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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 23 Apr 1996

Vol. 464 No. 3

Finance Bill, 1996. - Report of Task Force on Travelling Community: Statements.

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 I am pleased that he has since withdrawn these remarks.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.

The Fianna Fáil and Labour Programme for a Partnership Government 1993 to 1997 decided to establish a task force on the travelling community. It was established in July 1993. The decision to establish the task force with its wide terms of reference was an enlightened and good decision by a good Government. That Government would still be in office implementing its excellent programme but for the stupidity of the Labour Party which sought heads for matters long forgotten by people who still cannot understand why that Government broke up and who are at present punishing the Labour Party at the polls because of the break up and for many other reasons.

I pay tribute the the Minister of State, Deputy McManus, who was the first chairperson of the task force. She was succeeded in that position by Senator Mary Kelly to whom I also extend my congratulations. The members of the task force and the support staff deserve our appreciation for an excellent report that seeks to identify all the issues affecting the travelling community at this time. It makes recommendations and seeks to set a timescale for their implementation.

To understand today's travellers and their needs, culture and fears it is helpful to set out the history of their origins. Unfortunately, there is little written information on the topic. That travellers were called "tinkers" suggests a link with the Irish word "tinceard" which suggests working with metal. The word "tinceard" appears in written form as far back as the 12th century. Since that time reference to tinkers appears many times in written documentation which indicates the existence of a group of crafts people who travelled around the country playing an important role in the economy.

Certain scholars suggest that today's travellers are the descendants of native Irish people who were put off their lands in the 17th century and were compelled to take to the roads by the planters. McNeill, writing in 1919, claims they were pre-Celtic descendants of the Semin Ringe or rivet makers who were menders of weapons for warriors. Their select language Shelta or Gammon could confirm that they are of ancient origin.

George Gmelch, who was an American anthropologist and lived among Irish travellers, believes their origins go back to pre-Christian times when they operated as itinerant tinsmiths travelling around the countryside making ornaments, weapons and horse trappings in exchange for food and lodgings. Members might be surprised to note they were recorded as a distinct cultural group in the census carried out by the Norsemen in the 10th century. By 1175 the word "tinker" began to appear in written records as a trade name for those working with tin.

The current view is that today's travellers descend from the thousands of Irish peasants who were forced off the land through eviction, hunger and poverty from the 17th century on. They were probably too poor to buy their passage to another country and therefore took to the roads to earn their living. The people who remained on the roads gradually established their own ethnic identity as travellers. At first they lived on the sides of the road with little or no shelter. Later they started to live in tents and wagons on the roadside and this completed their isolation from the settled community.

Most travellers until the 1950s and 1960s earned their living as tinsmiths, pedlars, chimney cleaners, basket and sieve makers, collectors and scavengers, musicians and fortune tellers. At fairs and race meetings they played card tricks, played the dice and gave tips for horses. The women made and sold flowers and told fortunes. Along the way some travellers acquired skills in repairing broken china, crockery, clocks and umbrellas, in other words, they acquired useful skills which were appropriate to the times in which they lived.

As pedlars they sold linoleum, carpets, glassware, clothes pegs and straw brooms. Travellers also acquired good skills as horse dealers which arose from their nomadic experience and the use of horses to pull their wagons and carts. They also worked as seasonal labourers for farmers, bringing in the harvest, cutting turf and so forth. Travellers also provided up to date news and information as they travelled from one area to another and this was a valuable service since, in those times, there were no radios or telephones.

From 1870 onwards, a huge change took place in the lives of travellers because of the advent of the horse drawn caravan. Horse drawn caravans were first acquired by the more affluent horse dealers among the travellers and by 1930 most travellers used them. This meant they were truly set apart from the settled community and no longer needed to obtain shelter from them.

The first recorded instances of conflict between travellers and the settled community seem to have taken place in the west of Ireland where the travellers grazed their horses, donkeys and goats on the side of the road, much to the annoyance of the settled community who objected to them coming into the area. The barren and rocky nature of the land meant that roadside grazing was important to local people and often they competed with the travellers for such grazing. Settled people often instilled a fear of travellers in their children from an early age which in adulthood accentuated their distrust of the travelling community.

The old livelihoods of the travelling community are now largely a thing of the past. The plastic bucket has long since replaced the tin can and farm machinery has dispensed with the need for horses and casual labour. Those former occupations have been replaced by scrap dealing, car dismantling, etc. That type of economic activity can realistically survive only in more built up areas. Consequently, many travellers, like many rural settled people, were forced to gravitate to the larger towns and cities in search of a livelihood. Because the State ignored and failed to provide for the social and accommodation needs of travellers who gravitated to towns and cities conflict with the settled community was inevitable. Invariably travellers were confined to the poorer sections of the growing towns and cities and that aggravated conflict and prejudice against them. Since their traditional economic activity and way of life has largely disappeared, they have been increasingly compelled to depend on State social welfare payments. Such State dependency runs contrary to their traditional way of life which tended to be one of self-sufficiency, meagre and all that may have been.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s this State invested heavily in the expansion of education facilities and opportunities, industrial training and retraining and various economic developments for the settled community. That was intended to deal with the effects of the transition from a sheltered economy protected by import tariffs and duties to an open one as part of the European Economic Community. In all that resurgence, investment, training and growth in a rapidly changing economic environment the travelling community and its changing economic and social needs were largely ignored. Our changing society, including its developing new economic needs and requirements of the 1950s to the 1970s quickly wiped out the economic way of life of the travelling community which had served that community generation after generation. A realistic attempt was not made by the State to provide alternative economic activity to enable travellers to economically provide for their traditional way of life without bringing them into conflict with the settled community. In that neglect lies the seeds for the unjustifiable conflict between the settled community and travellers which, in many cases, is the norm today.

We have much catching up to do to meet the full legitimate needs, entitlements and aspirations of our travelling community. The full and speedy implementation of all the recommendations of the task force report will wipe off our landscape a sorry chapter in our social history regarding the manner in which we have dealt with the travelling community. In reality we should be ashamed of our inactivity and lack of commitment to an important minority group in our society.

The stereotyping of our travelling community gives rise to extreme forms of prejudice against it making it difficult to develop equal co-existence between travellers and the settled community. It is said that travellers do not want to settle and yet it is becoming increasingly obvious that to provide education for their children they need a stable place to live, whether in standard or group housing or properly serviced halting sites.

