Thursday, 3 June 2021
Traveller Accommodation: Statements
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.
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.
Last week, the Ombudsman for Children published a scathing 72-page report into the conditions in which children are living at the Spring Lane site in the heart of my constituency. It is a site with which I am familiar and I have tried to do a lot of work on this issue in the past. Spring Lane was originally opened in 1989 as a ten-bay halting site but it was overcrowded from day one as 16 families originally moved in there. This goes to the heart of Cork City Council’s mismanagement of the site from the very beginning, as it allowed it to expand rapidly to the point that there are now 38 families with 66 children living there. Around 140 people share toilet and washing facilities designed for 40. Eoin English published a detailed article in the Irish Examinerthis week on the various actions and reports that have been undertaken on Spring Lane. I commend the work of people like him and journalists in The Echo, who alongside the Traveller Visibility Group in Cork have highlighted the issues on this site time and again over the last number of years.
This issue not only affects the residents of the site but the mismanagement of the Spring Lane site affects the entire community and people right across Ballyvolane. In 2011, Cork City Council recognised that something needed to be done. Instead of working with Traveller representative groups, residents of the site and the local community, it brought forward a proposal to expand the site into Ellis’ Yard. This was opposed by everyone, including the local community, Traveller representative organisations and the Travellers living on the site. It would have led to increased segregation and would not have resolved the structural issues with the site. An engineering report in 2012 found that drainage issues led to the formation of a large lagoon made up of water, raw sewage and human excrement that could be seen clearly at the edges. The report stated that this not only posed a risk to residents' well-being and health but was hazardous as people could drown in it. In 2013, an extensive independent review was published with a comprehensive roadmap for improvement which would have seen the site closed by now. However, that report has lain idle since its publication. In 2014, Joe Horan published 21 recommendations to improve the site. Ultimately this too led to few improvements, with Louise Harrington from the Cork Traveller Women’s Network saying the report failed because of a lack of outcomes. The European Committee on Social Rights has also highlighted concerns over conditions on the site as a result of legal action taken by Pavee Point and local residents in conjunction with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC.
Alongside these reports, residents on the site have worked to highlight the conditions in which they are living. The residents won the Traveller Pride community work award in 2016 for their campaigns on the site and for launching their own manifesto for improvement. It is clear that the residents of this site, and the wider local community, have been failed time and again. Instead of working to build relationships and reduce stigma, Cork City Council has left residents living in squalor by failing to maintain and manage the site correctly. This has led to increased tensions within the community and surrounding areas. It has also negatively impacted those living on the site and created divisions between residents and the wider community. The blame for this lies solely on those who have either worked against, or looked away from, efforts to make improvements. Children have described rats running up walls and being unable to make friends in school because they were always dirty due to the unkempt walkways and passageway on which they had to travel.
I spoke with Cork City Council’s chief executive on Monday and discussed the recommendations in the report with her. She has given a commitment to implement them. The Ombudsman for Children has also said he will follow up on these recommendations. There is much more I could say about this site and the failures but the one point I want to make is that every child in this State is equal and it is not acceptable for any child to live in these conditions.
I will pick up on the final point Deputy Ó Broin raised, which was the spend of central funding moneys for Traveller accommodation. It took a unique global event such as this pandemic for the full allocation of central funding to be spent. This disease impacts the old, the vulnerable, the poor and those who live in the most cramped conditions and because of that, the money was spent. However, in 2019, 14 local authorities drew down zero central funding for Traveller accommodation. In 2018, there was an overall underspend of 48% by local authorities on Traveller accommodation. While there was a full drawdown last year, let us see what happens this year, next year and the years after. Will we have changed as a political body, at national and local level, and shown we really care about solving the crisis in Traveller accommodation?
It is a crisis. The word "squalor" is not being used frivolously here. Deputy Gould mentioned the reports in the media over the last few days about the site run by Cork City Council. From 2019 up to when I was elected to this House, I was chair of the Traveller accommodation committee in Fingal County Council and visited sites myself. Some were official and some unofficial but they were all sites that housed people and were homes for them. The conditions in some were absolutely appalling. It is hard to reflect that in any article, descriptively written as they may be. Experiencing the conditions in which citizens in our State are living is something that has to be done in the first person and it is something one will never forget. Those conditions have to change.
Today we have dedicated 100 minutes to statements on Traveller accommodation. We are not discussing legislation or actual, real change. We are making statements, setting out a few positions and saying what we would like to see but what we would like to see is real change. We need leadership in this House and across parties, because it is a cross-party issue. We need leadership at local council level as well. We need leadership when it comes to developing county development plans and identifying sites. We need leaders in the local community to stand up to ensure we identify sites that are more than adequate - are good - and that they follow through with good plans for sufficient and safe housing that is culturally appropriate for the community. We need leaders within our local authorities and I have worked with leaders within our local authorities who want to see that happen. We need leaders in both in the Traveller and settled communities to fight for this change, believe in it and tackle prejudices because we all know the pressures that are applied when any plans for Traveller housing emerge, be they real plans or part of a county development plan coming down the line. As public representatives, we have to stand up and be counted, whether that is in a local authority, a county or city council or, indeed, in this House. Deputies cannot come in here and say one thing and then put out leaflets and make representations saying the opposite. We have to stand up to be counted for those who are most vulnerable and who are living in the worst conditions in this State.
We will move on from media inquiries. If we ever resolve this issue, there will be national inquiries, given the levels of deprivation in which people in our State are living. There is no excuse for this situation, apart from a lack of political will and leadership at all levels. That must change at all levels and across all parties.
"It’s like an abandoned place that people forgot about, it’s like we’re forgotten, we feel like garbage." That was the testimonial of a 12-year-old girl interviewed for the recent No End in Site report published by the Ombudsman for Children's Office. What struck me most when reading the report was not so much its shocking content, but just how familiar it all sounded. Indeed, it could have been one of many possible sites across the country. In 2015, I attended the funerals of some of the victims of the Carrickmines fire tragedy. The heartbreaking grief was utterly overwhelming. The 2016 report from the chief fire officer stated that conditions on the site referred to in the report of the Ombudsman for Children's Office posed an "unacceptable risk to life due to the proximity of the homes and an overloaded electrical system".
