitute the word "sharing" for Travellers living in chronic overcrowding. The term "basic service bays" refers to sites that are often rat infested and have poor facilities. These Travellers are in effect homeless but they are not reflected in the Government's statistics on homelessness. Their number was three times higher in 2016 compared with the 2011 census. We have had almost 20 years of failed accommodation programmes.
Mr. Martin Collins:
Pavee Point submitted two documents late yesterday at around 4.30 p.m. I apologise for that but I hope members received them. I do not propose to read the documents now but I will make a few overarching points. My colleagues, Rose Marie Maughan from ITM and Bridget Kelly from the NTWF, put the issues in context very well, as did Angela Delaney. That personal testimony is very powerful and could be replicated hundreds of times, if not thousands of times, across the country in terms of Travellers' experience with accessing accommodation.
We have just emerged from a very cold spell. We had Storm Ophelia a few months ago as well as the beast from the east and Storm Emma last week. We saw on RTE television and on other media outlets stories about pipes being frozen, leaking pipes, people being without water and tanks being brought into estates by local authorities so people can get access to water, and rightly so. People have a human right to access clean running water. However, this is a daily occurrence every winter for Travellers. When exposed pipes are frozen or burst, Travellers must go to garages to get water to clean their children, wash themselves, feed themselves and prepare food.
No local authorities come onto the sites with tankers. This goes unnoticed and certainly gets no publicity. Travellers, as a result of this, are going to use swimming pools to wash themselves as well, if they are lucky enough to get in. Many swimming pools will not allow Travellers in. This happens every winter. It is not a once in every 15 or 20 years event as was the beast from the east or Storm Ophelia. That is the reality for hundreds of Travellers. There are 5,000 Traveller men, women and children living in substandard primitive conditions. The United Nations, UN, and other human rights bodies have said this constitutes a human rights violation.
It is important that we retain that language. These are human rights violations. This Oireachtas, this Government and this State, as my colleagues have said, continually fail Travellers in respect of access to culturally appropriate, adequate and secure accommodation, whether that is group housing schemes, halting sites or conventional housing. That is the reality. We need to hold on to that language. It is a human rights abuse. We welcome the review of the Act and think there is an implicit recognition there by the State and the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and Minister of State, Deputy English, that what is there is not fit for purpose. I would describe it as shambolic. What is happening to my community as a result is shameful and an indictment on society.
Ms Maughan alluded to the European Committee of Social Rights where Ireland was found wanting on five grounds in respect of inadequate provision, lack of legal protections around evictions and so forth. Our starting point is the principle needs to be that what is there is not fit for purpose. It is broken. It is inherently fragmented and we need a new approach. If we can establish and accept that principle, that we need a new approach, then we can begin to negotiate in a constructive way what should replace that.
I disagree with everybody here. I am for decentralisation and local democracy. However, in this context local democracy has not worked for my people. It means more local democracy and less rights for Travellers. That is the reality. The evidence is overwhelming. There is a need for a new approach in respect of Traveller accommodation provision. We know there are going to be local elections next year in the summer of 2019. We know the present Traveller accommodation programmes come to an end at the end of this year. I urge the Government not to synchronises those events and not to try to develop or adopt Traveller accommodation programmes to coincide with a local election. We all know what is going to happen. Travellers are going to be used as a political football, as we have been all of our lives.
Unscrupulous politicians, of which there are many, let us be honest about this, will use this to garner some cheap political votes. It is reckless, irresponsible and potentially incites hatred. Somebody spoke about political leadership. We need more political leadership at a time like this. Travellers feel let down and disillusioned by the system. When I say the system, I mean the Oireachtas, the State and the Government. I hope that advice will be taken and the two processes separated.
