I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, back to the House. This discussion will conclude at 3.45 p.m., with contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes. Time can be shared and the Minister of State will have not less than eight minutes to reply to the debate.
Traveller Accommodation: Statements
It is good to be back in the House. I thank all Senators for the opportunity to discuss this very important issue. Addressing Traveller accommodation is a priority for me and the Department and I am glad we have a chance to discuss the issue, on which we touched in various previous debates. I am conscious that some Senators have been very focused on this area over the past year and have brought a group of like-minded people together. It is good to have a chance to talk through where we are at the moment.
The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 provides that local authorities have statutory responsibility for the assessment of the accommodation needs of Travellers and for the preparation, adoption and implementation of multi-annual Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs, in their areas. My Department’s role is to ensure there are adequate structures and supports in place to assist the authorities in providing such accommodation, including a national framework of policy, legislation and, most important, funding.
It is a matter for each local authority to set targets for the provision of Traveller accommodation in its Traveller accommodation programme. The allocation and recoupment profiles for Traveller accommodation projects can vary across local authorities given the local priorities, circumstances and project timelines set out in their programmes. These programmes provide a roadmap for local authority investment priorities over the period and form the basis for the allocation of funding for Traveller accommodation from my Department. When we discussed this briefly at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government this morning, members asked how the capital funding is allocated. This is generally done on the basis of a list of the applications submitted to the Department and the priorities of local government. Last year, money was provided to projects which could and should have been developed but where the follow-through did not necessarily take place.
A dedicated capital budget is in place to fund the delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation such as group housing and halting sites for Traveller families. The budget also provides funding for renovation and refurbishment work to improve the standard of existing accommodation. The budget available for Traveller-specific accommodation in 2019 is €13 million, which is an increase of €1 million on the 2018 figure and €4 million on the 2017 figure.
However, it is important to note that accommodation for Traveller households is provided across a range of housing options. With regard to the budget, we are not back to the highs of the capital budget we had for Traveller accommodation a number of years ago. While I would like us to get back there, the difficulty is we are not in a position to draw down from what is provided. Hopefully, as we make changes, we will get this money spent and we will be able to secure more money and ring-fence more funding for Traveller accommodation in the years ahead.
To return to the different range of housing options, the majority of Travellers live in standard housing, including local authority housing and HAP-supported tenancies in the private rented sector. Funding for these housing supports is provided through the respective budget lines and the Traveller accommodation budget is provided solely for Traveller-specific accommodation. Accordingly, funding available to provide housing solutions for Travellers is much broader than the Traveller accommodation budget. I am conscious that most of the focus of this discussion and our debates around Traveller accommodation is on Traveller-specific accommodation.
In addition to the capital funding provided, my Department provides revenue funding to local authorities for specific Traveller accommodation-related supports, such as social worker salaries and the management and maintenance of halting sites and group housing schemes. A total of €5.1 million was provided to local authorities to meet these costs in 2018. However, there is little doubt that delivery on capital programmes in recent years has been very disappointing and addressing the reasons for this and implementing solutions is something I am determined to address. I am conscious the lack of drawdown of funds and lack of development on the ground have been raised by many colleagues in the Seanad, across all parties. It is a shame to see capital money allocated and not spent when people are living in conditions that are not suitable for their families.
In January 2019, the European Committee of Social Rights published its findings on Ireland’s 15th report in 2017 on the implementation of the revised European Social Charter. The findings of the committee were very disappointing. In particular, the committee found there was insufficient provision of adequate accommodation for Travellers and that many Traveller sites were of inadequate condition. The report also acknowledged the response to fire safety issues taken by the Department, under the national directorate for fire and emergency management, following the Carrickmines tragedy in October 2015. The inquest into these tragic deaths took place at the Coroners Court in January this year. I want to outline some of the work that has been undertaken by my Department and the local authorities in the intervening period.
In the immediate aftermath of the Carrickmines fire, my Department’s national directorate for fire and emergency management was commissioned to develop and oversee an audit and programme to improve fire safety in local authority-provided Traveller accommodation. Recognising broader issues related to Traveller accommodation, the national directorate worked with Traveller representative groups to develop a culturally appropriate approach to the task. The review process focused on “life safety” and on ensuring that practical and appropriate fire safety measures, which contribute to preventing loss of life and serious injury in local authority Traveller accommodation, have been applied systematically across the country. This involved appraising fire safety in Traveller accommodation against standards set out in a new guide to fire safety in existing Traveller accommodation, a working draft of which was prepared by the national directorate in collaboration with fire services and the Traveller community. The purpose of the guide was to assist local authorities in undertaking the review and implementing the necessary improvements. The programme 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 the longer term. Individual local authorities have completed substantial works to ensure accommodation is made safer.
In September 2016, my Department published the Report on the Programme to Review and Enhance Fire Safety in Local Authority Provided Traveller Accommodation. Following on from the report, the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee, NTACC, continues to monitor the work undertaken by the local Traveller accommodation consultative committees in regard to fire safety.
The guide to fire safety in existing Traveller accommodation was prepared by the national directorate in collaboration with fire services and the Traveller community to assist local authorities in implementing necessary improvements. This guidance will be issued to the local authorities in the coming weeks on foot of the recent case. It has been formalised into a document and the guidelines will issue.
As indicated previously, the delivery of Traveller accommodation in many local authorities has been challenging in recent years, to the extent that budget allocations have not been fully expended. Over the past ten years, 2009-18, the Department has recouped in excess of €75 million to local authorities from a capital budget of €128.8 million. This represents a 59% drawdown on capital funding by local authorities collectively. In light of the condition of many of the Traveller-specific accommodation sites and the need for more, a drawdown of less than 60% is not acceptable.
Following on from a commitment in Rebuilding Ireland to ascertain why budgets were not being spent and on foot of a commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government, in 2017 the Housing Agency commissioned a review of capital and current funding for Traveller accommodation programmes for the period 2000 to 2016. The report had regard to the targets contained in the local authority Traveller accommodation programmes, the actual units delivered, the status of the accommodation funded and the funding provided for accommodation maintenance and other supports.
The review of the Traveller accommodation programmes conducted by the Housing Agency identified a number of areas which inhibit the provision of Traveller accommodation. The consultation element of the research identified the planning process as the most significant challenge to local authorities, characterised as objections from local settled residents and political pressure exerted by elected representatives delaying the planning process. This can have a direct impact on the achievement of targets as developments may face extensive delays, leading to the loss of opportunity to utilise funding.
The research also identified, through stakeholder engagement, that the current assessment of need process tends to focus on current need without an effective mechanism of predicting future need. The report recommends greater involvement from local Traveller accommodation consultative committees in needs assessment and target development. Improved consultation between stakeholders will result in realistic targets with regard to both population growth and the pressures on local authority stock, land, funding and planning processes. We often see sites that are over-developed with too many families living on them because this conversation was not had in the first place to work out exactly what the needs are going to be.
