Fire Safety in Traveller Accommodation: Statements

I am grateful for the invitation to come to the Upper House to contribute on such an important issue. I thank Senators for giving me the opportunity to hear statements and take questions.

I understand I will have an opportunity to sum up at the end of the debate and respond to some of the issues raised.

On 21 September 2016, my Department published the Report on Programme to Review and Enhance Fire Safety in Local Authority Provided Traveller Accommodation. The report sets out the approach to reviewing and enhancing fire safety in local authority-provided Traveller accommodation. The review was undertaken in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of ten members of the Traveller community in the fire tragedy in Carrickmines just over a year ago. I take the opportunity to offer again sincere condolences on behalf of the Government to the Connors, Lynch and Gilbert families. I had the privilege to be at the one-year commemoration last week, which was an extremely moving occasion, and I took the opportunity to meet some of the family members involved who are clearly still struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what happened a year ago. Nothing I can say and nothing in this report will alleviate the suffering of the families concerned. However, the report describes the work undertaken in the intervening period to plan, audit and implement fire safety measures and improvements focused on protecting families from the dangers of fire.

While the report covers the period up to 1 July 2016, my officials have verified with local authorities that progress continues to be made on a series of outstanding remedial issues. In recent years, the statistics on fire deaths have been some of the lowest for more than 40 years, placing Ireland in the league of the most fire-safe nations, with an annual fire fatality rate of six deaths per 1 million of population. Having said that, the Carrickmines tragedy was a stark reminder of the speed at which a small fire can develop into an enormous human tragedy. It also reminds us that we need to focus our ongoing fire safety efforts on those most vulnerable to the dangers of fire.

Following the tragic loss of life in Carrickmines, my Department's national directorate for fire and emergency management was mandated to lead and oversee at national level a programme to review fire safety in local authority-provided Traveller accommodation. From the outset a collaborative approach, incorporating the concerns, views, advice and knowledge of Travellers and Traveller organisations, including Pavee Point, the National Traveller Women's Forum and the Irish Traveller Movement, was adopted, working with fire safety professionals in the local authority fire service and staff in the local authority housing sections. While recognising broader issues related to Traveller accommodation, the review process focused on life safety and on ensuring practical and appropriate fire safety measures, which contribute to preventing loss of life and injury in local authority Traveller accommodation, have been applied systematically across the country. This involved appraising fire safety in Traveller accommodation against the standards set out in the working draft, Guide to Fire Safety in Existing Traveller Accommodation, which was prepared by the national directorate to assist local authorities in conducting the review. It also involved running a series of community fire safety initiatives aimed at Traveller organisations and the wider Traveller community so that awareness of fire risk and fire safety is developed and maintained over a longer period.

The review focused on local authority Traveller-specific accommodation such as halting sites and group housing schemes. As I mentioned, the report on the programme to review and enhance fire safety in local authority-provided Traveller accommodation was published on 21 September. The report enumerates fire safety measures and actions implemented as of 1 July this year. However, and critically from my perspective, it also proposes and recommends a series of further actions by relevant stakeholders to sustain fire safety into the longer term. The review process, which was driven at national level by the national directorate and implemented across the country by local authorities, has effectively concluded. Local authorities submitted returns to the national directorate detailing the work that was undertaken up to 1 July 2016, which was the cut-off point for the submission of data for inclusion in the report. This information was analysed by the national directorate, resulting in the generation of the report, which I am sure some Senators have seen or read.

The report highlights that as of 1 July local authorities reported having appraised fire safety in 95%, or 2,042, of the 2,144 Traveller accommodation units identified for the purpose of the review. A total of 5%, or 102, accommodation units were not subject to a fire safety appraisal as some were closed and undergoing renovations, some were unoccupied and in a small number of cases the local authority was unable to gain access.

The report recommends that relevant local authorities revisit the possibility of appraising this very small percentage of Traveller accommodation units which were not covered as part of the review. Following the appraisal stage, local authorities set about carrying out the necessary remediation works and prepared implementation plans detailing short, medium and long-term timeframes for action. Short-term plans typically included the installation of smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms and fire blankets and the marking of fire safety points in halting sites. Medium-term plans generally dealt with matters such as the provision of appropriate electrical connections and the reconfiguration of units, where feasible. There was a lot of this type of work. Long-term plans covered the provision of alternative or additional accommodation where needed.

As of 1 July, local authorities reported having carried out enhancements in 74%, or 1,501, of the accommodation units appraised and by the end of September this had risen to 85%, or 1,745 accommodation units. When making their submission at the end of June, a number of local authorities pointed out that while other enhancement works were ongoing, this was not reflected in their return which only detailed enhancements that had been completed. In some cases, official halting sites and group housing schemes were found to be well managed and maintained and, as a result, little or no enhancements were required.

The three main issues arising from the review process were: the absence of smoke alarms which would alert families to the dangers of fire at an early stage and enable them to evacuate quickly; the danger posed in multi-unit accommodation by the layout of units, in terms of a fire in one potentially preventing people escaping to safety from another unit; and the dangers of fire posed by inappropriate electrical connections between units. The absence of a working smoke alarm was identified as an issue in 1,654 accommodation units. Of these, just over three quarters, or 1,274 units, have been fitted with smoke alarms as of 1 July. I would like to point out that in some cases there was reluctance and some persons did not wish to be provided with smoke alarms or to have them fitted. This points to the need for further work in raising awareness among Travellers of fire dangers and the value of appropriate, functional fire safety measures in the home.

Separation distances between Traveller accommodation units and the configuration of adjacent units within bays were determined to be issues affecting roughly half of the sites appraised. I understand adjustments in layout have been undertaken, where feasible. However, in many cases, the works required to remedy separation or configuration issues involves the provision of alternative or additional accommodation and this is not usually something that local authorities can address in the short or medium term. Where the reconfiguration of units is not sufficient to address layout issues, the provision of alternative or additional accommodation will be considered by local authorities in the longer term. My Department is providing capital funding of €9 million for Traveller-specific accommodation in 2017, an increase of €3.5 million, or 64% on the 2016 allocation, which I think was also slightly increased last year. I think we are moving in the right direction and we need to continue to do so. As I mentioned, this is the second consecutive year that the Traveller accommodation capital budget has been increased.

