Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 12 October 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee On Key Issues Affecting The Traveller Community
Expert Group Review of Traveller Accommodation: Discussion
I welcome the following witnesses to the committee. From the Irish Traveller Movement, we are joined by Mr. Bernard Joyce, director, and Ms Emily Murtagh, national Traveller policy officer. From the County and City Management Association, CCMA, we are joined by Mr. Eugene Cummins, CEO of Roscommon County Council; Ms Catherine Keenan, director of service for housing in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council; and Mr. Maurice Manning, director of service for housing in Cork County Council.
I will first ask for opening statements from the Irish Traveller Movement, followed by CCMA. Members will then be invited to address their questions. I ask that members confine their questions to five minutes, including time for answers. If possible, we might get to another round of questions at the end. I call Mr. Joyce to make his opening statement.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
The Irish Traveller Movement would like to thank the committee for the invitation to cover matters relating to Traveller accommodation, particularly the Expert Review on Traveller Accommodation. Before I continue, I would like to take a minute to remember that on Saturday, 10 October 2015, a blaze swept through a temporary site at Glenamuck Road in Carrickmines. This was the deadliest such disaster in the country since the Stardust fire. The vulnerability of Travellers was posed by substandard, overcrowded, shared accommodation, which still effects over 1,700 Traveller families six years later. This issue has not been addressed and remains without the urgency that is required to bring about the necessary changes. We owe it to them and to every other Traveller on this island to implement in full the expert report recommendations. Of course I welcome the earlier contribution of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to the committee today, however, there is an urgency required to reform a broken system that ultimately failed our community.
We are in a national Traveller accommodation crisis in Ireland. This is not of our making. Our children live in some of the worst conditions in the world. Despite legislative protection under the Traveller Accommodation Act, a low estimate shows that over 1,700 Traveller families are living in inadequate, unsafe conditions stacked against their health, education, employment and life opportunities, below basic human rights standards. Some 39% of Travellers live in overcrowded accommodation, 24% live in severe housing deprivation and 5% live without piped water or sewerage supplies, according to the 2021 report by Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, on monitoring adequate housing in Ireland. In some local authority areas, for example Galway City, Traveller families make up 50% of the homeless families while accounting for just 1% of the overall population.
The budget for Traveller accommodation was spent in full last year, which we welcomed. However, it is important to note that €4.4 million of that budget was spent on basic emergency provisions to mitigate against Covid-19, including water tanks and portaloos, and not on new developments. In 2020, seven group houses were built or refurbished. At this rate, with no ramping up of Traveller accommodation, the crisis will worsen. There is no end in sight. I remind the committee of the €72 million that went underspent from 2008 to 2019. This was one of the primary causes of the current Traveller accommodation crisis. The lack of delivery and underspends have been highlighted internationally through the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD, and the Council of Europe, as well as nationally, most recently in the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission’s equality reviews, and by the Ombudsman’s for Children Office.
The Ombudsman for Children’s Office, in its investigation this year of one local authority halting site, produced a report called No End in Site. It found that: "There was a failure to consider the best interests of children, including those with additional needs, and to ensure that children living on the site enjoy a safe, suitable standard of accommodation". It is also found that "There was a failure to comply with and implement the minimum requirements of the Traveller Accommodation Programme ,TAP, which places a statutory duty on local authorities to meet the accommodation needs of Travellers to address the significant inequalities facing them." One child was quoted in the report as saying: "it’s like an abandoned place that people forgot about; it’s like we’re forgotten; we feel like garbage". Another child, aged 12, said: "walking up to school you see all the rats. They would be running up and down the walls of the trailer." In context, there are 138 people on this site who are using toilets and washing facilities that were designed for only 40 people. There was evidence of children sleeping on makeshift beds that were cramped into the living-dining areas. The report highlighted the unreliability and lack of facilities such as heating, lighting and water. This site is by no means unique. Similar testimonies have been reflected by Travellers for decades throughout the country. These reports shine a light on the living experiences of our community.
The Traveller Accommodation Act was introduced so that local authorities would have a statutory obligation to plan every five years for the accommodation needs of Travellers in their own county. The ITM’s own analysis of all 31 authorities' TAPs found a repeated pattern of a lack of planning for future population growth, programme periods with inadequate targets, a lack of planning for Traveller-specific accommodation and identification and zoning of sites for developments, and inconsistent approaches to data collection and needs analysis. Our analysis also found an overreliance on the housing assistance payment, HAP, for delivery. The discrimination faced by Travellers in the private rental sector means that HAP is an inadequate option. It further lengthens the time spent by Travellers in emergency accommodation, in hidden homelessness, or in severely overcrowded conditions.
A 2017 Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, report found that Travellers were 22 times more likely to experience discrimination in the private rental sector. The Residential Tenancies Board found in a 2014 survey that 82% of landlords surveyed were unwilling to rent properties to Travellers despite the Equal Status Act.
Just one example of this kind of discrimination arose recently, where a Traveller family managed to secure accommodation to exit homelessness. The letting agent that was due to rent to the family was then harassed by local anti-Traveller residents and subsequently withdrew from the proposed lease. The Covid-19 pandemic has only further highlighted the inequalities that we always knew existed. Travellers have been extremely vulnerable to Covid infection with analysis showing they were 2.6 times more likely to be affected than the general population, exacerbated by poor living conditions. Despite the available Government support to mitigate these risks, local authority implementation was inconsistent despite the evident and disproportionate outbreaks in the community.
When we look to solutions to the crisis, the Traveller accommodation expert review's 32 recommendations provide a roadmap to real progress. We welcome the work that has been done so far to implement the 32 recommendations of the expert review to address the issues we have outlined. The Irish Traveller Movement is a member of both the programme board for its implementation and the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee, NTACC. However, over two years after the review’s publication and governmental commitment to its implementation, we are now concerned about the rate of progress. Some 18 of the recommendations are due to be completed in 2021, while most recent progress reports do not demonstrate this is likely to be fulfilled. No subgroups have been established for any of the recommendations to facilitate consultations with Traveller organisations.