The review of the Traveller accommodation programmes was considered by the NTAAC. The NTACC was established by the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 and one of its functions is to advise the Minister or Minister of State of the day, currently me, on matters relating to the provision of Traveller accommodation. The NTACC includes representatives from local authorities, Traveller representative groups and my Department. Following its consideration of the Housing Agency report, the NTACC recommended to me that an independent expert group be established to examine the delivery of Traveller accommodation and to make recommendations on how we can address that. I subsequently established the expert group in September 2018. I would have much preferred to have set up that group much earlier but, for various reasons, it was delayed. We got it set up in September 2018 and we asked it to complete its work in three months. Its request was for six months, which will bring us to April of this year, when we hope to have the report. The overall aim of the group is to review the effectiveness, implementation and operation of legislation and to put forward proposals that will improve delivery. When we discussed it this morning at the housing committee, it was clear everybody across the parties wants increased and improved delivery and it is a question of finding new ways to do that, which is what the group has been asked to do. We are expecting to receive the report in April and we will then have a chance to work on it. My Department will consider any recommendations made by the expert group that have the potential to improve the delivery of Traveller accommodation nationally and help to ensure that full use is made of the increasing level of funding available for investment in Traveller accommodation.
If we can change that system and get the increased expenditure, I have no doubt we can secure the extra money we need to upgrade more facilities and to provide new ones. We will need to work with the expert group to implement the changes it recommends. I get a sense from the housing committee and from talking to individuals across the Houses that there is a desire for improvements. For too long, we have seen money not being spent where it is badly needed. I hope we will be in a much stronger position after April to implement new spending programmes we can stand over and believe in. I have visited many of these sites around the country and they are just not acceptable. They are utterly shocking and the conditions are not on. All of us have a responsibility to change the system to make sure we get an improvement in the provision of accommodation. I am conscious those conversations involve many stakeholders and I do not point the finger at anybody, except to say the system is failing and we have to bring in changes. I am not going to prejudge what the recommendations of the expert group will be, and we will wait a few more weeks until we get the report. However, it would be very welcome to hear any suggestions in the House today. The job of the expert panel was to engage with as many people as it possibly could, certainly with the Traveller representative bodies to get a real picture of what is going on, and also with the local authority sector. We welcome their feedback. Hopefully, we will be in a position in April to move forward. I am happy to come back into the House at that stage to talk more about it, if needs be, and to work with interested Members.
In the past two decades, the number of Traveller families in need of accommodation has more than doubled, and more and more Travellers are presenting as homeless.
Many Travellers are living in chronically overcrowded conditions and are excluded from Government statistics on homelessness. I see that this is a major issue from Travellers coming into my clinics. This is wholly unacceptable. Travellers who are homeless need to be categorised accordingly.
The "RTÉ Investigates" programme, “Travellers - Lives on the Fringes", broadcast in December 2018, was a shocking insight into the accommodation crisis for Travellers. While Travellers make up about 1% of the population, the "RTÉ Investigates" survey of local authorities found that they make up at least 8% of homeless adults staying in emergency accommodation and 12% of homeless children. These are significant numbers. It is alarming that the €157 million allocated to local authorities for Traveller accommodation between 2008 and 2017 was underspent by €52 million. Meanwhile, social housing delivery figures released as part of Rebuilding Ireland showed that 107 homes were provided in 2018 for Traveller accommodation and support at a cost of €6.8 million. The 2018 budget allocation, however, was €12 million. This represents an underspend of 44%. The failure to deliver Traveller-specific accommodation has serious implications for Traveller health, education and employment.
On 1 March 2017, Travellers were formally recognised by Dáil Éireann. A pragmatic approach needs to be taken to ensure delivery of Traveller accommodation from annual budget allocations. This requires working with communities to resolve any perceptions arising on any issues. Travellers are an important and distinct element of Irish culture and society. Their marginalisation is seen most starkly in the areas of housing, education and health. These are the issues I encounter. We need to focus more on awareness. Statistics support the view that Travellers are marginalised. Only 1% of Travellers go on to third level education. Traveller mortality rates are still three times the national average and suicide rates among members of the travelling community are six times the national average.
Fianna Fáil believes the Government needs to do more to ensure local authorities are acting in a co-ordinated fashion to accommodate Travellers. There has been under-delivery and underspending of allocated budgets and local and political opposition has played a part in this. Local authorities' lack of compliance with provisions mandated through the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998, lack of national and local oversight and monitoring have all culminated in a crisis.
We are already in the worst of times. We need to talk about what is being built in Ireland and address the issue that the housing units being built serve only one type of family. Across the board, the type of housing being built is not suitable and there is a focus on one type of housing. This is causing a massive issue in the system and it should be addressed properly. We need to look at what is available for Travellers and what would suit their accommodation needs. It cannot all be three-bedroom houses. I see value in creating a national Traveller accommodation agency to look at the types of accommodation being made available. This agency would monitor, assess, advise and secure the implementation of the annual building and refurbishment programme of local authorities and Traveller accommodation programmes. It would review local development plans, advise the Minister on what needs to be done, review drawdown funding and oversee the national assessment of need. Fundamentally, it would consult nationally and locally with Traveller interests to ensure Traveller inclusion. That is crucial.
We all want a space to suit our lives and to live out our own stories so we can no longer be pigeonholed families. We need to have a committee meet Travellers and we need to have more communication with them. That is where we are falling down. The Irish Traveller Movement contends that there is an urgent need for a radical overall of the current delivery system for Traveller accommodation. The organisation feels Travellers have been let down. Of the 10,000 Traveller families resident in Ireland, 35% live in standard houses, 26% live in private rented accommodation, 7% live in group housing, 5.7% live in permanent halting site bays and 4.35% live in unauthorised halting sites. By law, councils should take reasonable steps to build Traveller-specific housing. A survey carried out by "RTÉ Investigates" revealed that 16 of Ireland’s 31 councils did not build any new Traveller-specific schemes in the ten years to June 2018. That is frightening. Despite the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998, Traveller families in need of accommodation have more than doubled. They are five times the number sharing accommodation and account for 4,460 people in overcrowded halting sites and standard housing.
Travellers have also experienced an increase in homelessness. There are now 517 Travellers homeless and these are distinct from Travellers living in substandard and overcrowded shared accommodation. Figures show that the proportion of Travellers living in accommodation that is not fit for purpose is 11 times higher than among the general population.
Since the first Traveller accommodation programme, TAP, in 2000, the five-year mandatory plan in each local authority to provide accommodation for Travellers has had widespread delivery failings. Outcomes in the 17-year period to 2017 prove nationally that low targets have been set for developing Traveller-specific accommodation such as halting sites, group housing and transient sites. In some instances, there are no targets, despite ministerial directions. Higher targets have been set for delivery of standard housing, while there has been a lack of adequate planning for population growth, inaction on overcrowding and homelessness and next to no delivery of transient accommodation. That is the overall picture and it highlights the main problem.
