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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 12 Jul 2022

Vol. 287 No. 5

Report of the Joint Committee on Key Issues Affecting the Traveller Community: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann notes the Report of the Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community entitled ‘Final Report of the Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community’, copies of which were laid before Seanad Éireann on 30th November, 2021.

I second the motion.

I thank the Minister for taking the time to discuss this very important issue of what will be a life-changing report for many Travellers. It has been seven months since the Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community published its report and four months since I addressed the Dáil on its recommendations. I thank members of the committee, as well as those of the previous committee that came before us, the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the clerk to the committee, Mr. Leo Bollins, for all their hard work in making this report possible.

The key recommendations came from national and local Traveller organisations and activists to make sure we have equality of opportunity in Irish society. The committee report offers 84 recommendations in four main areas, which include education, particularly at second and third level, employment, accommodation and, most importantly in my opinion, mental and physical health. Today, I hope we will receive a clearer picture of where we stand in respect of the implementation of the recommendations, most of which are not new.

What we are seeking for Travellers is very simple - inclusive education, delivered health services, especially mental health, safe and culturally appropriate accommodation and an equal chance in employment. We have seen too many reports and studies that highlighted how Travellers have been failed in these areas. I genuinely hope this will be the last time I will have to discuss this report and no actions being taken. As Deputy Ó Cuív and I said at the launch of this report, it is not reports or debates that changes things, it is action. A lack of action would mean a loss of hope for many Travellers who need these actions to be implemented as soon as possible.

I will not go through all 84 recommendations. I will discuss two very important ones for now. There are certain key areas that would provide structure for change that will finally bring the Traveller community the services and supports we deserve. We must establish a national Traveller accommodation authority to oversee the development and implementation of Traveller accommodation policy. The current system of local authority provision of accommodation for Travellers has not worked and will not work. Time and again we have been failed by local authorities. Between 2008 and 2019, local authorities left more than €72 million unspent on Traveller accommodation, yet the accommodation needs of the Traveller community are still serious. Who will be held to account for Traveller families living in homeless accommodation, unsafe accommodation and overcrowded accommodation? The call for a national Traveller accommodation authority was in the expert review of Traveller accommodation in 2019. The then Minister committed to it.

The second recommendation is the most important, in my opinion. There must be a national Traveller mental health strategy with a ring-fenced budget. There must be clear timelines for delivery in mental health. We need a national Traveller mental health strategy steering group in partnership with all key stakeholders and, most importantly, Travellers, to oversee its development and implementation. The critical voice of the national Traveller mental health network must be at the heart of this steering group. The Government promised a national Traveller mental health strategy in the current programme for Government. Only a stand-alone strategy will turn the tide in the mental health crisis in our community. If we get one commitment from the Minister today, would we be able to discuss the stand-alone strategy in the programme for Government? Is it not ironic that there are three Ministers of State with responsibility for health, including mental health, as well as the Minister, yet there is extremely little action when it comes to Traveller mental health? Could the Minister tell us what is happening with these recommendations and the implementation of the mental health strategy?

I will hand over to Senator Higgins.

There are more than 80 recommendations in the report. They are very strong and they cover all areas of life because, sadly, Travellers in Ireland have experienced systematic disadvantage, discrimination and very bad consequences across many areas of life. We are not speaking to all of them here.

I would like to speak to some of the areas, such as education because that is a crucial one. I note the award for the NUI Galway Mincéirs Whiden Society, and that transformation is needed in every level of education. However, the issues have been left again and again and have now become a crisis, and that is why there is the focus today on the mental health issues Senator Flynn outlined and housing issues. If there is a housing crisis in Ireland, there has been a long-time Traveller accommodation crisis. What is particularly notable about it is that rather endeavouring to solve it, we have seen local authorities across Ireland going out of their way to not address and solve it. That is seen in the €72 million that was not even drawn down by local authorities over the decade from 2008 to 2019. When funding is available, that is an active choice to not even seek to address the Traveller accommodation crisis.

The issues which we have seen and which exist as a consequence of the failure over decades to address them include overcrowding. The Irish Traveller Movement has counted more than 1,400 Traveller families nationally who are living in overcrowded accommodation. That is invisible in some of the homelessness figures because people support and will support families and each other, so there are families who are doubling up and having to share their bays in halting sites and rooms in housing. There is a very significant gap. As regards the 1,400 that are in overcrowded accommodation, we know that the number is probably much more but it is not being captured. Travellers are over-represented in emergency accommodation in the State. Again, we do not have all the figures we should have for this because the ethnicity of Travellers is not often recorded in homelessness figures nationally. Local authorities and the Government therefore often do not have a full picture of the needs of Travellers.