The Government’s Housing for All plan commits to prioritising the implementation of the expert review recommendations, however there are no targets included for Traveller accommodation in the plan and there are no timelines attached for the implementation of the 32 recommendations. The provision of targets, timelines and sufficient resourcing for each of the recommendations, ensure what has been promised is possible, that those responsible are held accountable and ensure that success is measurable. We ask the committee to ensure that these targets, timelines and sufficient resources are in place and clearly outlined to ensure this accountability. All 32 of these recommendations are important. However, we would like to particularly focus on three of them. They are: the establishment of a national Traveller accommodation authority to independently monitor and oversee the planning and delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation; the repeal of the trespass legislation to end the criminalisation of nomadism on this island and the trauma of evictions; and to remedy Ireland’s breach of Article 16 of the European social charter in relation to eviction procedures. We must also circumvent Part 8 of the planning process to remove a key barrier to delivery. We have sent a briefing document to committee members and we can take questions. We thank members for their time and consideration.
Mr. Eugene Cummins:
On behalf of the CCMA, I thank the committee for its invitation. I look forward to assisting the committee in its deliberations on the review of Traveller accommodation by the expert group. The CCMA welcomes the reference to the implementation of the recommendations of the expert review group in Housing for All and recognises that Traveller accommodation is a priority that needs to be addressed. Local authorities are governed by the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 and have general responsibility for the provision of housing for adults who cannot afford to provide it for themselves, including the provision of Traveller accommodation at local level. This is done through the adoption and implementation of five-year Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs. Each November, local authorities undertake an annual estimate of accommodation of Travellers, which assists in drawing up the TAPs. The Traveller accommodation expert review group was established in 2018 to review the Traveller Accommodation Act 1998 and other legislation that impacts on the provision and delivery of accommodation for Travellers. In advance of the finalisation of the report, the CCMA met and discussed the role of local government with the expert group. The report, which was published in July 2019, has 32 recommendations that can be broken down into four categories: delivery reflecting need; planning; capacity; and funding governance.
The CCMA broadly welcomes the report and is represented on the programme board established to drive the delivery of the recommendations of the report. The programme board has met a number of times since its establishment and has agreed a work programme for this year. The CCMA is committed to ensuring that these recommendations are prioritised and, through the programme board, will drive the priority projects currently being advanced regarding the CSO data, which is very important. The CCMA welcomes the current engagement by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Housing and the CSO in providing better representation of the Traveller community from census 2022. While this will inform policy, consideration will need to be given to research that has been carried out by other groups locally and nationally. The CCMA further agrees that a nationwide survey of Traveller demographics is important and that this could be performed by local authority staff in addition to, or in place of, the annual count. The CCMA believes that local authorities are best placed to provide this information, given their local knowledge of Traveller families, which enables more accurate reporting than could be provided by an independent body.
In terms of the Traveller identifier, the CCMA welcomes and supports the recommendation to formally record ethnicity on housing applications going forward. This will help to identify the housing needs of Travellers and assist local authorities to collate data on waiting lists relating to housing support and the types of accommodation sought. It should be noted that local authorities are currently only detailing information on social housing tenants and social housing applicants where ethnicity has been declared by them, as being members of the Traveller community. It should be highlighted that it is incumbent on the applicant, if he or she wants, to identify himself or herself as a Traveller. In the absence of any such declaration, local authorities are not classifying any person as being a member of the Traveller community. The CCMA believes that in order to implement an ethnic identifier,a whole-of-government approach is required as this complex issue stretches across many strategies and Departments.
Regarding the funding allocation scheme, the removal of the allocation of specific budgets to individual local authorities is a welcome development. This has enabled local authorities to apply for and draw down funds at any time during the year.
On the management and maintenance of Traveller-specific accommodation, the 50% increase in funding announced by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for the management and maintenance of Traveller-specific accommodation earlier this year was welcomed by the CCMA. This allows local authorities to better utilise funding. It should be noted that, increasingly, greater expenditure from the maintenance budgets is being used to clean up increased levels of dumping on all sites. The CCMA does not agree with the recommendation that the role of the caretaker for Traveller-specific accommodation needs to be reviewed. The CCMA firmly believes that the role of the caretaker and estate manager should be kept separate, as they are two very distinct roles with a potential conflict of interest. The estate manager role is currently complex and will not benefit from further responsibilities.
The CCMA endorses the research on good practice on the design of Traveller-specific accommodation, including planning, design, management and maintenance of halting sites, as it will inform local authorities on future societal changes. The CCMA has already engaged with the Department on the design of Traveller-specific accommodation and looks forward to updated guidance for both local authorities and approved housing bodies, AHBs, in the design of Traveller-specific accommodation.
The all-Ireland approach to transient sites is broadly welcomed. The CCMA would highlight that the current legislation was implemented to curb the unlawful occupation of publicly owned lands. The CCMA wishes to highlight that the legislation is there to protect the rights of all and repealing it is an imposition on the rights of the entire community. It should be noted that our priority is to provide suitable permanent accommodation in the first instance.
The recommendation to report on the delivery of new Traveller-specific accommodation as part of the progress reporting under Housing for All is welcomed. In terms of the local authority role, the CCMA fully supports the progression of the projects as identified in the work programme for 2021 and is actively engaged with the NTACC and the various stakeholders. I will take this opportunity to provide some clarification from a local government perspective on some other areas identified in the report.
Local authorities provide a range of accommodation options to the Traveller community, including Traveller-specific accommodation. Accommodation is provided by local authorities through a range of options, such as standard local authority or approved housing body housing, group housing and halting sites. Accommodation is provided through subsidisation via the housing assistance payment and the rental accommodation scheme.
The option to transfer from Traveller-specific accommodation to standard housing, inclusive of private rental properties, is available to Travellers. Travellers can apply on both the standard housing list and Traveller-specific accommodation list, availing of whichever offer comes first. They, as is the case for all applicants on the standard housing list, can then choose up to three geographical areas of preference. Tenants can specify this preference, and this would be known, recorded and monitored by the social work team. They would also make such recommendations to the relevant officer, should accommodation become available. The CCMA notes with concern that the report fails to acknowledge that the demand for Traveller-specific accommodation is diminishing, especially among the younger generations, whose preference is not to live in halting site accommodation and who are increasingly seeking standard housing and group schemes.