It is also said that travellers are dirty but the absence of basic facilities which we, in the settled community, take for granted, such as hot and cold running water, proper sanitation and refuse collection, makes it extremely difficult for travellers to comply with the day to day living conditions as demanded and expected by most of the settled community. I need hardly remind Members that on occasions when the refuse collection service was not available to the settled community severe problems of litter and illegal refuse disposal became quickly apparent.

Regarding the alleged high crime rate among travellers compared to the settled community, it tends to be the problem that where one traveller is caught for any crime the whole travelling community is unfairly branded and singled out, as happened in recent times. In areas where travellers are located sometimes professional thieves and law breakers operate in those areas in the belief that travellers will be the first to be suspected and blamed for crime. The majority of travellers, and their representatives, condemn criminal behaviour from whatever quarter. As one elderly traveller put it, "Travellers are like the wild geese, when we fly everyone can see us."

The Minister for Equality and Law Reform Deputy Taylor, promised the introduction of an equal status Bill, but it appears it will not be brought forward until the end of this year. From the point of view of the travelling community, I am disappointed at the continuing delay in introducing this important legislation, the intention of which is to prohibit discrimination on various grounds, including membership of the travelling community. This legislation needs to be introduced and enacted without delay to protect that community. An equal status Bill has long been sought by the travellers and their representatives. I call on the Minister to introduce the legislation soon to ensure that it can be fully enacted before the end of the Government's term of office.

Ireland has yet to pass anti-discrimination legislation and has not yet ratified the UN Convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. For that reason travellers and other minority ethnic groups and groups identified on the basis of skin colour have no legal redress for the racism they suffer in our society. The report under discussion sets out all the issues concerning the travelling community which need to be confronted and dealt with if we are to make a meaningful attempt to meet their legitimate needs and entitlements.

I wish to comment on the more important aspects of that report. There is no doubt there is an urgent need to improve relationships between travellers and the settled community. This can best be done by improving contacts at every level locally between the two sides. I welcome the widespread establishment of travellers' support groups. Their establishment will give the travelling and settled communities an opportunity to come into more meaningful contact with the absence and alleviation of conflict being the objective. It also gives an opportunity for the statutory sector to respond to organised support groups in a more positive way than perhaps was the case in the past.

I pay special tribute to the Dublin Travellers Education and Development Group, now renamed Pavee Point, and the Irish Travellers Movement for their excellent work to date. The poor resourcing of travellers' support groups requires urgent attention. The invaluable work of those groups is often unheralded, yet their resourcing is fragmented and uncommitted. That matter needs to be addressed urgently by one funding agency to ensure that all travellers' support groups are properly funded and resourced.

Media reporting of travellers issues must be more evenly balanced. The recent decision of the National Union of Journalists to address that issue is a welcome initiative.

Section D of the task force report deals extensively with the provision of accommodation needs of the travelling community. Unfortunately, that has been an area of acute conflict with the settled community. It is estimated that a total of 3,100 additional units of accommodation will be needed by the year 2000 if all travellers requiring accommodation are to be facilitated. At present there are approximately 1,125 families on the side of the road and approximately 325 on temporary sites. To cater for the expected natural increase in demand for units of accommodation a further 650 units and 1,000 transient units are required. This is a formidable challange for local authorities.

The national strategy for traveller accommodation as announced by the Minister of State, Deputy McManus, on 27 March sets out the Government's proposals for the next five years. Fianna Fáil fully supports this strategy and welcomes the establishment of a national traveller accommodation consultative group on a statutory basis to "monitor the preparation/adequacy and implementation of Local Traveller Accommodation Plans". It is essential that all local authorities fully commit themselves to the strategy as if they do not live up to their responsibilities the accommodation strategy will collapse.

The total cost of the accommodation referred to, at 1994 prices, is estimated by the task force to be £154 million. If the accommodation strategy is to be successfully implemented, it is essential that all existing sites, especially group housing and halting sites, be properly serviced and maintained by local authorities. The travellers occupying these sites must also play their part by ensuring that they fully comply with all the terms and conditions laid down by the local authority for their proper management.

The Government's commitment to amend the housing, management and planning Acts to speed up the provision of traveller accommodation is welcomed. Precise details of the amendments are awaited, but it is hoped that no delays will occur which would have the effect of undermining the accommodation strategy.

The following statistics in a travellers' health status study carried out in 1987 for the Health Research Board make startling reading: the stillbirth rate for travellers was 19.5 per 1,000 births compared to the national figure of 6.9; the infant mortality rate for travellers was 18.1 per 1,000 births compared to the national figure of 7.4; at birth male travellers can expect to live 9.9 years less than settled males and life expectancy for female travellers is 11.9 years less than settled females.

The Minister for Health has given a commitment in the national health strategy announced in 1994 to address the particular health needs of the traveller community. Bearing in mind that the report of the task force was published in July 1995, we are very disappointed that the Minister has not yet published his promised policy statement on travellers' health. This needs to be done as quickly as possible so that the many health recommendations of the task force can be implemented. Fianna Fáil strongly supports the establishment of a traveller health advisory committee in the Department of Health as recommended by the task force. We also support the establishment within each health board of a traveller health unit and call for full traveller representation on both bodies.

It is becoming increasingly recognised, especially by traveller women, that education is a must for their children. Without proper accommodation it is very difficult for traveller children to attend school on a regular basis. There are approximately 5,000 traveller children of primary school-going age in Ireland. It is estimated that approximately 4,600 of these attend either pre-school or primary school. Of the almost 4,000 attending primary school about half are in full-time primary classes while the remaining 2,000 are in approximately 160 special classes or one of the four special schools for the children of travellers. There are no definite details available on the number of traveller children in second-level schools, but it appears that only a small number attend these schools.

The report of the task force recommends, in FR13, that a traveller education service be established in the Department of Education whose brief would include not alone monitoring the curriculum for travellers, but also ensuring greater integration and coherence between all the key personnel and organisations involved in traveller education. We are not yet aware if the Minister for Education intends to accept this and the other education recommendations of the report of the task force and we on this side of the House regret the Minister's continued delay in clarifying her position.

As the recommendations of the report of the task force on education show, there are huge barriers to proper and decent education placed before traveller children from their pre-school years through primary school and which continue until most of the children fall out of the formal education system. Without doubt there is a need for the education system to respect the growing cultural diversity within the community because, as well as the travellers, we have substantial numbers of minority groups, such as the Vietnamese, Muslims and Bosnians. Consequently, recommendations FR19 to FR24 are vitally important and need to be implemented as a matter of urgency.

