23. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality her plans to ensure that asylum seekers here will not face another Christmas in the direct provision system that has been described as a severe violation of human rights; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40438/16]
Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality (Deputy David Stanton): Persons who arrive in Ireland seeking international protection are offered shelter and accommodation in State provided accommodation to meet their immediate needs. This includes mainstream access to health, education and social protection services. While the operation of this system is kept under continual review, there are no plans to replace it with any other system at present. I am satisfied that this system is in compliance with human rights obligations placed on the State by domestic and international law. The State provided accommodation system is one of the central features of the State's asylum system. I am also satisfied that the treatment of asylum seekers in this country is at least on a par with any other country and that the State provided accommodation system delivers a high standard of service and value for money to the taxpayer through coordinated service delivery to asylum seekers.
The principal issue with Direct Provision is of course the length of time asylum applicants are residing in it - invariably as a result of the multi-layered processes arising from the Refugee Act which will shortly be replaced when the new International Protection Act comes into force.
It is worth noting that no person in the protection process is left without services or shelter at Christmas time or indeed at any other time.
This is a system which facilitates the State in providing the essential and necessary accommodation and related services to all in the protection process who require it and which has provided accommodation to more than 56,000 people since its establishment. It allows the State to provide such accommodation in a manner that facilitates resources being used in the most economic means possible while also delivering services (such as education and health) directly to those within the system. That is not to say that there is not room for improvement. The focus of my Department is not to end the State provided accommodation system which would leave protection applicants without the safety net of a comprehensive reception system but instead to improve and adjust the system to ensure it continues to respect the dignity of those who reside within it. Having said that, I do not want to see any person residing in State provided accommodation for any longer than is necessary and significant efforts have been made by my Department in this regard.
The Report of the Working Group on Improvements to the protection process including Direct Provision and Supports to Asylum Seekers provides a template for the development and improvement of a wide range of services being delivered to those seeking international protection.
One of the key recommendations of the Report was the introduction of a single application procedure in the protection process. The International Protection Act 2015, which will be commenced on 31 December 2016, provides for such a procedure. My Department is currently preparing all of the steps necessary to commence the Act which responds to some 26 of the Working Group’s recommendations and can be expected to positively address the crucial issue of the length of time that applicants spend in the protection process and by extension in State provided accommodation.
On this particular point, significant efforts have been made to deal with those who are longest in the system and at this stage the vast majority of those who are over 5 years in the system and who do not have any impediments to progress, such as pending judicial challenges, have now had their cases processed to completion. This has been a key achievement that has had a real impact on many people and families in the protection process.
A transition Task Force was established in 2015 and put in place important supports to facilitate people with status moving into and integrating with the community. The Task Force reported that 87% of people granted status had moved into the wider community within six months.
Tangible progress in improving the daily lives of asylum seekers living in State provided accommodation while their application is being processed is also being made. In January last, the former Tánaiste announced an increase to the Direct Provision Allowance for children, the first such increase since the introduction of the payment some sixteen years ago. Prescription fees for all those in receipt of the Direct Provision allowance, including children, have also been waived. The Minister for Education and Skills has also announced a second year of their pilot support scheme for students in the protection system for the academic year 2016/2017.
The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) of my Department, which is responsible for the management and administration of accommodation and ancillary services to protection applicants in State provided accommodation, is actively progressing the implementation of other recommendations in the Report around access to cooking facilities and the increase in living space for those who avail of State provided accommodation. Pilot projects are being established and undertaken in a number of centres to realise these objectives and ensuring that those residing in the State provided accommodation continue to be treated with respect and dignity.
RIA are also working on the development of standards for the provision and maintenance of services in accommodation centres, enhancing the complaints mechanisms for residents of those centres and the provision of ongoing diversity and equality training and awareness programmes across all centres.