Report of Task Force on Travelling Community: Statements (Resumed).

Wednesday, 24 April 1996

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 464 No. 4

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Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Wexford): I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community. It is the first time since I came to this House that we [857] have had an opportunity to debate and put on record our views on how the travelling and settled communities should work together in future.

There has been much discussion, particularly in the last week or ten days, about the travelling community. Councillor Paddy Kenneally's comments certainly caused a storm in Waterford and I do not agree with his sentiments. I am glad that he has withdrawn the remarks and apologised for making them.

However, it is hard to take the hypocrisy and double-speak we have had to listen to and read from newspaper editors and certain sections of our society. Not many newspaper editors or others who criticised Councillor Kenneally's comments have halting sites or travelling people living close to their homes. Last year I was involved in an area where travellers were sited. Certain sections, including local newspaper owners, were to the forefront in having them shifted and moved on. Some tough decisions were taken and the travellers were not made welcome.

In recent weeks some people in my own town of Enniscorthy were critical of statements made by Councillor Kenneally, yet a year ago the same people were marching to oppose a halting site or houses for travellers there. This type of double-speak and hypocrisy makes me sick, as I am sure it does other Members. The usual attitude of people is to be sympathetic to the travelling community as long as they are in someone else's back yard.

I worked for a period as a Minister of State in the Department of the Environment where I was involved with the Minister of State, Deputy Stagg, in trying to make funds available for halting sites and other accommodation for travellers. In Enniscorthy a unique pilot scheme of houses has just been completed for travelling families who have now moved in. This type of scheme should be considered by the Department of the Environment around the country.

I am not in favour of halting sites, they are not the real answer. However, [858] the type of housing scheme devised by Wexford County Council, in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, has proved successful. There was a major demand and 22 travelling families applied for the eight houses. As a result many were disappointed and are now making representations to me and other politicians in the county to develop a similar scheme adjacent to Enniscorthy.

I come from a county which some people describe as the home of the travelling family. There has been a tradition for many years in Wexford — some people say it goes back to the battle at Vinegar Hill in 1798 — that travelling families parked at the bottom of Vinegar Hill. About 20 people have been rehoused in that area by the county council and 29 have purchased their own houses. There has been substantial rehousing of travelling families in the Enniscorthy area in recent years. Although some difficulties have arisen down the years, Wexford County Council, Enniscorthy Urban District Council and, more important, the local community must be complimented on accepting the integration of travelling families into the community. Local communities and travelling families must be encouraged to work together so that those families become part of the community.

For too long it has been left to the Department of the Environment and local authorities to deal with the lack of accommodation and facilities for travellers. The Departments of Health and Education, two of the most important areas of administration dealing with welfare and development, have a distinct lack of interest in the plight of the travelling people. The health problems faced by travellers are enormous. The Department of Health and the eight regional health boards have shown a could-not-care-less attitude towards the health status of women and children of travelling families. Given the deplorable conditions in which many travelling families live, in many cases in unofficial halting sites, it is not surprising that the [859] health status of travellers is well below the national average. Infant mortality is three times higher among travellers than for the majority of the population and life expectancy is much lower. On average traveller women live 12 years less than women in the settled community and traveller men live ten years less than men in the settled community.

The Department of Health, and the health boards, have a major role in developing and encouraging better health facilities for traveller families. I am glad that many recommendations have been made in the task force report in this regard. I hope the Minister will put those on top of his agenda in encouraging traveller families to become more health conscious and realise the importance of attending doctors and hospitals and looking after their health and welfare.

The education of travellers must be seriously considered. In recent years many primary schools have changed their attitude towards children of traveller families and accept them in schools. A number of schools in my county, particularly the board of management of St. Senan's school in Enniscorthy and the principal of that school, Henry Goff, have been to the forefront in encouraging the children of traveller families to attend school. They provided worthwhile facilities and proper back-up services. In towns and urban areas where traveller families congregate it is important that adequate school facilities be provided.

The number of children from traveller families attending primary school is reasonably high, although not high enough, but the number attending second level schools is very low. It is important that as legislators, in conjunction with the Department of Education, we tackle this problem. Unique measures may be needed to encourage these children to attend second level schools. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Taylor, will consider the question of equality for all children in terms of pursuing second level education. Much [860] work with traveller families will be necessary to encourage parents to consider the advantages of their children attending second level schools. I hope a system will be devised to give leadership and encouragement to traveller families to become actively involved in second level education, which is law on the list of priorities for traveller families.