I honestly believed at the time that those ten lives lost in Carrickmines would shock us all into finally dealing with the dangerous living conditions that many Travellers endure. As the calls for action and investment dissipated, however, and the media attention waned, so too did that sense of urgency. It is now time to bring back that sense of urgency. Unhealthy and dangerous accommodation is a material risk to the lives, health and well-being of Traveller families in Ireland today. This much we know. However, if we are to address this problem, as I know the Government is committed to doing, we must recognise that the issue of Traveller accommodation cannot be viewed in isolation. It is part of a wider suite of challenges faced by the Traveller community and we must look at the whole picture and not just one piece. While accommodation is a key part of this issue, the full picture also involves life expectancy, mental health, women's health, child welfare, educational attainment and job prospects. Part of this picture as well are systematic discrimination and racism, culture and unique heritage and the diminishment and loss of those things over generations.
For the Traveller families I know in my community and for Traveller friends, there is a weary acceptance that little, if anything, will ever change. That is a narrative which has been passed down through generations. Every now and again there is a breakthrough, like when we celebrate a Traveller woman going on to earn a doctorate. However, these events are all too rare. We have the opportunity to change this narrative, but first mindsets must be changed, mindsets that can be entrenched in outdated ways of evaluating outcomes, outdated practices which have simply failed and outdated thinking that sometimes views the Traveller problem as just that, a problem.
Much of the ongoing accommodation, social, health and economic crisis within the Traveller community has its origins in the report produced by the Commission on Itinerancy in 1963, which considered Travellers as "people of no fixed abode, [who] habitually wandered from place to place". The commission's objective was to assimilate Travellers into the settled community so that they would eventually disappear from our roadsides and then our collective consciousness. The commission concluded that all Travellers should settle and that "absorption [was] the only real solution". The subsequent Housing Act 1966 set out a 20-year legal duty for the State to provide accommodation for Travellers.
Restricting their room to roam and nomadism contributed to a loss of culture, identity, heart, head and soul. The report of the Travelling People Review Body in 1984 gave due recognition and consideration to nomadism, but conceded that the element of habitual wandering had largely disappeared. However, as is the case with all ethnic minorities globally, such interpretations and subsequent policies fail all of society. Alienating and marginalising a group of people creates a "them" and "us" binary which serves nobody. Isolation engenders intergenerational resentment and hurt and over time becomes normalised and acceptable to most.
The programme for Government commits us to ensuring that the housing needs of the Traveller community are met by local authorities and that existing funding is fully drawn down and utilised, among other measures. I commend my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for his commitment to improving the provision of good standard Traveller-specific accommodation. I commend him and all those involved in the effort to ensure that local authorities made full use of the funding available for Traveller accommodation in 2020. That was the first time in six years that the budget was fully spent. I thank the Minister of State as well for his work in making €15.5 million in capital funding and €5.8 million in supports available in 2021. I also commend my colleagues, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for their work in addressing accommodation issues and in helping to support vulnerable families throughout the pandemic.
Officials in my Department worked hard to put in place a range of supports to alleviate overcrowding and get families through the worst of the crisis. A recent call by my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for communities, Deputy Joe O'Brien, for new community development projects and his ongoing commitment to participation based on community development principles is a welcome step forward towards animating Traveller organisations to work at an autonomous level. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is working closely with Traveller development organisations towards furthering initiatives concerning social inclusion and a human rights-based approach to addressing inequality and discrimination.
For my own part, as someone who has worked closely with Traveller families and organisations over many years, I was always mindful that we were not telling the full story of the Travelling people and that young Traveller boys and girls may be losing part of their identity through shame or generational loss of the oral tradition. Traveller culture is steeped in folk traditions, including in music, song, storytelling, language and crafts, which are distinctive to Travellers but also part of our tradition and heritage. We would have lost many of our songs and tunes were it not for the Doherty, Rainey, Furey and Doran families, as well as other families. The craft of tinsmithing is slowly dying out, with just a few practitioners remaining in the trade. I am proud to have some of James Collins's handcrafted mugs in my office. This heritage should be celebrated and not hidden.
I was delighted to work with the Heritage Council late last year to advance the idea of a Traveller heritage officer as part of the wider heritage officer programme. Our Department supported the initiative through the addition of funding in budget 2021. I am delighted to be able to say that the inclusive heritage officer post will soon be filled. Part of the remit for the holder of that post will be to work with the Traveller community to promote, archive and pass on its rich traditions, and also to foster a wider understanding and appreciation among the whole community. We will see some of the flavour of this endeavour during Heritage Week 2021.
It is my belief that we collectively as a nation must engage in meaningful dialogue between settled and Travelling people. Recognition by Dáil Éireann of Travellers as a distinct ethnic minority with its own culture, values, language and ways was an important first step, but we must complete that work. First, it should be utterly unacceptable to force families to live in squalor, to live with rats and in cold damp trailers, where children must trawl through mud to get to school. Meeting the basic needs of families and children must be a priority for all of us. After that must come a clear commitment from the Departments of government and agencies to invest in addressing the root causes of discrimination, low employment levels, poor educational attainment and poor health outcomes, including in mental health, women's health and well-being. Programmes and measures must be co-designed with Traveller organisations.
This debate today is significant. It is sending out a message that collectively we are determined to address the myriad issues impacting on the rights of Travellers to live fulfilled and happy lives. Dr. Anna Visser's Oireachtas Library and Research Service Spotlightreport in 2018 on Traveller accommodation concludes by stating:
Meeting the accommodation needs of the Traveller community has proved a persistent and intransigent policy problem for the Irish State. Despite some success, official data and numerous comments and reports reveal that accommodation remains a central concern for the Traveller community.
