I welcome the Minister of State and thank Senators for being here for this important debate.
Traveller Accommodation: Statements
I thank the House for the opportunity to talk about this very important issue. Addressing Traveller accommodation is a priority for me and my Department. There is no doubt that delivery on capital programmes in recent years has been disappointing. The need for investment in Traveller accommodation is not reflected in the level of money drawn down from the capital budget. I assure Senators that I am determine to address the reasons for this and implement all of the solutions.
The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 provides that local authorities have statutory responsibility for the assessment of accommodation needs of Travellers and the preparation, adoption and implementation of multi-annual Traveller accommodation programmes 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 funding.
It is a matter for each local authority to set targets for the provision of Traveller accommodation, which they outline in their Traveller accommodation programmes. The allocation and recoupment profiles for Traveller accommodation projects can vary across local authorities, given the local priorities, circumstances and project timelines as 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 from my Department for Traveller accommodation.
It is important to note accommodation for Traveller households is provided across a range of housing options. The majority of Travellers live in standard housing, including local authority housing and housing assistant payment, HAP, supported tenancies in the private rented sector. Funding for these housing supports are provided through the respective budget lines. The Traveller accommodation budget is provided solely for Traveller-specific accommodation such as halting sites and group housing schemes. Accordingly, funding available to provide housing solutions for Travellers is much broader than the Traveller accommodation budget.
I am pleased to say a budget of €21.3 million has been allocated to the Traveller accommodation programme for 2021; this represents an increase to both the capital and current budgets for Traveller accommodation. My Department’s priority is to ensure that full use is made of this funding.
Capital spending on Traveller accommodation has increased year on year from a low in 2014 of €3.2 million to €8.7 million last year. To date this year, €9.1 million has been spent from the capital budget and I expect further drawdown before the end of the year. Although this is an improvement, I fully recognise it falls short of what is needed and the Department continues to work with local authorities to improve delivery.
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 €5.4 million was provided to local authorities to meet these costs in 2019.
A development to improve the delivery of Traveller accommodation is the implementation of the recommendations of the expert group report, which was published in 2019. In 2018, the Traveller accommodation expert group was established to review the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 and other legislation that impacts on the provision and delivery of Traveller accommodation. The terms of reference for the Traveller accommodation expert group were drawn up in consultation with the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee. The expert group comprised the following three members: Dr. Conor Norton, head of school of planning, DIT; Professor Michelle Norris, head of social policy, social work and social justice, UCD; and David Joyce, barrister, Mercy Resource Law Centre.
The report was published in July 2019. The recommendations contained in it will enable the delivery of Traveller accommodation. The topics considered and reported on by the expert group were broken down into four subheadings, namely, delivery reflecting need; planning; governance; and capacity and resources. The 32 recommendations across the four topics considered are comprehensive and wide-ranging, from changes to procedure and policy to changes to legislation. Delivery and implementation will involve several areas within the Department, as well as input from other Departments, local authorities and other external stakeholders. It is clear that the completion of this review and the delivery of this report is a significant step in identifying the best ways to address the issues in the delivery of Traveller accommodation.
I am working with my Department on establishing a programme of projects that will implement the recommendations of the Traveller accommodation expert group review to improve the delivery and standard of accommodation. I will also establish a dedicated programme board to drive forward this implementation. I will ensure the board will include Traveller representatives and representatives from the local authorities, which will be instrumental in driving implementation of the completed report.
In advance of the establishment of the programme, my Department has been working, where possible, to progress recommendations contained in the expert group report. My Department has engaged extensively with stakeholders, Traveller representative organisations and local authorities, as well as with other relevant Departments and Government agencies.
Working groups have been set up in the Department with members of the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee. Legal advice has been sought on the implications of implementing recommendations relating to the social housing needs assessment and some of the recommendations relating to planning issues. The Department has already been able to progress some of these recommendations. For example, a review has been concluded of the arrangements for disbursing funding for the provision of refurbishment of Traveller-specific accommodation and the new process is to be put in place at the start of 2020.
The Department is working with CENA, which is an approved housing body dedicated to providing Traveller-specific housing solutions. For the first time, the capital assistance scheme, CAS, funding stream is being used by CENA for the provision of Traveller-specific accommodation. The CAS funding is available to approved housing bodies. They can avail of local authority loans to provide housing for vulnerable groups. I welcome this new development and my Department is committed to supporting CENA in line with the recommendations from the expert group. The Department has also consulted the Central Statistics Office, offering assistance to ensure that Travellers will be properly represented in the next census, which was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Department has been providing regular feedback to the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee on progress to date and this will continue. Working together with all stakeholders, we will address each successive issue.
The Department has been working with stakeholders to develop a new caravan loan scheme, which is groundbreaking and offers Travellers an opportunity to own their own home at affordable terms. The proposed pilot scheme is well advanced and I expect to be able to move it along to the Department of Finance for approval in the coming days.
We are all facing the Covid pandemic but it affects our vulnerable communities to a greater extent. The Department has made funding available to local authorities to implement measures in Traveller-specific accommodation to alleviate, where possible, the risk and spread of Covid-19. Funding has been approved for the purchase of additional mobile homes, touring caravans and demountable accommodation units. Funding has also been provided to set up additional temporary sites or to reopen vacant bays to facilitate isolation and alleviate overcrowding. Extra sanitation, water and electricity supplies have been provided. Additional funding has also been provided for cleaning and disinfecting sites and for the removal of rubbish. Where it is not possible to accommodate families in their current locations, the Department is working with local authorities and families to find alternative appropriate solutions.
The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage continues to liaise with the HSE on accommodation-related issues and attends meetings of the national control outbreak team. Where outbreaks are identified, the Department holds meetings with the local HSE, local authority and Traveller representatives to find a solution that is most appropriate to meet the needs of those involved. The Department has worked with the HSE to develop a national Covid-19 preparedness checklist of Traveller-specific accommodation, including official and unofficial halting sites and group housing schemes. The preparedness checklist will be used collaboratively between the HSE, local authorities and local Traveller representative organisations to identify gaps in facilities required to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Following a successful pilot run in the north west, the survey will be rolled out nationally at the end of October. To date, the Department has approved funding of €3.9 million for Covid response measures, of which €2.5 million has been claimed and paid to local authorities. I acknowledge the Trojan work done by local authority staff since the start of the crisis in delivering front-line services, often putting themselves at risk, as well as the invaluable work of Traveller organisations in representing the most vulnerable members of their communities in a crisis. Their assistance in getting the public health message across to the community has been invaluable.
