I am pleased to have this opportunity to address the subject of the report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community.
I see this report as an opportunity fundamentally to change the lives of Irish travellers in a similar manner to the first report of the Commission on the Status of Women, which was published in the 1970s and which was responsible for securing changes in the lives of Irish women in the years that followed.
The report and the follow up action which will be taken on foot of it will fundamentally change the lives of Irish travellers for the better, as well as benefiting the whole country. It is also my hope that it will usher in a new era of better relations between the settled community and travellers in this country. The decisive action taken by Government on foot of this report will lay the foundations for a solution to the social problems that have attended this issue, will enable the necessary services to be provided and will foster a new and more harmonious co-existence between travellers and the settled community. I have no illusions as to how difficult this might be but we must make a start.
The report deals in a comprehensive manner with a major social issue. The report examines and makes recommendations on a wide range of matters that impact on the travelling community. In particular it deals with the high level of social exclusion and disadvantage which travellers experience in the Ireland of today and on the hostility in many members of the settled community to travellers. Consideration of the report at this point is most appropriate because of the amount of attention which commentators have given, of late, to traveller-related issues. Some media comment, unfortunately, does little to encourage a positive approach to relations between the traveller and settled communities. I was dismayed at the nature of the intemperate statement made recently by a local councillor when referring to travellers. I am pleased that he has since withdrawn these remarks. It is my earnest hope that the views expressed by Members over the next two days will assist in redressing the balance and will serve as encouragement to those dedicated people who strive to improve the lot of travellers and to bring about a better relationship between the travellers and the settled communities.
Membership of the task force comprised people from very disparate backgrounds representing a range of diverse interests. These included travellers, representatives of traveller organisations, of Government Departments and of local authority management. Representatives of five political parties also served on the task force and contributed to its deliberations. A number of these were local councillors who were in a position to contribute particular insights from the perspective of the local representative into the nature of the interaction between both communities and their contributions had particular relevance in the context of understanding the relationships between those communities. I pay tribute to those who gave so generously of their time, energy and expertise, notwithstanding their many other pressing commitments, without which the report could not have been completed so expeditiously. I pay a particular tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Liz McManus, who initially chaired the task force and to Senator Mary Kelly, who subsequently became the chairperson and whose drive and commitment was crucial to the excellence of the report.
This report is the first comprehensive review of the needs of the traveller community since 1983. The task force acknowledges that in its deliberations it was informed by and benefited from the experience of its predecessors, together with the report of the Commission on Itinerancy, 1963 and the report of the Travelling People Review Body, 1983.
The task force also benefited from the submissions, both oral and written, made by concerned members of the public including members of both the travellers and settled communities, and organisations representing a wide range of views and opinions. In order to fill knowledge gaps a number of research papers were commissioned on topics which included items as diverse as accommodation, health, education, traveller culture etc. All of this information was processed under eleven headings which ranged from "Relationship between the Traveller and the Settled Communities" to "Sports and other recreation, Culture and the Arts". It was an essential ingredient in the range of recommendations contained in the report.
Considering the level of consultation, it was a major achievement for the task force to produce its report in a two-year period. The interim report produced in January 1994, six months after the task force was set up, was of particular benefit to me in the context of the work ongoing in my Department on equal status legislation.
The task force was mandated by me, inter alia: 1; to make recommendations with regard to the appropriate planning at national and local level in the areas of housing, health, education, employment and other key areas, in relation to the travelling community; 2; to make recommendations to ensure that adequate services are provided for travellers in all local authority areas and to report on the implementation of measures to meet the Government target of providing permanent serviced caravan site accommodation for all travellers who need it by the year 2000; 3; to draw up a strategy to delineate the roles and functions of statutory bodies catering for the needs of travellers; and 4; to explore the possibilities for developing machanisms to enable travellers to participate and contribute to decisions affecting their lifestyle and environment.
In fulfilling its mandate the task force considered and reported on the issues dealing with the travelling community in a realistic and forthright manner. In its report it stresses the high level of social exclusion and disadvantage which is the daily experience of a high proportion of travellers and points out that;
Minimal contact between both communities contributes to barriers of prejudice based on fear and ignorance on both sides. In addition, it often contributes to the creation of phobias, intolerance, misconceptions, hostility and aggression.
