The second session of our meeting today is on the topic of the report of the expert group on Traveller accommodation. Once again, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, and the officials who have joined him to take part in this meeting.
Report of the Expert Group on Traveller Accommodation: Discussion
I thank the Chair for having us here. I welcome Ms Mary Hurley, Ms Ann Gill and Ms Rosemarie Tobin from my Department. With the permission of the Chair, and if it is okay with everybody, my officials would be happy to engage in questions and answers along with myself.
I thank the Chair and members for the opportunity to appear again before the committee to give an update on the Traveller accommodation expert review report and the progress made towards considering and implementing the recommendations contained within. This report has been published on my Department’s website. Addressing the issue of Traveller accommodation is a priority for me, for the Government and for my Department. I am very conscious that it is also a priority of members present. We have had a great deal of conversation and ongoing discussion on this subject over the past 12 months as we awaited this report. I thank members for their interest and efforts in this area. I look forward to having a positive working relationship in the months ahead as we implement the recommendations. I have had a chance to discuss these recommendations with some members. Perhaps the Department will also be able to engage on the subject of the recommendations and the proposed changes over the next month or two as we formalise and finalise our decisions. If members are happy to do so, we are happy to have these discussions in an informal setting in our Department as we finish our work.
The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 provides that local 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 in their areas. My Department’s role is to ensure that there are adequate structures and supports in place to assist the authorities in providing such accommodation, including a national framework of policy, legislation and funding.
The challenges encountered in the delivery of Traveller accommodation have been widely acknowledged by Traveller representatives, local authorities, Departments, the EU and the UN. I am conscious that this committee has also done significant work in this area. The completion of this review and the delivery of this report is a significant step in identifying the best ways to address these challenges.
I express my sincere thanks to Mr. David Joyce, Professor Michelle Norris, and Dr. Conor Norton for their participation in the Traveller accommodation expert group and acknowledge the time, expertise and commitment they dedicated to the review. I also thank them for delivering the subsequent report and recommendations and for their engagement with the committee and with the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee, NTACC. The group has done a lot of good work. Mr. David Joyce has moved on and could not attend for some of the presentations but his work was invaluable, as was that of Professor Norris and Dr. Norton.
A dedicated capital budget is in place to fund the delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation such as group housing and halting sites for Traveller families. The budget also provides funding for renovation and refurbishment work to improve the standard of existing accommodation. The budget available for Traveller-specific accommodation in 2019 is €13 million. This will be increased to €14.5 million for 2020. My priority is to ensure that full use is made of the increasing level of funding available for investment in Traveller accommodation. Although the increase for 2020 is not a lot in the context of what we need to spend over the coming years, it is still an additional €1.5 million. Until these recommendations are implemented and until we can prove that this money can be spent, it is difficult to argue for increased resources. My officials and I are prepared and happy to source the extra money required when we can prove that we can make progress in this regard and start spending money in the many areas in which it is needed. I hope members will understand that our aim is to achieve good planning and construction outcomes and to get resources drawn down and spent because there is a serious need for resources to be invested in Traveller-specific accommodation.
It is important to note that accommodation for Traveller households is provided across a range of housing options, including standard local authority housing, private housing assisted by local authority or voluntary bodies, and private rented accommodation, as well as Traveller-specific accommodation. Travellers may express a preference across the range of accommodation types at any stage when applying for social housing supports through the social housing needs assessment process. This process provides additional accommodation options to Traveller families to meet their culturally appropriate needs such as halting site bays and Traveller group housing. There is little doubt that delivery on capital programmes in recent years has been disappointing and I am determined to address the reasons for this and implement those solutions on which we can agree.
The 32 recommendations made by the expert group to accelerate the delivery of Traveller accommodation are comprehensive and wide ranging and include proposals aimed at addressing research deficiencies, including in how information is gathered and used; removing any potential delays and obstacles in the planning system with regard to delivery; increasing resources and delivery capacity; and strengthening governance arrangements. In the context of the 32 recommendations, my Department is now liaising with key stakeholders on issues arising. Both Ms Gill and Ms Tobin have been quite busy over recent months trying to engage with all the different stakeholders and staff in different sections of our own Department to try to get a sense of everyone's position so that we can build consensus on these recommendations and move them on as quickly as we possibly can.
It should be noted that the expert group’s report has also been shared with the NTACC and members of the committee are considering the report. Members of the NTACC have provided submissions to my Department, which are also being considered. Some of these are preliminary submissions. All further submissions from the NTACC and other interested parties including other Departments will be considered. We have asked that such submissions be made quite quickly. We do not need to wait too long. Groups have given their initial thoughts but we have asked them to go a little bit deeper. I am prepared to meet them if we need to tease through different bits and pieces in the weeks ahead.
My Department has been able to progress a small number of short-term recommendations. For example, a review has been concluded of the arrangements for disbursing funding for the provision and refurbishment of Traveller-specific accommodation and a new process is proposed which we aim to have in place by the start of next year. This comes under capacity recommendation 2. However, due to the number of stakeholders, the input required and the wide-ranging impacts of most of the recommendations in the report, my Department will set up a programme of projects to progress agreed recommendations.
In order to determine how each item will be progressed, we have adopted the following phased approach to the implementation, starting with phase 1, the information gathering phase. My Department is currently in this phase and, as stated, Ms Gill and Ms Tobin have done a fair bit of work on this. Stakeholders have been given the opportunity to provide their comments on the report and input has been requested from other Departments. So far, submissions have been received from: the County and City Management Association, CCMA; the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG; CENA, which is the Traveller approved housing body, AHB; Wexford County Council and; the Department of Justice and Equality. There is ongoing engagement with the planning team in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government as well. There is a mix of views there so we hope to bring that to conclusion in the weeks ahead. A brief joint submission was also received from the three Traveller organisations represented on the NTACC, namely; the Irish Traveller Movement, ITM; Pavee Point and; the National Traveller Women’s Forum. NTWFM. These groups have indicated they will provide a more detailed joint submission shortly. Ms Gill said that has been requested for as soon as possible. The recommendations have been subdivided to allow my Department to form subject matter expert groups and to group by actions required. These working groups have been set up to carefully consider all submissions and determine how best to progress the recommendations. For example, a number of recommendations involve the review and amendment of the social housing needs assessment and I am conscious that matter was raised in this committee a few weeks ago.
Officials from the policy division and the Traveller accommodation support unit in the Department met to discuss this matter and will shortly be providing me with a submission on this and on how best to progress it. Separately, groups have been set up to consider the planning recommendations. The Department has grouped the first three planning recommendations together because they all involve changes to how a proposal for Traveller accommodation moves through the approval process or, in some cases, how such proposals have not moved through the approval process. A separate group has been set up to look at aligning the Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs, with the local area development plans and seeing how best to manage and work that. As I said earlier, there are ongoing meetings with our planning team. They met again yesterday to go through this. I hope to sit down them as well next week to try to finalise some of their thoughts on this. We have to take on their advice but naturally they will be working with us to implement these changes throughout the local authority system as well.