If we look to where we have such figures, in 2019 some 25% of homeless children in emergency accommodation outside Dublin were Travellers and 13% of homeless adults were Travellers. That is a quarter of all the homeless children. Consider what that means for a homeless child in terms of access to education. Think of the incredible promise we are losing, the opportunities and the brilliant young people who are not getting to exercise their full opportunities in education because they are in those situations.

Again, there are consequences in terms of sanitation. Due to the lack of proper provision, many people are living on unofficial sites. The sanitation units on both official and unofficial sites are often deeply inadequate. We saw that in the particular impact that Covid-19 had on Travellers and, indeed, in outbreaks of other diseases which we should not have to face in this State.

To conclude, a national Traveller accommodation authority is promised and is needed. This is not being addressed at local level. It has to be a national issue and must be addressed nationally. We must also ensure that as new development plans are made across the country that Traveller accommodation of high quality, that is inclusive and positive, is central for the State. This is a crucial recommendation.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I congratulate everyone who was involved in writing this report. I was not there when it was being done, but I congratulate them on the incredible recommendations. I will not speak about writing the report because I was not part of it.

It is very important that we are discussing minority communities today. Every time we speak about minority communities in the House it is not just about speaking about them but having a little extra layered in and understanding a little more each time about how to work best to empower our friends who come from minority communities. I do not stand here and pretend that I know all the issues because I do not. I never will know all the issues, but I will do my very best through debates like this to learn, take it on board, expand my knowledge and advocate as best I can. Like my colleagues, I often get frustrated when a policy is launched, activated, sets out goals and there is funding allocated to it, but the goals of that policy are not achieved. That happens on so many things, particularly on Traveller issues. There is so much money that it is a mortal sin, as my mother would say, that this funding for Traveller accommodation was not drawn down by local authorities.

What is wrong there? Governments gave that money and it was not spent. We must look at each of those national policies and ask the experts why those policies did not work and why, when the local authorities or whoever else were given the opportunity, whether that was the regional health authority or whoever, that did not translate into proper change and assistance for people who need it from all minority communities.

We are all equal, but what we need now is more about equity. We need to build equality into the system because, clearly, there is an issue whereby minority communities, specifically Travellers in the context of this debate, do not feel as though they have equitable access to many services, and they do not. I have just returned from the launch of Fianna Fáil's women's health policy at which representatives from Pavee Point, having contributed to the policy, spoke. I was very struck to learn the life expectancy of a Traveller woman is her early 60s. What a loss it is to our country when we lose women at that rate. There is no data collection on specific Traveller healthcare needs. Ten thousand women gave birth in the Rotunda last year and 2,000 of them received mental health supports. How many of those 2,000 were from the Traveller community? We do not know because we are not collecting those data. A total of €350 million was specifically allocated in respect of Traveller mental health. We need to know and ensure that this money is specifically targeted, that it works and that we are empowering communities and building up people to be their best. None of us is any better or worse than anyone else; it is the chances and opportunities we get that allow us to get even better chances and opportunities.

Significant funding has been given, and while we need a lot more, we also need change in how it is delivered. Change can be facilitated from the top down, but it must come from the communities and those communities need to be empowered and assisted to help themselves and one another, and to help everyone else understand how we can make this society fairer and more equal. I thank everybody who was involved in producing the report. I have not yet got through it all but I congratulate each of them. I look forward to working on it and ensuring the 80-odd recommendations will be implemented.

I welcome the Minister. I have had the great privilege of being a member of committees that dealt with Traveller accommodation and other issues on this occasion and on previous occasions, including at local authority level. I am sure the Minister will have read the report, particularly given that he approaches these issues head-on. One important issue we in the committee highlighted in the report, which Senator Flynn mentioned earlier, related to the fact we want implementation at this stage. Enough quantitative and qualitative analysis has been done. The issues have been highlighted and a programme of actions is what is required at this stage. I do not think it merits further scrutiny, given the issues are blindingly obvious to most people. In fact, they were blindingly obvious even without the committee's work, but we have an empirical basis for them now.