A number of challenges arise from the reports. Where Traveller-specific accommodation is proposed, a significant amount of consultation with Traveller families and local communities is required to build trust, design the best housing solutions and create favourable conditions to facilitate the planning process. Such projects take additional time and significant resources. These projects are not suitable for external design teams as good communications need to be established and maintained in order to build confidence and trust with the Traveller families and the local communities. This is a complex area that requires significant collaboration with all stakeholders. It is not just a housing issue. The CCMA believes the recommendations around Part 8 proposals could lead to serious issues locally for local authorities which must engage openly and transparently with communities. The CCMA recommends that expert legal advice be sought for the benefit and protection of all stakeholders in this matter.
The recommendation that chief executives use emergency powers to bypass elected members could be viewed as undermining the planning and democratic process, which underpins all aspects of local and central government policy. This is an area that warrants legal opinion and careful consideration, especially in light of the potential for judicial review proceedings.
While there are some interesting proposals in the report, the CCMA wishes to highlight that some of the key reasons the delivery of Traveller accommodation is problematic do not seem to be fully considered. It is important to consider the potential reasons behind objections to the development of Traveller accommodation. Traveller accommodation sites tend to be associated with increased levels of crime, violence, anti-social behaviour, illegal dumping and burning, as well as with social issues such as addiction and early school leaving. These issues need to be tackled alongside the housing issues. It should be noted as well that compatibility in the allocation of accommodation to Traveller families brings additional complexity. The CCMA welcomes a collaborative approach with all the relevant stakeholders to overcome some of these obstacles.
It should be highlighted that while complying with Government policy, the practical approach taken by each local authority on the delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation varies. This variance is necessary to reflect local circumstances and, from experience, stems from a desire to look proactively after the housing support needs of Traveller families, many of whom have vulnerabilities.
The CCMA recognises the need for greater co-ordination among State service providers such as the HSE. Providing more and improved Traveller-specific accommodation is also a priority locally and nationally. The CCMA welcomes the continuation of the collaborative approach by all stakeholders in recent months. The CCMA is working with the Department on the development of the caravan loan scheme, which is being piloted in four local authorities. We welcome the report of the independent review of the role of social workers. There is a need for a more sustainable funding model for the retention and expansion of the social work service. There is also a need to reflect the wider role of the social worker within the housing department and across the local authority in general. The CCMA continues to work with the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee to help drive the expert review group recommendations. The CCMA will endeavour to work with the programme board to progress actions through ongoing engagement with the CCMA housing, building and land use committee.
I thank Mr. Joyce and Mr. Cummins for their presentations. Mr. Cummins is the CEO in my county of Roscommon. I was a local authority member there for many years. He and his team seem to have a very good approach to settling Travellers in various parts of the county, which is quite successful. In most situations it works out without conflict. I also acknowledge Mr. Joyce's contribution. I acknowledge what he is saying and what he is trying to do. It is important that we have him here and listen to his contribution.
I will keep this quite brief. It is good to see that the CCMA is interested in continuing to work to progress this issue to make sure that Travellers are treated with respect and dignity. They should be given a fair chance at housing. A lot of work behind the scenes between elected members and executives in some local authorities means this works very successfully. I accept that there are probably other local authorities where it does not work as well. I want to put one thing very strongly on the record. We must eliminate the conditions in which some Travellers still live. It is horrifying to most of us that in some parts of the country people can live in appalling conditions. I am sure everybody associated with the committee and the people joining us online would acknowledge this.
I have several short questions. I welcome the fact that the CCMA is stating clearly that the removal of the allocation of specific budgets to individual local authorities is a welcome development. The CCMA has stated that this will enable local authorities to apply for and draw down funds at any time during the year. I would like to ask Mr. Joyce and those representing Travellers how they find the level of accommodation their people move in to. I presume it has to be up to a certain standard. Do they have any complaints in this regard?
I want to mention a specific case. I will not say where exactly in the country it was. It was not in County Roscommon. A family was living in rented accommodation and receiving the housing assistance payment. I have to say they were outstanding tenants. The owner of the house decided very generously to sell the house to the local authority in this particular county for a very reasonable fee because the family had been there for many years. I would say it was way below the market value. The family was offered housing in a local town but they were worried about a drug issue in the town, particularly in the estate to which they were being moved. They did not want their children in that environment.
In the particular county I am speaking about, and it is not County Roscommon, there was quite an amount in the Traveller accommodation account. I found a reluctance in the local authority to engage with the couple. I pointed out that money was available in the budget for this. The local authority felt that because the couple had been offered housing in a local town that they should have taken it.
My view in cases like that, where a family are settled for quite a number of years and want to remain there, in the rural part of that area, where the children and the parents were very much part of the local community, and all that the house needed once it was purchased was an extra room and upgrading of the sanitary facilities, is that we should be very strong and that we should try to accommodate people like that. The reluctance to do that was a disappointment.
I am conscious that the answers are supposed to be within the five-minute slot. I will allow latitude to Mr. Joyce and Mr. Cummins to respond but, to be fair to all members, I ask them to be mindful so we can get everyone in.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
In the presentation I gave, I highlighted the poor, substandard and overcrowded accommodation in which something like 1,700 families are currently living. That is not satisfactory. That particular issue has not happened overnight but has been in place for the last 20 years and, in some cases, prior to the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998. The legislation and the framework that is currently there have not been fully implemented in the spirit in which they should have been implemented. Of course, there are obviously examples of good quality accommodation across some areas of the country but we are a lacking that level of standard.
