Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 12 October 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Traveller Accommodation: Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage
I thank the Minister of State for attending. Like the previous speaker, I thank him for his efforts since taking office. I have slightly different take on some of the matters raised so please bear with me.
The first matter is the Traveller accommodation expert review report, published in July 2019. It was a 115-page document and within it was a series of high-level recommendations relating to the provision of Traveller accommodation in the State. I will hone in on one of those recommendations, specifically No. 4. It proposes to "Repeal the Trespass legislation, in particular as it applies to publicly owned land, until an appropriate network of transient provision as envisaged in the 1998 Act has been provided."
That is a crazy proposal and a massive overstretch in policy. It is political correctness gone mad. If this came to pass, we could potentially have encampments in hospital car parks, schoolyards, public parks and the list goes on. These examples are not hysterical or outlandish and there are many examples - too many - of illegal encampments on public property now. This proposal would, of course, serve to make them legal and make it impossible to move on illegal encampments.
We currently have an encampment at Sixmilebridge railway station in County Clare. The approach in this instance seems to be "Here we are, we have rocked up, house us". This is an illegal takeover of a public facility and, moreover, it amounts to leapfrogging of the housing waiting list, which is very unfair to other Traveller families and members of the settled community who have waited years to be housed. What is the current status of the recommendation I referred to? The answer to Traveller accommodation provision surely relates to the provision of transient sites and permanent accommodation and not tearing apart age-old trespassing laws.
A second matter I wish to raise concerns the colossal legal fees faced by local authorities in defending themselves in court on matters relating to Traveller accommodation. This year alone, Clare County Council spent €1.1 million defending legal actions taken against it by various individuals and bodies. It is a waste of public money that would be much better spent in providing accommodation, rather than lining the pockets of lawyers.
I should be clear that Clare County Council, an authority on which I had the honour of serving for 16 years, more than meets its legal obligations in providing Traveller accommodation. Very often, disputes arise because of irreconcilable differences between housing needs versus housing wants. If a local authority has offered suitable accommodation to a Traveller family, it should not be hauled before the courts. The Minister of State has a moral duty to protect local authorities from these actions.
We must provide suitable accommodation, both permanent and transient, for Traveller families, and we have a moral and legal obligation to do so. When it comes to dismantling trespassing laws or expending fortunes on legal actions, we also need to have a good look at ourselves.