Traveller Accommodation: Discussion (Resumed)

I welcome everyone to our virtual public meeting. Before we hear from our witnesses, we have some business to attend to regarding the rules around privilege. I remind members that they must be on the Leinster House complex in order to attend this meeting. If any member attempts to participate from outside Leinster House, I will ask him or her to leave the meeting. I remind witnesses that as they are giving their evidence from outside Leinster House, they may not have the same privilege they would have if they were in Leinster House. They may think it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. They are further reminded that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or damage the good name of any person. If I say that I think a witness is breaking this rule, he or she must stop.

This is our fifth public meeting about Traveller accommodation. In today's meeting we will discuss access to housing and accommodation, including Traveller-specific accommodation. Poor living conditions are one of the biggest social determinants with regard to health and education outcomes, and, subsequently, employment prospects. Do we have the right policies, legislation, regulation and funding for Traveller accommodation at national level? What about implementation at local authority level?

On behalf of the committee, I am delighted to extend a warm welcome to our witnesses today. Céad míle fáilte romhaibh. We have representatives from both the national level, in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and local authorities, in the form of the CCMA. From the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I welcome Mr. Paul Benson, principal officer for housing grants, local authority stock improvement and Traveller accommodation, and Mr. Eamonn Waters, principal officer for homelessness. I propose that we publish the opening statements from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the County and City Management Association, CCMA. Is that agreed? Agreed. I invite Mr. Benson to make an opening statement of between five and ten minutes.

Mr. Paul Benson

I thank the Vice Chairman and the members for the opportunity to address the Joint Committee on Key Issues Affecting the Traveller Community. I am a principal officer in the Traveller accommodation unit in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I am joined by my colleague, Mr. Eamonn Waters, principal officer in the homelessness unit in the Department. I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about this important issue today. Addressing Traveller accommodation issues and Traveller homelessness is a priority for the Department.

There is no doubt that delivery on Traveller-specific accommodation has been disappointing in recent years and this is reflected in the levels of funding drawn down. I am pleased to report, however, that local authorities made full use of the €14.5 million which was available for Traveller-specific accommodation in 2020 and it is hoped and we are confident that this will be repeated with the €15.5 million budget for 2021.

It is important to note that accommodation for Traveller households is provided across a range of housing options. The majority of Travellers live in standard housing, including local authority and approved housing body accommodation and housing assistance payment, HAP, and rental accommodation scheme, RAS, supported tenancies in the private rented sector. Funding for these housing supports is provided through various budget lines. The Traveller accommodation unit’s budget is provided solely for Traveller-specific accommodation, such as halting sites and group housing schemes. Accordingly, funding available for and spent on the provision of accommodation solutions for Travellers is much broader than the often reported spend under the Traveller-specific accommodation budget. The Department continues to work with all our stakeholders to improve the delivery and standard of all types of Traveller accommodation and this will continue.

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 in order to meet the identified accommodation need. The Department's role is to ensure there are adequate structures and supports in place to assist the local authorities and approved housing bodies in providing such accommodation, including a national framework of policy, legislation and funding. It is a matter for each local authority to set targets for the provision of Traveller accommodation, which they outline in their Traveller accommodation programmes. These programmes provide a roadmap for local authority investment priorities over the period and form the basis for the allocation of funding from the Department for Traveller accommodation. Current Traveller accommodation plans run for the period from June 2019 until June 2024.

I will briefly address the annual local authority estimate of Traveller households. Each year, local authorities carry out an annual count or estimate, as it is known, within their functional area. Normally, it is carried out in November. In 2020, it was carried out in December. The 2020 count indicated there were 10,809 Traveller households in the State, 78% of which are in standard accommodation and 22% of which are in Traveller-specific accommodation. Of the 78% in standard accommodation, 45% are either in local authority or approved housing body, AHB, tenancies in standard local authority or AHB-approved accommodation. Of those, 18% are in supported tenancies in the private rental sector, mostly through the HAP and RAS, with 9% in shared housing and 6% in accommodation provided by Travellers from their own resources. Of the 22% of households in Traveller-specific accommodation, the count estimates 8% are within group housing schemes, 9% on authorised halting sites and 5% on unauthorised halting sites.

The Traveller accommodation expert group was established in 2018 to review the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 and other legislation impacting on the provision and delivery of accommodation for Travellers. It presented its report in July 2019. The report sets out an integrated set of recommendations intended to improve the effectiveness of the arrangements for providing accommodation for members of the Traveller community. These recommendations address four key themes, namely, delivery reflecting need, planning, capacity and resources and governance. A programme board was established to oversee the implementation of recommendations of the expert group and a work programme for 2021 has been put in place, covering 18 of the 32 recommendations.

The programme board met for the first time in March and has met four times since. It will meet again in October. It includes two representatives from Traveller organisations, two County and City Management Association representatives and two representatives from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and is chaired by the chair of the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee, NTACC. The Minister attends quarterly meetings of the programme board to hear updates on progress and the board also updates the NTACC on progress.

Some of the recommendations which have been advanced to completion or are currently being advanced are on the funding allocation system, which was overhauled in 2020. To facilitate ease of access to funding the Department ceased allocating specific budgets to individual local authorities. Instead, it is open to all local authorities to apply for and draw down funds at any time throughout the year and this is actively encouraged by the Department.

The Department has also worked with the Central Statistics Office, CSO, in relation to the upcoming census to ensure that all Travellers are facilitated to participate in census 2022.

The Department has also been working on a recommendation to have a Traveller identifier on the social housing support application form. Significant progress has been made on this and it will allow for evidenced-based planning for Traveller accommodation and will support the Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs. We expect that social housing support application form will be modified this year to amend regulations. It should make a big difference to the management of data.

On the management and maintenance of Traveller-specific accommodation, the Department funds local authorities for that, or makes a contribution. That contribution was increased by 50% earlier this year by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke.

Research is being commissioned to consider the design and long-term maintenance of Traveller-specific accommodation. This will involve wide stakeholder engagement and consultation and ultimately result in updated guidance for local authorities and approved housing bodies in the design of Traveller-specific accommodation.

Transient sites are an important part of the ambition of the Traveller accommodation plan. As part of the work of the programme board, the Department will explore the provision of an all-island approach to the provision of a network of transient sites across the island of Ireland. Discussions in this regard have begun with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

With regard to reporting on the provision of new Traveller-specific accommodation, delivery of new Traveller-specific accommodation such as permanent halting sites and group housing schemes will be tracked under Housing for All and reported in progress reports against the 50,000 new-build social housing targets envisaged under that plan.

The independent review of the role of social workers and personnel employed by local authorities specifically to assist Travellers with their accommodation needs is an important piece of work that was recently completed. It was carried out to ensure services relating to Traveller accommodation needs adapt and remain relevant. The Department commissioned research into the role of social workers and personnel employed by local authorities to assist Travellers with their accommodation needs. Since the mid-1960s, local authorities have employed social workers to support Travellers in meeting their accommodation needs. Since then, the nature and scale of the demands on local authority housing departments have changed and local authorities have taken on new housing responsibilities. The Department is liaising with the CCMA on the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report.

The pilot caravan loan scheme is an initiative which has been undertaken to ensure Traveller households have access to good-quality caravan or trailer accommodation. The Department has, following an extensive consultation with stakeholders and approval from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, rolled out a six-month pilot preferential loan scheme in four local authority areas. Following a review of the pilot, which it is hoped will be successful, the intention is to roll it out nationally during 2022, incorporating whatever changes are deemed necessary arising from the review of the pilot. In the Department's view, the scheme has the potential to significantly improve living conditions for Traveller families and comfort levels within caravans and trailers. It will be fully supported by the Department.

My colleague, Mr. Eamonn Waters from the homelessness division, will conclude the opening statement and speak about Traveller homelessness.

Mr. Eamonn Waters

Travellers are over-represented in the emergency accommodation facilities provided for people experiencing homelessness. We know this as the Department with responsibility for policy on homelessness and Traveller accommodation. The committee will be aware of research published by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, which noted that one in nine people who are homeless identified as Travellers. Homelessness among Travellers is higher than it is across the population of Ireland more generally. Travellers are more at risk of homelessness. This is reflected in research, and in our own work directly.

We also know that there is a relationship between social disadvantage and homelessness. Unfortunately, therefore, the over-representation of Travellers among the homeless population is not a surprise. However, it is not something that should be accepted. With local authorities, which have statutory responsibilities for the provision of homeless accommodation and tackling homelessness, we are working to address this. Some progress has been made in reducing homelessness generally across all groups. Looking at family homelessness, in July 2018, there were 1,778 families in emergency accommodation, which was the highest recorded to date. This has been reduced to 930 families based on the most recent information, from July 2021, and represents a fall of 48%. Significant challenges remain but these are being addressed.