Of the four key issues, I might begin with employment. Unemployment among the Traveller community stands at 80.2%, but it would be a racist myth to suggest that 80.2% of the Traveller community do not want to work or do not want jobs. Like in all sections of the community, there will be some people who do not have the capacity, but the point is we have to break that glass ceiling. It was necessary to do so in the area of women's participation in politics through quotas and so on, and we are doing to have to do likewise here. In the public services, where public procurement and Tús or social employment schemes are involved, there will have to be quotas. I put it to the Minister that he should examine that matter. We will not do this on the basis of goodwill, on a wing and a prayer or through aspiration or exhortation to employers. There will have to be quotas whereby they are legally implicit within the contract. Where work is being done that is pertinent to Travellers, such as development within their areas, why can it not be mostly Travellers who are employed to work on it? It will take a graduated effort, but I commend the Minister to start acting on employment.

School completion is the next issue that has to be dealt with. I might outline some stark headline figures. Only 13% of the Traveller population complete second level school, an horrendous figure that indicts us all. Obviously, there are issues here. We have to examine bullying and racism in schools where they impact on Travellers and that needs to be researched and dealt with immediately. Some 28% of Travellers leave school before the age of 13, another horrendous statistic. After-school clubs need to made available to Travellers, as does the school meals programme. Support systems need to be in place, with the culturally acceptable practices for Travellers to get over their feelings of alienation. They are not staying away from school due to some philosophical position or because they woke up one morning and decided they did not want education. Of course they want education; their minds are as curious as ours and they want to break through as much as we do in that respect. Nevertheless, there are reasons they do not stay in school and we have to get to the heart of those reasons.

Turning to physical and mental health, there need to be a ring-fenced health budget for Travellers, with a certain amount of money that cannot go elsewhere. There need to be specific, peer-led mental health programmes for Travellers. In the context of peer-led initiatives, that is something I neglected to mention when I was speaking to the employment issue. Where there are projects on Traveller sites, with physical work to be done and various other tasks, Travellers should be involved in all that.

The final issue I was going to come to, although my time is almost up, relates to accommodation. One in three Traveller households lives in mobile or temporary accommodation. We need that to be monitored and there needs to be a quarterly statement from local authorities as to their progress on Traveller accommodation.

It is all about implementation at this stage. Further analysis is not necessary.

I welcome those in the Public Gallery and thank them for coming. I also welcome the Minister and acknowledge we are in good hands with him on this issue. Moreover, I acknowledge Senator Flynn, who chaired the committee, and the members it comprised. There are 84 recommendations but, as other Senators have said, there is no point in another report gathering more dust if we are not going to do anything about it. The committee has challenged the Oireachtas, advocates for the Traveller community and Travellers themselves to stay focused on the 84 key recommendations, broadly under the headings of health, education, employment and accommodation. When we talk about Traveller accommodation, I am very conscious of the horrific fire in Carrickmines, a prime example of bad housing policy and bad accommodation in an authority on which I was a county councillor for many years. Shame on that terrible situation, although I hope there will be some learning from it.

I never like to think about or talk to a group of Travellers without taking time out to remember them and their great loss. They continue to struggle on a daily basis with the wipeout of family members, which was a tragedy related to housing policy, Traveller accommodation policy and overcrowding.

I have taken the time to read the report as I am sure everyone in the House has. I will single out a few key items. Recommendation 45 on employment states: "A comprehensive national Traveller employment action plan should be developed, resourced and implemented." A local vegetable shop in my town employed three Travellers. The owner took the decision to employ local people. These Travellers were local people, they were customers and they bought their vegetables, diesel and coal from this shop. This woman decided she would employ them. She never had a problem with any of them and, I am glad to say, two of them are still working with her and have done so for almost 20 years. She believed everyone should have the right to an opportunity to work for her. She told everyone - they did not have to be a Traveller - that if they came to her shop and made a bags of it they would be out the door. She stood in solidarity at a time when no one in the town supported Travellers. Fair play to her. That is a good example of mutual trust and respect. We must lead in business and enterprise, if we can give employment opportunities to anybody. Travellers are no different. They seek employment and income to provide for their families, in addition to accommodation. They are equally ambitious as anybody else. Somehow, it seems to be Travellers versus us. We are all seeking to do better for ourselves and our families and to support one another. That recommendation in the report is a particularly important point.