Accommodation continues to be the most visible manifestation of the ongoing racism and exclusion of Travellers in this society. Ms Delaney spoke about being forced to live on the side of tip heads, dumps and in remote isolated areas with no running water and no sanitation. It is the opinion of many, and indeed the UN human rights bodies, that it continues to be the most visible manifestation of the ongoing racism and exclusion experienced by Travellers. There has been much commentary on that. Accommodation under international law is not just a stand-alone right. Any human rights expert will say that it is an enabling right. Having adequate accommodation allows people to access other rights such as access to education, employment and health care. It is a linchpin. It is not a stand-alone right. Sometimes we lose sight of that. In our discussions around this, we need to make those connections in respect of enabling other rights in health, education and so forth.
I work with a lot of good people in local authorities as well as public representatives and officials. However, they are operating in a system that is fundamentally flawed and they will say that privately. Some people say that supporting or voting for Traveller accommodation would be akin to a turkey voting for Christmas. That is why I am suggesting we need to decouple the local elections and the adoption of Traveller accommodation programmes in 2019. Overall, there is a culture of impunity. Nobody is held to account. All we get is a systems failure. No individual is held to account. I refer to the private sector where there are key performance indicators, KPIs, which need to be met. I am not saying we should privatise because we know what happened with privatisation and the overreliance on that, so while I am certainly not advocating that, I am using it as an example. There is no accountability. No individuals are brought to account. There is a culture of impunity. Plans do not get implemented and there are no sanctions and no penalties. That sends out a serious and dangerous message that this sort of behaviour is acceptable.
Chief executive officers of local authorities have an executive function. They have the power to override the elected members if they fail to implement Traveller accommodation programmes. We need more leadership from the chief executive officers of local authorities. They need to do the right thing and implement the Traveller accommodation programme if the elected members fail to do it. That power is not being utilised to the extent it should be. I remind people of that. Also, in the absence of local authorities fulfilling their obligations, there needs to be a moratorium on evictions. No evictions should be carried out. We saw that as a result of the terrible tragedy in Carrrickmines where ten people in our community lost their lives, there was a pathetic response of giving a fire alarm there, a fire blanket here and a little hose there. I am sorry to say our community colluded with that. I am embarrassed by that. It was like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic when these sites are fundamentally and inherently dangerous for people to live on. A major investment and refurbishment programme is needed, not a little alarm here, a fire blanket there and a hose there. That was inexcusable and indefensible.
While I have an audience, I will continue. I know we are operating in the frame around the review of the provision of and funding for Traveller accommodation. However, there is also a sizeable Roma population in this country. The most recent national Roma needs assessment, published by Pavee Point, spoke about the accommodation needs of Roma. Many are living in vacant buildings and abandoned cars. They are being let down by local authorities under housing Circular No. 41/2012. In all fairness to the local authorities, they are not responsible. It is a circular from the Department of the Housing, Planning and Local Government that imposes huge restrictions on what local authorities can and cannot do to meet the housing needs of the Roma community. We are looking for that circular to be repealed.
I thank Mr. Collins. I was lenient with opening statements. Normally, we only allow 12 minutes maximum. However, I wanted to make sure that, if we did run out of time, the witness got to say everything he wanted on the record. That is why I was lenient with the time. I call Mr. Walsh.
Mr. Michael Walsh:
I thank the committee for the invitation. I am joined by Mr. Seamus Hanrahan, who is the senior architect with Limerick City and County Council. We share many of the concerns expressed here. We are caught in the middle of the storm in many respects, so we welcome the review the Housing Agency has completed and, equally, the review of the Act and the expert panel that has been put in place. I hope that will be in the next short while. We do broadly share the view that significant change is needed.
It is a matter of record that the drawdown of funding, if we want to measure it in the context of performance over recent years, has not been what it could have been. Ironically, if it is to be fairly expressed, looking at the Housing Agency report, in the earlier years in the first two TAP programmes, the targets were met 70% or 80% in the generality. It may not have been entirely in respect of the type but the funding drawdowns and otherwise were reasonably successful. What has happened in the past seven or eight years post recession is that the budgets have plummeted at one level and at the other level, ironically, the drawdown has plummeted as well in the context of those budgets. There is a message in that.