Housing for All, the Government’s housing plan for the period until 2030, was launched earlier this month. It is a multi-annual, multibillion euro plan which will improve Ireland’s housing system and deliver more homes of all types for people with different housing needs. It contains a comprehensive strategic approach to tackling homelessness. There is a commitment to eradicate homelessness by 2030. Housing for All confirms a housing-led approach to tackling homelessness for all groups and includes specific responses for members of the Traveller community. When we use the term "housing-led", we mean that the most effective way to address homelessness is to provide more accommodation. Under Housing for All, there are specific and costed plans to increase supply across all tenure types, including very significant commitments to social and affordable housing, with over 90,000 social homes, 36,000 affordable homes and 18,000 cost-rental homes to be delivered by 2030. There are also specific commitments to fund the ambition of local authority TAPs and expand the Traveller-specific accommodation pipeline. The capital amount being invested annually in social and affordable housing is €4 billion. This is the biggest such programme in the history of the State. Housing for All includes 18 distinct actions tailored to eliminate homelessness.

The Housing First programme is central in responding to the needs of long-term homeless single people who have complex support needs. There are also Travellers who fall within this category. This programme is a partnership between the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Department of Health, the HSE, local authorities and voluntary housing bodies. Wrap-around supports are provided along with a tenancy. Under Housing First, an additional 1,200 supported tenancies will be created for homeless individuals over the next five years. This is in addition to more than 750 tenancies which will have been created under the programme by the end of this year.

Many families, some of whom are Travellers, have found themselves trapped in a long-term cycle of homelessness. Housing for All commits the Department to working with local authorities and NGOs to identify families experiencing long-term homelessness who have complex support needs. Those who do will be provided with enhanced tenancy supports to help them exit homelessness and maintain their homes. The Housing for All plan specifically recognises the importance of addressing Traveller accommodation needs as a priority and commits to working with local authorities to improve the quantity and quality of Traveller-specific accommodation.

We welcome the opportunity to appear before the committee today. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach, Deputy Ó Cuív.

I thank Mr. Waters. From the County and City Management Association, CCMA, I welcome Mr. Frank Curran, chair of the housing, building and land use committee of the CCMA and chief executive of Wicklow County Council. I also welcome Mr. Colm Ward, director of housing of South Dublin County Council. I suggest Mr. Curran makes an opening statement and we will then take questions from committee members.

Mr. Frank Curran

I am chairman of the County and City Management Association's committee on housing, building and land use. I am also chief executive of Wicklow County Council. As the Vice Chairman has said, I am accompanied by my colleague, Mr. Colm Ward, director of services for housing in South Dublin County Council.

On behalf of the CCMA I thank the committee for its invitation here today and look forward to assisting it in its examination of issues in accessing housing and accommodation in the context of higher homeless rates among the Traveller community. This is a priority issue for local authorities, and we welcome the opportunity to discuss our work in this area and some of the challenges faced.

Local authorities have a key statutory responsibility in the area of homelessness under various Acts, such as the Housing Act 1988 and the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. As set out in the Housing Act 1988, local authorities have general responsibility for the provision of housing for adults who cannot afford to provide it for themselves. The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 places a statutory obligation on local authorities to make provision for the accommodation needs of Travellers through the adoption and implementation of five-year Traveller accommodation programmes.

In relation to housing, local authorities broadly aim to achieve a situation whereby every household in which a housing need has been established has, as far as possible, available to it an affordable dwelling of good quality in a good environment at a tenure and location of choice. All applicants seeking social housing accommodation, including Traveller-specific accommodation, are required to submit housing applications and relevant documents, in accordance with the housing regulations of 2011. Where the applicant has particular family circumstances or a disability, the local authority will consider such issues when addressing the housing need. It is the policy of local authorities to consult Traveller applicants regarding their accommodation needs and requirements to provide, where appropriate, Traveller-specific accommodation.

Each local authority has a Traveller accommodation programme, TAP, which aims to meet the existing and projected accommodation needs of Travellers in their areas, including providing Traveller accommodation in appropriate, suitable and well-serviced areas. The TAP is prepared and structured in a prescribed format and reviewed every four years. Specific programmes and actions are developed following an assessment of Traveller housing needs and a community and stakeholder consultation process. The programme is approved by the relevant council and by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

Each November, local authorities undertake an annual estimate of accommodation of Travellers which assists in drawing up the TAPs. As has been outlined by my colleagues, it can be difficult to get accurate figures if ethnicity is not declared. The CCMA welcomes the proposal of the expert review group on Traveller accommodation to formally record ethnicity and Traveller status in housing applications. The CCMA has two representatives on the programme board established to oversee implementation of 18 of the 32 expert review group's recommendations.

The capital delivery programme for housing to meet the assessed and projected housing need of the Traveller community in local authorities is based on the TAP. At present, the TAP requirements in capital delivery and housing maintenance are met by the same delivery and maintenance teams that are tasked with meeting increasing housing delivery targets, increased housing stock and asset management requirements, voids and retrofit programmes. Where Traveller-specific accommodation is proposed, a significant amount of consultation with families and communities is required to build trust, design the best housing solutions and create favourable conditions for the planning process. Such projects are very important but take up increased resources and time. Local Traveller accommodation consultative committees, LTACC, have been established in all local authorities. The role of the LTACC is to provide a forum whereby Traveller accommodation issues can be addressed in a timely and co-ordinated manner and where decisions are reached as far as possible on the basis of mutual consensus. Membership of the LTACC consists of Travellers, Traveller development groups, elected members and local authority staff.

Local authorities provide a range of accommodation options to the Traveller community, including Traveller-specific accommodation. Accommodation is provided by local authorities through a range of options such as standard local authority housing, which is the majority as it happens, approved housing body housing, group housing and halting sites and accommodation provided through subsidisation via the housing assistance payment and rental accommodation scheme. With the support of homeless service providers, including non-governmental organisations, local authorities also provide emergency accommodation units with specific supports for homeless families and Traveller families using private emergency accommodation, transitional units, emergency accommodation, housing assistance payment homeless place finder and family hubs. Local authorities are experiencing a growth in young Traveller family formations as well as changing dynamics for the provision of housing solutions to Traveller families. The CCMA would like to clarity that local authorities provide emergency accommodation to Traveller families in the same manner as all homeless families.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the collaborative efforts of local authorities, the Department, the HSE, Traveller representatives and others have been crucial in mitigating against Covid-19 within vulnerable groups. This unified approach continues to have a positive impact across the sector. The CCMA worked with the Department and the HSE to carry out a Covid risk assessment of Traveller sites using a toolkit to identify areas that needed additional supports during the pandemic. The CCMA strongly believes this very practical approach had a significant impact and local authorities will continue to build on this progress.

By April 2021, local authorities had drawn down €4.5 million of a total €15.5 million funding available for the provision of additional facilities for Traveller-specific accommodation. This included the provision of 111 accommodation units, additional water and sanitation facilities, electricity supply, additional site cleaning, additional waste removal, pest control and site improvement works. The roll-out of estate management initiatives, where Travellers are residing in local authority housing schemes, will help improve relationships between local authorities, residents and Travellers through environment, sports, arts, libraries, age friendly services and municipal district offices. These programmes are focused on developing a more positive estate management approach and the CCMA strongly believes it will lead to the creation of new resident committees. The active engagement of all residents, including Travellers, is encouraged.

Where some Traveller families may feel isolated, greater inter-agency involvement may break down barriers between settled and Traveller communities. The pre-tenancy programmes offered by NGOs supporting the Traveller community strive to ensure positive outcomes by concentrating on day-to-day home maintenance, maintaining a tenancy, budgeting and advice and information on healthy eating are welcomed by the CCMA. The Traveller accommodation support unit in the Department is in regular contact with local authorities to provide support and funding as appropriate. In addition to capital funding for the build and refurbishment programme, the Department also provides specific funding to local authorities to employ social workers and Traveller liaison officers to work with and assist Travellers with their accommodation needs.

As I stated earlier, evidence would suggest that homelessness among Travellers is higher than it is across the population generally. The data is difficult to capture as it is based on local knowledge only and where ethnicity has been declared. As has been pointed out, progress is being made generally in reducing homelessness, with a 48% reduction in families in homeless accommodation between July 2018 and July 2021. Local authorities have advised that when Traveller families become homeless they can be larger families requiring additional resources and it may be difficult to provide suitable accommodation for their needs. There is also a need to have suitable wraparound support services for some individuals and families, which involves communication with various stakeholders.