The report of the Ombudsman for Children's Office shone a light on the situation where high numbers of children are living in some of the worst conditions in the world, not only in Ireland, yet we are here and people seem to think it is not a crisis. It is not acceptable. We cannot stand over it and that is why we are here today. It is why we have been advocating and campaigning, first, for legislative change and, second, for the recommendations of the report to be implemented in full. The reality is we just do not know. The people we believe to be responsible for implementing that are absolutely failing our community and the system itself is completely broken, so we need to see radical changes. The solutions are there and it is the political will and commitment to deliver that are needed. Nobody wants to be living in these conditions where, honestly, children find themselves presenting to their GP and, in some cases, being hospitalised because of conditions that are just not acceptable.
In terms of the budgets, I heard the Minister of State say earlier there is no issue with the budgets. If there is no issue, why are people living in these conditions?
Mr. Eugene Cummins:
First, no child should live in conditions like that, and I want to be very clear about that. Regardless of where they come from, whether it is Syria or a halting site, no child should live like that.
On the situation we find ourselves in, and I made reference to it in the presentation, these are very complex social issues and there are many reasons all of this might happen. There are quite a few people who are responsible for all of this, including the issues surrounding housing, and that includes members of the Travelling community and any other community, including the settled community.
In regard to the specific incident that Senator Murphy referenced, I am not familiar with that. I know that, over the years, in the various local authorities I have worked in, there are reasons behind all of these issues and they need to be addressed and examined. However, I cannot speak specifically on that. As Senator Murphy said, it was not something that happened in Roscommon.
I want to finish on the specific question by saying that no child should live like that. There are many people responsible for this situation and, from listening to the earlier sessions, it is not all down to the local authority. There are choices to be made as well and there are reasons accommodation cannot be provided at times, although it does not excuse a child living in circumstances like that.
I want to start in the same way that I started with the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, and that is by expressing my extreme frustration. I think the Minister of State misunderstood me because my frustration predates his taking up of his role. We have been discussing these things since 2017, since the Housing Agency report which highlighted the enormous failures both of central government and local government to implement their own Traveller accommodation programmes. We have had an expert group with 32 recommendations on the table for two and a half years. Many of us in this committee struggled with those recommendations. In fact, I think that for all of us, from all parties, particularly when it came to the proposed changes to planning law and land transfers - Part 8 and section 183 - our gut was not to support those because we have seen far too many powers taken away from local authorities. However, all of us, unanimously, at the end of a detailed consideration of that report in the previous Oireachtas realised that, in the absence of any other proposal, those recommendations had to be implemented as a matter of urgency or things were going to get worse. I have been trying to get the Minister of State, both through parliamentary questions and also today, to give me a straight answer as to why those measures are not in the legislative programme.
It is very disappointing that Eugene is restating the County and City Management Association's position, which is really reluctance to embrace those changes. If he has a better alternative, that is great and he can present it to us, but I do not think he has. Until we tackle those issues, then both the quality of the accommodation and the volume of accommodation issues are not going to get addressed.
I also think the list of issues that Eugene said-----
It is Eugene Cummins from the CCMA. I think Mr. Cummins threw out a list of issues there as part of the reason Traveller accommodation can be very difficult. I have 11 very large Traveller-specific sites in my constituency and I deal with these issues every day. The one issue he did not mention, which is part of the problem, is prejudice. We have to get real about this. We have talked about this on a cross-party basis for a long time. We all worked with the last Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, who did a wonderful job to get the expert group report to where it was, but either we fully implement all of that report as a matter of urgency or we just stop wasting our time, saying we do not want children to live in these appalling conditions but that we are not willing to implement the recommendations of the report that is in front of us.
I have two questions. Can Mr. Joyce give us a little more information about his concern that the 32 recommendations of the working group are not going to be implemented? He mentioned the 18 but there are also the others.
Can Mr. Cummins give us an indication of what percentage of the Traveller accommodation programme in each of the local authorities that are composite are actually being implemented? Yes, more money was spent last year but a lot of it was not spent on the delivery of new accommodation or refurbishment of existing accommodation, and it was spent on Covid emergency measures. We are now a year or two into the Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs. How well are we doing from Mr. Cummins’s assessment in the CCMA?
Mr. Eugene Cummins:
First, there is a big difference between social issues that are real and existing and prejudice that is perceived.
In regard to the question, the TAPs are implemented, for the most part, right across the board.
In many instances, almost without exception, there are very good documented reasons the Traveller accommodation programme cannot be delivered, be that Part 8 provision not coming through or other issues, including Traveller families not wanting to leave their homes while they are being renovated.
On Part 8, the local authorities will do what they always do, that is, implement the law. If it is changed, we will implement it. I reject the attempt to transfer the blame for all aspects of this to the local authorities. The local authorities will implement the law, as they always do.
I am happy to yield my time to give Mr. Joyce the opportunity to respond. I was merely going to speak about the No End In Sight report. I am fairly confident Mr. Joyce is more than capable of addressing that. I addressed my question to the Minister. I am happy to yield my time to allow Mr. Joyce the opportunity to speak.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I thank Senator Seery Kearney. Mr. Cummins's statement said there is a perceived view relating to racism. That is not correct. Within those types of statements there is an implicitness in terms of the institutionalised racism that has led us to this situation where children are living in some worst conditions in the world. Yet, there is no acknowledgement of the living experience of Travellers in this country. It is no wonder Travellers are calling for an independent agency to deliver Traveller accommodation. If local authorities cannot deliver, they should not be given responsibility for the provision of culturally appropriate accommodation.
We are not here to rehash the issues. Travellers are living the issues. We want to see solutions in terms of the delivery of culturally appropriate accommodation on this island. I cannot sit here and talk about the appalling conditions in which Travellers are living. The people responsible for the delivery of accommodation are the same people who are blocking that accommodation. As an Irish Traveller, I take personal offence at that. The OCO report highlights how Traveller children feel they are being forgotten and left behind. I do not know what part of the world people here are living in. If you go to Cork or to any Traveller site in this country, you will see the substandard, inhumane conditions in which Travellers are living. I ask the chief executive of the County and City Management Association, Mr. Cummins, and others to do that. I am appalled to hear the type of commentary I have heard today. It does nothing in terms of relationships or confidence in regard to the delivery of culturally appropriate accommodation. I am really angry about the comment made earlier by Mr. Cummins. I ask him to withdraw it. The evidence is there that Travellers experience discrimination in every aspect of Irish society. That has been said time and again. The commentary highlights the massive differences between the relationship between the local authorities and the Traveller community.
