Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Bill, 1998: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The primary purpose of this Bill is to provide a legislative framework to facilitate a fresh but determined approach to meeting the accommodation needs of travellers. The Bill will ensure implementation of the Government's commitment set in An Action Programme for the Millennium to create a new deal for travellers. The Bill is also a key element of the Government's efforts on foot of the commitments in the action programme and Partnership 2000 to promote social inclusion and equality and to counter discrimination.

The need for legislation to ensure more concerted efforts on the part of housing authorities to meeting the accommodation needs of travellers was among the recommendations of the task force on the travelling community, which reported to Government in July 1995. The National Strategy for Traveller Accommodation was adopted by the previous Government following consideration of the report. The strategy provides for the introduction of amendments to the housing, planning and development and local government legislative codes to clarify and strengthen the responsibilities and powers of housing authorities in this area.

Despite much effort, the accommodation position of travellers remains unsatisfactory. The latest annual count of traveller families undertaken last November revealed a worrying increase in the number of traveller families on the roadside or in unofficial encampments, increasing from 1,040 at the end of November 1996 to 1,127 a year later. Up to 300 families were in temporary facilities awaiting permanent accommodation.

Over the past few years, capital funding for the provision of group housing and halting sites for travellers has been increased and housing authorities have been given every encouragement to bring forward suitable traveller accommodation proposals. The general local authority housing construction programme has also been expanded and maintained at a high level to the benefit of travellers as well as others in need of housing.

However, the response of housing authorities to the accommodation needs of travellers has been somewhat uneven. A contributory factor has been the strenuous opposition to proposals for traveller accommodation encountered by housing authorities — a trend that appears to be increasing in some areas. This Bill will ensure a comprehensive and planned response by housing authorities which will be underpinned by wide consultative processes with travellers, the public and other authorities concerned, which should promote a better understanding of each other's positions. The main provisions of the Bill will require relevant housing authorities — the 29 county councils, five county boroughs, five borough corporations and Bray and Dundalk urban district councils — after consultation with travellers and the public, to prepare and adopt by a date to be specified, a five year programme to meet the existing and projected accommodation needs of travellers in their areas and to implement such programmes; establish on a statutory basis a national traveller accommodation consultative committee; require local authorities to set up local accommodation consultative committees; provide improved powers for local authorities to deal with unauthorised temporary dwellings; and apply relevant provisions of the housing code on anti-social behaviour to halting sites.

Accurate and reliable information on needs is essential for the preparation of adequate accommodation programmes. Section 6 amends and extends the existing legislative provisions to ensure that assessments of the accommodation needs of travellers are integrated and co-ordinated between the authorities concerned, take account of the full range of accommodation preferred by travellers and are undertaken in consultation with travellers. An important feature will be a requirement to assess the needs to accommodate the future growth in traveller families in respect of a period to be defined by the Minister. It is likely that period will be five years, that is, the period of the first programme. The next significant step in the process is the preparation of a five year accommodation programme by each of the 41 relevant housing authorities. The requirement to adopt and implement those programmes represents a significant change from the existing, largely discretionary, powers of housing authorities in this area.

Sections 7 to 14 set out in detail the various procedures to be followed in the adoption of accommodation programmes. The procedures provided for are designed to ensure that the process is comprehensive, co-ordinated, integrated and transparent and is carried out at the same time by each relevant housing authority.

Section 10 sets out the matters which must be included in a programme, for example, information on the accommodation needs of travellers, a statement of policy of the relevant housing authority on how it proposes to meet those needs and a strategy for implementing the programme. These provisions are necessary in the interests of ensuring an adequate response to the statutory requirements under the Bill, consistency and clarity of approach.

There is a strong commitment throughout the Bill to consultation with the various interests concerned. Prior notice of the preparation of an accommodation programme must be given to a range of public authorities and the local traveller accommodation consultative committee to enable them to have an input.