However, whether it will be enough remains to be seen. We will appraise that again next year with a view to making decisions for 2018.

In addition to capital funding for the provision and refurbishment of Traveller-specific accommodation, the Department also provides current funding for accommodation-related supports to operate in tandem with the capital programme. Current funding of €4.3 million is being provided in 2016 and a similar amount will be provided again in 2017. Traveller-specific funding is ring-fenced and is additional to the general social housing funding, which will see a huge increase for next year because of the overall pressures in respect of social housing provision and from which many Traveller families may also benefit. No other group in Ireland has this additional accommodation option, which demonstrates, I hope, a clear commitment to providing culturally appropriate accommodation for Traveller families.

The condition of electrical installations generally and, in particular, the external use of multiple-plug adaptors, was identified as an issue in 62% of the sites appraised. Of these, a little more than half have had remedial works carried out. Therefore, there remains a sizeable number of accommodation units in which this is an ongoing issue and collectively we need to address that. In such cases, discussions and communication between local steering groups and the individuals involved to develop remedies or solutions to make safe these electrical installations have taken place or are ongoing.

In addition to the physical works, a parallel programme of community fire safety has been undertaken by local authorities incorporating education and training for key workers and engagement with community groups on fire safety awareness. Current community safety programmes are regarded as a significant contributor to the overall downward trend in the instances of domestic fires and fire fatalities. Engaging people to take responsibility for their own safety, in so far as they can, is seen as a particularly effective approach. I understand 90% of local authorities have already carried out community fire safety talks or demonstrations and that this element of the review has been generally well received by Traveller organisations and the Traveller community. Fire services have also carried out pre-incident planning visits as part of their fire prevention work to ensure familiarity of the local fire service with the location of Traveller accommodation within their functional area, which is very important. This is to identify access, layout of sites, hazards on sites and hydrant locations to access large volumes of water. This aspect of the review is considered to have worked very well and pre-incident planning for Traveller accommodation sites has now been included in the fire service's annual pre-incident planning programme.

A more complete picture of the work undertaken as part of the review can be obtained from the report which is available on my Department's website. Overall, though, I am satisfied that the work undertaken to date as part of this review programme has improved considerably fire safety in local authority provided accommodation.

On the broader housing issue as it relates to the Traveller community, the report has just been published and we are learning lessons from it and want to try to invest in ensuring that we implement its recommendations. We have made decisions regarding next year's budget, anticipating that we will need to spend much more on Traveller-specific accommodation, an increase from €5.5 million to €9 million. The Housing Agency is also undertaking a broad review of housing provision for the Traveller community and should report to me before the end of the year, I think. Therefore, a lot is happening in this area, but that does not mean that there is not more to be done and more to learn. I look forward to hearing what Senators have to say on the topic.

Before I call Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, I welcome Bernard Joyce and other representatives of Traveller groups throughout Dublin city and county to the Visitors Gallery. They are here as guests of Senator Colette Kelleher and very welcome to the House.

I too express my sympathy to the families of those who died in that tragic fire on their loss. It was devastating. The whole country was devastated. However, who is responsible for fire safety in Traveller accommodation? There are about 10,000 Traveller families resident in Ireland. We have learned through bitter experience that self-regulation of fire regulations does not work. In 1998 the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act was enacted. The legislative framework we have today mandates all local authorities to draw up a five-year plan for Traveller accommodation. This legislation is patchy and, according to many Travellers, has resulted in no real change. For many years, the Traveller community has been calling for a housing watchdog in co-ordination with all agencies responsible for housing the Traveller community. We in Fianna Fáil support the setting up of this housing agency. The majority of the board would be Travellers in order to provide suitable accommodation for Travellers throughout this State. Improving Travellers' accommodation must be a priority for all parties. Some fire safety works have taken place in local authorities for Traveller accommodation rights. The absence of smoke alarms, the danger posed by multi-unit accommodation and the dangers of fire all need to be urgently addressed. I ask the Minister to make sure that every local authority carry out safety procedures on these factors for the Traveller community. Fianna Fáil proposes a national building inspectorate, as opposed to the assigned certificate system. I have massive concerns about the certificate system, which I believe does not address the issue. A building inspectorate, much like the national car test, NCT, system, with dedicated specialist staff monitored by the local authority, would be more cost-effective.

I welcome the €9 million the Government has planned to go into Traveller accommodation. However, I heard the Minister a few weeks ago address the matter of local authorities not using their Traveller accommodation funding but sending it back over the years. The Minister needs to address this issue because at the end of the day, he is accountable to every local authority. I want to make sure this €9 million is put to the best use for the Traveller community because we must make sure that nothing like that fire ever happens again in this country. I welcome the extra money and the fact that fire safety is now an issue in the Traveller community.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for his comprehensive report. I also welcome all the guests to the Visitors Gallery. I have no difficulty with the Minister's report. I have read it in detail. In the recommendations he has short-term, medium-term and long-term objectives, which is clearly strategic and makes absolute sense. The report is based on resources and practical things can be done, with which I have no difficulty.

I want to spend my time talking about the Traveller accommodation issue in its broadest sense. I have come to the Seanad from a local authority. I commiserate because I was around on the very night that massive inferno took place in Carrickmines, in the local authority of which I was an elected member. However, it is the same local authority that is on record as opposing Traveller accommodation. I do not like to say it to the Minister, but he is a leading member of the Fine Gael Party, and Fine Gael councillors put out publicity and literature during the last general election campaign opposing Traveller accommodation. I know that does not sit comfortably with the Minister, because he is an innately decent person driven to deliver the policies, but that is the reality and it goes for most parties. They constantly oppose Traveller accommodation. There is nearly an incitement to hatred in some of the language used. I am amazed it has not been pursued as a hate crime because it is really irresponsible of any politician to talk in such derogatory terms and to frustrate and oppose the provision of Traveller accommodation. The big problem I see is that the county managers and chief executives, by their nature, wheel and deal to get things done. I say that in the best sense of the term. I also see the pressure mounted by elected representatives, who call themselves democrats, and community representatives who oppose Traveller accommodation. I am encouraged by a sentence in the Minister's contribution in which he talked about specific Traveller accommodation to address the specific needs of Traveller communities. He has acknowledged that, which is good and I welcome it. However, how can we progress the matter? It is not acceptable that we have a large number of caravans crammed into very tight sites.

