23rd January 2018, 18:05
‘Motion to Opt Into the EU (recast) Reception Conditions Directive (2013/33/EU)’
Ceann Comhairle, Deputies,
I am pleased this evening to present the Government’s proposal that the State opts into the EU (recast) Reception Conditions Directive under the terms of Protocol 21, annexed to the EU Treaties. Last Wednesday, the opt-in proposal was broadly welcomed by the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. The Motion was subsequently passed by Seanad Éireann earlier today. If your approval is granted, the formal notification letter will be sent to the European Council and the European Commission immediately thereafter to begin the four month compliance procedure with the Commission. I should point out that this four month period is mandated by the EU Treaties.
The migration crisis and, indeed asylum, has been in the headlines here and around the world for a number of years now. For this reason, I wish to take this opportunity to clarify some issues.
The Government has made a strong commitment to playing its part in addressing the refugee crisis arising from the protracted conflict in Syria. Deputies will be aware of our voluntary opt-in to the EU resettlement and relocation programmes, which will see 4,000 people coming to Ireland to begin a new life here and of the commendable work of our Naval Service who has come to the aid of those fleeing conflict as they perilously cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. We have made a very significant contribution to the international humanitarian aid directed towards victims of the Syrian conflict through partner NGOs and international organisations.
It is important to clarify any potential misunderstanding that may arise in respect of those fleeing conflict in Syria:
- those who come to Ireland from conflict zones under our resettlement programme arrive with refugee status.
- Those who have come from Greece under the EU Relocation Programme will have their status determined quickly – usually within three months.
In both cases those coming to Ireland under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme will already have full access to the labour market.
Separately, based on the current situation, those who come to Ireland of their own volition and make an application for international protection upon arrival generally come from different regions. Currently, Georgia, Albania, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Nigeria constitute the top five countries of origin of applicants for international protection who present spontaneously at our frontiers and enter the international protection applicant process. Each application is, of course, considered on its own merits.
The Supreme Court gave its judgment in the N.V.H. case on 30 May last, and having given the matter detailed consideration the Government chose to interpret this decision in a broad way, reflecting . the calls from Deputies and Senators, the McMahon group and NGOs that Ireland should align its bespoke system with European norms and standards. In opting into the EU (recast) Reception Conditions Directive, the Government has chosen to be ambitious and to enhance and protect the rights of international protection applicants and their families. We are using the opportunity afforded to us by the Supreme Court decision to continue our programme of reforms undertaken since 2014.
In addition to labour market access, the Directive also includes important provisions in relation to children’s rights, including for unaccompanied minors, healthcare and education provision. Participation in the Directive will place the provision of material reception conditions for applicants, which are currently provided for under the executive system of Direct Provision, on a statutory basis, underpinned by EU law, for the first time.
The State already has a functioning employment permits system for Third Country Nationals, which we must be careful not to undermine. Nor must we take any action, which would be detrimental to our legal migration system. The Court’s judgment acknowledges the role of the Executive and Legislature in setting these parameters. Once the State’s participation in the Directive is confirmed, I intend to provide for access for eligible applicants by way of an immigration permission, which would exempt applicants from the employment permits system and the associated fee. In determining the list of sectors of employment to which access will be granted, regard will be had to the skill set of applicants and to labour market gaps as well as to the expert advice of frontline Departments.
For our immigration and protection systems to function, my Department has a responsibility to take account of unintended consequences, for example, we wish to maintain the Common Travel Area in the aftermath of Brexit. We want to maintain an invisible border on this island. We therefore need to ensure that our approach to the Directive is broadly consistent with that of our nearest neighbours.
I am pleased to confirm to Deputies that the Government has agreed that eligible applicants will also have access to self-employment and eligible applicants may now qualify for further vocational training, which was previously unattainable.
Ceann Comhairle, you will have seen some coverage of the decision taken by the Government earlier today with regard to interim arrangements. The House will be aware that a number of steps need to be taken to reach the point where the Directive can be implemented; this includes of course the passing of motions by both Houses of the Oireachtas and a four month period set down by the EU Treaties for the Commission to consider our capacity for compliance with the Directive.
It is a source of regret that the relevant provision of the International Protection Act 2015 will be struck down on 9 February 2018 before we will are in a position to operate the Directive.
As a result, I have had to bring forward proposals for interim arrangements which will apply from 9 February until the entry into force of the Directive – I expect this process to be completed by June. This morning the Government approved my proposals for interim arrangements whereby applicants can access the workforce in two ways. The first entry point under the temporary solution is equal to other third country nationals – this is not a new scheme but gives access to the existing employment permits system of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation in the sectors where the employment permit scheme applies. In addition, I have decided to use my discretionary powers to introduce a temporary administrative scheme during this period to allow for access to self-employment for eligible applicants. I want a smooth and efficient transition once the Directive becomes operable in Ireland and for this reason, the proposed temporary scheme will apply to applicants who are 9 months or more without a first instance decision and will broadly mirror the legislative access provisions to be put in place for access to self-employment once the State opts into the EU (recast) Reception Conditions Directive A targeted information campaign will be launched shortly to ensure that applicants, NGOs, employers and all other relevant stakeholders are fully informed in advance of the access rights and entitlements, which will apply from 9 February under the temporary arrangements and I would invite Members of this House to assist in getting the word out about the Directive and how it will operate and the difference it can make to applicants’ lives here. . I know all Deputies wish to see continued improvements to Direct Provision and the Directive provides an EU approved framework for this to happen.
My colleague, Minister Stanton works intensively in this area on a daily basis. He and I are committed to ensuring that our protection process is fit for purpose and that applicants are treated humanely and with dignity while their application is being decided. I am conscious that the uncertainty many applicants face in waiting for a decision on their applications is a great source of anxiety and concern. Therefore, we also aim to reduce the caseload on hand as quickly as possible and get to the point where a first instance decision is issued within 9 months for the vast majority of applicants. I hope that Deputies will look favourably on the proposed opt-in and the benefits which it would quickly bring to applicants and their families. As I’ve said the interim measures announced today are temporary in nature and I want to get to the point where the Directive is enforced here as quickly as possible. I wish to also confirm that Government has decided to review the operation of the Directive here after twelve months to ensure that it is being effectively implemented.
I thank Deputies for their contributions this evening.