Traveller Accommodation: Discussion (Resumed)

Today's meeting is our second public meeting on Traveller accommodation. On behalf of the committee, I am delighted to extend a warm welcome to our witnesses from the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children and Ms Nuala Ward, director of investigations.

On behalf of the committee, I thank Dr. Muldoon for his report, No End in Site: An investigation into the living conditions of children on a local authority halting site, which was published in May 2021. The report is hard to read, especially when one hears the testimony of the children about their living conditions.

The committee is concerned that if Traveller community accommodation is not addressed satisfactorily then Traveller health, education and employment will also suffer. The committee has received letters from primary school principals about the difficulties faced by Traveller children that has been made worse by Covid-19.

We can see from the report that poor accommodation is having a detrimental effect on Traveller education. If Traveller community children today do not get a chance of an education, then another generation will suffer the same fate as many of their parents. The committee is very interested in the ombudsman's report, his recommendations and his plans to look for six-month and 12-month updates from local authorities, which is particularly important. The committee is looking at the role of local authorities in the provision of housing, particularly halting sites for Travellers. The report, in terms of the halting sites, will be of great help to the committee.

I suggest that Dr. Muldoon makes an opening statement that lasts between five and ten minutes. Then each member will have the opportunity to ask questions and they will have about five minutes for questions and answers. However, members may come in a second and third time, as appropriate.

I invite Dr. Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children, to make his opening statement.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

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.

I thank Dr. Muldoon for his submission, which was very much to the point in dealing with a very serious issue. The first member to ask questions and make his contribution is Senator Ned O'Sullivan.

I welcome Dr. Muldoon and Ms Ward and thank them for coming before us. I have studied this report very carefully and, even though I have been around a long time in politics - 35 years in total - I am very shocked by it. I spent 22 years as a county councillor before I became a Seanadóir. I had a reasonable amount of involvement with the Travelling community in Kerry, and especially in my home town, with 99% of it being extremely positive. Clearly, there are serious issues highlighted by Dr. Muldoon in this report that we, as a committee, will address seriously and bring forward. I will not hog the meeting, but I will make a few points and I have one or two questions. Unfortunately, this meeting clashes with the children's committee meeting, which relates to the burials, a very sensitive and important matter, and I will have to leave early to attend that. That meeting starts at 1 p.m. in private session.

What is shocking is the health situation of the whole community in that halting site and, in particular, the health of the children. I need not go over all the details - they are horrific. I will target one health issues that is probably the most overlooked, which is the psychological health of those children and the sense of shame they have when they go to school. When they go out into the wider community, they have a sense of shame about the way they are dressed and their lack of sanitation, because they do not have an opportunity to wash and so on. I was a teacher, as was my wife, in a special school for the Travelling community for many years. We would be familiar with that issue but not to the extent that it is highlighted in the report. I can see that this is clearly something which must be addressed.

Another issue is the that of the tragedies which, naturally, come to mind when one reads this report. I refer to sites where there have been serious fire incidences and terrible tragedies. All the ingredients seem to be here, and it was just by the luck of God that no catastrophe occurred at this site in the context of the electrics. The list of issues includes things like no working smoke detectors, badly fitted stoves, the electrical system being overloaded, etc. It is a complete fire hazard. They are the two issue I would focus on - the psychological health of children in particular and the fire hazard.

On a more critical note, Dr. Muldoon pointed out that this halting site was originally established to house 12 bays. Before long, it seems there were multiples of that number at the site. He does not go into detail as to how that situation arose. I presume it happened incrementally. Was it not being monitored by the council? Were the residents, in any way, culpable of inviting or accepting, perhaps, relatives and friends on to the site? We need to look at that a bit more because it is a critical point - that site was never intended for that number of people. I know the circumstances that pertained to people who came in and probably felt aggrieved by the housing allocation system and the housing priorities of that council, and so on. However, this must be highlighted. Perhaps the council are to blame, or other agencies, for how it developed. I want to know over what length of time this developed.

I refer to the points noted by Dr. Muldoon that council staff and outside contractors were reluctant to go onto the site, that they were, perhaps, even in fear and that gardaí had to be used as moderators or mediators once or twice. That was regrettable but I am sure there were two sides to the story.

Why was that situation allowed to develop? I presume these people were coming in to do good work, to fix the electrics and do the plumbing. Why should there have been resistance to them on-site? Is there something we are not getting there?

I agree with Dr. Muldoon that it is a disgrace that certain local authorities will not even use the ring-fenced budget they get for Traveller accommodation. Under no other heading or programme would a county council be returning money, and they would be screaming for more on every single issue. As a committee, we discussed this in private today. We are awaiting reports from all of the various local authorities to justify their position on that, and we will be working on it ourselves. I engaged with the chief executive officer of Kerry County Council, Moira Morrell, and her senior housing staff in preparation for this meeting, and they presented me with a very comprehensive report, which I will not go into now but which I will be happy to lay before the Chairman and the committee. Not to be parochial, Kerry seems to be doing more than its share, or at least an equal share, and I am proud to be able to say that.