Phase 2 is the pre-project phase. The Department will shortly begin work on the pre-project phase which will enable the project to move forward to the implementation phase. In this phase, a programme board will be set up and will have responsibility for agreeing which projects to take forward, the scope and timeframe of the projects and for overseeing the programme as the projects progress. The aim here to have one person in charge of the programme to drive it on and ensure that progress is being made because it is important to have somebody who is accountable, to manage it on a day-to-day basis and to have a mini board feeding into that decision-making process to make sure all the areas are covered because there are a lot of recommendations here. I will sit on the programme board, as will the NTACC and a senior official from my Department. In this phase, a programme manager will also be assigned. The programme manager will be responsible for centrally tracking the progress on all projects and reporting back to the programme board. I probably was not fair to it in my references to it in the Dáil. It is like a mini action plan. People might not always want to hear about more action plans but it is basically an effort to make sure we are tracking every decision we are making, that those decisions are not sitting on the shelf in some place but that we are implementing them and moving on. It is important someone is in charge of that job on a permanent basis. High-level project briefs will also be prepared in this phase, which my Department will then act on. This goes to show we are taking this seriously and we are bringing all the information together, with a view to moving projects along.
Phase 3 is the project initiation phase. Project teams will be formed, including the selection of project managers. The project initiation documents, including the detailed project plans, will be completed. This phase will take place early in 2020, hopefully January. The committee can be assured this Government is committed to accelerating and increasing the delivery of much-needed Traveller accommodation and the funding is in place to support this delivery. The recommendations in this report provide valuable guidance on how this may be achieved.
There are many recommendations in the report and I hope that we can work with the committee to agree on a consensus and bring them forward. In some of the submissions that have come in, there are different views on the recommendations and it is part of my job to try to work with the different stakeholders to get agreement and to get around the main recommendations so we can move forward because all of us agree we have to change how we are doing our business in this area. That is the aim of this report. By having the implementation board in place, every action and requirement will be assigned to somebody, we will track it and follow it and we will be able to answer to the committee on an ongoing basis, if that is okay with members. We will also keep other stakeholders who are interested updated. I thank the Chairman for his initial comments.
The Minister of State is welcome. I do not have any doubt about his personal determination with this issue but Traveller accommodation is probably the poorest relation when it comes to accommodation in general. I know there is a regular debate on the issue of asylum seekers and direct provision centres and while there are many challenges there, the single biggest challenge this country has is to provide appropriate and proper accommodation to Travellers because over the years, Governments negated their responsibilities towards the Traveller community. It was not just Governments; local authorities were allowed to abdicate their responsibilities as well. To be frank about it, every local authority in this country has an appalling record when it comes to accommodating Travellers. They have been let away with it by successive Governments and by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. The Government is starting from a low base but this is an emergency situation.
I welcome the recommendations of the committee and the plans to try to escalate the implementation of same. It annoys me to see Government approving money for Traveller accommodation and local authorities not drawing it down year in, year out. Some local authorities are better than others but by and large, local authorities do not draw down the money they have been allocated. I would like the Minister of State to elaborate on his thoughts on this. Some €13 million was allocated this year for TAPs. Of that, by the end of 2019, I contend that most local authorities will not have gone anywhere near drawing down what they have been allocated for Traveller accommodation.
On CEOs of local authorities using emergency powers to provide accommodation for Travellers, how often have those powers been used? I know of one example in County Clare where a CEO correctly used emergency powers for this in 2004. I have not seen any example of that since. Why are local authority CEOs not being pressurised by the Department to use the emergency powers under the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 to provide the necessary accommodation under their Traveller accommodation programmes? I find it astonishing. It is an emergency and we do not have time. Travellers are living in appalling conditions and they are becoming extraordinarily frustrated. Children are growing up in diabolical conditions. An increase of €1.5 million is welcome but the Minister of State must be frustrated that local authorities not living up to their responsibilities in providing accommodation and drawing down the funding provided by Government year in, year out.
I thank the Senator for his comments. That clarifies why we are here and why this has to be done. It is frustrating that money is not being spent. We can all see where the failings are happening across the country and where accommodation is of a poor standard or where there is no Traveller-specific accommodation. There have been plenty of ideas, plans and TAPs but they have not been followed through upon. That is what we are trying to change. We have raised this issue with all the local authorities at the various housing summits and I have even done so in my weekly meetings with them. I try to encourage them to do what they are meant to do, to live up to their responsibilities and to ensure that the resources are spent. We are still facing a situation this year where we will see resources go unspent.
The social housing task force has been set up in Galway as well. Its job is to try to tackle some of the specific issues in Galway but there are other counties that also have urgent priorities. Some local authorities have worked OK but the majority have not done so and they have not delivered for a combination of reasons. When I go from site to site and meet the various stakeholders, be they the local authorities, the Traveller representative families or groups, I learn that it has not happened for a combination of reasons. In any event, we need to move on from that, ensure that it happens in the future and deal with matters as best as we possibly can. There are some cases where the housing delivery office will have a role in the short-term to try to drive the spend in these areas and to make sure the money that has been allocated will be spent in the short-term while we look at setting up some of the new areas. We will ask the housing delivery office to do that as well.
The question of how to deal with some of the blockages is the key. The Senator asked me if emergency powers have been used. From what we can see, they have only been used three times in the past ten years. The Senator mentioned Clare but the examples I have are that CEOs have used emergency powers, twice in the case of Limerick City and County Council and once in the case of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
The Part 8 process has been used just 24 times across 11 local authorities. That speaks for itself. It has been recommended that we should encourage CEOs to make greater use of their emergency powers. It has been suggested that we should pressurise CEOs to do so. It is natural that CEOs do not want to have to do this. They would rather not do it because it goes against their own members. There is no reason we cannot encourage it, but we cannot make anyone do it. However, the use of this facility is nearly a failing in itself. We need to find a better way to proceed. That is what we are trying to do here. I accept the Senator's point that this is one of the recommendations. Ideally, we should find a way of dealing with this matter. The committee has discussed it. I will be happy to engage with the committee on the matter.
There are a couple of recommendations that we are discussing as we make plans. We are trying to decide how best to do this. Which way should we go? We have asked for legal advice to help us to understand which of the recommendations we can use. There have been some conversations about the desire within local authorities for them to keep their powers. Local democracy means that all decisions should be made as locally as possible. It has been recommended that we should make changes to cover cases in which that is not happening. That is what we are considering. We want to see which of these recommendations represents the best way to proceed. Is there some sort of compromise? Perhaps I should not use the word "compromise". Should we consider some sort of use-it-or-lose-it approach? If so, how best should that be done? We have to make these decisions in the next couple of weeks. We have to decide on the implementation of a new route.
I have two more questions. I understand the Minister of State's frustration. He is just one person. I know that he can drive change when he wants to do so. I accept that he wants to do so on this occasion. I appeal to public representatives not to object to social housing. There is a structure in place at local authority level. If that structure does not work or people are not satisfied with it, they can appeal to An Bord Pleanála. For good or bad, these structures are in place to facilitate the provision of social housing in this country. When Members of the Oireachtas and county councillors object to social housing, it does not help anyone. The concerns of residents can be articulated appropriately by making submissions and observations.
I am concerned about the role of the social housing agencies in providing accommodation to members of the Traveller community. These bodies receive hundreds of millions of euro in taxpayers' money and supports. By and large, they do a good job. They are necessary because the State has not done this job over the years. I am a traditionalist and I am of the view that local authorities should be building tens of thousands of social houses. We are not in that space, however. The social housing agency model is being pursued at the moment. Is the Minister of State satisfied that the social housing agencies are living up to their responsibility to provide houses to members of the Traveller community?
