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.