Further evidence appeared in June 2017 in the Government report, Review of Funding for Traveller-Specific Accommodation and the Implementation of Traveller Accommodation Programmes, which covered the period 2000 to 2016. The report confirmed consistent failings in implementing funding. There was substantial underachievement over the lifetime of the TAPs, with only 68% of units delivered. These were targets determined, in the first instance, by the local authorities in each case. Poor quality of building also resulted in a need for early refurbishment, with those funds being prioritised over the development of new builds. The report also found a lack of accountability and transparency by local authorities and the absence of sanctions, legal implications or intervention in respect of the Government. That is crucial. Planning processes were found to be drawn out and failed at the Part 8, public consultation phase, when most came to a complete halt. The lack of planning for future population growth and an accommodation needs assessment that was not fit for purpose resulted in greater housing pressure.
The report of the task force on the Traveller community in 1995 identified that 3,100 new units of both Traveller-specific accommodation and standard housing were required by the year 2000. This tells us how long this has been going on. Of these 3,100 units, it was recommended that 2,200 should be halting site and transient bays and the remaining 900 should be Traveller-specific standard and group housing. There was a slow start in the period between 1997 and 2017, during which 1,218 of the proposed 2,200 halting sites were not delivered, while four times the targeted number of housing and group housing provision was delivered. I could go on.
No, you cannot.
I accept that. The figures are staggering. They are a concern and a worry. We need everybody to work together. Senators represent and work for everybody who comes into our clinics. We need balance, accountability and awareness and to have everybody working together. While I understand that people have concerns and we have to work with that, all of us must work together to ensure we provide proper Traveller-specific accommodation.
I welcome the Minister of State to this timely and important debate. I live close to three Traveller accommodation sites and my experience has been nothing but positive. One is a place called Soldiers' and Sailors' Field on Monkstown Avenue. I commend Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on its pioneering and imaginative approach. I was a member of the council when it took a conscious decision to construct an elaborate and exciting children's playground at the gate of a Traveller accommodation site. This was done with the consent and permission of the Travellers in question. I visited the playground yesterday and nothing in it is broken. While there is no gate on the playground, it has not been damaged or vandalised despite what everyone said would happen. The playground has been open for many years.
What is lovely about it is that children from both the local area Traveller accommodation and elsewhere come to play there. Children have no prejudice or hatred. They accept everyone who engages with them and everyone who plays with them. I recommend to the Minister of State that the Department should examine it because it is a clear opportunity. When there are opportunities and when one identifies common needs in people who wish to live in harmony, play, explore and be part of a community, it works.
Down the road, the Traveller accommodation site on the West Pier is wholly inappropriate accommodation. Every few weeks it is tapped up with timber laths to keep the easterly winds away from the Travellers in caravans. It was never designated as a Traveller accommodation site and it should never have been used for that purpose. I see all the problems down there in what is a very dark place at the edge of a pier. It is not lit and there is no residential connection with anywhere around it other than the sea on one side and the DART line on the other. One sees the pitfalls there and the anti-social behaviour, which does not involve the Traveller community, with people passing by and hurling bottles in or being abusive to the Travellers. Blackrock Park, which is just up the road, is an ideal site, where half of it houses caravans and the other half has permanent structures. It works very well on the edge of a beautiful park. Everyone who travels on the DART each day sees it. The people there are happy and they want to stay there and live there. The only shortcoming there, like most Traveller accommodation, is that it does not necessarily take on board the trades, crafts and skills of some, not all, Travellers. My experience of meeting many Travellers is that they are entrepreneurial and involved in different activities such as making up trailers, working with scrap metal or whatever else, but the activities are trades. We are all entitled to work and to earn a few bob from doing something that we are good at and we like to do. The challenge is to marry the capacity of people to work, earn a few bob and put a crust on the table and being happy or peaceful people who are valued and respected. Surely that is not too much to ask for anybody.
The question is how we as politicians respond in an appropriate manner. I am somewhat surprised that there has not been more litigation against politicians in relation to the conduct of some. That goes for every party and none. It is regularly brought to my attention that politicians, from county councillors to Ministers, advocate against the Department's policy. I hear suggestions that we should dispose of sites that are designated for the Traveller accommodation programme, TAP. One of the measures I liked when the programme got going was that TAP sites were designated on county development plan maps. That is part of the planning process. People know what they are buying into. Our planners know what is involved. The TAP is adopted by the local authorities. I ask the Minister of State to consider legislation in this regard. Under no circumstances should a TAP be removed from a county development plan without at least, first, the consent or knowledge of the Minister. The Department should know if there are substantial changes within the life of a county development plan, which lasts for five years, and if there are variations, it should be notified. We need a mechanism for that and we must monitor the situation. I am not convinced when someone comes to me and says a site worth €2 million is designated for Traveller accommodation and, therefore, it should be sold. That is not good enough. The elected members at some point in the life of the county development plan took a decision when considering Traveller accommodation provision. Such decisions take a long time; they do not happen in five minutes. It is important that all parties and none are briefed about their responsibilities and that they are brought into line by their party leadership if they stray from appropriate language and policy on Traveller accommodation. I do not single anyone out because it happens across the board.
We must be concerned if people are not drawing down the money. We must ask why that is the case. We must be concerned about what the Department is doing about it. If money is not being drawn down then the question is who is driving the national Traveller accommodation strategy. That is important. The buck has to stop somewhere. I am not here to lay blame on anybody. There are no objectives relating to Traveller accommodation in the Rebuilding Ireland programme. I am very well up on that programme. Perhaps a national scheme to address the issue is needed. It is not rocket science. We have 31 local authorities and they need short, medium and long-term objectives. Let us look at the short-term objectives and ask them if they can deliver on the next five Traveller accommodation units in each area.
I do not doubt the Minister of State's personal commitment to the issue, nor do I doubt the commitment of the Department. However, we have a long way to go. We should have meaningful stakeholder engagement because that is important, but we also need to talk to locally elected members about their roles and responsibilities in delivering the TAP.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He is an effective Minister of State. He is on the ground, he knows the issues and he has solutions. This is a difficult issue for many reasons but especially for those who do not have appropriate homes. Trying to procure homes for anybody in this country is not easy, but for myriad reasons it is more difficult for Travellers. I always like to look at the glass as half full in such scenarios but sometimes it is not easy. The former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, deserves a lot of credit for making the necessary moves that led to the recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group. It was an appropriate thing to do and it was welcomed. It meant that society and the State respected Travellers as an ethnic group.
Following on from that statement of the State's value and respect for Travellers, a significant volume of work must be done. I noted Senator Boyhan's proximity to Traveller accommodation units. When I look out my window I can see Traveller accommodation, as there is a group housing unit of six houses. In my town, there are three separate Traveller accommodation units. They were proposed and planned in the Traveller accommodation programmes in the 1990s and the early part of this century. Integrated housing is appropriate but Travellers had a different view and that had to be respected. The result is a mixture of all views. Senator Boyhan referred to a playground. I would consider that an example of best practice and other local authorities should learn from it. Many local authorities have good schemes and many Travellers have been housed for a long time and are getting on with their lives, rearing their families and making a meaningful contribution to society. Such examples exist and they must be heralded and used as best practice but there is a lot more to be done. The Minister of State is fully aware of what has to be done. The most disappointing element is when we find out each year how much money has been allocated by the Minister, who makes a significant effort during the budget negotiations to get funding and then makes sacrifices in other areas of housing to make money available for Traveller accommodation, and local authorities are not in a position to draw it down. It is not all the Government's fault or responsibility.