I appreciate Senator Seery Kearney giving me the opportunity to express that point.
I would add to that and say there is a settled privilege going on that requires that members of the Traveller community speak out about their lived experiences. We see this across other groups. Last week, at the Joint Committee on Disability Matters, we heard of an ability privilege. We need to hear the lived experiences of people. This report is horrific, as are the statistics in regard to Traveller suicide. Across all of the demographics, the statistics in regard to Travellers are much higher per capitathan for any other group in society. That is appalling. It behoves us as a committee, and as a Parliament, to do everything we can to facilitate and speak on behalf of Travellers. I am aware Ms Murtagh would like to come in.
Ms Emily Murtagh:
I echo the Senator's remarks. If it is not a matter that is deeply embedded or deeply related to discrimination, why then is the issue of Traveller accommodation one of the biggest areas in respect of which we have been criticised internationally by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and an area we have been found to be in breach of Article 16 of the European Social Charter? Why also do 30 of 31 equality reviews that have been published so far by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission relate to the delivery of the Traveller-specific accommodation and accommodation for Travellers generally? Those reports highlight independently the level of discrimination that is faced by Travellers. As stated by Mr. Joyce, Travellers are 22 times more likely to experience discrimination in the private rental sector. These are all evidenced by the volume of calls we receive each day from Travellers throughout the country who are struggling to find a home for their families owing to the discrimination they face in the private rental sector and in trying to access Traveller-specific accommodation in their local authority area.
The delivery of Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs, was mentioned. The 2017 report referenced by Deputy Ó Broin found that only 68% of the planned Traveller-specific accommodation was built over the period analysed by that report. In its last Traveller accommodation programme, Dublin City Council has a new build target of more than 100, but no new units were built over the programme timeframe. There is huge evidence to support the claims that are being made today. It is important the committee is aware of that and that we are all playing an oversight role in that regard. For that, we need a national independent Traveller accommodation authority.
Having represented Travellers under the equal status claims, several of which they have been denied participation in, I can attest that there is no question that there is widespread discrimination. There is no doubting that.
I thank the witnesses for their statements and wisdom today. I share their concerns. I would like to raise some issues for the record. At a time when more families are falling into severe deprivation and many sites lack basic infrastructure, such as functioning wastewater systems, it is incredibly disappointing to read from the recent Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, report that only four development plans make a genuine effort to include accommodation needs for Travellers by including maps to identify Traveller-specific accommodation, and that of the four, only one development plan includes potential sites. The funding is there for new builds and refurbishment, both of which are critically needed. However, political will has not been there in recent times.
We need proper, long-term, sustainable planning and a uniform approach to deliver Traveller-specific accommodation, led by local authority executive planners in our development plans. From what I am hearing, today they typically come to councillors with a plan and develop it. I do not recall that happening in my days as councillor. That is an important space, that councillors can be educated where these sites can go.
If the report says what it says, it is disappointing. Maintenance should be carried out on existing sites and basic infrastructure provided in the short term, as we talked about. That should be prioritised to ensure that no child or family is living in deprivation. In my experience, there is a disconnect in how we are supporting and protecting Travelling communities. The Housing First system provides a wraparound system of services. Is something akin to that required to address this issue, apart from delivering the facilities and services?
Based on the figures provided, an overwhelming majority of Travellers live in accommodation provided by the State and-or the private market, approximately 78%, and only 22% in Traveller-specific accommodation. My first question, then, probably answers itself. Is a lack of Traveller-specific accommodation forcing families to look for alternative accommodation in the social or private housing sector? I would also like to hear the witnesses' views on the lack of basic water infrastructure. It is simply incomprehensible that 5% of Travellers are living without piped water or sewerage services. It is the responsibility of the national government and local government to ensure that these issues are addressed as soon as they are identified. At the very least, local authorities should be directed by the Department, as a matter of urgency, to use the funding they have been allocated to ensure basic infrastructure is provided.
There is an example of a serious drainage issue in my constituency. It has been ongoing for more than a decade and involves raw effluent backing up into a dweller's properly. The issue has been identified, but it still has been not been remedied. It is an ongoing issue that involves a lady, with children, who frequently has to move out of her house.
I am also interested in the pilot caravan loans scheme, which is due to be rolled out nationally in 2022. Will the witnesses elaborate on the detail of this scheme and how it has been received by the Travelling community? How many applicants have applied for the scheme so far and been approved?
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I can elaborate on that point in conjunction with Ms Murtagh, our national policy officer. I will pass over to Ms Murtagh on the pilot caravan loan question as she is dealing directly with it.
On the question about water services, many of the families living in poor accommodation that we spoke about probably share basic facilities, such as water. In some cases, it might not even be hot water they are sharing, but the basic water supply. The report from the Ombudsman for Children's Office commented on that point. It is also an issue in other parts of the country, and we are highlighting that. While there have been reports on this issue, we know from direct contact with our members that many families are living without these basic facilities and many are also sharing facilities.
The Deputy asked what steps are being taken to remedy this problem. During the Covid-19 pandemic, there was talk of mitigating its spread. We described it as a humanitarian crisis because nobody knew what was in store for us at the time or what the fallout or implications would be. Looking at other European countries and other countries abroad, it became evident that we were dealing with a crisis. We then had a race against time to show that many Traveller families did not have a water supply, did not have water at home and were unable to comply with the guidelines issued by the Department of Health. That resulted in a push by the Department and the Minister at the time and a circular was issued to all local authorities directing them to address and mitigate the Covid-19 crisis. It had a positive impact because those steps led to an improvement in some of the conditions. The steps taken, however, were basic. The community was left vulnerable to catching Covid-19 and also serious illness and death. We were disproportionately impacted by the virus, and the report stated this, in respect of the number of people infected by Covid-19-----
I thank the witnesses for being with us today and for giving us their thoughts. My first question is for Mr. Cummins. He made a point earlier about Traveller accommodation being a complex issue. It is a complex issue and I would not deny that for one minute. The local authorities are ultimately responsible. I was a member of Cork City Council for 12 years. We had a number of issues with halting sites and the provision of Traveller accommodation. If the city managers or chief executives of local authorities are not being supported by the Government in addressing these issues, they must call that out or accept responsibility. I do not accept chief executives or local authorities saying they cannot sort out this issue. It is their job to sort it out. These problems have been experienced in my constituency for more than 30 years. If the local authorities are not being supported by whatever Government is in office, and I am not taking a shot at any political parties in saying this, and if this is a complicated issue, then the local authorities must either accept responsibility or call out the lack of support where it exists. I will come back in again with more questions, if I have time remaining.
