I welcome the Bill which the Labour Party will not oppose on Second Stage. As the Minister of State said, the Bill sets out to implement the national strategy for traveller accommodation which was adopted by the previous Government, of which I had the honour of being a member. The accommodation strategy was an integral part of the report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community which presented its report to the previous Government in July 1995. This task force was established by my friend and colleague, former Deputy Mervyn Taylor. Since his name has not been mentioned in the House this morning, I want to pay tribute to Mervyn for the wonderful work he did not only in relation to addressing the needs of the travelling community but of so many other minority groups. The establishment of a Department of Equality and Law Reform and giving the stewardship of that Department at its inception to a person of the calibre of Mervyn Taylor was one of the most important decisions of Government in recent times. The task force report represents a blueprint for great change across a range of Departments in respect of one of the most serious social issues we must address, namely, how to assimilate, accommodate, recognise the diversity of and provide for the needs of the travelling community. I salute Mr. Mervyn Taylor for establishing the task force and steering its work and for making great progress in the area of equality and law reform.
I also pay tribute to the former Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Deputy McManus, who chaired the task force until her appointment to ministerial office. That represented a unique continuum because she moved from being chair of the task force to being Minister of State with responsibility for housing, which allowed her to bring forward the key proposals on accommodation. I had the privilege to bring the final proposals for legislation to Government.
I pay tribute also to former Senator Mary Kelly who, following Deputy McManus' elevation, took up the reins and chaired the latter stages of the task force's work with great effect.
The task force report maps out a blueprint for action in a range of areas. It spells out requirements in respect of accommodation, the specific issue addressed in the legislation before the House, in stark terms. Table D2 — Estimate of Accommodation Units required 1995 to 2000 — shows that 3,100 units of accommodation will be needed by the turn of the millennium. The figures provided show that, in 1995, 1,125 households were living on the roadside, 325 were living on temporary sites and, under the heading "General increase", 650 were either housed or living on permanent sites. The table also includes information pertaining to transient groups and indicates that a total of 3,100 families required accommodation in 1995. One of the problems the Government will face is the provision of such accommodation.
Governments have always held the view that resources would be made available where councils were willing to provide for the needs of travellers. However, the task force report indicates that extensive resources will be required to provide the units of accommodation to which I referred. For example, paragraph 2.2.4 states that the estimated cost of meeting the accommodation needs of the travelling community up to the year 2000 is £218 million in 1994 prices. Taking inflation into account that figure has probably risen to £250 million, which is a sizeable sum. Table D6 of the report provides a breakdown of the individual components of the £218 million.
If we are serious about implementing the provisions of the Bill and addressing the comprehensive accommodation needs of travellers between now and the year 2000 in a realistic way, expenditure of the order recommended by the task force must be provided. I am seeking an assurance from the Minister of State that this money will be provided and that we are not engaged in an academic exercise of merely highlighting the framework of need, stating how we intend to deal with it and hoping that resources will be provided in the timeframe outlined. Having served as Minister for the Environment, I realise that that scale of funding represents a considerable investment and I am aware that other pressures and demands will be placed on the Minister of State. However, I hope the publication and probable enactment of the Bill represents a clear and firm signal of the will of the Government — echoed by the will of the Dáil — that this expenditure should be made available. I remind Members that, at the outset of this process, I introduced a substantial increase in the capital provision for traveller accommodation from an outturn of £6.5 million in 1996 to £11 million in the original Estimate for 1997.
The details of the strategy include a number of key proposals such as the establishment of a traveller accommodation unit within the Department of the Environment and Local Government to oversee the strategic plan and national policy, the establishment of a traveller accommodation consultative group, which is vital to ensure that all partners in this endeavour can feel they are part of the process, and a range of legislative changes outlined by the Minister of State, the most important of which is the Bill before the House.
As the Minister of State indicated, despite the focus of recent times and the expenditure of a considerable sum of money, the number of travellers on the roadside has not been significantly reduced in the past five years. It was estimated five years ago that 1,180 families were living on the roadside. At the end of last year, despite the provision of accommodation for 849 traveller families in the past five years, 1,127 were estimated to be living on the roadside. Why is that? If that volume of accommodation is being provided, why is the net figure of travellers living on the roadside not being reduced? One of the reasons for this is the increase in the number of British based Irish travellers returning home. We must take account of that in framing plans to meet future needs.