The question must be asked as to why they are on very tight sites in the first place. The reason is because the local authorities have not been able to get the cross-party political support, on the ground, to deliver Traveller accommodation. This issue needs to come back centrally into the Minister's Department, and there needs to be quarterly reports on his website, not the local authorities' websites. We know they have failed to deliver on appropriate, safe, good accommodation and sites.

The work, trade and pursuits of Travellers must also be acknowledged, be they involved in horses, metalwork, crafts or mechanics. These are the things they want to do, that give them access to work and a meaningful day. That also has to become part of the overall view of what we are looking for in appropriate accommodation for Travellers' needs.

If I can leave the Minister with one message it is that he needs to bring the matter centrally back into his Department. He needs to bring out quarterly reports on how councillors are delivering other accommodation programmes. Consider Dún Laoghaire west pier. There are four caravans facing the easterly winds with a timber lattice around them because nobody will provide appropriate accommodation for the needs of a family that has been there for 25 years. That is the reality of a situation in Dún Laoghaire which is a very affluent part of the world and it is happening on the watch of all parties. The issue needs to be taken back centrally and we need to have quarterly deliverables. We need to have people asking councils why they are failing, why they are not doing it, where they are not delivering on it. It is not enough for people they have washed their hands of the Customs House or that they have washed their hands of this into the local authorities. The Minister needs to take control. I appeal to him to go back to his parliamentary party and to issue a circular to councillors that he knows and works with to tell them of their responsibilities, that they must respect and acknowledge the dignity of Travellers in the political literature and in the councillors' language and discourse. Unless we change councillors' attitudes - that goes for all of us - we are not going anywhere. I would ask that the Minister puts on record with the membership of his party, where he stands and what he expects of them.

It is one year since the Carrickmines tragedy and it is important to have this debate to let all views be heard across the House. One year ago it was a very human tragedy when ten lives were lost on a halting site in Carrickmines. It was a very real tragedy that affected not only that family but the wider Traveller community also.

To be fair to the Minister and his officials, they have outlined the immediate steps that were taken at that time. I have listened carefully to the Senator and he is right. I say that as a Fine Gael representative. There are councillors in our party who have actively campaigned against Travellers' rights and entitlements but that goes for every party also. We need to show leadership and the Senator is right to raise that issue. These are the issues that we do not talk about, unfortunately, a lot of the time. This House should take a step forward in showing leadership on the wider Traveller accommodation issue. A consequence of last year's tragedy was a real reminder about standards and the ability of local authorities to carry out their obligations as housing authorities.

Reference was made to funding, and the Fianna Fáil spokesperson spoke about the drawdown of funding. It is a fact that approximately 80% of funding for Traveller accommodation of the last ten years was drawn down and 20% was handed back. There are reasons for that and it is important we look at that to analyse why the full drawdown is not occurring. It is quite obvious to me, and Senators have alluded to it, that there are local issues where local authorities are the housing authority and elected members oppose the establishment of Traveller accommodation in their local electoral areas and that needs to be addressed.

I recognise that Traveller representative groups are looking for a national Traveller accommodation forum or committee that would allocate housing. It is my personal view that I am unsure this is the right way to go. It could cause further division between local authorities and when allocations happen. I believe it is about building capacity and confidence within the local authority system, but that cannot be done unless there is some element of sanction or accountability for local authorities. If we are to be honest about it, since the Traveller accommodation committee was established some local authorities have been successful and some have been deplorable. There are reasons for that. It is very unfair to point the finger at Travellers. They are a minority and want further inclusivity, with which I believe we should all agree.

I recall when I was a member of a local authority putting my neck on the line in my local authority area and saying to members that certain Travellers needed to be accommodated. There was some kickback on that electorally and, I will be honest, some of my electorate disagreed with me. I probably suffered a little for that view. Travellers genuinely need housing accommodation or accommodation to suit their requirements to a high standard. Last week the Department made recommendations for local and national levels. I shall not go over them again as they are on the public record. It is an obligation on local authorities, as housing authorities, not only for social housing tenants but also for Travellers, to ensure people who have a need in their respective areas are accommodated to the standard that, at the very least, ensures fire safety and meets accommodation needs.

I acknowledge the increased funding for Traveller accommodation in the 2017 budget, but it is not just about providing money. There are deeper issues that must be resolved by Traveller representative groups, Travellers and communities engaging together, sitting around the table and building confidence and capacity within communities. It should not be about them and us. That is part of the problem.

I return to the issue, as outlined by the other Senators, of public leaflets being put out by some people. It is unacceptable for Fine Gael representatives to do that and I say this as a Fine Gael Senator. It is unacceptable for any representative to do so. We should all show leadership with regard to our obligations and needs. The Minister can only do so much. He provides the policy, the framework and the funding and that has been put in place. He has directed local authorities and he has provided the audit of all local Traveller accommodation sites, be they unofficial or official. The record speaks for itself, but now we need to follow through.

The Traveller accommodation committees throughout the State need a national review. The Housing Agency has a role to play in this regard as an independent body that can give independent oversight to how successful those committees are. We need to be very frank about where the barriers are. Some people will cite anti-social behaviour and other issues, but that is as much evident in the settled community as in the Traveller community. Many of us are experienced representatives and we have represented all sectors of society and that is the way it should be, but anti-social behaviour happens as much in a settled community as it does with Travellers. It must be acknowledged that there are a few - a minority - who give the Traveller community a bad name. That is where the confidence building issues need to be built on. We need to have further engagement with communities. We need the local authorities on the ground to engage, face to face, with Traveller representatives and need to bring them forward to community representatives and work together to provide high standards of accommodation. The funding is there and it has been proved in the past ten years that only 80% of the funding has been drawn down. There are deeper, underlying issues about which we all need to be honest and upfront. Senators have referred to these issues.