Recommendation 50 relates to employment and suggests greater support for social enterprises. I can think of no more enterprising people than Travellers. I have been on many of their sites where they are involved with horses - whether it is breeding horses, competing for horses or trading in horses. It is a commodity. Whether people are cattle dealers or horse dealers, they are dealers making shillings and making money. It is a noble profession. Let us be clear about that. The problem is many Travellers do not have the ideal facilities for it but they are enterprising and imaginative. Many of them know how to turn a buck and earn work from crafts, skills and other things.

I will talk about that in respect of education, which we also considered. Senator Flynn invited a group of Travellers from National University of Ireland, Galway to appear before the committee. It was one of the best audiovisual presentations I ever had concerning people who, against very difficult sets of circumstances and backgrounds, made it to university in Galway. By golly, they were fantastic. They told of their journeys, experiences and difficulties. I say "Well done" to them.

I will turn to recommendation 53 on employment, which states, "Culturally appropriate apprenticeship[s] and internship schemes should be developed in areas of traditional Traveller enterprise." Everyone knows what that means. I encourage it.

I picked out recommendation 68 on accommodation for special mention. It states, "An ... audit should take place of [the] living conditions ... [of] all traveller specific ... halting sites [and accommodation]". That should be one of the very first things we should do. We should audit what we have now and how we can improve it.

I will wrap up by saying "Well done" to the people who worked on this report. It includes 84 recommendations and guidelines. Let us all, across both Houses, commit to rolling them out. I appeal to the Traveller advocacy groups and Travellers themselves to also heap the pressure on to keep this report as a living, practical document that is ticking off and driving these issues. I wish everyone well with the report. Every one of these 84 recommendations can be achieved.

I want to get everybody in. As Senators know, we started a little late because of the legislative programme. The Minister is supposed to respond at 4.45 p.m. but he might give us some latitude on that.

Before I call the next speaker, I welcome to the Gallery Councillor Yemi Adenuga, one of the first elected representatives from a minority community in Ireland. It is appropriate she is here for this debate. I also welcome Councillor Baby Pereppadan. I thank him for being here for this very important debate on making sure that minority communities in this country are respected and afforded the rights they should be. I also welcome Councillor Ben Dalton O'Sullivan from Cork, which is another minority community.

I welcome all our guests. I thank everyone who came before the committee to share their insights. As I often say, when it comes to committees, we are not the experts. We are there to hear witnesses' expert testimony and to make recommendations on the basis of what really matters for their communities. I will say to everyone who came before us, and everyone who opened their homes on the halting sites we visited throughout the country, including in the constituency of Galway West where I live, that we could not have found a better welcome. I also thank the Chair of the committee, Senator Flynn, for her fantastic advocacy, not just on the committee but in everything she does. We owe it to her and all those communities to not just have another report on a shelf but to take action. That is needed now. If there is one clear message that came to us, it is that we need action.

We have had the 2019 expert report, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission's 2021 report and now this committee's report. When the Working Group of Committee Cathaoirligh met with the Ceann Comhairle recently, the strongest message that came from the Traveller committee was the need for transparency on a regular basis. How many houses have been delivered? How much Traveller-specific accommodation has been delivered this quarter? That is what we want to see. We do not need more promises.

I will look at the figures. In 2021, 70 Traveller-specific units were built. That included 18 new halting site units, five major refurbishments and ten group housing units. In the constituency in which I live, Cena, which is a fantastic approved housing body, will build four units. However, this does not scratch the surface. The figures supplied by Mr. John O'Connor from the Housing Agency indicated that 1,000 of those on the accommodation list have Traveller-specific needs. That is a massive number we need to address.

We need to hear from experts so I will reference Mr. Pat Doyle, CEO of the Peter McVerry Trust, who said:

Very often we have the sites. Very often we have [the] funding and the backing from the department but [what] we need [is] ... local leadership to step up and say, ‘look, there’s a housing crisis and we need to house people. We need to house Travellers, homeless people, people with disabilities.’ We get it from every party [by that he means every political party] that they want housing. But at a local level we [do not] get [it] ...

We need councillors and executives of local authorities to step up to the mark. As Mr. Doyle said, at a local level it is a case of people saying they know there is a housing crisis, but they do not want these houses in their areas. That is no longer good enough. We all need to call that out, including within our own parties. That is what I wanted to say on accommodation.

I will also pick up on the employment issue, which I feel very strongly about. I know of amazing organisations, such as Bounceback and Mr. Martin Ward from the Galway Traveller Movement, and the women associated with Bounceback in Galway. They run a recycling project there that brings in mattresses in from 12 counties. Mr. Ward said to the committee that while Travellers are great innovators, which goes back to their history, they are innovators because they do not have any other options, as people do not employ them in jobs in their companies and the public service is not taking them in. We need to say that it is great, and let us celebrate fantastic organisations, but let us also say it is time for the State to play its part. There needs to be quotas in the public service because that is the part we can control. We must control that.