I know Dr. Muldoon and Ms Ward investigated this one issue in great detail, and well done to them both. Do they think this is typical? Is this standard procedure? Can we imply and take forward from this report that this type of thing is going on all over the country, in the cities of Dublin, Galway and Cork, and in our rural towns and communities as well? Perhaps there is a much bigger scandal to be gone into. Again, I welcome both witnesses and I congratulate them. I regret that I have to go to an equally important meeting but I will carefully study their responses.

I point out that Ms Nuala Ward is attending, not Ms Helena Collins. There may be some confusion as the screen may refer to Ms Collins.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the Senator. I want to comment on a couple of points. He has hit the nail on the head in that this concerns the psychological health of the children as much as the physical health. I note from the last open meeting we had that a witness, Bridget Kelly from the National Traveller Women's Forum, said that infant Traveller children are 3.5 times more likely to die in the first year. When we see conditions like this, we can see why. We have been told that respiratory conditions are an issue right from the start so, again, they are being set up for long-term health issues.

When we talk about the psychological side, as a nation that is one of the top nations in Europe financially and is trying to be one of the leaders of the world in many ways, we try to teach our children to be confident, to be strong, to stand up for things and to learn about life in a safe and stepwise manner. However, all that these children are hearing all of the time is negative, abuse, racism and put-downs. Again, the accommodation where they start is important. Maslow's hierarchy of needs refers to the need for shelter and for a first safe, secure place. If people do not have that, they do not feel safe, they do not feel secure, they do not feel that is where they can retreat and be comfortable, safe and warm. Everything else falls apart from there, and it becomes much more difficult to thrive and survive in the way that we want our children to do. I agree that that really is a starting point. If we can get safe, strong, affordable accommodation for this population, as is their right, then we would change enormously their projection into the future and, as was said, the impact on education and employment.

The fire risk is clear. Unfortunately, in my first year as Ombudsman for Children, I attended one of the wakes for the children in Carrickmines. It was horrific. To think that could still possibly happen anywhere in the country, after all the work that has been put into it, is scary. Hopefully, it will never happen again, but we seem to be creating conditions that could allow that to happen.

Is this typical? One of the things we can do in our office is to carry out systemic investigations, for example, if one case leads to something that might change systems. In this situation, we felt it was better to do a strong job on an individual authority and take the lessons from there. The committee will have seen already the feedback to this report, and it probably struck us even more than we expected. There are probably examples in every local authority area and there are various different elements. Whether it is the overcrowding, the hygiene or the poor administration of housing applications, it is probably happening all over the country. As to whether it is typical, it is certainly not an outlier, I would say, from what I can understand and the feedback I have got from different organisations. That said, this is why we want to use this investigation as an opportunity to change, and as a starting point for local authorities. We worked very hard with that local authority to say that we are not trying to hammer it but that we are trying to find a way to make things different and to change things. That is why we will stay engaged over the next six to 12 months, and longer if necessary.

I will pass over to Ms Ward to talk about how the population increased from ten bays to 40, and also about the outside staff as well.

Ms Nuala Ward

This site opened up in 1989 and there was no formal means of allocating the bays to anybody. It is very important to put the historical context on this. Over time, families grew and nieces and nephews, children, sons and daughters moved into the site, like any other village or townland in Ireland. What we were really concerned about is that, because the chronic overcrowding had been going on for so long, we would have expected a robust method of allocating social housing or other sites to people who live there as a very straightforward means of addressing overcrowding, but that is not what we found. That was a very serious concern to us. As the committee knows, overcrowding is a key contributor to all the other issues that Dr. Muldoon has identified in regard to the health and well-being of children.

With regard to the contractors, this is a critical point. Information was given to us that, for example, there was one electrical contractor who was unable to gain access to the site. When we looked deeply at that, looked at the minutes and cross-examined everything, we realised it was just one individual on the site who was causing the difficulties. All the other people on the site were extremely upset that they suffered the consequences because of this one individual. They were querying why gardaí were not called and why something was not done in regard to that one individual’s behaviour that impacted on everyone else. When committee members read through the fine detail of the report, they will see that.

That is why Dr. Muldoon mentioned the paralysis. We cannot just walk away from such deplorable conditions and not try to resolve them in some other way. I hope that answers the two questions.

Thank you. I have one further question for Ms Ward. When additional mobile units started to encroach on that site, should the council have been proactive in either removing them or making it impossible for others to come in? Perhaps that is a crude way of dealing with it.

Ms Nuala Ward

If the Senator looks at the guidance in the legislation, because of the nomadic nature of Travellers and their annual movements, which we all know about, local authorities are supposed to make provision for that swell and disappearance of people on these sites, and that was not addressed. The key piece is the Traveller accommodation plan.

That is how you should identify accommodation needs and make plans to meet the needs, and that should have been in place and closely monitored to prevent this happening. As can be seen from our report, that did not happen. The legislative basis for the Traveller accommodation plan was to address the discrimination that Travellers experience in relation to meeting accommodation needs in Ireland. The failure to meet the basic minimum legislation requirements in this regard is a key contributor for why this overcrowding was left year on, year on, and its impact on children.