Mr. Eugene Cummins:
What I meant was that we rely on the Part 8 planning process to deliver Traveller-specific accommodation and units and that relies on the political will, political wishes and bureaucratic process as determined by the elected members. It is not within the gift of the chief executives to grant permission for Part 8 developments. It is down to the elected members to do so.
Returning to this matter being a complex issue, it is also a complex issue sometimes for local communities. They are asked to take on trust a new Part 8 development into their community and that everything will work out. In many instances, it does, but in others it does not. Again, the chief executives of local authorities only have certain powers. The political process and the Part 8 process are for the elected members.
On the issue of our responsibilities, we are very much aware of them and we take them seriously. I am saying it is a complex issue because other people must get involved, including social workers, care workers and the HSE. They must get involved, talk to the communities and determine how we can work together. In my case, we have a good relationship with the Travelling community. We are mindful of that and we work on it. I also went down to the-----
I will cut Mr. Cummins short because I have another question. I worked in Cork City Council with some brilliant officials, to be fair. The point being made by Mr. Cummins may tie in with a point made earlier by my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin. He referred to having a dedicated full-time senior official in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to deal with this issue.
Should there be a senior official in local authorities to tie in the point? That is the issue if we are going to work with the Traveller community. It is so segmented and broken up that we are not delivering. The point Mr Cummins made about getting everyone involved in one room was very similar to a group in which I was involved in Cork years ago. We had local authority officials, councillors, the Traveller community, the settled community, community gardaí and the HSE. That is the kind of thing we should be looking for.
Ms Murtagh touched on the caravan loan scheme earlier. I was contacted by a lady this morning whose caravan has no bathroom and no shower. It is freezing cold. She is now facing another winter. She has been in this accommodation for six years and cannot get a replacement. What are we hoping will come out of this for people like Margaret? What should come out of this?
Ms Emily Murtagh:
I will take those two questions together. The first was asking for an update around the caravan loan scheme and the second was the hopes for it. The caravan loan scheme is something that is provided for under the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998. A scheme that was running in some of the local authorities previously was found to be not fit for purpose for several reasons, one of them being the small amount that was offered. It was approximately €5,000, which obviously does not lead to the kind of high-quality accommodation that is necessary for residential year-round living. Over the last few years, there has been work to deliver a new preferential caravan loan scheme. There are some positive aspects to it and some aspects to it that we would still have reservations about. Serious concerns have been raised around the country, both in some of the pilot areas and in other areas. Some of the positives are that it is a higher loan amount than the previous scheme, so it is up to €30,000 and it is also at a preferential rate. The full amount will not be paid back over the period and it is based on the differential rates in that area in which the repayments are made. Some of the reservations we have are that due to increased pricing around mobile accommodation, increased staycationing and increased access due to Brexit and other issues, €30,000 is no longer sufficient to provide that high-standard residential quality mobile home. National Traveller MABS has done really good research on what that might look like. The pilot scheme is running in four local authority areas, namely, Dublin City Council, Cork city and Limerick city and county. Dublin city and south Dublin are the two Dublin schemes. The pilot is very much oversubscribed. The Deputy asked about the numbers that maybe have applied to it. The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, referenced earlier that in one local authority, 47 people have applied for it. The budget for the pilot at the moment is €1.5 million, meaning approximately 50 mobiles will be provided across the four local authority areas. It is oversubscription within just the pilot areas and we should consider that is four local authorities out of 31.
As well as that, the loan scheme is not going to be the option for everyone who is in need of a new mobile home. A loan of €30,000 is a big undertaking. Mobile homes still need to be consistently provided through other funding streams, including the emergency caravans provision. That might be something similar to what Deputy Gould referenced. There need to be other mechanisms by which Travellers who wish to live in Traveller-specific accommodation are being given mobile homes. The other reservation is the quality of the mobile homes being delivered and that is not covered under the housing standards for rental housing reservations. There are not, therefore, those kinds of safeguards for Travellers. For some people it will definitely be a great option but the overall thing is that it should not be the only option for Travellers who wish to live in mobile accommodation. I do not know if Mr. Joyce wants to add anything to that.
My apologies Chairmen; I was trying to multi-task and that is dangerous for a politician. I thank Mr. Joyce and Mr. Cummins for coming in. I appreciate Mr. Joyce's passion, in particular. I feel embarrassed as an elected representative that many of these issues are continuing. My earnest hope is that over the coming 12 months, we will see some progress, particularly with regard to transient accommodation and halting sites. It is an indictment on us as we head into the second centenary of this nation. We pride ourselves on being a proud nation and also as being a nation of empathy. It is an indictment of us that those standards of conditions are allowed to prevail.