Dr. Visser also states in her conclusion that in order "to move away from ‘symbolic implementation’ towards stronger implementation", the four principles of resources, power, contextual conditions and coalition strength must be considered in order to change the story. This Government is determined and committed to working with the Traveller community to move from symbolic towards stronger implementation. Deputies heard the comments of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, in that regard. The view in some quarters that the living conditions highlighted in the report of the Ombudsman for Children's Office are somehow acceptable where a temporary halting site means 30 years or that it can be politically acceptable to allow such conditions to persist must be challenged. That challenge must occur not just through investment in housing but by investment in people and the restoration of dignity. This process must be about Travellers feeling proud of their heritage and a situation where we all celebrate their culture and accept that to address the all too often fraught relationship between Traveller and settled people we must collectively address the root cause of alienation of and discrimination against this proud community.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this topic. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Key Issues Affecting the Traveller Community and we engaged with Pavee Point, the Irish Traveller Movement and the National Traveller Women's Forum on Tuesday. The experiences recounted by those organisations are concerning, but not surprising. Traveller accommodation is something that politicians do not get right. We heard promises of a sea change in 2015 after the tragic fire at the halting site in Carrickmines. At the time, we were told that the State would do more and that work was ongoing to make halting sites safe. This has not happened and that is a disgrace.
Most councils are not drawing down the budgets available for providing appropriate accommodation. Why? Either the Minister of State must become solely responsible for delivering Traveller accommodation or we need a State body to be given the power. The recent report from the Ombudsman for Children's Office, which found that Cork City Council was violating the rights of Traveller children, is shocking. The report was scathing of the failures of that council.
The council left children in what were described as filthy, overcrowded, rat-infested, unsafe, cold and damp living conditions. Would this happen to any other section of Irish society? The 32 recommendations of the independent expert review of Traveller accommodation published in 2019 by the then Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government must be implemented now. There can be no more delays.
For far too long we have discriminated against Travellers across all areas of society including employment, education and, in particular, accommodation. We have failed to deliver the necessary supports to deal with these and related issues. I was very proud to be in the Chamber on the day the former Taoiseach Enda Kenny got to his feet and recognised Travellers as an ethnic minority. The objective of that recognition was to provide rights and protections that had been previously denied to Travellers but that has not happened. We are still failing Travellers and all in this House are agreed that this must change.
The report published last week has a number of quotes from children that I want to read into the record. A 12-year-old girl said, “Walking up to school you see all the rats ... they would be running up and down the walls of the trailer”. A 14-year-old girl said, “People ask why I’m dirty, but I’d be ashamed to say. I don’t want to say it was from walking out of the site”. A boy aged seven said, "We only play in puddles" while a 16-year-old girl said, “When you put your hands out of the bed in the mornings, the blankets are all wet”. A girl aged seven said, "Sometimes the electric goes off and then it's black". This, sadly, is not the first report on poor conditions in Traveller accommodation and on halting sites. Reports have been published over many years and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, correctly critiqued the 1963 report which did not include Traveller voices and tried to push a policy of assimilation. Even that report, with all of its faults and limitations, recommended that local authorities "should be required as soon as possible to ascertain the number of [Traveller] families regularly in their areas and decide whether they are in a position to consider them for housing within a short period". The 1963 report goes on to say that if they cannot provide housing within a short period, they should provide suitable halting sites and the sites "should have hard-topped surfaces properly drained, and be provided with a piped water supply, sanitary arrangements and an electricity supply". These are all very basic requirements for people's basic human rights and dignity but almost 60 years on, as a State, we are still failing in that regard. We are failing children in particular, who are growing up in conditions that do not meet their most basic needs.
A 2012 report into Spring Lane found that there was raw sewage on the site and the communal toilets were being used by 140 residents. An engineer's report from 2012 highlighted faults with the site's drainage system and said it created a very large lagoon of water and raw sewage up to 80 cm deep, with human excrement clearly visible at its edges. The report said it posed a danger to the health and well-being of residents and could also pose a drowning risk. A 2012 report from the public health nurse focused on high infection rates among children, including upper respiratory tract, lower urinary tract and skin infections. It found that there was a high percentage of children with special needs, speech and language and learning difficulties. The HSE environmental health officer found that the site was not fit for human habitation. All of this was reported almost ten years ago. The Ombudsman for Children's report should not have been needed.
In 2015, ten Travellers died in a fire in Carrickmines and a review following that incident found that separation distances between Traveller units was a matter of concern in 50% of sites inspected. This is a particular cause for concern in Spring Lane. Last week, Ms Bridget McCarthy from Spring Lane told The Irish Times that she fears a fire there. She said, "The caravans are really close to each other. If one went on fire they would all go on fire". She added that she would be happy to show the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, around Spring Lane to see for himself. She said she would "like him to see how we live. Waking up every morning in the cold and the damp. It is hell. The kids are getting sick from the cold and the germs.” Another resident, Ms Michelle Delaney, told The Irish Timesthat electricity wires have been chewed by rats. She said, "I could be electrocuted here, as could my child." The report from the Ombudsman for Children found the danger of fire spread has not been addressed and that the site is grossly overcrowded.
We all have a political responsibility here. Ten years ago councillors voted against a proposal from Cork City Council to rezone land to extend the chronically overcrowded site at Spring Lane. Under-investment in Traveller-specific housing and in social housing has had a disproportionate effect on Travellers. Between 2008 and 2013 the Traveller accommodation budget under Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Fine Gael and the Labour Party was cut by 90%, from €40 million down to €4 million.
I acknowledge the commitment of the Minister of State and assure him that in terms of cross-party support for his work on this, I am strongly committed to that approach. Indeed, that is the best approach to take.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. We are discussing a very important issue that can be cut down to essential human rights and human dignity. Travellers in Ireland suffer through the intersection of poverty, social exclusion, poor access to education, poor health outcomes, high levels of homelessness and higher levels of mental health difficulties and suicide. All of these interact with each other in very difficult and complex ways, creating huge problems for the community. We must acknowledge the role of this House in contributing to the problem and not providing enough solutions. Ultimately, what is at the root of many of these issues is poor accommodation and the failure to provide proper accommodation as a basic human right. Proper accommodation is the basic standard above which other issues and concerns can be addressed by an active community looking to better itself, which is what the Traveller community is doing.
