Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Traveller Accommodation

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to listen to what I have to say. We get report after report, but the report prepared by the Traveller community analysing all sites and group housing schemes in County Galway and Galway city is absolutely devastating. It is so clear and the pictures paint a thousand words. Many Travellers in Galway are living in Third World conditions on sites provided publicly that are not maintained, at least one of which does not have planning permission and is totally overcrowded to the point where it contravenes the law. We know what happened in Dublin in similar circumstances. I despair at the inability of Galway City Council to deal with this issue. I support the Traveller community's call for a complete overhaul of the Traveller accommodation planning system. Looking for Part 8 developments and trying to work through the current system have failed to deliver year in, year out. There is, therefore, a need for a specialist agency independent of the local authority or that at the very least we would move away from councillors in voting through planning permission for Traveller-specific accommodation. All such planning applications should be put through An Bord Pleánna, at least in the short term. This has become a country of reports, thinking reports, laws or big statements will solve problems. The local Traveller accommodation consultative committees produce a lot of paper but very few results. Put bluntly, there is not the political will to deal with the issue.

The figures which indicate how Travellers live are absolutely devastating. In 2016 some 7,000 Travellers, or almost one in four, were either sharing houses or bays on unauthorised halting sites in 2016. In Galway a disproportionate number of the homeless are Travellers, through no fault of their own. They are the finest people who come to see me every week and they are homeless because we are not providing accommodation for them. There was a ridiculous situation in the summer of 2017 when Galway City Council threatened to evict Travellers from the Cooltra halting site because it was overcrowded, yet it had nowhere for them to go. It was either move to somewhere illegal or stay where they were; it was a choice that involved moving from the frying pan into the fire. There are many more specific examples. One I have often quoted is the halting site in Carrowbrowne. I fought and worked hard to have it seen as a temporary expedient measure because the Travellers were living on the side of the road. It was only meant to be a temporary halting site. Planning permission was given for a period of three years was given and then one year by An Bord Pleánna which scarified Galway City Council. Notwithstanding this, to my knowledge, the Travellers have not been taken to court by the council in the jurisdiction of which the facility is in total breach of planning laws, nor have plans been made to provide suitable long-term accommodation for the Traveller families who deserve a lot better than being placed beside a redundant dump.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue and bringing attention to it. I also thank him for his openness to bringing about change and putting the focus on the provision of Traveller-specific accommodation, something which is not happening in many places and Galway is probably the best example. The report summarises and highlights the position as well as can be done. The Deputy knows that I have visited several sites and that I am aware of the difficulties with overcrowding. He referred described them as Third World conditions, but they are certainly deplorable. It is not good enough and not acceptable. Somehow the issue must be addressed and the position changed. I have been provided with a copy of the report produced by the Galway Traveller Movement into which it put a great deal of work. I genuinely want to see progress. This problem has been ongoing for many years and we need to move things on. I was pleased to have the opportunity to open the Irish Traveller Movement's annual conference last November and speak to Travellers in Galway and other parts of the country to hear their accounts of their accommodation issues at first hand. I have also witnessed at first hand some family situations, having visited a number of Traveller sites since taking up my role in the Department. The Deputy is correct - conditions are not acceptable. It is as simple as that and there is no way to sugar coat it.

I am deeply aware of the challenges facing Travellers and local authorities in the provision of safe, culturally appropriate housing options for families, not just in Galway but also throughout the country. Some local authorities do take their responsibilities seriously and want to move on the issue, but others are lagging behind. The system is failing. There is no other way to put it.

It should be noted that, in accordance with the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998, housing authorities have statutory responsibility for the assessment of the accommodation needs of Travellers and the preparation, adoption and implementation of multi-annual Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs, in their areas. Local authorities are currently preparing their fifth multi-annual TAPs, which will run from 2019 to 2024. These will outline details of the programmes to be undertaken to meet the existing and projected accommodation needs of Travellers in their areas and the responsibilities of local authorities to deliver. The TAPs will be prepared by the local authorities in consultation with local Traveller organisations, the local Traveller accommodation consultative committees, LTACCs, other relevant community groups and the public in general.