We are disappointed that so little progress has been made by the Minister for Education in implementing the recommendations of the Department of Education working group on post-primary education for traveller children which reported in 1992. If these recommendations were implemented, a far greater number of traveller children would attend second level school. We agree with the report of the task force which calls for action in this matter in recommendation FR88.

Recommendation FR15, dealing with the role of the visiting teacher, is very important and we call on the Minister for Education to rapidly expand this service as it facilitates entry to school by the child and assists school authorities.

If real progress is to be made to empower travellers to develop self-sufficiency, it is important that recommendations GR1 to GR41 be implemented. Recycling for example, is an increasingly valuable economic activity and travellers are uniquely placed to participate fully and productively in this activity. The purpose of the local urban and rural development programme is to provide opportunities, resources and stimulus for social and economic development at local level. Travellers should be fully included in the development programmes mentioned. To allow travellers access to these economic activities it will be essential for the Department of the Environment, the Department of Enterprise and Employment and local authorities to work closely together in a co-ordinated manner.

The role of traveller women within their own community has traditionally been a very important one. Section H of the report deals with issues affecting them. To date there has been no comprehensive survey and study of their health. In general, their health needs are seen almost exclusively in the context of child-bearing. A special study of their health should be carried out.

Traveller women tend to be the driving force within their own community in terms of better education, improved accommodation and health matters. They must be supported in their efforts and the development of traveller women's group should be high on the agenda.

The report of the task force has been widely welcomed by the travelling community, their representative organisations, those who work with them and all those interested in their welfare. It is recognised that considerable resources will have to be made available if all the recommendations are to be implemented. To oversee the monitoring and full implementation of the recommendations on an approved timescale, a national body will need to be established on a statutory basis to carry out this work. It should produce an annual report on progress made which should be laid before the House. Its membership should include members of the travelling community and representatives of organisations working on their behalf.

I can best conclude my contribution by quoting the introduction to chapter 3 of the publication by the Dublin Travellers Education and Development Group — now known as Pavee Point — the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Irish Traveller Movement entitled Anti Racist Law on the Travellers, written by Tom Cooney.

To be a Traveller in our society can be a distressing and disabling experience. This is not because Travellers belong to an intrinsically impoverished community. They do not. It is because the Settled Community has imposed unfair deprivations on Travellers who pursue their traditional nomadic way of life.

The Settled Community has failed to understand the Traveller Community. These failures to understand the Travellers are not simply the result of cold indifference. They owe as much to deliberate ignorance about Travellers' culture and humanity and a deeply rooted hostility, sometimes viciously expressed, to their ways, prospective plans of life, their needs, values and rights.

Attitudes fixed in the baseless assumptions and shocking unreason of social prejudice not only underpin an embittering history of political, social and legal neglect of Travellers' repeated calls for social justice, but also sustain at individual and institutional level routine unquestioned practices of discrimination against Travellers which deny them the basic right essential to a self-governing life of self-worth.

For decades now Travellers have been and still remain a disadvantaged and oppressed minority.

The challenge facing this Government — and indeed the next — is the speedy implementation of the recommendations of the Task Force on the Travelling Community. A willingness on the part of the Government to accept that no further reports are required is called for now. A sustained period of activity and resource provision is essential to ensure that the basic needs of the travelling community can be met before the end of the century.

I am pleased that we have been given time to discuss this very important report. The problems of the travelling community are rarely out of the news. As we have already heard, the issue achieved prominence recently because of the intemperate remarks made by a councillor from Waterford who spoke of "running these people out of the country with shotguns", remarks for which he was rightly brought to book by his party leader and which, fortunately, he subsequently withdrew. It is indicative of the undercurrents in society. The position of the travelling community is clearly unacceptable. Despite what many of us think from time to time, Ireland is one of the wealthiest economies in the world yet people live on the side of the road in squalid conditions, often without basic essential services such as running water, electricity and so on as the report rightly identifies.

Children suffer most of all, being denied most of the things that other children take for granted — a comfortable home and a good education. They are condemned to a life of disadvantage almost as soon as they are born. We all agree there is urgent need to remedy this. The report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community is a starting point in this process and I welcome its publication. I congratulate its members on their work, Deputy McManus and subsequently Senator Mary Kelly on their chairing of the task force and the many dedicated members for their conviction and commitment to the production of the report. I congratulate the Minister for Equality and Law Reform on his response to and support for the task force.

The problems of the travelling community are complex. Careful analysis is required before we set about implementing solutions identified in the report. We recently saw two different sides of the problem highlighted in the media. The first related to a young traveller couple trying to find a hotel to handle their wedding reception. Their story was told in the newspapers last week. Most people would be very saddened to hear that the couple were turned down by 30 different establishments because they were travellers. The story evoked considerable public sympathy for the travelling community and rightly so.

The second relates to an incident that took place in County Sligo before Christmas. In that case a traveller family including the children, perpetrated a most violent, vicious and prolonged assault upon a defenceless elderly person who was living alone, a crime which has since been dealt with by the courts. That story evoked considerable public antipathy towards the travelling community. Stories and events such as the second one live longest in the public memory and ultimately serve to define the Irish attitude towards travellers which is hostile.

The Minister stated he had no illusions on how difficult it might be to foster a new and more harmonious co-existence between travellers and the settled community. We might use politically correct language to hide the problem. Expressions such as "traveller" are rarely used in ordinary conversation but whether we like it or not most people want nothing to do with travellers and most certainly do not want to live near them. That sad truth will be confirmed by those in the House who serve or have served on local authorities and try to win approval for halting sites for travellers from settled local communities. There is a perception that travellers are dirty, do not work, know how to play the welfare system to their advantage and, most disturbing of all, are involved in wholesale crime. That prejudice is reinforced by media hype which at times in the past few months seemed to blame travellers for every crime committed outside Dublin.

We must break down prejudices and hostility and the first step is to understand the nature of the problem as the report sets out to do. Central to that is the question of traveller culture. The task force assumes there is a distinct traveller culture and Deputy Flood gave us an historical analysis which confirms that distinction. The report is rightly premised on the need to respect, protect and perhaps foster that culture. It highlights the fact that traveller culture is dynamic, complex and changing. There are many positive aspects to it. The strong sense of family loyalty and community among travellers is something that could well be observed by the settled community. However, some practices by members of the travelling community are not accepted as part of a culture by the settled community. The Minister alluded to some of them, for example, children begging. There is clear evidence that some parents systematically exploit their children by forcing them to beg, a practice which is surely the equivalent of living off immoral earnings. Settled people perceive travellers as being too quick to resort to violence as a means of resolving disputes. The Minister underpinned the difficulty of damage to their own environment. We are all familiar with this particularly when we talk about trying to settle travellers within communities. The immediate reaction is that house prices will drop and the environment will be damaged.

