Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 25 September 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Direct Provision: Discussion with Ombudsman
The purpose of today's meeting is to meet with the Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall, to discuss his examination and findings in his update for 2018 on the direct provision system and his commentary piece that predated it, namely, The Ombudsman and Direct Provision: The Story so Far. The Ombudsman is joined by Mr. Sean Garvey, principal officer, and Mr. Paul Mallen, assistant principal officer, who are both attached to his office. They are all very welcome here this morning to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. I will shortly invite Mr. Tyndall to make his opening statement.
Before I do that, I remind members and witnesses to please turn off their mobile phones. I must also address the issue of privilege. I draw the attention of witnesses to this matter. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
All members should be aware that under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Mr. Tyndall to make his opening statement.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
Thank you, Chairman, for the opportunity to meet with the committee today. Members received the written statement in advance and I will not read it out. If I may, I wish to draw attention to a couple of points. The first one is that, as the committee is aware, we have taken the view that people in direct provision are in a very vulnerable situation. They may be suspicious of authority and English may not be their first language so asking them to complain in the conventional way to the Ombudsman by filling in a form online, for instance, may not be the most appropriate way. We have had a series of visits. Initially those visits were to direct provision centres and those visits continue. They are led by Mr. Garvey and Mr. Mallen, along with other colleagues in the office. I myself visit centres from time to time as part of that programme of visits. This year, the main change in characteristics to which I will draw attention is that in the established centres there has been a notable improvement in morale as a consequence of the right to work and access to shopping and cooking facilities. It had a notable effect on the centres, in particular when one visits them successively and can note the change. However, the other major change we have seen has been the use of emergency accommodation. Having reached a point where there is some improvement in the direct provision itself, within the emergency accommodation a lot of major issues are arising. We work as an office primarily on the basis, initially, of attempting to resolve complaints. Our main interest is in finding a solution for individuals rather than necessarily going on to produce written reports about each individual complaint. The use therefore of the summary of our work for the year, the digest, which the committee has had an opportunity to see, is an important way for us of making sure that any learning from the cases that result is not lost.
I will repeat general observations that I have made in the past, which will not come as any surprise to the committee. As a short-term provision, direct provision is fine. It is not ideal, but if people are coming into the country and need somewhere to stay briefly while their needs are being assessed, then it functions reasonably well in that capacity. The difficulty arises with the length of time people are having to spend in direct provision, for two reasons which are well known to the committee. The first is the lack of access to affordable housing. There are large numbers of people within the system who have the right to remain in Ireland but who are unable to satisfy their housing needs. That, in turn, has meant that many more people are in emergency accommodation. That is the principal issue.
For instance, there are unrelated adults living four to a room for many years at a time. That is not an acceptable situation and we continue to see that as part of our visits. Our dealings with the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, and the Department of Justice and Equality have been positive and when we have tried to resolve issues, then they too work with us on trying to resolve them. When we come to it, I might talk about some of the issues we have been faced with such as access to GP services, and access to a personal public service number, PPSN, for individuals in emergency accommodation. We might pick that point as we go through. The situation is that there is improved morale in the settled centres, and a clear deterioration because of the use of many emergency centres.
Let me make a final remark. I have visited some of the centres which have been the subject of controversy prior to their opening. Last week I was in Lisdoonvarna. Earlier I was in Wicklow. It is important to note in the context of the current controversy that many of the supposed outcomes of opening a centre in terms of integration of residents and community, the attitudes of communities have not transpired and it seems to me that those centres operate in a reasonably settled way. That is just an observation. We will probably see more of the centres. We along with the Ombudsman for Children, are the only independent public body regularly visiting the centres, so that has probably given us a fairly wide perspective on the work that is going on.
I thank Mr. Tyndall. Before I open up the debate to members, Mr. Tyndall is probably aware that we ourselves have addressed this issue in some considerable detail in the period up to the summer recess. We had a series of four public hearings and we also visited two centres, one that we felt would indicate a better experience for people and one we felt might be indicative of where less than the best circumstances prevailed.