The failure of children from traveller families to attend second level schools leads to high levels of unemployment among those families. Many of those people make their own way in life and have their own self-employment schemes, which are worthwhile. They sell carpets, clothing and so on — usually the children become involved in that work at a young age — but they depend very much on the whim of people to purchase such items and, therefore, it is difficult to make a living.

Many travellers are in receipt of social welfare. In the past month in particular social welfare officers have been investigating travellers in Wexford who are in receipt of social welfare. Seven members of the travelling community attended a clinic I held in Gorey last Friday week to complain that their social welfare payments had been cut off because they could not prove how they were able to purchase their vans or cars. It appears there has been a clamp down on the payment of social welfare to traveller families. In some cases the Department may be justified in cutting off social welfare, but many of the people I am talking about do not have new vans or cars and withdrawal of their social welfare benefit is uncalled for. That issue must be dealt with in a balanced and sensitive way and we must not be seen to take action against people because they are travellers.

Local authorities have had to carry the can in dealing with the problems of traveller families, with little support from Government Departments. It is not good enough to simply build halting sites and hard stands, and leave travellers to the ways of God. Halting sites and hard stands are acceptable as a short-term measure, but I would favour [861] the building of houses for traveller families, as was done in Enniscorthy. Traveller families must be encouraged to integrate in society and become involved with local community groups and sporting organisations and avail of social services provided by the Departments of Health and Education. For that reason I would like the Minister to consider setting up traveller and community partnership committees in each county which would set about providing accommodation and facilities for travellers. These partnership committees would be made up of traveller representatives, local community groups, local authority members and officials as well as representatives from the State agencies. I am convinced that through dialogue travellers and the settled community could come together.

The days are long gone when county managers located halting sites in parishes without consultation with local people. That approach will not work. The rights of the traveller community and the settled community must be protected in a partnership arrangement to resolve the existing problems. Major problems arise when councils announce that a halting site or a hard stand is to be located in a particular county. Such announcements are usually greeted with uproar and it can take two or three years for the issue to be resolved. In many cases, politicians bow to pressure and the halting site or hard stand is not built which results in traveller families being abandoned on the roadside while the row continues as to where to locate them. Community partnership committees would be in a position to address the problem and decide on the placement of sites, and the facilities to be provided, while allowing the travellers and the settled community have their say.

I am aware of cases where halting sites were developed without reference to the traveller families involved. Traveller families have their own culture and traditional halting areas and to move them from those areas to, say, a country back road six or seven miles away will [862] not resolve this problem in the long-term because, as frequently happens, the families leave that location and go elsewhere creating further problems.

The only way to resolve this problem is through dialogue involving the local authorities, the local community groups and the travellers. Perhaps I am being naive but I believe most communities are of the view that we should make an effort to resolve the problems that currently exist for travellers. It is not good enough to allow travellers remain on the roadside without basic water, sewerage, health and educational facilities to which they are entitled.

In Wexford, 199 traveller families were recorded in 1994 and 231 in 1995, and increase of 32 families in one year. The only site provided is the eight house site in Enniscorthy with a recommendation from the manager that four new halt stands should be built in the next year or 18 months adjacent to the four major towns in the country. If that plan goes ahead, we will be well on the way towards helping to resolve the lack of accommodation problems faced by traveller families, but if a row erupts over the location of these halt stands, which may happen in the next six or nine months, we may have up to 260 or 270 families in the county this time next year, and we will not have made any progress.

I welcome the report of the task force. I ask the Minister to ensure the issue does not fade into the background when this debate has concluded but that there is further movement on it. The Department of the Environment must be to the forefront on this matter but the Departments of Health and Education should support the Department of the Environment in resolving this problem.

Mr. Finucane: Information on Michael Finucane  Zoom on Michael Finucane  I propose to share my time with Deputy Theresa Ahearn. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate because we have a large traveller population in Limerick. I pay tribute to the chairperson of the task force, Senator Mary Kelly, who is based [863] in my home town of Newcastle West, for her work and that of the committee in producing this report.

There are a large number of recommendations in the original task force report and a great deal of action will have to be taken in the coming years if we are to resolve this problem. In the Newcastle West electoral area, which I represent at council level, we have housed more than 60 traveller families. In my own town of Newcastle West, which is not very large, we have housed approximately 40 traveller families.

