Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Traveller Community

4:50 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to deal with this issue. I am a little disappointed that the Minister is not present because when this Dáil came together, the importance of having line Ministers present to deal with Topical Issues was stressed.

A report was produced by National Traveller MABS which examined in detail the fuel poverty experienced by those living in mobile homes, trailers and caravans. The report is very readable and makes concise and implementable suggestions and recommendations. We must put the matter in context. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the interest he has shown in the Traveller community by facilitating the establishment of an all-party committee to examine Traveller issues. The one fact that jumps out every day is that Travellers die at a lot younger age than the rest of us. They suffer far worse health outcomes. When one drills down, one continually finds that it all comes down to basic items such as accommodation. It is not the case that they have less access to doctors. In fact, many Travellers go to the doctor much more frequently than members of the settled community. When seeking to address their quality of life and health issues and mortality rates, one must always look at the issue of accommodation.

We will not solve these accommodation issues overnight and get good standard accommodation for all Travellers. In Galway, one site did not have planning permission even though it had been a city council halting site for the previous six or seven years. However, the council did not do what it was obliged to and has been told what to do by An Bord Pleanála, which is to come up with proper accommodation that would be suitable for the Travellers all the time. There is no fault attached to the Travellers in that case as they were put there by the city council.

There are not many recommendations. One is that we should have either a rent-to-buy or a rental scheme for quality accommodation, caravans or mobile homes. That could be done easily as they are a very small community and the number who live in caravans and trailers is a small percentage of that. It would not be difficult if the will was there. The second is a simple recommendation, namely that the fuel allowance would be higher than the standard rate of €22.50 for those living in caravans or trailers. The cost would not have much of an effect on the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection budget but it would make a major difference to those living in trailers, caravans or mobile homes. The next proposal relates to something I find difficult to understand. Where two caravans are in the same bay, there is only one fuel allowance payment between the two families. That could be sorted tomorrow and that would not break the Department's budget. One would not measure it in the spending of that Department. The final proposal relates to something that has deteriorated in the past seven or eight years, namely access to discretionary payments where there are particular health issues and where now there is an eight-page form to be filled following which there is no discretion. The applicant is expected to produce so many receipts and so much documentation that it can be very difficult, particularly for people with literacy issues to access the payment. I hope that the Minister of State will inform us that the Department has considered this and it will now deal with the report that Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív did not produce but that was done by MABS Travellers.

5:00 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty.

In July, MABS Travellers published a report addressing energy poverty among Travellers living in mobile homes and trailers. This report, which was based on analysis of 65 households last autumn, found that 77% of Travellers who live in mobile homes are in energy poverty and spend between five and six times more on energy than the average household. The report contains recommendations which relate to a number of Departments.

The Minister has asked her officials to examine the recommendations in the report specifically in regard to the fuel allowance scheme. This scheme is intended to assist low-income households with their energy costs. It is not intended to meet those costs in full. Since the analysis contained in the report was completed, the Minister announced as part of budget 2019 an extension of the fuel allowance scheme by one week, which came into effect in 2019.

It is currently a payment of €22.50 per week for 28 weeks, a total of €630, from October to April, paid to more than 372,000 low-income households, at an estimated cost of €240 million in 2019. In budget 2020, the Minister increased the fuel allowance payment by €2 to €24.50 per week. This is an increase of just under 9% and will increase the annual fuel allowance rate from €630 to €686, that is, a €56 yearly increase, which is due to take effect from January 2020.

On the recommendation that fuel allowance be paid to families sharing single-use bays, the Minister stresses that fuel allowance can only be paid when the household is on an approved site, publicly or privately owned, with planning permission for the caravan or mobile home. However, where someone lives in a residence, which is without planning permission such as in the case where an additional mobile home or caravan is placed on a bay designed for single use, these additional places of residence are not eligible for fuel allowance.

The Department also pays an electricity or gas allowance under the household benefits scheme at an estimated cost of €188 million in 2019 and this can provide support to eligible Traveller families. In addition to the fuel allowance and the household benefits scheme, the Department provides supports under the supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, scheme, which includes a heating supplement. This supplement may be paid to a person who lives alone or only with a qualified adult or children and who has exceptional heating needs due to ill health or infirmity. There is no standard rate for a heating supplement and each payment is awarded taking into account the individual circumstances of the case, therefore, providing for flexibility in its administration. There are currently some 1,240 recipients of this payment.

Finally, the exceptional needs payments, ENPs, may be made to help meet an essential, once-off cost, which a person is unable to meet from their own resources, and this may include exceptional heating costs. In 2018, over 2,400 ENPs at a cost of almost €631,000 were made under the ENP category of heating. To date in 2019, more than 1,200 such payments were made at a cost of €354,000. The Minister advises any persons who are unable to meet their heating costs to contact the Department's community welfare service at their local Intreo centre for assistance.

While the Department provides a range of income supports that are available to individuals to offset the cost of energy the Minister also notes that the report found that only 14% of mobile homes are insulated. What is required, therefore, to address energy poverty among Travellers on a sustainable basis are the report's recommendations relating to the need for a State-financed rental or rent-to-buy scheme to provide good quality mobile accommodation for Travellers more widely accessible.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Mair a chapaill agus gheobhair féar. The Minister of State is telling us to wait for this great new scheme the Government will introduce whereby everybody will have an absolutely fantastic mobile home, trailer or caravan but that, in the meantime, people should freeze. I do not know if any Minister has ever stayed in a mobile home in the winter. It might be fine for someone in Ballybunion for the summer, but a mobile home is very hard to heat in the winter.

The reality is that it takes an awful lot of time in this State to make simple decisions. I would not mind if there were a significant number of consequences or significant costs involved. The Department's budget is approximately €20 billion per year. It is very hard for people to get their heads around that figure but I will put it in simple terms. It is equivalent to worrying about 50 cent if one has €20,000 in one's pocket. The proportion is the same. Doubling the payment to those living in trailers and mobile homes would cost approximately €500,000, which is not a large sum out of a budget of €20,000 million.

I was fascinated by what the Minister of State said about planning permission. Perhaps in his response, he will address whether, if the local authority does not have planning permission, it disqualifies the residents erecting the halting site from getting the fuel allowance. What justification could the Department have for such a decision?

The reality is that this issue has just been put on the long finger. We seem to spend more time studying the obvious than making decisions. As I said, there will be no big knock-on effect. The Government is just trying to avoid somebody saying Travellers got something. My answer to that is that the Government should look at all the statistics, which point to the fact that there are a lot of things in life Travellers do not have.

5:10 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I accept the point on Traveller accommodation and health and mortality issues. Nobody is disputing those points and I accept that we must respond to them. In my response on behalf of the Minister, I stated the exceptional needs payments and the option of contacting the local Intreo office could deal with heating cost issues. I will bring the local authority planning permission matter to the attention of the appropriate Minister as there is a problem that we can see very clearly.

The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is currently considering the recommendations made by the expert group on Traveller accommodation with a view to implementing appropriate actions and policies to improve the delivery of Traveller accommodation nationally and help to ensure full use is made of the increasing level of funding available for addressing investment in Traveller accommodation. The budget is there and it needs to be rolled out. We will need support for that plan as well.