We are in the final stages of the preparation of our own draft report and we look forward to presenting a copy of it to Mr. Tyndall.
The first member to indicate is Deputy Jim O'Callaghan. If other colleagues would like to indicate, I will take the names.
I thank Mr. Tyndall and his colleagues for coming before the committee. I think their involvement in the direct provision process since April 2017 has helped it. I found the two reports prepared by the Ombudsman very helpful. I am pleased that the Ombudsman is satisfied with the level of co-operation he is getting from the Department of Justice and Equality. We all agree and in fairness to the committee, we know quite a lot about direct provision from the work we have done and obviously if people were staying in these centres for a short period, there would not be an issue with them to a large extent. I suppose the problem is the length of time that people are spending there.
In his report the Ombudsman states that the average length of time for a decision to be made in the asylum process is around 16 months. Is there anything he can recommend that would speed up that process, or what is his assessment as to what is taking that length of time?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
One of the things I have made clear in the report is that that issue is not within my jurisdiction. My colleagues across Europe, almost without exception, have jurisdiction over the whole of the process and then are able to deal with any maladministration that may lead to delay. People can complain about delays and they can be dealt with. At present, the process is not something I can comment on in any detail. There has been improvement. Ultimately much of it comes down to resourcing and it will need to be quite heavily resourced in order to make sure that decisions can be made more speedily.
I am aware that it is not within the Ombudsman's jurisdiction, but if it was would the Ombudsman have any suggestion now as to how it could be improved? I am conscious that the Ombudsman wants to include the administrative powers within his jurisdiction and I would support that.
Informally, can the Ombudsman suggest how he thinks the administrative process could be sped up?
As I have said, I support the process of the Ombudsman being given an extension of his remit to deal with administrative matters. Obviously he sought that because he thinks it will have an impact on speeding up the process. Is that so?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
It is difficult for me to take examples. Normally, I will say that I can only speak from the experience of my office discharging its work. We have worked with other Departments and brought about major changes in the way certain aspects of administration are undertaken. Most recently, for instance, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection introduced new procedures across the country and new training has been provided to deciding officers as a consequence of the scrutiny by my office of a particular administrative process. Therefore, we have experience in this and I would hope that we could add value.
Maybe that is something we can consider for our report, Chairman.
I am sure that everyone will agree that the accommodation is entirely unsuitable for a prolonged length of time. We are dealing with people who require accommodation for prolonged lengths of time no matter what happens, whether it is through the administrative process and subsequent judicial review or otherwise. What does the Ombudsman suggest should be the accommodation available for a person who arrives at Dublin Airport at 5.30 p.m. this evening and seeks international protection?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
As I have said, I do not think that the short-stay accommodation issue is the problem. The critical thing that needs to happen now is the introduction of a resettlement programme. There is some work being done, for instance, with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and others to help people find accommodation but there needs to be a systematic approach to finding accommodation for individuals with the right to remain or, indeed, for people within the system who have the right to work and, therefore, might be in a position to sustain themselves. So, for me, it is important that we tackle that end of the problem.
The other issue is affordable rented housing. The issue affects people in Ireland as much as it affects people who come from outside of the country. The issue needs to be resolved but it will take much more time. So we need a concerted resettlement programme that is properly funded.
In theory, that sounds excellent and it is something with which we would all agree. In practical terms, where does one find accommodation for people who find themselves in that unfortunate position? Is it local authorities in different parts of the country? How can we deal with the issue?
This is a very complicated process and no one has a simple, correct answer. Does the Ombudsman think that people in the direct provision system should be given an entitlement to go on the housing list in the same way as other persons on the housing list?