I thank Dr. Muldoon and Ms Ward. I sat on a local authority in Galway for a very short period. One of the most shocking things to me was the treatment of Traveller communities by local authorities. Some of the things in this report do not come as a surprise to most people who have been active in their communities or have been councillors. It is one of the greatest shames in some ways. Galway City Council routinely returns funding year after year. The local Traveller consultative committee did not sit for a number of years either. Even if Traveller accommodation plans are put in place, to what extent are they really consultative if one fails to bring everybody together? At private meetings we have discussed the various things that might be part of Traveller culture, such as horses. If we are really looking at accommodating the Traveller community we must also look at accommodating the lifestyles of Travellers. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is not only about provision of housing, as the witnesses rightly point out is the bedrock of Maslow's hierarchy of needs but it is also about the provision of adequate housing. I would argue that means it has to be a home and that it has to be something that reflects the culture of that particular section of society. In all those things local authorities across the country are failing. Hearing the words of children is what really brings it home to adults. There is no excuse for not going into a site and addressing issues on the basis of one or two adults who are difficult because children have rights in our Constitution quite apart from adults. One can be quite sure that they were not the ones creating the difficulty for the Garda or the local authority to come in and sort out the problems. On the one hand, I do not want to be too hard on local authorities but I do think it is important. As a public representative, we have a huge challenge that unelected people are making decisions a lot of the time. We have one of the weakest local governments in Europe and that also has to be addressed. There are problems around councillors voting against accommodation and an awful lot of political parties are involved in doing that before anyone puts up their hand and says it is the Government, it is not. Everyone has to take responsibility for that, particularly the largest parties who wield a lot of power in those local authorities. I do not want to be overly political in that sense but everyone needs to step up.

First, is enough done to change the behaviour of the local authorities or is it valuable to do this kind of reporting on other sites across the country? I know of places in Galway, for instance, where there are rats. It is not the fault of the local population. They have been crying out for housing.

Second, do the witnesses believe that prioritisation of vulnerable children is happening when social housing is being allocated? Third, transitory sites do not seem to be happening around the country. The sites that are supposedly there for transient families moving from place to place become permanent sites without all the facilities there for the children to get to school and so on. There is an opportunity now. There are a couple of Ministers who deal with this area. There is the children's Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and also the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, who is in the Department of Social Protection. They have been stepping up to the plate but this is a failure over decades and it continues to be a failure because of the operations of local authorities.

Ms Ward explained well how somewhere that has ten bays moves to 40 bays. We cannot go shutting things down. Where do the families move on to? There must be somewhere for families to move on. One cannot simply come in with the strong arm of the law and leave children with nothing if there is no provision of social housing.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I appreciate the Senator's remarks. A key thing for me is this opportunity to change things from now on. That is why we wrote to the political leaders. The Senator is right that the local councillors are the ones who have to start stepping up but they have to be whipped, if one likes, as they would in the Dáil. There has to be a statement from the top that says that they need to vote in favour of Traveller accommodation for the next five years or whatever it might be until we get this problem sorted. We need to start stepping up and doing our duty which is legislated for - it is a statutory obligation in many cases. The Traveller review from 2019 suggests a pause on the section 8 element of the Act, and that maybe something we do for five years, but the key is start pushing from the top so there is no room for manoeuvre at local councillor level and they have to follow the rules which allow for Traveller accommodation. It will not solve everything completely but it will made a huge inroad to what is a relatively small number of people on the social housing list waiting to be moved on.

Like so many things, if one unblocks one element one starts to free up all the other areas. The transitory sites are only being filled up because there are not enough proper sites and there are not enough opportunities for social housing. As Ms Ward touched on, what I found shocking was the administration of social housing. We had 11 families, that is all. It took two and a half years to get the files together around social housing for those 11 families. The administration is very poor. If they were sorted out, clean, clear, we know one family was there 13 years and had not been moved on to social housing. These sorts of things would not happen in the general population. We need to ensure the proper administration is in place so that when there is an opportunity to move on a family it is taken and used. There are many lazy myths put out by local authorities and councillors that people have been offered X, Y and Z and are not taking it. In reality, when we investigated the 11 families, some who had been there over 13 years waiting, only eight offers were made. Two were taken up and the others were refused, appropriately, because they were in different areas or whatever. Eight offers in 13 years is not exactly moving fast or providing a way to unblock the dam. One can see how overcrowding would happen there.

I will pass over to Ms Ward to talk about the allocation to vulnerable children.

Ms Nuala Ward

The allocation was a serious issue for us as part of this investigation. As members know, we are aware social housing, group homes and all other different types of accommodation are incredibly valuable resources in Ireland. They must be administered fairly and transparently. That is really important.

When one looks at the different policies local authorities have, there are medical priorities. This area had a particular priority because of Travellers but, more importantly, it had a strong priority if there was severe overcrowding, which was causing a health and safety risk. We also had a number of children who had learning difficulties and such on the site. They ticked so many boxes in terms of priority and yet that was not reflected in the records we saw. There was not a recognition of compliance with policy, transparency and accountability with regard to how their applications were being administered.