Since the beginning of the Covid crisis, the Department's advice to local authorities has been to provide facilities where Travellers are currently located, including on unauthorised sites, where it is safe to do so. We have also asked that local authorities avoid moving Travellers where they are in unauthorised situations on local authority land wherever possible. In October, my Department issued a circular to local authorities to reiterate this position in light of the ongoing emergency. It is important to recognise that although this is the preferred option, it is not always possible. For example, where health, safety and overcrowding issues arise, the Department will closely monitor the situation and continue to provide guidance where needed. I look forward to hearing the views of Members.
I am pleased to welcome the Minister of State on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party.
Before I say another word, I wish to acknowledge Senator Flynn, whose presence will contribute greatly to this important discussion. I am honoured to contribute on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party.
We have all been consumed by the issue of Covid since March. It has taken over our lives, but it is important not to forget that the housing crisis that has gripped our country has not gone away. In many respects, it has been further highlighted, and the housing difficulties experienced by people have been intensified, by Covid. No one suffers more than those who are homeless and those in the Traveller community. When we discuss the Traveller community, it is important that we give the issues of homelessness and Traveller accommodation time in the House. I thank the Minister of State for giving his time to discuss them with us.
The Minister of State articulated well the Department's commitment to tackling the issue on behalf of the Government, but we are holding this debate in the context of just two thirds of the funding that was allocated for Traveller accommodation last year being drawn down by local authorities. We all accept that Covid-19 has had a negative impact on construction and local authorities, but that is no excuse for such a paltry drawdown of funding that has been made available by the Government. I welcome the Minister of State's recognition that this has been a persistent issue, and one that needs to be called out. It is reassuring to know that the expert committee, which was established in 2019, has also recognised this issue and is dedicated to tackling it. Importantly, the programme for Government commits to ensuring that the housing needs of the Traveller community are met by local authorities and that funding is drawn down and utilised. The Minister of State mentioned that €21 million would be allocated next year to support the community's housing needs. As the year progresses, we must ensure that local authorities draw down those funds.
I do not want to embarrass anyone, but if we are to have an honest debate, we must call councils out. As of October, nine local authorities had yet to draw down funding for Traveller accommodation. They include Cork, South Dublin, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow county councils. A further seven local authorities have drawn down less than €100,000. In 2019, eight local authorities - Carlow, Clare, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, Kilkenny, Limerick, Louth and Meath - spent more than their allocated amounts. Three local authorities did not apply for funding, those being, Mayo County Council, Galway City Council and Laois County Council. We need to break this issue down to the local level. We are working with the Government to ensure that funds are allocated at national level, but if local authorities are not going to access and use them to meet a set of needs that are well documented but inadequately provided for at local level, we are at nothing.
It is critical that we ensure that the aspirations and ambitions of the Traveller community, in particular its younger generations, are realised so that its members can be full participants in society. It is great to see Senator Flynn in the Chamber. She is a full participant in the Seanad alongside all of us. We will ensure that younger members of the Traveller community will have access to a secure home and will know that they can reach their full potential, participate in education and make a full contribution, just as Senator Flynn is doing.
That will never happen unless we address Traveller accommodation needs. The key commitments in the programme for Government include implementation of the national Traveller health action plan and a review of the Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. There is also a commitment to undertake an independent assessment of the pilot projects which are aimed at retaining Traveller and Roma children in education and ensuring the housing needs of the Traveller community are met by local authorities. That is critical. I come from a local authority background and in the Dublin Central constituency we have a strong Roma community that is growing in number. It is important that all of these young people are given full access to education to achieve their full potential.
On the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee mentioned by the Minister of State, the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017–2021 represents a whole-of-government approach to bringing about meaningful change and progress for the Traveller and Roma communities in Ireland. I like the fact that it is a living document, which will be reviewed and amended. That iterative process is very important. Traveller and Roma organisations were involved in its development and are members of its steering committee to monitor its implementation. The strategy contains some 149 actions. That is a great deal of work. It is important that it is an iterative process and that the strategy is reviewed on an ongoing basis.
The expert group appointed in 2019 reviewed the effectiveness, implementation and operation of the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 and produced 32 recommendations specifically relating to Traveller accommodation. The proposals are aimed at addressing the research deficiencies, including how information is gathered and used, removing any delays in and obstacles to the delivery of accommodation in the planning system, increasing resources and delivery capacity, and strengthening governance arrangements.
I wish the Minister of State well in his work. He has our full support. It is very important that at the end of its four-year term, when it looks back over the programme for Government, the Government concludes that it has delivered for the Traveller community, most critically in the area of accommodation. I firmly believe that without having a secure place to call home, it is difficult to engage in school, education, training and work and to participate in society. That is essential for all of us. The Government has made a strong commitment. It will have our support in delivering on it and I wish it well.
I call Senator Eileen Flynn. We are honoured to have the Senator here. The reason this debate is taking place is that she raised the issue on the Order of Business some weeks ago. It is important to have people from all backgrounds in the Seanad, so that the issues that are relevant to their communities and the people they know are brought up here.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I thank the Minister for State for taking the time to listen to Senators speak on accommodation issues that are impacting on the Traveller community. Many local authorities have failed to deliver appropriate cultural accommodation for the Traveller community. In Ireland we have our own humanitarian crisis, that is, the living conditions of the Traveller community in 21st century Ireland. Now is the time for action.
The lack of appropriate accommodation and supports for the Traveller community is well-documented. Money has been allocated to local authorities for Traveller accommodation and in many cases it is not being spent. I cannot understand how this continues to happen year after year. Since the Traveller accommodation programme began in 2000, there has been an underspend of nearly €69 million. That is the figure that has not been drawn down.
That does not include the €8 million underspend for this year alone. I would appreciate a detailed explanation from the Government as to why this continues to happen and why people from my community continue to live in appalling accommodation and living conditions.