I am not satisfied that enough accommodation is being provided across the board. The bottom line is that it is not happening. We can start the blame game, or we can make changes and move on. That is what I am about.
We will engage with them all. Everybody has a responsibility in this regard. It is not happening as it should be.
Has the Minister of State set up-----
It is disappointing when objections are led by politicians and public representatives, regardless of what their background is or where they are from. It is a shame when there are objections to social housing, including Traveller-specific social housing projects. In my view, this should not happen. The objections of residents, regardless of whether they relate to an environmental issue or to social housing, are generally based on a perception of what might happen or a fear of a planning outcome. We have a duty to deal with the perception that exists with regard to Traveller-specific accommodation. I contend that the quality of initial design, of construction and of the management of these facilities is a key factor in this regard. We need to get buy-in from communities and bring them on board with us. There should not be any objections. There is no need for them. We need to deal in a positive way with the perception that has built up. This might involve bringing on board local authority members whose views might differ from mine and those of the Senator. If we can improve what we build in the first place and how we manage it, we will see that appropriate accommodation, which is built properly and includes all the services that are needed, is a key factor.
I thank the Minister of State.
I acknowledge the work that has been done on this issue by the Minister of State and his officials. We disagree with the Government in many respects and we criticise it when we feel the need to do so. However, it has the full and enthusiastic support of Sinn Féin in this instance. We fully support all 32 recommendations. We do so with a degree of discomfort in some cases. We cannot come up with a better way to address these issues than the way that has been recommended by the experts. Even though some of the recommendations go against the grain of our general policy thrust - I am thinking in particular of the issues of planning and land disposal, to which I will come in a moment - we will give the Government our full support in this case. In the absence of someone having a better set of proposals, these recommendations are all that are on the table. I assure the Minister of State of our support in respect of them.
I would like to express a certain degree of frustration because two and a half years have passed since the Housing Agency published the Michelle Norris report. This process has taken much longer than we all hoped. It is important to get into implementation quickly. While I respect the need for the Minister of State to listen to what people have to say about the best way to implement the report, I emphasise that we need to get on with implementing it. Most of the key players in this area will accept that point. Some previous Government action plans have not been that good. If we have a good action plan with clear timelines in this case, that would be welcome. This committee would like an opportunity to monitor such an action plan and to engage with the Minister of State and his officials on it on a regular basis. That would enable us to ascertain how much progress is being made and to give the Minister of State any support we can.
Many Opposition Deputies and Senators are not members of this committee and have not participated in our lengthy debates on this issue. I have spoken to the Minister of State about the need for him to engage directly with other Opposition parties to bring them through the dialogue we have had. I urge him to provide for such engagement as a way of ensuring their decisions on this matter are made with as much information as possible.
I would like to mention something else about which I am deeply concerned. As of October, 70% of this year's Traveller accommodation budget had not been spent. Fourteen local authorities had spent nothing and four local authorities had requested nothing. One of the local authorities in the latter category was Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, which covers the area where the Carrickmines tragedy took place. I cannot understand how any local authority, particularly a large local authority with a large Traveller community, can fail to request money or fail to spend money. It is beyond belief. I want to make a clear link between the failure of these local authorities to spend money and the growth in the number of Traveller families in unauthorised developments. Over the three years between 2016 and 2018, there was a significant increase in such developments. The Minister of State is familiar with this problem because we have discussed an illegal or unauthorised site in my local authority area. These living arrangements are bad for Traveller families and their children and for neighbouring settled communities. It is particularly bad to think that many of these cases are caused by local authorities sending back large sums of unspent money. The general public needs to understand that the root cause of unauthorised encampments is the failure of local authorities to spend the money they are given. It would be useful if people started putting pressure on local authorities to spend that money as a way of resolving this problem.
I have three specific questions about the matters at the heart of the report. First, even though all of the recommendations are good, the things that will make or break this initiative are the interaction between the proposed changes to the Part 8 planning permissions and the section 183 land disposals, the strengthened role of the national Traveller accommodation committee and the ability of that committee to have recourse to the regulator to force managers to act if they do not use these changed powers. The Minister of State can do everything else with all the data and all the governance - and that will be really helpful - but if the changes I have listed are not made, none of this will work and accommodation needs will not be addressed. I would like to hear the thinking of the Minister of State and his officials on these issues. At what point will the Minister of State be able to give us a timeline in this regard? The closer we get to the election, the more difficult matters will become. We need to move on that.
Second, the Minister of State has given us a great deal of detail about teams and all the rest of it. Will a single dedicated person in the Department be overseeing this process? If so, what level of seniority will that official have? That will be a key aspect of this work. As Ms Hurley very well knows, when someone is being sent in to butt heads with a county or city manager, it makes a difference if he or she is a principal officer or is at another grade. What level of seniority will this official have? Will this be his or her only job? Will he or she work on nothing but this for the initial period of implementation? Such a person would be able to drive this process. I accept that the Department is very busy with all of its other activities.
The third thing, which I have said to Ms Hurley before and referred to in some parliamentary questions, is that in addition to a quarterly report, the separate and very useful social housing construction pipeline report must include the Traveller new builds. Too much money has been spent on the refurbishments and not enough on new accommodation. The only way we can track that is if the social housing construction pipeline has a subsection in it every quarter that tells us what projects are in the pipeline and where they are at in the process. I cannot recommend that enough.
I will make some comments and Ms Tobin will come in then, if that is okay. I want to put on record and appreciate the support of Deputy Ó Broin, as spokesperson, and of his party for our efforts here, and from many others on the committee. I recognise that some of the recommendations do go against the grain of what many of us believe in respect of local decision-making and democracy. That is why there is not a final answer on it today for the Deputy because we want to spend the next number of weeks with our own planners. Apart from local authority elected members and their roles, local authority CEOs and so on, our own planning department has issues because the people there share the same belief as the Deputy about local decision-making when it comes to planning. We have national, local and regional plans and it is about getting that balance right.
The Deputy is asking when. I hope to be able to finalise our thinking on that in January. There are to be a number of meetings with our planning teams and there are different views in there, just as there are different views in this committee. It is a case of people being given the time to talk it through, work it out and come back with the changes in it and recommendations.
I said that we have asked the Attorney General for some legal advice on this also. My own view and sense of this is that there has to some game changer here on the whole planning end of it. I agree with the Deputy on that. I would have to see, apart from recommendations, legally what powers we would have and what can be done. I am of the belief that if we could try to work with local authorities to do this at as local a decision-making level as possible, that would be better, but that has been shown not to have worked so far. Our thinking is some blend of one more year, or something like that, to put plans in place and a certain timeframe to implement them, and if it does not happen, then a different decision-making approach has to be taken. Some committee members may have a view for or against that but we have to find some way. This has to change. There is no point in denying that.
Can I make a quick observation on that?
Yes, go on.
That is something that I have argued for previously. The difficulty is that each year the underspend is increasing.
If we give all local authorities another year, we run a risk. The Minister of State might consider, rather than having a year lead-in, perhaps having an option whereby he introduces the changes immediately and some local authorities could have an early exit if they are able to demonstrate that they have a better record. My worry is that if we give everybody another year-----
We have the same worry. I meant to say at the start that I would be happy to engage with the committee much more over the next couple of weeks, if needs be. We hope to bring forward the action plan. It is a process that I totally believe in, having been involved in An Action Plan for Jobs and a housing plan, which the Deputy may have different views on. I would say that they are working, but apart from that, they work from point of view of being able to track them and see who is doing what. That is why the action plan approach will work for this too. I will be happy to have the committee members involved in formalising and agreeing the final actions. I believe it should be a cross-party action plan. That will work better. We will need the support of party members throughout the country to implement this and we may as well try to have people on board with us. I will be happy to do that together over the next month or two to try to finalise it. I was asked when it would be finalised. I do not see why we cannot have everything finalised in January and get that finished as well. That is the conversation in that regard.