A key element of the strategy is the requirement for local authorities to consult travellers in the preparation and adoption of the five year programmes to meet not only the existing need but also the projected need of their functional areas. Other speakers referred to the uneven performance of local authorities to date, a matter upon which we must reflect. The issue of meeting traveller accommodation needs cannot be left to those who are willing to grasp the nettle in their functional areas. Other local authorities are prepared to let them do this while taking no such initiative themselves. If we are to provide for the accommodation needs of travellers to a standard that is acceptable in modern Ireland, it is clear that local authorities must act in concert.
One of the great problems in the past was that those who considered it right to provide for traveller families resident in their areas believed they were merely attracting additional families because adjoining local authorities were taking no such action, which compounded the difficulties involved. There seemed to be a penalty on those who acted responsibly. There must be a clear national programme run by the Department of the Environment and Local Government. We know from our respective roles as legislators and as local authority members that, if we want to find one, there is always a good reason not to propose a halting site, a transient site or proper housing. Some local authorities have debated this issue for years while others which want to take an initiative feel undermined by that reluctance and attitude.
The Department of the Environment and Local Government will have the legal framework to ensure a comprehensive plan is established. There must be no laggards in that regard and it will be up to the Minister to ensure it is put in place.
With regard to the local consultative committees to be established under the Bill, it is important that tradition is respected. We all know there are areas where traveller families will not live for cultural reasons, which must be respected. Similarly, there are traditional areas where they have stopped for generations. This must also be respected. There must be a clear input of local knowledge and local traveller culture and the inclusion of this local consultative process is a critical element of the Bill.
We are concerned with the vindication of citizenship. There will be no citizenship for those not entitled to the rights every other citizen enjoys. That includes not only proper accommodation but also the right to expect the same health status as the average citizen, the same educational opportunities and access to places of entertainment and socialisation. These do not exist now. It is a crucial issue for us to resolve in the latter part of this millennium.
It must be a job for the centre and for the Minister ultimately to ensure the sum of all the individual plans meets the total need. It would be a ludicrous farce if they did not. Every local authority must play its part in taking its full obligations on board. If there are gaps it is for the Minister to intervene. He will have the power under this provision to tell local authorities, county councils and urban authorities they are not meeting the perceived need in their functional areas and they must do better.
Issues were brought to my attention from the raft of submissions which we all received, especially from travellers and traveller representative groups. I welcome the process of submission by interested parties to legislation. Like every Member of the House I read them with care and interest. Legislation should progress with inputs from all affected parties. I wish to bring a few of the concerns expressed to me to the attention of the Minister before dealing with them in greater detail on Committee Stage.
The issue of travellers as a distinct ethnic group with their own culture is very important. Many submissions wanted that properly recognised in the Bill by having the word "traveller" designated with a capital letter. The report of the task force on the travelling community has an interesting chapter devoted to the unique culture and language of the travelling community in Ireland. It deals with the existence of the language, even among Irish-American travellers who emigrated to America more than a century ago. They have more in common with travellers here than with the Irish-American community in the main. On page 76 of the report the task force recommends: "That the distinct culture and identify of the Traveller community be recognised and taken into account." I ask the Minister to implement this recommendation by replacing "traveller" with "Traveller" in the Bill and to determine that there is a unique culture that must be respected and reflected in legislation.
I listened to the comments of Deputy Currie, whose views I respect. He touched on a very difficult issue for us. When we deal with cultural diversity does that mean we need to accept norms of behaviour that would not be acceptable in a different culture, such as our own? That is very hard to address when dealing, for example, with the treatment of children and women. While I have no great experience of especially bad treatment of women and children by travellers, there are exceptions. For example, the notion of travellers putting children on the side of the road to beg is worrying and difficult for us all. It should not be accepted as a cultural issue. The rights of children transcend those kinds of issues. They have a right to be protected.