The TAPs will come into effect from September this year. It was felt that it would make sense to introduce them in conjunction with the new councils so that there would be ownership of the programmes, instead of finalising them before the local elections only for nothing to happen thereafter. Notwithstanding this, identifying solutions to challenges in the provision of Traveller accommodation generally is a responsibility shared by all stakeholders. It has to be taken seriously. In line with the commitment in Rebuilding Ireland, and reflecting the disappointing level of overall funding drawdown in recent years, and having regard to relevant findings in relation to the European Social Charter which was referred to, the Housing Agency commissioned a review of funding for Traveller-specific accommodation in 2017. This review had regard to the targets contained in local authority TAPs and actual delivery. Less than 80% has been delivered over the past 20 years and in some years it has been less than 60%, while last year it was less than 50%. It is not where it should be but the money has been provided - it is just not being spent. The budget has gone up to where it should be, having suffered cuts previously.

Following its consideration of the review, the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee recommended to me that an independent expert group be established to examine and make recommendations on issues regarding Traveller accommodation policy, strategy and implementation. I accept that the Deputy does not like reports and this is another report but the consultative committee wanted this and it is designed to move things on. It has taken much longer than it should have done but it was established in September and held its first meeting in October 2018. I have asked the group to report to me as quickly as it possibly can with its review and its recommendations. It has been asked to review the effectiveness, implementation and operation of the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998, with a view to examining whether it provides a robust legislative basis for meeting the current and future accommodation needs of the Traveller community. It has also been asked to review other legislation that may impact on the provision and delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation, including transient accommodation, which will address a number of the issues raised by the European Committee on Social Rights and individuals in Galway, Cork and other places.

I expect that the group will provide my Department with a report in April this year. I have asked the group to make whatever recommendations it thinks are needed. It has been given no instructions to come back to me with small changes. I want it to recommend whatever it takes to fix this, once and for all. I ask for political co-operation to help us do this. The housing committee has met the expert panel and has bought into the process. I share the Deputy's frustration at what has happened in the system for the past number of years.

We have also set up a new task force for overall housing provision in Galway city and county, which includes Traveller accommodation. We are trying to drive activity because the targets are being missed by a long way. We are determined to address this as best we possibly can.

I know the Minister's heart is in the right place but it is all reports, words and more words. The system always creates another report, another examination, another consultation before we take action. In Galway city, it is game, set and match to the status quo, which is to do nothing. The Part VIII developments are not going through. We can have all the reports we want but nothing is happening. The Minister knows that time flies in the job he is in. He has only one short window of opportunity to get something done but he just gets another report and there is no action.

There are 15 families living on the Carrowbrowne temporary halting site on the Headford Road in Galway. The 30 adults and 36 children have been living on the site since 2009, when three-year planning, temporary, was given. The 15 families have stated a need for Traveller-specific, culturally appropriate accommodation but Galway City Council has not been able to meet this need and it applied for an extension of the planning permission on this site in 2012. In December 2013, An Bord Pleanála gave the council one year but it ran out in December 2014. The council did not even try. In the ten years in which these people have been living on the site, which was given as an expedient measure in a crisis, the council has not tried to get proper, long-term, suitable, high-quality accommodation.

The accommodation issues include rats, mice and fly infestation. This cannot be blamed on the Travellers but must be blamed on the fact that the site is a disused dump. Rats have been found in belongings and in sinks, showers, food presses and other areas. Flies are constant for the same reason. It is beside a recycling facility and windows and doors cannot be opened, while there are also sewage and sanitation issues. Pipes for sinks, showers, toilets and washing machines are constantly blocked up and water and sewage comes up over the ground and through the bays. The electricity is erratic and it goes off at times, leaving families without power. There are structural hazards and the sheds that have been provided are a health hazard as they are falling apart, while there are holes and cracks in the ceilings and walls. Windows are broken, as are the locks on the doors, which are steel doors like in a prison. It is more a case for Ireland Aid than what should be available in a First World country and it is replicated in various places.

