Check against delivery
30 March 2017
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter, to put aside some mis-conceptions about the system known as direct provision and to listen to and hear the views of colleagues from across the political spectrum on the current system.
Ceann Comhairle, I would like to set out the context for the establishment of the direct provision system.
Services for all protection applicants (those in State provided accommodation or those who live in the community) are delivered under the Government policies of direct provision and dispersal. This policy was established in 2000 when the then Health Boards, who were responsible for homeless persons, found themselves unable to cope with a very large influx of persons into Ireland who were claiming asylum.
In May of 2000 some 1,500 persons in the protection process were being provided with accommodation and full board by the Government. Twelve months later that number had grown to 4,200 and by May 2005 it had grown to 7,200. As of the middle of March this year some 4,500 were living in State provided accommodation and of those, 77% have been there for three years or less – this is an issue to which I will return later in my comments on this matter.
I believe that it is important we are all clear on our understanding of what exactly is meant by the direct provision system. The direct provision system is the system whereby State services are delivered directly to protection applicants through the relevant Government Department or Agency – for example the Department of Education & Skills delivers education services through the established school system; the HSE delivers medical services through the established GP and hospital systems.
In the case of the Department of Justice & Equality, full board accommodation is offered to residents while their application for protection is being processed. Not every person who seeks international protection in Ireland choses to accept the offer of full board accommodation and of course many choose to live with colleagues, family or friends in communities across the country, as they are entitled to do.
Direct provision is not about detention, it is not about disregarding human rights, it is not about treating those in the protection process any differently than those in the wider community. Since it was established in 2000 some 60,000 persons have been provided with full board accommodation by the State. Equally they have been provided with full access to the State’s medical and education services.
Last evening over 4,000 persons were provided with accommodation and full board by the State. If the State was not providing this service where would these people have stayed? How would they have been provided with medical and health care? How would the children be linked in with pre-school, primary and post primary education?
Previous debate which has played out here in these Houses and in the media has often focused on a call to end the Direct provision system. I have yet to hear anyone say what they would replace it with. Cash? Vouchers? Already vulnerable people whom we are responsible for protecting would join the lengthy waiting lists for social housing or enter the private rental market with little hope of finding affordable and secure accommodation. The offer of State provided accommodation is a guarantee that every person who walks into the International Protection Office today will tonight have a bed, food, a shower and medical care. They will not be forced to spend the night on the streets or to look for emergency housing. This is not something to be thrown away blindly without care for its replacement, particularly at a time of housing crisis.
Of course no system is without room for improvement and our job is to continually enhance and develop the entire system so that the best possible set of facilities and services can be provided to those in our care. To that end, the Government commissioned retired Judge Dr. Bryan McMahon to Chair a Working Group to carry out a report into the protection process and the system of direct provision and that report was published in June of 2015.
The report forms the basis for ongoing improvements across the entirety of the system involving all relevant Government Departments and Agencies.
The Programme for a Partnership Government (May 2016) states that “Long durations in direct provision are acknowledged to have a negative impact on family life. We are therefore committed to reforming the Direct Provision system, with particular focus on families and children.”
On 23rd February 2017, we published the latest audit of the implementation of the recommendations contained in that report which shows that some 121 of the recommendations are now implemented, with a further 38 recommendations partially implemented or in progress. In total, 92% of the 173 recommendations are implemented, partially implemented or in progress, a significant increase on the figure of 80% we reported on last June.
The Department is implementing a large number of commitments contained in the Programme for a Partnership Government within two broad themes. The first of these is by way of reforming legislation with the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 on 31 December 2016.
A key feature of this new legislation is the introduction of a new single application procedure which will, in time, significantly accelerate the protection determination process and by extension will reduce the length of time which applicants spend in State provided accommodation.
The new processing arrangements will determine certainty of status at an earlier stage for those entitled to international protection within the State. The Act is intended to achieve the desired balance between treating asylum seekers with humanity and respect and ensuring more efficient immigration procedures and safeguards.
Under the regime that existed up to the commencement of this Act, the protection process had four discrete steps: a refugee status determination at first instance; a refugee status determination on appeal; a subsidiary protection determination at first instance; and a subsidiary protection determination on appeal. Members will appreciate that given the multi-layered protection system which existed up to 30 December, 2016, those refused asylum at first instance but still pending in the protection process could be pending at asylum appeal stage, pending at first instance subsidiary protection stage, pending at subsidiary protection appeal stage or be challenging an asylum/subsidiary protection determination in the courts through the medium of judicial review proceedings. The process could therefore be and very often was of considerable length.
Figures prepared for consideration by the Working Group to Report to Government on Improvements to the Protection Process, including Direct Provision and other supports for Asylum Seekers, in 2015, showed that there were some 2,695 persons in State provided accommodation for three or more years at that time. Recent analysis has shown that this figure has now been reduced to just over 1,200 persons.