The reason for that is always multifaceted. The simple reality is that the local authority system took a severe pruning post-recession, the housing area in particular. The pressures in that broad area, both in Traveller and standard accommodation, are significant. We are trying to manage all our services with 20% less staff and with significantly reduced normalised budgets. Traveller-specific budgets have been reduced as well. All of those elements in a sense are contributing to that.
I will pick up on the budget scenario in a minute. Some elements are contentious. There are definitely issues. Our colleagues here, Mr. Collins, Ms Maughan and Ms Kelly, sit on the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC, as well.
We have met a lot of the local Traveller accommodation consultative committees and it is very obvious that our partnership is pretty good in those spaces. We probably agree on this. The thing delivers reasonably well. Where it is not happening in those spaces, it does not work that well. That is the simple reality.
In many respects the problem is reflected here. Members will have seen it in the video. Local elected representatives merely reflect the chasm between the settled community and their acceptance of Traveller accommodation. We are sitting in the middle of that storm and we find that really difficult to resolve in the majority of cases. For example, Mr. Collins said that the chief executives should do more with their powers, but it is even more complicated than that, as was outlined. Deputy Ó Cuív averted to the difficulty whereby there is decision-making power on one side of the issue but not where the land issue is concerned. It is not quite as simple as a need for the chief executives to do more.
We really want a situation where Traveller accommodation is delivered in a relatively normal fashion as a part of standard procedure, not by imposition. Imposition automatically hardens reservations or poisons relations with the other side. The simple reality is that chief executives, myself included, are very slow to resort to that, because it is a space from which there is no coming back. We need to get to a point where we can start delivering appropriate Traveller accommodation on the basis of acquiescence and understanding from the respective communities.
There are a few issues which have to be addressed. I would not object to more evidence-based research here because we have to change the things that are informing the view of the settled community and creating the resistance. We also have to change the dialogue. Some of these issues are merely perception in many instances. However, we have to do something societally to change those perceptions. The maintenance of the existing sides is impinging on people's perception of the situation of the Traveller community. Wherever the fault lies, if we are to use that word, the settled community perceives that Traveller-specific accommodation has a significant impact on them. This must be addressed somehow.
There is another element which I think is significant. Travellers have either aggregated into urban areas or they have been forced to. Their natural cultural relationship with horsemanship, if I could use that language, is a locus of conflict, because there are two competing tendencies here. One is Travellers' wish to sustain solely residential settled occupation, and the other is activity around horses. That is an inherent part of their culture. Somehow we have to talk about that issue and create a solution that satisfies both parties. From my perspective, that dialogue is not really happening at the moment.
At the moment, the system is pushing solutions that frankly do not meet the needs of the Traveller community. We must somehow change this system so that it does meet these needs, and we must do so in a way that creates genuine understanding. To be fair, that is happening in some areas, but in other areas the chasm is just too great. That is simply reflected across the political system. We must create another dialogue. I see this review, the review of the Act and the expert panel as an opportunity to commence that dialogue and to try to create the necessary fundamental change.
There are other practical issues here. The complexity of funding and approval systems have a bearing on this. The Traveller community perceives local authorities to have a budget. We do not have a budget. The Oireachtas votes a budget annually and we make an application for an element of that budget. For example, in the current year we will be informed what the allocation to the individual local authorities will be. That allocation is from a Vote of very limited funding. Last year I had a budget of €500,000, of which only €38,000 was drawn down by the end of the year. There was €500,000 to spend, but there was a period between the allocation of funding and the projects we had to do. I would not argue that we pursued these goals as quickly as we could have. However, local authorities must go through processes related to procurement, getting contractors on site and consultation with the Traveller community before a project can be executed. I accept that, in some respects, those are excuses. If I had one appeal it would be to change the process to one of multi-annual funding or some other structure. In the earlier meeting, it was noted that in previous years of the Traveller accommodation programme, TAP, the spend came at the end of the year. That reflects the need for planned progression of spend. The Traveller accommodation programme involves a process of identifying sites and moving forward with them. The reality is that it takes two or three years and the spend only comes at the end of the TAP. The answer to that is to make the budgets multi-annual and allow them to function as a continuum.
