Wednesday, 20 January 2016
Topical Issue Debate
With the agreement of Members we will deal with the fourth Topical Issues matter from Deputies Gerry Adams and Ruth Coppinger, regarding the ongoing eviction of up to 70 people from a halting site at Woodland Park in Dundalk, County Louth. The Deputies have four minutes in total to make an initial statement and the Minister of State has four minutes to reply. The Deputies have two minutes in total for a supplementary statement and the Minister of State has two minutes for a concluding statement. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Paudie Coffey to the House.
Tá mé buíoch as an seans caint ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Last Friday and with only 48 hours' notice, Louth County Council began a process to evict 23 Traveller families from a halting site at Woodland Park in Dundalk. This was a shameful action. Those evicted included at least 22 children, some of them babies only days old, and two pregnant women. The distress and trauma caused to these families, especially to the children, was unnecessary and unreasonable. This was done without consultation by councillors.
I raised the issue of the halting site with the chief executive of the council in November. I was on the site in December and made representations during Christmas week to the council and other agencies. The basis on which the council said that it carried out these evictions was a fire safety inspection. However, Louth County Council, like all other councils, was given a programme to review fire safety and Traveller accommodation last December. This was initiated after the tragic fire at the halting site in Carrickmines which saw ten people including five children die. The report is very clear that nothing in this fire safety review process is intended to be used to address the broader Traveller accommodation issues in a negative way. However, this is exactly what the council is doing.
The last five families at the Woodland Park site are being evicted today and tomorrow. Some of the women, including at least one pregnant woman, have had to sleep in a car for the past three nights. There is already a homelessness crisis in County Louth, with 5,000 people on the housing waiting list. The chief executive's action has added to this crisis. I ask the Minister of State to intervene and that he urgently agrees to release the necessary funding to upgrade the Woodland Park site. This is the most cost-effective and common sense resolution to the issue.
I also want to raise the issue of the eviction of the 23 Traveller families from Woodland Park in County Louth. It is incredible that the first response of the State to Travelling people since the tragedy at Carrickmines is to use that event to evict 23 families including women and children from a site on which they have been living. Just so we are clear, this was a halting site in the past. It is not as if it did not function in that capacity before. As we know, there is a housing emergency which even the Government is beginning to acknowledge. For Travellers it is doubly difficult, even if they want to access private rented accommodation.
It was thought necessary for the Garda public order unit to arrive on-site on Friday, only two days after the eviction notice had been posted up for those families. It is very unusual to see a council moving so swiftly to do anything. The council did not feel it necessary to send a delegation go to the site, engage with the Travellers or find out what health and safety issues there might be and how they might be rectified. There is no necessity to evict these families from the site to make it safe. All of these safety issues could have been addressed while leaving those families in situ, and that was the stated aim of the report that followed Carrickmines. The directive said that nothing in this process is intended to be used to address broader Traveller accommodation issues in a negative way. Instead, these families are being pushed into the settled community against their wishes. That is not meant to be a policy. It involves breaking up extended Traveller families and so on.
That was the action of Louth County Council on the coldest night of the year. The Minister of State should condemn it. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly has been asked to intervene by Pavee Point and should do so.
Louth County Council has informed me that the Woodland halting site in Dundalk was a purpose-built permanent and transient site. However, it has been vacant since 2007, when the last of the two occupants of the site at that time were accommodated by the construction of two dwellings in a group housing site at the edge of the site. The illegal occupation of this site has been ongoing since April of last year and the inspection of Woodland halting site, which gave rise to the eviction of the families last Friday on safety grounds, was conducted prior to the commencement of the review process and the publication of the project initiation document and the Guide to Fire Safety in Existing Traveller Accommodation which was commissioned by my Department after the Carrickmines fire. Legal advice was obtained by Louth County Council and junior counsel appointed. A complaint was subsequently made to An Garda Síochána, which served the notice to evict. Gardaí enforced the direction by moving caravans on Friday last, 15 January.
Since the site was occupied last year it is unclear who, in fact, has been in occupation. However, I understand that recent events have indicated that there were 28 temporary dwellings on site, occupied by 18 households. The original site has been significantly vandalised and requires substantial works to bring it back to a habitable condition. Numerous requests were made by the council over recent months that the families should leave the site but these were ignored. Recent Louth County Council Traveller accommodation programmes have not identified a demand for halting site accommodation at this location. The current Traveller accommodation programme 2014 to 2018 includes only one household which had indicated a preference for Traveller specific accommodation among all forms of social housing support available.