Earlier this week a number of Traveller representatives contributed to a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community. They spoke with passion about the injustices faced in the context of accommodation. These issues are well known. Several years ago "RTÉ Investigates" highlighted the fact that the Traveller community represents 1% of the population of Ireland but 8% of homeless adults and 12% of homeless children. A more recent figure from Pavee Point in 2019 indicates that 13.5% of Travellers are effectively homeless. We are continually failing to meet the basic needs of the Traveller community, which impacts on the other things I mentioned like poverty, higher rates of suicide and a disturbingly low life expectancy. All of these things combine but this is not a new problem.
As other Deputies said, we have seen numerous reports over the years highlighting the struggles of this community.
Yet here we are with many Deputies still talking about the struggles of this community. If one takes the years from 2008 to 2019, €72 million in funding to provide Traveller accommodation was unspent. The effect of that is that the families all these Deputies have been talking about and the children who Deputy Cian O'Callaghan quoted are still living in those dire conditions.
One of the things I want to talk about is my constituency. In Labre Park in my constituency we have seen a long struggle by the community there for redevelopment. Time and again its hopes are dashed and delays are put in place. The community there is still fighting for the redevelopment. It is fighting against cramped and overcrowded conditions. TheDublin Inquirerreported that there was one woman who shares a caravan with ten members of her extended family. These are cramped and overcrowded conditions. Since 2016, when funding was initially promised, little has happened.
While that is one specific issue within my constituency, we also need to pull out to a broader issue. One of the things in my head are the words of the judge when the O'Reilly family in Limerick brought the State to court on the provision of proper accommodation. They felt they had a right to housing and they were seeking to have that right vindicated. The judge in the case felt there was no right to housing in the Constitution and told the family they were better off seeking a solution in Leinster House than in the courts. Here we are in Leinster House and it is up to us to provide the solution.
One of the things I welcome is the inclusion in the programme for Government of a referendum on a right to housing. This was something the Green Party had campaigned on and something we pushed during the negotiations. I am glad to see our partners in government taking it on and supporting it. We need to ensure there is a right to housing inserted into Bunreacht na hÉireann so that families that have been abandoned by the State, such as those members of the Travelling community living in these cramped and overcrowded conditions, about whom Deputy after Deputy has talked and about whom representatives of the community have lobbied and campaigned against, have another route to seek vindication of what should be a basic human right. This is a basic need to address the multifaceted problems we have all been talking about and dealing with in the Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community.
I welcome the work that is being done. I welcome the fact that we have a programme board on the expert review group on Traveller accommodation. I would urge that work is expedited so that we can make up for lost time, not just due to Covid but due to the years and years of underinvestment in this area where it is much needed. I thank the Minister of State for his time.
There has been a crisis in housing for many years. This is something I have spoken about and raised on many occasions in the Dáil. For many in the general community, waiting to be allocated an apartment or house has often proved to be both frustrating and demoralising as they linger on housing waiting lists for many years before they are even close to being considered for accommodation. How much more difficult and frustrating must it be for those in the Traveller community looking for accommodation?
The Traveller community faces discrimination across many areas of society on a daily basis. Members of the Traveller community are, for the most part, accommodated in what are termed as halting sites. Some of these sites are inadequate and are not suitable places in which to raise a family as they are often overcrowded and devoid of basic facilities.
In my constituency, for example, there are a number of Traveller sites, such as St. Margaret's Park halting site in Ballymun, which is severely overcrowded. A plan was put in place more than five years ago for this site, which would have increased the amount of housing on the site but it has never been implemented. There was a considerable amount of consultation with representatives of the Traveller community, local residents, Dublin City Council and local politicians, including myself. The Villa Park site in Finglas is also overcrowded. Three additional bungalows were promised to be built a number of years ago on the sight to help alleviate the overcrowding but they have yet to be built. At St. Joseph's Park site on Dunsink Lane, there are 14 families living in poor conditions and for a long period they did not even have proper access to clean water and basic sanitary facilities. The bungalow site on Ratoath Road, where up to 15 people are resident, has been without running water for over a month. Fingal County Council has been supplying this site with water tanks. This situation is simply not tenable and poses a serious health risk, particularly in light of the pandemic. I am aware that the majority of residents at the site have also had Covid. I have written to both the Minister of State and Irish Water and I have spoken to the HSE on the matter. The director of public health for the area has written to the HSE expressing her concerns and asking that a water supply be provided for the residents as there are children and elderly residents on this site who have no water for toilets, bathing, drinking and hand hygiene etc. This poses a serious and ongoing risk to public health.
Additionally, local authorities need to be held to account for any underspend in funding for Traveller specific projects. We need an oversight body to ensure such moneys are spent and penalties should be imposed on those local authorities that fail to do so. I would also ask that additional funding be provided for the provision of Traveller accommodation as the current spend is not sufficient to meet the ever-increasing demands for housing.
Apologies from Deputy Bríd Smith who was originally due to be here and wanted to be here to speak. She is our representative on the Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community but she is tied up with the climate change Bill.
The housing crisis we are talking about and the particular crises facing the Traveller community is one reflection of the gross State and societal racism, discrimination and oppression they face. It is one gross and horrific aspect of it but it is clearly part of a wider process of racism and discrimination. The consequences of that racism and discrimination are plain for anyone to see in the conditions in which people are forced to live and in other respects. For example, accommodation is one of they key determinants of health, which contributes to Traveller children being 3.6 times more vulnerable to not surviving the first year of life. Some 50% of Travellers are not expected to live beyond 40 and the rates of Traveller homelessness have been already mentioned. In some counties, Travellers would make up 1% of the population but make up 50% of those who are homeless.
Every crisis that affects our society as a whole bears down particularly upon groups which are oppressed and discriminated against and the Traveller community is number one on that list in Ireland. If one takes the example of Covid, it bore down on the Traveller community harder than those in the settled community. They were extremely vulnerable because of the living conditions which made it impossible to comply with public health guidelines, particularly the need to self-isolate. Add to that the absence of access for many to fresh and clean water.