With regard to local representatives, we speak in this House about local councillors, their increased workload and mandate. This is a very fundamental mandate for councillors. Why should we hand it back to a central Department and bureaucrats. Councillors should take this on board and stand up four-square. It is a responsibility, regardless of whether they like it. I know that councillors elect Senators to this House, but it is a responsibility they need to deal with on the ground and on which they need to show leadership. It is only by taking that route that it will work. By taking it away from local communities and councillors we are allowing them to abdicate that responsibility. I do not believe that is the answer. The Minister needs to have a national oversight and overview, provide the framework, the policy and the funding. Ultimately it is down to the housing authorities, supported by their local elected representatives, of all parties and none, to provide that accommodation. Until that leadership happens, with the leadership in the Traveller community, unfortunately we are not going to resolve many of the outstanding issues.

Tá bliain ann ó cailleadh an deichniúr saoránach de chuid na tíre seo i dtine uafásach i mBóthar Ghleann na Muc i gCarraig Mhaighin sa gcontae seo. An rud is uafásaí ná gur tubaiste é a d'fhéadfadh stop a bheith curtha leis. Tá fadhb na tithíochta i measc an Lucht Siúil aitheanta leis an páirtí seo againne le fada an lá. Faraor, ní go dtí gur tharla an tragóid seo go chuir an Rialtas an méid sin suime sa scéal. Tá fáilte mhór roimh ár gcairde anseo inniu ón bPobal Siúil agus tá súil agam go mbeimid ag obair as lámh a chéile as seo go ceann i bhfad go bhfeicfidh muid réiteach ar an gcás scannalach seo.

The report is dedicated to the ten people who perished in Carrickmines and we should dedicate this debate and our actions in this area to Willy Lynch, Tara Gilbert and their daughters, Kelsey and Jodie, Thomas and Sylvia Connors and their children, Jim, Christy and six month old Mary, as well as Jimmy Lynch, a brother of Willy, because this humanises the tragedy that brought all of this into stark focus.

As a community, Travellers continue to endure some of the worst and most overcrowded living conditions in Ireland. In the past seven years, funding for Traveller accommodation has been cut by 93%, from €70 million in 2008 to €4.3 million this year. A total of 1,536 Traveller families are living in overcrowded or unsafe conditions and many Travellers do not have access to basic facilities such as sanitation, water and electricity. Travellers fare badly in all key indicators of disadvantage, including employment, poverty, health, infant mortality, life expectancy and education. At the root of all these problems are the levels of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion experienced by these citizens.

A total of 34 Travellers have been criminalised under legislation, namely, the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002, which allows the Garda to move families on demand and without notice. Failure to comply with such a demand may result in a heavy fine or term of imprisonment. This in itself constitutes a major human rights violation.

Little consideration has been given to the cultural values of Travellers when providing accommodation. As a result, much of this accommodation has not been designed in a way that meets Travellers' specific needs. In addition, some current Traveller accommodation programmes do not meet basic standards.

For too long, bigotry and discrimination have been allowed to hinder the provision of Traveller accommodation. We must ensure that funding for Traveller accommodation is used and the provision of homes for the Traveller community is no longer allowed to be used as a political football. In that regard, I concur with many of the points made by Senator Coffey. It is appalling, for example, that the Mayor of Galway, who is a member of the Traveller action programme committee, is also canvassing in opposition to Traveller accommodation in certain areas of the city. It beggars belief that an elected representative is engaging in such an appalling practice. Public representatives must show leadership and engage in proper consultation at local and national level to ensure the problem is alleviated.

The report was commissioned in the wake of the Carrickmines tragedy. I note from the introduction that co-operation took place between statutory agencies, local authorities and the Travelling community and I hope such co-operation continues on the work that will need to be done to find a permanent solution.

There are fears the report will be used as another excuse to evict people from sites or in circumstances that are not acceptable. These fears need to be addressed. The report is a starting point or roadmap, not an end in itself, and it must not be viewed as putting the matter to rest. Carrickmines was the result of a legacy from the foundation of the State.

The report gives a qualified welcome, as I do, to the measures carried out in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. There is, however, much more to be done and Sinn Féin has argued for more to be done for a long time. In our most recent alternative budget, instead of tax cuts for the well-off, we proposed significant investment to provide adequate, secure and culturally appropriate accommodation for Travellers. We are committed to restoring the Traveller accommodation budget to the 2008 level of €40 million. We would achieve this by increasing the current allocation by €36 million in 2017. Sinn Féin also had Traveller accommodation at the heart of our Better for Housing document, which will underpin our housing policy when we are in government.

My party is often accused of not making positive recommendations. Our proposals include the introduction of a Traveller ethnicity Bill; front-loading of funding to local authorities with a good track record of drawing down funds and delivery of Traveller accommodation and penalties for local authorities which refuse to build necessary Traveller accommodation; reform of all legislation that penalises Traveller culture and ways of life; the introduction of amending legislation to make the Traveller accommodation programme a mandatory consideration on an application for planning permission; empowerment of the national Traveller accommodation consultative committees to take charge of the provision of Traveller accommodation with an annual budget and targets; the establishment of an all-Ireland programme for provision for nomadism in co-operation with all local authorities in the Six Counties and Twenty-six Counties; incorporation of local development plan zoning objectives with provisions of the Traveller accommodation programme, especially for the use of temporary or transient halting sites; prescribing that the use of land as a transient halting site for a specified number of weeks per annum should be as an exempted development; bringing the development of private halting sites within the "open for consideration" or "acceptable" categories under agricultural zoning; using external mediation of disputes where Traveller and settled communities come into conflict over Traveller accommodation issues; and developing a broader, meaningful Traveller-settled community reconciliation process.

As for the report, there are concerns about carbon monoxide alarms not being installed. This is vital because most Traveller accommodation is not linked to a service provider such as the gas network and many housing units rely on solid fuel burners or appliances run off gas canisters. All of this occurs in a confined space where ventilation may be a problem. This issue needs to be tackled immediately because unlike in the case of fire, there will be no prior warning of a build-up of this lethal gas.

Access to Traveller sites for emergency vehicles was identified as a problem, albeit one that could be solved through a ministerial order to the local authorities to improve access from public roads and remove barriers that may impede access for emergency vehicles. Urgent action is needed on this point.

The issue of electrical connections appears to be the most urgent matter. In 62% of the sites assessed, a requirement to carry out remedial works was identified and the use of multiple adaptors was also identified as an issue.

It is important that this and other reports not be used as a mechanism for seeking changes in accommodation arrangements. Sinn Féin wants to see the fire safety appraisals and any resultant fire safety enhancement works undertaken in partnership with the relevant Traveller community. Current legislative enforcement provisions must not be invoked as part of this process to try to effect change.

