The need for the Minister for Justice, Defence and Equality to consider implementing an Oireachtas members' visiting programme to direct provision centres so that Oireachtas members can visit the centres without prior notice on production of relevant identification material.

Senator Martin Conway

Response

I am responding here today on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter T.D.

The first point to be made is that every request to date made by relevant Oireachtas Committees or groupings to visit direct provision centres has been granted. The proposer of this motion was himself part of a delegation which visited centres in Galway in October and I don’t think that anyone would have cause for complaint in the way these visits have been facilitated.

But what is being asked for here is markedly different to what has been facilitated up to now. This adjournment motion is suggesting that it should be possible for any member of the Oireachtas to have unrestricted access to any one of the 34 asylum accommodation centres currently under contract to RIA.

The Minister is conscious of the need to balance the right sought in this adjournment motion with the rights of residents and the need for proper management of the centres. The Minister does not see what benefit would arise from such unrestricted access. On the contrary, he believes that it would simply not be appropriate for a number of reasons, not least the rights of those asylum seekers resident in these centres to their privacy and to the obligations placed on the service providers.

This motion does not adequately consider the fact that these are privately run centres, operating under contract to RIA. Those contracts provide for unannounced visits in circumstances where these are both necessary and appropriate. An example of such a circumstance would be where access to the centre in needed by RIA officials and by private independent inspectors under contract to RIA for the purpose of carrying out inspections. And, of course, all centres are equally subject to unannounced inspections by other Government bodies. For example, Environmental Health Officers and Fire Safety inspectors have a right to inspect RIA accommodation centres without notice. In other words, access of the kind the Senator is now suggesting for members of this House can only be granted to persons qualified to carry out inspections of one sort or another, or in discharging statutory functions in relation to premises. It’s worth noting that the Minister has previously stated that all completed inspections carried out in RIA centres after 1 October, 2013 will be published on RIA’s website – www.ria.gov.ie

I would also make the point that, of necessity, unannounced visits of this type would have to take account of RIA’s child protection policies which require, inter alia, the need for prior vetting. These rules and procedures would have to be disregarded if what is sought in this motion is to be acceded to. This is particularly the case if, in the scenario envisaged in the motion, the Oireachtas member sought to be accompanied by other interested parties, such as the media or NGO’s,

Of course, these centres are publicly funded but so are many other facilities for which access rights to Oireachtas members of the type envisaged by this motion would never be sought or contemplated. We must remember that these centres are people’s homes. Their privacy has to be respected

Finally, I want to make the point that direct provision centres accommodate people of many differing races, religions, ethnic groups and political persuasion. It is a long standing policy of RIA that such centres must operate in the same way as any Public Service facility. That is to say, a centre must be a politically neutral environment, free from any party political associations. To that end, there is a long standing instruction from RIA to centres that party political leaflets, posters or circulars are not to be displayed or circulated and that, while asylum seekers are free to communicate with political representatives, canvassing is not allowed in centres by political representatives of any party.

Whilst the Minister has no doubt as to the bona fides behind what is proposed in this adjournment motion, he cannot see how acceding to it would be consistent with the proper management of these centres or with the rights of the residents. To conclude, the Minister is happy to deal with requests for visits in the same way as they have been to date and will continue to seek to facilitate any requests that are made to him consistent with the need to meet other demands on RIA and on individual centres.

ENDS