That was a really serious issue considering the risks to the health and safety of the children on this site.

I welcome Dr. Muldoon and Ms Ward to the committee today. The ombudsman's report is a milestone from the point of view of where we are at in terms of Traveller accommodation. These reports have been coming out for years. We have had health and safety reports on that site, going back to 2011, in which the environmental officer said it was not fit for human habitation.

We cannot let this moment go, from the point of view of where the OCO established the scenario in all its difficulties, from the local authority to councillors and to society in general. Some ten years ago, in Cork County Council, the local authority brought a proposal to extend the bays there but the councillors did not support that. In many ways, that came from pressure from the community not to expand the bay there. The witnesses' information to the committee will be important in respect of how we proceed in terms of Traveller accommodation.

Should section 24 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002, which prohibits nomadism, be repealed? Is the ombudsman suggesting it should be repealed and if that is the case, how should it be done? The provision of the network of transient halting sites in each local authority area is exempted under the Planning and Development Act 2000. Is that part of the witnesses' recommendation or are they focusing on this site and other sites?

The amendment to Part 8 in the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 has to be amended to prevent political interference with Traveller-specific developments. That is crucial. I listened closely when Dr. Muldoon said he had called for the leaders to instruct or put a whip on their councillors to say they had to support Traveller accommodation.

I am also interested in the OCO's meeting with local authority staff, which is hoped to be a target for July. That will be important in moving along. I was on Dublin City Council from 2004 and without casting aspersions on any individual, it was difficult to get the Traveller accommodation unit there to do the work one wanted it to do. We have a site in Dublin South Central's Labre Park. Planning for the site started off approximately five years ago and barrier upon barrier has been erected continuously to prevent that site from being developed. Clúid had the authority to build on the site and put plans forward.

I welcome this report and it could be a game changer from the point of view of making a start, because one is talking about a site which only accommodated ten families and now has up to 40 families. Where were those people supposed to go, if they were not getting accommodation anywhere else? The only option they had was to stay on the site or live on the side of the road and then there would have been ructions about that as well, from the point of view of society.

The key thing is it came from the Ombudsman for Children, in terms of the conditions in which children were living on the site. I hope we, as a committee, can represent Dr. Muldoon's report and try to develop that as a national strategy with regard to housing.

Would the ombudsman support the setting up of a national Traveller accommodation authority to implement the recommendations of the Traveller accommodation expert group? It will be important the Traveller community is part of that authority, to proceed with sites all over the country. We are only talking about a small part of the population. Surely, if we can develop, through the local authorities, good, well-run and well-looked after bays, people would accept those as part of our communities.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I am not an expert on the planning laws and various elements of it. When Deputy Joan Collins asked whether section 24 of the 2002 Act should be repealed, I cannot comment. I am afraid I would not know enough about it. I am aware of the Part 8 provision through the 2019 review. I listen to the people and experts who know. A review group was put in place by a group of experts. It was accepted by the then Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English. It involved the NGOs and advocacy groups and they support the concept of suspending the Part 8 provision. I can see the benefit of that, for a period of time.

That concept of political influence is part of local authority, but we have seen the impact in terms of blocking up and stunting the growth of many generations of Travellers, not just over five or six years. There are three generations living on the site we investigated. Again, 11 families came to us and they all want to be moved into social housing. If they were given the opportunity to move, one would change out one third of the total number of people nearly immediately.

There is an opportunity to be taken here. I will not suggest exactly what could happen but there is an expert review report in place which is only two years old and has been supported by all the advocate groups and NGOs. With regard to national Traveller accommodation authority, the Deputy called this a milestone report. I would hope this is a milestone report but in order for it to be so, we probably need to give a year for the local authorities to start showing they might change or do things differently, the Government to back them, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to come in stronger and challenge anybody who underspends and the system to be done differently.

If that is not working after 12 months, perhaps there is an opportunity for a new authority to be considered, that is, an independent authority which creates a focus on the children of the Traveller communities. If we get it right for the children, everything else will follow. That is the mantra we go with all the time.

We have to look at Covid-19. In the past 14 or 15 months, the Government has acted with great wisdom in many cases, in brushing aside much bureaucracy which was not needed. Can we do that in this situation? The last set of witnesses before the committee two weeks ago talked about 2,000 families living in severe, dangerous situations. Perhaps we can find a route to solving their problems, over the next four to five years, through adjusting things such as suspending some parts of the Act, giving more power to the CEOs or whatever way it needs to be done. I am not quite sure exactly how it will pan out. However, if the political will is there to do that, as there has been through Covid-19, to move things forward and emphasise the importance of the individual and families, there is a great opportunity here. I hope this will be a milestone for all local authorities.

I will let Ms Ward answer on the meeting of the local authorities and what we are hoping from that point of view.

Ms Nuala Ward

We are very much looking forward to this meeting with the local authorities.