The report highlights very clearly the very poor living conditions and other social problems being experienced by a large numbers of travellers, conditions which are unacceptable in the Ireland of the 1990s. I am pleased at the clarity with which these matters are presented in the report.
On the other hand, however, the report, also illustrates that actions by some travellers are responsible for some of the hostility to them in the local settled population. These include: illegal occupation of public open space land for living purposes without due consideration for the use of that land by the local residents; using land in a manner that alienates the local residents — rubbish, scrap cars, grazing horses — and damages the local environment; incidents of harassment and intimidation of passersby, causing fear in local people, particularly for their children; and unruly behaviour from time to time of large numbers of travellers on special occasions which tend to create fears among the settled community that this type of activity will be a regular occurrence in every proposed halting site.
Referring to traveller accommodation, perhaps the single greatest cause of dissension between the communities, the task force describes it as insufficient and very inadequate. The report states, that of a total of approximately 4,000 traveller households, 1,085 are residing on the roadside and another 257 families are on temporary sites. Many of these temporary sites are without the basic services taken for granted by the vast majority of people in the settled community. It says that the conditions under which some travellers live contributes towards — infant and adult mortality rates for travellers that are over twice those of the settled community — lower participation by travellers in education than members of the settled community, this is particularly true in relation to second and third level education; and a very low level of traveller participation in the mainstream labour force and, of course, a very high level of unemployment.
The traveller economy, which as the report points out is often invisible to the external observer, is encountering great difficulties, and travellers experience direct and indirect discrimination almost on a daily basis.
These issues form the basis for the main elements of the recommendations put forward by the task force, which include: the need to provide 3,100 units of additional accommodation by the year 2000, with supporting administrative and legislative changes: the introduction of measures to improve the health status of the traveller community and to remove the obstacles to traveller access to the health services; the reorganisation and development of the education services in order to provide for increased participation levels by travellers; the encouragement and undertaking of new initiatives to support the development of the traveller economy and increased levels of traveller participation in the mainstream labour force; the adoption of measures which address the problem of discrimination faced by the traveller community; the introduction and, where necessary, the improvement of mechanisms in order to ensure that statutory agencies which provide services that impact on travellers do so in a co-ordinated manner; and the need to increase participation by travellers and traveller organisations in the decision making process in areas which affect travellers' lifestyle and environment.
The report, which also examines mechanisms for facilitating improved relationships between the travellers and settled communities, particularly at local level, makes recommendations with a view to reducing conflict and strengthening mutual respect and understanding. This it hopes would merge into what the task force calls a strategy for reconciliation.
The report of the task force places great emphasis on the need for bridge building and the strengthening of mutual respect and understanding between travellers and the settled population through various initiatives. As we have witnessed so often in the past, without improved relations between travellers and settled people many initiatives undertaken by statutory bodies to improve the welfare of the traveller population, particularly in relation to the provision of suitable and adequate accommodation, will not be successful.
A nation might be compared to a cloth of different strands each interwoven with the other to make a whole. The travelling community in Ireland has made up one of those strands for many centuries. Travellers are part of the pattern of Irish life, they always have been. The settled community should acknowledge their essential Irishness and allow travellers to live life in their own way, as law-abiding citizens, side by side with their settled neighbours.
When I received the report of the task force, which impacts on a range of policy areas which are the responsibility of a number of Government Departments, it was necessary for me to have it considered by Government with a view to determining what action should be taken in relation to its contents and recommendations. An inter-departmental working group of officials, chaired by my Department, was established to consider the implementation of the report.
The report of the inter-departmental working group was considered by Government on 26 March last and a range of follow up actions to the report were decided on. These actions include the introduction of a national strategy for traveller accommodation. The strategy is designed to meet the accommodation needs of travellers as assessed in the report of the Task Force and accepts the broad thrust of that report in terms of the extent and nature of accommodation required. The follow-up action will include: (1) a five-year national strategy for traveller accommodation; (2) agreement in principle to the construction of 3,100 units of accommodation for the travelling community; (3) the introduction of new legislation to provide a framework for the provision of traveller accommodation, including amendment of the housing, planning and local management Acts, and (4) the establishment of a special unit in the Department of the Environment to monitor the national strategy as well as a national traveller accommodation consultative group.