Local authorities have a clear responsibility in terms of rolling up their sleeves and dealing effectively with Traveller accommodation. Some local authorities are good and make an effort but many are not making an effort. It is not a priority. It does not receive the type of absolute attention about which Senators Boyhan and Murnane O'Connor spoke eloquently. There are 31 local authorities and each of them has a responsibility to provide Traveller accommodation, but we could count on one hand the number of local authorities that do a genuinely good job when it comes to it. The Government has provided funding, including in very difficult circumstances, but the local authorities are those charged with delivering the programme, spending the funding and providing the accommodation. We will continue to bring Ministers to the House, as we have a proud tradition of doing, to highlight the issues we feel are important to us.
It is only appropriate that a special vote of appreciation should be bestowed on our colleague, Senator Kelleher, who has championed the issue of Travellers' rights in myriad ways since she came to the House.
I am very pleased to be a member of her all-party Oireachtas committee on Traveller issues. Sometimes it is not possible to get to the meetings, but the collaborative work being done by representatives from all parties is very welcome and I commend her on it. She has taken the lead on the issue. It makes us all examine what we are doing in terms of assisting her and reflecting it in our communities and societies and here in the House. I urge the Minister of State to continue to provide funding for Traveller-specific accommodation. I remind local authorities of their responsibilities in this regard. This has been a good engagement so far and I have no doubt it will be one of many engagements we will have on the issue. Senator Boyhan has been a member of the Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government for a long time. I joined it six months ago. I have no doubt the committee has already had engagement examining the issue of Traveller accommodation and I have no doubt it will feature heavily in our work programme.
I listened to Kathleen Lawrence when she spoke at the launch of the children's rights report card in the Mansion House a couple of weeks ago. The Government received a D grade for progress on Traveller and Roma children. She spoke perfectly about childhood experience in the world we live in and the discrimination she and her family and friends face.
I want to speak about the recent presidential campaign. We should not forget that when candidates pick on a small community, in that case the Traveller community, and I say this as a gay man, these politicians or groups generally have a shopping list and it will not stop with the Traveller community. There is an onus on all of us to stand together against what we saw in the campaign and the attempts to isolate a small group of people for political gain. The LGBT community has adopted the pink triangle to give urgency to political issues. We know it was assigned by the Nazis in concentration camps. A black triangle was assigned by the Nazis to Roma people. Lesbians also wore the black triangle, which should be noted.
I thank the Leader for facilitating the debate, which I requested, as did Senator Kelleher. The basis of both requests was the shameful 44% underspend by local authorities on the Traveller accommodation programme. There was an underspend in 2017 when only €4.8 million of the €8.7 million was spent, which was a 45% underspend. According to the responses to parliamentary questions, ten local authorities that received allocations under the programme did not draw them down. Only seven local authorities spent the entirety or more of their allocation, namely, South Dublin County Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council, Kerry County Council, Tipperary County Council and Waterford City and County Council. Only two did so for two years running, namely, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Tipperary County Council. It was the Minister of State, Deputy English, who outlined in response to a parliamentary question from Deputy Ó Broin that if it becomes clear that allocations, or parts thereof, remain unspent, they will be diverted to alternative projects and developments. Where a local authority does not spend its allocation, will it be diverted to other avenues? Does it get returned to the same pot? If it is underspent, is it possible to put it in the pot for the following year and divert it to local authorities that will spend it? As a republican, I believe decisions should be made as close to the people as possible. If local authorities are not doing the job they should be doing on Traveller accommodation, we need to have a conversation about where these decisions can be made.
Aside from some very reasonable justification by some local authorities for the underspend, anti-Traveller prejudice exists among some local representatives, some local authority staff and some local communities. I say this because prejudice is a contributing factor that needs to be addressed. Professor Michelle Norris from the expert group reviewing the Traveller accommodation programmes told the joint committee on housing that the real problem with the programmes is in implementation and projects getting off the ground in local areas. I appreciate that the Department offers its assistance in this regard but it is becoming clear that local authorities are not spending these allocations despite these offers of assistance. This may not be enough to encourage take-up of the programme or its objectives. Will the Minister of State indicate what tangible differences from what happened in 2018 we will have in future? I am aware that many parties are at fault, but the Minister of State taking a more insistent and active role might be significant for delivery.
I also want to reference the inquest into the Carrickmines fire in 2015. The Glenamuck site, where the tragedy took place, was established in 2008 as an emergency temporary halting site by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. It was not subject to the same health and safety regulations as permanent sites. In response to a parliamentary question from Deputy Adams asking how this would be addressed, it was stated that while there is no specific time limit for the use of sites on a temporary basis under the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998, local authorities are required to make adequate provision for transient and permanent sites in the Traveller accommodation programmes. Since the courts determined there was a lack of clarity in this instance and since the sites have been rented for years on end by families but do not have the same health and safety regulations as people living in permanent or long-term accommodation, this is an opportunity for the Minister of State to provide legislative clarity in the law, whether through statutory instrument or otherwise. This was a clear recommendation of the inquest and it is the prerogative of the Minister of State to choose whether to act. I respectfully ask that he gives this issue due attention regardless of the expert group review.
Given the seriousness of an inquest recommendation like this, it would only make sense to act appropriately on what the courts have requested.
I welcome Mr. Bernard Joyce, Ms Helen Grogan and Ms Brigid Casey to the Public Gallery, as well as the other guests, and I thank the Minister of State for his statement on this urgent matter.
Since the first Traveller accommodation programme in 2000, the five-year mandatory plan in each local authority to provide accommodation, there has been much evidence nationally, as the Minister of State mentioned, of low or no targets being set for developing Traveller-specific accommodation. Higher targets have been set for standard housing with an over-delivery of same. Sometimes standard housing is the only alternative. It is not what people want but it is the best and only thing on offer.
There is evidence of a lack of adequate planning for population growth which the Minister of State referred to in his statement. There is evidence delivery of poor to non-existent delivery of transient accommodation to facilitate nomadism. This is fundamental to people's sense of well-being and their sense of identity. I heard people speak powerfully about travelling to the Knock novena and that is a part of people's lives. People do not want to live in Knock but they like to go to the novena so the need to accommodate those kinds of important parts of people's lives should be taken onboard.
There is evidence of inaction on overcrowding and homelessness. Many sites are out of sight and out of mind. One has to really go about finding Spring Lane halting site in Cork because it is a long way from the road. The halting site in Doneraile is two miles from the road. We do not see the sites in Galway, like the site that Senator Boyhan mentioned.