The number of persons in State provided accommodation for five years or more has been reduced to less than 600 persons.
Our analysis has also shown that practically all cases of persons living in State provided accommodation for over five years that could be processed have now been processed. The remaining approximately 250 cases have been reviewed and cannot be processed for a number of reasons – including applicants judicially reviewing earlier decisions. This was a major achievement and has impacted directly on the lives of a large number of persons in the protection and related systems.
The single procedure will speed up the processing of claims and the clear ambition here is that the day of applicants residing for very lengthy periods in Direct Provision will be over. People have quite rightly for many years sought an end to the sometimes lengthy multi-sequential determination process. The new process is addressing those very issues; it is in the interest of everyone – not least the applicants themselves – that all protection applications are dealt with speedily efficiently and in accordance with the highest international standards.
The second major theme of improvements is in the area of the delivery of services overseen by the Reception & Integration Agency of the Department of Justice and Equality and other Government Departments and agencies. The Reception and Integration Agency oversees the provision of full board accommodation for protection applicants while they await a decision on their claim for international protection.
Following from the McMahon report and, in particular, since the publication of the Programme for a Partnership Government, a number of recommendations in relation to physical improvements to accommodation are being rolled out. The following are some examples:
· The introduction of full independent living at the Mosney Accommodation centre - each family is now able to acquire fresh food to their liking so they may prepare meals themselves. The new home cooking arrangements in Mosney went live on 23rd January 2017.
· The installation of residents’ kitchens in a number of accommodation centres to provide for home cooking by residents and their families;
· Cooking facilities are being rolled out to other centres including the State owned centres (Killarney, Tralee, Athlone, Knocklisheen in Limerick and Kinsale Road in Cork) and in Ballyhaunis, Milstreet, St Patrick’s in Monaghan and any other centres in which families are resident.
· A complete refurbishment consisting of triple glazed windows and doors and refurbished interiors in each accommodation unit at the Athlone Accommodation Centre;
· Improvements to a number of outdoor playgrounds and football pitches to provide for ‘all-weather’ facilities.
· Teenagers rooms in centres to provide social areas for this age group
Recommendations of the McMahon report that involve structural changes or improvements will be implemented as quickly as possible, with due consideration of possible fire safety, building regulation and planning issues.
The Department has also co-ordinated the preparation of a multi-departmental information booklet for persons who have been granted any type of ‘leave to remain’ in the State. The booklet contains practical and useful information for residents across housing, finances, healthcare, education as well as TV licences, public transport and other related matters and has been prepared with the assistance of the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) to ensure that it is presented in Plain English. The booklet has been translated into a number of languages
In addition to the publication of the booklet, a number of NGOs have been awarded monies under the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) specifically to provide assistance to persons who have been granted protection and who are now in a position to move out of State provided accommodation. At the end of December 2016, there were approximately 450 persons with some form of status continuing to reside in State provided accommodation. Notwithstanding the current housing crisis, we are working with the NGO community and residents alike to ensure that those with permission to remain in the State are assisted in finding mainstream accommodation as soon as possible and that state provided accommodation remains available for those in most need.
In January 2016 the Minister for Social Protection increased the rate of allowance paid to children in State provided accommodation from €9.60 per week to €15.60 per week.
In recent years the Minister for Education and Skills introduced a scheme to provide supports in line with the current Student Grant Scheme to school leavers who are in the protection system and who meet the eligibility criteria.
Another key recommendation of the McMahon report was that the remit of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children should be extended to cover those who are living in State provided accommodation. This has now been implemented and both offices will begin to accept complaints with effect from Monday 3rd April 2017.
As can be seen from the foregoing, significant improvements have either been implemented or are being implemented across all aspects of the system of supports for those in the protection process.
Ceann Comhairle, this work will continue through the remainder of 2017 and beyond. Our intention is to ensure that the best possible service is provided to those seeking protection by way of a speedy, effective and efficient decision making process combined with a system that meets the basic needs of persons in that process.
I would also like to take this opportunity to say that I would welcome applications from groups or organisations with proposals to provide, run and manage accommodation centres in response to the current call for expressions of interest published recently by the Department.
Since taking office I have visited many of the accommodation centres under contract to the Department. I know that in recent times other members of this House have also visited accommodation centres in a discreet and respectful manner without fanfare and publicity. I will continue to have an open approach to any colleagues who wish to do so in the future.
I have spoken with residents and representatives of residents. I have listened to their concerns and I am working on addressing their concerns. This work will focus on improving processing times and improving the facilities available to all those in our care.
In conclusion let me assure the House that the work we are currently engaged upon will improve the processing time for applications for international protection and the accommodation and facilities being provided by the State for those in the protection process.
I look forward to hearing the views of members on this matter and I can assure all members that their views will be carefully considered as we continue to improve and enhance the full range of services being provided to those in the protection system.