The projection has been made that over a period 3,100 additional units will have to be constructed. An examination of the location of the traveller population reveals it is restricted to certain counties. Some counties bear a disproportionate burden in regard to housing travellers. The greatest satisfaction to any traveller family is to be allocated a house, but many reports highlight the importance of travellers retaining their culture and past traditions.

It must be remembered when travellers are housed in housing estates, the settled community in those estates equally have rights. Travellers on occasions are their own worst enemy. They provoke hostility among the settled community with regard to retaining what they believe are their cultural rights. A problem which frequently annoys people living in housing estates arises when traveller families bring their horses onto the green areas of estates used by children for play activities. I do not have a problem with travellers keeping their horses on rented land but I am critical of travellers who keep their horses on estates, upsetting an entire community. My experience of this problem is that fear sets in and children are afraid to play in the green areas originally designed for such activities. This provokes a hostile reaction from the settled population. That is not good for the traveller community.

Local authorities have a major responsibility in this regard. When they allocate a local authority house, they [864] allow tenants the right to keep a dog or cat, according to the tenancy agreement, but tenants should not have the right to keep a horse at the back of the house. In that regard I welcome the proposed Control and Regulation of Horses Bill, due to come before the House in the near future, which will introduce a sense of order to a problem which often impacts on the traveller community as a result of the attitude of the settled population to horses wandering around estates.

Mr. Taylor: Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor  Some people keep tigers these days.

Mr. Finucane: Information on Michael Finucane  Zoom on Michael Finucane  That is a different matter. We will not bring in a wildlife Bill yet. I make this argument constructively as we have housed approximately 40 traveller families in Newcastle West, and if every community adopted a similar approach, we would not have a traveller problem.

There is another problem which provokes a certain adverse reaction. Rathkeale is one community which has a high preponderance of the travelling population. That community has accepted many of those travelling families who have been there for generations and have integrated into the community. There is another group who create problems not alone for people in Rathkeale but for people in other parts of the country, those who decide they want a travelling lifestyle. Such people often arrive in Rathkeale at Christmas time in BMWs and Volvos and flaunt the wealth which they have gained in England and elsewhere. I wish them the best of luck, they deserve to come home. In this case we are not talking about deprived travellers but people who have acquired a certain amount of money. In Rathkeale there are many good houses which are boarded up with wire grills and which are in use at certain times of the year. It is obvious that travellers have acquired a certain wealth if they have the scope to build houses.

[865] Every politician will find members of the travelling community at his or her clinic and will have to advise them on various issues. Many of these are responsible, honourable people who are being brought down by a small core group. Rathkeale was profiled in the national newspapers recently. Details were given of a travelling family who had been housed but decided to take up residence outside the new graveyard. Several attempts by the county council to remove their caravan and other caravans were resisted by the people involved. This provoked much annoyance at local level, particularly among people who had members of their families buried in that graveyard. This is the type of issue which can undo the goodwill which may exist and turn the settled population in the other direction.

Essentially, it comes down to the whole education process. The report indicates that at least 80 per cent of the travelling population between 12 and 15 years of age have dropped out of the education system. There is a problem with illiteracy in the travelling community, particularly among the older members. We must retain the young people in the education process. There are many useful recommendations in the task force report. Over a period it will help develop a stronger bond between what is traditionally regarded as the settled community and the non-settled community. The recommendations in the report are welcome but much work remains to be done.

While there may be a necessity for halting sites for people who decide they want to travel, the best possible hope of integration into the community is when they are housed by the local authority. I have witnessed many successes in that direction by Limerick County Council. I compliment Limerick County Council, the officials and the social workers for their effort in trying to ensure the travelling population is integrated. Much good work has been done but much remains to be done. I was interested to hear Deputy Browne say that where there is a large travelling population. [866] there is a necessity for some partnership or organisation to liaise with the travelling population and the local community to ensure harmony and a stronger bond of friendship. If we have that we will, over a period, help to integrate them into the community. I compliment the Minister on her efforts on behalf of the travelling community.

Mrs. T. Ahearn: Information on Theresa Ahearn  Zoom on Theresa Ahearn  I am pleased to have the opportunity, following the publication of the task force report, to speak on an important minority group in our community — the travelling community. As the travelling community do not have a platform to voice their concerns, it is important that a report such as this brings the entire matter onto the floor of this House where the concerns and needs of that community should be debated.

I compliment the members of the task force, the Minister of State, Deputy Liz McManus, and Senator Mary Kelly on producing an impressive and wide ranging report. The report has dealt seriously and in depth with every aspect of the travelling community. While we are debating the problems and the needs of the travelling community we are speaking about a national problem, but the solution has to be local and therein lies the problem.