Settled people have little or no concept of what traveller culture means. In the main they think of it in negative terms and it conjures up stereotype images of violence, drinking and antisocial behaviour. Even if travellers are occasionally guilty of violence, there can never be any excuse for the use of violence against them. I find particularly disturbing the claim made yesterday in Skibbereen District Court by a man convicted of a serious attack on travellers in Bantry that he was regularly hired by Dublin County Council to shift travellers. It is disturbing to read headlines such as "£4,000 offered for vigilante assault on traveller site". Travellers were terrorised in their homes by a man acting on behalf of people in the community. He was convicted in court as a result of this. I call on the local authorities in Dublin to confirm whether they have had any relationship with this individual and whether they are satisfied that no strong arm tactics have been used against travellers. The inability of local authorities to come to grips with the problem of providing proper accommodation facilities for travellers has given rise to this type of situation.

If we want to promote a tolerant attitude to travellers, they themselves must recognise that elements of their way of life contribute to their non-acceptance within society. One of the defining aspects of traveller culture is nomadism. In years gone by there was an economic rationale for the nomadic lifestyle favoured by travellers. In order to ply their trade as tinkers they needed to move around the country. Today the economic justification for this lifestyle has all but vanished, it is this lifestyle which is responsible for a great deal of the hostility towards the travelling community and for many of the problems it endures. By adhering to this lifestyle, travellers disadvantage themselves to a large degree. Nomadism cuts them off to a significant extent from health services and education opportunities and it rules out any possibility of travellers moving into stable employment in the formal economy. There is evidence that travellers may be moving away from this lifestyle. The question arises whether we should encourage this trend or seek to facilitate travellers who want to continue to pursue this nomadic existence. It is important that travellers are free to make their own choices.

A break with this lifestyle would have many beneficial consequences for traveller children. At present travellers can effectively deny their children educational opportunities by adhering to a peripatetic way of life. Children have no continuity in their schooling and it is not surprising that they underachieve. Educational services for travellers have improved considerably in recent years but there are enormous problems. The task force cites teachers' estimates that traveller children are on average three years behind their settled counterparts in core subjects. The problems for education caused by nomadic life are compounded by the decision of many traveller parents to withdraw young children from school. This creates a vicious circle whereby the younger generation is condemned, through lack of education, to the status of second class citizenship and the whole cycle of deprivation and disadvantage is continued.

We need an immediate and urgent three-pronged attack on the problems of deprivation and disadvantage which affect travellers. The task force research highlights significant deficiencies in accommodation in a number of areas, even though it acknowledges the contribution and commitment of councillors and officials. The reality, as every member of a local authority will confirm, is that it is a battle to have a halting site established. Any of us who have supported accommodation for travellers must acknowledge this and always insist that it be challenged.

I totally take on board the five-year national strategy on accommodation for travellers. However, I sound a note of caution with regard to it. It is absolutely critical that people in local communities be informed and consulted. In Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council we had enormous difficulty in establishing a halting site because people felt it was being imposed on them and all the usual myths and prejudices about travellers came into play. The people in the community had something forced on them rather than being consulted about it. In another instance families which were to be accommodated in a halting site were from the area in question and were known by people in the locality. There was not a single objection to this site because people were consulted and they met the travellers who were to be part of their community. This helped to disarm them to a great extent and to inform them of the type of people who would be living in their community. The fears of the unknown, which so many people have, did not come into play in this case.

When we are trying to implement the strategy on accommodation, it is important that stereotypes are challenged and that people meet face to face with travellers so that the latter are not spoken about as statistics but as human beings who deserve to be accommodated in our society. When most people meet travellers and are faced with the reality of the living conditions they have to endure, they are far more willing to accept them in their communities.

With regard to the protection and education of traveller children, it is important that the existing laws on school attendance be enforced. There is a big problem with regard to attendance, whether it is by children of travellers or children from the settled community. We must ensure there is appropriate early intervention by way of pre-school facilities and that all traveller children receive not just primary education but also secondary education. In this context I agree with the remarks made earlier by Deputy Flood. I agree with the task force recommendation on the establishment of a traveller education service under the aegis of the Department of Education. This would mean that there would be somebody in the Department with responsibility for the provision of education for travellers. It is essential that there is a last port of call and that the buck stops with somebody.

With regard to the promotion of enterprise within the traveller culture, travellers have specific skills which are identified in the report, such as trading, recycling and horse dealing. They should be given every encouragement to use these skills for the benefit of their own communities. As an environmental strategy, travellers could be given a key role in recycling. There is great scope for progress in integrating travellers more into the formal economy. The task force points out that the traveller economy could play a significant role in enabling increased numbers of the travelling community to achieve financial independence and, importantly, it challenges the myth that there is a lack of work ethic within that community. This must be constantly reinforced. Particular effort should be devoted to bringing within the formal economy the substantial amount of activity which currently takes place in the black economy. In the meantime we need to provide the supports necessary to allow this transition to take place. The community employment scheme could be tailored to meet the particular needs of travellers.

The whole thrust of our policy on the travelling community should be based on inclusion and integration, not exclusion and separation. This requires changes in attitudes and legislation. I refer particularly to the proposed equal status Bill. One of the most vocal minorities pressing for this Bill has been the travelling community. It knows that legislation does not necessarily change attitudes but it believes it is entitled to the protection of the law and the same right enjoyed by every other citizen.

On equal status legislation the report states:

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 give Travellers a legal means of redress against discrimination. It will be a statement of significant weight from Government of the Travellers' status in Irish society and of the unacceptability of discrimination. In the Irish context, it is important that Equal Status legislation in specifying its protection of ethnic groups would also specifically name the Traveller community as being protected.

It is difficult to overstate the importance the travelling community puts on the implementation of equal status legislation. The delay in bringing forward that legislation has led to questioning by members of the travelling community of the degree of Government commitment to the issue. Travellers perceive themselves as particularly vulnerable to scapegoating where there is a series of violent crimes such as those witnessed in recent months. The hysterical and ill-informed media speculation did not help the traveller cause — the good name of the whole travelling community was severely tainted by the way in which the media treated the issue. According to a letter I received from Pavee Point, the long and painstaking work of improving inter-community relations that has taken years may have been wiped out in a matter of weeks by some members of the media acting in an irresponsible manner.