Those planning conversations, exactly as the Deputy said, are the little bits we are trying to decide, as well as with the legal advice. Some counties will lead off on this and some will not. Whether we can have different powers for different scenarios in different counties is the kind of stuff we are going to tease out and look at as well.
On the question of the who, it will probably be Ms Gill here with me. There will be one person in charge and one person only. It will be that person's full job to do this, to implement this, and to feed back to the board.
Will that person have a particular grade? I am not great on people's titles and positions to be honest. It is fine if the person can do the job, regardless of what the title is. The fact that Ms Hurley, who is the money woman, is here with me means that we are real about this. The assistant secretary is here with me, as Minister of State, along with Ms Tobin and Ms Gill who have been working on this for the past couple of months. This is serious and this will happen, and that is very clear in our Department. It will not be left to one side or left unfunded. It is going to happen. It is just a question of getting it right. Delaying anything is not in my nature. As most people know, I asked that this report be published a long time ago. It is there. It was not done as quickly as I wanted it to be, but we have it and I will do it. We are not going to sit back on it, but it will still take a little bit of time to bring everyone on board and to make the right decisions, together with arriving at the timeline of each recommendation. That is where it is at.
I am conscious that there is discomfort for some members here in taking away powers or changing anyone's powers, but we may have to do that to try to get this moved on once and for all.
I agree with the tracking of Traveller accommodation new builds. Refurbishment has to happen, and certainly with some of the ones I have seen, major refurbishment has to happen-----
----- but that should not count as new builds. We are happy to track that.
When it comes to this, and in general with housing issues, we are an open book as a Department and I am too as a Minister of State. I think the Minister, Deputy Murphy, is as well. We are not hiding anything. It is put out fully on display. We might not always like what it tells us but it is on display we are not going to hide it. Likewise, when it comes to Traveller accommodation, we are not going to hide this. It will be clear who is doing what and who is not. The Deputy is right about that link, that where there is an underspend of resources or where there is not even a request for money, there are consequences. That means that we have unauthorised accommodation. That does not work for anybody, and that probably needs to be highlighted much more. The Deputy is right. It is not simply a case of doing nothing and hoping it does not affect anybody. It absolutely does. First of all, it affects the families themselves and their children, for a start, but then it also affects communities. That is when we get these negative consequences, which is a whole chicken-and-egg situation.
Does Ms Tobin wish to come in on some bits of this? I am rabbiting on a bit.
We need permission from the committee to allow Ms Tobin to come in. I do not think there will be a problem but we just need to formalise it.
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
The Minister of State has covered more of what I was going to say. On the point that was made about an authority being in a make-or-break position and the monitoring and targeting piece of it, we recognise that that is an important piece but it is one that it is going to be difficult to get consensus on and will take some time to set up. We are looking at what can be done in the very short term with the structures that we have now to make sure that we get immediate impact on delivery while we are teasing out the more difficult question about the authority.
The Minister of State and his colleagues are very welcome to give us this update. I acknowledge David Joyce, Professor Michelle Norris and Conor Norton, but I really want to acknowledge the Minister of State because he has taken up this with great seriousness and sincerity. We all see that and recognise it. I also welcome the additional moneys being allocated to Traveller accommodation.
In many ways, as a campaigner that is the box is ticked. Once the extra money goes in, that is one's campaigning goal achieved. With Traveller accommodation, of course, that is not the case. It is really depressing and disgraceful that only 70% of the allocation for 2019 has been spent. There is an enormous urgency because there is a homelessness crisis, as the Minister of State knows better than anyone else. The fact is that the homelessness crisis affects Travellers more than any other single group. As Deputy Ó Broin said and the Minister of State agreed with it, there is an absolutely inevitable connection between unauthorised sites, unspent moneys and the growing homelessness crisis.
My first question for the Minister of State is whether he has accepted all of the 32 recommendations and if he will be implementing them all. Is he dropping or changing any? If so, which ones, and why?
I repeat the request for an indication of timelines, particularly how quickly we will get to phase 3, the project initiation. Every day that passes, where there is a lack of progress, a lack of drawdown, and the housing crisis grows, is a misery for people.
Will all the submissions made in the information-gathering phase be shared with the Traveller representative organisations? They would be of interest to them and it is important that they are shared. Moreover, I hope that this information-gathering phase is not an opportunity for watering down, slowing down or rowing back in any way. The 32 recommendations contained in the report are what we need. There is consensus in respect of them and I would hate for us to row back on them in any way.
I have some questions about the governance recommendations. What are the Minister of State's thoughts on strengthening the NTACC? That was one clear recommendation. As it stands, how will that committee interact with the programme board? Will the board have an independent executive function? How will the NTACC evolve into the national Traveller accommodation authority, a step which was clearly recommended in the governance section of the report?
I also want to ask about the legislation relating to trespass. Will that be repealed, as recommended? I refer also to the issues of unauthorised sites and evictions. Will the current eviction procedures be reviewed and an appeal procedure included? The issue of evictions came up in Geneva this week in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. I understand that there is no national data collection on evictions. There is also no access to justice because there is no free legal aid for those facing evictions.
Will the caravan loan scheme be included in the arrangements for the disbursal of funding for the provision or refurbishment of Traveller-specific accommodation? The Minister of State mentioned that in his opening statement. What actions are being taken around the ethnic identifier? Are any obstacles likely to emerge? The old red herring of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, is often used as a block, but that is not a reasonable interpretation of that measure.
Finally, have all Traveller accommodation plans been signed off? Are there any outstanding Traveller accommodation plans? The Minister of State is aware of the existence of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community. That committee, of which I am Chair, has been looking at mental health, health and education and we are now looking at employment. We will discuss accommodation in January. I would like to invite the Minister of State to come before the committee. It is not about duplicating the work of this committee. However, all of those issues are relevant. If someone is not living in decent surroundings or healthy conditions or lives in damp or cold surroundings, his or her children are more likely to be sick. The life expectancy of Travellers is affected by their accommodation. School attendance is also affected by accommodation, as is employment; someone's address affects their ability to get a job. We will be looking at accommodation and it would be very positive if the Minister could attend that committee. We will be extending an invitation.
I thank Senator Kelleher. If I miss any of her questions, she will remind me. Scrutiny starts here. I am happy to engage with the committee and we will do that as best we can. We are certainly open to any suggestions or ideas. That is what we have to do. The Senator is right about the importance of housing. That is why we take the housing first approach to helping rough sleepers. That is a proven concept. Housing should be attended to first and then other services can be attached. The same logic will apply to anybody who is in a poor housing situation.
There were a couple of questions there. The Senator asked me if the recommendations have actually been accepted. We have accepted the recommendations and the general principles they are trying to achieve. Each individual recommendation must still be finalised to determine how best to implement it. We are open to tweaking them if need be.
Is that a "Yes"? Have all the recommendations been accepted?