On private rental accommodation, anecdotal feedback from some Traveller families is that, unfortunately, some landlords are not predisposed to offer private rented accommodation to Travellers. Where Traveller-specific accommodation is proposed a significant amount of consultation with families and communities is required to build trust, design the best housing solutions and create favourable conditions for the planning process. Such projects take additional time and resources. These projects are generally not suitable for external design teams. We try to do them in-house because of the consultation involved. Compatibility between Traveller families can be an issue in allocating Traveller-specific accommodation.

Within local authorities, the role of a social worker is to provide care and case management to Travellers who present as homeless, who need to make applications for housing supports or who have experienced complex family issues requiring inter-agency interventions for many years. Throughout the sector this resource is also tasked with a wide range of duties, such as homeless service delivery and supervision. Child protection duties and housing welfare for an increasing number of non-Traveller housing applicants can sometimes result in reduced capacity to meet Traveller-specific support requirements. Many Traveller tenancies require retrofit or extension works where families expand or have special requirements. The number of presentations of single people using homeless services has increased throughout society in general due to the lack of supply of one-bedroom units. This has been recognised by all stakeholders and it is something on which the CCMA is working with the Department to solve.

Local authorities are under significant pressure to increase supports to ethnic minorities and do not have the resources to meet all demand. In accordance with the Housing for All strategy, the CCMA recognises and supports that addressing Traveller accommodation is one of a number of priorities that need to be addressed. The CCMA is working in partnership with the various stakeholders to drive the recommendations contained within the Traveller accommodation expert review group report.

The CCMA welcomes the report of the independent review of the role of social workers and believes there is a need for a more sustainable funding model for the retention and expansion of the social work service and to reflect the wider role of the social worker both within the housing Department and across the local authorities generally. It concurs with the report that support for those staff working with Traveller accommodation is required and more mentoring, training and active case study learnings is vital. Greater inter-agency involvement is also required in some cases. A good example of this is the work done by the local authorities in collaboration with the HSE during the height of the pandemic to ensure the correct measures were implemented to help alleviate, where possible, the spread of Covid-19. The CCMA welcomes this continued collaboration. It looks forward to working with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the development of the caravan loan scheme, which is in pilot in four local authorities.

Each local authority is actively supporting all members of the Traveller community, not just those who present as homeless, and the CCMA continues to foster relationships with all the stakeholders to deliver better outcomes for Traveller families.

I thank Mr. Curran. I invite Deputy McAuliffe to put his questions.

I will start with some of the issues covered by Mr. Curran. Budget 2021 provided a 50% increase in funding for the management of halting sites. What has been the practical impact of that on the ground? Have local authorities been able to improve the services as result of that increase?

Mr. Frank Curran

The increase was in relation to Covid and the work that needed to be done following on from the inspections in terms of the cycling up of water and sewerage, the provision of new caravans and alternative accommodation and deep cleans, etc. That work is ongoing. Over the last two years, a lot of work has been done as a result of Covid. That proved very valuable.

Should that level of funding be maintained and how would Mr. Curran see it being used in a non-Covid period?

Mr. Frank Curran

It is about keeping the facilities up to the required standards. Where there are issues in terms of water, sewerage and so on, the continued upgrade and cleaning of surfaces, waste management, etc., is welcome. We put a lot of resources into maintaining the facilities and liaising with Travellers on issues that arise in the existing facilities. The funding is welcome. There is no question about that.

In terms of the breakdown of types of accommodation for members of the Traveller community, a significant number of Travellers are living in private rented accommodation. We know already of the level of discrimination against HAP tenants in general, but we have all heard the stories of the discrimination experienced by Travellers on top of that. What has the Department done to capture and address that, specifically for the Traveller community?

Mr. Frank Curran

It is very difficult to capture that type of information. The information we have is based on the type of anecdotal evidence referenced by the Deputy. It is information that it is really difficult to get. We try to operate a housing-led approach. Currently, 78% of Travellers are in standard accommodation. We have a large building programme under way, with 10,000 units under construction. There are 9,500 new builds planned each year, so a lot of stock will be coming on stream. Much of that accommodation will be allocated to Traveller families. In terms of capturing the data, it is very difficult to do that. We will have a Traveller identifier in applications and, hopefully, that will build up the type of data available to us. Mr. Benson might want to comment on capturing data from the Department's side.

Mr. Paul Benson

The percentage of Traveller households in private rented accommodation is 18%. This means 2,162 families are in receipt of support from the State to maintain those tenancies, mostly under the RAS and HAP. The Deputy is correct that there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that those tenancies are hard to sustain. Most local authorities are working on tenancy sustainment. They have tenancy sustainment officers who work with all tenants who are under pressure with their tenancy or are in danger of losing it, and they try to prevent that arising in the first instance. It does arise at times and while we do not want to see people end up in homeless services, occasionally they do. We then have to try to exit them from those homeless services. My colleague spoke earlier about how difficult a process that can be.

Sometimes the market does not provide the accommodation needed, in particular for large families. Much of the availability is three-bedroom and four-bedroom houses and sometimes the requirement is larger. That can make the process more difficult. The local authorities work as best they can, through their social workers, Traveller accommodation liaison officer and tenancy sustainment officers, to try to sustain tenancies and, when they are lost, to get alternative tenancies. It is tough market out there, as members know, with a lot of people looking for accommodation. Travellers have to compete with everyone else for tenancies, but they get as much help as possible. The HAP place-finder has been put in place, which helps with deposits and other issues. There are also protections in place under the Residential Tenancies Board which have been strengthened in recent times.

Competing is one thing, discrimination another. I would like to see some longer term analysis of that issue, perhaps done by the local authorities in conjunction with the Department with responsibility for equality. My hope as we go forward is that we will not have to rely on HAP for any type of housing. It is an incredibly poor way of spending public money. In the meantime, we need to analyse it.

Mr. Curran mentioned that the Traveller identifier would be a feature of application forms. Other people have said it could be done through registration of ethnicity on the form. How would that apply in terms of priority? Have the legal issues around other ethnicities been considered? For example, where we use ethnicity as a criterion, which we fought hard to have included, does that result in the prioritisation of one ethnicity over another and how do we do that in a way that ensures priority for Traveller accommodation?

Mr. Paul Benson

For clarity, the new social housing support application form will not include an ethnic identifier. It is still not possible, legally, to do that. Ethnicity is not a relevant factor when it comes to assessing whether a person or family is eligible for social housing supports and it cannot be collected on that basis. We have enough legal provision to allow us to collect a Traveller identifier and to include a Traveller identifier on the form because it is a requirement under the 1988 Act that local authorities identify and count the number of Travellers in their areas and those who need accommodation. That gives us the legal basis. The Traveller identifier will be just that. It will be optional as to whether Travellers want to identify. There is no compulsion involved but once they do, we will be able to link people who have identified as Travellers with their accommodation choice, which has been a difficult process heretofore. Without that baseline information, it is very difficult for local authorities to plan the provision of accommodation. It will certainly close off that gap. We hope that amending regulations will be introduced and the new form will be in place this year. That is the starting point of positive development and a lot of good work that can be done subsequent to it.

My final question relates to an analysis of the type of accommodation of which Travellers currently avail. Close to 80% of Travellers are in non-Traveller-specific accommodation. I wonder what the generational impact of that will be on the Traveller community. Many Travellers fear that many of the things that are unique to the Traveller community, including that sense of collective living, are being eroded because of the failure to provide Traveller-specific accommodation. With no immediate change in that expected, there is a continuous erosion of some of the ways of life of those in the Traveller community. Are we looking at that and trying to protect some of the things that are important to the community?

Mr. Paul Benson

The point the Deputy makes is understood. Just over 2,000, or 22%, of Traveller households currently live in Traveller-specific accommodation. There are differing opinions as to whether Travellers are expressing that opinion because they want to live in standard accommodation or they are expressing that preference because it is the easiest way to get accommodation. The identifier will start that process, but the Deputy is correct that it will take time for that to feed through the system, although we hope that local authorities will go through all of the applications from people they think may be Travellers and get them to identify as such. We can then start the work to determine, once and for all, in an evidential way whether Travellers are freely expressing a preference for standard local authority accommodation or whether they would like Traveller-specific accommodation.