The money that was allocated to deal with Covid in terms of the Traveller community was not spent. We will come back to the story of money being allocated and not being spent again and again when it comes to the Traveller community in a way that does not seem to happen in other areas.
As of November 2020, only approximately €90,000 of an allocated €2.5 million was drawn down.
Housing is now emerging again as the key political focus. The danger is that the Traveller community will, at best, be forgotten or, unfortunately more likely, will be consciously ignored and have a blind eye turned to it and the Government will not deal with what needs to be dealt with to address the housing crisis. All the solutions will likely, and inadequately, focus on the needs of those in the settled community.
We must call out the living conditions that exist as a humanitarian crisis facing many Travellers. There have been many fine and good words and analyses of what is happening in this House but we must also examine why this crisis is taking place. We do not need more reports. Everybody knows why the crisis is taking place. It is a blunt and obvious thing when a bunch of money is allocated to local authorities for Traveller accommodation and only a tiny fraction of it is spent. More than €72 million was unspent by local authorities between 2008 and 2019. In 2020, only 16 new units of Traveller-specific accommodation were built, comprising seven houses, nine welfare units and no additional bays. Why is that? It is a reflection of general State and societal racism. Politicians clearly have an important role to play. The truth, which we must call out, is that there are very many local authority politicians, many of them members of establishment political parties, who play a race card against Travellers and block Traveller accommodation. That is the truth. A Minister of State in this Government described spending money on Traveller accommodation in a particular area as a waste of valuable resources. That is what needs to be challenged if we are going to try to assist and deal with this issue.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute a statement on this topic. I acknowledge the Minister of State's speech, his work in this area and the considerable progress he has made since coming into office. I thank Pavee Point nationally and, more locally in my own area, Southside Travellers Action Group, for their engagement with me over the past year in my role as equality spokesperson for Fine Gael and as a representative of Dún Laoghaire.
While I have had the opportunity to speak several times about education strategy, the impact of Covid-19 and other matters of concern to Travellers, I want to acknowledge that this is the first occasion on which I have been able to contribute a statement on an issue dedicated to Traveller accommodation. The first thing I want to do, therefore, with the permission of the House, is to pay my respects as a new Deputy for the Dún Laoghaire constituency to the people who lost their lives on 10 October 2015 in a halting site on the edge of my constituency in Carrickmines when a fire broke out. Ten Travellers, including a young mother who was pregnant, lost their lives. If I may, I would like to take the opportunity, as a representative of a constituency on the edge of the location of that event, to name them again in this House. We should never forget the victims of the fire. They were Tara Gilbert and her partner, Willie Lynch; their daughters, Jodie and Kelsey; Jimmy Lynch; Thomas Connors and his wife Sylvia; and their children, Jimmy, Christy and Mary. In January 2019, the Dublin Coroner's Court returned a verdict of death by misadventure in the case of these ten tragic deaths.
The report published by the Ombudsman for Children last week highlighted a specific issue with Cork County Council but the read-across from the report on broader, systemic issues is of importance. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children has recommended that local authorities engage with HSE social inclusion units, Tusla youth services and local schools to improve the lives of children living on that site. These are not new challenges, ideas or recommendations. We still do not have an implemented national Traveller health action plan or a national Traveller education strategy. I am pleased that the Government is committed to the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021, but we need to see action from the different Departments, particularly the Department of Education, on the national Traveller education strategy, which is persistently highlighted by Pavee Point and others, including me and many other Deputies in this House.
The issues in accommodation that were highlighted by the Ombudsman for Children and those I am highlighting on education impact vulnerable children more than anybody else. Their health and well-being and access to education were particularly compromised during the pandemic and the switch to remote learning. Their experiences of racism and discrimination are all contributors to further exclusion and damage. The Government must implement its own strategies and there is an opportunity for real momentum behind the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy but evidence of that will be seeing the education strategy and the full implementation of the independent expert group on Traveller accommodation. If the Government cannot deliver the implementation of those different strategies through its agencies and Departments, we will have to look at alternative models for delivery.
Last week, I saw a young Traveller boy and his father have a small altercation of words with a man at his home in my constituency. I do not pretend to know what the dispute was between the two gentlemen or what had gone before. It does not matter too much and I was not concentrating on that because I was just watching the boy. Whatever had happened before, what this boy saw was a man openly disrespecting his father. I was watching the boy watching this scene and I wondered how many times it had happened before and how that had been absorbed, or not, by that boy. Of course, I thought of my own boy, slightly younger, and how he had never seen his father disrespected in front of him. I thought of those two boys and the different challenges they faced, including, at their core, confidence and the impact that moment of conflict had on that young boy's psychosocial development.
We talk about inclusion and stamping out racism because we know it has been a persistent feature of Irish life for many years and because conflict between communities never helps anybody. I look then at Traveller accommodation in my council area. Despite the challenges of the past, I acknowledge the dedicated work that has been done by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in recent years. It is the only council in the greater Dublin area to have drawn down more than its allocation over the past four years and, on a cumulative basis, over the past ten years. I have spoken to Ms Geraldine Dunne of the Southside Travellers Action Group on the status of Traveller accommodation in my own area and she has given me permission to attribute comments to her today. In her view, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has made extremely good progress due to what she says is a great team in that section. She described that team as dedicated and respectful. She said that these dedicated and respectful staff have made a simply huge difference. I told her that I would faithfully report whatever she said about how things are going and it was heartening to hear that there are good local authority staff who have made a difference. I thank them and the chief executive for the emphasis they have placed on this issue. However, there is still more to do and there is a still a shortage of Traveller units, though Ms Dunne did observe that if the pace of redevelopment of sites and refurbishments continues, she would expect a positive outcome for Travellers in our area within five to ten years. That is still quite a long time. On the other hand, we are not sure that we have enough units in train for the younger generation. We estimate that another 40 to 50 young families will seek to avail of the next Traveller accommodation programme, TAP. Those are families who were not accounted for in the most recent TAP, although I am, of course, aware that the council wanted to sort out the immediate and serious issues.