The reason for the long delay in implementing many of the recommendations is the substantial reduction in funding for Traveller accommodation. In addition, as has been noted by certain local authorities, there is a reluctance to draw down and utilise the money available to provide proper and safe accommodation. In one incident in County Dublin, local councillors actively campaigned through leaflets not to have a site used for accommodation, while ostensibly claiming that the proposed scheme would have been a waste of money.

Even when moneys are allocated for Traveller accommodation, for example, the €4.3 million allocated under the watch of Senator Paudie Coffey when he was the Minister of State with responsibility for Traveller accommodation, no moneys were allocated to many local authorities, including Carlow, Cavan, Donegal, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, South Dublin, Galway, Laois, Leitrim, Louth and Mayo County Councils and Galway City Council. Many of these council areas have long waiting lists for Traveller accommodation.

In Galway, we see very little activity but hear much talk about Traveller accommodation. While I welcome the project under CENA to develop a halting site, compared with the group housing initiative under CENA in County Offaly, the project in Galway is very slow to be developed and the halting site proposed under the council's Traveller accommodation policy appears to have gone by the wayside. Sinn Féin would, as I indicated, immediately tackle these issues by front-loading funding to local authorities with a good track record of drawing down funds.

While it was great that so many parties adopted a united position in the wake of the Carrickmines tragedy and that the report was published, there is a need to match rhetoric with action, which means confronting those who hold anti-Traveller bias in council chambers at local authority level and in the community. Nothing will change unless it is made known to these people that they can no longer block progress. The polite protestations of certain politicians that some areas are more suitable than others for Traveller accommodation is a cowardly retreat into seat-saving and renders the holding of political office as nothing more than self-preservation.

Tá an t-am istigh. Fáiltím roimh an tuairisc ach, i ndáiríre, an scéal mór atá anseo ná an easpa gníomhaíochta maidir le tithíocht agus cóiríocht fheiliúnach don Lucht Siúil. Caithfear aghaidh a thabhairt air sin. Tá muide ag tiomáint chuige sin agus tá súil againn go gcuirfidh an Rialtas, in ómós do na daoine a cailleadh an t-am seo an bhliain seo caite, beart de réir briathar sa cheist seo ar fad.

I thank the Leader for arranging this debate and the Minister for taking time to come to the House for it. I extend a warm welcome to the visitors in the Visitors Gallery who have travelled especially to be present. Some of them live with the daily reality of what we are discussing. On 27 September on the Order of Business I read out the names of the ten people who had tragically died in the Carrickmines fire and called on the Government, as a matter of urgency, to prioritise the issue of overcrowding on halting sites and respond to mounting international and moral pressure for action.

I am glad that the Minister has come before the House to respond to these matters of life and death. Will the measures outlined in the report by the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management prevent more unnecessary and tragic deaths?

Local groups have acknowledged that work has been done, as the Minister outlined. The consensus is that Travellers are still not safe in their homes. The response to Carrickmines needs to go much further and beyond fire alarms and fire blankets. We must tackle the underlying causes like chronic overcrowding. Until such time as that is addressed many halting sites are unsafe places for men, women and children.

The national directorate's Report on Programme to Review and Enhance Fire Safety in Local Authority Provided Traveller Accommodation noted that "protecting people from the dangers of fire is particularly challenging in the confined and cramped conditions that families living in caravans or non-standard accommodation may find themselves". This challenge is compounded by overcrowding. In the report separation distances were identified as an issue of concern in 57% of sites. The number of families forced to share accommodation has increased from 663 in 2013 to 862 in 2015 and 534 families live on unauthorised sites. That translates into more than 4,000 men, women and children. Such overcrowding is a direct result of policy failures and neglect. The State has a duty of care to Travellers and that duty has not been fulfilled. Successive Governments have failed to provide and continue to fail to provide adequate housing and accommodation for Travellers. It is not just me who says so, it is not just Irish Travellers who say so and it is not just the Traveller groups that say so. The eyes of the world are on us and on the way we treat Travellers. The eyes of the world are not going away.

In the past year we have had two landmark judgments. One came from the European Commission of Social Rights, a body of the Council of Europe, and the other from the European Commission. Last May, a collective complaint, that is a form of class action, was taken against Ireland by the European Roma Rights Centre, supported by the Irish Traveller Movement, to the European Committee of Social Rights. The landmark judgment found that the Government has violated Travellers' rights in five respects under the social chapter. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted the findings on 5 October. How does the Minister plan to put into effect changes in policy and practice in the light of those findings? Some key grounds were cited - the insufficient provision of accommodation for Travellers; that many sites are in inadequate condition; and, that there are inadequate safeguards for Travellers threatened with eviction. The committee noted that of the 1,000 transient bays identified as needed in a 1995 taskforce report there are only 54 in existence and not all function as proper transient sites.

The second judgment came in recent weeks from the European Commission Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers, and gender equality, and threatened infringement proceedings against Ireland for its treatment of Travellers. Officials from the Commission are here this week to discuss the matter. I am interested in hearing the Minister's response to the European Commission's inquiries. The damning remarks from the European bodies have been echoed by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Is the Government listening now? I fear not when we examine the actions of recent Governments.

The budget for Traveller accommodation will be a welcome €9 million next year, but it was €40 million in 2008. That means there has been a 92% cut between 2008 and 2014. I ask the Minister to name another group that has suffered a 92% cut in funding support during the financial crisis. Let us remember that there was no Traveller in the Cabinet when the country went bust. There was no Traveller on the boards of our banks when they went bust. For those who might accuse me of going off topic, I am not. Recent Governments have used the cry of the crisis to cut funding for Traveller accommodation and supports disproportionately and unfairly. As a result, we have halting sites that are death traps. No one deserves to live in such circumstances and no one deserves to die like the people who died at the Carrickmines site. At the same time the Government cut funding some local authorities, as mentioned by other Senators, underspent their Traveller accommodation budgets to the tune of 36%. That was at a time when thousands of Travellers were in need of support. This amounts to a damning dis-investment by the State in the Traveller community that has had a devastating effect.