Louth County Council has been actively engaged with the families and their representatives to try to meet their short-term accommodation needs, while also scoping and planning for meeting their Traveller specific accommodation needs in the medium to longer term. Louth County Council met yesterday afternoon with representatives from the Travelling community concerned with Woodland Park. A number of short-term solutions were discussed and agreed at that meeting and the council is committed to continue working with the representatives of Woodland Park towards a longer term solution. At the meeting yesterday evening, a number of short-term solutions were offered which also focus on a review of the Traveller accommodation programme. To that end the council is facilitating all households and families who wish to make applications to be considered for housing or to amend their accommodation type choice. A letting agent has been appointed to assist in the sourcing of private rented accommodation. It appears that many of the households were in the private rented sector prior to their occupation of the site. Also, the council has offered to accommodate households in alternative halting sites in the county which are vacant or semi-vacant.
The local Traveller accommodation consultative committee has been convened to meet tomorrow to commence the review of the Traveller accommodation programme. The council is also commencing the capital appraisal of the Woodland halting site with regard to potentially developing it as a permanent Traveller-specific housing project and has planned meetings for the next number of days with potential partners who may assist in this regard.
The agreement reached between Louth County Council and the Traveller representatives on Friday, 15 January remains in place, and is the central focus of the work of the council in respect of Traveller accommodation. I am satisfied that Louth County Council is committed to working with the Traveller families and their representatives to ensure the provision of accommodation of their choice in which they can feel safe.
I am very disappointed with the Minister of State's answer. There is no point coming in here and reading a prepared script on an issue he knows nothing about. I asked him whether he would intervene to ensure the money which the Government has supplied is made available to refurbish the halting site up to appropriate health and safety standards.
Louth County Council is not working with the Traveller families and their representatives to ensure the provision of accommodation of their choice, as the Minister of State indicated. That is not the case. I want to remind the Minister of State that last year, the Minister of State with responsibility for equality promised that Traveller ethnicity would be a reality. The Government also promised equality and social inclusion for the Traveller community. Given it was the coldest night of the year, can the Minister of State stand over and justify the forced mass eviction of these families, comprising up to 70 people, with some of them now on the side of the road.
The way to sort this out is common sense and is cost effective, as the money is within the Minister of State's Department, and that is to have the site brought up to health and safety standards and then to work out with the Traveller people in that constituency appropriate tigíní or other accommodation in keeping with their cultural needs.
I have heard replies in my time but I have to say this takes the biscuit. First, the Minister of State told us the reason the council acted in this way was that the directive was issued before the Carrickmines report came out. That is unbelievable. The Carrickmines report has been known for weeks and should have been respected. It is pathetic. It was said that numerous requests were made by the council over recent months for the families to leave the site but these were ignored. That could be because they have nowhere to go.
The Minister of State has the brass neck to tell us there is no demand for Traveller-specific accommodation in County Louth and that everything is hunky-dory for Travellers in County Louth. These families are living proof that there is a huge demand for accommodation, in particular Traveller-specific accommodation. Is the Minister of State seriously suggesting they just did not bother registering their interest with the council? We all know of the failure of successive Governments and councils to accommodate Travellers in any sensitive or meaningful way - I saw this myself in the 11 years I was on Fingal County Council and it is no worse or better than any other council. Travellers have been utterly failed by this State. Now, we have a situation where 23 families are homeless and where the Government added to the homeless lists. I assume those 23 families will have to be accommodated in bed and breakfasts or hotel accommodation at huge cost to the State.
They could have been asked to comply with health and safety regulations and they could have been given the means to remain on site until there was proper, permanent accommodation for them. Think of the money, the time and the energy that has been spent by the State and the Garda. All of that should have been and can be used to refurbish the existing Traveller site and provide them with long-term accommodation. I hope the Minister of State will ensure the representatives of the Travellers, who were ignored when they brought a lawyer with them, are now accommodated by the council.
While I acknowledge and recognise the concern of the Deputies, who rightly raise the issue, I want to reject some of the charges they have made. The statement I have made to the Dáil is factual and correct and is the current situation in terms of the history of the site and what is going on in regard to it.
I also remind Deputies that Louth County Council, as the housing authority, is the responsible statutory authority in law for ensuring the implementation of the Traveller accommodation programme. I assure the Deputies that I, the Department and the Government are committed to ensuring that Traveller accommodation needs will be met in a safe and sustainable way. I also have confidence that Louth County Council will work with the Traveller families and all those concerned to ensure that the short, medium and long-term solutions will be found to the issues the Deputies have raised today.
I also wish to put on record that safety has to be paramount. We need to offer reassurance that steps are being taken by my Department in the context of the review of fire safety programme in Traveller accommodation. Local authorities have been instructed to undertake site-specific appraisals and apply the appropriate fire safety measures in accordance with the approach and the recommendations of the guide to fire safety in existing Traveller accommodation. They are also required to submit an interim report on the progress of the review to the national steering group which was established to oversee the review process by the end of this week.
I want to reassure the House that my Department will continue to work with the local authorities and the national Traveller representative groups to ensure the continued provision of safe and secure accommodation for Travellers, in accordance with their choice and through the comprehensive local and national collaborative structures which are already in place.