There are different views on that and no way of proving one side wrong or the other right. We need to get the baseline data right and we have started that process. Until we get that in place, it is difficult to resolve that issue and have an informed view on it.

Some of my areas will overlap a little with Deputy McAuliffe's. Naturally, there are common themes. Having said that, there are a number of questions I want to put. I notice in Mr. Benson's submission he says the underspending has been eliminated. As he is well aware, a common matter that arises at this and similar committees and in similar discussions is that local authorities are underspending on Traveller accommodation or failing to use their budgets. If I understood his submission correctly, Mr. Benson has evidence to suggest that is no longer the case. If that is so, I would like him to comment. Insofar as it is not so, what does he propose to do about it? It would be reassuring to know it was not the case because it is a common perception.

Mr. Paul Benson

There are a couple of aspects to that. First, if I go back to 2008, €34 million was being spent by local authorities on Traveller-specific accommodation. That was at a time when a lot was happening in the construction industry. It fell away thereafter because of the recession. Nothing was being built and funding was tight. It has started to improve. As recently as 2017, there was as little as €4 million being spent on Traveller-specific accommodation, but that has grown in recent years to €6 million, €8 million and, last year, €14 million. We expect €15 million will be spent this year. There is evidence local authorities are building a pipeline of projects and that is feeding increased spend.

It is important to make the point that the underspend that is talked about relates to Traveller-specific accommodation in the budget, but that is only part of the funding the Department makes available for the accommodation of Travellers. They are accommodated under a range of accommodation options, including the housing assistance payment, the rental accommodation scheme, standard local authority accommodation or approved housing body accommodation. Our data on that are not as good as we would like but we are working on improving them.

Mr. Curran talked about the amount spent and the number of tenancies offered to people where casual vacancies arise in the stock. Where new social housing estates are built, Travellers are often accommodated in them. Most local authorities have minimum requirements in terms of how many they offer to Travellers in new estates and developments. All of that is not counted when the discussion being heard is about Traveller-specific accommodation. There is an array of work and spending going on in non-Traveller-specific accommodation that supports the Traveller population.

I assume Mr. Benson would agree that the best option is Traveller-specific accommodation and that, as Deputy McAuliffe said, RAS and HAP payments in estates on a temporary basis after great efforts to get the accommodation are not ideal.

Mr. Paul Benson

There are issues around HAP and RAS and 18% being in private rented accommodation, but it is an important safety net until accommodation is available and, without it, it would be a much more difficult situation.

The appropriate accommodation solution is not always Traveller-specific. It is what the Traveller expresses as his or her want. If that is standard accommodation, the answer is standard accommodation. If it is Traveller-specific, the answer is Traveller-specific.

There is good consultation with them on that, is there? Okay. It can be difficult to get rented accommodation and Travellers need a lot of support in that exercise. Our social workers work with the councils, etc., but it is very difficult. It is a terrible market. It is difficult for anybody, even rich people or whatever way we describe people. There needs to be support there. Are Mr. Benson and Mr. Curran confident there is adequate support there?

Mr. Frank Curran

They have place-finders. We are always working with homeless people and people having difficulties with tenancies. They are dealing with landlords all the time. We have some positive experiences with landlords who have had a Traveller family. The family moves on, a relation comes in and that tenancy continues. There is a lot of engagement with Travellers and with the sector. It is a difficult sector for everybody. There is such a lack of supply.

Sure. Estate management is important. Where Travellers are part of an estate, they need support. Does Mr. Curran think there is adequate investment in estate management and enough personnel on the ground in that area?

Mr. Frank Curran

We have many tenancy sustainment officers working on the ground with all residents of estates on establishing residents associations, looking at clean-ups and sporting activities and getting the whole community feel in the estate. It is very important. Are there enough resources? Probably not, but we focus on it and, once the estate is built, try to get everybody involved in tending those communities.

Is Mr. Curran confident this priority is across all local authorities?

Mr. Frank Curran

Yes. We build houses. I mentioned the numbers coming through, which amount to 9,500 new builds each year. Building communities is as important, when the houses are built.

Absolutely. I have experience as a local authority member and a member of the Traveller accommodation committee of a local authority for many years so I relate to many of these issues that apply on the ground. I relate to the practical working out of these issues.

The identifier, Mr. Benson said, is not an ethnicity identifier per se. Would there be a problem that Travellers expect the worst of all of us and consequently try to hide their identity to get a better outcome? Can we get over that problem?

Mr. Frank Curran

The Traveller identifier would help in gathering data. When we try to gather data, social workers are out there and work with various Traveller groups to identify as many people as they can because-----

What I am saying is when there is a housing support application form, a Traveller might feel, because of his or her culture and dreadful experiences historically, that he or she should not identify himself or herself. It is difficult, therefore, to get the identifier to work.

Mr. Paul Benson

This has been supported by Traveller representative groups for a long time to get that identifier on the form. Ideally, they were looking for an ethnic identifier but the Traveller identifier is a start. I think there will be a push among Traveller representatives and Travellers to get Travellers to identify. It is voluntary. If they do not identify, we do not have the data, but with a fair wind behind it, it could be successful.

I think so, and it should be encouraged. Mr. Benson mentioned new designs of Traveller-specific accommodation. Does he want to elaborate on that? Is he looking at new models beyond the traditional halting site or modifications of that? It is important there be ongoing imaginative work in this area and not to stay static in terms of design and solutions.

Mr. Paul Benson

There is a recommendation from the expert group that we look at that. A key area that has been highlighted is the lack of amenity or play facilities on some Traveller-specific accommodation sites and particular halting sites. There is nothing for children. We hope to address that.

It is some time since the design standards for Traveller-specific accommodation, whether group housing schemes or halting sites, have been updated. A lot has changed in terms of building regulations and standards, people's expectations and the State's obligations, so we need to update those. That work will be starting. It is one of the 18 recommendations from the expert group being worked on at the moment.

Innovations are happening in terms of Traveller accommodation. Traditionally, group housing schemes were always stand-alone. We have a couple of examples now where they have been incorporated into normal social housing estates. It is hoped they will work well. It is potentially a successful model and might make it easier to deal with some of the difficulties around Part VIII and the difficulties local authorities encounter in bringing Traveller-specific accommodation through the planning process. There are a couple of good examples and maybe a way forward.

There are innovations and people are thinking about different ways to do things to improve the lot.

Yes. In conclusion the immediate linkage to the housing estate with gradual integration is an interesting model. Other issues may arise later. I thank the Vice Chairman for the opportunity to contribute and the witnesses for their answers.

I thank all our guests. I confirm I am in the precincts. I will address the area of casual halting sites, the possibility of having them included in county and city development plans and what work the Department is doing on that. I understand that in the Galway county development plan there are maybe four to be identified within the county. We have identified in previous sessions that there are not casual halting sites around the country. These are a key part of Traveller identity and there must be provision made to enable Travellers to move from site to site. What work is going on in that regard? Will the inclusion of these sites in county development plans be successful?

Mr. Paul Benson

Is the Senator speaking about transient sites when she refers to casual sites?

Mr. Paul Benson

Transient sites are called out in the 1998 Act as being something that should be provided. Heretofore, there has not been any successful provision of them by local authorities. Not everyone is supportive of them, including Travellers who sometimes are not supportive of them in their local areas. However, there is recognition at Department and local authority level that a network of transient sites is required. How best to do that may be on a regional basis and that is being explored. I mentioned in my opening statement that we have begun discussions with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to see about an all-island approach to this. We will see what it is doing, what we might be able to do and what the appropriate number and location for those transient sites is to facilitate the nomadism that is part of Traveller culture and which some Travellers still exercise. That work is one of the recommendations of the expert group and it will be followed through on. However, there is much work to do to get transient sites on the ground.

Is Mr. Benson aware of this requirement being in development plans previously? This is the first time I have heard of the need for local authorities to find places and to have this written into their development plans. Is that helpful or have these always been in place and the local authorities have not been providing them?

Mr. Paul Benson

The first place it should appear is within Traveller accommodation programmes so they are detailed enough to identify what the local authority will build and where it will build it. We have been doing work with the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, and it is working on a paper to consider the link between Traveller accommodation plans and the development plan and how to call out the ambition and analysis of what is currently provided and its adequacy. That work will continue to try to improve that link and get those objectives for provision of the type of accommodation the Senator is talking about explicitly stated in Traveller accommodation plans and development plans. The onus is then on local authorities to comply with the objectives and policies of the development plan. We are at the start of that process with the OPR and local authorities. This has a way to go.

How long does Mr. Benson envisage that process taking?

