Thursday, 3 June 2021
Traveller Accommodation: Statements
Peter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important issue. Improving the provision of Traveller-specific accommodation is something which I, as Minister of State, and my Department are taking very seriously.
The State's response to the provision of Traveller accommodation must be improved. Since being appointed to this role, I have been fully committed to taking all necessary actions to deliver those much-needed improvements. As the Minister of State with responsibility for Traveller accommodation, and as a father of two young children, I want children and families to have access to good-quality and sustainable accommodation as a basic human right. I was pleased to see that local authorities made use of all funding available for Traveller accommodation in 2020. This was the first time in six years that the budget was fully spent, showing the drive and commitment in the Department to ensure that resources were both allocated and spent in this regard.
I will briefly outline the structures in place for the provision of Traveller accommodation. In accordance with the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998, our 31 local authorities have statutory responsibility for assessing the accommodation needs of Travellers and the preparation, adoption and implementation of multi-annual Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs, in their areas. The Department's role is to ensure that adequate structures and supports are in place to assist local authorities in providing such accommodation, including a national framework of policies, legislation and funding. I have identified some local authority areas where spending remained low in 2020 and I have raised concerns in this regard with the relevant chief executives. It is accepted that more work needs to be done to increase the provision of Traveller-specific accommodation and I have made local authorities aware of the €15.5 million in capital funding available in 2021 to support this. In addition to that capital funding, my Department provides funding to local authorities for specific Traveller accommodation-related supports, such as social workers' salaries and the management and maintenance of halting sites and group housing schemes. We pay 75% of the salaries of caretakers employed by local authorities to maintain halting sites and group housing schemes, and 90% of the salaries of local authority social workers whose work is dedicated to supporting Travellers in obtaining accommodation. In 2021, €5.8 million has been made available for these types of support.
In recent years, the process of assessing capital funding has been simplified for local authorities through the removal of the allocation system. Instead, local authorities can apply to officials in the Department's Traveller accommodation support unit for funding on a case-by-case basis as needs are identified.
Accommodation for Travellers is provided through a range of options, including standard local authority housing, which is financed from the Department's capital allocation for social housing, and Traveller-specific accommodation, which is funded by means of 100% capital funding from the Department. Accommodation is also provided through private housing assisted by local authorities or voluntary organisations, private rented accommodation and own resources. Travellers can opt for any form of accommodation and local authority TAPs that are intended to reflect these preferences.
The assessment of housing needs carried out by local authorities points to a general preference among Travellers for standard social housing rather than Traveller-specific housing and halting sites. The results of the 2020 social housing needs assessment revealed that 1.7% of households had a requirement for Traveller-specific accommodation. It is anticipated that this requirement will be addressed in the TAPs, which cover the five-year period from 2019 to 2024. This preference is also noted in the findings and recommendations of the expert group's report, which are being considered currently.
In specific circumstances, the Department is open to funding the acquisition of standard housing for Traveller families using the Traveller-specific capital provision. Approval for the purchase of these homes must be obtained from the Department's Traveller accommodation support unit prior to any purchase. Certain criteria apply to applications of this type, including clearly identified needs and an outline of what alternatives were considered and why they were deemed unacceptable. These applications are considered on a case-by-case basis, but I assure the House that all reasonable acquisition proposals will be approved.
Each year, local authorities undertake the annual estimate of accommodation of Travellers, formally the annual count, on the last Friday of November. It provides a useful indicator of the housing situation of Traveller families and can be used to track changes in the position year on year. It is important for the Department and local authorities to have this information. Due to level 5 Covid restrictions still being in place at the end of last November, the count was instead carried out on the first Friday of December. The latest data available from the 2019 annual estimate identified 5%, or 529 families, living on unauthorised sites; 17%, or 1,804 families, living in authorised Traveller-specific accommodation, that being, 9%, 952 families, living on halting sites and 8%, or 852 families, living in group housing; and 18%, or 1,919 families, living in private rented accommodation, representing a decrease of 246 Traveller families compared with 2018. A total of 45%, or 4,934 families, were known to be accommodated in standard local authority housing provided by or with assistance from local authorities or approved housing bodies. A total of 933 families, or 9%, shared accommodation in overcrowded situations. The 2019 estimate identified that 6% of Traveller households provided accommodation from their own resources.
Before coming to the steps that my Department and I have taken in recent months regarding Traveller accommodation, it would be remiss of me not to mention the disproportionate negative impacts that Covid-19 has had on many vulnerable people in our society, including members of the Traveller community. Since the start of the emergency, the Department has worked closely with local authorities in an effort to implement preventative measures on all Traveller sites, both official and unofficial, regardless of their designation. In doing so, local authorities have put together a number of temporary arrangements to provide, for example, services to previously non-serviced sites, facilitating better sanitation and social distancing. Additional measures being funded by my Department for the duration of the Covid emergency include extra toilets, running water, additional mobile accommodation, space where there is overcrowding, extra refuse collection, access and egress on sites and additional units, either mobiles on site or houses elsewhere, that will allow for self-isolation and quarantining. These measures will remain in place for the duration of the emergency at all times. Local authorities have been advised to utilise all necessary resources to make sites as safe as possible. Post pandemic, local authorities will be asked to provide permanent facilities where possible to replace temporary facilities supplied during the emergency.
In addition to these measures, and working in conjunction with the HSE and local authorities, a Covid-19 preparedness checklist was developed to strengthen preparedness and infection prevention and control in authorised and unauthorised Traveller halting sites and local authority Traveller-specific group housing schemes. The checklist was intended to be a toolkit for local authority action by identifying areas that may require additional supports during the pandemic. Just over 250 halting sites were audited for Covid preparedness and a list of deficiencies and a checklist of works were prepared for each individual site. This resulted in an investment of over €4 million in improvements to site conditions last year. My Department will continue to make funding for improvements available to local authorities throughout 2021 to make conditions on sites safer regardless of the sites' official designations.