We need action now and one simple thing needs to be done. We need some way of getting the planning applications through to provide the alternative accommodation. People have a human right to live in decent conditions.

It is clear that we have needed action for a great many years. I have been on some of these sites and they have been troubled spots for 20 or 30 years but I can only act within the law that is there.

The Minister can change it.

The legislation was introduced in good faith in 1998. In conjunction with the various Traveller representative bodies, I was asked to set up this expert group to bring about recommendations to change the system, once and for all. Proposals have been put in place and I am determined that when we get the report, we will act on it but we have to wait until we get it. The report will bring many stakeholders on board and we have had cross-party support for it from the housing committee. I hope that I, or whoever is in my job in the future, will implement the changes it recommends because we need to address the issue. There is only one way to do it and that is by going through the channels we have chosen. We need to bring everybody with us. I am not holding one particular sector responsible for this but it has not happened for a long time.

We have set up a task force specifically for Galway, under the chairmanship of Geraldine Tallon who has brought about great change and had great success working with the two local authorities in Cork. I am hoping this will also drive success in Galway so that we can get more of the money spent to improve the conditions of people living there and provide new accommodation.

Industrial Disputes

I am disappointed the Minister is not here, considering the importance of the issue. I apologise on behalf of Deputy Thomas Pringle, who had a commitment elsewhere at 7 p.m. and had expected the Topical Issue debate to be at around 11 p.m.

This is the third day of a strike by the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, which comprises ambulance drivers and paramedics. There will be a fourth day tomorrow. Since the mid-1990s, ambulance workers have campaigned for the freedom to join the union of their choice. They joined IMPACT in the 1990s but, because IMPACT did not historically represent health workers, IMPACT could not take them. They then set up NASRA and went into negotiations with the PNA, which does represent health workers.

The PNA's 6,000 members voted and agreed to accept them in 2010. The NASRA union deductions had been facilitated by the HSE to a point when the executive decided not to facilitate the union deductions in January 2018 for new members and August 2018 for all members. Approximately 350 ambulance personnel were affected by the stopping of this deduction and another 180 had filled out forms to join but could not do so because of the decision taken in January 2018. There were also 80 students who wanted to join NASRA. This leaves a total of approximately 610 of 1,380 ambulance drivers in the HSE who wanted to join the union.

These workers have been denied the fundamental right to join a union. This is not a breakaway union, as has been argued, and the PNA has negotiated for and represented members in the health service for 49 years. The NASRA branch of the PNA has represented members at the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court but the HSE has refused to engage with the union on grievance procedures and investigations. For example, representatives have been told they can attend meetings as colleagues but they cannot speak. I have never met a group of workers who need union representation more in the workplace. Their conditions and pay are atrocious. After 11 years of increments they are on €36,000, and they start on approximately €24,000. I do not know if the Minister of State or the Minister has seen the HSE national staff survey from 2016, with another one produced during the week for 2018. It contains a question as to whether an employee has experienced bullying or harassment in an organisation in the past two years; 48% of workers in the National Ambulance Service, NAS, said they had but this increased in the two years to 68% in 2018. It is absolutely scandalous.

I could reel off another few points but maybe other Deputies will raise them. This must be negotiated and fixed. We had a meeting yesterday in the AV room and a cross-party delegation wants to meet the Minister for Health to discuss the matter.

Members may remember that in the late 1990s on behalf of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, I brought forward the first trade union recognition Bill to the House. That was in the early part of the struggle to win trade union recognition for SIPTU baggage handlers who worked for Ryanair. So it seems incongruous tonight, so many years later, that we should need to have this debate regarding the negotiation rights of a significant cohort of key public service workers, the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, which is a branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA.

