Seanad Éireann - Volume 155 - 14 May, 1998

Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Bill, 1998: Report and Final Stages.

An Cathaoirleach: Before we commence I remind Senators that they may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. Also, on Report Stage each amendment must be seconded. Amendment No. 1 is a Government amendment, amendment No. 4 is consequential and they shall be discussed together by agreement.

Government amendment No. 1:

In page 9, to delete lines 33 to 37 and substitute the following:

“(2) Within seven days of the date of publication of the notice under subsection (1) the relevant housing authority shall—

(a) send a copy of the notice and the draft of the accommodation programme, or the draft of the amendment to or replacement of it, to the bodies notified under section 8, and

(b) make arrangements for a copy of the notice to be displayed at such offices of the relevant housing authority to which the public have access, as the relevant housing authority consider appropriate.”.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Molloy): The purpose of this amendment is to ensure a wider display of the newspaper notices announcing either the availability of a draft programme for public inspection or the adoption of a programme. I am proposing these amendments following further consideration of the points made by Senators Walsh, Ormonde and J. Doyle at Committee Stage. While the provisions are mandatory, it is a matter for the relevant housing authority to decide to what extent a notice [762] requires to be displayed in its offices to which the public have access. Such places could include the head offices of the authority, public libraries, motor tax offices and the housing department. The effect of the amendment is to require the authority to consider the question of further public exposure of the notice in allowing the authority maximum flexibility as to how such notices are to be further publicised.

Mr. J. Doyle: I thank the Minister for accepting the principles of the amendment which I tabled on Committee Stage. The Minister has tabled it in a more refined manner in the amendments before the House today and I welcome them.

Ms Ormonde: I am also pleased this was considered and thank the Minister.

Mr. Costello: Both of the Minister's amendments in relation to the draft and adoptive programme are welcome. I welcome the fact that there should be a further display of a notice in the offices to be decided by the relevant authority.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Costello: I move amendment No. 2:

In page 9, line 46 , to delete “of such period and” and substitute “of each succeeding period of 5 years or each shorter period as the Minister may direct, and shall”.

This amendment relates to the accommodation programme and seeks that it should be prepared within that specified period of time. The first plan in the legislation must be for a five year period but what the period should be after the first plan is not specified. There must be a review after three years. In this amendment we are inserting a five year period as the norm for the preparation of a plan but it can be less than that. I am presenting this as an amendment which would tighten up the procedures as already announced.

Mr. J. Doyle: I second the amendment.

Mr. Molloy: I am happy to accept the amendment. The effect of the proposed amendment is to limit subsequent programmes to a maximum period of five years while retaining the flexibility to specify shorter periods.

Mr. Dardis: It is a good job the amendment was seconded.

Mr. Costello: I thank Senator Doyle for his prompt seconding.

Mr. Molloy: I would have seconded the amendment for the Senator.

Mr. Costello: I thank the Minister. The amendment will improve the legislation.

Amendment agreed to.

[763] An Cathaoirleach: Amendment No. 5 is consequential to amendment No. 3 and they shall be discussed together by agreement.

Mr. Costello: I move amendment No. 3:

In page 11, line 27, to delete “2” and substitute “3”.

In this amendment I propose that the manager of the relevant housing authority shall submit the draft accommodation programme not later than three, instead of two, months to the councillors so that members of the relevant housing authority will have a greater opportunity of assessing the plans. The reason we put three months there is that a plan could be prepared in the summer, but the month of August, when the councillors do not meet, could intervene and time would be short. The amendment states that it is to be submitted not later than three, rather than two, months. We hope that the Minister will accept this is a reasonable amendment.

Mr. J. Doyle: I second the amendment.

Mr. Walsh: I support amendment No. 3. It is one which we suggested here on the last occasion. While we might have opted for a longer period, I ask the Minister to accept this amendment. He might also, in advising local authorities, ask the manager to try not to keep it to the minimum. I think it will be the county managers who will just allow three months. Good county managers will allow more ample time for discussion. That is important in the process.

Mr. Molloy: Most of the Senators who spoke on Second Stage raised this issue. I am happy to accept amendment No. 3, the purpose of which is to allow more time to the members of a relevant housing authority to consider a motion for the adoption of an accommodation programme. The extended time further facilitates the members in exercising their responsibilities under the Bill.

Amendment No. 5 is a consequential amendment to ensure members have the same extended time when considering motions for the adoption of amendments to programmes or replacement programmes.