It makes a difference if staff are dedicated and respectful. Those staff are actively putting in applications for funding and engaging in development and redevelopment. They have also held themselves to dedicated targets and timelines. They have put a timeline on their refurbishment programme and stuck to it. I acknowledge that the pandemic has created difficulties, as it has for everything else. Redevelopment has been good and a move forward. I look forward to visiting all of these developments in my area with Ms Dunne as soon as it is appropriate from a Covid perspective. I thank her for her continued work. I also thank Ms Ronnie Fay and Mr. Martin Collins from Pavee Point for their ongoing work and engagement with me.
I will raise a number of issues relating to Traveller accommodation in my constituency of Dublin West. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, I visited a substantial number of Traveller accommodation areas in and around the Dublin West area. Sadly, I was not surprised by what I saw because I have worked with the Travelling community for a number of years in Coolock and Darndale. None of the sites I visited could, in anyone's language, be described as acceptable.
I acknowledge the significant work by Fingal County Council's housing department in putting together the Traveller accommodation programme with representatives of the Travelling community. The proof will be if that programme is completely actioned. Will the situation for Travellers be the same in 2024? From speaking to the Travelling community right across Dublin West, there is scepticism that accommodation will be provided for them.
I acknowledge Ms Anne Marie Farrelly and Ms Colette Spears from the Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group who have been supportive in helping me and my colleague, Councillor Breda Hanaphy. We visited as many sites as we could and I look forward to visiting the number of sites we did not get to before Covid-19 hit us.
Every single community I visited had very severe infrastructural, housing and facility deficits. Some were minor and others were the most dangerous situations I have seen. The only phrase I can use to convey fully how dangerous they where is, "Carrickmines waiting to happen". The worst was the result of severe overcrowding on the site, with caravans cheek by jowl, metres from each other, with extremely dangerous ESB connections. The issues we need to address are overcrowding.
One site at St. Brigid's Lawn has seen the family outgrow the site, leading to such severe overcrowding. This site was semi-rural with very little housing 27 years ago. It is now prime development land within the Kellystown local area plan. There is a plan to increase this estate by only one bay. The entire sewerage system and electricity system are in dire need of replacement, and this needs to happen really quickly. After 27 years, surely this family deserves more than one unit. Thousands of units are planned in Kellystown. The strategy for this family needs to reflect the housing needs not just of the family now but into the future.
I believe all of us - members of the Travelling community, the council, public representatives and local communities - must and should work together to build a new future and a new, inclusive community. It is not one group or organisation. This is about what type of society we aspire to be. As has been mentioned earlier, it is incredibly important that we come together and challenge those who use racism within our society to block any attempt to build Traveller accommodation in Dublin 15 or in any place within the State.
I have carried out a good bit of research over the last number of months on funding for Traveller accommodation. The responses I received to my parliamentary questions are absolutely shocking. Unbelievable information has come back in the last couple of weeks.
In 2017, local authorities drew down €4.8 million from an allocation of €9 million. In 2018, local authorities drew down €8.6 million from an allocation of €13 million. In 2020, all of the €14.4 million in funding was drawn down but no breakdown was given on what counties actually drew it down. This system was changed. Some counties could, therefore, have drawn all of that down and many other counties could have taken none. I believe the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is one of the most capable ministers ever at altering, moving or hiding statistics from public view.
In 2019, Donegal County Council was allocated €161,000 funding specifically for Traveller accommodation. It did not draw down a cent of that funding. In Leitrim County Council in 2019, nothing was drawn down despite an allocation of €178,000. In the same year, Monaghan County Council withdrew not a cent of the €100,000 that was available. Wicklow County Council was the same; €104,000 was available but it was untouched in 2019.
In 2018, Carlow County Council was offered funding of €167,000 but refused to draw it down. Likewise, Cork County Council was given €250,000 but did not withdraw any of it. In Galway city that year, the allocation was €176,000 and it remained untouched. In Westmeath, €150,000 was made available but nothing was sought. Wexford County Council saw a significant allocation of €500,000 for Traveller accommodation but it did not withdraw any funding. In 2017, Galway County Council withdrew none of the €625,000 available.
That is stunning information. I cannot think of funding for any other section of Irish society that would stay on the dusty shelf and be ignored in the jaws of a housing crisis, and in a situation where Traveller accommodation throughout the State is in shocking condition. The topic of Traveller accommodation is avoided at local political level in many cases. It is absolutely shameful that many county and city councils around the country have returned funding, which was allocated to the construction and maintenance of housing. They returned it to Dublin in the middle of a housing crisis.
In total, €15.7 million, which the Government offered to local authorities for housing in the last five years, has remained untouched. That fact speaks for itself. It is an astonishing figure. While one might argue that this is not a Government problem but a local authority problem, I would argue that the political parties in charge of the Dáil are also typically in charge of the local authorities around the country. At local level, I would also argue that an anti-Traveller attitude is leading, in some cases, to these decisions.
That said, there are definitely people within the establishment parties, such as Deputy Ó Cuív from County Galway, who is very strong with regard to Traveller accommodation. Indeed, he was the first to give out about the shocking burning of a house designated for a Traveller couple in Galway. Deputy Ó Cuív stood up for that couple, for which I know the Travelling community was very grateful.
Every single day, my office, and those of Aontú representatives around the country, are contacted about families in homelessness. These figures are a slap in the face to each of those families. In my county, there is a site called St. Patrick's Park. I must pay respect to Meath County Council for the massive work it has done in the last six months on trying to house many of the families living on that site.
Up until that period, however, the accommodation was incredible. A person would not believe it unless he or she saw it. Again, caravans and mobile homes were sitting on top of each other. Electric wires were hanging from one caravan to another and water pipes were running all over the place. In a situation that had echoes of Carrickmines, a trailer went on fire. A fire engine and ambulance had massive difficulty in getting to it simply because the road was blocked with low-hanging electric wires. The emergency services simply could not go up to the site. Given the fact that we had such a horrendous tragedy in Carrickmines, that this was allowed to occur at a time when funding was available throughout the country is absolutely wrong.