As my colleague said, for the HSE to present this dispute as a breakaway union issue is not remotely tenable as the PNA has negotiated for and represented its members in the health service for almost 50 years. From 2010, the membership of NASRA has continued to grow and this union branch has represented its members on different issues at the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court. The Oireachtas had an excellent briefing yesterday from NASRA, which was organised by my colleagues, Deputies Joan Collins and Pringle. The HSE simply refuses to negotiate with this union branch about members’ very serious grievances and work conditions, as mentioned by my colleague. I note also that since 2010, NASRA union subscriptions were deducted by HSE from members' salaries but in January 2018 the HSE stopped these deductions at source for new members. Last August, the HSE ceased deducting union subscriptions from all NASRA members.

It is deplorable that the PNA and NASRA have had to resort to the current 12-hour stoppages today and tomorrow to secure their right to trade union recognition and negotiating rights. We are in the third and fourth days of industrial action on this matter and all Deputies believe this could be swiftly and easily resolved by the HSE with the encouragement of the Minister of State. I urge the Minister and the HSE to abandon their approach and immediately negotiate with the PNA and NASRA and work closely with the branch and the PNA to advance all the very serious problems felt by ambulance staff that my colleague referred to.

I will ask the Minister of State a question and I would like a "Yes" or "No" answer. Has she read the HSE national staff survey for 2018? If she has, is she aware of the shocking figures it produces for the National Ambulance Service? Is she aware that almost 69% of staff surveyed in the ambulance service said they had experienced bullying or harassment in the past two years and that 51% personally experienced discrimination at work? A mere 8% said they felt valued and recognised in their job, with 6% expressing satisfaction with their level of pay. What does that tell the Minister of State about our ambulance service?

It tells the tale of a service that is very understaffed and short on ambulances, with perhaps 600 staff and 300 ambulances. There has now been an attempt to fill the gap by organising a quasi-military command structure in the ambulance service, where managers apply the lash to paramedics or emergency medical technicians who are overworked, overstretched and underpaid. These workers provide a vital service and are being denied their rights but they are not going to go away. Has the Minister of State read that report? How can she stand over the denial of the rights of more than 500 workers in our National Ambulance Service to be represented by the trade union of their choice?

The right to trade union representation is fundamental and workers should be able to exercise choice as to which trade union they can join. Having made that choice, they should be able to confidently expect that their representatives in a trade union would be accorded proper recognition and respect by being engaged with by members' employers. That this is not always the case is a shameful reflection on some employers. That it is the case where the State and its agencies are concerned is absolutely disgraceful.

I join Dáil colleagues in calling on this Government to immediately set in train the required steps to afford the PNA and its NASRA branch their due entitlement to full recognition as a properly accredited representative body for the very significant number of ambulance personnel who are members of the PNA NASRA branch. Today has seen the third day of strike action by ambulance personnel, who are highly trained and respected members of our health service's emergency provision. Tomorrow will be yet another day of strike action and more will follow if this matter is not appropriately addressed. That the HSE meets other trade union organisations covering a range of service employees and in separate engagements but will not meet representatives of the PNA on issues except those relating to the psychiatric nursing sector indicates a double standard that is wholly unacceptable.

This dispute can be resolved. As stated very clearly yesterday by the PNA representatives, they remain available to take up the genuine invitation of the Workplace Relations Commission to work to a solution using the established disputes mechanism to avoid further and escalating strike action. Surely we can agree that this is the result we want to reach.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, I apologise to all the Deputies for his not being here for this debate on such an important matter. Industrial action was taken today, Thursday, 28 February, between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. by a branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association called the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA. The HSE has been advised that NASRA members will again engage in industrial action tomorrow, Friday, 1 March, between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Members of NASRA represent approximately 350 front-line ambulance personnel from a total National Ambulance Service workforce of 1,800.

I understand that most are based in Cork, the south east and Tullamore. The HSE and the National Ambulance Service have confirmed that, again, robust contingency planning will be in place to ensure that there is no risk to the health and safety of our health service users despite this escalation in action. Of course, this escalation by the union to two consecutive days of industrial dispute will be an increased challenge. The HSE has also confirmed that full emergency cover will be provided during the action. This means that all emergency calls will be responded to.

