Seanad debates

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Traveller Accommodation

12:00 pm

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank Senator Lombard for raising this matter. Many vulnerable people rely on Cork County Council to keep them safe. The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 provides that local authorities have statutory responsibility for the assessment of the accommodation needs of Travellers and for the preparation, adoption and implementation of multi-annual Traveller accommodation programmes in their areas. My Department's role is to ensure there are adequate structures and supports in place to assist local authorities in providing such accommodation, including a national framework of policy, legislation and funding.

The National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management led and oversaw a programme at national level to review fire safety in local authority-provided Traveller accommodation following the tragic loss of life at the Carrickmines halting site, which the Senator referenced. We never again want to see an absolutely horrific event like that, where so many vulnerable people lost their lives. Under direction from the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management, local authorities undertook a major exercise aimed at enhancing fire safety in Traveller accommodation in 2015 and 2016. One of the core objectives of the project is the development and roll-out of a community fire safety awareness initiative appropriate for the Traveller community. The aim of this initiative is to get fire safety messages disseminated into the Traveller community, enabling Travellers to take practical steps in respect of fire safety issues commonly associated with living on halting sites. To support this process, the national directorate, in consultation with key stakeholders including Traveller representative groups, developed an information leaflet and booklet on fire safety in the Traveller community.

My Department continues to engage with local authorities regarding fire safety on Traveller sites. Fire safety matters are discussed at national Traveller accommodation consultative committee meetings. From its contact with Cork County Council in respect of the halting site in Bantry, which operated for more than 25 years, my Department understands that fire safety inspections are carried out annually by the council on all Traveller-specific accommodation. Cork County Council has carried out significant fire safety works on the site in Bantry. These works protected the other families on the site on the night of the fire. The council is working with the family affected to secure appropriate accommodation.

I assure the Senator that the Department is doing everything it can. Again, we have to look at the facts. Last year was the first year in which all the capital expenditure funding in the budget was utilised. The chief reason for this was the Covid pandemic. We have increased the amount available in the capital budget for Traveller accommodation by 25% over the last two years. Cork County Council needs to take advantage of that. With regard to my responsibility, the money is there to support the members and executive of the local authority in making appropriate decisions to ensure the Traveller community has secure and sustainable accommodation. We are working through an expert report. I have established a programme board to respond to the 32 recommendations given to me by the all-party committee. This board is having quarterly meetings with a view to driving that forward to ensure that Travellers have secure tenancies and that their conditions are improved. However, we have to be very clear as to where responsibility lies. I commissioned an audit last year during the Covid pandemic which looked at the HSE response in respect of 250 sites. We must be clear that the money is there. the funding is there and I call on every one of the 31 local authorities in this country to stand up to the mark and draw down funding to ensure that Travellers have sustainable accommodation.


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