We met representatives of various NGOs a couple of weeks ago because they are obviously also critical stakeholders. Since we published the report, some local authorities have reached out to the office and asked if this could relate to them, what they could do differently and what our thoughts are on this. It is really welcome that some of the local authorities have taken time to reflect. It has been very powerful in fairness to the children who came forward. The voices of the children seemed to have resonated with all the adults who have decision-making and policy-making powers. We very much welcome that and we will reach out to them to see what more we can do.

Hopefully the webinar will involve an open discussion. We will share our findings and what those in the local authority told us. As Dr. Muldoon mentioned, the CEO of this local authority has formally stated that he will take accountability for the implementation of the recommendations arising from our investigation and that is to be respected. We very much hope that will be a leadership model that other CEOs throughout the country might consider because it is about the best interests of the children who are living in such deplorable conditions.

Today, physically and mentally I was not able to chair this meeting. Reading the report when it first came out brought me right back to Carrickmines and brought me back to my childhood. I am now a 31-year-old mother. I can only speak of the experience of the halting site where I was born and reared. That halting site opened in 1967. At the moment, its redevelopment is not even being looked at. I was part of a big project for the redevelopment of the site. Many of the children spoke about playing in the mud. I was that young child, not having a safe place to play. It just goes from generation to generation. Dr. Muldoon rightly said that it will be the first time in history that there will be appropriate and safe accommodation for Traveller children.

While the focus of this report is on one halting site, I would like to thank Anne Burke, Breda O'Donoghue and others in the Traveller Visibility Group Cork for their help and the work they have done with that particular halting site. I also thank Ms Ward and Dr. Muldoon for all the hard work they put into this report.

Reading it again was very tough but its contents were very true. I hope that something will change as a result of this report. Ten people from within our community lost their lives and the local authority was not held accountable, nor was the State. We do not want that in future for our young children going to school. I was that young child going to school in the freezing cold, not having heating in the house. Many Travellers live in caravans and trailers. That is people's choice of home and it is a home. People are looking for facilities.

Two weeks ago, I spoke about Labre Park halting site where there was an outbreak of hepatitis A. Many children ended up in hospital over the Christmas period and throughout January. There was a small outbreak of coronavirus on the site at the same time. How can it be acceptable for children from the Traveller community to get hepatitis A in this day and age and nobody is held to account for that?

One side of it is accommodation and the other side is education. Children are being failed and Travellers, who are adults now, have been failed by the system but there are no consequences for it. Nobody is held to account. Nobody is saying that these children's lives matter. I have a little girl who is 20 months old. She is now in safe appropriate accommodation. I am trying my hardest as a mother with really bad anxiety to get her past the age of two. Every mother in the Traveller community fears their kids being under the age of two because we know there is still a danger of not being able to survive until they are over the age of two.

I could speak all day about the inequality. Even on a Christmas Day people living in trailers come looking for water. None of this is acceptable. I have lived through this. Most importantly, young children today are still living through it, not getting the right access to education. They have the shame of going into school while not having the appropriate uniform and being labelled for that even though it is not their fault or their parents' fault. It is down to the accommodation they are living in and the area surrounding it.

If the witnesses were to name their top three recommendations, what would they be? Who should be held accountable? Would this happen if this were children in the general population? This is why we have child protection. I am also a youth worker. This is why we focus on the rights of the child and child protection. Who should be held responsible for these failures that Travellers have had to live through for decades upon decades?

I stay in Labre Park for three days a week when I am actually feeling good and when I come up. When my nephews, nieces and other children on the site fall, they are automatically brought to Our Lady's Hospital. Their parents are questioned by social workers. The mothers and fathers are terrified that their kids will be taken from them due to injuries and infections that are down to the living conditions at the sites and not getting the proper supports they need from local authorities.

If this were to happen in the general population, who would be held accountable? What would Dr. Muldoon recommend to the committee as the way forward? Does the Ombudsman for Children intend to do any more of these reports? I would support that. The Irish Traveller Movement and Pavee Point, the National Traveller Women's Forum and other local NGOs would support the Ombudsman for Children to carry out more of these reports. I am hoping this one is serious enough that the Government will take some action. Who would be held accountable if it happened to a child in the general population? That is one question the committee needs answered.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

This question is very important for the Senator. The experience and passion she has for it are very clear. She knows better than I do. I come to it as an outsider trying to learn. She asked who is held accountable. We have a statutory obligation to look at the public services provided to children. Where they fail, we hold them accountable. Who is accountable? It is the body or individual that is statutorily obliged, in this case the local authority and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Those are the two that are accountable. We send our reports to them.

We engaged with the local authority and we sent our reports to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and also the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. As the latter now has responsibility for diversity and integration, we feel there is also a role for him. The Ministers are clearly accountable. In addition, if the Senator asks who is the boss of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, it is the Taoiseach and the Government. That is where the accountability is and that is why I have been engaging with them as much as with the local authorities.

We feel that we get more done if we engage with organisations and try to find a way to make things work and change things from the inside, rather than to use a stick, so to speak. That is why we have a follow-up. We could have finished this two years ago but we would not have had the support of the local authority when we did.