Overcrowding was certainly a factor in the ten lives that were lost in the Carrickmines fire and it was great to hear the Minister of State's response on that in his speech. I hope we are doing enough to make sure that Carrickmines never happens again. Awareness of fire safety and fire risk is one thing but, if one is living in an overcrowded site like Spring Lane, which was designed for ten families and has more than 30 families living there, with the best awareness in the world, there is going to be a fire and more tragedy.
We need to be honest about it. Local, political and community opposition is the major barrier to advancing Traveller-specific accommodation. There is hypocrisy at play. We say one thing and act differently. Elected councillors in each local authority are represented on local Traveller accommodation consultative committees and charged with overseeing the research and assessment of need by local authority officials and developing the Traveller accommodation programmes. However, there are no sanctions on local authorities for not delivering, under-delivering or underspending budgets. There is huge need. There is overcrowding. It is hard to imagine that the conditions on sites obtain in a country as prosperous as Ireland and yet, as the Minister of State said, there is only 59% drawdown of available funding. Of the 31 local authorities, 16 have no Traveller-specific accommodation.
According to the recent report on targets under the Rebuilding Ireland strategy, 107 homes were provided under the Traveller accommodation programme at a cost of €6.8 million in 2018. This falls far short of the €12 million available for the period and is consistent with the practice of underspending. Those 107 homes were not new homes. They comprised 57 refurbishments, 48 emergency caravans, one group house and one first-time buyers' grant for the purchase of a caravan. That is not even new or additional accommodation. Underspending by local authorities has driven an underestimation of need which the Minister of State has accepted, which is, in itself, predicated on inadequate monitoring procedures which the Government’s own report in 2017 found to be the case in local authority areas. It is over 20 years since the Traveller Accommodation Act and the numbers of Traveller families in need of accommodation has more than doubled in the State. There are five times the number sharing, accounting for 4,460 people in overcrowded halting sites and in standard housing. Some 517 Travellers were recorded as homeless in the 2016 census. We are in the midst of a housing and homeless crisis and Travellers are 11 times more likely to be homeless than the general population.
There were 162 Traveller families renting in the private sector in 2002 and 2,387 families in 2017. Families looking for accommodation in the private sector are subject to discrimination, as shown by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, report. There is no provision for nomadic tradition, a criminal offence since the introduction of the Criminal Trespass Legislation 2002. As the Minister of State acknowledged, there is widespread under-delivery and there is cross-party agreement that there is underspending, underestimation of need and local and political opposition. That was captured by the Housing Agency's report entitled Review of Funding for Traveller-Specific Accommodation.
I commend the Minister of State's commencement of the review of the Traveller Accommodation Act and accept his bona fides. He is taking this seriously and wishes to make progress. I welcome the report of the expert group, which I understand will be available in April.
I also welcome the Minister of State's admission that the State has failed to deliver homes for Travellers and that is something we have to address. We have to give absolute and proper consideration to an independent statutory body which would draw up, in consultation with local authorities, a national programme for provision of accommodation for Travellers. We cannot go on allowing local authorities to fail to deliver time and again. It is one thing for the local authorities not to do it but we are talking about people's lives, the lives of children and their prospects and life chances, while living in absolutely unacceptable conditions in a country as wealthy as Ireland.
I ask the Minister of State to be open to making an amendment to omit Part 8 of the Planning Act currently conditional to Traveller accommodation provision. It is heartening that the Minister of State referred to the European Committee of Social Rights and is looking at the report of that organisation and intends to address the findings against the State.
I mentioned the IHREC report which found that Travellers were 22 times more likely to be discriminated against by landlords in accessing private rented accommodation.
I have much more to say. People have mentioned other things already but I look forward to the Minister of State's response. There is cross-party support for the work he is doing but we want action. Every day we do not act affects families and children and life chances are missed. How can Travellers be healthy in the circumstances in which they find themselves? The difference in life expectancy between Traveller men and men in the general population is 15 years. The figure is 11 and a half years when comparing Traveller women with women in the general population. The mental health statistics are off the scale. How can a Traveller live a good life? How can a Traveller get to school? Travellers have to walk across a muddy field in Spring Lane. Children's shoes are wrecked and destroyed in getting to school and, if one does not get to school, one does not get a job. The rate of unemployment in the Traveller community is 80% in a country that is almost at full employment.
There is an urgency to this. I hope the Minister of State will be bold in his recommendations and that we will see a significant change in how we address Traveller accommodation in this State. I thank the Minister of State for coming in.
I welcome the Minister of State to the debate and thank him for being here. We are facilitating the requests of Senators Warfield and Kelleher in having this debate and it is an important one. I speak as a former member of Cork City Council and a former chairperson of the Traveller accommodation committee. I opted to chair that committee because I believe in the integrity and value of all of us, as citizens, in a republic.
The Library and Research Service in Leinster House often produces papers and one of its Spotlight publications included an anonymous quote from a 2010 UCD report:
I am a Traveller and the fact that me children have never lived in a house is one thing about them. Like even though they've never travelled a day in their life, they're still Travellers.
These are people. They are citizens who, in a republic, deserve the help of the arms of the State, notwithstanding the ESRI report that was referenced earlier. An underspend of €55 million by any local authority is unacceptable.
We heard on the Order of Business today about the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, about which people were jumping up and down, even though it is not gone. However, we do not see the same call for accountability regarding this lack of spend of €55 million. Is it that officials do not want to spend the money? Is it that they have not taken a Traveller accommodation plan and put it before councils as part of their city and county development plan? Is it that elected members do not want to spend?
The Minister of State said in Galway that a mindset needs to be changed and I would add that a cultural change needs to take place in our country. One of my earliest memories as a child was of Mrs. O'Driscoll from Bandon calling and my mother bringing her in for tea and allowing her to use the phone. To us, it was normal integration. There was no big master plan. It was lived integration. I remember canvassing in the 2016 general election and I met her in a nursing home in Douglas. It was as if long lost friends had met. Thankfully, there are still families today and people like Senator Kelleher who espouse that integration in the real, tangible sense.
People get apoplectic about Peter Casey but it is easy to do that. What we must do is take what he said and put it into the operation of Traveller plans of integration and of working. Senator Kelleher spoke about halting sites in Cork, some of which are an absolute disgrace. I welcome the change that has taken place in Ellis's Yard. I hope that, as a consequence of action, we can ensure a cross-departmental approach to education, social protection, labour affairs, health and housing, and that we can drive change and have people go to college. The women in the Traveller Visibility Group in Cork have to be commended on what they have done. They have challenged the mindset of the male in the Traveller community to aim for a bit better, although that is probably the wrong phrase, and to aspire for their kids to continue in education and to be able to have what they perhaps did not have for a variety of reasons. It is important that we take the work Senator Kelleher is doing and that we change minds in the Oireachtas as well. It is very easy to have a debate but it is also about the policy implementation afterwards.