Many people want to contribute and this is a very important debate so I will leave it there. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments. The Working Group of Committee Cathaoirligh will have another meeting the Ceann Comhairle. Officials from the Department of Housing, Heritage and Local Government appeared before the committee. We will bring others in and will ask them questions on behalf of the Traveller community and the committee we all feel very passionately about.

As we will run out of time, I ask Senators to limit their contributions to three or four minutes. The Minister is due to respond.

Senator Boylan is our only speaker.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I also welcome the opportunity to discuss the contents of this important report. First, like others, I pay tribute to everyone responsible for bringing it together and in particular, the Chair, Senator Flynn and all the Traveller-led organisations, not least the Tallaght Traveller Community Development Project which contributed on education.

Senator Flynn made the point in her foreword that there have been numerous reports and studies produced over the years that have highlighted the extreme difficulties faced by the Traveller community. The trouble is when it comes to implementing those reports. The report has strong and clear recommendations and I will touch on just a few of them.

The issue that Senator Flynn rightly highlighted as being so disturbing is that of suicide and mental health in the Traveller community. The statistics are shocking in that 90% of Travellers agreed that mental health problems were common in their community, while suicide is the cause of 11% of Traveller deaths. I was glad to see the committee did not mince its words when talking about the causes of the crisis when it stated “Travellers’ daily experiences of racism and exclusion have a profound effect on their mental health.” We know how important a person’s home is for giving them a root and foundation. Security of accommodation and adequate accommodation are fundamental. Deficient and substandard living conditions, as well as precarious accommodation and homelessness, have an impact on mental health and on wider health issues within the Traveller community. Lower educational outcomes also have a damaging impact on employment opportunities. Chronic unemployment also has a negative consequences on mental health. All these things are interconnected.

While we are discussing the critical importance of the implementation of reports, it must be acknowledged that the implementation of the Traveller-Specific Accommodation report has been painfully slow. We are not leading by example in implementing the recommendations on that. The report also addresses the fact that families are sharing bays on halting sites or living in the yards of the houses of family members in group housing schemes. In those cases, families share one another’s electricity supply.

I wish to raise one particular issue that came to my attention during the briefing I hosted last week about energy poverty. Aoife, a representative from the National Traveller Money Advice and Budgeting Service pointed out that the families who shared bays had to share the €200 credit as the doubling up was not taken into account. There were other examples where the credit was shared between multiple families. There were other cases where the local authority did not pass on that €200 rebate. I hope that the Minister will take back to his Government colleagues that if we are going to roll out another €200 rebate, we must make sure that families who should have got the first rebate do receive it and that we get answers as to why local authorities have not passed it on. If this is to be repeated in the early budget to be announced in September, the flaw in the legislation that enabled this must be fixed.

There is so much in this report I would like to discuss. There is a lot in it to make you angry, sad, and frustrated. We all have to accept that the structural biases against Travellers are real and have a devastating effect on their lives. However, there is also a lot of cause for hope in the report. I commend the activity of Travellers organising and agitating for something better for themselves and their families. I thank the committee for its report.

This is Traveller Pride week. It started today with the first ever Traveller Pride awards. I encourage people to check that out online. I want to note Rosemary Maughan who won the intersectionality award. It is very well deserved. Every day I learn from her online. I encourage everyone to follow and learn from her too. I congratulate all the awards winners and nominees for the incredible work they do for the Traveller community, often behind the scenes and unrecognised and often in the face of adversity and discrimination. Rosemary and many others talk online about their experiences. It is important to note that today.

We would not have this report without Senator Flynn and all the work she has done on this. We often say that it is not up to one person or Senator to represent an entire community or carry a community on his or her back but it is up to us as public representatives to support her and her community and to listen to what they have to say. We must advocate, listen, pass the mic and do everything we can in our roles to support that community. The report's recommendations are more than clear. As I read through them, I felt really sad that we need to have a report that contains such recommendations for a community in 2022 to make its lives bearable. It is not good enough. It is not okay or acceptable. It is a really important report and I am glad that we have it but I am sad that we had to have it at all and that in Ireland in 2022, we need a lengthy list of things that can and should be done to support that community. Speaking to Senator Flynn and other members of the community, I know that the number one thing to consider is that the Traveller community is working on these issues. They are experts in their own lives, experiences and histories and know how to best go forward to support themselves. It is important that the Minister or any of us listen to that community because they have the answers.