We engaged with it and asked how we could get this right. We got the local authority on board to support us and to accept the recommendations. We have a follow-up at six months and 12 months. If there is a failure or I am not satisfied after 12 months, I have the option under the legislation to write a special report to the Oireachtas and ask it to take over from there. That has not had to happen yet and I hope it will not happen in this case, but it is an option that is always available to us. That is where the accountability lies.

As regards the recommendations, they are like children - we cannot choose one over the other, as I am sure the Senator knows as a mother. We only make recommendations that are crucial. We make important recommendations and I would hate to think that if we identified the top three recommendations, the local authority would sit back and not bother with the rest of them. There is a statutory obligation to provide housing, so we have asked the local authority to audit the files for the 11 families with which we were engaged and to ensure those families have not been in any way failed in terms of the way their applications were administered. We have also asked the local authority to look at all the family applications relating to the site and to create a timeline plan for provision of accommodation up to 2024.

Those are the recommendations that stand out for me but I would not say one is more important than another because it is also important to have sewerage, water and a playground. Children have a right to play and I keep reminding many public authorities that play is not an add-on luxury; it is where children escape, have fun and leave everything behind them. It is also where they learn how to climb, jump, take turns and escape real life. It is crucial that they have a play area. A simple thing such as a footpath to the nearest housing estate to allow them to get to school safely and cleanly is also important. That is why I would hate to choose one recommendation over another. They are all crucial.

On the question regarding investigations, we hope there will not be any more investigations but our job is to accept any complaint that is submitted and to consider it individually. In the context of engagement with the local authority, as Ms Ward addressed, what I would like to do and may do after the meeting is to invite the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to join us at that meeting. That might make for a much more rounded meeting at which we can try to engage that so that everybody is talking together and there is no miscommunication. That may be a way of preventing further investigations. However, if people come to us, we will look at each case individually and see what happens.

Ms Nuala Ward

I echo the comments of Dr. Muldoon in respect of the recommendations. What we did raise is that it is really important for local authorities to engage with the children so that they feel valued and heard. We thought it was really important to empower these children and assure them that what they told us mattered, that they matter and that they can effect change as individuals. That is a crucial lesson to give these children.

As the members can see, one of our recommendations is that we asked the local authority to reach out to local youth services and the local child and youth committee to bring that wrap-around community response to these children to improve their lives. It is not just down to the local authority, it is for everyone within that community to try to improve the lives of these children.

I again thank Dr. Muldoon and Ms Ward for this outstanding report, No End in Site. It is to be hoped that the future will look bright for Traveller children and we will not have to see other generations of children growing up in dire accommodation. I, too, am of the mindset that every recommendation is important. As I said, it is not about recreating the wheel. Many of the answers are in the report of the special expert group that was set up in 2019 and reported in that year. That is important. I again thank Dr. Muldoon and Ms Ward on behalf of the Traveller community. I rarely speak on behalf of the 40,000 people in the Traveller community but in this case, I will do so and say "Thank you" for this report.

I thank the Senator for that very powerful contribution.

I thank Dr. Muldoon and Ms Ward for the report and the recommendations but the situation described in the report mirrors that on many sites in my area that have experienced very similar things. There is St. Joseph's, which is a halting site that has been there for more than 20 years. Half the site is in use but the other half is decommissioned. The same is happening in St. Mary's. We lost St. Mary's and St. Christopher's and they have not been replaced in terms of accommodation. As regards St. Margaret's, I do not know how many people I met regarding plans to expand that site in Ballymun but it still has not happened. That has been going on for well over five years. That is how seriously accommodation is taken by the local authorities. On the Ratoath Road, the Gavin family is living with no water. There are 14 men, women and children with no water in a Covid situation. In fairness, they are being supplied with water by Fingal County Council, the local authority. However, it is just unacceptable. They had water but it was disconnected and they have not been linked up subsequently. It is an absolute scandal. That is what I have experienced in my area.

What penalties have the local authorities suffered in consequence for this? We certainly need an overview of all of it. There should be a group to oversee it, such as a national Traveller group, which would include our guests and many others. That needs to be put in place because if the problem is so widespread in my area, I hate to think what it is like in other areas. The report is so damning that one could probably identify many places where there are similar problems.

Many Traveller children in Finglas and Ballymun are in DEIS schools. Education and getting people up to a high standard are so important.

The number of people from the local Traveller community who are coming to me seeking housing is very worrying. Many of them are now being forced into getting HAP or going into local authority housing. We are talking about Travellers being nomads and having their own culture, yet this is happening on a big scale. The community is breaking down in many ways. We should not allow that to happen. If people want to stay in their community, we have to try to keep them in that community. In the context of the mental health of these children and other members of the Traveller community in general, it is very important that we keep them within their own communities and we provide accommodation.