Tensions arise when direct provision centres are announced in certain areas. Mr. Tyndall spoke in his report about the outrageous lawlessness in Rooskey and Moville. Buildings were burned down. There is concern in Oughterard at present. Is there anything to be said for considering a process similar to the fostering of children? I refer to when people arrive into the country seeking international protection. People around the country could put themselves forward as being able to foster a family. What would Mr. Tyndall think of that idea?
Mr. Sean Garvey:
It depends. Some people are housed in emergency accommodation. Those facilities only take people who are asylum seekers and do not have any other function. My understanding is that there are currently 37 direct provision centres.
I understand, but I just want to clarify some issues. Asylum seekers are put into direct provision centres as a short-term solution. We will come back to the problems that have arisen. Two of those direct provision centres are in Galway city, one opposite the station and one in Salthill. That is two of 37. Is that correct?
The Ombudsman has been very clear in his statement regarding the short-term aspect of direct provision. I do not have a difficulty with direct provision being used in that case. We have obligations and we have to receive people seeking asylum. We must, however, do that in a human and humanitarian way. This problem has arisen because short-term provision has become long-term provision. How long are we housing asylum seekers in emergency accommodation? Has that already become long-term?
Mr. Sean Garvey:
They remain in direct provision.
Mr. Sean Garvey:
Again, we do not have the status of how long people with papers have been in direct provision centres. The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, would have those statuses-----
The Department of Justice and Equality. It would be significant to find out how long people have status and remain in direct provision.
Separately, we have residents who are seeking asylum for longer than seven years. Is that not right? Does the Office of the Ombudsman have figures on that?
I welcome that the Office of the Ombudsman is saying there have been improvements and I welcome those improvements. We have had the Mahon report and there were many recommendations therein. One of those recommendations was that there would be an independent monitoring body. Is that right?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
We have adequate resources for the task we are undertaking at the moment. If somebody wanted a more detailed inspection regime, that would be something we would have to discuss but at least we have feet on the ground and we go to see the centres so we are in a position to report to this committee on our work.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
There are constant vacancies in my office, mostly because my staff keep getting promoted elsewhere in the Civil Service, which means we must be running an effective training agency, but that is not an issue for us.
I understand that under the directive and the regulations that brought into law, there is an obligation to carry out a vulnerability assessment on each asylum seeker within a specific period of time.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
As we move forward, we can look to instances where it has not happened when we deal with complaints but we primarily deal with issues raised with us by residents, which would include things like play facilities and facilities for children generally, but we have not had specific issues raised with us about vulnerability.
I welcome the positive changes. I come from Galway and am fully aware of the controversy there and the housing crisis as well. The Department of Justice and Equality has been forced to bring in changes every step of the way. That is my opinion. Here is something very important, namely, the requirement in law to conduct a vulnerability assessment. The Office of the Ombudsman is the independent monitoring body for that. As I understand it, no vulnerability assessment has been carried out to date.
Very good. Mr. Tyndall spoke about expansion. My colleague mentioned that the Office of the Ombudsman would like to see its role expanded to cover the administrative side. Could Mr. Tyndall tease that out?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
Ultimately, the decision on asylum must be a matter for the Minister but the way in which it is administered is part of public administration in the same way that most of the activities with which I deal are part of public administration. Many of the complaints that come to my office involve delays in aspects of public administration. Usually, we have been able to have an effective impact on that - sometimes on individual cases by raising them with the Department concerned and getting an immediate response for an individual but also by looking at instances where it becomes obvious to us that there are systemic delays and engaging to look in detail at processes. I will give a sense of the things we have done. When we get individual complaints and it looks like there is a pattern, we go to offices in different parts of the country and look at files from people who have not complained to us to establish whether that pattern has a systemic cause - whether we are seeing variations. The kind of things we have been able to address are variations in the way individual offices and officers deal with processes, which should not be happening as there should be consistency, and unnecessary delays. On occasions, Departments and agencies are happy when we highlight the need for change because it gives them the momentum to bring about that change or to find the resources they need in order to implement that change.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
Regarding the complaints we have been receiving and the issues involving the time people spend in direct provision, many people want to complain to my office about the process but we must tell them we cannot deal with it so as a consequence, we raised that recently with the Department.