Over the life of the Traveller accommodation programme, living conditions for the Traveller community have not improved. If anything, they have got worse in terms of people being evicted from halting sites at the side of the road and told to move along. Why are local authorities continuing to fail in their delivery of the targets they set every five years when they look at their programmes for the Traveller community? There is such a low target yet they continue to fail in delivering on them. I wish to highlight the need to establish a dedicated Traveller accommodation authority with an appropriate budget as a priority, which was recommended in the report of the expert review group on Traveller accommodation in July 2019.
I also want the Minister to take into account the significant impact of Covid-19. I respect that he mentioned that already but let us get real. Before Covid-19, Traveller accommodation was appalling for members of the Traveller community. Travellers are an extremely vulnerable group given the higher rate in the community of chronic and at-risk conditions. I raise a specific concern for Traveller children living on the side of the road during the pandemic who do not have basic facilities. At the peak of the pandemic, I learned of a family in the south west, including a pregnant mother who was using a paddling pool to hygienically clean the caravan. In 2020, she was using a paddling pool for that purpose.
I have been getting calls from people across the country, from Derry to Kerry, about their living conditions. People in my community are desperate for appropriate accommodation. For many Travellers, a trailer or a caravan is a home. We have been forced to settle. Members of the Traveller community are 20 times more likely to suffer discrimination when looking for private rented accommodation.
I want to acknowledge the work of the previous Minister of State, Deputy English, who allocated supports to local authorities for basic sanitation services such as access to water and toilets for Travellers most in need during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sadly, it is a shameful reflection on local authorities' lack of duty of care to the Traveller community that their basic needs still have not been met.
I learned in May of a mother and a medically vulnerable child who live with 12 other family members in a seriously overcrowded home. The woman has been on the housing list for several years. There are many such cases throughout the country yet in the year to date, only 45% of the budget for that area was drawn down nationally. What is the reason for that when the need is so great? As I said, to many Travellers a trailer or a caravan is a home. We have been forced into substandard accommodation, which is not fair. It is not Traveller culturally appropriate accommodation.
I have said that Travellers are 22 times more likely to suffer discrimination and racism when looking for private rented accommodation. This is Ireland in 2020 and Travellers are still seen as less.
We are seen as less anyway but when it comes to accommodation, we are seen as even less again. I understand that the Government is drawing down money and that it is trying its best. Why are local authorities not drawing down this money for the Traveller community? I understand that it is very tough to build a halting site because the general population does not want a halting site or the land is too vulnerable for Traveller communities but we are people. I was born and reared on a halting site in Ballyfermot. Look at me. I am still part of the Labre Park community, which is the oldest official halting site in Ireland. I know that to local authorities, we are just seen as "them" - the Traveller community. In this State, we should be treated with dignity and respect and have basic human rights when it comes to accommodation and facilities that help and support us, be it a trailer or however people choose to live.
I welcome the Minister of State and applaud the energy and commitment he is bringing to this very important issue. I acknowledge the presence and extraordinary contribution of Senator Flynn and its authenticity by virtue of her ethnicity. It is great that she is here. I also acknowledge the contributions of my colleagues here.
During my many years in local government, one of the greatest and most rewarding experiences I had was sitting on the Traveller accommodation committee over a number of terms. I found that very rewarding and enjoyable. I reference this because I ask the Minister of State to look at every county and see that it has a very vibrant, well-resourced and well-serviced Traveller accommodation committee in terms of executive support. We had a great one in my local authority for many years. I hope it is the same all the time. I have no reason to believe otherwise. A Traveller accommodation committee achieves a number of things. The local representatives get buy-in in their community and Travellers are part of the discussion. One of the 31 recommendations of the expert review group was around Traveller input into their destiny, the type of housing they get and where it is. I ask the Minister of State to look at Traveller accommodation committees, strengthen them where they are not strong enough and make sure they exist. Based on my own experience, I believe this is very important.
It is great that Traveller ethnicity was recognised in 2017. An ESRI report from that year sets out some stark background information about Traveller housing. A total of 8% of Travellers complete the leaving certificate compared with 73% of the rest of the population. As Senator Fitzpatrick said, there is a very real link between educational fulfilment and opportunity and accommodation because people need good accommodation to go to school. In 2017, 1% of Travellers had a college degree. This figure might have gone up a tiny bit since. The report showed that unemployment in the Traveller community is 82% while 12% of Travellers lived in a caravan or mobile home. There have been improvements over the years but those are stark background figures and it is in that context that we must look at this question.
Among the issues cited in the expert review is a lack of integration of Traveller housing with the overall housing strategy. As the Government unfolds its national housing strategy, it should include a very clear section on Traveller accommodation. That section should be placed unashamedly as an equal part in the midst of the strategy. This is what the expert review group recommends.
The expert review group makes the point that in the development plans and local area plans of local authorities, there is not sufficient citing of Traveller accommodation. I ask the Minister of State to raise this with county managers. In development plans and area plans there should be Traveller accommodation targets, dates and facilities and, where possible, sites might be looked at. The question of adequacy of funding arises but if the funding is not used, it is sinister. We must ensure existing funding is used. The Minister of State said €23.1 million, or more than €20 million, is available this year, and this needs to be used in a proper way.
Governance was raised by the expert review group and this goes back, in a way, to Traveller accommodation committees. This is the idea that Travellers would be centre stage in their own planning and choices. The expert review group made a recommendation that I commend very strongly to the Minister of State. Pavee Point makes the point that there is an underestimation of Travellers' needs. The CSO should work with local authorities on a better study of the Traveller community, including their housing needs and existing housing, and where it should be going. There seems to be a variance between what Pavee Point says, and I read one of its reports, and the official statistics. I would like the Minister of State to square this triangle, if he can.
The cultural needs of Travellers have to be borne in mind, including the fact they like the extended family concept, the fact they have a specific economy, and this arose in a presidential election recently with regard to horses, and the fact they have a younger population, with 40% under the age of 15. Sadly they have a shorter life expectancy and, very tragically, 26% of the population have direct family experience of suicide, which is terribly sad. These cultural realities need to be factored into housing policy.