I have seen so many reports through the years and dealt with so many different issues. It is actions that are really needed. We need to push local authorities and change the mindset of many in local authorities, as well as local people and politicians, who are blocking progress, which is unacceptable. I do no know what the ombudsman can do in terms of pushing this issue. How does one push it? Does one have to get onto a committee, as suggested, to oversee this issue? Do we have to start identifying problems place by place or county by county? Do we look at each place and figure out the way in which local authorities are dealing with the Traveller community in general? Is that the best way to do it? These issues are so widespread that I think we have a big job ahead of us.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the Deputy. He has identified several areas where he believes the same issues are arising. I cannot argue with that. That is why we hope this will be a trigger event rather than a one-off report. It should be the start of something. It is not our role to follow through at the level proposed by the Deputy in terms of getting involved with the authorities or accommodation.

Our job is to present this report to the Oireachtas and to make sure that the political and governmental systems takes over. That is why we are pushing this with the political leaders. As mentioned by Deputy Ellis, action is needed to change the mindset of the local people and the politicians. The best way to do that is to have success, that is, to successfully move Travellers into the right systems, the right housing and the right safe, secure accommodation for the Travellers, which integrates well with wherever they need to be and provides for that nomadic lifestyle the Deputy spoke about. Whether the local authority with which we are engaged is to create a successful template that others can only or it is the first of many in a national initiative that is fine, but as previously stated by the former rapporteur for child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, in regard to Ireland, we have some of the best legislation, policies and procedures but we suffer from implementation disorder. As I see it, the legislation is strong and clear but the politicians are ignoring it. They are bypassing it. They are using the one piece, the veto under section 8, that allows the planning to be blocked. This is providing an opportunity for people to block progress. We need to look at that. The mindset will be changed if we can get a successful move in the right direction for a number of areas and start using them as examples. That will really make a difference.

The Deputy mentioned the DEIS schools. A great many schools are working hard to provide opportunities for these children. I have met many young Traveller children, in particular the girls, who are bright as buttons and as sharp as can be. They told me of restricted timetables and teachers telling them that nothing much is expected of them because they will leave school when they are 12. These children have ambitions that are not being fulfilled. They want to be doctors, lawyers, nurses and so on. The mindset of people around them stifles them as well. If we can make progress on accommodation, all of the other areas will start to grow as well and all of the opportunities will begin to broaden out in front of those children. We will be pushing hard for this particular investigation to be successful and for the recommendations to be fulfilled, which we hope Members of the Oireachtas can then use to drive forward overall change for the next five years.

Given the hour, I will try to be brief. I join in the welcome to Dr. Muldoon and Ms Ward. I also welcome the report, No End in Site. Our aim and aspiration is to have action now on this matter and for this parliamentary term to be remembered as the term in which the question of Traveller accommodation was properly taken on.

Dr. Muldoon mentioned that he will engage in follow-up meetings. I understand his remarks on the importance of implementation. I agree that the process should be consultative and that we should try to coax people towards achieving results using the carrot rather than the stick until such time as the stick is required. Should the need for the stick arise - we pray that will not be the case - Dr. Muldoon will bring a report to the Oireachtas. I should, perhaps, know the answer to the following question, but what is the limit of the statutory obligations or powers of the Ombudsman for Children? If a report is presented to the Oireachtas, does this then become a discretionary matter for the Oireachtas? Does the Oireachtas have anything more than a moral obligation to act on Dr. Muldoon's findings? I ask Dr. Muldoon to outline the law around that as I am sure people watching online might also like to know that.

The case has been well made by so many. All children must have play areas. This is fundamental to their development and growth. They must have proper housing, healthy housing conditions and housing that is no different to that of anybody else. These things should be a given in this century in light of the level of resources available. It has to be our ambition and aim to achieve a set of actions that bring this about. I wish Dr. Muldoon and Ms Ward well in their coaxing process. I would welcome a response on where they can go with the stick if the carrot fails. Were the public to bring pressure on the various elected representatives that would have an implication too, but that is probably not likely in the short term and so we do need to deal with it this way.

I welcome the report. We need to ensure it is implemented. If there is any way that we can fit into the process, including by way of direct engagement, we should do so.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank Senator O'Reilly. On the limit of our statutory obligations, we can make recommendations. The essence of the role of an ombudsman around the world is to create moral suasion. That is the essence of how we work. The reason we do not go for binding recommendations is that as soon as we do that type of an investigation, people lawyer up and it becomes a different type of process and we do not get the change that we have seen. As I said, we engaged for three years with this local authority. The final year of the engagement was about progress being made internally without anybody having to know about it and conversations that led to these recommendations being accepted.

As I mentioned, the Ombudsman for Children was set up in 2002 and it commenced operations in 2004. We have not yet had to do this but if we find ourselves in a situation where we need to do it, we will write to the Secretary General or the Minister of the Department - in this case the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage - advising it that we intend to bring a report to the Oireachtas. That tends to focus the mind. As far as I know, that has happened only once under my predecessor. Departments then tend to follow through and help to create satisfaction on our part. That would be my intention. Ultimately, if we end up bringing a report to the Oireachtas there will be a moral, but not statutory, obligation on the Oireachtas to finish implementing the recommendations. I would expect that if it gets to the stage where a Minister is being told by an ombudsman that the nation and the house of Government are not happy with the way in which recommendations are being followed through, that would be a strong argument for getting it done. As I said, that is very much a final solution.