It seems to be a very important request because in the first place, longer delays are wrong when it comes to asylum seekers. They also allow a vacuum to develop where the most appalling attitudes are being expressed by a small number of people.
It is important that the Ombudsman should be enabled and empowered so that the system is as it is supposed to be, namely quick and efficient in dealing with applications for asylum in the short term. I have a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General and we are approaching 20 years of a direct provision system that was supposed to be temporary. When it is not temporary and there is minimum communication from the Department, a vacuum develops, which is dangerous. What the Ombudsman requests is important.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
Ombudsman offices throughout Europe are co-operating on the issues of asylum and immigration because it has become such a pressing issue and because it is an intercountry issue. We have been looking to work with colleagues and to gain some sense of what is happening. We have seen the offices of many other colleagues facing threats because of their work in support of refugees and asylum seekers in their countries. Populism and antipathy towards asylum seekers and immigrants are affecting the whole of public discourse across Europe. It is not an Irish issue, as the Deputy well knows. It is very important and I will lend my voice to this. I am very reluctant normally to speak beyond the casebook but the reality is that we as a country need to be properly providing for people who come to us as asylum seekers and refugees. As a country, we need to find ways of welcoming them and integrating them. Our work as an office will be directed towards dealing with them, the issues they face and helping them to find their way to integrate into our communities. As someone who lived abroad for many years in a country that once was not very receptive to Irish immigrants, I consider it incumbent on us to ensure we treat people in the way we would have wanted to be treated when we lived and worked abroad.
I agree totally without reluctance or hesitation. However, it is equally important that when a vacuum is created and information is not forthcoming to a local community, comments are made by a small group of people. There is a role for us as politicians and for the Ombudsman's office and there is certainly a role for the Government and Department. Mr. Tyndall referred to access to GP services and PPS numbers. Those issues were raised in a different way by the local community in Galway. I do not want to get parochial but I want to talk generally about access. I repeat what was said, which was positive: "We would give the shirts off our backs to help refugees and asylum seekers." I zone in on that as a challenge to the Government and Department. It is to build on what came out of Oughterard, leaving aside the other stuff. People want to work and are open but the manner in which it is being done is difficult. That is part of the problem for communities that have lost essential services. This is unusual and I go no further than that. It would help if there was better communication.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
Most asylum seekers went through Balseskin, which was where they were initially assessed, and issues such as access to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection were dealt with. With more and more people going into emergency accommodation, some of those arrangements have been proving problematic. We have been working with people in the emergency services and some of our work has particularly focused on that. Mr. Garvey might discuss that.
Mr. Sean Garvey:
The normal process is for asylum seekers to go to the Balseskin reception centre in north County Dublin where they are initially screened. That includes getting access to relevant services within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the HSE, including a medical card, PPS number and optional health screening. With the increase in numbers seeking asylum, a number of people have gone directly to emergency accommodation and have not had that initial screening.
That means they arrive in the community without access to GP services or a medical card. As Mr. Tyndall said, we have been working with the HSE and the Department to ensure processes are put in place on the ground in order that when people arrive in the community without those services, they get access within as short a period as possible. The normal process is that they have prearranged access before they go to the community, but with a number of people going through emergency accommodation, that is not currently happening in all cases.
Directly related to the number of people in emergency accommodation, 950 people are in direct provision who should not be there. The numbers are astounding and one is nearly balancing the other. The increase in numbers fluctuates. I have looked at the graph over the past number of years. There have been times when we have had more or fewer coming to the country. They are not huge numbers.
How many are planned each year? Is the office doing enough to get a good feel for it? My experience of talking to people generally in any institution is that they are afraid to complain. That is any institution, not just direct provision.