An important feature of the Bill is the provision for a public consultative process which requires making available a draft of the accommodation programme for inspection by the public. A period of two months from the date of the newspaper notice announcing the availability of the draft is allowed for making written submissions. The manager of the local authority is obliged to report to the elected members on the results of this consultation, including the revisions, if any, made to the draft and other proposed actions by the authority. The provisions in relation to public consultation have been further strengthened by the removal, with effect from 31 May 1998, of the exemption of halting sites from the normal planning consultation process which applies to local authority developments in their functional areas.

Accommodation programmes must be adopted by a date to be specified by the Minister. Adoption is a reserved function of the authority requiring a resolution of the members. The manager must submit the draft programme and the report on submissions received under the public consultative process in sufficient time — not later than three months before the specified date — to enable the members to give due consideration to their contents. However, it is recognised that unusual circumstances may arise which would make it impossible to complete consideration of the draft within three months. Where this happens the meeting at which the motion for adoption is being considered may be adjourned for a further period of up to 21 days. In the light of these measures I am satisfied that Members are being afforded every opportunity to give the fullest consideration to the programme submitted to them and to exercise their statutory responsibilities in this matter.

If the members fail to adopt a programme by the specified date, and I emphasise it is only in the event of such failure, the county or city manager is then obliged to adopt a programme within a further period of one month. In doing so the manager may make such amendments to the draft as, in the opinion of the manager, are considered appropriate. For instance, this would allow a manager to take account of the debate in the council chamber over an issue which the members were unable to resolve. The manager would still be bound by the general requirements of the Bill and, for instance, would not be able to adopt a programme which provided for fewer units of accommodation than that required to meet the identified needs. I know these are strong measures, but the situation merits such action.

Section 16 places an obligation on an authority to take any reasonable steps necessary to secure the implementation of the programme adopted. It also requires small urban housing authorities to take such steps as are necessary for the implementation of proposals set out in an accommodation programme in respect of their areas and to have regard to the provisions of the programme when exercising any of their functions in relation to traveller accommodation.

Local accommodation programmes must be reviewed at least once every three years. A local authority may carry out a review at any earlier time it considers necessary. There is also provision under section 17 for the Minister to require more frequent reviews. The requirements in relation to the review of programmes are most important in terms of ensuring that a programme is dynamic and takes account of the demographic changes in the traveller population. The formal review provisions are also an essential tool in monitoring progress in implementing the five year programmes and adjusting accommodation proposals accordingly.

It is proposed in section 18 that a power is reserved for the Minister to require programmes to be prepared jointly by two or more housing authorities and that programmes are co-ordinated or amended in such manner and by such date as the Minister may direct. However, I see this latter power as a safeguard to be used only in exceptional circumstances.

Sections 19 to 22 are a further commitment to consultation between the persons most directly concerned, the travellers, and the relevant public authorities. New mechanisms are proposed at national and local level to ensure ongoing consultation with travellers on accommodation issues.

The proposed national traveller accommodation committee puts on a statutory basis the existing consultative group but with an expanded membership. The committee, at the Minister's request or on its own initiative, may advise the Minister on any general matter relating to the accommodation of travellers. Detailed issues, for example those relating to specific proposals for accommodation or the needs of individual families, are outside the committee's remit.

Sections 21 and 22 require each county council and county borough corporation to establish a local traveller accommodation consultative committee to advise on any aspect of traveller accommodation. The local committees must be consulted or notified in respect of certain specified matters, for example, making an assessment of needs, the preparation of a draft accommodation programme, etc. I expect that local committees will play an important consultative role in identifying accommodation needs, the design of accommodation to meet those needs and the development of partnership arrangements to manage and maintain accommodation.

Local consultative committees will comprise representatives of the members and officials of the appointing authority and representatives of local travellers and traveller bodies. The proposed parameters for the representation of each group are intended to ensure a balance of representation and reflect the experience of a number of different approaches followed by some local authorities in recent years.

Debate adjourned.