Those of us who are members of local authorities are aware of the intensity, and emotion of the debate in trying to find either a halting site or a house for members of the travelling community. That is not because public representatives are uncaring, we work under enormous pressure from the settled community in relation to issues such as this. I have learned from experience that the worst thing any local authority can do is to have the item “halting sites or accommodation for travelling people” on the agenda to be debated in committee. The tendency is for everyone to clear themselves and put the blame on someone else. I will never participate in a debate on halting sites or on housing for the travelling community in committee.

[867] Whatever we have to say we should say it publicly and let it be on the record.

I am proud of the contribution and the efforts of my local authority in South Tipperary in trying to provide better accommodation, better resources and better support for the travelling community. We have provided halting sites and have done our best to spread them evenly throughout all the electoral areas. As most people will accept, one is dictated to by where they tend to take up residence. We have also provided good education programmes but like most local authorities we have not solved the entire problem.

At a recent local authority meeting, a social worker gave us a profile of all the members of the travelling community. We must never forget we are dealing with disadvantaged people who have a life expectancy some 20 years less than most people. The various illnesses we suffer are nothing compared to those suffered by the travelling community. They also suffer the disadvantage of lack of education, lack of ability and confidence to speak out for their rights. We cannot but be sympathetic to their situation when the reality of their health and living conditions is firmly placed before us. The approach of the settled community must be one of co-operation with the travelling community. We are lacking some forum of information, co-operation and communication between the two groups. There is simply none. The settled community either make up their minds about travellers from their experience of travellers residing beside them or from what they read in the newspapers. No effort is made to change the approach or outlook of either side and, like all communities, the traveller community is tarnished by the reputation of a small number of people. Travellers generally take up residence on land to which they have no entitlement and the lack of proper sanitation or refuse services causes problems for the settled community. We expect travellers to keep their halting sites tidy but we must bear in mind that they do not [868] have proper facilities. However, I know of a case where the settled community encountered major difficulties because of poor behaviour by travellers who were not concerned with the rights of farmers or landowners and had total disregard for property. It is unfair that such unfortunate incidents lead to resentment of and hostility towards all travellers. I also know travellers who have been placed in houses or halting sites which are a credit to them. We must bear in mind that all travellers are not the same.

When talking about the traveller community we must ensure we are referring to travellers and not transient traders, of which my constituency takes an overflow from Rathkeale. There is great resentment towards transient traders who take up residence wherever they wish and travel around in 1996 vans selling gates, rugs, carpets and other merchandise. They also cause major problems for the settled community and give genuine travellers a bad public image. While something must be done about those self-styled transient traders, it is difficult to know where the power lies to deal with them. Local authorities refer reports about them to the Garda, but nobody appears to have the right to tell them to return to their place of residence. Unfortunately, transient traders are often confused with the traveller community.

We must respect the culture and tradition of the traveller community who frequently want to live in groups. While many people are prepared to accept one or two families living beside them, they are not prepared to accept six or seven. However, it is traditional for the traveller community to move in groups and many of them are not prepared to accept housing unless five or six families are housed together. That aspect of their culture is an obstacle to making better progress in providing accommodation for them.

I welcome the report and look forward to the day when travellers have accommodation which is suited to their needs, culture and way of life. The [869] report will lead to more harmonious relations between the settled and traveller communities. Travellers are a disadvantaged minority group but we have a duty to cater for them. Although it will be difficult to make progress in this area brave decisions must be made. Responsibilities come with rights and it will be necessary to alert the traveller community to their responsibilities. We must respect each other's way of life. I look forward to a positive outcome from this report.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  I congratulate the chairperson of the task force, Senator Kelly, and its members for their great work. I also congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy McManus, who is a former chairperson.

The report of the task force on the travelling community is substantial, comprehensive and far reaching in its recommendations and proposals and this has been recognised by all Members who contributed to the debate. It sets out the key policy issues that are relevant to travellers, including the need for accommodation, better health services, improved education and training and inclusion in work and economic activity generally. It also addresses the difficult relationships which can develop between travellers and the settled community and tackles the key issues of discrimination, the role of traveller women and the importance of their ancient and special culture. The report will be valuable to anyone interested in this area.

I compliment those who work with the traveller community. The report recognises the great work that has been done. Dublin Corporation and Dublin County Council have tackled the problems associated with the traveller community, but that does not mean I am satisfied with the progress that has been made. However, it is only fair to recognise the great work, which requires patience and perseverance, that is being done by corporations, county councils, health boards and social and voluntary workers throughout the country.

