Government-led Forum Needed to Protect Travellers Rights

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Government-led Forum Needed to Protect Travellers Rights

One year on from the Human Rights Commission investigation into Travellers’ Accommodation not enough has been done by public authorities to improve the lives of Travellers in Northern Ireland. This is the findings of a twelve month progress report published by the Commission today.

Chief Commissioner Les Allamby commented:

“Twelve months on from the Commission’s report into Travellers’ accommodation progress has been mixed. Significant progress has been made on a number of fronts. Nonetheless, much more is needed to be done collectively by public authorities to bring Travellers’ accommodation in line with human rights standards. We welcome the active participation of the housing associations, government departments, public authorities, Traveller support groups and Travellers themselves in the Travellers’ Accommodation Forum set up by the Commission.

The Commission will continue to support an interim Forum until a wider Travellers’ forum is set up through The Executive Office, under its Racial Equality Strategy. This interim Forum will continue to focus on the delivery and maintenance of quality and culturally adequate Travellers’ accommodation in Northern Ireland. The practical implementation of issues such as design guides for Travellers sites, model site licence conditions and Travellers accommodation needs assessments through to their completion will be ultimate litmus test of seeing a sea change in providing effective provision. Whilst the lack of an Executive is a cause of many of our recommendations not being implemented, today’s report highlights that it is not an excuse for many others. Our fear remains that without a sharp and continuing focus on the issue public authorities will again leave Travellers ‘out of sight, out of mind’. We cannot afford for that to occur once more.”

The report identifies positive steps this year by public authorities which include:

NI Housing Executive has agreed to the inclusion of accommodation options specific to Travellers within the Housing Solutions and Support application form.

The Housing Executive have confirmed that to date no evictions have taken place from any Travellers’ site in NI Housing Executive ownership.

All local Councils are now active members of the NI Local Government Partnership on Travellers Issues.

Department for Communities have published a draft updated design guide for Travellers’ sites. The existing design guide is over 20 years old.

Department for Infrastructure is consulting on an updated Model Conditions for site licences, covering minimum standards of safety requirements and provision. The existing Model Conditions are also over 20 years old.

The Travellers accommodation needs assessment is now being undertaken with a view to publishing the details of what provision is needed to meet Travellers’ needs.

The report identifies gaps that still need to addressed, these include:

The lack of sufficient sites to meet Travellers’ needs remains outstanding. Sites designed as transit sites have become permanent sites by default. The Commission recognises that the provision of sites is complex. Ultimate responsibility lies with the N.I Executive, with the support of other public authorities. There is a need to ensure that Travellers needs assessments are comprehensive and the results implemented.

Significant amounts of Housing Benefit is paid to private landlords providing sub-standard caravans and other accommodation to Travellers, with no legislative provision for the NI Housing Executive to either provide caravans themselves or exert a connection between the quality of housing and the money paid out. No NI Executive to examine the case for legal reform on this issue.

In the absence of a NI Executive measures have not been taken to propose an amendment of the Race Relations (NI) Order 1997, Article 67, to extend the duty contained within to all public authorities. This duty requires appropriate arrangements to be made to by public authorities to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity, and good relations, between persons of different racial groups.

Notes to editors

1. Read the Human Rights Commission’s full 12 month progress report on the Commission’s website. In the 12 months after the initial investigation report was launched, the Commission established a Forum and has continued to engage with relevant public authorities, Travellers, and Traveller support groups to resolve the issues identified in the investigation report.

2. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission published its investigation into Travellers’ accommodation in March 2018. It was the first major report on the subject in Northern Ireland for almost a decade. Read the full report here.

The initial report by the Commission in March 18 identified 13 systemic issues these included:

Inadequacy of Travellers’ Sites

Some Travellers’ sites are inadequate in the provision of standard services and facilities (electricity, water, heating, drainage, sanitation, waste disposal). This is particularly true of Travellers’ sites intended as transient in nature, but that are operating as permanent sites in practice. The lack of effective management of Travellers’ sites exacerbates these problems.

Legal Framework

Domestic laws and policies regarding Travellers’ accommodation in NI largely satisfy human rights requirements. However, the existence of the Unauthorised Encampments (NI) Order 2005 has a disproportionate impact on the Traveller communities and threatens their nomadic culture.