I say to the Minister that in our home city of Cork there is a halting site in Blackpool called Spring Lane that was built for ten families but now houses 30. Many families remain without water or toilets, some families continue to live in old damp mobile homes and all of the families live with overcrowding on a daily basis. Even though almost 100 children live on the site they have nowhere to play. We know that there is a direct relationship between the quality of housing and health and safety. Traveller infants are 3.6 times more likely to die than infants in the general population. The suicide rate among male Travellers is 6.6 times higher than in the general population.

Last week I spoke to a friend who works in the Traveller health service and she told me that there had been three deaths by suicide in Cork in the past few weeks. In 2008, life expectancy for Traveller men was 15 years shorter than for settled men and a decade shorter for women. As we all know, ten people died in the fire that triggered the report. We are shaving decades off people's lives by not providing them with adequate and safe homes.

Every day Travellers experience marginalisation, discrimination and racism due to their ethnicity. It is time to respect this distinctive culture that can be traced back to at least Tudor times. A core part of the Traveller culture is expressed through housing. Living in a caravan and moving about is an integral part of Travellers' ethnic identity that was superbly explored in the recent RTE television series called "John Connors: The Travellers". We must recognise and provide for their identity. As the European Commission noted, Travellers are the most marginalised community in Ireland, yet two weeks ago in the Dáil a criminal justice Bill was supported and proceeded to Committee Stage without a distinct reference being made to their ethnic minority status. Their status is not recognised by the State and, therefore, will not benefit from automatic inclusion in the proposed Bill. For me, this is a matter of conscience and rights. The current situation is intolerable and shameful. Urgent meaningful action is required to remedy the situation for Travellers in Ireland.

The Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness - Rebuilding Ireland is a commendable and ambitious plan, but it is short on specifics in respect of Traveller accommodation. The plan commits to having an expert independent review by the Housing Agency, which is needed, but it does not reference or recognise the scale of the issue that needs to be addressed. Travellers need to know when overcrowding will end, how much will be spent on Traveller accommodation, when, by whom and where. Will the Minister confirm that the promised review mentioned in the Rebuilding Ireland action plan will, at a minimum, reinstate Traveller accommodation funding to the 2008 level of €40 million? A budget of €9 million is going in the right direction but it is not enough. I ask the Minister to increase the provision of appropriate resourcing of accessible, suitable and culturally appropriate accommodation, to support Traveller nomadism with well managed and serviced transient sites and to introduce a moratorium on evictions. Given that there have been successive failures of leadership and political will at local level, I ask him to consider creating new independent national Traveller accommodation.

We must never again lose ten Irish citizens to fire like we did in Carrickmines. We must respect Irish Travellers in words and deeds. We can and must end the marginalisation of Travellers. We must end the causes of early death and ill health whether it is mental or physical. We must end overcrowding through properly resourced housing. We owe this to the ten people who died in Carrickmines last year. We owe this to the thousands of Irish Travellers desperate for a decent home and life. We owe this to ourselves to make Ireland a country that cherishes us all equally and we owe it as an explanation to a world that is watching.

I thank the Minister for listening and look forward to his response.

In order to be helpful I will keep my contribution brief. I respect the fact that the last speaker spoke with great passion and commend her for her speech.

I want to divide my time into two sections. First, I will talk specifically about the report that the Minister has brought to us. Second, I shall talk on the broader issue.

I welcome the report. I appreciate that the Minister and the other people involved in its compilation have done a lot of work. Having said that, there are obvious deficiencies.

Will the Minister respond to some of these points in his reply? As only 42% of remedial steps were implemented, will he explain the reason the remaining remedial steps were not implemented?

In regard to smoke alarms, 81% of accommodation units were appraised and 77% were supplied with smoke alarms. As is the norm in mainstream local authority housing - where the local authority has an input into the provision of the units - I would have thought the provision of a smoke alarm would be compulsory. I fully understand the concerns of people with regard to smoke alarms in Traveller accommodation. Will the Minister address that issue? The report states there was extensive discussion on smoke alarms and while a smoke alarm will assist in all practical senses, there is resistance to installing one and I ask the Minister to address that issue. A key recommendation is to change the code of practice under the provisions of the Fire Services Act 1981 and the 2003 amending Act and I ask the Minister to implement that change.

I know that the Minister has a great interest in this issue, but in his opening statement he stated the statistics here were low with "six deaths per 1 million of population." With respect, no death is acceptable. I acknowledge the Minister accepts this but that statistic, with parts of the report not implemented, means there is a great deal more work to be done.

I will now deal with the broader issue of Traveller accommodation. When I went to primary school in the Mercy school in Carrick-on-Suir, I sat alongside a Traveller in my first year, which was known as low babies. That Traveller remained in school with me up until fifth class in primary school. The family then left. They had been living in a canvass tent in the field next to the castle in Carrick-on-Suir. I wonder how that boy ever got on in life after that. What chance did he have, compared with the chances I got?

I fundamentally disagree with Senator Victor Boyhan's comment that we should recentralise the responsibility for Traveller accommodation. I commend Senator Paudie Coffey for what he said. I totally agree with him when he said this was an abdication. We have 949 elected councillors. One of their responsibilities is to deal with Traveller accommodation. They must deal with the issue in the same way as they deal with other issues as elected representatives and not hand back that control to the Minister or to an official in the Department. In 2002, in my capacity in a previous job, I had an opportunity to train Traveller women for their role when they were on the Traveller accommodation committees in County Tipperary. I was a member of the council at the time. I got an insight into the issues they faced on a daily basis. Their input into the committee was extremely successful, not because of my training but because of their interest in representing their community on the committee. I met the then chairman of the council, now deceased, at a funeral and he told me about the Traveller accommodation committee meeting he had attended that day. He was bowled over by the Traveller women on the committee. I will never forget his line when he said: "I cannot handle those women." Obviously, I did not tell him that I had trained them, but it showed me that if members of the Traveller community were given an opportunity, they would engage in what we would call the mainstream.