I wish to make a couple of other points. I am not certain that the Traveller representatives would agree with this, but from my point of view, having some sort of standardised template for the nature of the different types of accommodation to be provided would help to streamline the process. We need not try to reinvent the wheel. I am not saying there would not be architectural involvement in changes of layout etc. I refer to the type of basic specifications that we are moving towards in standard social housing. It does not mean that the houses will look the same. However, there will be basic specifications for the facilities to be provided. If those were agreed at national level, it would certainly help to streamline our activities.
In response to a point raised by Deputy Ó Cuív, I would not object to another approach that would go through the normal planning processes. The Part VIII process is a difficulty here. The committee should have no illusions about that. I refer to the approved housing bodies AHBs. I am conscious of CENA and the difficulties it has had in some places, but I would welcome more of that. It facilitates another entity, ideally on private lands, making an application through the normal planning processes, with An Bord Pleanála having the final say. We would welcome that.
Moreover, the overall budgets need to increase significantly. There is no point in saying otherwise. The Traveller community's overall housing need, demand and population is increasing, and we have to address that collectively. I make that point in the context of the reduced budgets in recent times. This is hard to explain, but sometimes it is easier to deliver a €3 million scheme than a €300,000 scheme. The €3 million scheme gets the resources and full application. I will cite a specific example, and I know there are many similar cases. I have one halting site for which I need between €2 million and €3 million. It is very difficult for anybody at Department level to sign off on expenditure of €3 million in any one year, when the national budget was between €6 million and €8 million a year or two ago and is now €9 million. That quantum of money must be increased.
We are not talking about large-scale solutions but we need to get back to the early parts of the Traveller accommodation programme, TAP, programmes where there was €80,000 or €90,000 per unit on average. That is the reality if one wants to provide proper solutions and the quality of accommodation the community requires. That scale of intervention is needed. It is not doable for €20,000 per unit. In today's terms, €100,000 per unit is required to deliver Traveller-specific accommodation. We need to think in those terms and get back to that budgetary place. I thank the Chair.
Mr. Seamus Hanrahan:
From the perspective of Limerick City and County Council, we also welcome the report and agree with the vast majority of the recommendations coming from it. Specifically, from an architectural perspective, which is my background, the discussion about standardisation of unit types is quite interesting. The discussion around culturally appropriate accommodation gets to the nub of the issue. The examination of that needs far more research and investigation. A good study done in 1993 and Pavee Point was involved with it, namely, The President Robinson Awards for the Design of Traveller Accommodation. That started to look at the issue of culturally appropriate accommodation. The expert panel could make reference to that and build on the research that was done at that period to try to get a full and common understanding of what culturally appropriate accommodation actually is.
I refer to funding from the Limerick City and County council's perspective. To take Mr. Walsh's point, back in the second TAP period, we spent over €15 million, with a budget of €15 million. There was a significant spend in that period and it was in many ways easier to spend a larger amount of money. However, we have been overspending on our current budgets for the last four years. There was €508,000 allocated and we have spent €560,000. There are instances where the budget is being fully accounted for.
I thank the witnesses for the presentations. The committee members fully understand the witnesses frustrations that they are back here again talking about the same stuff that they were talking to the committee about in the Dáil Committee on Housing and Homelessness two years ago and all the previous occasions. The committee also understands, and maybe "suspicion" is not the right word, that the witnesses may want to welcome the review but that there is a nervousness that it is another review and it may not resolve the issues. The reason this committee has decided to do this piece of work is because it wants to try to make sure that this time things genuinely change. A number of the members of the committee have been talking and we are very keen that this will not be a one-off meeting but that the committee will meet in this format on a number of occasions throughout the piece of work of the expert group and the Government's follow up so that we can support and, as Senator Kelleher said, push it along at a faster speed.