In 2017, a total of 59% of accommodation offered by councils was standard local authority housing. That is fair enough where it is happily accepted. Group housing schemes took 798 families but we have to look outside this because that is where the problem lies. Voluntary housing bodies can also provide accommodation to Travellers through the local authorities. This is good when it happens but one of the problems, as pointed out in one of the 32 recommendations, is that there is an inconsistency in the delivery of accommodation throughout the country. Knowing the Minister of State, he will get to grips with this because that is his form. It is morally and administratively wrong that there is an inconsistency. It is wrong on every level.
There has been a decrease in the number of halting sites. We need a further decrease but we also need the provision of halting sites. What we do not need are Travellers on the roadsides in perilous, dangerous and primitive conditions. This needs addressing. As the Minister of State noted, we have the adoption of a multi-annual Traveller accommodation programme each year. This should be part of the national and local plans. We need this planning and transparency. I draw the attention of the Minister of State to the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on 8 March 2018.
There were some interesting recommendations, some of which are distinct and others of which are identical to those of the expert group.
I am delighted we are having the debate. I congratulate Senator Flynn and the Cathaoirleach for running with this. It is important we do this but it is also important that the Minister of State of State is present, and I thank him for his attendance. I pray we are back in six months discussing progress, and why not do that?
That is an excellent recommendation. I call Senator Rebecca Moynihan.
I thank Senator Flynn for raising this issue on the Order of Business and putting on it on the agenda of the House today.
There is rightfully a lot of talk about the housing crisis but little attention is given to the long-term lack of supply of Traveller accommodation. Each local authority is required to have a Traveller accommodation action plan. The new plans came in two years ago but by the end of October 2019, less than one third of the funds allocated for Traveller accommodation last year has been spent with 14 local authorities have failed to spend any of their Traveller housing budget. This is consistent year after year and there is a lack of action at local level on spending the budget. There has been some intervention. In May 2013, the then Minister of State at the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, Ms Jan O'Sullivan, requested local authorities to provide detailed explanations as to why they had not drawn down their allocations for Traveller housing but no explanations were forthcoming, however. In 2017, the then Minister of State, Deputy English, took on this issue and commissioned a report from the Housing Agency, which found consistent failings in the local authority delivery model. There was substantial under-delivery over 16 years with only 68% of units delivered, and there was an underspend of the allocated budget. The review also found local authority and political opposition to Traveller accommodation was a factor in non-delivery. In one of the local authorities mentioned by Senator Fitzpatrick, which had no Traveller accommodation spend, there was major opposition to housing people following the Carrickmines fire. The opposition came from local people as there was a lack of consultation. Another audit in 2019 found that despite the provisions, local authorities:
... have failed to meet the full scale of accommodation need among this community. This is evidenced by the extremely high rate of Traveller homelessness, the increase in numbers of Traveller households sharing accommodation and living in overcrowded conditions, and the uneven record of delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation among local authorities and also approved housing bodies.
What are the consequences for this and how can we tackle it? Senator Flynn has referred to the consequences and they are obvious. Traveller families are over-represented among homeless people, accounting for 10% of people in emergency accommodation. Traveller families accounted for 23% of homeless families in 2019 in Kerry County Council. In Dublin, during the first lockdown, homeless Traveller families were advised by some homeless services that they could no longer use the self-locate accommodation option via hotels and had to return to their parents' homes, leading to some of these families sleeping in cars. According to a published study entitled Discrimination and Inequality in Housing in Ireland, Travellers are 22 times more likely than other white Irish respondents to report they have experienced discrimination in access to housing. Thus, while Irish Travellers represent less than 1% of the Irish population, they comprise more than 10% of the homeless population. Our reliance on HAP and rent supplement has meant that Travellers often face significant problems accessing private rental accommodation as landlords discriminate. As we have seen before the Equality Tribunal, Travellers are discriminated against in so many areas of life, including jobs and accessing services. That applies also to the private rented sector, which we are over-relying on.
A secure home is a fundamental right. For children, a secure home is essential to educational attainment. For adults, educational attainment is essential to finding a job. Without a job, the cycle of poverty and deprivation continues. Culturally-appropriate, hygienic accommodation with facilities and Traveller-specific accommodation is essential. Traveller accommodation plans and the lack of delivery somewhat mirror the broader trends in the non-delivery of social housing but an additional layer of prejudicial attitudes still permeates the State and underpin how it and individuals deal with members of the Traveller community.
In its assessment of the local authority Traveller accommodation programme, the Irish Traveller Movement stated that 30% of Traveller families are currently in need of accommodation. Yet, eight local authorities have set targets below the need identified by them over the course of their five-year programmes. We have, therefore, an inadequate and understated needs planning and a failure to address families in temporary roadside and overcrowded accommodation for homelessness.
Some 1,045 families live in official local authority housing sites. Of this number, however, 257 share overcrowded basic site facilities with extended families. According to the aforementioned ESRI report, 56% of Travellers lived in crowded accommodation compared with only 8% of non-Travellers. Local authorities, local representatives and residents have a responsibility not to oppose this housing but to provide housing for all segments of our society. If local authorities cannot deliver them, we need to introduce measures to ensure local authorities draw down on their allocation for Traveller accommodation, or if they are unwilling, reallocate those funds towards specific approved housing bodies to deliver specific Traveller accommodation housing.
The effect on health outcomes for Travellers who live in substandard accommodation is huge and that has a massive knock-on effect. I am proposing the establishment of an independent statutory body for Traveller accommodation. At the moment, the existing body is only advisory and it needs to have more executive ability to make local authorities provide Traveller-specific accommodation or punish local authorities that are unwilling to do so. This agency should draw up a national programme for Traveller-specific accommodation in consultation with Travellers. If local authorities will not spend the money, then approved housing bodies should be allowed to build Traveller-specific accommodation. We can remove it from local authorities and invest in approved housing bodies.
Most Travellers and Traveller organisations want to see their local authority deliver the housing they need. Year after year, however, we see an under-delivery of Traveller specific accommodation. It is no longer good enough, particularly when the money and need is there and we have such a health crisis at the moment.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House. Well done to Senator Flynn, in particular, for getting to the Seanad. I had a much cushier upbringing than she did and it is always easier to succeed when one has all the rights open to one from day one. It is also important to acknowledge that it is not just Senator Flynn's job to sort out this situation; the responsibility lies with every Member of this House and the Lower House. Let us not leave all this to Senator Flynn to sort out. It is up to every human working in the Government to sort this issue out and we do not want to dump it all on one individual.