Mr. Paul Benson

There is a mid-term review of Traveller accommodation plans coming up. In December, we will be halfway through the current plans. We will ask local authorities to try to do more in this area in terms of identifying specific objectives. In time - within a matter of months or a year, although it may take longer if a plan is not up for review - that could be incorporated in development plans. However, that is on paper. To get them on the ground is the next step and I cannot put a timeframe on that. It must go through a whole series of legal and planning processes before there could be anything on the ground.

Are the local Traveller accommodation consultative committees up and running in every local authority? There were several years when Galway City Council did not have the LTACC up and running. During that time, there was not the kind of stakeholder engagement that is necessary. Where we have been failing as a State is in not having those conversations together and having everybody in the same room. What must happen to make that stakeholder engagement work for Travellers?

Mr. Paul Benson

As far as we in the Department are aware, the LTACCs have been set up in every local authority area. Some are working better than others. There is no doubt about that. The Senator will be familiar with Galway city and the difficulties there, which she mentioned. The city council pursued an interesting course by bringing in an independent chair who was not an elected member, an official or a Traveller representative. It seemed to work quite well. We have taken learnings from that. The independent chair in question has written a report for us, which will shortly go before the NTACC to see if it can be a model going forward. We will expand on that and try to produce, within a reasonable time period, revised guidance for local authorities on LTACCs and how they should be structured and operate. Maybe Mr. Curran wants to address the practical operation of the LTACCs.

Mr. Frank Curran

Some local authorities have reported a lack of participation on both the Traveller side and with some of the agencies. That is not our experience in County Wicklow. There has been very good attendance from everybody - all the stakeholders and Traveller representatives. It has served us very well in developing the Traveller accommodation plan and dealing with all the issues around Traveller-specific accommodation and normal accommodation. It is working very well here in our experience. Mr. Ward is in south Dublin and may wish to comment on what is happening there.

Mr. Colm Ward

I concur with Mr. Curran. We have a really strong and robust LTACC holding us to account on our delivery programme but also developing subgroups on management and maintenance issues and Traveller economy issues. It is a really strong LTACC that works very well. The chair is an elected member but is a strong Traveller advocate who holds us to account very robustly.

The committee has done a report on Travellers and employment. One of its key elements was addressing how we could have more Travellers represented in our State agencies and public life. This is a question for the Department. Has that representation been achieved in the Department or could more be done to support Travellers? They have more knowledge and it is important that when we are looking at accommodation, the people most affected are in the room. Is the Department pursuing that?

Mr. Paul Benson

That is a fair comment. The design of the caravan loan scheme, which has been rolled out on a pilot basis, took over 12 months and involved very wide consultation with stakeholders, the principal stakeholder being Travellers. We set up that advisory group to advise the Department on how it could or should work. As I said, we had Traveller representatives, as well as representatives from National Traveller MABS, on that group. That worked quite well and that is the model going forward. We certainly welcome all consultation and input from stakeholders. That is the way we intend to proceed, whether that is on the design of accommodation, as I talked about earlier, or any of those initiatives. There will be advisory or consultative groups or whatever is appropriate for the particular work item.

That kind of engagement is very positive. I am specifically talking about employment in public service roles and whether there is room for improvement within the Department.

Mr. Paul Benson

There is always room for improvement in everything. There have been some successful initiatives in the past with local authorities. I was involved with one where Travellers were brought in on work experience. Various initiatives of that nature should certainly be encouraged.

I thank the witnesses.

I thank the witnesses for coming in and giving their reports. It is much appreciated. In saying that, if one talks to members of the Traveller community living on halting sites, the story is very different.

They are still struggling to get basic amenities serviced, including sewerage and water services.

I represent the Travelling community in Labre Park. A plan was put in place almost four years ago, but it has been dogged by issues and problems. The community is still in the position it was in nearly five years ago. Is the expert review group looking at how to move on plans and designs for halting sites? As we are all aware, halting sites were temporary arrangements introduced in the 1990s but they have become permanent homes for people. It is important that they are addressed quickly. We know where they are and what the issues are. How can we achieve movement on this issue in all the local authorities? Mr. Ward said that South Dublin County Council has a very good relationship with the LTACCs. There is a certain urgency about dealing with the issue of halting sites.

A question was asked about making provision for transient sites in county development plans. How will transient sites be implemented? In what way will they be implemented through the development plans or the expert review group?

I also have a question on Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000. I note that in Housing for All, the Department has stated that 90,000 social housing units, 36,000 affordable housing units and 18,000 cost-rental units will be delivered by 2030. The Minister reduced the Part V requirement from 20% to 10%. Will that impact on the figures for builds over the next ten years? The 20% social housing requirement will not come into effect until 2025 for many new plans, which will impact on the figures if they are based on the 20% requirement.

A point was made that the number of homeless families has been reduced to 930, which represents a fall of 48%. Probably one of the biggest impacts in achieving that reduction was the introduction of legislation banning evictions during Covid. With that ban lifted, will we see more families becoming homeless and the figure possibly rising again?

Mr. Colm Ward

I will respond to a couple of the points and allow the representatives from the Department to follow up in respect of the homeless figures.

In relation to Labre Park, it is not in the south Dublin area. I am familiar with the challenges and I know that Dublin City Council brought in Cena, an approved housing body, to engage in in-depth consultation with the families there to try to come up with a redevelopment solution that the families will buy into and believe in. We have replicated that in south Dublin with some success. We have received strong, positive feedback from families on that engagement on the design, facilities, playgrounds and access routes into developments. We hope to see some projects flow from that through to the redevelopment Part VIII stage. Notwithstanding the historical issues with Labre Park, I believe there is a good, strong pathway forward that will address it. We are seeing it and replicating it in south Dublin.

As regards transient sites for the Dublin region, all the Dublin local authorities in the current Traveller accommodation programme have stated they want to meet the permanent housing need immediately. We will continue to focus on a suitable location for transient sites. In that Traveller-led consultation that I spoke about, we raised the proposition of having transient sites located adjacent to the development of permanent sites where there is space available. That was rejected. We also earmarked a historic site on the boundary between south Dublin and Dublin city as a potential transient site as well, but that did not progress because of challenges with families in respect getting agreement on it. It is something we will continue to look at. We have made the commitment that permanent accommodation has to be our initial priority.

In terms of Part V, the 10% social housing requirement is still there. It does not change our parameters. We have delivered some Traveller accommodation through Part V. We are looking to do something similar in the Adamstown strategic development zone, which would deliver Traveller accommodation in an integrated fashion in a strategic development zone. This would reflect the innovation that was referred to earlier. I will hand over to the representatives of the Department in respect of the homeless issue.

Mr. Eamonn Waters

To address the question around the 90,000 social housing units, my understanding is that they are scheduled to be delivered and have been costed out. The expectation is that they will not be affected by any other factors. Resources have been earmarked for them. Perhaps the Deputy can take the issue up with the Minister, but that is my understanding of it.

On homelessness, we have seen a significant reduction in family homelessness. Different factors played a role in this, some of which the Deputy mentioned. Certainly, the moratorium on evictions helped. During the Covid period, we also saw greater availability of rental accommodation from other sectors, such as short-term lets. Recently, we have seen issues around student accommodation. Some of that accommodation also became available in a different market. We also saw a lot of work being done through HAP place-finder and tenancy sustainment support services.

Many of the programmes that were put in place in recent years have also been bearing fruit. We saw policy work coming to fruition. However, that is not to say that the time ahead of us is not going to be challenging. Senator Joe O'Reilly mentioned the challenges in the housing market currently. It is very difficult in the rental market at the moment. That feeds through into the availability of HAP properties in achieving exits from homelessness. I would not be too pessimistic. I do not want to give the impression that because the moratorium on evictions has been lifted, things will get bad. There is no doubt that it will be difficult to keep up and sustain what has been achieved. We have difficult times ahead.

One of the 32 recommendations of the expert group was that Dublin City Council set up a Traveller accommodation strategic policy committee, SPC. It has not been set up yet. Has that type of policy committee been set up in other local authority areas?

Mr. Paul Benson

There is a recommendation within the expert group report that the current LTACCs, as we know them, be placed on the same footing as the strategic policy committees that currently exist within local authorities. It is not one of the recommendations that has been moved forward for this year's work programme. It was not considered a major priority. The LTACCs are advisory bodies, as are the strategic policy committees. It is still the case that the full council makes the decisions. There is a bit of thinking to be done around that, but it is not one of the recommendations that we are working on currently. I would not expect that any local authority will have take such an initiative on itself.