I read the report produced yesterday on homelessness and mortality. It is shocking. Some 79 people died in homelessness last year in the city of Dublin alone. There have been in excess of 40 deaths this year so far. Think about that; 40 people have died in homelessness in Dublin alone this year.
I asked the Minister to investigate homelessness last year. It is interesting that he started to investigate it but, of course, he finished his investigation after the temperatures had started to rise in the city. In the legacy of the former Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy, he started to question the figures. He said that some of these people might have actually died from car accidents while they were homeless. This was an actual comment made by the Minister with responsibility for housing to a journalist on the matter.
Major spin is happening here from the Government. I have a difficulty; the Government and some of the Opposition are a mirror image of each other. Both are using their ideological bias to prevent real housing solutions happening. We need to build for everybody in society. We need to make sure, however, that the funding available for Travellers around the country to have decent accommodation is used.
Cuireann sé áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an ábhar seo mar is ábhar thar a bheith tromchúiseach é agus caithfear rud éigin a dhéanamh.
One of the issues that has come up in the Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community, of which I am a member, is that we have all the statistics. We have an idea of the scale of the problem.
However, what we, and, more importantly, the Traveller community, need are solutions to the bottlenecks.
It is fair to say there has been a huge problem in persuading local authorities to spend money and take action in regard to Traveller accommodation. The problem is not confined to local authorities in the area in which I live, although they are not exempt from it either, particularly the city council. We must seriously question community attitudes to Travellers. It was very interesting to read the latest volume of Mícheál MacGréil's work on prejudices and intolerance within this State. It is a massive tome for which I had the great pleasure of writing the foreword. Mr. MacGréil compared many different groups in our society and different nationalities from across the world in terms of whether we accept or do not accept them. It is a study of who we like and do not like. I am sad to say that at the very bottom of the list in terms of our tolerance and Christian attitude towards them were Travellers, our fellow Irish people.
Mr. MacGréil's research is scientific work, involving proper sociological study. Nobody since has been able to disprove what he found. The findings are interesting in respect of South Dublin County Council, where there was an extraordinary manager, now called a CEO, in place for many years. The council tackled its problems in this area and showed an amazing improvement in the relationship between the settled and Traveller communities. Now we have problems feeding on problems. Homelessness and the failure to tackle the housing issue are feeding all of the other problems. The solution must be holistic and it has to include housing.
Deputy Tóibín made reference to a house that was bought for a Traveller family in my constituency. It was burnt down in the middle of the night and, as I understand, the evidence is that it did not happen accidentally. Last summer, people were marching for Black Lives Matter. We were outraged by attitudes in faraway places to people of a different race or colour. Yet, we have serious attitudinal or racial problems within this country. On top of that, I notice recently that the opposition to Traveller housing is feeding into an opposition to social housing in general. Much of this opposition is very clever. The people opposing it would never be so foolish as to say they do not want X or Y for racial or ethnic reasons. Instead, they say a house is too big or too small, a site is too big or too small, or there is a snail or something else on it.
That brings me to one of the major challenges we have. From my dealings with Galway City Council, for example, it is clear that the staff are very sympathetic to the people concerned because they know them. They know they are decent people. They know there is an utterly disproportionate number of decent families in homelessness and on the housing list, the best of people and friends of mine, who happen to belong to the Traveller community. These are people with excellent records of tenancies but who cannot get accommodation under the housing assistance payment,HAP, scheme. Many of them cannot afford that accommodation because the rents are too high, but many landlords will not rent to them under the HAP scheme in any case. Whoever thought that scheme was going to be a permanent solution for housing knows nothing about the aspirations of most people on the social housing list. They want good, old-fashioned local authority housing, even in preference to housing provided by voluntary housing bodies.
It is time to make up our minds on this issue. One of the greatest logjams at the moments relates to applications under Part 8 of the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, as amended. When proposals for Traveller-specific housing under that provision come before local authorities, councillors do not pass them. I am a great champion of democracy. Many times in this House, I have opposed the removal of powers from democratically elected Members and their handing over to unelected bodies. I stand by that except in this case, where politicians are not willing to face up to their legal responsibilities and provide what they are legally obliged to provide, namely, housing and other necessary things. I am talking about people not fulfilling their legal obligation. I am disappointed that many local authority CEOs, who have the power in an emergency to make an executive decision, do not make such decisions. As a result, we get the significant underspends that have been reported by a number of colleagues here today.
I believe local authorities should be given six months to start passing Part 8 applications. Thereafter, if local authority members continue to fail to deal with planning issues, the applications should go straight to An Bord Pleanála for decision. I would be the last person in the normal way to recommend that powers be taken away from local authority members and given to An Bord Pleanála but, in this case, it may be necessary to do so. The money for Traveller accommodation was not spent back in the 2000s, it was not spent over the past decade and it looks as if we are heading the same way in this decade. That cannot go on. Unfortunately, if powers in this regard are taken away from local authorities, there is nobody to blame but the people who would not face up to their legal responsibilities to provide housing for those who need it and particularly for those who are most in need of it.
There are many other points I would like to make but my time is up. Please God, I will get an opportunity to make them some other day.
There is somewhere close to 40,000 people in the Traveller community, making it a significant indigenous ethnic group. Since 1996, its population has grown by 185%. The trajectory is upwards, certainly more so than for the general population, although there have been highs and lows in growth. In Limerick, for instance, the Traveller population has increased by 250% over the past 20 years.
The majority of Travellers live in rental accommodation, including private and local authority housing stock, with 12% living in either a caravan or mobile home. The goal should be to have no person living in a caravan or mobile home. Some 5% of the Traveller community live in roadside units, which is of huge concern both to themselves and to road users. Do we need to take the responsibility for the provision of Traveller accommodation away from the local authorities and give it to a statutory agency? That question arises because, for some unexplained reason, there has been a continuous underspend across the Traveller accommodation programme. Funds allocated were not drawn down, with an underspend of €14 million between 2014 and 2018. There appears to be significant funding available but its implementation seems to be an issue.