There was not much in the programme for Government on this but it states clearly that we must "Ensure that the housing needs of the Traveller Community are met by local authorities and ensure that existing funding is fully drawn down and utilised." It does not say "utilised appropriately" but the Government has made a crystal clear commitment. I will stick to my notes as I have been known to say the wrong thing or be misinterpreted. We have a shared responsibility in this House and the Lower House to ensure this happens.
In fairness to the national Government, it has provided the money required for Traveller accommodation. For decades, however, we have failed to ensure the money is spent appropriately by the local authorities. This Government recognised the Traveller community as an ethnic minority in March 2017. However, it now needs to recognise that local authorities have failed year on year to spend the allocation for housing this ethnic minority needs and deserves. We need to find out why is this happening. Do we have to call it out? Is it racism? What is the real underlying issue at play here? We also need to insist that whoever is appointed by the local authority to implement the Traveller accommodation programme is not racist, has complete and full engagement with the Traveller community and will not be dictated to.
I was also engaging with the Irish Traveller Movement on this matter. The lack of adequate supply and quality of accommodation for Travellers is well documented. We all know about it and can talk about it forever. It is a well-known fact. I remember it was an issue when I was working with a Traveller training centre more than 17 years ago. Nothing has changed; in fact, it has got worse, if anything. Over decades, there has been a lack of motivation to deliver accommodation due to structural and institutional opposition and apathy across Traveller-specific accommodation, standard housing, private rented housing and homeless provision. That has resulted in massive underutilisation of these allocations. Local authorities are always crying out for more funding for everything and yet, in this instance, they are not spending the funding.
This is the year 2020 and it is no longer acceptable because all humans are equal, we know that now, and we have to show that to the young people. It is sad that I have been to more funerals of Travellers who have committed suicide than I have to funerals of settled people who have done so, even though there are many more settled people than Traveller people. There is something wrong with that. We all know of Abraham Maslow's theory that if people's human rights and basic needs of food, accommodation and shelter are not met, it leads to other issues. In this day and age, we have to look at that. The rate of suicide in the Traveller community is shocking. It is bad enough in the settled community but why is it worse in the Traveller community? We all know this has been an issue for a long time.
It is also important to accept that Travellers have different needs. Senator Flynn alluded to that point. Some Travellers still want to be nomadic and to have a caravan forever while others want to be in a house. We listen to the needs of individual settled people when it comes to housing, so why do we not do so for Traveller people? I remember instances in the past where Travellers were given a house when they had never asked for one. They were given a house they did not want and never asked for. People have to be given what they need and not what someone else thinks they need. The only way that will happen is to recognise that the Travellers themselves have to have a voice and be involved and engaged with on every step relating to accommodation and their needs.
This is an embarrassing situation for the Government in 2020 and we must rectify it. I know that we can set up another committee, legislative or otherwise, but the bottom line is that we need action now. We need to find out exactly what is going on and why local authorities are not spending the money. I hope I will not be here this time next year making the same speech again.
We are talking here about a human right to safe, affordable and suitable accommodation. We should not have to return again and again to discuss the non-spending of funds allocated to local authorities to provide houses for members of the Traveller community. This is ring-fenced money we are talking about and we need to ensure that it is spent.
It is even more frustrating when the guidelines and direction for where the money should be spent and what type of accommodation should be prioritised is contained in the report of the expert group on Traveller accommodation, which was published in the summer of 2019. The money and the instructions are there. The missing link is political direction and the political will to make it happen.
There is a need for quarterly reporting. The latest spending figures that I have seen are in a reply to a parliamentary question asked last month by Deputy Ó Broin. The job of monitoring on a more regular basis should not fall to Members of the Dáil and "monitoring" is the watchword here. There is no point in allocating vast sums of money to local authorities in the knowledge that without effective monitoring, the money will be coming back to the Department unspent. I suggest a quarterly report on spending and builds for Traveller accommodation be introduced just as they have been for social housing.
The latest figures show that only 45.5% of the Traveller accommodation funding of €14.5 million that is available for 2020 has been drawn down to date. Senator Fitzpatrick mentioned local authorities such as Cork County Council, South Dublin County Council and councils in Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow that have not drawn down any funding at all. It is understandable that construction work may be behind schedule due to Covid-19 restrictions but during the harsh lockdown, there was never any restriction on planning, tendering and awarding of contracts to build badly-needed accommodation. That is where today's debate needs to be focused. We are here to get an explanation as to why nine local authorities did not draw down a single euro from moneys allocated to them to relieve the housing problem in their local areas.
Last week, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, announced a package to ensure Traveller participation in third level education during Covid-19. The press release referred to ensuring that members of the Travelling community had access to proper and well-ventilated study space. Why not begin by ensuring that money already ring-fenced for Traveller accommodation is drawn down and spent? Does the Minister of State want more powers? Does he think he has sufficient powers to be able to instruct local authorities that are clearly not engaging with central government to deliver Traveller accommodation?
Will we have to have a further debate in several months on the same issue? I hope not. Is the Minister of State prepared to directly intervene and to instruct local authorities to speed up their planned builds? We also need accountability. Money unspent is money that is not being spent by somebody. It is not an accident. There is a lack of urgency in local authorities and, in many cases, it is very deliberate. Clear direction needs be given that moneys must be spent. Where there is a delay, we need to intervene. Where rhetoric and bigotry are holding up the process, we need to stand against it, even if that means fighting political opposition. As I said before, we need to monitor the spend. We should provide quarterly reports. One of the best reports the Department produces is on social housing, namely, the housing construction pipeline report. It is a very detailed piece of work that lets us all know, per project and per local authority area, where construction is in the pipeline. It would be great to get the same report for the Traveller accommodation programmes.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank Senator Flynn for tabling this topic for us to debate. It is a very important topic.