As there are no further contributions from members, I would like to make a brief contribution. It is a privilege to have been asked by the Chairperson to chair this meeting in her stead. It has been a very useful meeting. The report, in its detail, is very stark and important. Unfortunately, there are many cases of similar type throughout the country. We do not need to do much study to know that. Most of us know that already. The testimony of members today points to this not being a one-off situation, unfortunately.

There is another matter of concern. The report looks at the Traveller issue not only from the point of view of accommodation but in regard to children because children are the remit of the Ombudsman for Children. The report is a wake-up call for us too. We know how much early childhood experiences influence people's later life experiences in terms of health, education opportunities and so on. The report highlights, from the prism of a child, the impact of lack of action in this area. I can assure Dr. Muldoon that the committee will look carefully at the recommendations in the context of its report, which has a wider remit across the Traveller experience in our society.

I have a question regarding Part 8. I believe it presents a barrier and we should be honest enough to admit that societal attitudes create that barrier because where accommodation for Travellers is proposed, pressure is often brought to bear on politicians. I have argued for a long time that that issue should be dealt with and have asked whether Part 8 should perhaps be suspended. Two suggestions have been made, one of which relates to handing the responsibility to An Bord Pleanála for the short term, whether five years or whatever, or permanently, as was done in other cases. People would be allowed to make observations and the board would then make a decision in line with Government policy. The other idea was to have a dedicated national accommodation authority, although one problem with that, and I would be interested in hearing our guests' views, is it could take some time before that could be set up.

I thought the clarification Dr. Muldoon gave was very useful. He seems to be saying that, as is the case in all ombudsman Acts, the ultimate power he has is to report to the Oireachtas. He is throwing the baton to us, to the Oireachtas as a whole and to this committee specifically, which has been charged by the Oireachtas to examine how Travellers should be treated as full and equal citizens in our community. Dr. Muldoon might confirm that that is where responsibility ultimately goes, that the buck stops here in the Oireachtas and that we should call to account the Government and all its agencies to deal with this issue once and for all, and ensure that no more children will ever grow up in the conditions outlined in his report.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

As the Vice Chairman noted, the issue is very stark. We did not set ourselves up as experts in Traveller accommodation and legislation. We have learned about it through three years of investigation and through experts coming together to create that report in 2019. One recommendation related to the suspension of Part 8. While I can see difficulties with doing that, something radical has to happen. We have to change the legislation in some way or other. On the An Bord Pleanála suggestion, I could not comment on whether that is a better option. From our point of view, it is about creating movement because the paralysis of the system is allowed through Part 8.

People are crowded. If a site starts off with ten bays, it can end up with 20 caravans. The key is to get people onto another site or into social housing. If a plan is made to build social housing or to generate a new site and that is blocked, it may end up that the 20 caravans becomes 30, and there is a paralysis of the system. Something needs to be shaken up and that means being radical and suspending or changing something. I am not going to say clearly what the political route should be but there is an option in front of the Oireachtas with a really well thought-out report, and the decision has to be made quickly. We need to start making it happen.

When I launched the report, I likened the issue to the tenements. In Dublin, one can go on a tour of a tenement, which shows that living in those conditions in the early 1900s was almost better than some of the sites the committee has discussed. We eradicated that from our general population 50 years ago and we would not allow it to happen now, yet every politician in the Dáil is standing over that if they allow their local government politicians to continue to use Part 8 in that way and to allow the influence to come forward. Those children deserve the right to live in a safe, secure and comfortable home in the way in which they want to live. They have a right to play, health and education, and those rights need to start from proper accommodation.

As for whether I have passed the baton to the Oireachtas, I believe that is what should happen. I hope all we need to do is talk to the committee, and members can make the difference in pushing forward with their colleagues and as a committee with its report. I hate to think I would end up coming back with a special report, but if we did that, it would definitely be a matter of handing the matter back to the Oireachtas to take control and do something about it.

I hope it will not get to that stage. I would love to think that in 12 months, we will have a report indicating I am satisfied with the progress made and we can see real differences for the children on that site. I will keep my fingers crossed in that regard and we will work as hard as we can with the local authority to ensure that happens. I hope the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Taoiseach will, as was indicated, put forward opportunities for those local authorities to make a difference.

Dr. Muldoon is saying quite clearly that the time for talk is over and the time for action is here. He is seeking that throughout the system, we as the Oireachtas and the Government insist on action being taken to deal with this issue.

The discussion has been very beneficial and informative. On behalf of the committee, I thank Dr. Muldoon and Ms Ward for attending. It is a pity the meeting had to be held virtually. We too are time constrained and we cannot put this issue on the back burner while Covid is here. Whether it is ours or another committee that will in future deal with the specific issue of ensuring that Traveller children have rights equal to every other child in society, across the entire spectrum of their lives, I hope that on the next occasion our guests are invited into the Oireachtas, it will be in person. Good and all as virtual meetings are, nothing beats being here in person.

As no other members are indicating, that concludes our business today.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.57 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 29 June 2021.