The number of traveller families has continued to increase significantly leading to problems for local authorities in providing accommodation for them. This is sometimes compounded by an undue concentration of traveller families in particular areas. There has, however, been considerable progress by local authorities in providing accommodation for traveller families in recent years, but a substantial backlog of families remains on the roadside and their needs for accommodation must be met.
The major bar to providing accommodation for traveller families is the level of opposition from local residents to the location of traveller accommodation, particularly halting sites, in their areas. This opposition has frequently manifested itself in legal proceedings which have either delayed or rejected proposals for traveller accommodation in particular areas. The Government recognises that these issues need to be faced and will provide for necessary legislative amendments to facilitate a determined effort to achieve the targets set in the task force report.
My colleague the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and urban renewal, Deputy McManus, in her contribution to the debate, will outline in greater detail the Government's response to the task force recommendations on traveller accommodation.
The Government's response also encompassed a commitment to strengthen health and education services for travellers. With regard to health the Department of Health strategy, launched by the Minister for Health in April 1994, undertook to implement a special programme to address the particular health needs of the travelling community. It proposed a joint study, with the proposed Task Force on the Travelling Community, on travellers' health and this has been carried out. It stated that following the report of the task force the Minister would publish a policy on travellers' health which would take account of the recommendations of the task force.
One of its recommendations is that a traveller health advisory committee be set up in the Department of Health. The committee is to be drawn from the various divisions in that Department, representatives of the traveller community, from health boards and national traveller organisations. One of the functions of this committee will be to draw up the policy on travellers' health.
A consultative process is taking place within the Department of Health and with the health boards in relation to the implementation of the recommendations of the task force. It is proposed also to consult the relevant organisations representing travellers. The end result of this process will be a draft policy document on travellers' health which would then be submitted to the Department's traveller health advisory committee for its consideration before it is finalised.
The joint study commissioned by the task force — and previous studies — have established that life expectancy and general health status among the travelling community are considerably lower than the general population. The Minister for Health is anxious that this situation be improved and to this end will be actively pursuing courses of action which will improve the level of access by travellers to the health services. The Minister sees the task force as providing useful guidelines in formulating appropriate initiatives to achieve this objective. These initiatives will be set out in the proposed policy document on travellers' health which will provide a blueprint for action by the health boards and other service providers.
The discussion document Developing a Policy for Women's Health considers traveller women specifically and states that the policy document on travellers' health promised in the health strategy would address the health needs of traveller women — in particular access to ante and post-natal care, family planning and genetic counselling.
A number of positive initiatives in relation to travellers' health have already been taken in some health boards, such as the mobile clinic which the Eastern Health Board has been operating for a number of years, the appointment of public health nurses with specific responsibility for travellers, various measures in Dublin to combat the problem of child begging and pilot projects in peer led services. An inventory of existing services for travellers being provided by the health boards is currently being carried out as part of the consultative process on the recommendations of the task force.
With regard to education, my colleague the Minister for Education has set out in the Education White Paper Charting our Education Future the Government's policy in relation to traveller education. The White Paper recognised that travellers are a community whose culture has deep historical roots within Irish society. That as a distinct group they have the right to participate fully in its educational system and to have its traditions respected. The White Paper also states that the placement of traveller children in special schools and classes will be done only on the basis of special education need. If they need extra help, this will be given, as it is to other children with learning difficulties, through withdrawal from the ordinary class for a limited period, or through support teaching within the ordinary class.
The White Paper sets out the following objectives; that all traveller children of primary school age be enrolled and participate fully in primary education according to their ability and potential, within five years; within ten years, all traveller children of second level, school-going age will complete junior cycle education and 50 per cent will complete the senior cycle.
These objectives will be supported by: the inclusion in schools' plans of an admission policy in relation to travellers, in accordance with national and regional guidelines; the education boards putting in place induction programmes involving the family, the primary school where the student is enrolled, and the second level school to which he or she is about to transfer; the provision of modules on travellers and traveller culture in pre-service and in-career development programmes; the continuing development by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment of appropriate curriculum and assessment procedures to meet the special needs of traveller children, including the provison of appropriate texts and materials; the continuing development of the visiting teacher service; comprehensive and regularly updated quantitative and qualitative survey of traveller education; the monitoring of school attendance patterns.