Mr. Sean Garvey:
We announce our visits because we want as many residents as possible to be aware we are coming so that we can speak to them. We announce them for that purpose. As regards numbers, since our remit was clarified in April 2017, we have visited all of the centres, many of them a number of times. What we have done this year with the emergency centres is as soon as we become aware of the location of an emergency centre, we try to organise visits. Sometimes we tie them in for logistical reasons with visits to nearby permanent direct provision centres. The Deputy 's point about people expressing a fear of complaining has been made to us many times. However, on the basis of what we have seen when we have gone to the centres, we have no evidence of anyone being persecuted as a result of engaging with us.
The first asylum seekers came to Donegal town in 2000. I was involved in the asylum support group in Donegal town at that time. As such, I have been involved through the entire process since asylum seekers have been here. It is interesting that the problems raised at the first meeting in Donegal town before the asylum seekers came were exactly the same as the ones being raised in Oughterard in Galway and, indeed, Moville, Donegal a number of months ago. Those problems never came to pass in Donegal town. The asylum seekers were there for eight or nine years but the centre has closed and reopened as something else following the recession. The problems are unfounded, largely, which is important to note. It is sad that we do not have the political will to stand up and do what is right rather than to do what is popular. That is a sad reflection of our political system. The work the Ombudsman does stands in great contrast to that. The office defends the rights of vulnerable people who depend on the system. That is very important work. It is unfortunate that not all politicians cannot honour that important work and strengthen it across the board.
All politicians, as I said. I refer to Mr. Tyndall's opening statement, which included a couple of requests for the committee. I would like to put them formally to allow the committee to support them in future. They were touched on earlier by previous speakers. On the examination of complaints about the asylum process, does he believe his remit should be extended to include the process? I ask the committee respectfully to support that extension. It appears from previous speakers that the committee agrees but we need to move the proposal formally.
In the final paragraph, Mr. Tyndall calls on "the Minister for Justice and Equality to ensure that RIA is adequately resourced to fulfil its obligations under the Directive [the EU recast reception conditions directive] so that the current practice of accommodating people in entirely unsuitable emergency settings quickly becomes a thing of the past". I think this should be formally placed before the committee at some stage in order that it may be dealt with.
I would like to ask some questions about the existing system. Some of them have been dealt with already in response to other speakers. Mr. Garvey said that the existing or established reception centres should have play areas for children and stuff like that.
I do not know whether Mr. Garvey is aware that an emergency centre opened recently in Portsalon, County Donegal, which is a very isolated area. No play facilities are available for the children. The residents are finding it very difficult to organise transport to allow their children to access play facilities. Is the Portsalon centre on the radar of the Office of the Ombudsman?
Mr. Sean Garvey:
I would like to make a distinction with regard to a small number of emergency reception and orientation centres. We happen to have an Arabic speaker in our staff, so that works very well for us. We do not have that facility for other areas. In general, we have not had any issue with communicating with any resident. If a resident does not have English as a language, he or she will speak to us through a friend or somebody like that. We have found that this has worked for us. We do not bring interpreters because we do not have that service.
That brings me onto another problem with the asylum system. RIA wants to get complaints about the system. If the system is not working right, it wants to hear about it. However, it will not accept the word of anyone who is not a resident. It does not want to hear from local support groups that are working with residents. I think that puts the residents in a very vulnerable position in their dealings with management. They are exposing themselves as being unhappy. It has happened in the past that somebody who has complained has been moved. It can be a difficult situation. Has the Office of the Ombudsman found this to be the case across the board?
Mr. Sean Garvey:
All I can do is reiterate Mr. Tyndall's assertion that we have found people to be very co-operative towards us when we have raised issues. For example, we have engaged with RIA in respect of a number of cases in which residents have raised issues with RIA without getting replies or outcomes that they considered reasonable, and we have got such outcomes overturned. All we can say is that RIA has co-operated with us when we have spoken directly to it in such cases.