I wish to outline some initiatives that I have taken in recent months. I received my delegation order last November. It specified that I would have responsibility for Traveller accommodation. Since then, I have been working hard to identify and implement key measures that I believe will effect real change in the short to medium term.
First, I am pleased to confirm that we have received sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to proceed with the revised caravan loan scheme, which we will roll out on a pilot basis to four local authorities. This scheme has the potential to make a difference to the living conditions faced by Traveller families.
Second, with effect from January of this year, the funding that I have made available to local authorities for the management and maintenance of halting site bays has been increased by 50% per bay per annum. This is a long-overdue increase, as I understand that there has been no change in the amount that local authorities could recoup since 1997. This significant budget increase means that local authorities will be able to increase substantially the work that they carry out on sites to ensure that resources are available when needed.
Third, the review of local authority social workers and personnel employed to assist Travellers with their accommodation needs was published recently. It is an important piece of research and has been sought for many years. I am considering the report and the recommendations therein. The Department funds 90% the salaries and expenses of social workers who are employed in each local authority to work and assist Travellers in moving from unauthorised sites to Traveller-specific accommodation or to support them in securing sustainable tenancies. It is important that Travellers be supported directly from the ground up by local authorities. Local authority social workers act as a point of contact to carry out this vital role.
I will outline the most important measure that I have activated since taking on my role, that being, the Traveller accommodation programme board. The 2016 programme for Government committed to the establishment of a special working group to audit the delivery and implementation of local authorities' TAPs and consult with stakeholders on key areas of concern.
The commitment was underpinned in a 2016 housing policy statement, Rebuilding Ireland. The Housing Agency commissioned a report on behalf of the Department. This report was known as the TAP review and was an independent review of capital and current funding for Traveller-specific accommodation for the period 2000-2016.
On foot of the publication of the review in 2017, the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee, NTACC, advised the Minister to establish an independent expert group to review the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 and other legislation that impacts on the provision of delivery of Traveller accommodation. The terms of reference for the Traveller accommodation expert group were drawn up in consultation with the NTACC. The then Minister of State tasked the expert group with putting forward recommendations and proposed actions to improve the delivery of Traveller accommodation.
The expert group completed a comprehensive review and a report was published on the Rebuilding Ireland website in July 2019 and contained 32 recommendations. Delivery and implementation will require input from several areas within my Department, as well as other Departments, local authorities and external stakeholders. Extensive stakeholder engagement formed part of the major work of the expert group and included consultation with Traveller representative groups, local authority officials, councillors and other relevant interest groups, including the Irish Council for Social Housing, the Housing Executive in Northern Ireland and the Traveller-led culturally appropriate approved housing body CENA. Therefore, the recommendations have been reached through significant research, debate and agreement from all stakeholders with significant hands-on experience in the field. I am keen to make full use of the expert review and have already been able to establish some recommendations. For example, a review has been concluded regarding the arrangements in place within the Department for the provision of the refurbishment of Traveller-specific accommodation. A new process is now in place.
The Department is working with CENA, which is the approved housing body dedicated to providing Traveller specific solutions. For the first time, the capital assistance scheme, CAS, funding stream is being used by CENA for Traveller-specific accommodation. The CAS funding scheme is available to approved housing bodies whereby they can avail of 100% of funding. The Department has also consulted with the CSO and is offering assistance to ensure Travellers will properly be represented in the next census, which has been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
To ensure this report is utilised and the maximum number of recommendations are implemented, I have established a programme board to oversee this. The programme board consists of representatives from national Traveller organisations, local authorities and my Department. The programme board has agreed and adopted its own work programme for 2021. Some 11 projects have been established under the board and it will consider 18 of the 32 recommendations contained in the report this year. Eoin O’Sullivan is chair of the programme board. I have attended meetings and signed off proposals that emanate from the board. This programme board will be a key vehicle to deliver change. We are basing our work on the excellent research, we have a list of recommendations, we have relevant stakeholders at the table, and we are working constructively to implement as many recommendations as possible.
This week, for instance, we signed off on the submission to include a Traveller identifier on social housing forms. I have advised members of the programme board that I operate an open-door policy. If they feel their issues are not being addressed or if there are any barriers to achieving the explicit aims of the board, I am happy to discuss these issues and action them where necessary, in consultation with the board.
In relation to the No End in Site report recently published by the Ombudsman for Children's Office, OCO, officials from my Department are in ongoing communication with the relevant local authority to provide the necessary supports and that the OCO’s recommendations are implemented in timely manner. Regular meetings have been taking place since 2020 between the local authority and my Department officials. In response to the report, I have requested a full report from the local authority in question outlining its implementation plan, and I expect this imminently. I will follow up with an in-person meeting on site with the local authority upon receipt of this plan.
The conditions reported on this site, which I accept are replicated to some extent on a number of sites throughout this country, are absolutely unacceptable. I assure the House that this is receiving my full attention and that of my Department, and that it is prioritised within the Department. I was shocked to read about toddlers and children living in such terrible conditions, to the point that their environment was damaging both their physical and mental health, through no fault of their own. As a Minister of State, as a Deputy, as a father and as a member of society, I cannot condone or allow this. I will make every effort to ensure these specific actions are taken to address the report. The onus is on all of us as stakeholders to improve the conditions. This can be achieved through goodwill and working with the Department and the programme board.
In conclusion, I reiterate my absolute commitment to improving the supply and the standard of Traveller accommodation in this country where necessary.