As a Minister of State and in the many different aspects of what he does in the Department, Deputy English drives change and he is a catalyst for new beginnings. That is why the review group he has set up is welcome. It is a step in the right direction. As he said, it will come back with four or five different outcomes that are tangible, manageable and deliverable, which is what we want. Senator Wilson spoke on the Order of Business about the importance of Youthreach. It is equally important, as the Minister of State said in his speech, that we deliver a different type of model to deliver in housing and education. The tragedy of Carrickmines struck a chord with the nation and we have to learn from that.
The expert panel report will be the next beginning. The inconsistency in the delivery of services must be consigned to the past. That is what the legacy of this debate and that report must and should be.
I thank the Senator for his comments on Youthreach as well as on this important issue. I call Senator Black.
I welcome the Minister of State. This is an issue that is very close to my heart and something I have been very passionate about for a long time. Recently, I have worked in particular with women's groups from the Traveller community in my other job with the RISE Foundation, which is the organisation I set up. It was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had in group work. The women were so inspiring. They were powerful and, really and truly, I cannot describe the empowerment that came from them. Given the heartache they have gone through in their lives, I learned so much from them. I got to learn at first hand the excitement and enthusiasm from the Traveller community when important steps were taken, such as the recognition of Traveller ethnicity in March 2017 or the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill, which Senator Kelleher introduced to the House in October. I commend my colleague on the phenomenal work and passion she puts into working with the Traveller community. It is very important legislation and I hope we can progress it very quickly.
Speaking to the Traveller community, one can also see the huge disappointment and, in many cases, anger at the persistent disadvantage, discrimination and barriers that still exist for members of that community. That is the one thing I learned from those amazing women. We have to be honest and recognise that these cases still outnumber the positive ones to an alarming extent. It is heartbreaking to hear the individual stories which I have heard and to read the figures that have been presented to these Houses far too many times. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has shown Travellers are almost ten times more likely to experience discrimination, and this is particularly clear when trying to access services like housing and private rental accommodation. Homelessness is a stain on the conscience of this country. If we drill down into the figures, however, we can see it is distributed unequally. While Travellers are less than 1% of the population, they are 9% of the homeless population, which is shocking. Overall, homelessness is roughly ten times higher in the Traveller community, as Senator Kelleher mentioned.
Over time, this sort of inequality is compounded and reinforced unless it is properly addressed. It is not rocket science. Poor and substandard accommodation has such a big impact on physical and mental health, the capacity to find a job and the ability to engage in education. In the broadest sense, it stops people from playing a full and equal role in society. Everything is made difficult. Every single step they have to go through is a struggle, down to the most basic thing like a child's capacity to bring a friend home from school. This is not the shape of any republic worthy of the name.
It is in this context that we assess things like recognition of Traveller ethnicity. That was such a fantastic location and a hugely positive step, and I will never forget the presentations from members of the Traveller community to the Committee on Justice and Equality. However, it is not enough to take that step and then see little change in the material conditions of everyday life for Travellers. We need to step up in this regard and housing is a huge part of that. Since the first Traveller accommodation programme in 2000, there have been widespread failings, as the Minister of State recognised and as was recognised in the Government review in 2017, which found substantial underdelivery, with only 68% of units delivered. There was also a huge underspend, with €55 million allocated for accommodation left unused. We have to stop and consider that figure. Of all the statistics presented to the House today, that is the most incredible. It is staggering to think that €55 million of State funding was set aside to be spent on housing for a very marginalised group in the middle of a housing crisis, and it was left unspent. It is simply not good enough.
The relevant Departments need to speak to the local councils responsible for this. We cannot ignore the fact that, in Government reviews and in testimony from Travellers themselves, we see the impact of racism and discriminatory attitudes, often from political representatives, in blocking these services. It shows that allocating resources alone is not enough. If politicians are still willing to trade on prejudice to win votes, the situation will not change. As political representatives, we need to come to this from a place of equality and compassion. I am aware the Minister of State is very compassionate on this issue. I call on all of us to listen to the submissions from the Traveller community on this issue and to ensure these sorts of figures are not repeated. The reality is that if this does not change and people are left in substandard, overcrowded accommodation, we are going to see a repeat of the awful tragedy at Carrickmines. We all know ten people died that day, including children. It will happen again unless public representatives are willing to fix it.
I thank Senators for their comments. Senator Black touched on an important issue when she said that if we do not act to give people the opportunities they deserve, and proper housing conditions, what happened in Carrickmines will happen again. It is most important that we prevent that. There are many other reasons we have to act, as pointed out by various Senators, but providing safe and proper humane conditions is crucial. I hope some of the work we are carrying out on fire safety will prevent such a recurrence. If we do not act, however, we could end up in the same situation. We cannot have that. Everyone is focused for all the genuine reasons and that is a reminder to us all.
I will address some of the points made by the Senators. I am glad we have had this debate and I thank the Leader for facilitating it. I also thank Senators who made certain this debate took place and put forward this issue as a priority for us to focus on this week, in particular, Senators Kelleher and Warfield. We need to focus on this issue. I am not sure if the expert panel has engaged with Senator Kelleher's committee. If it has not, we will try to organise that in the next couple of weeks. The panel is close to concluding its work. I am not sure if we have missed that opportunity, but I will check. I hope we have not.
We can all agree we are not doing enough. No one is trying to hide or deny that fact. The figures speak for themselves. We now have to try to address the issue. Everybody in this House wants Traveller accommodation provision improved as quickly as possible and to make an impact on that as quickly as we can as well. I assure the House that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I, our Department and the Government are genuinely committed to doing that. We want to address this matter. We are not trying to sweep it to one side or keep it out of sight. That is not what this is about at all. We are putting it front and centre as something that has to be addressed. It can only be addressed in a cross-party fashion. I thank everybody for that cross-party co-operation, in this House, at committee level, and on the ground. There is an issue and there are also different reasons that it is not being addressed. Certain people would like this not to happen as well. All of us, however, have a duty to ensure we make it happen.
Over the past 18 months, I have visited many Traveller accommodation sites. To be frank, conditions there are extremely poor, disgraceful and unacceptable. Many of those locations are not out of sight and are visible to anybody driving on some of our main roads. It is easy to find them if anybody wants to look at them but people choose not to look in many cases. They turn a blind eye. There are other sites, however, that are hidden away in places where Traveller accommodation should not have been put in the first place. That is, however, where they are today and that highlights the intention behind some of the decisions made in the past. We have to question that. I am referring to decisions made locally in respect of site selection and we have to look at that issue as well.
I find it difficult to accept that when taxpayers' money, which all of us have worked hard to contribute, has been made available by the State, it has been left unspent by local authorities. For whatever reasons, they have not drawn down that money. There are different reasons that has not happened but it is still unacceptable. Senator Black made the point that just allocating money to an issue is not enough. That has often happened in the past and it has not mattered which parties have been in government. The decision was made to allocate money in the belief that it would fix the problem. That is not the case; it does not fix it. We also have to follow through and change the system to ensure that money is spent. I have no doubt intentions were good over the past 20 years as various plans and legislation were put in place. None of that, however, has delivered the outcomes we want. Delivery has worsened over the years and we have to address that.