If a resident who has not got a fair hearing from RIA subsequently gets a better hearing because the Office of the Ombudsman has raised the matter with RIA on his or her behalf, is that not a sign of a problem in itself?
Mr. Sean Garvey:
That is an issue with the work of the office in general. When people come to us because they are not satisfied with the response or the service they have got, we engage with the service provider to deal with that issue. We deal with the complaints we get from residents of direct provision about RIA as a service provider in the same way as we deal with other complaints about service providers. We engage with the relevant party to see whether we can bring about a resolution. From our point of view, we have found that RIA has been co-operative and we have been able to resolve a number of issues.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I would like to make a couple of comments on the immediate issue. When a decision is overturned after we have raised a case, we usually find that similar decisions are not made thereafter.
It does not just work in the instance that we deal with. There is a long-term fix. We talk on the ground to representatives of non-governmental organisations and other groups that make themselves known to us. Obviously, there are issues with the privacy of individuals, but if individuals and support groups want to bring issues about direct provision centres to our attention, we can be aware of those issues during our visits and take them into account on such occasions. As I have the power to investigate on my own initiative, if serious issues of concern about which I have not received a complaint are drawn to my attention, there is nothing to stop me from investigating them.
That is useful to know. I think there is a problem with local support groups. Although RIA supports the establishment of local support groups, it does not support the work they are doing to provide assistance to asylum seekers. I think that would be important. I was interested to hear what was said about getting medical cards because I know of a number of people who have not got medical cards. In the view of the witnesses, who is responsible for ensuring an asylum seeker gets a medical card?
Mr. Sean Garvey:
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the HSE.
When an asylum seeker lands in Portsalon - it could be anywhere in the country, but I am using that as an example - and does not have a medical card, he or she must make contact with the HSE. Should RIA not have a responsibility in this regard?
Mr. Sean Garvey:
When people are dispersed to emergency centres without having had their access to medical cards arranged for them, we engage with RIA. Between the Office of the Ombudsman, RIA and the HSE, we have got local access in particular communities where people have arrived without medical cards.
Mr. Sean Garvey:
Yes. RIA is responsible for arranging the provision of medical cards through the HSE. We facilitate that. I would like to think we have had some success in that regard.
Mr. Sean Garvey:
It accepts that it is responsible. We are concerned when a person does not get a medical card as quickly as we think he or she should. To answer the Deputy's question, RIA accepts its responsibility in this area and we accept our responsibility. We are raising questions about how quickly it gets implemented.
I want to make sure I have covered everything. I will conclude by mentioning the question of the resources of the Office of the Ombudsman, which was touched on briefly earlier. If the office's responsibility were extended, would it have to enter into negotiations with the Department of Justice and Equality or the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
If we are to have an enhanced role within the asylum and immigration process - the scale of the task is increasing because of the emergency centres - we are going to have to look hard at what resources we will need in the future. Up to now, we have been resourced to do the work and we are managing our workload.
I thank the witnesses for their contribution. The manner in which the asylum process is dealt with, and how we progress it, is one of the key issues raised with us on a continuous basis. Asylum seekers may have concerns about accommodation and different things, but as Mr. Tyndall has rightly pointed out, the stuff about tension in the community, about which we have been hearing for many years, never comes to pass when the system is actually up and running in an area. It is important for us to make it very clear that it is never an issue.
I want to raise a couple of points with regard to families. In many cases, families are sharing a single room. It is difficult to share a very cramped space. I remember a case in which a family of a husband and wife and two small children arrived and stayed in a hotel room. By the time they had gone through the whole process, the children were teenagers. They had lived in a cramped space for a long time.
