It took a unique global pandemic for all of the allocated annual exchequer funding provided for Traveller accommodation to be spent, the Dáil has heard.
Labour TD Duncan Smith said the money was used last year only because Covid-19 had the greatest impact on the vulnerable, poor and those who live in the most cramped conditions.
Two years ago, 14 of the 31 local authorities had not drawn down any central funding for Traveller accommodation and in 2019 there was a 48 per cent underspend by councils, he said. The last time all of the available funding was spent was six years ago.
The Dublin Fingal TD asked if there is now real change and if politicians at national and local level “really care” about solving the crisis. He called for leadership at both national and local level to develop county development plans, identify sites with good potential and follow through with plans for culturally appropriate accommodation.
Mr Smith was speaking during a debate on Traveller accommodation in the wake of the publication of the report of the Ombudsman for Children which highlighted appalling conditions at a Cork 10-bay halting site Spring Lane which is currently home to 38 families.
The report was scathing in its criticism of Cork City Council for failing in its duty. The council was repeatedly described as passive, careless and discriminatory.
Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill warned that the Government “must implement its own strategies” and if it could not do so through its agencies and departments “we will have to look at alternative models for delivery”.
Independent TD Richard O’Donoghue went further and said “if the local authorities can’t do their job, let’s take the responsibility away from them and set up an organisation that can implement programmes”.
The Limerick county TD, referring to the 2015 Carrickmines fire in which 10 members of the Traveller community died, said “no family should have to go through that”.
Opening the debate Minister of State Peter Burke who has responsibility for the provision of Traveller accommodation said the State's response to the issue
“must be improved”.
The use of all the available funding last year was “the first time in six years that the budget was fully spent”, he said.
He had raised concerns with chief executives of the authorities where spending remained low last year and “it is accepted that more work needs to be done to increase the provision of Traveller-specific accommodation” for which €15.5 million is available this year.
The Minister said a revised caravan loan scheme will be rolled out on a pilot basis to four local authorities and since January in a long overdue increase funding available to local authorities for the management and maintenance of halting site bays has been increased by 50per cent a year for each bay.
‘Basic human right’
Mr Burke told TDs “I want children and families to have access to good-quality and sustainable accommodation as a basic human right”.
Sinn Féin TD Denise Mitchell said she was very proud to be in the Dáil when then taoiseach Enda Kenny “recognised Travellers as an ethnic minority. The objective of that recognition was to provide rights and protections that had been previously denied to Travellers but that has not happened.
“We are still failing Travellers,” and “this must change”.
Social Democrats housing spokesman Cian O’Callaghan said that 10 years ago councillors voted against a Cork City Council to rezone land to extend the chronically overcrowded Spring Lane site. Six years after the Carrickmines fire the Ombudsman’s report found in Spring Lane that “the danger of fire spread has not been addressed and that the site is grossly overcrowded”.