They have been accepted in principle but that does not mean we can implement them all. To be fair to everybody, we have to get everyone's views. That is what we have been doing in the last couple of months. Ms Tobin and Ms Gill have met the various interested groups. The Traveller associations have asked for more time to come back with submissions and comments. I want to be fair to everybody. However, they have been accepted in principle. As I detailed earlier, we have been determining how to implement some recommendations, which ones it is best to proceed with and how to approach the task. It comes down to mechanisms, and tweaking them if need be, but we are not trying to avoid or drop any of them. None of them will be dropped. They are being worked on and considered. I can go through each one if the Senator wishes.
We are in talks with the Department of Justice and Equality on the legislation relating to trespass. There are some strong views on that, so I cannot give the Senator a definitive answer.
That is a key recommendation.
It is a key recommendation. We are in discussions with the Department of Justice and Equality in respect of it. I will keep the Senator posted. All of these conversations will be concluded between this month and the next. The Senator asked when they will be introduced. The plan is to implement our full plan from the first quarter of next year, starting in January.
Will the Minister of State share the observations which have been made by the Department of Justice and Equality?
All submissions have been shared so far. I do not see why we could not share those of the Department of Justice and Equality. I will try to meet each group and sit down with the Traveller organisations in the next couple of weeks. They are all represented on the NTACC but I will try to meet with each group individually. We have recommendations, but all the different players have different views. We will talk to all of them and see how to bring people with us on this journey, because implementation will be easier if everyone is on board.
I will now turn to some of the specific questions. The NTACC will be represented on the programme board. The membership of the board will include me, as Minister of State, the programme manager of the NTACC and a third person Ms Tobin will mention.
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
It will include Ms Hurley and the Minister of State, who will appoint Ms Gill as the programme manager. The NTACC will be there to represent the interests of its member Traveller organisations and the local authorities will also be represented.
What about the evolution of that body into the authority?
That is part of the work we are doing with the NTACC. I met the chairman two weeks ago to get his views on how we can do that. He agrees that it will take time to adjust. We have sought input from several stakeholders on the recommended structure, that is, the national Traveller accommodation authority. We have asked Traveller organisations and local authorities for their views. I have met the chairman. There is not yet consensus on the best way to structure that to ensure that it works and is effective. The concept is fine but the question is how best to do it without unnecessarily complicating or duplicating any processes. The project team will explore that with all the players involved. In the short-term, as Ms Tobin touched on, we will see what we can do to monitor and track delivery. We will make some short-term changes as we form a long-term view. That will be done in conjunction with the NTACC and its members. The implementation phase will begin in January. That is the bottom line.
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
The Senator mentioned the caravan loan scheme. There is no specific recommendation in the report in respect of the scheme, but it is something we have been working on and we have a proposal ready to go. It is not linked to this. We met with Ms Rose Wall from the Legal Aid Board. The Senator has probably seen that body's report. We have met with its representatives to agree on a way forward. The Senator mentioned the red herring of the ethnic identifier and the GDPR. We were working on this before the expert group report came out. We are getting some GDPR-related pushback but we are looking for legal advice to deal with that. We are working with other Departments. The Departments of Justice and Equality, Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Education and Skills have overcome some GDPR issues.
It has been overcome in other places-----
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
-----so there is no reason it could not be overcome here.
Exactly. We are working with those Departments to make sure our legal advisers and GDPR specialists have all of the same information so we can get through that.
On a point of clarification, where does the issue with the GDPR arise? Has this been raised by the Traveller advocacy groups?
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
The initial pushback came from the GDPR experts in local authorities. This was because of the recommendation to include an ethnic identifier in the social housing needs assessment. The rule under the GDPR is that we can only ask a question if the answer is relevant to the service provided. We wanted to ask the same question that is on the census, which is a general question. It is not Traveller-specific; respondents can tick a box. We were told that this was irrelevant for anybody except Travellers, so we had to ask a Traveller-specific question. That in itself brings up other problems. Another argument held that it was not relevant because there is already a box to tick for Traveller-specific accommodation.
We understand the reasons this is relevant so we are making those arguments and have sought advice.
Have the moves been overcome in other places?
It is an abuse of the GDPR legislation for local authorities to behave like that.
The Data Protection Commissioner has been asked for a review and we await that.
One will find that the Data Protection Commissioner is quite reasonable.
I have outstanding questions. One was on evictions and the second one was on whether there are taps that are still not approved.
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
On the evictions, the Senator is right that there is no national database on evictions. The question arose at the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD, and was one of my take-away queries for which I am preparing a written response.
Will a national database be created?
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
It is not something that I have considered before. We will consider it in the context of what was brought up at CERD.
What about my questions on the appeals process and access to legal aid?
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
In terms of the eviction procedure, I am not familiar with the appeals process. I can come back to the Deputy about the matter.
My Department is talking to the officials in the Department of Justice and Equality on two of the components but we have not got the full command of it.
What about the taps?
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
We have almost all of the taps in. We are following up with the authorities who have not done so. I will try to get the information in the next few minutes.
Yes, please. It is important that the authorities are named because the taps should be over the line by now.
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
We have sent a message to our team to get the information.
I would like to know the names of the authorities that are outstanding.
If we have not got the information by the end of the meeting we will forward it to the Senator.
I would like the list by the end of the meeting, if possible.
When we have the information, we will give it to the Senator.
I agree with Senator Kelleher. Most of my questions have been answered.
The biggest issue is the lack of emergency accommodation for Traveller families and no point of contact. When one approaches a local authority one does not know who to contact. I welcome the expert group's 32 recommendations. Every local authority must provide somebody who can be contacted at any time. I make that suggestion because I have found that over weekends or in the middle of the week people will meet various housing officers so the current system does not work. Even though I deal with my own local authority I do not have a port of call. I urge the Minister to appoint someone who will give information. The biggest issue for Traveller families is the lack of information and, therefore, they do not know their entitlements.
Another area that has not been addressed is the refurbishment work or home improvement grants. Traveller families do not know their entitlements so we must remedy that situation. Unless we, as public representatives and Oireachtas Members, give information then it will not be given. If we address these issues it would be a huge help to Traveller families.
I welcome the allocation of an extra €1.5 million in budget 2020. The Carlow local authority was one of the 31 local authorities that drew down funding. What happens to the money that is not drawn down? Let us say the €14.5 million in budget 2020 is not drawn and the local authority does not get the funding. What happens to the funding? Will the Government use it for something else? I strongly suggest that whatever money is allocated for Traveller accommodation is kept separate and not lost even though the local authorities do not draw it down. The Department should consult the local authorities and ask them why they have not drawn down the moneys. I understand that this is all about enforcement. Perhaps we should have someone in every local authority to give information for a few years or as long as we have an emergency housing crisis. I deal with the emergency housing crisis on a regular basis and would appreciate if the Minister addressed this matter. The 32 recommendations are excellent. Once they are enforced and all of the agencies work together, I firmly believe there will be a huge improvement. Therefore, I give this initiative my full support.
I thank the Senator for her full support. We intend that there will be huge improvement. At this stage we have plenty of reports, research and evidence. All we must do is finish the report and implement it, which is what we will do. I am quite confident with the support of all of the parties that we will see change. Moneys should not be left unspent when there is a serious need in every country. In fairness, Carlow probably overspent.
Carlow spent a lot more. There is a system where we allocate what is not spent.
I do not have the figures for other years.