In addition, the National Ambulance Service has put robust contingency arrangements in place to provide additional emergency cover. The Defence Forces are also on stand-by, if required. The intention is to minimise any disruption and to ensure that patient safety is not compromised. Similar to the last day of industrial action, National Ambulance Service management will closely monitor service demand and delivery on the days of the industrial action. The National Ambulance Service has confirmed that there was no negative impact on the ability of the service to provide patient care and service delivery during the last date of industrial action. So far, during this current day of action, there have been no adverse incidents.

I think it is important to again state the factual position regarding this dispute. NASRA, which is affiliated to the PNA, is not recognised by the HSE and, therefore, does not have negotiating rights. Also, the PNA does not have negotiating rights in respect of ambulance personnel. The legal position is very clear. The HSE and the National Ambulance Service have no obligation to recognise NASRA or the PNA in the context of ambulance personnel. The PNA, which is a non-ICTU affiliated union, does have negotiating rights for nurses working in psychiatry and intellectual disability sectors.

The main union that is recognised by the HSE for ambulance front-line grades is SIPTU. Fórsa and Unite also represent ambulance grades. The HSE deducts subscriptions at source for those ambulance staff who are members of SIPTU, Fórsa and Unite. This is consistent with the fact that these are the unions that are recognised as representing ambulance grades. The HSE does not carry out deductions for subscriptions to NASRA as it is not recognised. It should be noted that facilitating deductions at source is not a legal right, rather it is a concession granted to recognised unions. Of course, individuals have a right to membership of any trade union. However, they do not have a right that such membership is facilitated or recognised by their employer. The Minister has asked the officials to engage with HSE management to explore ways forward and see if a resolution to this dispute can be progressed. These discussions are ongoing.

Any recognition of the PNA with regard to ambulance personnel could have a serious detrimental effect to the current state of industrial relations in the health sector. This is a complicated situation and it has to be managed very delicately. However, as of today, the fact remains that the PNA does not have negotiating rights for ambulance grades. I will respond to some of the questions raised by the Deputies.

Has the Minister of State read the results of the health sector national staff survey? This question was already asked by one of the Deputies and I also asked it. In 2016, in response to a question about whether respondents had experienced bullying or harassment in their organisation in the past two years, 48% of ambulance workers said "Yes". In response to a question about whether they had witnessed bullying or harassment in the past two years, 68% said "Yes". In response to a question about whether they had been subject to either verbal or physical assault in their organisation in the past two years, 51% said "Yes". A so-called staff engagement forum was set up. What did we see after two years? In response to a question about whether respondents had experienced bullying or harassment in their organisation, up to 69% said "Yes". Up to 70% said they had witnessed bullying and harassment and while 73% said they had been subject that they had been subject to verbal or physical assault. This is a dire situation for workers to be in and they need to be represented by a union. I asked the Minister of State whether she would ask the Minister to meet a cross-party grouping in respect of this issue in order to move it on as much as possible. These workers have a right to freedom of choice regarding which union they join. Complications and Chinese walls are being put up regarding these workers. They are professionals. There have been no major incidents because they are leaving the picket line, getting into ambulances and driving to critical incidents in order to ensure that people are not left on the road or in any danger. These are professional people who should be recognised and respected.

The Minister of State mentioned a total of 1,800 highly-trained staff. However, the issue here is that the 350 workers to which also she referred have an absolute right to have their trade union represent them. To date, the simple fact is that the HSE has refused to accept the invitation to the Workplace Relations Commission for talks aimed at resolving this matter. What role can the Minister and Minister of State play in encouraging the HSE to get directly involved in bringing about a resolution? Several of my colleagues referred to the health sector national staff survey for 2018. The survey results make disturbing reading detailing as they do the kind of pressures these staff members are under. We were informed at the briefing last week that staffing levels are dangerously low in areas such as the north east, where 22 people were rostered but just ten were available. A paramedic who worked as a psychiatric nurse for 20 years told us that the target is that an ambulance is dispatched within 90 seconds of dialling 999 but that the caller is not told where the ambulance will be dispatched from so many issues need to be addressed. The PNA has said that it is open to going to the Workplace Relations Commission with the HSE. Members just want to have their choice of trade union, improve their working lives and provide the best possible service to the public. The Minister of State can enable that and I urge her to do so.