The Housing Agency report highlights some of the difficulties hindering the provision of Traveller accommodation. The key is to identify solutions to overcome these difficulties and then implement them. When solutions are identified, we have to implement them. I am committed to acting on the expert review when we get it. I am anxious we get the report as quickly as possible but we do have to let the expert panel complete its work. At this stage, we have waited five months so we might as well wait for the final month. We hope to have the report in April. I believe it is on track to be submitted and then we can act on it.
I am conscious that some suggestions were made during today's debate. I will ensure those suggestions are fed into this report and that there will also be a review of the transcripts of this debate. Most people, however, agree change is needed. I sense some Members want a national body to work on that change but others do not. We all, however, want change and I hope we can develop a system we can all buy into.
The expert panel, in particular, has been asked to review the effectiveness of the implementation and operation of the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 with a view to examining whether it provides a robust legislative basis for meeting the current and future accommodation needs of the Traveller community. If that is not the case, the panel will be requested to explain why not. The group has also been asked to examine national and international best practice in the provision of accommodation for nomadic communities to inform the legislative basis for meeting current and future accommodation needs of Traveller communities. As part of its work, the group has been conducting an extensive consultation with stakeholders in recent months. If the group has not engaged with interested Senators, I will ensure it does so in the weeks ahead. I am looking forward to receiving the report and recommendations of the expert panel. It will be useful to get an independent assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the current system and to consider new policy initiatives.
We can see where some good practices are being implemented in some counties but there are also plenty of weaknesses in the majority of places. That is what the main focus will be on. Later this year, local authorities will approve the five-year TAPs covering the period 2019 to 2024. The timeframe for the adoption of the TAPs has been extended to facilitate newly elected councils having ownership of the programmes. It would defeat the purpose of this initiative if existing councils put in place five-year plans and then new councils came in and put those plans to one side or used it as an excuse for not using them. There was a deliberate decision to align this process so that the new councils taking up seats in June will implement new five-year plans in September.
My Department is also working closely with the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee, NTACC, to support the work of the local Traveller accommodation consultative committees, LTACCs. Some of those committees at local level work well but others do not work at all or have not even met. That is something we also want to focus on. The intention behind that initiative was genuine but it is not happening and is not delivering. The NTACC has carried out extensive engagement with the LTACCs over the past two years to get a better understanding of the issues faced in the delivery of Traveller accommodation at local level. I have been informed that while many of the committees are functioning very well, some are not. We want to focus on those. We will work with the national body to try to implement that change and bring forward a training programme for the education of members. We will also make training available to new councils coming into the system. The training will help councillors understand their duties and responsibilities in respect of the TAP programmes intended to deliver the accommodation needs of everybody.
We want well-functioning local structures with national drive. Those will be key to delivering the right solutions in local situations. This will require a substantial commitment from the various stakeholders to work together to identify and agree appropriate needs. Some changes at national level have been recommended. I am happy to examine and work with whatever the expert panel brings forward. I will then discuss this issue again with Members, as well as in the Dáil and in committee. We can then tease through the various solutions. I am also happy to work with Senator Kelleher's group once we get the report of the expert panel.
There is no doubt that the system is not delivering what it should. All of us have experience of many sites where people are living in unacceptable conditions. Those are not places to bring up a family and the core of this issue is giving people the opportunity to do that. Without proper housing, where people of every age can feel safe and comfortable and can make plans for the rest of their lives, it is not possible to avail of the opportunities that may be made available. While we might make positive changes in some legislation, that is not enough if we do not address basic accommodation and housing needs. That is what we are going to try to do.
Turning to some specific points raised, Senator Murnane O'Connor, in respect of homelessness figures, asked why we exclude Traveller families. We do not. The monthly homelessness reports include individuals in emergency accommodation in the relevant survey week when the counts are carried out. We are honest about that and nobody is hiding those figures. When there is a reduction in the number of families but an increase in the number of people in emergency accommodation, including children, that often points to larger families in emergency accommodation.
While we do not necessarily record ethnic identity on forms detailing who is homeless, I know, from engaging with local authorities, who is included in those figures. Traveller families, without a doubt, comprise a significant proportion. An estimate of 8% to 10% has been suggested but it is much higher than that in some counties. We know that because there is genuine engagement. Increased funding has been provided to social workers to try to find other accommodation. We know there is a major issue in respect of homeless families and the Traveller community. Anyone homeless is at a disadvantage in trying to find a new home or rent a house. It is much harder again for a homeless Traveller family. Nobody is denying that fact; it is obvious and we can see it.
It is very difficult.
As Senator Butler stated, there is a need for a cultural change and a change in mindset. We have a great deal of work to do to bring people with us on this journey. I am glad that politicians of all parties are realising their responsibilities. We have a lot of work, however, to do outside of this House to bring other sectors with us on this topic. I reiterate that the figures are not hidden away or not recorded. They are being recorded and they will be key to addressing this issue.
I have queries about that.
That is fine. The Senator can have all of the figures. No one is trying to hide the figures when we are stating that thousands of children are homeless. We are trying to fix the problem and not hide it.
Senator Murnane O'Connor made her contribution, which was an excellent one. The Minister of State, however, is now trying to make his contribution and answer as many questions as he can.
In her comments, the Senator stated that she hoped for more engagement between the committee and Traveller representative bodies. They would welcome that and representatives of some of those bodies are present. There is nothing to stop that engagement happening. We welcome more debate, engagement and opportunities to tease these issues out. There is also nothing stopping the Senator from organising that through her committee. I thank the committee for getting involved in this issue. It has set aside a number of meetings over the last quarter to focus on this issue. It would be good to have as many bodies as possible engaged and to have more conversations.
The Minister of State needs to give a directive to the effect that we should have this.
I am not legally allowed to direct any committee in what it does. I have asked and suggested. I am glad the committee has responded and is doing that work.
I am sorry for interrupting the Minister of State. I know Senator Murnane O'Connor is passionate about this issue but we are tight for time. The Minister of State is very approachable. If the Senator has a specific question to put to him after the debate, I know he will be glad to answer it if he can or to find the answer for her if he cannot.
Absolutely. To be clear, I do not direct committees as to what they should do. I ask and I suggest. I am delighted that, through the work of Deputy Ó Broin, the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government has gladly taken on this work. The committee asked to take it on. It has worked with us and is still doing so. I do not direct that committee - I ask and suggest that it does things. That did not happen in this case. The committee came forward itself. Senator Kelleher's committee, through its cross-party approach in both Houses, has also brought focus to the issue. It is by focusing on this matter that we can bring about the change that is needed. It is important that we do so.