Mr. Costello: I thank the Minister for accepting the amendment. I am only disappointed that I did not table more amendments seeing that he is in such a good mood to accept them.

Amendment agreed to.

Government amendment No. 4:

In page 12, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:

“(b) make arrangements for a copy of the notice published under paragraph (a) to be displayed at such offices of the relevant housing authority to which the public have [764] access, as the relevant housing authority consider appropriate,”.

Amendment agreed to.

Government amendment No. 5:

In page 13, line 9, to delete “6” and substitute “7”.

Amendment agreed to.

Bill, as amended, received for final consideration.

Question proposed: “That the Bill do now pass.”

Mr. Walsh: I support the passing of the Bill. While Senator Costello said it was a pity he did not table more amendments, I think the Minister is aware that some of us on this side of the House would like to have been in a position to table amendments on matters about which we are concerned. I, like many of my colleagues on this side of the House, have strong reservations about sections 22 and, in particular, 31. On section 22 we were seeking to have the involvement of the settled community in areas where there are travelling facilities, and I would have liked to have seen that in the Bill. There has been some controversy in the past few days when an intemperate remark, with which obviously none of us would agree, was made by a member of the Western Health Board. We would strongly disagree with it. Unfortunately, in the rush to be politically correct sometimes one may loose sight of the causes of such exasperating comments. It may well be swallowed in a hail of condemnation, but the genuine concerns of people who suffer the difficulties, where either halting sites or housing estates for travellers are not properly and effectively managed, represent a huge opposition to the situation.

I would like to have seen section 31 made much stronger by being mandatory rather than discretionary. It is a little aspirational. The local authority may decide to remove or not to remove unauthorised caravans. We may not see an improvement in that area. Badly managed facilities, which give rise to huge numbers of complaints, and unauthorised indiscriminately placed camping sites, particularly where adjacent to existing facilities, create widespread public opposition. They are the main difficulties in tackling what the Minister is justifiably trying to do — to provide accommodation for those in need and those who are obviously living in appalling conditions. This should be and is a priority.

I hope our concerns and reservations are misplaced and that the Minister and the Department are correct. If so, I look forward to publicly acknowledging that in the future. Equally, I would like to think that if it turns out that our reservations have some validity, the Bill might be revisited in the future.

[765] Ms Keogh: I welcome the passing of this Bill. I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House and ensuring there was consensus on some of the elements where he accepted amendments which had been tabled, albeit in a slightly different form.

What is important and what comes through in this Bill is that we have a coherent nationwide policy on the housing of travellers which is implemented. I take the valid points raised by Senator Walsh, but what is important is that there is co-operation on both sides from both the travellers and residents and that there is as much consultation as possible. At the end of the day members of local authorities must take on board their responsibilities. Unfortunately, the Bill has had to provide that where local authority members do not do so, the manager must do it for them. I hope it never comes to that. I look forward to having the traveller accommodation difficulties settled once and for all under the aegis of this Bill.

Mr. J. Doyle: I welcome the Bill. On Second Stage I said that I was frightened by some research I conducted on the disparity between the health of the settled and travelling communities. Much of this arises from the travelling community's poor accommodation and I hope this Bill will provide necessary accommodation for them.

I want to make a passing reference to an organisation, a meeting of which I attended last Friday, called Pavee, which trains travellers in health care and accommodation with the Eastern Health Board. It has been a great success. I hope that spreads across the country and encourages the travellers to take a greater interest in their affairs.

If this Bill is to be successful, it will take courageous decisions by the members of local authorities. I hope they will not be found wanting in making these decisions.

Ms Ormonde: I thank the Minister and his staff for being so patient with us, and particularly with me. I had many informal discussions with them leading up to the introduction of the Bill to the House.

I, too, had reservations and perhaps I am still a little concerned about areas of it. Senator Walsh referred to them in terms of sections 22 and 31. However, section 22 is where the local consultation aspect was missing, that is from the settled community's point of view. I see now that in section 8 we may be able to overcome the problem. Each local authority and the local residents' association can enter into dialogue when the plan is being launched. Perhaps that is a way of overcoming the problem of not having a settled person in the consultation group.

It is most important that we bring the settled community along with us. In the past it was not informed, it was always on the outside, told where a site would be located. There was no consultation process. If we get a balanced approach [766] from the beginning, it is possible that the Bill will work.

I am also concerned about section 31 on the basis that if there are no sites, the travellers cannot be moved on. That is the dilemma for the settled community, that the travellers will still be left on the side of the road. The weakness is there. I hope that this will fall into line in time and that the Bill will come into effect immediately.