People in the Travelling community face so many challenges, especially in this time of Covid. These include, as have been mentioned, the high levels of unemployment, challenging health outcomes and, particularly, trying to access accommodation in the private sector. There is discrimination in our society, particularly for minority groups. Many families are living in precarious conditions, especially from a Traveller background. There is short-term housing and a lack of public housing. These are issues we are very familiar with. I am happy to see that the Government has allocated €21.3 million, as the Minister of State noted, for 2021 and this is an increase. However, the Minister of State also noted that it falls short.
I looked at the figures from the recent census. I went back to 2016 and I saw that, overall, there are nearly 500,000 households that rent in Ireland and over 143,000 renting in local authorities. I looked particularly at rental in rural and urban areas. In rural areas, only 13% rent or have properties available for rental. This is really challenging when one looks at people who literally are living off renting. There are communities and families who are trying to rent and there are no properties for them to rent. In rural regional areas, houses are owned so there is little housing available to rent. It just hit me. From the Travelling community, I believe there are 4,000 or so that are renting. I think there are about 8,000 households, though that might not be fully representative, as has been mentioned, in terms of the census. There are about 4,000 families from Traveller backgrounds renting from local authorities. Local authorities are having to provide and that was an increase of about 11% on the previous census.
I will speak to my own area. There is a good Travelling community in Roscommon and east Galway and I spoke to those involved in youth services in Ballinasloe about their concerns. I am hoping that in better times we might be able to invite Senator Flynn to Ballinasloe to speak to some really amazing young people there that are very active in the community. It is really important that Senator Flynn is a role model. An importance will be allocated to her in terms of her role. We are all role models, I hope. The Vice President-elect in the US, Kamala Harris, had a good video recently in which she spoke well about young girls dreaming with ambition and that is what it is about. It is about speaking to the young people in our communities, particularly from Travelling or other minority groups, to encourage them to dream with ambition. Those youth services were delivering activity packs during the lockdown to families, particularly in disadvantaged areas.
Most of it involved crafts and things for children to do because they were not able to go to school during the first lockdown. They very quickly realised that there was a huge need for food. People were asking for food to be included in the packs that were being distributed. We know that people are in really challenging circumstances.
People are dropping out of education. Even at second level, they are not going as far as the leaving certificate. It is a challenge in terms of getting jobs. That is all being added into the mix with being able to access housing, which is a significant challenge.
In terms of accommodation, I was a county councillor in Galway County Council and I am aware of the significant pressures that exist in terms of trying to access the HAP scheme and the large waiting lists. A number of families from Traveller backgrounds were in contact with me about housing. It is very difficult.
I am very to happy to hear about the consultation board the Minister of State mentioned. It is important that all voices are heard. Many reports have noted that there are challenges with Travellers accessing accommodation. We have to take account of their unique needs. They are different. We need to make sure their voices are heard, otherwise we will not be successful. That is the aim. The budget is there. We want to make sure that families are being accommodated in the ways in which they need to be. They may not live in our traditional housing estate. It may be the case that they need to be accommodated in more open green areas.
It is very important that we invest more in social workers. We are dealing with very disadvantaged areas. What sort of funds are available for social workers? In terms of ongoing work, from what I understand local authorities can only draw down funding when work has been completed - a great deal of work is ongoing. Given the impact of Covid, will access to those budgets be extended beyond December for local authorities?
Sanitation facilities have been provided to groups living in precarious housing as a result of the impact of Covid. What other measures can be implemented? Does the Minister of Stare foresee any other measures being important for us to put in place over the coming months?
I thank Senator Flynn for bringing this issue to our attention. I hope to work with her on the consultation group. I was very happy to hear that it will include all stakeholders, that we will hear their voices and that we will try to make a concerted effort to try to tackle other areas of disadvantage as well as housing.
I may not use all of my time. Like everybody else, I welcome the fact that Senator Flynn has ensured that we are discussing this issue. The Minister of State will be very serious about it and I have great faith in him to tackle it.
It is concerning that nine local authorities have not yet drawn down funding. Last year, only two-thirds of the funding allocated for Traveller accommodation was spent. It is an ongoing problem. It is fine to talk about €21 million in funding, which Senator Dolan mentioned, but we must remember that if we cannot find out what the real problem is it is of no use. We have to find out why so many local authorities are not spending their allocation.
There may be issues at times and I accept that not all of the money can be spent. That has to be looked into. Galway, for example, was allocated €1.41 million and spent 40%, or €670,000. I have been involved in several cases in Ballinasloe where people in the Traveller community are living in very poor conditions and want to live in houses. I would consider their housing as being unfit for humans.
I speak mainly to the mothers of teenagers and young children. One mother recently said to me that she wished she had a proper house for Christmas. Galway County Council got a considerable amount of money from the State to address this issue. Where is the problem there and with other local authorities? Why is this happening?
I do not represent Longford but there has been very poor uptake in Longford as well.
Down through the years quite a lot of progress has been made but not enough. Why? Considering all of the things that have happened with legislation and all of the changes that have been made, there is still a real problem in Ireland with giving Travellers proper housing and accommodation. Let me give the following examples: the groundbreaking Equal Status Act was initiated by Fianna Fáil and came into effect in October 2000; the Traveller health unit was created in 2004; the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act was enacted in 1998; the Planning and Development Act 2000 introduced a Part V that obtained a social dividend for the private development of social housing, including Travellers; the national Traveller consultative committee was reconstituted in March 2007 along with the local Traveller accommodation consultative committee; Delivering Homes Sustaining Communities was delivered in August 2007; and a high-level group on Traveller issues was established at the request of the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to examine ways of producing a more co-ordinated response by State bodies to address Traveller issues with a view to securing improved outcomes. The group's report was published on 21 March 2006, following its approval by the Government. The report included a wide range of conclusions and recommendations that covered the full spectrum of public service activity related specifically to Traveller accommodation. There are many more areas that I could reference.
A key development in advancing education for the Traveller community was the report and recommendations for a Traveller education strategy, which was launched by the then Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, in November 2006. In 2010, the Department of Education and Skills spent in excess of €17 million per annum directly on Traveller education that incorporated pre-school, primary, post-primary, and further and higher education. Those direct supports included: 29 segregated Traveller pre-schools; 503 resource teachers for Traveller pupils at primary level; additional teaching hours at post-primary level; enhanced capitation for Traveller pupils at primary and post-primary levels; the visiting teacher service for Travellers; schools transport arranged for Traveller pupils; and 33 senior Traveller training centres. I have only mentioned some of the initiatives. Despite a lot of things happening and being done we are still in a very poor predicament in terms of really tackling this problem.