My question to the Traveller advocacy organisations relates to the expert group. Obviously there is long list of things that the witnesses would like to see changed, but if there was something they really wanted to prioritise in terms of a change that would come out of that expert group or the Government's actions afterwards, what would they like that to be? The committee members could to try to focus on one or two key issues. I appreciate that all the issues Mr. Collins raised are important but it would help for the committee to have a sense of his priorities in all that.
Mr. Walsh knows me well. I am a very strong advocate of the local authorities and I defend the local authorities very strongly, often when they are coming in for unfair criticism. This is one area where I am a strong critic. It is not because I want to beat up on local government. It is because the record is really poor. I understand the delays with approval, tendering and procurement but last year, for example, the Department had to come back to the Oireachtas looking for an extra €100 million because, by and large, local authorities were exceeding their general needs social housing targets yet we see that last year, they had the biggest underspend in Traveller accommodation budgets for quite some time.
Mr. Walsh mentioned his own local authority and it is a case in point. I have the figures for the last three years here. In 2014 there was a budget allocated of €413,000, none of it was spent. The following year there was a budget of €263,000, but only 5% of that was spent. Then last year only 4% was spent. I am not picking on Waterford but what I do not understand is how, for example, Limerick significantly overspent last year and in the two years previous. Last year, Limerick spent nine times what its allocation was. How is it that some local authorities perform better than others?
I absolutely accept multi-annual funding. That is eminently sensible. Some of the suggestions around template designs are workable solutions but is Mr. Walsh suggesting, and I think he was at the end, that we should move away from Part 8? If Traveller accommodation applications are then put, for example, through the standard process, how can we get over the land issue, the section 183? If standard planning is used for Traveller accommodation, would managers be willing to step in and use their powers or are new ministerial powers needed to ensure the land is provided? How will that circle be squared?
I thank the witnesses for coming in and for their presentations. I am a Deputy for the Cork North-Central constituency. As I mentioned to the Minister when he was in earlier on, Cork North-Central is the constituency that contains Spring Lane, Blackpool and Nash's Boreen. I notice from some of the handouts that I have been given, that those halting sites, had been highlighted as case studies of what is wrong and what is shameful, in how issues have been dealt with. I strongly agree with those points.
I listened to the points raised by Mr. Walsh about resistance and opposition from within the settled community being an issue and a problem in terms of resolving Traveller accommodation issues. I am familiar with that. Yes, that is an issue, but the point is, it cannot be an excuse and it does not explain the situation. It does not explain the fact there was €40 million for Traveller accommodation in 2008 but that it was cut to €4 million. There was a 90% cut in the middle of the austerity years. It does not address the issues raised by the European Committee on Social Rights, that there are human rights violations taking place here. Where there are human rights violations taking place, whatever needs to be done in order to resolve them must be done. That is my first question. It is addressed to any or all of the representatives of the Traveller groups here today.
I refer to the question of taking powers out of the hands of local authorities and giving powers to a body that is charged with resolving issues, and An Bord Pleanála has been mentioned. Could the witnesses give more information and detail as to what they would like to see in that regard? I made the point earlier to the Minister that I would normally be extremely reluctant about taking powers from local authorities, but if there are human rights violations, that is a strong argument to say this has to be considered now. I would like to hear more from the witnesses on how they would see that panning out.
The second question I have, again for any or all of the representatives of the Traveller groups, relates to Storm Ophelia. Mr. Collins mentioned it in passing when he was talking about the weather crisis last week and what Travellers have to deal with on a regular basis. It is a number of months since Storm Ophelia but I am struck by the number of people who are living in caravans that do not have a proper roof, the number of people who have been offered second-hand caravans with single glazed windows, caravans that are the wrong size for the halting sites and so on and the number of people who are still in emergency accommodation. Do the witnesses have any more information on the number of people who are still in emergency accommodation after Storm Ophelia? I would like to hear more about how that storm affected the community as well as the events of last week.