The community has been pleading for mental health supports. Scary and upsetting statistics have been read out here and we see them online about Traveller children taking their own lives. This is a community that is devastated by mental ill-health and the lack of supports available. That is a stark thing we need to get to grips with. It is in the programme for Government. I hope that it is a priority and that we see action on that.

Then there are jobs. It should be a normalised part of society. Travellers are members of the community with an incredible and unique culture and history but they are just members of the community like the rest of us. It should just be normalised when they are getting jobs and when they are a part of it. That is a really important thing.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak at such an important debate. The work that Senator Flynn and the other members of the committee have completed is historic and vitally important. I will just speak about mental health and the stark realities of the mental health crisis in the Traveller community.

I will read the statistics again because they are vital. Suicide accounts for 11% of all deaths among Travellers. Traveller women are seven times more likely to die by suicide. Travellers represent less than 1% of the population of the Republic of Ireland yet they make up over 10% of suicides among young adult men and boys. The stories we hear about suicides in the community, involving young children or members of the same family are devastating. The pain that many families and communities are grappling with is unimaginable. We know that the mental health care system in this country is strained to near breaking point. People are often left on waiting lists for unbearable durations but all these issues around access to care are amplified in the Traveller community due to social exclusion and a lack of access to resources. We need to ensure the community has access to comprehensive, culturally informed mental health services. This is an emergency.

This is a crisis that concerns us all. Successive Governments have seen first-hand this disaster unfold and have failed to develop a strategy to respond. We have a moral obligation to deal with the fallout of decades of State persecution of the Traveller community. The Irish State is culpable for the profound inequalities Travellers face. The 1963 report of the Commission on Itinerancy presented nomadic lifestyles as inherently inferior. Travellers were presented as a social problem to be solved. We need to state clearly now that nomadism is not the problem; racism is.

Hear, hear. That is absolutely right.

Travellers experience the challenges of racism, discrimination, social exclusion, incarceration and unemployment on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. It is a dense web of disadvantage and cruelty that takes an enormous toll on the community’s mental health. The astronomical rates of mental illness among Travellers remind me of the similar epidemic of mental illness among the residents of Gaza. Both populations experience a crushing sense of oppression and a pervasive hopelessness. In both cases, we can work to provide resources, to care for those who are suffering and to try to save lives. It is critical that we understand that, in both cases, the issue is systemic. Positive mental health requires freedom, justice and access to opportunities for growth and self-development. A radical and holistic approach centred on equality and autonomy is needed.

This report is an important but early step in the process of producing a legislative and policy response that adequately addresses the seriousness and urgency of this crisis. We need action and we need it now. I will close by congratulating my colleague, Senator Flynn, on this report. Her voice is a unique and powerful one that enriches the work we do in this House. Eileen is a champion of social justice and a tireless advocate for her community. I am very proud to call her my colleague and my friend.

I join with Senator Black in congratulating Senator Flynn on her work in putting this report together. Its findings are disturbing. As Senator Black pointed out in her contribution, while the previous reports, which are nearly 60 years old, identified much of this discrimination, they played down what was going on when there was endemic discrimination at the level of the State. I again thank Senator Flynn for her very significant work. As the Senator and the rest of us know, writing reports is one thing but, while the Senator has led a committee on these matters and got this far, there are many miles to go. It is important work. The Leader is coming into the Chamber. I will call on her before I call on the Minister.

I am sorry; I am nearly having a heart attack. A lot of the time, we talk about politics being all about the personal. No one could deny that since Senator Flynn came to the House two years ago she has worn her heart on her sleeve with regard to the very personal impacts society has imposed on her community. I thank her for that and for this report and its recommendations. This is not the first report, however. While it is not the Minister's fault and I am not having a dig at him, successive Governments have issued report after report and provided budget after budget but, as Senator Pauline O'Reilly has said, we come back at the end of every year and wonder why things are not different, why budgets have not been spent and why actions have not been implemented. It is down to us. It is down to national and local government. Until we start reflecting on that, we will have a really serious problem.