I come from County Longford, which has the highest population per capitaof Travellers in the country. We have also the fastest growing per capitaTraveller population aged under 15. A huge part of my constituency is the Traveller community. They enhance my day in many respects and I have a great engagement with them. The biggest single issue they have is housing. While transient accommodation and halting sites and so forth are hugely important and must be addressed as a matter of urgency, 45% of the Traveller community are still currently in local authority or in approved tenancies, and a further 20% or thereabouts are in private rental. That is a challenge that is not being addressed in anything I have heard today. The Minister of State said that money is being allocated to capital but I still see many Traveller families, and particularly younger Traveller families, who feel marginalised in some of the best local authority estates that we are building. In their wisdom, local authorities will still say that they will put one or two Traveller families into an estate and keep them separated. That is not the way Traveller culture works. The young people, in the main, do not want to be in halting sites or do not want transient accommodation. They want to get into a home and they value a home. They invest heavily and put any spare money they get into their home. We heard some people talk about a wrap-around service and I would agree with Mr. Cummins. It is not entirely the role of the local authorities to address the Traveller issue. Other agencies have to come on board as well. As much as capital investment is important, and it is the first thing that is needed, there is also a significant resourcing issue. People have talked about putting somebody in charge of this in the Custom House. We really need boots on the ground in local communities. We need resource workers. We need people in with the Traveller community but also with other members and other families on the estate to create greater integration. We have an awful lot to learn from the Traveller community. They have a wonderful tradition and culture. I have said many times that I believe Longford is greatly enhanced as a result of that. It is a shared experience from which we can learn. My concern is that we need to get the capital issue sorted but we also need to put the resources in on the ground. We need more resource workers and more investment in our Traveller accommodation committees. We need to do everything else that we can do to help those people. At the end of the day, the bulk of our Traveller community are in existing accommodation. As I said, however, many of them feel isolated. I am sorry; I was rambling.
Mr. Eugene Cummins:
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to respond. Can I say to our friends in the Traveller community and, indeed, everyone else, that the County and City Management Association is absolutely committed to providing the best accommodation for everyone on our housing list, especially children who are living in deplorable conditions? I have seen them and it is terrible. We are very committed but we really need a buy in and an acceptance that there are broad issues that have to be addressed. We need to sit around the table to get them addressed and dealt with and get buy in from everyone.
It is necessary to acknowledge that there are problems that need to be addressed and, in some instances, to stop the situations that exist. Let no one think for a second that we are not committed. We are very much aware of our obligations. I assure the committee that sending money back is not an option we ever like to take. We only consider doing so if we have to. I will not get into that issue today. I assure members of our full commitment to the expert review report. We have reservations which I have highlighted, but that does not take away from our commitment to comply with our obligations. I thank members for the opportunity to come back before the committee to say that. I hope to meet members in other forums, where I will say the same thing to them.
I am not sure whether Deputy Duffy wishes to come back in for the Green Party slot as he has already contributed. If he does not, there are a couple of members in the room who would like to come back in. I call Deputy Ó Broin.
I wish to make clear to Mr. Cummins that it is not and never has been my position that local authorities or local authority management are solely to blame for the scandal of Traveller accommodation. In fact, political parties, particularly the larger ones, my own included, have contributed to this problem, as have wider society and central government. We all have to accept a share of the responsibility. My frustration arises in the context of the really good roadmap we have. I know the CCMA will implement the law and always does so, but it is a very important and influential organisation and plays a role in the shaping of the law. I could be wrong, but my view is that there is less willingness to implement the elements of the recommendations of the expert group on Traveller accommodation that require legislative change in sections of the Department and in the local government sector. The only way we will cease having the same conversation over and over again is if we implement all 23 recommendations as a matter of urgency. We are two and a half years into it but most of the recommendations have not been implemented. I am urging Mr. Cummins to do what many members of this committee have done, which is to become convinced that the 32 recommendations are the best possible route and need to be implemented as soon as possible.
I suspect that if there was the same rigorous assessment of the Traveller accommodation programmes for 2020, 2019 and 2018 as there was under Michelle Norris for 2017 and before that, we would see an even higher level of non-compliance. For example, in my general election constituency, which makes up half of the local county council area, almost none of our Traveller accommodation plan has been progressed in the past two years. That is not because of a lack of good officials, councillors or people in Traveller advocacy groups, but we are two years into the plan and I cannot think of a single new Traveller-specific accommodation unit that has been provided in an area in which there is really high demand. That tells me that the old system is broken and that until we fully implement those recommendations, we will get no further. If Mr. Cummins has any information to suggest that my contention in respect of the non-implementation of the plans is wrong, I ask him to please share that with the committee, either today or at a later stage. I appreciate that he does not collate all of that information. For me, the takeaway concern today is that Mr. Joyce has told us he is not convinced that the 18 recommendations of the report of the committee that the Minister has indicated are on track to be implemented will be implemented, and they do not contain some of the most important recommendations, which are those listed.
This is not a party political issue; it is an issue on which we have to work together. Unless we start seeing significant changes, legislatively and locally, things will not improve in spite of the fact that everyone who has spoken here today has said they genuinely want them to improve. That is a parting comment rather than a question. If Mr. Cummins has further information, I ask him to please share it.
Mr. Eugene Cummins:
It is complicated. It relies on political will and legislation. If it was not broken, we would not be here. We look forward to the final recommendations and how we will advance all of this. It is an important issue, especially for younger Travellers. It has to be done. It is broken in certain areas and needs to be fixed. Conversations such as this will help to move things along.
My apologies for missing the earlier part of the meeting. I refer to the CCMA. Some of my questions may have been addressed already but I will take that risk. The written submission provided by the CCMA states: "It should be noted that increasingly, greater expenditure from the maintenance budgets is being used to clean up increased levels of dumping on all sites." On the various sites, are there residents' associations with which local authorities liaise and work and which have a big input into what is decided for their site? Many ordinary halting sites have very small residential accommodation units and some of them have serviced units. After that, there is very little personal space for storing things and so on or for any small business the residents may have. Have residents' associations been set up on the various sites?
On the issue of the design of Traveller-specific accommodation, the submission states: "The CCMA has already engaged with DHLGH around the design of Traveller specific accommodation and looks forward to updated guidance for both Local authorities and AHBs in the design of Traveller Specific Accommodation." I have a straight question on that. I am stunned that the most important people, that is, those who will live in this accommodation, are not central to that process and that the submission does not state that the CCMA has discussed this with the Travellers who will live in this specific accommodation.
The submission refers to transient sites but seems to include a get-out-of-jail clause in that regard. It states:
The CCMA wishes to highlight that the legislation is there to protect the rights of all and repealing it is an imposition on the rights of the entire community. It should be noted that our priority is to provide suitable permanent accommodation in the first instance.