I have a final question which might seem a little bit off beat for a discussion at the housing committee but it is becoming more of an issue. I have always noticed in my dealings with the Traveller community that there was an awareness, which was particularly strong among women, that Travellers would not be second class citizens anymore and there was a determination to fight against that. It struck me from a number of dealings that I have had with young Travellers in recent times that that seems to be becoming a quite powerful feeling among young Travellers, in particular. I had a conversation with a group of young Travellers around the time of the Standing Rock Native American protest in the United States. They were extremely knowledgeable about it and talked about how members of the LGBT community in Ireland are now standing up for their rights as are other minority groups in Ireland and around the world. I would be interested in hearing a little bit about changes in attitudes, consciousness and political awareness among Travellers in general but young Travellers in particular. Do the witnesses notice particular changes as a result of the housing and the accommodation crises and other issues they are dealing with?
I endorse the comments made by Deputies Barry and Ó Broin. Given the time, I will not delay. Time is against us but can this committee - I am a visitor as opposed to a permanent member of the committee - commit to maintaining a watching brief over the review, which we have now, to make sure that there are no undue delays in that review and that it does not end up being another talking shop with another report telling us things we already know? I am very conscious of what Mr. Collins said, that housing is an enabling right. If one does not have housing, one does not have health. I was really struck when Mr. Reilly said at the Joint Committee on the Future of Mental Health Care that 95% of Travellers are dead by the time they are 65 years of age. That is such an arresting statistic and there are many others. Would the committee commit to having a watching brief on this? Would it commit to dates today and come back to the table again so that we keep the pressure and the focus on this? We all have good days in front of committees but then the bandwagon moves on to something else. This committee can play its part by overseeing that. It is a suggestion and I am anxious to hear the responses to the questions of others as well.
That was the whole purpose of convening this meeting today. We hope there will be ongoing engagement throughout the work of this expert group. A commitment was given by the Minister and the Department to include us in that process. Dates cannot be committed to today but we were given the impression it would be before the summer. We will include it in our work programme on an ongoing basis. That commitment is already there from this committee and from the Department. I call Deputy Gino Kenny but I would say to members that we must finish by 12.30 p.m.
I have an observation to make. I thank the witnesses for coming in; the debate has been very insightful. It seems there is institutionalised and municipal discrimination by county councils and the State against Travellers. It is blatant. It is disgusting in some ways when one sees it in its naked form. Are we going forward or are we going backwards? There is no doubt but that we are going backwards when it comes to the Traveller accommodation programme. Sometimes we come in here to what becomes a talking shop and we leave none the wiser. What is the one issue the witnesses would tackle and I refer, in particular, to accommodation? I know that is a simple question but what is the one thing we could do to tackle this institutionalised discrimination against Travellers in the State?
Mr. Michael Walsh:
The frustration I would have is that any dialogue about talking this away from local authorities is not viable, if I am honest about it, because imposition will create greater resistance and greater problems. If it was a national entity, for example, doing it, I am pretty certain it would not work. It would be easy in some respects for the local authority system to get somebody else to do this because it is a tough space much of the time.
I do not wish to get into specifics, if the committee does not mind, and I will come back to Deputy Ó Broin, separately. I did not approve, and my officials did not make, an application for funding that we did not have to make without good intentions and a really serious intention of making it happen. However, we could not make it happen. There is something inherently wrong when that is the case. People can say it was incompetence on our part but I can assure members there were other forces. That is the way I would put it.