Many minority groups are baffled by the slow pace of progress on the equal status legislation, and none more so than the travelling community which puts so much emphasis on protection within society. The frustration felt by a number of minority groups resulted last month in the launching of the campaign for equality. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this legislation in the eyes of the travelling community. I agree with Deputy Flood it is very disappointing that we will not see that Bill until the end of this year. I urge the Minister to bring it forward as quickly as possible. There is a perceived standoff between the licensed vintners on the one hand and the travelling community on the other, and that is unhelpful to vintners, travellers and other minority groups interested in the equal status legislation. Where there is a legislative vacuum such as this, the way is wide open for speculation, which is not helpful. There is a belief among travellers that the Government is not concerned enough to bring forward legislation to protect them. Considering the amount of work that has been done by the task force, that is a shame.

The report of the task force, which is very commendable, appears to place a great deal of responsibility for the resolution of the difficulties experienced by travellers at the door of society at large, and there is a danger in that. It is important that travellers are not seen as passive onlookers, that they are not sidelined and their abilities and efforts are taken into account. Travellers should be part of the whole dynamic so that their right to participate in society is not only acknowledged by the settled community but embraced by all, particularly the travellers.

I congratulate the members of the task force on the production of this excellent report which will greatly aid understanding of the difficulties experienced by travellers. The report provides us with a blueprint for dealing with a range of problems that confronts travellers, such as education, health, accommodation, access to the jobs market and the role of women, which is rightly identified as critical. The report should be translated into action.

The Minister rightly drew a parallel between this report and the first report of the Commission on the Status of Women. One lesson that should have been learned from that report is that progress in the implementation of its recommendations is very slow. It is very important to put a timescale on the implementation of recommendations. There should be a monitoring committee such as that established to monitor progress on the implementation of the recommendations of the Second Commission on the Status of Women. We are all too familiar with task force reports and so on which are left to gather dust on shelves.

Some of the recommendations in the report have been taken on board and I wish the Minister. Deputy McManus, the very best in her endeavours in regard to accommodation. That is a critical element in improving the lot of travellers. It is essential in the whole area of education that there be a impetus to implement the recommendations in the report. I am glad of the opportunity to speak on this important report, but in the last analysis what is needed is urgent action to improve the lot of people who have for too long been discarded.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. Many changes have occurred in society in recent years. There has been a move towards greater social and political inclusiveness and tolerance, and a readiness to face up to previously hidden facets of life. However, meeting the needs of the travelling community is still a difficult and painful process. Too often the relationship between traveller and settled community has been noted for its conflict rather than by its consensus, for anger and fear rather than acceptance and understanding. We need to change the fundamental nature of that relationship, and this is a political challenge as much as a social one. I thank the Minister, Deputy Taylor for his work in this regard. I also acknowledge the generous approach of Deputy Flood and Deputy Keogh.

For my part I am determined to realise the national strategy on accommodation as effectively as I can because accommodation is the key to meeting many of the needs of this most marginalized group in our society. Providing accommodation is not the end of the story when it comes to true equality between our communities, but without accommodation the story cannot begin. I was privileged to have been chairperson of the Task Force on the Travelling Community established in 1993 by the then Fianna Fáil-Labour Government. It had a broad remit to examine and make recommendations on a range of issues affecting travellers. I relinquished the position on my appointment as Minister of State in the Department of the Environment in January 1995. Senator Mary Kelly who was a member of the task force replaced me and guided it through to the presentation of the final report to the Minister for Equality and Law Reform in July 1995. The report of the subsequent interdepartmental committee on the recommendations of the task force was presented to Government, which, on 26 March 1996, approved a range of proposals to address issues of concern to travellers.

Central to the Government's comprehensive response is the development of a national strategy for traveller accommodation, with the necessary financial and legislative support to provide a framework within which the accommodation needs of travellers can be met. The strategy is a multi-faceted package of measures designed to achieve the accommodation targets — 3,100 units of accommodation — set out by the task force. The strategy is based on the key principles that local authorities must uphold their responsibilities in providing traveller accommodation, that all authorities must play their part and that traveller interests are to be consulted and involved.

Many interested observers will recall that the task force recommended the establishment of a traveller accommodation agency. I looked carefully at this option. However, certain important considerations determined that an alternative approach was necessary. A new central body as proposed would have conflicted with Government policy on devolving functions to local authorities as outlined in the Government's programme. A Government of Renewal.

The strategy, which I will describe in some detail, secures the local authority role in planning for and providing suitable accommodation for travellers as authorities do for other sections of society who cannot themselves provide suitable accommodation. There will be an obligation imposed by statute on local authorities to draw up plans for the provision of traveller accommodation. In the event of a default in adopting local plans, managers will be empowered formally to make the plan and to secure its implementation as an executive function. Local representatives will have the right to make decisions, as is proper, but if they choose not to make them, progress will be made as a matter of course.

These are the central principles of the strategy and ones that I believe will deliver the necessary accommodation objectives. Elected members of local authorities must be willing to take seriously their responsibilities to all sectors of the community and to act responsibly in carrying out their duties. I would hope that, with goodwill all round, use of the last resort powers would arise infrequently but it is imperative to have such a provision.

An important principle of the strategy, to which I would draw attention at this stage, is its recognition that equivalent, co-ordinated progress must be made by all local authorities in advancing local traveller accommodation programmes. In the past, some authorities have been more responsive and responsible in relation to traveller accommodation than others. This will no longer be the case. The strategy will provide a nationally coherent balanced programme of suitable accommodation throughout the country. All authorities must do their share.

Traveller interests must be a part of the strategy. They must be consulted in its implementation and must assume responsibility along with the other key players in making it work. The strategy provides a channel for consultation at both local and national level. It will have an important role in improving relations between travellers and the community of which they are a part.

Despite progress made by many local authorities in providing accommodation for traveller families, approximately 1,100 families remain on the roadside. In addition, the natural increase in traveller family population and the needs for halting sites for transient families must be taken into account. At historic and current levels of providing accommodation the number of families on the roadside will at best remain stable but more likely increase unless determined action is taken now.

I shall now outline the main elements of the strategy. Each major local authority, that is each county borough and county council and, possibly, some larger urban councils, will be required to prepare and adopt a five year plan for the provision of traveller accommodation in their area. There will be a specified time limit on this. The plans would be subject to periodic review by the authorities in the light of progress and developments otherwise, including changes in the local traveller population.

Many factors influence the type and location of traveller accommodation. A variety of housing possibilities is open to local authorities in providing for travellers' needs. While some local authorities have met their responsibility to provide accommodation for traveller families, others have not. There are various reasons for this, the principal one being the level of opposition from local settled residents to the location of traveller accommodation in their areas. This applies particularly in the case of halting sites.