I thank the Minister of State for being so patient with us and I hope we can all work together to improve relations between travellers and the settled community. This was a worthwhile debate and I appreciate the concerns of the Department's officials. If I have a problem with South Dublin County Council I will contact the staff again to question every aspect of this legislation and I hope I will get the same attention I received during this debate.

Mr. Costello: I agree with what has already been said in relation to the vexed issue of traveller accommodation in drawing up and implementing suitable programmes and by providing us with a consultative capacity both on a national basis in terms of the consultative councils, the national traveller consultative accommodations councils and the local traveller accommodation consultative committees. I hope these joint layers of democracy in terms of decision-making will lead to a more successful drawing up and implementation of programmes.

In relation to section 20, I thought the national consultative committee would consist of a member of the health board. I am not sure whether the Minister's nominees would make provision for that because the health board is also an accommodation agency as well as dealing with welfare matters, etc.

In conclusion, I believe the Bill is excellent. It is now up to us as representatives, and many of us are also local representatives, to make difficult decisions using this framework. I congratulate the Minister for providing the framework.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Molloy): In response to Senator Costello's remarks about health boards on Second Stage, we are dealing with accommodation needs of travellers. I have already mentioned that the travelling community has many other needs such as education, health, etc. but we are dealing specifically with accommodation.

On Committee Stage I undertook to look again at issues raised by Senators. Other issues were raised and I did not examine them but I gave a satisfactory reason for not doing anything about them. Among the matters I said I would look at again were: the display of the newspaper notices; the question of putting an upper limit of five years on the duration of subsequent accommodation programmes; the insertion of a provision in relation to back-up and support services, [767] particularly social workers, for implementation of programmes; increase in the period of two months allowed to members to consider the adoption of a programme under section 12, and the question of representation by the settled community on local traveller accommodation consultative committees.

I have proposed amendments or I have accepted Senators' amendments on three of those five issues. The following is the position regarding the remaining two that I did not bring forward amendments on in regard to the staff resources and the back-up support for social workers. There is already in existence a comprehensive legislative code under the Local Government Acts relating to responsibilities and powers of local authorities for the appointment of staff and the allocation of resources for the implementation of functions assigned to them. Briefly the position is that the allocation of staffing resources is a matter for the manager of the local authority concerned. There is no need therefore to include separate or additional staffing, or resource provisions in this Bill. Any such provision would be an unnecessary duplication of existing provisions under the Local Government Acts. Financial assistance is available from my Department in respect of the employment of social workers at the rate of 90 per cent of the costs recovered and caretakers employed by local authorities at 75 per cent of the costs. Recoupment of the costs of any additional staff recruited to implement local programmes would have to be considered in the light of the funds available at the time of such application.

I have looked again at the question of representation by the settled community on local consultative committees which was raised by Senator Costello but I do not propose to make any changes to the composition of such committees as set out in the Bill. I understand the point that Senators are making — that there is need for consultation and dialogue with local communities on how an accommodation programme could impact on such communities. However, the extension of membership of the local committee is not the most appropriate, effective or practical way of doing this.

The composition of the local committees takes account of several considerations: the particular focus of the committees on improving relations and understanding between local authorities, that is, members and officials and travellers; the fact that much of the work of the committees will involve consideration of detailed or sensitive matters of direct concern to travellers only — for example, family circumstances and the assessment of their accommodation needs; the design of proposals to meet those needs and the development of partnership arrangements with the housing authority for the management of such accommodation; the need to maintain an appropriate balance between the constituent groups to facilitate active participation by travellers in a [768] forum or in a role with which they may not be very familiar.

Travellers have on occasion decided not to attend consultative committees which had been established by local authorities on a non-statutory basis because they felt they were being overwhelmed by the number of people with opposing views to themselves and the committee. Therefore, it is necessary to strike a balance in order for consultation to work between the people represented on the local consultative committee.

Further considerations are: the role of the committees, which is consultative in nature with decision-making remaining the responsibility of the housing authorities; the need to keep membership to manageable levels; the difficulties inherent in seeking to identify representatives of the settled community, other than the elected representatives which would present major problems; and the provision which has been made for public consultation in relation to the accommodation programme under the Bill and in relation to halting site developments which are now subject to the normal planning requirements which apply to local authority developments in their own functional areas. I have announced that the exemption that exists under part 10 has been removed.