That seems to me to indicate that the CCMA is not going to provide a national network of transient sites. However, we know some Travellers will travel in summer. They have been doing so forever. Just as many people go to matches and some people are involved with horses and horse racing and all sorts of things, there are Travellers who travel to certain areas. It has been agreed for many years that they should be accommodated in doing so. That is from where the idea of transient halting sites came. Until we face up to that reality, we will not make any progress. Is the reference in the submission a get-out-of-jail clause? Is it a simple statement that this transient halting site thing is a nice thing to put on paper but will not be implemented in practice?
There are 1 million issues I would like to raise, but there is one final issue I will address. The submission state: "The CCMA notes with concern that the report fails to acknowledge that the demand for Traveller specific accommodation is diminishing, especially among the younger generations, whose preference is not to live in halting site accommodation and who are increasingly seeking standard housing and group schemes." Is that a reference to Traveller-specific group schemes? Is the CCMA saying that, given the choice of a caravan halting site or Traveller-specific accommodation where people live with their relatives, neighbours and communities with whom they have always lived, many Travellers would, obviously, take the better class of accommodation, as would most people? Alternatively, is it saying these group schemes are something else, which does not relate to Traveller-specific group housing? The one type of housing the vast majority of Travellers do not want is HAP or RAS housing. The figures before us show there are a significant number of Travellers in such housing. The other option they definitely do not want is homeless housing. Unfortunately, many Travellers are forced into it.
Mr. Eugene Cummins:
The accumulation of scrap or rubbish on any individual's property is an unauthorised activity and should not be done. We have caretakers on the site who keep an eye on that.
On Part 8, the design of any scheme involves full consultation with the residents and there would be a lot of toing and froing with them. I again repeat that the recommendations of the report are being progressed through the programme board with the Department, the CCMA and Traveller groups.
On the preferences of the younger generation, it appears it is not that interested in transient sites. That is based on analysis of data we collected in local authorities during the Traveller accommodation programme when we looked for information on it. To be quite clear, our priority is housing. It is the same as what we do for homelessness, which is housing first. That is our priority. I stated early in the document that we are looking forward to an all-Ireland approach to transient sites, if they are needed. Certainly, we know in County Cork, for instance, there is no interest among the Traveller community in a site. That does not mean, if this is something that analysis will show is required in a particular county, it will not be progressed. To be very clear, for everyone on our housing list, permanent housing is the preferred option. It is housing first, without question. There is no hidden agenda or secret there. That is what we want to do and that is what we are working towards. Do Mr. Manning or Ms Keenan want to add to that?
My understanding is the Department will give money to implement the report, which includes transient halting sites. It is not, therefore, coming out of the pot that will go into permanent housing. I will put it this way. If you are building an ordinary housing estate, you will put recreational facilities and public parks or whatever in. You will not say it is houses or public parks. You will say that life's experience is a totality and, for some Travellers at least, part of present life is transient sites. It would not come out of the council's money and, therefore, I am a little surprised and taken aback by what Mr. Cummins said.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I will come in for a second because I know time is running out. I apologise, but I lost the connection. By 2017, we had campaigned for 30 years for recognition and what I am hearing is concerning. I am hearing that city and county managers are implying that Travellers want to be housed. We are not looking to be assimilated into housing. We are looking for supports around culturally appropriate provision of accommodation. The expert report, which has 32 recommendations, indicates in full, through a thorough process of consultation and dialogue, how those recommendations should be implemented. It is a roadmap for delivering on needs and how those needs can be met. We are working in collaboration with the CCMA, the Department and others on those recommendations. We are asking for timelines for delivery, provision of accommodation and for people to be taken out of some of the worst conditions in the world, including homelessness, which should be addressed with immediate effect. Some 50% of Travellers in Galway, for example, who are less than 1% of the population, are homeless, so they are over-represented. That is not by chance.
There is an idea that people can somehow gloss over this in some way with Housing for All, which is not for everybody. Why are there no specific timelines for the recommendations of the expert report? They should have been very clearly outlined because we can then work towards removing those families who are in the worst conditions and improving their situation. There is a lot to be said about what has been stated here about Travellers somehow moving towards housing. We do not know that. It has been stated in previous Oireachtas committees, and the Minister said this earlier, that the Department will determine full needs on the basis of the data coming in. There is no ethnic identifier, however, so how can city and county managers say that the community is moving towards housing? At the same time, Traveller families are more than 22 times more likely to be discriminated against in the private rental sector and housing assistance payment, HAP, is not an option. I do not see the private sector as the solution to Traveller accommodation. I see the real solution as real engagement, consultation and dialogue. As I said-----
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
-----institutionalised racism is implicit in the lack of delivery of culturally appropriate accommodation throughout this island. We need to accept that and the city and county managers need to come out - I not saying they are responsible but surely they must take some level of responsibility - with their members to highlight that. The last thing I will highlight-----
I have to bring the committee to a close. Does Mr. Cummins want to respond briefly to Deputy Ó Cuív's point? I believe Mr. Joyce's point about the identifier, which was discussed in the earlier session, is an exceptionally important one and will guide the data on this issue. It needs to be expedited. Mr. Cummins has 30 seconds and then I have to bring matters to a conclusion.
Mr. Eugene Cummins:
Any scheme that is provided will provide for the well-being of the residents, whether it is group housing or a halting site, if that is deemed to be necessary. My report and the recommendations of the review group are compatible in the broad sense and we are working on the design guidelines. We are working with Traveller groups and the Department in terms of the programme board and the implementation of this. This is a serious matter and it will require and get our absolute attention. It is not an easy topic and it is a complex situation. We have a huge housing list, we have refugees and asylum seekers and we have the needs of the entire community, which must be dealt with fairly and equitably with the resources that have been provided by the State.
I thank the Department officials and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for their attendance at the earlier session, the Irish Traveller Movement, the County and City Management Association and members for their thorough questioning. I assure everyone the contributions made at this committee will be fully taken on board by us, as members and legislators, to ensure the best outcomes for all members of our communities.