The Minister of State may be unable to answer this but I would like to know why nine local authorities have not spent anything on Traveller accommodation. In most local authorities, where there might not be huge issues, there are people who need to be housed. I shall conclude by again referring to the mother of five children who told me that all she wants for Christmas is a proper home. So let us all remember that that mother and her children play a very important role in society.
I may have a different seat these days but we have got The West Awake, Senator, that is for sure. Senators Conway, Martin and Currie have five minutes each. We will finish at 4.55 p.m. so if anyone else wishes to speak please approach me here.
The Acting Chairman is doing an excellent job in the Chair and well done.
There are a number of issues connected to this subject. It is appropriate that Seanad Éireann is discussing Traveller accommodation. I commend Senator Flynn for putting this issue forward or ensuring it was put on the agenda.
There is no point in putting a tooth in it. The Traveller community is the most discriminated against group in Irish society and whether people like to hear that or not, that is the truth. It is a wrong that has been perpetrated over many generations but, more recently, over recent generations. We must ensure that discrimination does not continue into future generations. We, as a society, all have an absolute responsibility and duty to right that wrong.
One of the most basic and fundamental principles that define us as a nation is the ability to provide people with a proper decent home. That has not happened in this instance. It is not that there is an unwillingness in government to do it. There has been a willingness in many governments spanning the past two decades to do it, going back to the mid-1990s when Mervyn Taylor, as Minister with responsibility for equality, introduced Traveller legislation and empowered county managers to deal with the issue. Sadly, the problem is to be found at local authority level. As many colleagues pointed out, local authorities were provided with funding in multi-annual budgets but have failed to spend the money. The carrot has been offered to them to resolve the problem but they have not bitten or done what they should have done. It is now time to wield the stick. A suggestion worthy of consideration is that local authorities that continue to fail to spend the money allocated to them for Traveller accommodation should have their resources depleted in other areas. That might focus minds on doing what they should do.
There is a problem with planning and people objecting to proposals but where there is a will, there is a way. We have a reasonably transparent planning process which gives people the right to make submissions on planning applications. These then go through the process but the problem is that councils are not submitting Part 8 applications to the degree needed.
While we are primarily discussing housing, education is another area that needs significant intervention. One of the fundamental principles of equality is access to education. Not enough Traveller children sit the leaving certificate and go on to third level. Why is that the case? We need to address the reasons for that and make particular interventions to make sure we deal with it.
Four years remain in the lifetime of this Government. Housing provision is a commitment in the programme for Government and I sincerely hope it is delivered upon. It is one of the societal challenges which our generation has a duty and responsibility to live up to. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for being here. He is very committed to equality and has demonstrated that in his short time in ministerial office. I have no doubt he will drive this project forward along with the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, and his other colleagues in the Department.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, to the Chamber. The Green Party is thrilled to have Senator Eileen Flynn as a Member of the Seanad. Today, she asked for dignity and respect for the travelling community. That is a cry for dignity and respect and it is not too much to ask.
As a child, I was privileged in that my late parents invited members of the travelling community attending our local school to our first communion celebrations and birthday parties. Nothing struck me as unusual at the time. My only observation was that the child - my best friend for the afternoon - would be a different face the following year. There are photos at home with these young birthday party-goers but the harsh reality of statistics would prove, if I tried to chase down the people in those photographs, that many of them are no longer with us due to the dreadful mortality and life expectancy rates among the travelling community. If I were to do a "Where are they now?" search, provided I could find the photographs in the attic, I would discover that many of them are no longer with us.
They did not have the opportunity I got for education. They did not have the opportunity that most people in this House had, including education, social, personal and family matters.
I was privileged to have as a lecturer in third level education the Rev. Dr. Micheál Mac Gréil, the famous Jesuit sociologist, who is still with us and alive and well, in his 90th year, in Westport. I know today's debate is about accommodation but this point should permeate through all discussions on the Traveller community, in my humble opinion. The policy of mere assimilation will not work, as in, saying that someone must be like us. It is like the overenthusiastic member of the Red Cross who helps an elderly, infirm person across the road, and when he or she speaks to the elderly person across the road, the elderly person says that he or she did not want to cross the road. As Senator Garvey said earlier, listening is important. Dr. Micheál Mac Gréil's book, Pluralism and Diversity in Ireland is about early 21st century Ireland. Chapter 13 is entitled, "The Travelling People - Ireland’s Apartheid". It is hard not to agree with Dr. Mac Gréil and the statistics prove the story. In the 2006 census, though it is a while ago, there were 22,300 Travellers, which amounted to 0.5% of our population, yet our fellow Senator is appealing for dignity and respect.
We have failed with the policy of assimilation. We need integrated pluralism. We need integration to have equality of opportunity, equal rights, equal treatment and pluralism. We need to celebrate and embrace people's differences for those who want to stay different. They enrich our community. It is almost like being ecumenical. If there is a religious group that wants to have its sabbath on a Thursday, then facilitate the sabbath on a Thursday. We have to facilitate and allow for difference. True difference is strength, vibrancy and a celebration of diversity. It also showcases talents and, on a more practical level, stability and equal rights. I would welcome further discussion on this issue which, as others have said, is getting worse. It is not getting better. We need a fundamental rethink and overhaul.
I am not an expert on Travellers' rights but I deeply care about equal rights and opportunities and I am willing to learn from the experience of people in the Chamber. I grew up close to a halting site in west Dublin, living for over ten years with a halting site 200 m away from my house. We were all good neighbours. I would like if all communities could be the same way. From an early age, where I grew up in County Tyrone, I was taught to respect difference and to know that deep down, we all want the same thing, which is to belong, to feel accepted and that one person's identity is just as important as that of another person. It is not always as straightforward as that, unfortunately, and I do not want to oversimplify the challenges. I served on Fingal County Council's Traveller consultative committee before I was appointed a Senator. I want to mention the good work of the Blanchardstown Traveller development groups in Dublin 15. Fingal is one of the councils that outspent its allocation for Traveller accommodation of €13 million provided by the then Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
The council has been allocated €13.5 million for Traveller accommodation for the next three years under the capital plan. I hope that will be delivered.