Equally, the health status of travellers, touched on by Deputy Currie, is profoundly worrying. As Minister for Health in 1994 I published the national health strategy, Shaping a Healthier Future. All our analyses on the health profiles of the population as a whole showed travellers to have the worst health status by a huge margin. That is reflected in the task force report on the travelling community. In section E, page 135, paragraph 2.3, it outlines vital statistics of travelling people. In 1987 the general fertility rate for travellers was 164.2 per thousand compared with 70.1 per thousand for the settled community. The infant mortality rate for travellers in 1987 was 18.1 per 1,000 live births compared to the national figure of 7.4. This is more than twice the infant mortality rate of the norm and is closer to a third world than a developed world rate. The report found that male travellers have over twice the risk of dying in a given year than settled males, a profoundly disturbing statistic, whereas traveller women have a threefold greater risk of dying than the average woman in Ireland in any given year. Finally, travellers are only now reaching the life expectancy that settled Irish people achieved in the 1940s. These are horrendous facts which we as a society have a responsibility to address. A critical component in addressing and resolving health difficulties is proper accommodation and sanitation. That is what this Bill is primarily about.
The travelling community is anxious to seek clarity in the content of the accommodation programme which should specify the implementation arrangements proposed by local authorities. The programme should be an itemised, detailed one which would set out the number of specific sites for long — term living, transient travellers and group housing schemes. It should also state what assistance will be made available to facilitate those buying houses for home ownership and the quantity of standard local authority houses that will be provided for travellers. Those matters should be spelt out in detail in the individual reports rather than there being a general aspiration to provide for X number of travellers in a global sense.
There is also a need to strengthen the role of the national consultative committee to include the right to advise the Minister to use his powers under section 18(2) which requires a local authority to amend or replace an inadequate or unsuitable accommodation programme. It is important that the national consultative committee should have real clout to advise the Minister that where there is an acute problem he should take action under section 18(2) to advise and instruct a local authority to replace an inadequate programme with a proper one.
The traveller movement has requested that the balance of membership of the local consultative committees should be changed to ensure that travellers or traveller representatives make up one third rather than one quarter of the members. That is a reasonable request and I will table an amendment to that effect on Committee Stage. I invite the Minister to reflect on that.
Concern was also expressed at the length of time some travellers have been on sites with socalled limited facilities. Some such temporary and, by definition, inadequate facilities have accommodated travellers for up to 18 years. We should deal specifically with that matter in this legislation to ensure it will not be an ongoing issue. The traveller movement reasonably believes there should be a statutory limit on the number of families to be accommodated on each site that has limited facilities. I will table an amendment on Committee Stage to deal with those two issues.
Under section 28 the definition of sites with limited facilities is extraordinarily basic. Sites with limited facilities means just that. The definition states that sites with limited facilities means sites which, having regard to the temporary nature of such sites or the short duration of periods of use — which can be up to 18 years — have sufficient water, facilities for solid and liquid waste disposal and hard surface parking for caravans. They are hardly an extensive range of facilities that any one of us or our families would like to endure for very long. Perhaps the Minister would reconsider that definition because it is too limited and too basic.
All the submissions I received from the traveller movement expressed grave concern at the implications of section 31. I support that section because it is an important part of the Bill, but we need some explanation of it. I am happy to respond to the representations I received. That section could benefit travellers because it would ensure the easier establishment of halting sites when there is a clear provision to ensure that there would not be unauthorised encampment around or near them.
I strongly support the view of the Minister of State that he would like the voluntary housing sector to have a greater role in the provision of accommodation for travellers. The voluntary sector is extremely important and it probably could play an even greater role than the local authorities because it could do things they cannot do in this regard. I encourage the Minister to develop that good idea.
The proper management of sites is critical. In recent times we have had experience of estate management and we brought about some improvements, particularly in estate management in the voluntary housing sector. A scheme was introduced to provide financial assistance for the management of halting sites, but it is a very small step and we have a long way to go. Well managed halting sites will sell themselves. This is an issue on which the Minister must be very proactive in addressing. I underscore that as a critical component of this Bill.
We will have an opportunity to go through the Bill line by line in the select committee. I welcome this extremely important legislation and I hope that the necessary resources will be put in place to ensure it will comprehensively address in the next few years an issue that has been a social disgrace for generations.