Where additional resources are required to fund any of these initiatives it is the intention of the Minister for Education to seek the approval of the Minister for Finance for them to be introduced on a phased basis.
I have referred already to the high level of social exclusion being experienced by travellers, on a daily basis. This was addressed in considerable detail by the task force, and regard is being had in my Department to its recommendations in the preparation of employment equality and equal status legislation.
Employment equality legislation will include membership of the travelling community among the categories being protected. The task force report points out the serious difficulties which travellers face in entering the mainstream workforce. It is my hope that the forthcoming employment equality legislation will play a considerable part in assisting the position of travellers in this regard. Under the terms of this legislation travellers could not be discriminated against in applying for jobs or in advancement in their employment.
The inclusion of travellers in the categories covered by this legislation will help to increase the employment potential of many travellers and to ensure that they are not discriminated against when applying for jobs or when seeking advancement in jobs they already hold. I intend to publish this Bill during the current Dáil session
The task force in its report, while dealing with the inequalities and discrimination experienced by traveller women, both as women and as travellers, highlights the central contribution which women make to the well-being of the traveller community which is largely unrecognised. It speaks about the significant leadership roles they have played both in their own community and in representing that community. In this regard I note with interest the recommendations made by the task force in relation to the role, needs and concerns of traveller women and I am glad that the National Traveller Women's Forum received financial assistance from my Department towards the participation of a member at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995. I hope that this was a useful experience that will contribute to advance the position of traveller women, children and families in Ireland.
The report of the Task Force in highlighting the discrimination experienced by travellers, stresses the need for equal status legislation to give travellers a legal means of redress. I quote a key section from paragraph 2.1, section C of the task force report:
While legislation alone will not put an end to the discrimination faced by the traveller community, it will make an essential contribution to this task. It will provide a catalyst for changing the context within which conflicts and stereotypes are generated. It will be a statement of significant weight from Government of the travellers' status in Irish society and of the unacceptability of discrimination.
The Equal Status Bill will prohibit discrimination on a wide range of grounds, including membership of the travelling community. It will apply to areas such as education, provision of goods and services and the disposal of property and accommodation. Services will be defined broadly to include access to public places, banking and insurance services, entertainment, facilities for refreshment and transport. The basic principle underlying the equal status legislation is that people should be judged on their merits as individuals rather than by reference to irrelevant characteristics. There must be a sufficient reason to justify any difference in treatment.
As Deputies are aware, the proposed equal status legislation has generated some controversy and apprehension, particularly among publicans. While it would not be appropriate for me at this stage to go into detail about specific provisions of the Bill, there are a few points I wish to emphasise. The Bill will only apply to discrimination on clearly specified grounds, including membership of the travelling community. Refusal of service for another and genuine reason, such as misbehaviour, will be unaffected. It will not oblige a publican, retailer or supplier of goods to give reasons for refusal to the customer at the time of refusal. Also, we are looking at ways to ensure that any reason given by service providers, for example in proceedings under the legislation, would be privileged and could not be used as grounds to sue for defamation.
The Bill draws on legislation which has worked well for many years in other countries including the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The experience of similar legislation elsewhere demonstrates that the fears expressed about the proposed legislation are not valid. The enactment of equal status legislation is necessary to enable Ireland to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965 and to lift all our reservations to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1977. Ireland has the doubtful distinction of being the only EU member state which has yet to ratify the Convention on Racial Discrimination. The Equal Status Bill is currently being drafted and will be published later this year.
What is proposed in the report of the task force is an integrated package. Without the provision of adequate accommodation, improvements in the provision of health and education will be more difficult to undertake. Likewise following on to the implementation of aspects of the report, travellers will be able to participate more fully in economic development both through the growth of the traveller economy and in the mainstream labour force, so that the natural talent of travellers to be self-reliant and resourceful will be encouraged.
I hope this report will encourage all of us to take the first steps in harmonising the relationship between travellers and settled people. This is an important issue, not just for Irish travellers, but for the population of Ireland generally. The task force report presents us with an opportunity we must not miss. I will do all in my power to ensure that it gets the support it deserves.