In the current year, it was a timing issue and the money has been spent and the work has been done but it is difficult. That is the point. It is difficult because there is so much resistance. We do most things in our lives as statutory entities with the acquiescence of the majority of the people and part of the problem here is that if one does not have the acquiescence of the majority, it is very difficult to get it done and because the resistance comes from everywhere. It is not only on one specific Part 8 application. Every element of the equation is resisted. That can be seen in some of the larger statutory processes - in planning and elsewhere, whether it is Shell to Sea or otherwise - where the acquiescence of the community is not there in substantial form. The whole thing then is neutralised across a whole load of spaces.
The challenge is to change the dialogue and to change the reality because we have got to get to the point that both the settled community and Traveller community can come to an understanding and an accommodation that can allow these things to happen in a reasonably normal fashion. One can say it is a statutory imposition or the State has failed but society is failing because it is society that is actually creating that resistance. How can that be changed? Let us use the example of drink driving. We changed society's attitude to drink driving and did so through investment and by arguing and generating debate.
Mr. Michael Walsh:
I appreciate that but the law would not work without the other factors because the resistance would ultimately go against it. Local authority officials and chief executives do not wish to be in this space of not being able to deliver in many instances. That is desperately frustrating. Somehow we need to change this. We are not coming at this from the point of view of saying we are perfect. We are happy to put up our hands and say we are flawed in this context but we would like to see changes and that dialogue. I see this as an opportunity for that.
Mr. Martin Collins:
To begin with, I am not ashamed to say that I am 52 years of age. I am 35 years a Traveller activist and a Traveller advocate. In those 35 years of activism, I am not aware of an instance where the local authority proposed to build a site and there was no opposition. I am not aware of a single instance where it was welcomed with open arms. Maybe my colleagues have a different experience but I certainly have not. In terms of acquiescence, we have tried negotiating, persuasion and dealing with local communities. I remember in 1986 going to Tallaght when a site was being proposed. It was a big mistake on my part. The meeting was a big community centre with about 300 settled people and three Travellers. I was lucky to get out with my bloody life in trying to persuade the local community to accept a site.
I am all for dialogue but it is about how it is framed. In terms of acquiescence, human rights are non-negotiable. Human rights in terms of access to accommodation are not something to be compromised or to be negotiated. It is a human right and it needs to be framed in that way. We have always adopted the approach where information, education and legislation have a huge bearing and a huge influence on people's behaviour.
I refer to one practical thing in terms of accommodation. There is no constitutional right, or any other legal right, to accommodation in this country and I know there is a campaign to have incorporated into our Constitution the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights where the right to accommodation can be invoked before the courts. We do not have that facility at the moment but I know there is a campaign going on to have that covenant incorporated into Irish law. In fact, the United Nations committee recommended on a number of occasions that the Government incorporate the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights into Irish law so that these rights on accommodation can be invoked before the courts, so that needs to happen.
In terms of being politicised, people started at different times on different journeys but since 1985 I have seen huge politicisation and huge consciousness raising within the community and it is not just among Traveller organisations. Every time a Traveller is discriminated against in a public house, a hotel or in public swimming baths, his or her consciousness is raised around human rights issues. The oppressor can do that much more effectively than we can within the community. It is important that people get organised and mobilised and that we develop alliances with other grassroots and other social movements, which is something we could do a lot more of. That is why I am glad to say - I know the Irish Traveller Movement, ITM, is taking the lead on this - that on 7 April there is a mass rally around housing and accommodation. ITM is trying to mobilise Traveller groups to get involved in that. We need to see a lot more of that. We did it in the early years with the Irish anti-apartheid movement, with Kader Asmal calling for laws to outlaw discrimination. Even at that time, people were talking about changing attitudes. We are having the very same debate now. We need strong laws as well.
Ms Maria Joyce:
If there was one key ask, what we would ask for is implementation at local level. We welcome the review, but in reality the provisions within the existing Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act are statutory and if they were put in place, it would address some of the issues in terms of the conditions in which Travellers have to live. Implementation at local level is a key block and that would be a key ask. Instrumental in that is the systematic, institutional racism and discrimination Travellers experience in all aspects of their lives, including societal.