I know Carlow is well over.
I have the figures for this year.
That is good.
It is a positive. There is a mechanism to do that. Again, with the changes that have been made, that should not be an issue. We should be able to look for extra money at the end of the year.
We should not be trying to find places to put the money but look for extra places to do it. The money is not ring-fenced for the following year. Sometimes approval for a project could carry on over a couple of years. If we have committed to funding a project in Carlow then if it does not happen this year it will happen the following year. The commitment would remain but the money would be spent. Ms Hurley will spend the money this year on other housing projects because, naturally, we do not send any money back when it comes to housing budgets because we have a difficult situation.
Before 2015, some of the moneys that were ring-fenced for Traveller-specific accommodation would have been used to purchase suitable housing, if need be. That did not happen in the last couple of years because it was not a successful approach. Sometimes, there would be complications in terms of getting the house over the line and then, all of a sudden, the money would be sent back or there would be a change of plans, so we have stopped doing it. In the last couple of months, we have encouraged local authorities to go out, due to an underspend, and source properties that would be suitable for families of a Traveller background or people living in emergency accommodation.
That is huge.
In addition, large families need specific houses. We are doing that to spend the money. It is not an ideal solution because the money is meant to be for Traveller-specific accommodation. If the housing is appropriate and suits the needs of someone from a Traveller family on the list then we have asked local authorities to do that and for the moneys to be ring-fenced, and reported as that as well.
There should be a point of contact and I am surprised by what the Senator has said. Most of the local authorities that I deal with have somebody available and they have a homeless app.
Deputy Ó Broin made the same suggestion as me and called for one person to be provided.
We will strengthen that.
There needs to be one person.
There is a director of housing and a team and it is his or her job to appoint somebody. I understand that there are a few places to go such as the place finder service, the housing assistance payment unit, and all of the positions that we fund. Over the past couple of years, an extra 800 staff has been allocated to local authorities to deal with housing. Certainly, we will talk to the local authorities to make sure there is someone available. I will be disappointed if there is not but I will check.
Naturally, communication is important. It is not referenced in the recommendations but certainly improving the communication of information is an obvious measure. People talk about having choice-based letting in some counties but the process does not suit many Traveller families. We must ensure that the right channels of communication are available.
Clearly, we must strengthen the relationship that exist in many areas. There is a myriad of reasons for that but I will not go into the history of it all. We must move things on and fix any problems.
I compliment the Carlow staff but the biggest issue nationally is a lack of staff. Everybody seems to be dividing out jobs. People are doing their best but the shortage of staff has become a huge issue. Even now, with this kind of funding, it would be great to provide staff for a few years or until we sort out the problems with emergency accommodation.
To be clear, there is somebody in place and I will find out who that person is. It is not an issue of resources to have someone to answer a phone and make a decision. There are plenty of people in the local authorities who are paid to do this job. Naturally, we want to beef up the teams but an extra 800 staff have been allocated. If local authorities make a case to us for extra staff we try to honour their request when it comes to housing. That is different from saying there is nobody to take a call and make a decision.
There is but not for emergency calls.
That is what the Senator has said and I am saying that there should be somebody available. A shortage of staff should not be an issue.
I have listened to Senator Murnane O'Connor. Some local authorities had a Traveller accommodation unit and the staff were specifically dedicated to dealing with Traveller accommodation difficulties. Some of those local authorities have stood down the Traveller accommodation unit and integrated it into the housing directorate because they believed that social workers should provide support for Traveller accommodation applicants in the same way as other social housing applicants and that the allocations, maintenance and so on should all be integrated. Does the Minister or his officials think that local authorities should revert to having Traveller-specific accommodation units within the housing section to drive Traveller-specific accommodation?
It is up to the local authorities to make those decisions themselves. I am not going to spoon-feed everybody and tell them what they have to do.
Sometimes that is needed.
We need to make sure that they know they have responsibilities, that there have to be actions and that they have to implement programmes and spending. As for who does it or what way it is done locally, it is not our job to dictate to local authorities. The local authorities will ask us for staff for certain teams, allocations and so on, and they need to manage that process. Through this, we will fix the planning and delivery elements and tracking it to confirm that it happens. On the question of who or which committee in the council, I am not going into that detail. I know what the Senator is asking me but that is an issue for the local authority.
Each local authority, particularly those with the low spends, needs to set up a Traveller accommodation unit specifically responsible for driving Traveller accommodation within the housing directorate. I was talking to Deputy Ó Broin earlier on. In Clare, €13,000 was all that was spent out of an allocation of something like €850,000 in 2018. It is clear that the structure is not working.
If it helps the Senator, we are putting somebody in charge at our end who will implement it and stick with it.
We might talk again about it.
It is a local authority decision. I cannot tell them how to allocate their staff. That is not something we are able to do.
Perhaps we need to go back to a place where we do tell them what to do.
While any increase in funding is welcome and almost none of the increase over the past three years has been spent, funding is still far below what is required. Back in 2008, the Traveller accommodation budget was in the region of €40 million and it is nowhere close to that now. To meet the level of need in terms of new units and refurbishment and new household formation, we are going to have to get back to a budget close to where we were in 2008. If we cannot spend €12 million or €13 million and we need to increase the budget, that will be a challenge. In all of that monitoring, there must be included some more robust way of tracking what has been spent, what the delays are and so on. From everything I am hearing, that is part of the plan. We must also identify where additional capacity is. Going by the figures, a local authority could have a 100% spend but that is based on what it requested and it could request a fraction of what is required. That is why those needs assessments are so important. We could then see if the request was proportionate to the need.
I appreciate that there is work involved in getting any reform to Part 8, section 183 and the regulator right. It is not as simple as saying we will implement the recommendation; I get that. My worry is that it might take too long to get that in place. Bar the few local authorities that have yet to approve the TAPs everyone else has done so. One would like to think that this new regime will come in as early as possible in the lifetime of those programmes. I am pretty clear on the Part 8 proposition, which is that we still have a formal Part 8 process, we still have public consultation and elected members are still consulted, but the final Part 8 decision is the manager's. I am likewise clear on section 183. If we have an AHB and the land has to transferred, it is a similar process. I am a little bit more concerned about whether the regulator will have sufficient force on foot of a complaint from the NTACC or authority to intervene and to force or request that the Minister force a manager to act where he or she is not acting in line with the TAP. That is the key. Without telling us what the decision is, because I appreciate he is working through it, can the Minister of State give us more information about how that could work in practice, in terms of his understanding of the regulator as it is currently working? Has he been discussing the matter with the regulator? We do not want to make what are pretty difficult legislative changes, albeit for the right reasons, and then be scratching our heads in a year because although the regulator can take a complaint and make a report to a Minister, it cannot take further actions. We were not fully cognisant of this when we were dealing with the planning regulator in legislation. I would just like to tease that out a little.
To elaborate on the suggestion I was making, and I might come back to the Minister of State in writing, provision should be made for an early opt-out or exit as an incentive to local authorities. Councillors lose the Part 8 and section 183 powers. It is a three-year period but I suggest some mechanism for a local authority to apply to exit after year one under certain conditions or in certain ways, if it is able to convince the Department. That is then tracked and if the local authority does not do it, it reverts. That might be a way. Deputy Casey and I had an exchange at the previous meeting and I completely understand where he is coming from but if we try to incentivise good behaviour without facilitating bad behaviour, we might end up with a compromise with which even those who are not yet over the line on this might be able to live, come the legislative changes. I might think more about that and come back to the Minister of State with a formal note.
