Thursday, 3 June 2021
Traveller Accommodation: Statements
Eoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for his opening remarks. The failure of the State, both local and central, for decades, if not for generations, to adequately meet the needs of our Traveller community is a scandal. It is probably the worst and most scandalous element of our failing housing system. In every county and constituency there are Traveller-specific sites which can only be described as Dickensian in terms of the conditions adults and children are forced to live in every day. Likewise, the increased difficulty Traveller families who want to access private rental or general social housing have in accessing that accommodation is disproportionately worse for them than it is for other sections of society.
Nobody should be shocked by the contents of the Ombudsman for Children’s report, No End in Site. That does not mean we should not be appalled and outraged. There is nothing in the report that those of us who make it our business to go to Traveller sites in our constituencies do not see regularly. In fact, only a number of years ago a collective complaint was taken against the State to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The State was found to be in clear breach of Article 16 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In a recent update from a month ago, the European Committee on Social Rights confirmed that the State still has not rectified that breach.
I have always argued that we must deal with this on a cross-party basis. I acknowledge the good work done by the Minister of State, Deputy English, when he was in the same position as the Minister of State, Deputy Burke. He worked well with the Opposition and the Oireachtas housing committee, and I hope that continues. However, what is frustrating many of us, and I suspect the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, shares this frustration, is the incredibly slow pace of the review process. The Department commissioned a review by Michelle Norris, which was published in 2017 on foot of, among many things, the appalling deaths of ten adults and children in Carrickmines the previous year. This led to the expert group with its 32 recommendations, but that was in 2019 which was two years later. It is two years on from this in 2021 that the programme board has been established. None of that is a criticism of the current Minister of State, I want to make that clear, but it is an indication of the slow pace of change.
We do not have a dedicated principal officer in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, driving the work of the programme board, and that is a fundamental flaw. I appeal to the Minister of State to make the case for a dedicated stand-alone principal officer to this work. I also appeal to him to publish the quarterly updates on the implementation of the programme board’s work on the Department’s website, as well as sending it to the House, so we can track how progress is made quarter-on-quarter.
What I did not hear from the Minister of State - perhaps he will come back to it in his concluding remarks - are the things that remain with the Minister. They are the very significant emergency legislative requirements that the expert group outlined. It has recommended clear changes, albeit temporarily, to deal with Part 8 planning permissions in local authorities and section 183 land transfers. Until we see those changes in legislation enacted, I do not believe the substantive issue of increased provision of new, good quality and culturally appropriate accommodation for Traveller families will be addressed.
There will need to be legislative change whereby we can add an addendum to the Traveller accommodation programmes that were approved by local authorities in 2019, so that they will have a legally binding implementation timeline in order for us to see, year-on-year, what is and is not being done. We must have an oversight mechanism, notwithstanding the changes to Part 8 and section 183 that the expert group recommended. In the case of a manager refusing to fulfil her or his statutory responsibilities, we must have an independent oversight to step in and fix the problem. Whether that will be the responsibility of the Office of the Planning Regulator or some other section, we will wait and see.
I welcome the fact that last year, as the Minister of State said, was the first time in seven years that the full budget was spent. Much of that money was spent on Covid-19 emergency measures, and that was necessary, but I also urge him to do something I urged the Minister of State, Deputy English, to do. Alongside the quarterly social housing pipeline reports, which show us what is happening with social housing quarter-on-quarter, we should include an addendum in the report, so that we have a Traveller-specific accommodation pipeline report quarter-on-quarter. I assure the Minister of State that the Opposition will work with him on this, just as we did with his predecessor. We are an ally in implementing those recommendations, but all of us must speed up the pace of change. If he does that, he will certainly have an ally in our party.