I refer to Part 8. Taking that consultation with the public out of the remit in relation to Traveller accommodation is key. It is not a new concept and it has been said time and again. It has been done in other areas where provision is difficult in terms of social housing and homelessness and if the number of units is under 100. This is not difficult but there is absolutely no political will to make this happen. To say that this is difficult with the onus of blame on the community is damning and shaming and it should not be said by public servants. There is a public sector duty, which local authorities, like all State agencies, are obliged to implement from a human rights framework but they are not doing their duty on that in relation to Travellers and Traveller accommodation.
In terms of young people and politicisation, huge numbers of young Travellers are being so negatively impacted on in relation to accommodation. We heard this morning about the conditions on a site and that is not unique to one part of this country. A number of case studies have been submitted to the committee, including Labre Park and Spring Lane. They are the big ones and they are the headliners but this is an everyday occurrence because Travellers are being subjected to substandard, and overcrowded conditions. Implementation is key to ensure that projected need is addressed and to ensure that culturally appropriate provision is made available, and we do not need lessons in this day and age on what culturally appropriate accommodation is and should be. We also have to address the countless Traveller-specific accommodation that is there in terms of sites or group housing that is substandard. Given the lack of Traveller accommodation such sites have become more overcrowded, more dangerous and more unsafe and those conditions are not being addressed either. Those are just some of them.
We also have to remember that the suicide rate among Travellers is eight times higher than the national average, and that is in a country that has one of the highest levels of youth suicide in Europe. The impact of accommodation, as has been said earlier, across all aspects of Travellers' lives cannot be emphasised enough. I refer to good health and good education. I refer also to children leaving their homes in the morning without breakfast because of the toxic smells coming from the place in which they live, that is, a decommissioned site. It is shameful that we are actually saying that because it should not be happening.
Ms RoseMarie Maughan:
I fully support what my colleagues, Mr. Collins and Ms Joyce, have said. In terms of ITM members, we believe in democracy but unfortunately from what we heard today from elected representatives and from Traveller representatives, there is no democracy for Travellers who are living in third world conditions. We had engaged with these structures in which we had high hopes when we got the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act over the line. We thought and we hoped it would work. We worked hard and shed blood, tears, sweat, you name it, to make sure it would work. It has not worked. It has failed miserably and it is down to the implementation at a local level. We heard from different people in the room that one of the biggest blocks is Part 8 and it came up strongly in the review we are discussing as well as objections from local residents. Local Traveller accommodation consultative committee, LTACC, members have said it is a block to Traveller accommodation. ITM members have said taps are signed off on by the local Traveller accommodation consultative committee and then it goes before the council and the targets are diluted. Some local authority representatives come out publicly with anti-Traveller racist sentiments towards Travellers but nothing is said and it is tolerated. Some local representatives say Traveller-specific accommodation is a failed concept. These people are sitting on the LTACC advising local authorities on our behalf on how Traveller accommodation programmes need to be implemented. How is that democracy for Travellers? How is that democracy for the poor innocent Traveller children living on the roadside?
I was listening to the debate and if anybody doubts, scientifically, the evidence of prejudice against Travellers, he or she should read the reports over 30 years that have been done systematically by an t-Athair Michaél MacGreil, where he shows that Travellers are the group against which there is the most prejudice in our society by a mile. Ironically, Irish speakers are the most in-group in Irish society and they would not have been 100 years ago.
I thank Deputy Ó Cuív. I am really sorry we had to rush the witnesses but I look forward to ongoing engagement and I hope they will appear before the committee again. It is the hope that we will have ongoing engagement this year with all the sectors involved. I thank all the witnesses for attending today and for their patience.
The next meeting will be on 21 March 2018 when we will discuss EU scrutiny of legislation and the OPLA briefing.