Mr. Frank Curran

It is generally the SPC for housing that deals with Traveller policy issues. It sets aside time for that.

I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their work and the enthusiasm that is apparent in respect of what is no doubt a challenging and difficult area. I wish them well with their work in the area.

How many transient halting sites are there in the country?

Mr. Paul Benson

Currently, we do not have any sites that would be described as transient. A few were provided, but they have become permanent. The people on them have not moved and have settled permanently on them. Therefore, the answer would be that there are none.

What is Mr. Benson's view in respect of the whole issue of transient sites? Is he suggesting there is no demand for them?

Mr. Paul Benson

No, I am not suggesting that. Some Travellers still practise nomadism and there are particular areas, such as Knock or Ballinasloe, in which, and times of the year at which, large numbers of Travellers have a migratory pattern, if one likes, for various reasons. Attempts have been made by the local authorities in those areas to provide something. The will is there but not everyone is supportive.

The Department is changing the funding model. I note that, according to the expert group, between 2008 and 2018, €168 million was allocated but only €111 million was drawn down. The Department is not actually funding out to local authorities any more; it is expecting them to draw down funds as required. How is that going?

Mr. Paul Benson

It has improved things. The local authorities have actually had projects on which they are spending and they can draw down money. They are not hamstrung by an allocation that may not address that. Local authorities that do not have projects are not being given an allocation, so there is no uncertainty regarding whether a local authority will spend funding by the end of the year and it then it turning out that it will not spend the funding, which we could have given to another body. It is working better than the previous system.

The expert report refers to Part VIII planning. The suggestion is that the reserved function of local authority members should be suspended. How many times has this particular Part VIII procedure been used by local authorities to block Traveller accommodation proposals by local authority executives?

Mr. Paul Benson

We do not have that information but there are two recommendations from the expert group regarding Part VIII. One calls for the role of elected members in that regard to be suspended and for the chief executive to make such decisions. The other recommendation is that legislation be brought in to allow for such proposals to go straight to An Bord Pleanála. Those are two very different recommendations and they are in some ways contradictory, so a project has been established to review them and do the research that is required. One of the pieces of research will be to find out whether there is empirical evidence that Part VIII applications are being refused and, if so, how many. We do not have that information currently. Part of the work of the project group that has been set up will be to consider that and report back to the board.

Does Mr. Benson have any sense of whether it is widespread or anecdotal?

Mr. Paul Benson

I am aware of one such application that was refused in the past year. It was quite high-profile and was reported on. I am not aware of any other such incidences.

I refer to the role of approved housing bodies, which are also mentioned in the report. Has consideration been given to a specific approved housing body for Traveller accommodation? What role are AHBs playing at the moment in respect of providing Traveller accommodation?

Mr. Paul Benson

There is one AHB, Cena, with which the Deputy will be familiar, that was established to provide accommodation for Travellers. It has been acting more in an advisory capacity. We are currently working with it to build capacity to deliver projects. It recently completed a project in County Offaly. We hope that is the start of a process. We will resource it. We are agreeing the terms of references for the service level agreement to put staff into Cena and then place those staff within local authorities and AHBs to build expertise and capacity within Cena.

On the wider issue of AHBs, there are several housing bodies that are active on Traveller accommodation and have done a significant amount through the years. There are others that do not do any such work. We have raised this with the Irish Council for Social Housing and will shortly be meeting it to discuss the best way forward here and whether that is to target a few AHBs that will be active in this area, as there are a few AHBs active in the homeless area, or that every AHB should be doing a piece. That will be part of the discussion, as will how we move it forward when a decision is made and what is the best way to approach that.

There are a lot of AHBs getting a significant amount of money from the State, so I expected they would have been delivering accommodation for Traveller families as part of their role.

Mr. Benson was asked about specific accommodation design. I ask him to comment on the trespass legislation that is referenced in the report and the various constraints that is causing.

Mr. Paul Benson

The trespass legislation was mentioned specifically as a recommendation. The ask is for it to be repealed pending the roll-out of a network of transient sites across the country. That is one of the recommendations that has been brought forward in the 2021 work programme. A project has been established and that issue has been considered. We have had consultations with the Department of Justice, local authorities and others. Ultimately, a recommendation will go to the programme board. It is public order legislation. Even though it was enacted under a housing Act, it was actually an amendment of public order legislation. There are several stakeholders involved in that and it would not be for my Department to make a final decision on it. Rather, it is for the Department of Justice to do so.

Mr. Benson's Department has a view on the matter, however.

Mr. Paul Benson

Yes, it has a view.

In my former role, I visited several Traveller accommodation centres and sites and so on. In one of them, I came across a building that was being used for a homework club for children. It was not a great building. When children come home from school, they quite often cannot do homework because the accommodation is overcrowded or too small or there is too much noise or whatever else. The building in question was used for a homework club where children could go and where there were people to help them with their homework and maybe give them something to eat or play games and so on. It was extremely positive and highly effective. Has that kind of thinking been factored into the policies of the Department? What does Mr. Benson think of it?

Mr. Paul Benson

As the Department with responsibility for housing, our main focus is to provide housing accommodation and to drive the provision of Traveller-specific accommodation. Transient sites are obviously an ask as well. We are supportive of all those initiatives. We fund some community facilities within some of the developments that are approved. Those community facilities require people to run them and the kinds of activities to which the Deputy refers. In some cases, local authorities arrange that locally, while in others the Department of Rural and Community Development and other Departments provide funding to run those kinds of programmes. They are very valuable and we are certainly supportive of them but it is not our core function. Even though we often provide the building, we do not do the softer stuff.

I am pleased to hear that Mr. Benson is supportive of such initiatives and that the Department provides the building because when I saw this in action I thought it was one of the best things I had seen. I have mentioned it before at this committee and the Chairman, who is currently on leave, said she had never experienced it but that it was extremely positive. I suggest that Mr. Benson take that on board as an initiative on which he could work to drive, with other Departments and agencies, when the Department is providing housing and so on.

In the context of the UK, the report refers to private operators operating halting sites in England, Wales and Scotland, as well as Travellers making their own arrangements to provide their own housing privately. Does Mr. Benson have any comment on that issue?

Mr. Paul Benson

Not really. We have a certain policy and our focus is on trying to get that policy implemented and getting the programme that is set out and Traveller accommodation plans implemented across the 31 local authorities. That does not involve privately-run accommodation.

It struck me while reading the report that the expert group seemed to think it was a good idea, so I thought I would raise it.

Mr. Paul Benson

It may come up in our discussion with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I am not sure where it is at in that regard but we have started a process with it.

Is there any plan to expand the role of regional assemblies in respect of this issue?

Mr. Paul Benson

It is a recommendation of the group in the context of the observation that regional assemblies seem to have very little oversight of or role in the provision of Traveller accommodation. I certainly think there is a role for them in respect of the network of transient sites. If we believe a regional approach is the correct approach in that regard, they could be brought on board. It is one of the recommendations. It is not in the current work programme but it will be in a work programme ultimately and will be dealt with.

There is talk of a shared services model, whereby one local authority would provide services on behalf of all the others and become an expert, if one likes, on certain parts of this. Is that of merit and something that might be considered?

Mr. Paul Benson

It would be challenging. There are representatives of local authorities present. It is a difficult space. It is difficult enough for local authorities to provide the accommodation that is called out in their Traveller accommodation plans without having the obligation to provide it for their neighbouring county or others. That would certainly need to be very well resourced. Many of these things require local knowledge, input and expertise. That local touch is important. That is my view and where we are in the Department with it but the local authorities may have a different view.

Part of the culture of many Travellers is their attachment to horses. Does the Department take on board that attachment in the context of its provision of housing? I came across several examples of this. One gentleman told me that without his horse he would not have any reason for living. The horse kept him going; he went down to the field every day and fed it and looked after it and so on. In many ways, it was nice to see that attachment and care. I refer to workshops as well. Is the issue of horses and so on being factored into the thinking of the Department?

Mr. Paul Benson

It is factored into the thinking when the work on the design and management of Traveller-specific housing accommodation is being done. I will not prejudice what comes out of that by giving my views at this point. I will let those people do their work.

That is good to hear. We have a national Traveller accommodation consultative committee, but the report contains a proposal that an authority with more teeth be established. Is that something that Mr. Benson believes will happen and is it something of which he would be in favour?

Mr. Paul Benson

It is not one of the 18 recommendations being progressed in the current work programme. That proposal is a very large piece of work and we could not take on all the large pieces of work in this year's programme. The recommendations on eviction, trespass and Part VIII are major items on their own, so that proposal has been left for the moment. It is not on the horizon right now.