It should not be forgotten that many traveller families have expressed an interest in the concept of group housing to accommodate an extended family. The experience of group housing is generally good. A number of local authorities have been active in providing group housing schemes and this approach has been gaining ground. The task force's interim progress report recommended that separate funding, that is funding separate from the standard local authority housing programme, be provided for group housing and my Department has done this since January 1995.

The strategy provides that the local plans will be co-ordinated by a special unit in my Department, with the assistance of a national traveller accommodation consultative group, into a national plan to deliver the 3,100 units of accommodation set out in the report of the task force. I can assure Deputy Keogh I am already in the process of establishing this special unit in my Department.

Implementation of the strategy will be expensive. The task force estimated that £158 million would be needed at 1994 prices to construct the accommodation required, whether housing for travellers, permanent halting sites or transient halting sites. The Government has decided in principle that the necessary accommodation be provided over the period of the strategy.

Funding has never been a constraint on the provision of halting sites or indeed on any other accommodation for travellers. The cost to local authorities of constructing accommodation for travellers has been met in full by the Exchequer. Successive Ministers have assured local authorities over the years that any funds required will be provided. Most recently, this was reaffirmed in the policy document, Social Housing — The Way Ahead. This policy will continue to prevail.

The special unit in my Department will also service the national traveller accommodation consultative group which will be established on a statutory basis to monitor preparation, adequacy and implementation of the local accommodation programmes and to advise the Minister as necessary. The group will consist of seven members nominated by the Minister for the Environment, the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, and relevant national traveller organisations.

I see this consultative group as having a vital role in channelling travellers' points of view and concerns into the preparation of the accommodation programme at national and local level. Traveller accommodation committees, representative of local authority elected members and officials and of travellers, will be established in each local authority area to facilitate consultation and assist in the development and implementation of local plans.

An important support for local authorities in devising local programmes and in managing traveller accommodation generally will be the improved legislative flexibility proposed in the strategy. Many authorities have been faced with litigation instigated by both the traveller and the settled community. These actions have seriously impeded progress.

The housing Acts and the management Acts will, therefore, be amended to impose on local authorities the obligation to prepare and adopt their plans by a specified deadline. The legislation will provide that, in the event of the elected members not adopting a plan within the time allowed, the manager would then be empowered and required to formally make the plan. When a plan had been made the authority would be required to take the necessary steps to secure its implementation.

The planning Acts will be amended to put an effective planning framework in place which will facilitate implementation of the traveller accommodation plans. These amendments would be comprehensive, dealing with a range of planning considerations, for example, development plan, zoning, consultation process, etc. Again, a power for the manager to act independently of the council would be provided to ensure, for example, that the development plan includes the necessary provision for zoning etc. for halting sites.

Wider legislative powers will be given to local authorities to deal with illegal, indiscriminate and unauthorised parking by travellers and related matters. Consideration will be given to prohibiting parking of caravans and temporary dwellings within a specified distance, say, one mile of traveller accommodation. This is a balanced package of legal measures to improve the situation for local authorities, travellers and the settled community.

The strategy also provides for improvement in the management and maintenance of traveller accommodation by local authorities. The task force report recommended that 75 per cent of such expenditure by local authorities should be met by the State and estimated this State funding at £7.5 million per year over the six years 1995-2000.

The measures I have described are designed to be effective in securing the provision of accommodation for travellers. In spite of the best efforts of many people, the present situation remains unacceptable. What is required is a fundamental change of attitude — an acceptance that we have an obligation to accommodate travellers and that shirking that obligation is no longer acceptable. This is the nub of the strategy.

The strategy represents a focused, coherent and balanced policy designed to achieve real solutions to the difficult problems of traveller accommodation. It is a breakthrough in our approach to the accommodation of travellers. It reflects my desire and that of the Government to act decisively in favour of one of the most marginalised groups in our society. It is a commitment to deliver on the recommendations of the task force that 3,100 units of accommodation be provided for travelling families in the shortest practicable period.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the task force report on the travelling community which is welcome. I pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy McManus, on her role as the first chairperson of the task force and Senator Mary Kelly who took over after Deputy McManus's appointment as Minister of State. The report is comprehensive and deals with a whole range of issues appertaining to the travelling community.

I am interested in the education element of the report. Before dealing with that area, I should say it is extremely important that we provide, in tandem with the task force, an implementation strategy and that we commit the necessary resources right across the board to ensure fairly rapid implementation of many of the recommendations of the report. While the report is comprehensive, all the recommendations will not be implemented overnight or even in a year or two; it will probably take a five-year strategy effectively to implement many of them.

In this debate we should concentrate on the positive aspects and the successes in terms of our response to the needs of the travelling community. The negative side of various episodes tends to gain greater publicity than the successes. Successes unfortunately, do not make good news stories. We have had our share of successes. I know from my perspective in Cork Corporation that we have strived in a bona fide way to meet the accommodation needs of travellers through the provision of halting sites in various areas of the city and endeavoured to integrate the settled community with the travelling community. In my own area in Mahon in Cork there has been a welcome development in terms of participation by the travelling community in the local halting site with the local community association and there is a sense of shared commitment in terms of the action plan developed there; for example, in the recycling initiative there is shared participation by the travelling community and the settled community. There is an understanding and a recognition that there can be an enrichment of each other's perspective, particularly for the children of the area in sharing their experiences and different cultural traditions and heritage.

In terms of education policy I am concerned that we have not had any meaningful response to the recommendations of the task force. The central recommendation which involves the establishment of a traveller education unit in the Department of Education, under the direction of an assistant secretary, should be implemented without delay. That is a worthwhile initiative that should be supported. The advisory committee, which would advise the education unit on traveller education, should also be appointed without delay. We like to prescribe what we think is best for various committees, groups and organisations and likewise with the travelling community. There is a danger that we fall into that trap of trying to lay down what should happen.

The development of a traveller education unit within the Department would facilitate a better consultative and communicative process with the travelling community in order to develop a proper education service which responds to their needs, their culture and way of life. The Department of Education has a pre-school education service for the travelling community. If one compares the resources allocated to the travellers' pre-school service with those allocated to the early start programme one will see that considerably more is allocated to the latter. In her paper on pre-school education in Ireland and on the need to develop a national policy on pre-school education, Noreen Hayes refers to this basic anomaly in how we approach such issues. We have had for a number of years a pre-school service for travellers' children. Then we developed a new initiative, early start, which is laudable in itself and is extremely well resourced in specific schools, much better resourced than the service available to children of the travelling community. That disparity is not acceptable. It is not right, fair or just. If we develop initiatives for the primary system or the pre-school system the same amount of resources should be allocated for services for children of the travelling community. This relates also to child care assistants and participation by travelling parents in the pre-school provision.