I asked the Minister of State whether she had read the survey. She came in here, read a script and did not answer the question so I invite her to answer it when she replies. Has she read the survey? She stated that the Government must manage the situation delicately. The Government has managed it so delicately that it has managed to become the first Government in the history of the State to preside over a national ambulance strike. Tomorrow, we face the fourth day of national strike action. In such circumstances, the Minister of State should not think that the Government's delicacy has got us very far in that regard. She said that this union cannot be recognised because three unions are already represented. She mentioned SIPTU, Fórsa and Unite. Is she aware that the membership of the PNA in the ambulance service is greater than the membership of Fórsa and Unite combined? She mentioned a figure of 350. The real figure is more than 500 but even if we took the figure of 350, it is probably more than double the membership of those two unions put together. It would be very close to that in any case so that is an excuse and the Minister of State is not going to hide behind that.

Tomorrow is the fourth day of strike action. These workers and their issues are not going away. The workers will keep fighting and campaigning until such time as their union is recognised and people sit down and talk to them. Is the Minister of State prepared to give any commitment tonight that the Government is prepared to do that or will she force these workers out on strike again?

The Minister of State's prepared script, as it has already been described, is absolutely unacceptable. It contains an acknowledgement of the right to membership of a trade union yet the Minister of State indicated that this membership does not give rise to any right to recognition by the employer. It is difficult to believe that she is seeking to justify the failure of some to recognise the right to free collective bargaining, due recognition and membership of a trade union. This is the State, it is the Government. Surely what has been stated must give great comfort to those who wish to ride roughshod over the rights and interests of the many workers across this land. The sentence to the effect that any recognition of the PNA with regard to ambulance personnel could have a serious detrimental effect on industrial relations in the health sector needs to be expanded on and explained.

What are we talking about? Is it the case that the Minister is not prepared to instruct the HSE, as he should do, to recognise the PNA and its NASRA branch as a representative body for the ambulance personnel who are members of that branch, and that there are perhaps other influences or pressures that would prevent that action happening? That is a very serious situation and that is what is implicit in this document the Minister of State has read into the record. It is incumbent on the other named entities to clarify their position. When I stood with the PNA NASRA branch workers on their strike on 15 February, I was very encouraged by the fact they had colleagues from SIPTU there with them, shoulder to shoulder, workers together.

What I read was the script I was given. To answer Deputy Barry's questions, I have not read it, like I have not read a lot of the documents that are sitting on my table. I gradually go through them as best I can. I have not read it and I will not say here that I read something I did not read.

The Minister of State should read it.

I have two copies. I can leave them with her.

I will read it. I will take it on advice from Deputies Barry and Collins and I will read it. I do not need to be lectured.

Deputy Collins asked that I would ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, to consider a cross-party meeting and I will do that tomorrow. I take on board the points raised around the HSE, understaffing and whether people have a right to join the trade union of their choice.

The Minister, Deputy Harris, has expressed his disappointment that the PNA has decided to take this industrial action. The Department of Health and the HSE are exploring options to sort out this strike.

They would need to explore them fairly quick.

I do not know if I can say much more than that. The Minister, Deputy Harris, is keen to see the end of this dispute. As I said, officials from the Department of Health met representatives of the HSE and the management of the national service to explore possible options for the strike to be called off. However, the Minister remains confident that a solution can be found. It is incumbent on me to say that. There is always room for solutions and we should be able to negotiate and to sit with people and talk to them.

That is the point. They should be able-----

I am not going to be brought in here to read a statement and then be abused by Deputy Barry or anybody else as to whether I read a document or not.

It is the ambulance paramedics who are being abused.

I want to make it clear to Deputy Barry that I have not read it and I am not going to lie and say I did. However, I will look at it and inform myself. Prior to taking this Topical Issue matter, I had not read it and I am making that clear to the Deputy. I could not answer the Deputy in the opening statement because it was not part of the opening statement. I answered him in my reply. I hope he takes that fact on board. He now knows I have not read it.