Racial Discrimination

There is evidence that Travellers have been subject to discriminatory behaviours and attitudes from public authorities and the settled community. This emerges through actions, but also through inaction and general inertia regarding Travellers’ issues. Negative public opinions and bias towards Travellers also impacts negatively on Travellers, in particular concerning planning applications.

Provision of Traveller-specific Accommodation

There is insufficient culturally adequate Travellers’ accommodation available. In particular, the NI Housing Executive is failing to provide sufficient adequate Travellers’ sites. Its actions and inaction suggest a preference for developing and maintaining bricks and mortar accommodation, over Travellers’ sites.

Resource Availability

While the NI Housing Executive maintains it is satisfied with the resources available to it for developing and maintaining Traveller-specific accommodation, the existing accommodation is insufficient to the need. In addition, spend per pitch has been reducing on an annual basis.

Resource and Policy Accountability

The Department for Communities allocates funding to the NI Housing Executive, but there is no robust mechanism in place for the Department to monitor how funding is allocated to Travellers’ accommodation and what outcomes are being achieved.

Participation

Efforts to ensure the participation of Travellers in decision-making processes regarding accommodation by public authorities are ineffective and inadequate. There is a lack of emphasis on supporting Traveller advocates. There is also a heavy burden placed on Traveller support groups by public authorities, in terms of the roles they are expected to fulfil. These groups are also under-resourced for both their contracted role and remuneration for the additional uncontracted assistance sought by public authorities.

3. Who are Travellers?

For the purposes of the investigation and the progress report, ‘Traveller’ is used as an umbrella term for any member of a traditional Gypsy or Traveller community living in or travelling through NI with a long-shared history, culture and traditions that includes identifying with or continuing to practice a nomadic way of life.

4. Statistics- Lack of data

Irish Travellers are a minority native to the island of Ireland and according to the 2011 census represent 0.07 percent (i.e. 1,267 individuals) of the population in NI. This may be an under-representation in that there are members of other Gypsy and Traveller communities (such as Romany Gypsy and Gypsies or Travellers from England, Scotland or Wales) that live in or travel through NI, but official statistics are lacking. The NI Housing Executive recorded that between 2002 and 2014, the wider Traveller population in NI fluctuated between 1,228 and 1,486. The All-Ireland Traveller Health Survey in 2010 concluded, based on its own statistical research that at least 3,905 Travellers resided in NI.

5. Travellers Sites in Northern Ireland

At the time of initial investigation, The NI Housing Executive identified 81 Travellers’ pitches across NI, plus three additional pitches that could be made available if required. However, nine of the pitches identified by the NI Housing Executive were not available for occupancy in March 2017. The six pitches at Greenbrae were closed for renovations in August 2016 and the three transit pitches at Glen Road Heights were closed and replaced by nine serviced pitches in March 2017. The initial investigation noted that in March 2017, 72 available pitches across the seven sites, 40 pitches (56 percent) were occupied. There is no definitive figure for the number of individuals this represents. Evidence suggests that existing Travellers’ sites are insufficient. The NI Housing Executive had development plans in place for 2015-2018 to increase Travellers’ site provision in NI. The evidence from the initial investigation suggested there was a requirement for more Travellers’ sites, than those identified in the development plans. These are one serviced site (Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area) and five transit sites (one in Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council area; two in Belfast City Council area; one in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council area [Banbridge specifically]; one in Newry, Mourne and Down District Council [Newry specifically])

6. What is Travellers Accommodation?

For the purposes of this investigation and the progress report, ‘Travellers’ accommodation’ is any form of housing inhabited by members of the Traveller communities. This working definition includes grouped housing; Travellers’ sites (serviced, serviced/transit, transit, emergency halting, co-operated and unauthorised); standard social housing; and private rented properties.

7. Who is responsible?

The provision and regulation of social housing in Northern Ireland and the regulation of private housing is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, ultimate responsibility lies with the Northern Ireland Executive. Implementing human rights laws and standards relevant to Travellers’ accommodation is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and relevant public authorities.

8. Human Rights Law and Standards

The main United Nations human rights treaty that relates to Travellers’ accommodation is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), particularly Article 11, the right to an adequate standard of living. Broadly defined, the right to adequate housing is “the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity”.

9. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is an independent statutory body first proposed in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement (1998) and established in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Act (1998). It is answerable to Parliament at Westminster.


01 Jul 2019