This valuable study was presented to [870] the public at Dublin Castle in July 1995. Nine months later it has been presented to the Dáil and has come before the House for discussion. Concluding his speech the Minister, Deputy Taylor, said the task force report presented us with an opportunity which we must not miss. For my part I will do all in my power to ensure that it gets the support it deserves. The Minister is sincere and genuine and his intentions are good but, after nine months on the shelf, where is the Government's action plan to implement the report? While I detect a strong commitment in the Minister's language, we will have to await the decisions of other Ministers. The Ministers for Health, Education, the Environment and Enterprise and Employment should be here today with plans already approved and agreed by Government and ready for implementation. The task force surveyed the whole area and gave us everything we want in terms of back-up information. This should have been followed immediately by an action plan.

The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Deputy McManus, outlined her commitment yesterday. The Ministers for Health and Education are deeply involved. The Minister indicated that the Government is committed to strengthening health and educational services. He said the Department of Health undertook to implement a special programme to address the health needs of the traveller community and will publish a policy on travellers' health. One of the recommendations is that a traveller health advisory committee be set up, one of the functions of which will be to draw up a policy on travellers' health. The Minister spoke also about a consultative process, the issue of life expectancy and other problems. These problems are well documented already. They were documented before the task force report. They are re-emphasised in the task force report. What we need now is an action plan, not the generalised promises the Department of Health seems to be making.

[871] The same kind of thing is happening with regard to education. There is reference to a White Paper, to traveller children of primary age being enrolled and participating fully in primary education and other good things that we would all support. Many of these things are already happening, but where they are happening they are not getting the support they need. That is the problem. It would not be difficult to say today that we will take certain actions, that where schools have integrated traveller children, we will ensure that those schools get the support they need. I am familiar with one case where the population of travellers integrated into the primary schools is 11 per cent.

What used to be called the three Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic, are very important. The school I have referred to has received remedial assistance for English following many representations from local Dáil Deputies on behalf of a school which badly needed support. There is information to show that the level of understanding in maths is very low and this school is also in need of a remedial maths teacher, but the school has not got such a teacher. Wearing my national and academic hat I can say this is a wonderful report, but when I go back home I face the reality on the ground where there are wonderful communities integrating young children from the traveller community in a substantial way into their schools and not getting the support and the back-up. I am disappointed with the lack of action. We are not talking about millions of pounds, just thousands, perhaps £100,000 or £200,000. We do not have that, and that is what is wrong with the debate on this report. We have had similar experiences in other areas. Deputy Chris Flood dealt extensively with the issue of the health and educational training of travellers, because they are key issues if we are to solve problems and give support to those who are attempting to solve them. Deputy John Browne of Wexford had similar problems.

[872] I wonder what has happened to the Government. Has it lost its drive and energy? Is it getting tired? Why is there no action? We are told that money and resources are not the problem. If that is true, why not get on with the job? What we need now is the money and the honest commitment to do what needs to be done. We need a comprehensive action plan based on this nine-month old task force report and the knowledge and experience of the travellers and those who work with and support them.

The Minister tells us that because the actions needed are the responsibility of a number of Government Departments he has set up an interdepartmental working group of officials to consider implementation of the report. That is fine, but we need action. Perhaps the Government is waiting for the Opposition to come up with plans. We have all the reports we need, but the Government is about executive action. The people at the coalface need our support, and we should give it to them without further delay.

Regarding relationships with the settled community, the task force states that in addition to initiatives and actions taken by the various statutory agencies, one factor which is fundamental to the improvement of the general welfare of the traveller community is the issue of the relationship between travellers and their settled neighbours. Unfortunately it is recognised by the task force that, in general, that relationship is encountering great difficulties. This is often characterised by instances of hostility and aggression. It also concludes that the actions by some travellers are responsible for some of the hostility to them in the settled local community. The task force emphasised that the process of relationship building is a two-way process. Both travellers and the settled community have a contribution to make to that process, particularly at local level. The task force examines ways of facilitating the improvement of these relations and attempting to reduce conflict and strengthen mutual respect [873] and understanding — they see this coming out in what they call a strategy for reconciliation. It is a sad fact that most of us have prejudices of one sort or another. These are often based on a lack of information, misunderstandings or simple ignorance, but we have to try to overcome them. This can often be done by meeting people face to face.

Debate adjourned.

Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.

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