One of the most challenging places I visited was Spring Lane in Cork. It is an extraordinarily difficult place. Perhaps someone from the local authorities could tell me whether progress is being made on improving the accommodation for the people living there. I have been in many places, but that was one of the worst I have seen.

Mr. Paul Benson

The Deputy may be aware that the Minister visited Spring Lane over the summer. We have scheduled monthly meetings with Cork City Council. There is good work going on, with mediators appointed to get baseline data on who is on the site, what their preferences are, where they will be accommodated and what the extension plans will be at Ellis's Yard. All of these issues are under discussion and we will make progress.

I thank Mr. Benson.

No other member is offering to speak right now, but members will have a chance to contribute after I have asked a few questions. As long as we keep the meeting within the two-hour timeframe, we will be okay.

I will ask my questions in no particular order of importance. I see that the Department is piloting a caravan scheme. My understanding is that these are replacements for existing caravans, many of which are substandard and that people freeze in during the winter. When will it be rolled out nationally and how quickly? For people living in poor caravans, the thought of another winter is horrendous.

Mr. Paul Benson

I will correct one point. The scheme is not just for replacement caravans. For example, new family formations could apply for a loan to provide a caravan.

The six-month pilot scheme is being run in four pilot authorities and €1.5 million has been provided to supply a minimum of 50 loans. We will have to learn from the pilot. We hope to roll it out in 2022, but I expect the review will probably take six months. There will be a few challenges in a national roll-out. An issue that has already cropped up is that of insurance. It had the potential to put a brake on the pilot. We have moved on with the pilot notwithstanding those difficulties, but the issue will have to be addressed in the national roll-out. I am referring to the issue of Travellers being able to get insurance for a mobile home or caravan trailer that they own themselves and that has a significant value for which they are liable for repayments. I am sure there will be other issues.

Mr. Colm Ward

We are one of the pilot authorities for this scheme. We have received applications and are now assessing them. We will be giving approvals before winter sets in, so families will be able to source mobile homes.

If they are in the lucky four local authority areas, but if they are not, they will lose out. Mr. Benson seems to be telling me that people who already have caravans, some of them under an arrangement whereby they got a fixed building with a caravan or mobile home attached, that are in a very poor condition will have to suffer this winter and probably the winter of 2022 as well. With the normal delays that affect schemes, I could see this not happening until 2023. Is that what he is telling me?

Mr. Paul Benson

No, that is not what I am telling the Vice Chairman. The caravan loan scheme is its own scheme but the local authorities themselves provide caravan accommodation where accommodation is substandard. Obviously, the occupier has to pay a rent. We also help fund the emergency replacement of mobile homes where they have been damaged by or lost to a flood, storm or whatever it may be. If there are Traveller families living in very poor accommodation, they should be getting in touch with their local authorities. The authorities would then get in touch with us and we would see what we could do. We do not want to see anyone in very substandard accommodation through the winter. Last year, we provided 82 caravans, mobile homes, demountable dwellings and accommodation pods in those circumstances. This is something that we do and people should make contact with their local authorities.

I have dealt with cases like these. Who makes the judgment on whether it is very substandard, the person sleeping in it or-----

Mr. Paul Benson

No, the local authority will make the judgment. As the Deputy knows, the situation is not black and white. Sometimes, caravans can be repaired and do not need to be replaced. There can be differences of opinion over that, but the conversation has to happen. There is a willingness at local authority level and departmental level to provide better quality accommodation. Improving the caravan or trailer has the potential to improve comfort levels and conditions dramatically, and we will support that.

I agree with Mr. Benson on that.

A reference was made to anecdotal evidence of the difficulties Travellers faced in getting HAP. This committee has heard that Travellers are 22 times more likely to be discriminated against in the private rental sector. It is my experience that there is considerable resistance to renting to Travellers. Does Mr. Benson accept that they are 22 times more likely to be discriminated against? If so, would he therefore accept that, for many Travellers, HAP is not a solution and they wind up homeless as a result?

Mr. Paul Benson

I can neither accept not disagree with it. I do not know where it is coming from, what source is being cited and the basis on which it was adjudicated. Mr. Curran gave evidence of some Travellers getting accommodation and some landlords being very helpful in that regard, but it is a tough market and, at the end of the day, the landlord has a choice as to which tenant he or she takes. Since I do not have any expertise in the private rental market or what is happening therein, it is very difficult for me to answer.

We can all agree that it is difficult for everyone, but it is harder for some than for others. In my constituency, it is a significant problem, even for families with very good references from previous landlords. I accept that some landlords have no problem taking Travellers, but my experience is that, on the law of averages, that figure is correct.

From my work, a number of Travellers will be suspicious of putting identifiers down on forms because they are used to being identified in a negative way. What work is planned to assure them that there will be no disadvantage in putting an identifier on a form?

Mr. Paul Benson

I do not disagree with the Vice Chairman's point. The way the question is framed makes it clear that identification as a Traveller in no way influences whether someone's application is approved or whatever happens with it. It is not one of the assessment criteria. That is an important point. However, there is certainly a job of work to be done with local authorities, the people who deal face to face with Travellers, be those social workers, Traveller accommodation liaison officers or tenancy sustainment officers, and Traveller representative associations, which have called for this measure and are supportive of it, to overcome the fear about ticking that box. If we do not get people to identify, it will be difficult to expect local authorities to be able to plan for the accommodation of Travellers.

The witnesses cited a figure for the percentage of homeless people who were identified as being Travellers. Of course, there could be many more who just have not been identified. The committee has heard credible reports that up to 40% or 50% of homeless people in certain cities in Ireland are Travellers. Have we a local authority-by-local authority breakdown of the percentage of homeless people whom we know are Travellers?

Mr. Paul Benson

Mr. Waters may want to come in there regarding homelessness.

Mr. Eamonn Waters

It was referenced earlier on. The most robust figures we have are ones published a couple of years ago but they are largely based on the census in 2016 so things have been moved on a bit since then. The next census is next year so it is not ideal that we have such a gap. Similar issues arise with ethnic identifiers in homeless accommodation as they would in respect of social housing needs assessment. Emergency accommodation is provided for anyone who needs it based on his or her presentation. He or she is assessed by a local authority and ethnicity is not a factor.

We have certain data and can take certain details out of the data we produce every month but there is no means to disaggregate that into numbers by county based on someone's membership of the Traveller community. When we combine what we know from that information with the anecdotal information from local authorities, we can get a general picture of where there are particular areas that are under more pressure than others. The Vice Chairman is correct in saying that there are certain areas, counties, towns and cities where homelessness would be more prevalent. The composition of the homeless population would be made up to a greater extent of Travellers so we know that.

In answer to the Vice Chairman's question, we do not publish county by county or do not have data that would allow us to do that on a county-by-county basis but when one combines what we know from homeless emergency accommodation figures, local authority evidence and what will come out of the identification through social housing assessment, we will get a better picture and a better evidence base to make policy decisions in the provision of accommodation. There is an issue with good data. We know a good bit but we could do with an awful lot more detail.

Would Mr. Waters accept that some things can be very prevalent and very difficult to count but that does not change the facts on the grounds whatever those facts may be? Does he accept that it would appear that there is a very high percentage of homeless Travellers compared with the percentage in the population at large and that in many cases, there are no social issues? It is just that they do not have a home in which to live because they cannot get local authority accommodation and it is harder for them in the private market.

Mr. Eamonn Waters

I agree with the Vice Chairman. Just because we cannot fully and accurately count something does not mean we do not know it is there. We know that there are certain locations where there is a higher prevalence of Traveller homelessness than other locations. I mentioned in the opening statement that the means of addressing that involves the housing-led approach through the provision of more accommodation, be it Traveller-specific, social housing or, in some instances, HAP, notwithstanding the challenges there identified by the Vice Chairman. I agree that just because we cannot fully account for some things, it does not mean we do not know that there is an issue and it does not mean that this issue is being addressed on the ground and actively addressed in certain areas where we know there is a particular problem.

Like many public representatives who deal with a lot of Travellers, my perception is quite simple. It is that very few people in the Traveller community see the HAP or RAS as a permanent solution. They take it reluctantly because at times, it is the option but they do not see it as a permanent housing solution. The vast majority are looking for Traveller accommodation or local authority accommodation. Those who have been in non-specific Traveller accommodation are mainly looking for local authority housing and are very strong in their preference. I am worried if people are putting forward HAP, and it is mainly HAP, not RAS, as any kind of permanent solution. This does not just apply to Travellers; it applies to many people.