As the report illustrates we need a national policy on pre-school education. This issue, on which there is considerable disagreement among the providers, is relevant to that travelling community. In my contributions on pre-school education in this House I have called for the establishment of a national forum on pre-school education. That forum should comprise representatives from all providers of pre-school services, including the IPPA, an reamhscoilíochta who provide services to the naonraí, the INTO, the Montessori movement and the travelling community.

Early intervention is critical in the life cycle of any child, be it a child of the travelling community or of the settled community. We can never put enough resources into pre-schooling and early education. It is an accepted fact that children learn more in their first three years than they will learn in the rest of their lives. They learn at a faster rate and they observe much more.

Properly resourced pre-school education is essential for the development of children of the travelling community. It is essential that proper stimuli and challenges are provided in order to make an effective contribution to the growth and development of the child. We can do more in terms of the pre-school education service being provided for children of the travelling community. There is a sense of political correctness about all of this. We produce a task force report, make all the recommendations, speak the right language in terms of doing this, that and the other for various communities but when it comes to pounds, shillings and pence we allocate more to the well off in society. That is the reality and the experience on a day-to-day basis. There are about 5,000 traveller children of primary school age. As an extension of the pre-school system, it is critical that we get it right at primary level.

There has been reference to the truancy report published in 1994. I do not like the word "truancy", a term which is being dispensed with. I respectfully suggest that the term "school attendance" should also be dispensed with. I agree that the implementation of the recommendations of the task force report must be done sensitively and in the context of the rights of children to an education. It is ludicrous to have the Garda in liaison with school attendance officers trying to enforce the attendance of a child at school. There is something fundamentally wrong with the family or community environment of a child who does not want to go to school. It is not something that can be resolved by legislation or by people endeavouring to force such children into school. These children are entitled to an education and there is an obligation on society to devise the most appropriate way to provide that education.

I do not like terms such as "compulsory school attendance" or "truancy" which are irrelevant in this day and age, particularly in the context of educating children of the travelling community. We cannot force children to learn in accordance with the traditions of the past when a garda or school attendance officer called to the door or to the halting site and threatened legal action under the School Attendance Act. That is not a progressive way of dealing with the issue.

The visiting teacher service is a more effective route towards establishing liaison and communication with travelling families. It is the best way to develop their participation in education. We want children to participate in the education process, we do not want them sitting at their school desks in protest, hating every minute of it and waiting to dash out at the earliest moment. That is not fulfilling anyone's aspirations and it is not helping the children or their teachers. We should be sensitive to that.

That is the challenge facing us in the Dáil and in Government. People have a right to education and responding to that right demands a different approach and strategy. It is clear that the strategies we have employed to date have failed. Judging by analyses of the literacy and numeracy performances of travelling community children, to which the task force refers, we must acknowledge that there has been a degree of failure.

I am not apportioning blame to any one sector or individual, but we all have to change our approach and learn from the past. If our objective in education is to develop well-rounded individuals with certain competencies and basic skills including literacy and numeracy, who are able to think for themselves, develop their own ideas and be creative.

I am not too sure that the primary school curriculum as it is now structured, and as it applies to the travelling community, has been a success.

The National Curriculum Assessment Council should be asked to look at the curriculum in terms of how it relates to children of the travelling community and asked to develop a report on a more appropriate curriculum which might be relevant to their life experiences and needs. To date, the National Curriculum Assessment Council has been innovative in its work across a wide range of areas. I am sure it would be equally interested in developing thoughts and ideas on a curriculum for the travelling community's children.

We are concerned at the lack of progress to second level, and we have articulated our concerns about early school leaving generally, which is too high. A recent report by the evaluation unit of the Department of Enterprise and Employment on the application of European Social and Structural Funds, calculated that approximately 20,000 people leave school early without appropriate qualifications. That also relates to children of the travelling community who leave school even earlier than conventional early school leavers.

When people leave school early without the necessary skills, it impairs their capacity to secure employment, income, advancement and a better quality of life. In addition to curricular reform which may be more suited to children of the travelling community, we must look seriously at second level retention rates and at how we can best improve participation rates there to bring children to Junior Certificate level and, hopefully, onwards to the Leaving Certificate and eventually third level education.

Unfortunately, we often stereotype everybody into the strait-jacket system we have devised for the general populace. We are slowly opening up to the idea that one should not require six honours to attend university. Some univerities are developing special quotas and reserving places for students from economically disadvantaged areas. Similar programmes could be extended to the travelling community. More importantly, universities and other third level institutions should develop their own research into this area. They have not been particularly strong in developing understanding of, or in sponsoring or undertaking research into, the travelling community, or in providing opportunities at third level for travelling communities.

Third level institutions have a responsibility in that regard. If we can understand the needs, culture, origins and development of the travelling community, we may be in a position to provide certain courses at third level which would be relevant to their experience and to what they want to do with their lives in terms of their skills and the economy in which they work. Third level institutions would be well advised to pursue that area.

Teachers should be provided with proper in-service training to make them more aware of the travelling community's needs, and to equip them to deal better with children of the travelling community — an important point that was referred to by the task force.

As part of the course modules they provide to would-be teachers, teacher training colleges should include sections dealing with the travelling community, using the basic research and experience that has been gathered to date about how they perform in the classroom. There should be a more proactive approach at the level of teacher training.

There is an urgent need to match the aspirations and recommendations of this report with resources. Sadly the axe fell last June on the visiting teacher service which was to have been significantly expanded this year. Special schools were also subject to cutbacks as well as the loss of 1,000 places in VTOS for the unemployed who want to return to education. These areas were singled out for cutbacks in the Education budget in a year in which we allocated £40 million for the abolition of undergraduate third level fees.

Is all this about political correctness, or is there some sincerity about implementing these recommendations? No Labour Minister for Education should prioritise cutbacks for travellers' children or the VTOS because these services are already under-funded, as acknowledged by all parties in the House. All-party agreement on areas that should be exempt from budgetary cutbacks would be beneficial. If we are sincere about promoting this report and implementing its recommendations we should support the expansion of the visiting teacher service and not introduce cutbacks. This service does not absorb a significant amount of the overall £2.2 million budget. Under the early start programme more money was provided for resources in conventional schools than for travelling children who attend pre-schools. While I do not wish to be over critical, there is an element of the double standard in our approach to the travelling community. One wonders if this relates to that group's lack of electoral power, that when push comes to shove the vested interests, through trade unions, employer federations and so on, carry much more weight than those who speak on behalf of the travelling community.