In addition to reports not being implemented, we have to acknowledge that discrimination against Travellers is very much evident in our society. This is because Travellers are not represented in many aspects of everyday life. Whether we like to admit it or not, and while it is revealed in quiet little rooms so fingers are not pointed, large parts of Irish society hold enormous prejudice that can only be described as racist feelings towards the Travelling community. This is so much the case that it is nearly socially acceptable and is not challenged in the same way as any other form of racism is challenged. We just know that people feel that way and have for generations. That is probably true but, unless we challenge it, it will never change. We have to challenge the whataboutery. It is almost as if this particular community has flaws while no other community in Ireland has those same flaws. We do not talk about our own shortcomings but just focus on and highlight those of this particular community. We need to take responsibility for the 84 recommendations at both national and local level. If we do not see positive implementation, then we will have to take responsibility for the fact that this community is not seen in a positive light. We are responsible for changing hearts and minds and we can only do that together.

I thank the committee members, and particularly the chair, Senator Flynn, for their comprehensive report which raises many key issues and makes a number of really important recommendations which will require work across all Departments and agencies of the State. Travellers in Ireland have faced, and continue to face, systemic racism. I will take this opportunity to reaffirm my commitment and the commitment of the Government to ensuring equality for Travellers and their full and equal participation in Irish life. We have an obligation across Government to eradicate the barriers that exist to that full and equal participation.

The national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy, NTRIS, operates from my Department and provides a framework for action on Traveller and Roma issues and represents a whole-of-government approach, bringing together Government agencies, Departments, members of the Traveller and Roma communities and the NGOs that work with them. The programme for Government commits to a review of NTRIS. That is something all of us on the NTRIS steering committee are very conscious of. The one thing that has been said throughout my time in office has been that we need to move from glossy policies to implementation. There is no good in having a brand new education strategy if the number of Traveller children completing secondary education has not increased. There is no good in having a glossy policy document on Traveller accommodation if the number of Traveller-specific accommodation units is not increasing dramatically. The next NTRIS has to be about measurable actions and delivery. It is very important that actions are measurable. The work that Senator Flynn and the committee have brought together will be really influential in the development of the next NTRIS. I am happy to continue to engage with Senator Flynn and the team of Deputies and Senators who worked with her on a quarterly basis or however often they wish to see where we are on the 84 actions so that we can start seeing delivery. I can use the NTRIS subcommittee to chase up Departments with regard to their implementation.

The report highlighted 84 areas covering a wide range of issues. I will now speak to three key areas: accommodation, health and education. With regard to housing, I know that the committee dedicated several meetings to the issue of Traveller accommodation and engaged with the Ombudsman for Children on the report, No End in Site. The findings of that report were incredibly hard to read and made clear that improvements in the provision of appropriate accommodation must continue. In March of this year, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, met with the NTRIS steering committee and we had a detailed discussion on the issue of Traveller accommodation. As Senators will know, the expert group to review the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 and other legislation published a report in July 2019. This report included 32 recommendations. A programme board is in place within the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to secure the implementation of those key recommendations. Traveller organisations are involved in the oversight of delivery of those key changes.

Senators Higgins and McGreehan and others raised the key issue of data. In that regard, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, has informed us that there is now a Traveller ethnicity identifier included on the social housing support form. We are starting to see the roll-out of that ability to monitor data. My Department is working with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on a broader national equality data strategy to allow us access to disaggregated data and information with regard to the take-up of health, education and housing services among the Traveller community and other minority communities.

Senator Higgins set out the challenges with regard to education for Travellers. In conjunction with the Department of Education, my Department is working on a number of pilot programmes to target Traveller attendance and school completion. The teams operating these pilot programmes are working with parents, children, young people, schools and the local Traveller and Roma communities. The programmes are under way in Galway, Wexford, Dublin and Cork and have been extended in light of the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic. Ensuring that Travellers have full access to the education system is paramount in light of the impact that access to education has on a person's life, potential and ability to access employment. I am aware that, while Traveller education outcomes have improved in recent years, educational attainment among Travellers continues to lag significantly behind that of the general population.

Undoubtedly, the impact of Covid has exacerbated that and has widened that gap. The digital divide is something we must be acutely conscious of. I am working together with the Minister for Education and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the Traveller education strategy that is promised in the programme for Government. It is important that work is also being done in my Department on early years education and the access of Traveller children to the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. There is reduced take-up of the scheme among Traveller children. That means that the education gap begins and is built in even before the first day of primary school. We have to work to reverse that.