That is what we are trying to do. It is about how we can incentivise good behaviour. On those conversations, that is what we are trying to tease out and the Deputy has just put it clearly as to why I am saying to him that it is not completed yet. He understands that it will take a little bit more time. Those conversations will involve our own planning team and the regulator but also we will look for legal advice to tease it out. It is probably not appropriate for me to go through it all with the Deputy here but I am happy to discuss it with those interested in the Department when we are further on in the weeks ahead. Our planning teams are looking at it as well to see how it can work and how legally sound is it. We have been talking to the regulator and will meet him to finalise everything. Naturally, there is no point in implementing something if it cannot deliver a positive outcome. That is the what we are at. I will be straight with the Deputy. It is not finalised. He had some observations and some good thinking on it as well. Others have as well. I am happy to involve them in the next couple of weeks and months as we finalise it.
The Deputy is asking when that will be. It is not a case of saying we will spend a year on this. That is not what it is about. We want to have all this completed in January if we can. We are still waiting for the legal advice we need but we will get that clarity and then we can move on most of this quite quickly but they are the little nitty-gritty bits that have to be teased out. To be fair to our planning team, there are different views there and I have to respect that, hear all their views and tease it through with them. That is the kind of work we are doing. Ms Tobin and Ms Gill have been doing the same as well.
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
We are looking at changing the allocation process for the reasons the Deputy has stated. It is not really a target. They are telling us what they are going to spend. We are replacing that with a more coherent targeted approach.
In fairness, the target set under the Rebuilding Ireland was a combination of looking at people's waiting lists, looking at their own plans and pipeline projects and then agreeing targets that we felt were appropriate to the list of needs as well. It was not just about taking someone's aim and using it.
A TAP is a little like a planning permission. The organisation outlines what it is going to do but it is not saying at what point over that five-year period it is going to do it. That means stuff can be delayed for legitimate or illegitimate reasons. As far as I understand it, there is no requirement under the current statutory framework for the TAPs to include a timeline for the delivery of that programme. That might be something to think about if there is going to be amending legislation. We could provide for a statutory addition to the new TAPs requiring local authorities to put in a timeline as an amendment to the TAP. That would create a clear basis both for the NTACC and for the regulator. The local authorities are going to say what they notionally are going to do each year in terms of the output of new units and refurbishments. If we have that statutory timeframe - I am only thinking about this on the hoof - it would provide a tool whereby if the regulator is to make a recommendation to the Minister of intervention for failure to implement the plan, the Minister can say the local authority is in breach of the timeframe and in breach of its statutory obligations. If there is no statutory timeframe attached to the TAP and the regulator is making a recommendation to the Minister, a local authority could turn around and say it is in the programme but it just has not got to it yet. Small things like that would not be legally complicated but might be very useful in terms of assisting the functioning of the new planning arrangement.
It is a fine suggestion. That is the approach we take with setting the housing targets under Rebuilding Ireland.
The difficulty is that people like Deputy Ó Broin judge them on quarter 2 rather than quarter 4. I am only slagging the Deputy.
I await with great anticipation for the quarter 4 figures on Thursday of next week. If they are on target I will complement Ms Hurley as I do every year.
The Deputy will be very happy with the figures. What we agreed there was to provide the figures out to 2021, with a breakdown per year, and what had to be done. Ms Hurley sits down with the local authorities, either in their offices or in ours, on a weekly or monthly basis and teases through their plans, their targets and their pipelines. We look at whatever is left up to 2021, but we also ask where we are on this year's figures, so it is broken down. The same approach will work quite well. I know the Deputy is thinking of it from an enforcement point of view but it adds to the ability to enforce it as well.
That is if it has a statutory basis rather than a policy basis.
It is a good idea.
Do no other members wish to speak? I will make a few observations. Deputy Ó Broin has probably hit on most of them. I will start by trying to get a better understanding of the allocation to local authorities from a funding point of view. I assume that is based on each local authority requesting funds-----
-----as opposed to on the basis of population. The local authorities are requesting this funding initially, and yet they are not drawing it down, so clearly there is some fault here. I am willing to try anything, and I am not here to be a stumbling block in this process, but I got the feeling that the local authority members were being blamed for a lot of the delays. A question I asked on the last day, which no one was able to answer, was on how many Part 8 processes have been voted down by local authority members. I believe that equally part of the blame is with the administration of the local authorities, and the willingness to drive the Traveller accommodation process. It does not all rely on the local authority members.
The process that is proposed to be put in place, whereby the Part 8 process goes through all the way and the chief executive makes the final decision for a trial period, is quite a good compromise and I would be fully supportive of that. However, when I hear the Office of the Planning Regulator, and Deputy Ó Broin has mentioned this, getting involved, I wonder whether we are just going to add more layers of bureaucracy to a process. When we are engaging with the Office of the Planning Regulator, we are now talking about the officials of the local authorities not performing their function in processing Traveller accommodation needs or provisions through to the Part 8 process. Why do we have to go to the Office of the Planning Regulator to get the staff of local authorities to do the jobs that they are employed to do? I am concerned that all we are doing is adding a layer of bureaucracy.
Deputy Ó Broin has proposed putting it on a statute footing where there is a statutory timeframe within the Traveller accommodation programme. Maybe that is a solution. I am afraid that the Office of the Planning Regulator would be swamped and would not be able to deal with this. Then one would have to wait for a report from the Office of the Planning Regulator and nothing would be progressed.
I am not trying to put an obstacle in the way. Something has to happen, and it has to be radical. However, I do not want us to add more layers of bureaucracy into what is already a bureaucratic process. Equally, each local authority's officials have to take responsibility for their actions. It is not just about the local authority members; it is about the local authority officials as well.
The Vice Chairman is right. The Office of the Planning Regulator has just been set up and is no longer one person. There are 20-odd staff and there will be more. In assembling the team, I would argue that he has taken away too many good people from my Department. In any case, the regulator's job is to implement the national planning framework, to bring an independence to planning, and to track that all planning has been implemented - local, regional, and national planning. The Vice Chairman is right that we do not want to overburden the regulator. There is the independence element of it, but more so from a planning point of view. I refer to the TAPs, the development plan, and the process there. What we decided around that will dictate the regulator's role. There has been engagement and toing and froing with the regulator. I will update the committee on that in our meetings as well. This is not intended to overburden the regulator. The regulator's job is to be independent, certainly in respect of his planning function. That means that the Minister of the day - it is me at the moment - cannot get carried away with themselves and local authority members have to make planning decisions. We have had a lot of good workshops with the regulator and with local authority members, teasing through that new relationship and what all our roles are. People understanding a lot more, and the local authority members are very keen to do it right. It is about watching over all of us when it comes to planning and making sure we are doing our jobs.
The Vice Chairman is right that we have to be careful we do not overburden the regulator with nitty-gritty detail or something else that he should not have to do. It is not the regulator's job to track whether a county manager is doing his or her job when it comes to spending money on Traveller accommodation. The regulator's jobs relates to the planning element.
On the targets, at the moment it involves a request for funding, and we try to match the request. Disappointingly, it does not always happen. I will come back to the reasons for that in a minute. What we are doing now is more similar to the housing allocation process. We are sitting down with local authorities to see what the needs and the demands are, to see whether we corresponding with them and to see what kind of funding is required over a couple of years to make that happen. It is more of a conversation. Ms Tobin is involved in that at the moment, even in respect of next year. It is about moving away from that allocation process.
