Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Ceisteanna (31)

Eoin Ó Broin

Ceist:

31. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the status of the appointment of a special expert group to review the legislation on Traveller accommodation. [26818/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

As the Minister of State responsible knows, it has been one year since the publication of the review of funding for Traveller-specific accommodation and the implementation of Traveller accommodation programmes. I acknowledge the very significant amount of work the Minister of State has been doing since the publication of the review to try to establish the expert group to work out how to tackle the very serious deficiencies. I refer, in particular, to deficiencies in the local government system which is failing Travellers and Traveller communities in meeting their accommodation needs. Will the Minister of State update us on that work?

In line with the commitment in Rebuilding Ireland, in 2017 the Housing Agency commissioned an independent expert review of funding for Traveller-specific accommodation.  The review had regard to targets contained in the local authority Traveller accommodation programmes, actual delivery, the current status of accommodation funded and funding provided for accommodation maintenance and other supports. 

Following its consideration of the review which showed that more than 3,000 units which the Government had hoped would be delivered had not been, the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee, NTACC, agreed to the establishment of an expert group to examine and make recommendations on issues regarding Traveller accommodation policy, strategy and implementation.  The committee recently submitted to me the proposed terms of reference for the expert group.  It is correct to say there has been a long delay in this process, with which I am unhappy. However, we have engaged with the committee to get it moving and there has been some progress in the past couple of months. It is my intention to establish the group as soon as possible, with a view to it concluding its work within a short timeframe. 

The expert group will consult relevant stakeholders at local and national level, including Traveller representative organisations and other stakeholder groups represented on the NTACC and local Traveller accommodation consultative committees.  Such consultation will include an invitation for written submissions and a series of national and regional workshops. My Department will consider recommendations made by the expert group to improve the delivery of Traveller accommodation nationally and ensure full use is made of the increasing level of funding available for this purpose, which is €12 million this year.

I hope the expert group can be appointed in the next couple of days. We have been in contact with the people who have been nominated and selected through a process who will I hope all say "yes." If they do not, we will move to the next choices, but I hope we will have an answer this week and be able to get moving. It has taken far too long, but it is important that we move as quickly as we possibly can. I compliment the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on the work it will do in conjunction with the expert panel to track its work and work with it. This House, taxpayers and the Department are playing their part by increasing the budget, but we have to make sure the money will be spent. That is the key issue in the context of the review.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. One of the startling figures from the report published last year, a report commissioned by the Department and the Housing Agency, was that, as the Traveller accommodation programmes progressed from 2000 to 2018, the incidence in meeting their targets fell. From 2000 to 2004, they hit about 90% of their targets. In the period from 2014 to 2018, that figure had dropped to 39%. The Minister of State is correct to say funding has been increased for Traveller accommodation programmes, albeit far too modestly. However, the tragedy is that none of the additional funding has been spent by the local authorities. Last year was the worst year on record in terms of drawdown. There was a 45% underspend, which essentially means that all of the additional funds allocated since the Government was formed remain unspent. The problem is very clear. Local councillors and county managers are, in many cases, refusing to provide land or make provision for Part 8 developments. They are refusing to draw down the money. The announcement of the group needs to be made as a matter of urgency. The Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government wants to play its part. We want to support the Minister of State and the expert group. However, we will need to see radical changes to ensure the money which the Minister of State is increasing, albeit again modestly, will be drawn down to ensure the systemic discrimination against Travellers in the housing system, as made clear earlier this year by the Irish Council for Social Housing, is brought to an end.

I certainly agree with the Deputy that our ambition, as a Department, and certainly mine as Minister of State and that of the Minister is to have the money spent. It is very hard for us to argue for increased funding for Traveller-specific accommodation if it is not spent. Last year less than €4.5 million out of a total budget of €9 million was spent. We are engaging with various people before the expert panel is formed. We are engaging with the local authorities and all other stakeholders to try to have the money spent this year. I visit a lot of sites and see no reason we cannot progress work on them. We are certainly making the Department available to work on solutions and projects. The money is available and we want to see it being spent. I have made it very clear to all stakeholders that it is there to be spent and should be spent and that there is no reason we cannot move on projects. The issue sometimes is the Part 8 planning process or with local managers or authority members. I refer also to stakeholders' ambitions. In some cases, I visit sites and the ambitions are not realistic. To be fair, last year's report on the Traveller accommodation programme recommended greater consultation with all stakeholders to work out solutions. The issue is not always just on one side. Part of the overall process of engagement involves encouraging stakeholders to have realistic ambitions. Again, in the case of some of the sites I have visited, I see no reason we cannot get people into a room to form agreements. However, it does not happen and the money is left to one side. There is a lack of focus. I will certainly be open to considering any suggestion the expert panel may bring forward. I hope it will complete its work quite quickly. I am conscious that its members are not going to be paid a lot of money to do it, but we want their advice and expert suggestions which we will implement.

I urge all Members of the House, including the Minister of State, to read the report of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission on inequality and discrimination in the housing system which was published this week. It confirms again, as did the Department's own report commissioned last year, that there is systemic discrimination against Travellers in the housing system. There is also a responsibility on the political leadership. In that regard, I again acknowledge the good work of the Minister of State. However, it is not just a matter for him or some of us on the Opposition benches. All Deputies need to stand up and be counted to ensure that when the issue of Traveller accommodation is being discussed in their constituencies, they do not turn a blind eye to county managers or councillors who are playing politics, with the result that Travellers are denied access to quality accommodation. I am a strong advocate of giving extra powers to local authorities and would be loath to see powers being taken away from them.

However, where a local authority has a track record of refusing to provide land or Part 8 planning or refusing to draw down the funding, then I believe we need to consider, perhaps on a temporary basis, removing that power from the authority and conferring it elsewhere or applying financial sanctions.

Like everyone else, those in the Traveller community deserve equal access and equal rights to housing. I wish to acknowledge the work of the Minister in this regard. Those of us on the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government are committed to working with the Minister to ensure we get this right. If the expert group comes up with good recommendations, those of us in this House can do a good day's work by ensuring that, whatever legislative changes we make, the money will be spent and Travellers get the housing they need.

Those of us in the House at the moment who are focused on this area have an ambition for this money to be spent. There is responsibility on all stakeholders, including Deputies, councillors, Senators, local managers and local authority staff as well as local communities and local Traveller groups. We need to work on this together. The Traveller accommodation programme review points out various difficult areas – it is not limited to one side. I urge anyone who wishes to see progress to work with us to get progress.

We are trying to get this year's allocation spent along with potential changes recommended by the expert group. However, people have to recognise their responsibilities across the board and across the system. That means changes for all sides if we are to get this money spent. I have seen some accommodation that is absolutely not acceptable for these times. Regardless of what party a person is from or what ambitions that person has, it is important that we get this money spent. I hope that we can work with people who are solution-focused. I see people who are objecting or delaying accommodation solutions for different reasons and that is not acceptable either. I appeal to people not to play politics with this in the years ahead because there is a duty on all of us to deliver accommodation. Let us be clear: there is difficulty in some cases with spending on the social housing budget. It does not only apply to Traveller-specific accommodation. We have difficulty in general with social housing projects. We are trying to bring in new design and quality measures to ensure we bring forward top class projects that will be more acceptable to communities. All of us have to play our part.