It is also important that we address the issue of transient accommodation, which has been mentioned by a few speakers. Apart from the failures to spend the money in some cases, there has been a lack of engagement regarding transient facilities. Such engagement would help the ongoing conversation. The conversation in communities very often breaks down and the prejudice sets in because of the lack of proper transient facilities provided to accommodate and allow for people's desire to travel around. If we get that right, it will help us to secure more investment in permanent capital projects. People often object to what they think is going to happen rather than to what is actually happening. Senator Boyhan has identified cases, and I am aware of cases in my own community, of fabulous Traveller-specific accommodation which blends in very well, in which everyone works together and shares facilities and which works very well. There are great facilities out there about which we do not talk enough. If we could see more of that, people would buy into it and there would be fewer objections locally.
Senator Boyhan inquired as to who is driving this nationally. The Department is doing so. We set out the policy and set aside funding. Under existing legislation, it has to happen at local level. The Department and I are not hiding from the fact that I am responsible for getting this money spent. I will engage with local authorities as much as I can possibly can in respect of the different sites, as I have been doing for the past year or two at our weekly housing discussions and our housing summits. In the context of engagement, our housing delivery team also goes out to every local authority every week. We sit down and go through the provision of housing of every kind, including Traveller-specific accommodation. We try to cajole and encourage the local authorities into doing more. We ask why it is not being done and what is wrong. We discuss all the problems and offer all of the assistance we can from our technical team. We also go through planning issues. We are trying to encourage greater delivery and will continue to do so. We will use whatever powers we have under existing law, although these powers are limited. We will also see what comes forward in the expert panel's recommendations. We are not just going to wait until April for those recommendations, we are engaging on a weekly basis to try to get this money spent. This money was requested. The local authorities brought proposals to us and yet the money has been left sitting there.
Problem sites such as Spring Lane, which was mentioned, and some of those in Galway, are often left to one side or else the projects drag on for 20 or 25 years because they are difficult sites and because ongoing conversation is needed in respect of them. That is not acceptable. Problem sites should be sorted out but this requires focus from all stakeholders. I am not pointing the finger at anybody, but all the stakeholders need to sit down in a room and deal with the issue, rather than having a meeting this year and then coming back for another conversation in a year's time. We can only get some of these problems sorted out through intense negotiation. That is something we have to do.
Senator Conway referred to difficult issues requiring difficult solutions. The circumstances for the families involved are difficult. That is what we are trying to solve. They are extremely difficult circumstances which lead to many other complications that would not arise if the families were offered good housing solutions in the first instance. That is what we are trying to do. The point was made that it is very hard for Traveller families to avail of HAP or private rental accommodation. We can see that. When there were plenty of vacant houses a couple of years ago, in most places there was no problem in getting homes for people from a Traveller background to rent in the short term. When the pressure comes on, some people choose not to engage with Traveller families and will rent their houses to others. That is obvious; we can see it happening. We can also see it in the HAP figures. It is another matter on which we are focused.
Senator Warfield raised a couple of issues in respect of the shameful underspend. He is absolutely right. No one is disputing that. We want to ramp it back up and have the increased resources spent. Even though we knew that we would have problems spending the money, we allocated it in any event in order to try to make a mark. This budget has to increase every year. We are committed to increasing the capital and the current spend each year.
On the fire safety guidelines, it is very clear that they also apply to temporary sites. Those guidelines, which were in draft form for a number of years and which were being worked to by local authorities, will be finalised following on from the recent coroner's case and the associated recommendations. They are being issued as guidelines to all local authorities and apply to temporary sites as well as permanent sites. They relate to fire safety, overcrowding and so on. It is right that they now apply to temporary accommodation because it was often the case that, because a site was temporary, we were not allowed spend money on it or make changes to it. We have now got over that situation. It was happening in any event but it was made clearer by the recommendations.
Is the money being diverted to other projects? It absolutely can be. When money is not spent, it can be diverted to other projects. We try to do that. Local authorities often state, even towards the end of the year, that they will get the money spent. There is then no opportunity to reallocate it. We are trying to bring this forward to earlier in the year so that a decision to reallocate can be made earlier. The money is spent on housing. If money is not spent on a particular project this year, then funding for that project will be found for next year. It is not ring-fenced but we will find the money. A project is not left behind because funding was not drawn down this year. We encourage local authorities to draw it down as soon as possible but there are sites on which money needs to be spent where that spending is not happening. We are trying to make that happen. Again, if the money is not spent on Traveller-specific accommodation, it is still spent on housing which is available to everybody including Traveller families. When we cannot provide requested Traveller-specific accommodation, we work with Traveller families to find them other accommodation in the short term. We know that in many cases their aim is to get back to Traveller-specific accommodation. The money gets spent on housing. That is the first priority. We do not hand it back.
The Senator stated that we need to have a conversation. I absolutely agree. That is what the expert panel and its recommendations are about. Not everyone might like those recommendations, which might lead on to conversations, but we have to act and see where they bring us. There have been different suggestions here. Some have suggested that we should go national and others that we should stay local but, either way, we have to agree on a process that will deliver more suitable accommodation much faster and which will have an impact on the ground because that is what we are trying to do. I do not know what tangible differences will be suggested until I get the report. I am not going to second-guess it. We all have ideas and solutions. We have brought in the experts to look at legislation, at the system and at best practice and to make independent recommendations which we can then adopt and implement. That is the space we will be in for the next couple of weeks until we receive the report.
I have probably already touched on some of the issues Senator Kelleher raised. She is right with regard to the number of families on sites. That issue is not always easily solved. It leads to very complicated conversations. The best way to solve it is to accommodate any increase we think might occur in the number of families on the site when we are setting out new projects. We should have that honest conversation at the start, which we are not doing at the moment. We should try to predict the future. It is not that hard to do. It is just not recorded in the Traveller accommodation programmes, TAPs. It might pre-empt that conversation if we could provide accommodation the capacity of which can be increased. There have been requests to extend some of the sites I have visited and it is just not possible in some cases. That also requires an honest conversation on all sides. I have sat down with groups in the past and have tried to have that honest conversation and get realistic expectations so that we can move on. When we are planning new facilities, there is no reason we cannot plan in a way that will accommodate increased families in the future.
The Senator asked about actions and sanctions. There really are no sanctions I can impose under existing law. We are limited in that respect. We try to work with local authorities and push them on. We will see what the expert panel brings forward, but I believe we need to move towards planning gains, planning communities, and encouragement. We need to show best practice, really good facilities and well-planned, well-managed and well-maintained sites. I have looked at some of these. They have caretakers on site who are doing great work and there are much better results and everyone is much happier. We want to make that happen on a larger scale. We will see what comes forward in the expert panel's report but, without a doubt, we want more action, not just talk. I accept that.
Senator Buttimer referred to the culture change, the mindset and how to drive change. We will use this independent expert panel to drive the necessary change in this area in the years ahead.
I believe I have covered almost everything. If I have not, I will come back to people. I look forward to working with Senators over the next six to eight weeks as we try to finalise our work in this area. The money allocated for this year represents an increase. If I believe we need to spend more, we will find more.
I thank the Minister of State who, as always, was very comprehensive in both is opening contribution and in his reply to the debate.