I am aware of a former councillor in Senator Paudie Coffey's county of Waterford who took up the position of chairman of the Traveller accommodation committee. When he was asked at the time why he took the position of chairman, his answer was it was to make sure there were no Travellers in his local area. He said he would keep them out of his area. If we still have that attitude, we must deal with it. The Minister has to deal with this bigotry head on. Senator Paudie Coffey also mentioned briefly but did not develop a point I will now develop regarding councils that do not spend their allocation for Traveller accommodation on an annual basis and refuse to deal with the issue. The Minister who sanctions funding for other pet projects must make it hurt if that local authority is not prepared to address Traveller accommodation. Most councils are responsible and want to deal with this issue, but there are some, to which Members have alluded, which do not want to address it and have a bigoted attitude to the Traveller community. That must stop.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to comment on the report. I extend my sympathy to the families and people who lost loved ones and friends in the Carrickmines tragedy. I welcome the representatives of the Traveller community who are present.

While the Minister has provided an outline of the €9 million for Traveller accommodation, what safeguards are in place for the councils' expenditure of this money on Traveller accommodation? It is a similar question to that asked by many others today, but I think it is the key to the matter. Does one penalise a council that does not spend its allocation? Is it feasible, as Senator Denis Landy suggested, to link it to moneys being spent on other projects? I do not know the answer but this is the nub of the matter. If what happened in previous years is a gauge, the best part of €2 million will not be spent on Traveller accommodation this year. It is a fair concern that the money will not be spent.

An issue that keep recurring is whether responsibility for Traveller accommodation should remain with the county councils or, as Senator Victor Boyhan suggested, be centralised. I veer in the direction of local responsibility. As has been pointed out, responsibility should rest with the council and in the first instance, the Traveller accommodation committees, together with the chairperson, elected representatives and council staff should spend the money. I think centralisation could be a problem. Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor made a helpful and important suggestion to have a building inspectorate oversee projects and works to ensure they are done to a standard, as it is not good enough to send out a message that sub-standard work would suffice. When Senator Paudie Coffey served as the Minister of State in the previous Government, money was spent on projects in Athlone and different areas and one could see the benefits of it. These projects were respected. I call on the Minister to try to force, in whatever way possible, the spending in these communities of the allocation of €9 million.

There are time constraints. Senators Paddy Burke and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn have indicated; therefore, with the agreement of Senators, I will allocate each of them two and a half minutes. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I will be brief. I welcome the Minister. I also welcome the report and thank him for putting in place the machinery to it carry out because I have no doubt that lives will be saved because of the inspections and the fire safety matters that will addressed by the local authorities.

We cannot have another tragedy like the one in Carrickmines. I take the opportunity to sympathise with the families at Carrickmines who suffered a great loss and tragedy.

I inspected a local halting site quite recently and have to say I was not at all impressed with what I saw from either a fire safety or an accommodation point of view. I have no doubt but that the local authority will address the fire safety issues by carrying out the inspections. The local authority has assured me it has carried out those inspections and will address the shortcomings around fire safety. Like the other Senators, I too ask the Minister to address the accommodation issue. The accommodation I have seen in the halting site in my local constituency in Castlebar is inadequate and poor and needs to be addressed urgently. I am surprised to hear local authorities are sending back some of the funding that has been earmarked for Traveller accommodation over the years. I ask that the Minister address that issue. No local authority should be returning funding for the provision of Traveller accommodation to the Department.

In the halting site in Castlebar I have seen the accommodation at first hand. In some areas, it was a fire trap. In some cases they had the walls painted with oil paint, which is highly inflammable. I hope the council in this case will address that issue. I acknowledge the local authority has to be invited in to do all the inspections but I hope all the inspections were carried out. I hope the Minister will address the many issues raised here about Traveller accommodation. From what I have seen, I believe it is the poorest accommodation of any group of people throughout the country. While the €9 million is welcome, it is totally inadequate to address the Traveller accommodation issue in the short term.

The Minister has indicated that he is willing to give Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn one minute of his time. I apologise to the Senator, but I have to carry out the order of the House. We must finish at 2 p.m.

I thank the Minister and the Acting Chairman. I thank Senator Colette Kelleher who took the initiative to call for this debate. I thank the Minister for agreeing and being here. I welcome the members of the Traveller community who are present to witness this today.

I want to focus my comments on the big challenge that faces us. Many of the issues around cutbacks to Traveller accommodation programmes, overcrowding and a lack of cohesion in checking fire safety standards are due to a lack of political leadership across the State. Let us be honest about it - it has been said today - very few elected representatives are fighting proactively in partnership with the Traveller community to facilitate the cultural rights that are important to both the Traveller community and to all of us in terms of our history. I had the privilege of being rapporteur for the justice committee in the previous Oireachtas. That committee unanimously recommended that the State recognise, not grant because it is not the State's right to grant it, the ethnicity of the Traveller people.

I refer to the virus that started. In 1963 there was a Commission on Itinerancy. I want to read its terms of reference because they said it all:

(1) To enquire into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers [Note how it refers to "itinerants", not Travellers];

(2) To examine the economic, educational, health and social problems inherent in their way of life;

(3) To consider what steps might be taken

(a) to provide opportunities for a better way of life for itinerants,

(b) to promote their absorption into the general community

(c) pending such absorption, to reduce to a minimum the disadvantage to themselves and to the community resulting from their itinerant habits.

No Travellers were represented on the commission which denied the ethnicity, culture and history of the Traveller people. The commission was a stain on the history of the State. It has haunted us for all the decades since. We decided that the Traveller community's history was to be denied and that it was to be absorbed into settled society and so-called civilisation.

I commend Mr. John Connors and his team for the recent series on RTE. They have made a massive contribution to educating people on the real history and the real issues facing the Traveller people. Mr. Michael Collins, Ms Sindy Joyce, Ms Geraldine McDonnell and Ms Anne-Marie McDonnell, and Mr. Michael McDonagh undeniably are real leaders to the Traveller people.

I will briefly go through the reasons all parties and members of our committee unanimously recommended that the State recognise Traveller ethnicity. It is massively important. It would reverse the harm done by that commission all those years ago. The remaining excuses that we identified were the likes of it not being in the best interests of Travellers, that granting Traveller ethnicity would be too costly to the State, that Traveller ethnicity is not proven, other academic reasons and the need for full consensus amongst Travellers. We saw absolutely in the evidence given to our committee that every one of those excuses was slam-dunked and rebutted completely, not least by the then Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Those bodies are objective observers that have written extensively on this issue. The weight of academic, anthropological and sociological evidence is overwhelming. In the next while, there will be deliberations on the State recognising the ethnicity of the Traveller people. I believe that any fair and objective person who watches the documentary series laid out by Mr. Connors or who reads the all-party unanimous report that has been there for two and a half years would have to accept that this needs to happen.