Deputy Stanton raised an issue regarding horses. It is a very valid issue. I remember making a valid comment that horses are to Travellers what hurley sticks are to many people in other parts of the country, particularly Kilkenny. I believe that if we are looking at horse projects, not only must we look at areas where there is Traveller-specific housing, but we must also look at local authority housing estates with a high percentage of Travellers. Is there a comprehensive plan to fund and manage a national network of horse projects so that we can put this in a framework where the horses, Travellers and anybody else who is interested in them have safe and well-appointed accommodation for the horses?

Mr. Paul Benson

That is not a policy or strategy the Department is following but we are very aware that there is a recommendation within the expert group report that the design and maintenance of Traveller-specific accommodation be looked at and attempts made to ensure that culturally appropriate accommodation is provided. Lots of people have lots of views on what culturally appropriate accommodation means and what should be provided so that will be fleshed out when that work progresses. It is within one of the 18 recommendations that are being looked at.

Is Mr. Benson aware of a report done by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the previous Dáil that looked at the horse racing industry and its funding from the horse and greyhound fund made very detailed recommendations that included Traveller horses and recommended that they get some money from the fund that at the moment goes to horse racing, etc., and that this fund be distributed all of the various sectors of the horse industry in Ireland, including the requirements of communities with horses in urban settings? Would the Department consider looking at that report?

Mr. Paul Benson

I think that issue will be addressed as part of the work with the expert group report. I am aware that the Department of Education has an interest in this area, and rightly so. The issue of horse welfare and appropriate facilities is very important so its involvement is to be welcomed. It will be fleshed out when that expert group project is advanced. It concerns what it will mean in the long term in terms of the type of accommodation that is provided and what facilities or amenities are provided alongside or in proximity to it.

We accept that 23 years after the 1998 Act, there are effectively no transient halting sites. Has any analysis been done on where Travellers travel to, particularly in the summer time, because there are well-recognised places where they have been going for decades? Is there any plan to draw up a national network of transient halting sites of the locations they want to visit and where they live on a transient basis as communities?

The big difference with Travellers is that they move as communities.

Mr. Paul Benson

Yes, we are aware of some of the patterns of movement. I mentioned a couple of them earlier in some of my evidence to the committee. There is a commitment in the Housing for All strategy to look at the issue of transient sites on an all-island basis in discussions with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I have mentioned as well that we see a role for the regional authorities here. We see potential for a regional role that would be informed by the types of issues the Vice Chairman mentioned where there is a known pattern of movement. There is a lot of work to be done on that.

Will there be a strong obligation placed on local authorities to provide transient halting sites in their areas if locations for them are identified?

Mr. Paul Benson

Yes. I would argue that that exists at the moment. It is specifically stated in the 1998 Act. I know it has not been implemented very successfully but there are challenges around providing it. As the Vice Chairman knows, not everyone wants these sites and not everyone is supportive of them, including Travellers in some of the areas in question. For this reason, the matter needs very careful consideration.

A previous Deputy raised the issue of Part VIII. Part VIII has definitely been a problem. It can have a chilling effect even bringing matters to a Part VIII. In other words, officials will often choose not to bring forward a Part VIII if they think it will not succeed at the local council. When will we get a decision on how this issue is to be dealt with, particularly in the case of local authorities that are not adhering to their own Traveller accommodation plans? By that I mean, local authorities that have a provision for this in the Traveller accommodation plan but it never happens because Part VIII has a chilling effect.

Mr. Paul Benson

I hear what the Vice Chairman is saying and it has some merit. I make the point, however, that all of the Traveller-specific accommodation that has been provided by local authorities went through the Part VIII process successfully. There was quite an amount of Traveller accommodation built right through the 2000s, up to 2008 and 2009, which went through the Part VIII process successfully. That process has not changed. Much of the fall-off in delivery that we have seen has been to do with the economic collapse and recession, as well as the struggle local authorities experienced as they tried to get back into a space where they were building. This area, in particular, is resource greedy. It is hard work and it has taken time but I think there is movement in that regard.

As to what will happen to the Part VIII - whether it remains as is, the recommendations of the expert group are implemented or Part VIII powers are taken from the elected members and given to the chief executive or An Bord Pleanála - it is not clear from the expert report which of these options the group wants to see. The project has been established and that work will be progressed. People will be consulted and a decision will be made as to what to do with Part VIII but it is not the only reason Traveller accommodation is not being provided in the numbers we all want to see.

I understand Deputy Stanton has another question.

I thank again our guests for their time and work. Have they engaged with organisations like the Irish Association for the Social Integration of Offenders, IASIO, or Care After Prison? The name "Care After Prison" speaks for itself. The organisation helps people to get accommodation, jobs and supports when they leave prison. There are a large number of young Travellers in prison at the moment. At one stage, I heard that Travellers account for 400 of the 4,000 people in prison, which is a significant percentage given the number of Travellers in the population. It might be helpful to suggest that if the organisations represented today have not done engaged with IASIO and Care After Prison, they do so now because these organisations work on the ground with Travellers before they leave prison. Very often people who leave prison without proper support end up homeless or in situations that lead to them returning to prison and the circle goes around. IASIO and Care After Prison are two impressive organisations but there may be others.

On the issue of horses, I draw witnesses' attention to the stables for horses built by the Irish Prison Service outside Castlerea Prison to train Traveller and other prisoners in horse skills such as farrier skills. Once trained, they could leave prison and get jobs in that industry. The initiative has proven successful. Jonathan Irwin and others supported it at the time and a lot of money was raised to make the project happen. I draw attention to the initiative to emphasise the Vice Chairman's point about the importance of horses. The witnesses may not be aware of the project, which could give rise to synergies or learnings.

We all know that proposals to establish halting sites or house Travellers in some areas gives rise to a lot of concern among people who live in the areas. Has work been done with respect to public opinion? Councillors and others come under an awful pressure if there are proposals from local authorities. This issue is the elephant in the room and we do not talk about it. Are their plans to influence public opinion or drill down into this issue, for which "discrimination" is another word? I believe it impacts on the provision of housing across the country. I look forward to responses to those questions. I apologise for contributing a second time.

Mr. Eamonn Waters

I will address the first comment on prisoners. On the homeless side, the Department has a good relationship with the Prison Service and Probation Service. We have protocols in place for prisoner releases and we have been doing an awful lot more work on this issue in recent times. One of the provisions of Housing for All, which may not have been up in lights, is that a particular strand of the Housing First programme for prisoner releases is being mainstreamed across the whole country. The pilot scheme was put in place by the Department of Justice and we have matched up with it and other colleagues across agencies. It is a very difficult area and is one that requires intensive supports. I agree with the Deputy's view that people who are being released from prison, be it Travellers or people from the settled community, face particular challenges and particular supports are needed to help them to maintain a life outside prison. That issue is being worked on and we co-operate.

My colleague, Mr. Benson, might have something more to say in response to the Deputy's other points.

Mr. Paul Benson

I have not had personal experience but I am grateful to the Deputy for the heads up and we will follow that up within the unit.

I thank the witnesses. As there is no other member offering, I will give Mr. Benson and Mr. Curran an opportunity to make concluding remarks.

Mr. Paul Benson

I thank the members for their time. This is an important issue and one to which we, in the Traveller accommodation unit, and the Department are committed. There is a lot of work taking place and a lot of stuff happening in this area, whether it is the carbon loan pilot scheme, the social work review or the expert group report, its programme board and the various recommendations being brought through the system. There is a lot happening, which is positive, and it needs everyone's support and everyone to work together to reach the numbers we want to reach in terms of Traveller-specific accommodation and the accommodation of Travellers generally. I thank the members for their time and I am pleased to have attended the meeting.

Mr. Frank Curran

Similarly, on behalf of the CCMA, I thank members for their time. I assure people that each local authority is actively supporting all members of the Traveller community, not just those who present as homeless. We will continue to foster relationships with all of the stakeholders and develop better outcomes for Traveller communities. It is a priority for us.

I thank the witnesses and all of my colleagues for attending. This discussion is part of our ongoing work on the position of Travellers in Irish society and the challenges they face. I thank everyone for participating. We will prepare a report at the end of this process. It is good to speak to people virtually but I hope that at some time in the future people will be able to attend in person. It is easier to connect in person, although the virtual connection continues to be a great substitute for as long as the coronavirus lasts. As I said, thank you, stay safe and we will speak again. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.20 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 7 October 2021.