The issue of healthcare was addressed by many Senators. I am acutely aware of the difficulties faced by the Traveller community when it comes to accessing health services and mental health services in particular. We know that members of the Traveller community die younger, have more illnesses and are at greater risk of being affected by substance misuse and mental health difficulties. The Government has committed to publishing a national Traveller health action plan. I am informed that the plan will be published in September 2022. Indeed, we have engaged with Senator Flynn on the matter. The plan aims to address the specific health needs of Travellers, including physical, mental and social well-being. It will use a social determinants approach. The national Traveller health action plan will assist with improving Travellers' right to healthcare and the commitment and prioritisation of the provision of funding to expand and strengthen the primary healthcare for Traveller projects. It will also address the need for the culturally safe and appropriate provision of healthcare for Travellers. HSE annual expenditure on Traveller- and Roma-specific health initiatives is in the region of €10 million, currently. Of that, €350,000 is dedicated to the provision of mental health services specifically. We all recognise that this funding must increase. The national action plan forms a basis within which that increase can be delivered. Within my own Department, we are providing additional funding to Traveller organisations for two particular services, the Traveller mediation service and the Traveller counselling service. I am aware of the really strong work that those services do on a localised basis in supporting members of their own community.

I have had the opportunity to outline progress in some areas. However, as I said at the outset, Travellers in Ireland have faced and continue to face systemic racism. There is so much more that must be done across the areas I have outlined and those outlined more broadly in the report. It is something that all of us in government, across the Oireachtas and in all elements of the State must act on and work together to address.

I am aware that the national Traveller health action plan will be published in September. However, the specific actions that are required are set out in the programme for Government. The office of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, contacted me today about the national Traveller mental health network, NTMHN. We are going to meet the Minister of State on Thursday to discuss the matter. Hopefully, that is a step in the right direction and will bring about the change requested by the national Traveller mental health network. I thank the Senators for speaking on this most important issue today. I also thank the national Traveller organisations in particular for always having my back. I would not be able to do the job I do without reaching out to the youth Traveller organisations, Traveller mental health organisations and organisations such as Pavee Point, the Irish Traveller Movement and the National Traveller Women's Forum Ireland. It is vital that we have the support of those organisations. One of my biggest fears is that those working for Traveller organisations are getting a bit tired and burnt out. It is not because of their age. It is because they have been doing this work for years and very little action has been taken.

The Minister mentioned the review of the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy, NTRIS. We must hasten that review and implement a new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy, in partnership with Travellers, that includes a robust implementation and monitoring plan. There must also be ring-fenced budgets across all of its actions, as the Minister has outlined. It is extremely important.

This week is national Traveller Pride week. Today we can celebrate Travellers as a community within Irish society. I note we are not all equal. We are different individuals, even here in this House. However, we should be given equality of opportunities within Irish society. We are different. We wanted to be recognised as an ethnic minority group within the indigenous people of this country. We eventually got that recognition in 2017, but not a lot has changed for Travellers. Unfortunately, things have got worse for our community within Irish society. The community is tired and burnt out with exhaustion from looking for action. We know the money is there. As we celebrate our Traveller Pride week, I wish every Traveller in the country a happy Traveller Pride week and to tell our young people that there is hope. We have a lot of be proud of as a community. We are still here, despite the publication of the 1963 report that was meant to destroy us. We are still here and we are still standing. We are trying to hold on to every little bit of Traveller culture we have, to embrace it and not be embarrassed about it because society tells you which way you should be within society, if you want. We have a lot of be proud of.

Unfortunately, as the Cathaoirleach said, successive Governments have not always supported the Traveller community 100%. This Government has the opportunity to put that right and to deliver a better Ireland and a more inclusive Ireland for members of the Traveller community. We are not the issue People talk about Traveller issues but we are not the issue or the problem; it is society. Unfortunately, successive Governments have not supported the Traveller community. I ask that this Government be the one to be the better change within our society and support us. We are not asking for special treatment. All we ask for is equality of opportunity. We are asking to be treated equally and with dignity, instead of having to beg for services constantly, knowing that we will die younger than our settled counterparts and that we are at a disadvantage as members of the Traveller community. It needs to end. We play an equal role within Irish society. I hope that the Government will deliver. Going back two years, the Taoiseach did the right thing in terms of breaking down the barriers. It might only be one but perhaps in a few years' time we could have more. It is a starting point and the Government has started off on a good footing. We must continue that and the only way to do that is through action. I thank the Minister for coming to the House.

Question put and agreed to.
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