I hope I am proved wrong and that this report will usher in a new era of commitment to the travelling community across a wide range of issues. I hope our aspirations and the report's fine recommendations will be matched with action, pro-active implementation and allocation of resources.

I thank the task force for publishing a comprehensive report on the travelling community, but it will remain a report until at least some of its recommendations are implemented. I do not claim to have the answers to the problems associated with the travelling community. Like other Members I have many traveller friends and as a local representative come into contact with them on a regular basis.

While there have been changes for the better in recent years, there are one or two matters about which I am concerned. Some years ago travellers and mental patients were viewed in a jaundiced fashion, in a manner that one would not wish any section of society to view another. St. Brigid's Mental Hospital is located in Ballinasloe and before people began to have a better understanding of mental disease the locals were afraid of those who attended that hospital. Fortunately, that barrier was broken down in the past ten or 15 years. There was no objection when planning permission was sought a few years' ago for a mental health centre in Mount Bellew. If the barriers in regard to mental illness can be broken down, there is no reason the same cannot happen with the travelling community. Some years ago people's views on mental patients were as deep as those now held about the travelling community. With the advent of better television and radio communications, it is a matter of grave concern that there should be such a gulf between the travelling and settled communities and the gulf is too wide to paper over the cracks.

We must strike a balance on this matter. When local representatives try to make a case for, say, a hard-stand for the travelling community they are always asked if they would live beside members of that community. If we do not wish to live beside them it is difficult to expect others to do so. It is a question of imposing on others what we are not doing ourselves.

We should start by integrating young children into the school system and this should not be a token measure. Many young people from both communities find it difficult to keep up at school, particularly if they are not helped by their parents. Children of the travelling community are less likely to be helped at home because of the lack of education in that fraternity and this will be evident in schools. One does not have to be a member of the travelling community to know that if a child is not able to keep up with the rest of the class he or she will become disinterested, get involved in devilment and before long become disruptive.

Implementation of the report's recommendations will involve more resources and additional cost. I am not opposed to spending large sums of money to ensure that traveller children get a proper chance in life. It is not necessary to waste the House's time illustrating the importance of integrating traveller children into the school system. While health and housing matters are also important, it will not be possible to achieve the integration we would all like if we do not start at that level. Children of four or five years of age do not have preconceived ideas, they would be happy anywhere provided they are treated equally and that everyone is progressing at a similar level. However, this is not always the case and because of a few dangerous trends we must ensure that such integration takes place.

The task force received submissions from a wide range of people, all of whom I compliment. It is important that people give of their time and expertise and that their views are incorporated in the report. No family should be left on the side of the road. I have some trouble with the policy of providing hard-stands. In the absence of housing, they are believed to be a halfway house where certain facilities are provided that are provided for the settled community — water is laid on and power points are provided for the caravans. The next phase, it is hoped, would be a house. I can only speak about east Gawlay where we have a number of fine hard-stands. I know many of the people who use them by name and I have known some of them for many years. Everything may be fine, for five, ten or 15 years until the children become young adults and get married. There is no strategic local planning for them and, all of a sudden, on the perimeter of the hard-stand caravans appear, bringing the social problems right across the board. Before we know where we are, sitting on the fences and the walls of the hard-stands will be able-bodied young men and women, not well educated, who have no jobs, and they can become very angry and bored. However, members of the settled community shrug their shoulders and ask why those people are not working. Most of them would work if somebody would employ them. It is a wide area which I will not go into in the time available except to say that it is necessary to adopt an integrated approach. Four thousand traveller households equals the number of houses in Ballinasloe. By any standard that is a huge population to house. It is incumbent on us to do that no matter what the numbers, and that 4,000 includes 1,100 families on the roadside. We should hang our heads in shame and hope that over the five years of this plan this problem at least will be settled.

Having said that, I know a number of families who, irrespectivce of where they are housed, will go on the road when the sun shines. Regardless of what sociologists say, the people I know will be in their vans and on the road, and we will not see them until next October. No Minister or TD or anybody under the sun will break that practice.

(Wexford): They are coming back to Wexford at this stage.

They are having a good time at the Galway races as well.

In rural areas we do not need to have the housing densities of the cities, although we have managed to turn some council and corporation estates into ghettos by building too many corporation and council houses together on one estate when we literally had thousands of acres at our disposal. There was no need to pack families in, but we did it anyway.

A policy that has worked in some of our towns and villages is to house one or two traveller families to every ten or 12 settled families at the same time. That prevents settled families from trying to make sure when they are housed no travellers will be housed in their estate. In a number of instances local people were very co-operative, the traveller children went to school and did the same as the settled children. However, when the traveller children reached 15 or 16 years of age the trouble started. They just did not have the necessary sense of direction or foundation that other young people had. Everyone goes wild at some stage, but somehow or another, the young travellers fell in with bad company, particularly when they went to some of the bigger cities in England. That is part of the growing up process, and we do not have the answer to it.

One thing that greatly unsettles the settled community is what I call the transient circus of very well heeled travellers although I would not call them travellers in the strict sense. When I was young we used to call them gypsies. They have become very well off, owning 1996 registered vans, etc. On one side there are little four and five year old traveller children whom I want to see integrated into the community through education, etc. On the other side, when settled people see 20 or so huge silver caravans appearing in a town and nothing but affluence, it is difficult to accept it, particularly if the owners are abusive, camped in the wrong place or show general disregard for law and order. These are removed from 99 per cent of the travelling community that I know, and it is only right and proper that the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Welfare should take more than an in-depth look at them. Most of the people on PAYE and the self-employed say they are laden down with all sorts of taxes while that group pays nothing and has no regard for anybody.

The Equal Status Bill on which the Minister is working contains many fine points. My point does not relate strictly to the travelling community but impacts on it. It is very important that legislation on the right of entry to premises is drafted in a balanced way. I have to take note of the many representations made to me. If I were a hotel owner or had my life savings invested in a public house I would like to have some control over who came into my premises, whether they were people who had been to a rugby match and are having a night out, hooligans or travellers. We must get the balance right. I sincerely hope that by the time the legislation is published that will be achieved.

There are many other things I would like to say if I had the time. I will do what I can, at whatever level I can, to ensure that the aspirations in this plan will one day become a reality, but if we do not start at the bottom we have no hope.

Debate adjourned.