As the Traveller community is such a significant grouping, is there not the possibility of An Garda Síochána recruiting some person from within the ranks of the community who could become a liaison officer within the force, as is the case with other groupings and ethnic minorities?
This would help in all aspects.
I grew up on a family farm in County Limerick. My father was a lot older than me; he was born in 1911. The stories he told me about the Travelling community go back to the culture of the first such communities. They were the finest tradespeople and tinsmiths in the country. They used to come to the farm maybe twice a year and do whatever repairs my father would have. That culture has changed throughout the years, like all our cultures have, and every different culture grows. There are some fantastic Traveller families in this country. I know and am friendly with a lot of them. Many of them are still tradespeople. One of them even plastered walls in my own house a number of years ago. They are fine tradespeople. However, as in all other groups in Ireland, there is a minority - we have seen how minorities seem to get all the press and all the bad news. We saw the tragedy that happened to the families in Carrickmines. No family should have to go through that. If the local authority cannot do that job, let us take the responsibility away from it and set up an organisation that can.
There should not be anybody who is homeless: there should be nobody living in a caravan now. It is 2021 and we have people homeless, people living in caravans and people living in mobile homes. All of our cultures must change. With all respect to everyone, we must change with that and understand all the different cultures. I am into vintage myself and I love our history and I love our culture and I have to move with that. It is about time we all worked together to get a solution to do this and ensure the likes of the underspending that has been happening to date does not happen going forward. Everyone deserves to have a roof over their head, to have their life, to live and build from that. People from all walks of life must also be respectful. People must stop painting a picture of a minority of people who cause problems and let us look at the bigger picture of the people who actually contribute to our society.
According to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, based on its latest available data which are from 2019, there were 10,809 families from the Travelling community throughout the country in need of accommodation. Given other Travellers may have no engagement with a local authority or do not self-identify for the purposes of data collection, the true population is likely much larger. Many of these people are living in inadequate, unsafe and impermanent conditions. These conditions erode their health, life expectancy, education and employment opportunities and are well below the basic human rights standard. Those rights to health, life expectancy and education cannot be properly vindicated unless the human right to housing is vindicated. An additional disadvantage is that only a very small proportion of social housing and private rental stock consists of large dwellings suitable to accommodating larger families. The average family size is 5.3 according to the 2016 census. There are 2,800 Travellers living on unofficial sites. It is outrageous. The oversight of Traveller accommodation delivery rests with the Traveller accommodation unit of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage so it is this Government's responsibility.
What do we need to do? We must repeal section 24 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002 prohibiting nomadism, a core element of Traveller culture and their way of life. We must have provision of a network of transient halting sites in each local authority area for short stays that would be exempted under section 4 of the Planning and Development Act 2000. We need Traveller-specific accommodation to be provided under the single-stage planning process. We call for an amendment to Part 8 of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 to prevent political interference in Traveller-specific developments. There is a need for full and speedy implementation of the 32 recommendations from the Traveller accommodation expert group. We also need an oversight body to ensure those 32 recommendations are implemented. I was at the committee on key issues affecting the Travelling community on Tuesday. Members called for an independent national Traveller accommodation authority with the authority to plan and implement housing and accommodation for the Travelling community. It must happen.
It is a pity these are just statements and not us debating emergency legislation to address local authorities’ failure to provide appropriate accommodation for Travellers. I listen to those who say "Nothing about us without us" so I reached out to a Traveller woman named Anne from Cork to get input from the community most affected by recent reports.
On 24 May the Ombudsman for Children published a scathing report on conditions at a site in Cork. After three years of investigative work, the Ombudsman for Children found Cork County Council failed to maintain the site, failed to maintain the toilet and showering facilities, failed to ensure that there was consistent waste management and pest control and failed to provide a clear and safe passage to school, or play areas for children. Anne told me that she found the Taoiseach’s response to the Ombudsman for Children's No End in Site report "disappointing". Anne says, and I agree, that human rights and Traveller children's human rights are indivisible. Anne asked that I call for an immediate intervention by the relevant Departments and the Department of the Taoiseach with Cork City Council to address the findings as a matter of urgency. That needs to be done, and indeed it could be done with every local authority in the country because they are all failing, and the reason they are failing is that local authority members will not step up to the mark.
Anne asked that I highlight the complete dysfunctionality of what the Government calls its Framework for Traveller Accommodation, which the ESRI also found to be "dysfunctional" in 2017, and that I call for the immediate implementation of the recommendations of the Expert Group on Traveller Accommodation, which has been awaiting implementation for the last two years. As such, it is not only local authorities that are dragging their heels. Anne wants a review of Traveller accommodation, namely, group housing and halting sites both official and unofficial, across the country and for the rights of Traveller children to be looked at.
There are issues with Traveller accommodation right across the country, not just in Cork. As Senator Eileen Flynn said, following the release of the report, "It’s a damning report which tells an all too familiar story when it comes to Traveller accommodation." It is heartbreaking to see what the children said in the report. A 12-year-old girl said: "It’s like an abandoned place that people forgot about, it’s like we’re forgotten, we feel like garbage." A 7-year-old boy said: "We only play in puddles." A 13-year-old girl said: "It takes two or three hours to heat up a bath." Some sites do not even have water to allow people to have a bath.
Local authorities and Government should absolutely be held accountable for their despicable failings. I would also like to give a final shout out to brilliant Mincéir beoirs like Rosemarie Maughan, Anne Marie Quilligan and many others who are speaking out, educating us and holding the Irish public to account. It is sad they have to do that. We all have a responsibility to call out racism and discrimination against Travellers wherever it occurs and it is beyond time for solidarity from us all.
I thank Deputy Pringle. That concludes Statements on Traveller accommodation. We are all looking forward to the publication in the not-too-distant future of the report of the all-party committee led very ably by Senator Eileen Flynn on issues affecting the Traveller community. Much more importantly, we all look forward to the implementation of the recommendations of that report.