It is considered that the members of housing authorities who will form part of the membership of these committees are in the best position to represent the views of the wider community on these committees. Once membership is opened to local community groups, it will be very difficult to contain the numbers to a manageable level. Any area not represented will feel aggrieved. Even if all resident groups are represented it will be difficult to resist requests for representation by other groups, including charitable and welfare groups and other statutory authorities. Very quickly the representation becomes unbalanced and unmanageable. We want to ensure that travellers are happy to participate in these consultative committees.

Senator Ormonde has pointed out that there is already a provision under section 8 of the Bill for the giving of prior notice of the preparation of a programme to such bodies as the relevant housing authority consider appropriate. Prior notice could therefore be given to local community or residents groups if the authority wished to involve such groups in the preparation process. Once notified under section 8, the body must be included at other stages of the process — for example, under section 9 a copy of the draft programme must be sent to a body notified under section 8; and under section 12 such a body must be given a copy of the draft programme which has been submitted for consideration and adoption by the members of the authority.

Housing authorities have wide powers to take public consultation and information initiatives which they consider appropriate to their functional area and it is not necessary to provide for this specifically in legislation. The format of such [769] arrangements is entirely a matter for housing authorities to develop and could range from a series of public local areas meetings, or short-term or ad hoc broad based committees for the specific purpose of conducting consultation with the public on the accommodation issue, or broad based consultative or co-ordinating committees in relation to a range of services, including accommodation, to be provided by the statutory authorities and other bodies in respect of travellers.

A number of authorities have experience of broadly representative committees in respect of the provision of traveller accommodation with varying degrees of success. I intend to cover the need for consultation with and the participation of the public generally in the circular letters to be issued to housing authorities regarding implementation of the provisions of the Bill when it is passed by the House. I will monitor closely the experiences of the authorities which have engaged in such exercises to date and draw on those experiences in framing my advice and guidance.

On Committee Stage I stated I would not return with an amendment in respect of the question of distances. The existing limit of five miles is regarded by the courts as a reasonable provision. I am advised that any extension of this limit must have regard to a test of reasonableness and should be linked to the circumstances set out in paragraph (b) of section 31, having regard to the principles of natural justice. Due to existing pressures on halting site accommodation, the number of vacancies at any one time is only a fraction of the number of families seeking bays on these sites. In these circumstances the courts have questioned the rationale of moving travellers when no alternative accommodation is available. The acceleration of the rate at which accommodation is provided — which is the main purpose of the Bill — is the key to eliminating unauthorised encampments. Based on advice from and consultation with the Attorney General, I did not believe it would be wise to accept suggestions in respect of the distances which only relates to specific cases as set out in section 31.

I am pleased by the reception the Bill received from Senators. I thank those who participated in the debate for their support for the general approach of this policy initiative which came about as a result of an initiative taken by my predecessor and which has the full support of the Government. The initiative also has broad cross-party support in both Houses which augurs well for the success of the Bill and that of the Government's plan to implement the main recommendations of the Task Force on the Travelling Community.

The provision of accommodation is my responsibility. I hope to take the necessary measures to advance the provision of accommodation for traveller families living at the roadside as quickly as possible because no one wants to see that continuing. Substantial sums of money have been committed by the Government to [770] implement and accelerate an accommodation programme. The method of consultation, which will be put in place if the Bill is passed by the other House and enacted, will greatly assist in removing unnecessary fears in the minds of members of the settled community in respect of the location and operation of traveller facilities. Much of the concern relating to this issue arises from the fact that many families remain in unauthorised locations and illegal encampments which do not have proper facilities, look very unattractive and are a danger to the people living in them. No one wants to tolerate a continuance of that situation.

I anticipate broad support from local authority members throughout the country for the Government's objective and I know they will utilise the substantial funds being made available to facilitate the construction of facilities. I hope the traveller community will seek and accept more traditional housing accommodation instead of that provided on halting sites. I would prefer children to be reared in normal, dry, well built and comfortable houses than in caravans, particularly in light of prevailing weather conditions. I do not believe caravans are attractive or suitable accommodation for children. However, some members of the traveller community have a preference for using halting site accommodation which could be described as a staging or halfway house. I hope those living on halting sites and in tighíns will seek to move into more comfortable sized houses to accommodate what are traditionally much larger families than the norm.

I thank Senators for their contributions and their amendments. I look forward to working with all public representatives in the implementation of the legislation and the achievement of the Government's objective to provide proper accommodation for all traveller families.

Question put and agreed to.