I thank the committee for the invitation to appear and discuss my report, No End in Site.
As members of the committee are aware, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office, OCO, is an independent statutory body, which was established under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. As the OCO has two core statutory functions, namely, to promote the rights and welfare of children under 18 years of age, and to examine and investigate complaints made by, or on behalf of, children about the administrative actions of public bodies, schools or voluntary hospitals that have, or may have had, an adverse effect on a child.
The report was initiated because a Traveller visibility group and the local Traveller women’s network came together and contacted the office in 2018 about conditions at a local authority-run halting site where 66 children and their families were living. Eleven families then came forward and made complaints about the following: a persistent problem with a high rate of childhood illness caused by living conditions; a lack of safe play areas for children; the fact that housing applications were not being progressed; rodent infestation; inadequate sanitation; extreme overcrowding; safety concerns about access to a site; illegal dumping nearby; inconsistent and inadequate waste disposal; and inadequate heating systems and unsafe electrical works.
The OCO met families and visited the site on three occasions. In total, approximately 140 people were using toilets and washing facilities that had been designed for 40 people, which the residents say has led to stress, tension and, at times, conflict.
During our investigation, the HSE director of public health nursing told us that the children living on this halting site suffer from skin conditions and respiratory problems at a much higher rate than the local or general population. The chief fire officer told us that there are frequent call-outs to the site. We met with 17 children who told us that they feel different to their peers due to the standard of conditions on the site. One 12-year-old girl said, "walking up to school you see all the rats ... they would be running up and down the walls of the trailer”. A 14-year-old girl said, “people ask why I’m dirty, but I’d be ashamed to say. I don’t want to say it was from walking out of the site”.
The conditions we found on the halting site in question were deplorable. To think that children in Ireland in 2021 are living like this is utterly shocking. Under no circumstances can this be accepted or allowed to continue. Our investigation acknowledged the hard work done by the local authority and the difficult circumstances in which its staff sometimes found themselves. Ultimately, however, we found that the local authority failed to consider the best interests of children, did not maintain the site and housing applications were not processed or were incomplete. This meant that some families may have missed out on homes and may have remained on the list longer than they needed to.
The local authority also did not account for the disadvantage experienced by Travellers. We made a series of recommendations and we called for these to be overseen from the top, by the CEO, to ensure that the changes happened. Our recommendations seek to improve conditions for children living on the site in the short term, and to bring about long-lasting systemic change in how Travellers are treated by the local authority. This was a long and difficult investigation for the families involved, the Traveller advocacy groups and the local authority in question. The paralysis in the system cannot continue. I very much welcome the commitments made by the local authority to implement these recommendations and, in particular, the expressed commitment by the CEO to ensure that the necessary actions occur. I will be seeking regular updates from the local authority on the progress it has made in implementing our recommendations and how the lives of children have improved.
On 27 May, an editorial piece in The Irish Times stated that this report "shines a light on a grave problem that too many arms of the State wish to ignore". That is the big issue for our office now. It is not the follow up of this report, but the fact that so many other sites have come to light and that nearly every local authority could be held to account in the same manner as the one in this case. In light of that, we have taken a number of steps, including writing to An Taoiseach and all leaders of political parties, because we believe the time has come to, once and for all, eradicate the racism and discrimination in our local authority planning system that allows children to grow up in standards that were abolished for the rest of the Irish population more than 50 years ago.
On 26 May of this year, the Taoiseach stated in the Dáil:
My understanding ... is there have been lots of different initiatives and plans produced over time but they have not brought a resolution. The consequence of that failure to get a resolution to a lot of the issues is children living in absolutely unacceptable conditions in terms of health, hygiene, quality of life and so forth. It is absolutely unacceptable and the local authority will have to move decisively now in response to the ombudsman’s report.
I have called on each political leader to instruct their representatives on local authorities throughout the country to vote for progress on Traveller accommodation. No excuses should be accepted for blocking progress in the provision of Traveller accommodation or for failing to fully utilise the ring-fenced funds. I have also asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to be much more proactive in the monitoring of spending in this area. It is the only budget that is routinely not spent and the Minister must see to it that such underspends are not allowed to happen and if they do, there must be a serious oversight and audit of the workings of that local authority.
I urge all members here on this committee to back that call so that this group of citizens and rights holders can begin to benefit from proper, safe and secure housing for the first time in many generations or perhaps for the first time ever. We are also planning to hold a seminar in July and invite all the relevant staff in local authorities. We believe that there is a window of opportunity to change the narrative in this area away from one of blame and accusation, and redirect it to properly focusing on the accommodation services we are providing to the children of our nation. I thank the committee again for its invitation and for members' time. My colleague, Ms Ward, and I are happy to take questions.