I have never gotten involved in the blame game, because I am not interested in it. I have repeatedly stayed away from it. There is plenty of research and evidence out there. Everybody has responsibilities here but I want to move on to what we do to make sure it happens. From what I can see, site by site, it simply got too complicated and people got bogged down with challenges and difficulties and things were not completed or finished. Rather than coming back a week later, amending it and moving on, all of a sudden three or four years were gone. There are sites which have been in need of refurbishment and work for 20 years, but it just never happened. It got too difficult to sort out. Even with all the stakeholders, it just did not happen for whatever reason. That is putting it in very simple terms, and everybody has a role in that and everybody is responsible. However, I am not going there because it is wrong to blame local authority members and that should not be the approach. We need to change that and make sure that it happens. If there are difficult sites and complications, we need to deal with them and not shy away from them. We must move on. It is a matter of rights and responsibilities for everybody here, and I keep stressing that. However, we need to move it on as well.
Just because something is challenging does not mean we walk away from it. I go back to what I said earlier that good quality design and good quality construction, with all the services and the bits and pieces that are needed, will certainly help and will make a big difference. We should be high quality here and not what we had in the past.
There was one other question on Part 8. We could find that 24 Part 8s were put through - I must get the figure on how many were refused - but to be honest with the committee, they are not getting to a Part 8 stage-----
That was my point-----
The Vice Chairman and I were involved in local government and generally local authority officials and members will try to agree processes and bring stuff together. One does not bring in a string of Part 8s that are going to fail, because it does not work for anybody and it is a waste of resources. Generally, a lot of work is done before one gets to Part 8 stage but it seems it is not getting to that stage. A record of Part 8s will not give us a true picture of what is going on. The records for every county will show the demands and unmet demands and that it was we have to address through all the different mechanisms as quickly as we can.
On a point of information, would there be information on Part 8 processes that have started but that never got to the vote?
We could gather that. I am sure it is there.
I call Deputy Ó Broin to be followed by Senator Kelleher.
When we had this discussion at the committee the last day, only two days before that, a municipal district committee of a local authority prevented a Part 8 from going to Part 8, following a dispute. Part of the difficulty - I want to emphasise the Minister of State's point - is that it is either at the informal discussions between managers and councillors, or at the area or municipal district, which managers, as the committee knows, use as a kind of filter before they go to formal process, that things are dying, for whatever reason. That is the difficulty.
RTÉ was looking to do a programme some time ago and asked this very question. It had a researcher going around the country trying to track the number of stalled processes. It is really difficult. We all know how managers work on any Part 8s, no matter what they are for. They talk to the local councillors first, they get a read of the political temperature and they try to sense whether something will progress or not. Most of the time those things are not even minuted or recorded. That is important.
To go back to the issue of the regulator, I do not care who perform the role - this is the really important thing - but there has to be a mechanism whereby if there are changes to the Part 8 and section 183 powers, and if a manager is not using those powers, there has to be statutory enforceability because somebody has to be able to intervene on foot of a complaint from the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee or this committee as it tracks this issue and require that something be done.
There has to be statutory enforceability because somebody has to be able to intervene on foot of a complaint from the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee or this committee as it tracks this issue and require that something be done.
To respond to Deputy Casey's point, if I understand it correctly, and the Minister and his officials will correct me if I am wrong, the difficulty is that we know the local authorities are not spending the money they have but nobody has the statutory authority to step in and force them to spend it. That is the problem. If the regulator is the right mechanism to do it, as has been recommended, that will be brilliant. However, the Minister can also come back and say he has found a more efficient and effective way to do this, provided some entity is able to step in when a local authority does not deliver X number of units, as promised under its Traveller plan, within, say, the first 12 months and tell it how it must do so. There should be proper consultation and members of the public and elected Members should have an opportunity to give their views, as is the case with any Part 8 development. Deputy Casey is absolutely right. In some instances, the issue is elected Members, while in others it is managers or someone else. We have to make sure that whatever package of interventions we put together, it can address all of those elements. That is not an impossible task, even in the short space of time available.
That is exactly the point. Deputy Ó Broin mentioned county managers and officials, but there is also a need to have a genuine and realistic conversation about what can be achieved on each site. There are many more people involved in this conversation. As I said, when a site becomes too complicated or challenging because there is disagreement, the conversation is often parked and nothing happens. Different people want different outcomes so it is probably a case of having evidence-based decision making on a site by site basis. We have had the conversation about doing more prototypes and blueprints for good quality designs and what can be achieved on sites. Having those decisions made in advance means no one must try to do the impossible because sometimes one ends up doing nothing in such cases.
Is there any update on the outstanding Traveller accommodation?
I will provide that as soon as I have it.
Ms Rosemarie Tobin
I do not have any specifics but the team has come back to say that 21 November 2019 was the date by which the Traveller accommodation programme, TAP, should be adopted. However, there is a month leeway so the programme is not actually late yet. I may have given the impression that it was late. The team has also said that we would not necessarily be notified straightaway once the TAP is adopted.
I understand the Traveller accommodation plan in Cork city has not yet been approved by the council. There are multiple issues with regard to Travellers in Cork. Welcome measures were included in the plan, which has not been approved, for example, with regard to Spring Lane where there are major issues for the people living on the site. There is a kind of desire and an anxiousness to get the plan presented by the officials over the line. Traveller organisations locally were very happy with the plan. It is important that it is approved. The clarification on timelines and the leeway of one month is helpful. Cork City Council may be the only council that has not adopted a plan. I do not know if that is the case, which is why I asked for clarification.
We will provide that. I was on the Spring Lane site and met all those involved.
The Minister of State knows what needs to be done.
It is no place for people to live.
That is correct. Spring Lane is one of those sites that proves my point. It became very challenging and instead of being sorted out, the issue has been allowed to drag on for years.
The Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, and I visited the site where we met many of the residents and the groups working there. We also met council officials and asked everybody to come together to try to find a resolution. I believe the project is getting to the final stage and I hope-----
It would be good to get it over the line.
It has moved on a great deal so hopefully we are very close to getting it over the line.
I thank the Minister of State.
The budget allocation is based on what the local authorities believe to be the level of Traveller need. How much money is needed to fix the problem? That figure is probably much higher than the amount the local authorities believe is needed to meet Traveller needs.
The Minister of State spoke of the type and quality of build. We must also remember the importance of managing housing stock. In my local authority, this has been a problem with the social housing stock, never mind Traveller accommodation stock. One of the biggest weaknesses of the local authorities is that they do not manage their stock of properties on an ongoing basis. Management is one part of addressing that failure. The Minister of State indicated that he will continue to communicate with the committee. I ask him to invite members to some of the processes.
If Members are interested, we will be having another session in January in the Custom House.
If the Minister of State engages with the secretariat, it will inform members who can then attend if they wish.
The Vice Chairman referred to upkeep and management. I discussed this issue earlier and I reinforce the point that while it is important to have high-quality design and top-class construction in the first place, management and day-to-day maintenance and upkeep are also key to any housing project. Everybody has rights and responsibilities in this regard.
I thank the Minister of State and his officials for engaging with the committee. I have been assured that we will have all the information we sought on Rebuilding Ireland this evening.