The relationships between Travellers, local authorities and communities can be complex, but this is an issue of welfare, human rights and building inclusive communities. Whatever the accommodation is, it should be provided in a culturally appropriate way so that Travellers have quality housing, better facilities and good environmental conditions.
The Traveller accommodation expert review concluded that "the arrangements established by the 1998 Act have significant strengths and have enabled the delivery of significant amounts of accommodation for Travellers, but they have failed to meet the full scale of accommodation need among this community." The review covered the effects of homelessness, overcrowding, inconsistency of standards, varying rates of delivery, the degree of satisfaction with Traveller-specific accommodation and the over-reliance on the private rental system to address shortages. There is a great deal of information in the expert review, including 32 recommendations. I will not go through them all, but I will summarise. The expert group focused primarily on what was working and not working, but not on why. That is what the Seanad is focusing on in this debate. I cannot understate the importance of building relationships proactively and positively and of on-the-ground leadership at every level of the system.
In March, the Minister of State, Deputy English, provided supports in respect of toilets, running water and so on because of Covid. Will they be retained? There is some concern that they will not be.
I might ask Senator Burke to share the remaining time. We have two minutes left. Perhaps he might take a minute and leave the rest for Senator Ó Donnghaile.
That will not be a problem. I will be brief. I thank Senator Currie for sharing time with me and I welcome the Minister of State. I also thank Senator Flynn for tabling the motion. This is an issue that we should keep on the agenda because it warrants further discussion.
I served on Mayo County Council's Traveller accommodation committee many moons ago. At the time, I proposed that two out of every eight local authority houses built should be for Travellers. That proposal was subsequently adopted by the council.
Much has been said about halting sites and Traveller accommodation. While I welcome the €21 million that will be provided, trading in scrap, batteries and so on by Travellers should be accommodated. Such trading should not be done on a halting site alongside Traveller accommodation. The two should be kept separate. I ask that the Minister of State liaise with the local authorities to provide space somewhere for Travellers who need to trade in those wares.
Senator Ó Donnghaile has 20 or 30 seconds.
That is gracious. It is all I will need. I welcome the Minister of State and thank Senator Flynn for ensuring that the House had the opportunity to have statements on such an important issue. It has been raised with the Minister previously. My colleague, Senator Warfield, was keen to have this matter discussed, but he has missed out on it.
I was following the debate in my office. I wish to take this opportunity to discuss something that has not been mentioned so far. In June 2019, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission initiated an equality review of local authorities' provision of Traveller accommodation. That report is now a year overdue. Will the Minister of State take this opportunity to update the House on his understanding of the reasons for the delay and when he expects the report to be published?
I did not want to be late on my first day in the Chair, so I thank Senators. It is exactly 4.54 p.m., so we have kept to time. I invite the Minister of State to speak.
I thank Senators for their contributions on this important issue. I assure the House that I am fully committed to resolving it, including the underspend by various local authorities. It is a significant underspend, which I was keen to point out in my opening statement.
We have to acknowledge when things are not working. When I was advised that I would be taking over this role one of my key tasks was to try to rectify this.
Senator Fitzpatrick was keen to point out the recommendations from the expert group report. When I was first appointed to this role I immediately met the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee because it was very important that I hear the views of the Travelling community. The expert group report is wide-ranging and recommends legislative and planning changes for local authorities and changes in the way they do their business in liaising with the Department on spending this money. It is important that we resolve to implement the report which is why I am very keen to appoint a programme board to quickly implement and drive its recommendations.
I acknowledge Senator Flynn's excellent contribution. Genuine contributions like hers are what we want to hear in this House. I am very grateful for the suggestions the Senator made. I am keen to meet her at the earliest opportunity and my office will contact her. It is important that we sit down together to try to address some of the concrete proposals that the expert group brought to the table and we will do this quickly.
On some of the other issues raised, I hope the caravan loan scheme will be approved by the Department of Finance in the coming days. That scheme is key to showing respect for the ethnicity of Travellers and their way of life by not forcing them into other accommodation or roles. It is important that we get this funding approved as this was part of the process in the consultative committee.
The expert group touched on a significant number of areas such as planning, CSO data and how they are compiled, and aligning development plans with Traveller accommodation plans. All of that detail, which was raised by Senators, is noted in the report. It is very important that we drive these issues through the programme board that I have spoken about. This Government takes a serious approach to this area, which is borne out in its actions of putting the report together, having it published and establishing a programme board to drive forward its delivery. That will make a difference. There are a number of issues with legislation, which does not go far enough, the powers of the local authority system and the oversight that central government has in this regard. There have been shortcomings and I hope this will resolve the issue.
On Covid-19, it is important that our spending is kept high. We have approved €4.9 million of which €2.5 million has been spent. This funding is to be used to respond to any issues in respect of Covid-19 in the Traveller community. The HSE is the lead agency driving forward that response and the Government is keen to respond to any problems that arise in that regard. We will not be found wanting.
We must remember that the fifth anniversary of the Carrickmines fire was last week. Five adults, five children and an unborn baby perished in that event on 10 October 2015. Days like that make one think of the job we have to do and the resolve we must show in trying to rectify this problem and respond with all of the resources at our disposal to ensure the situation does not stand still. We need to move forward with this. I have no doubt I will get support from the House to do that.
I responded to Senator Currie on the funding amounts and some of the issues arising from the expert group. I will check to ensure I have not left anything out.
The private sector is accommodating some Travellers through departmental spending, the housing assistance payment, HAP, and other mechanisms. We are also trying to acknowledge through the caravan loan scheme that this approach is not always the answer.
My door is always open. We are driving forward with the recommendations of the expert group and I will welcome any feedback and proposals that may improve how we do our business. I thank Senators for arranging this debate and Senator Flynn, in particular, for initiating it. I look forward to working with the Seanad in the future.
I thank the Minister and very much appreciate his taking the time to come to the House and speak with us today. I also thank Senator Flynn for raising a very important topic. We greatly appreciate the contribution she made to the debate.