I thank the Acting Chairman for his patience. My final point is that we need to do this together. We need to send a collective political message. All political parties and Independents in these Houses must send a message together that the report of 1963 was a stain on the State. We need to begin a new journey together, right the wrongs, teach the history of the Traveller people in our schools and remove the denial of their history, contribution, culture and vibrancy in the State. It is not going to be easy and there are major problems to overcome. However, the recognition of ethnicity would be a massive step in that direction. I urge the Minister, with his Cabinet colleagues and others, to look at this issue and make this year - the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising - the last year in which the State denies the ethnicity of our wonderful rich cultural Traveller people.

We have three minutes remaining. Senator Black is indicating, but I apologise to her as we do not have the time. We have to be finished by 2 p.m. That would not afford the Minister an opportunity to reply. I am guided by the order of the House.

Can I give one minute of my time away?

I really will keep it brief.

I thank the Minister for coming. I had a speech ready but my colleague, Senator Colette Kelleher, just said it all. What she said was fantastic. I welcome the citizens of the Traveller community who are here andconvey my condolences to the families of Carrickmines. When I heard my colleague's speech, it reminded me of being born and reared in Charlemont Street. There was a halting site at the end of my street. My mother had a small shop and it was the only shop on the street that would serve the Traveller community. We got to know the Traveller community well, particularly one family with whom we became really friendly. I was a child at the time and used to play with the younger children of that family. I remember there was a fire in the caravan in which the family lived. I suppose I am only talking from my heart here, but the fire killed the mother of those beautiful four or five children and the husband was heartbroken. My colleague's speech brought back to me the devastation that family suffered. Their lives were destroyed.

I welcome the report and the good work the Minister is doing. Because I believe he has a good heart, I ask him to take it as his own responsibility to look at the needs of the Traveller community and how important accommodation is. It is not much to ask. It is just a human right. That is all it is. I ask him to take on board their issues and needs. I thank him for giving me some of his time.

Clearly, I will not have an opportunity to reply to all questions. As such, I want to pick up on one or two themes.

I thank Senator Colette Kelleher for a very impassioned speech. I have known her for a long time and have rarely heard her speak as she did today. As such, I am certainly taking on board what she has said. I will also comment on Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn's comment. It is not often he calls for unity of purpose across political parties. Normally, I am at the sharper end of his comments. However, I agree with him on this issue. On something as fundamental as how a country treats a sector of the community, in this case the Traveller community, we should try to agree and have a real resolve to deliver what we have agreed. How can we deal with something that requires a much more comprehensive solution than has been provided to date? I will do what I can to give leadership in that regard. We will have to tease through some of those issues and it may be that we do not agree on everything. However, we will probably agree on the fundamentals.

I am more than aware of what is taking place in Spring Lane in Blackpool, Cork. I have taken a personal interest in trying to resolve that issue and I am meeting the city council and others who are trying to resolve it, including the former Deputy, Kathleen Lynch. The current conditions in which families are living are not acceptable in modern Ireland. There are other similar examples in other parts of the country I am sure, but the Spring Lane issue is the one with which I am most familiar. The solutions are not easy. There have been many efforts to try to provide solutions. I tried to get involved as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We made €1 million available for Traveller community horse projects in order that we could try to put some structure on the facilitation of the Traveller community to interact with horses, which is a strong connection they have. None of that money was drawn down because we could not find political agreement. We also had real challenges in trying to find agreement within the Traveller community - let us be honest - in terms of sharing facilities and so on. Families did not want to share. Of course, leadership is needed all around from representatives and I am delighted that so many are here to listen to this debate. However, the core leadership needs to come from Government and those who have power to make decisions and allocate significant resources. We also have to give leadership at local government level.

Comments were made on individual political parties. Of course, the local decision-making process has to allow people to disagree on locations and sites, but what is not acceptable is to prevent the provision of Traveller accommodation at a certain site while not having an alternative that is better and can actually provide solutions. Simply blocking solutions without having an alternative is not acceptable. When I was in Galway recently, I met a number of Traveller families who were anxious to speak to me because there is particular pressure in Galway city currently in relation to trying to find accommodation. In its absence, there are families who are simply being evicted from short-stay accommodation which is not acceptable or legal in particular areas. That is creating a lot of friction between the settled community, the Traveller community and gardaí, which is not good for anybody.

This is a bigger political problem than it is anything else. We have an obligation to try to create acceptance within communities, as well as to give leadership as political parties. It is easier to do that if there is a combined approach across political parties. I hope and expect that we will have another debate when I have a little more time to go into some of the detail on some of the broader Traveller issues which have been raised here today. I was asked to focus specifically on the fire safety issues which are very current. On some of the questions as to why there has not been 100% implementation or response, there are valid reasons that is the case. In fact, the figures are a lot higher than they are in the report because the period it covers ended on 1 July. A great deal has happened since. However, there is a need for consensus building, education and awareness-raising as well as the implementation of practical measures like smoke alarms, fire blankets and so on. We need the help of representative groups for the Traveller community, many of which are represented here, to actually change approaches within the Traveller community, as well as to change attitudes within the settled community. If we can do that, we can make significant progress.

My final point is on budgets. We have increased the budget significantly for next year. My understanding is that the budget was reduced because of a change in policy in order to accommodate the Traveller community through the standard social housing model to a greater extent rather than to simply allocate all money for Traveller families to Traveller-only accommodation. That switch resulted in a change of emphasis in budgets. Clearly, it has not worked. More funding is not the answer on its own given that the funding which is there already is not even being drawn down and spent. However, I accept that it is part of the equation. The commitment in a budget is, in many ways, the proof of a political commitment to get something done. That is why it is important that we have seen an increase for next year. It is also important to have a plan as to how to approach and spend the budgets that are there because the current approach is simply not working. We need to recognise that and change accordingly. I look forward to the support of other political parties if and when we decide to change the approach to get more effective results.

I thank the Minister and colleagues. I apologise to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, for the slight delay, but this was a very important debate with Members wishing to comment on the report.