I recall one woman talking to me about how during her rebellious early teenage years, her daughter had a much better relationship with a neighbouring woman living down the corridor than she did with her own mother. In that scenario, where not just the members of a family but many different families live in such close proximity, tensions, stresses and strains are created. What responsibility does the RIA have to resolve that?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I have made it clear that the short-term use of such accommodation is acceptable. However, can any of us imagine what it would have been like to raise our family in a hotel room? It is simply an entirely unsuitable medium-term or long-terms situation to put people in. Similarly, we have met people in situations where four unrelated men are sharing a room for many years, possibly from different countries and cultures. It is just not suitable for the long term. People must be moved into housing more quickly, both by processing asylum applications more speedily and by having a proper resettlement programme once people have got their status. Those things have to happen.
Another issue has arisen in recent times, now that people in the asylum process are allowed to work and can gain employment. That is one of the most positive developments for several reasons. Many people in the asylum process worked previously. They had little part-time jobs. Nobody knew about it; they got a little bit of cash in hand and the people who employed them were delighted to have them. That was good for their mental health and for those around them. However, it made them more hesitant to issue a complaint or to say anything about their accommodation because they were operating outside of the law. That was a significant problem. I came across cases where people in the asylum process were doing a little work though they knew they were technically not supposed to. This meant that if an issue arose, they were afraid of their lives to say anything in case it impacted on them. That is one of the key ways in which allowing them to engage in employment has helped. Because they are in a vulnerable position, is there a risk that employers will not treat them as well as they would in different circumstances?
The current position is that an asylum seeker must be in the process for nine months before he or she can apply for work. That seems a long time. People go through the process in approximately 14 months, or in more recent cases ten or 11 months. They will almost have passed through the system by the time they can seek a job. In many cases the work they are looking for is low-skilled employment, perhaps working in hotel or the leisure industry. The employers in that sector tell us they cannot get staff. I do not see why that nine-month rule is in place. Could the Ombudsman have any influence in respect of that? Are there circumstances in which that could be shortened and this could be dealt with in a better manner?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
Ultimately, that is a decision for the Minister and the Government. It is very much in the political sphere. I will have to confine myself to noting that allowing people to work has given them a dignity and an income and it has hugely improved morale. If more people were able to work, we must assume those beneficial effects would be more widely spread among people in direct provision.
My other question concerns where the different people come from. Reference is often made to the idea that people from Africa are different from people from other places. That is a nonsense, but it has been put out there. Does the Ombudsman monitor which nationalities make more complaints or have more difficulties in the process? Is that something the office has examined?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
We have not monitored that. In the longer term, I intend to monitor the backgrounds of the people using my service to make sure we are providing a fair and equitable service regardless of people's background. I am confident that we are, but I would like to monitor that so that we do it more effectively. We see the same kinds of complaint regardless of the background of the individual concerned. I think Mr. Garvey and Mr. Mallen would echo that. The kind of complaints I have heard when I have been at centres have been similar. Some the issues we have seen and which we are well placed to address concern culture such as cases where people have certain religious requirements in respect of diets and they are not properly catered for. Some people have been afraid to raise that. They have raised it with us. I have spoken to the centres and in each instance we have been able to resolve the issue for them. There may be particular issues for people from certain backgrounds, but in dealing with us, there is no difference in the complaints and experience of people from Africa. My office has developed links with the office of the Office of the Ombudsman in Malawi. A significant number of people from Malawi have come here and this connection has given us a particular perspective and insight that has been very helpful to us in doing our job.
Does the Office of the Ombudsman have much contact with the countries these people come from? Does its staff try to learn from experiences in other places? What level of contact does the office have with other European countries to monitor how the process is evolving there?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
The International Ombudsman Institute has 200 members in more than 100 countries worldwide and its network works actively. It has networks in each region - Africa, Europe, Asia and so on. I am the current president of that institute. Our office has extensive contacts with ombudsman institutions elsewhere. A lot of work is being done within the European ombudsman community on issues concerning asylum flows. People are landing in one country and travelling to another. We also have contacts with the ombudsman network in Africa, which is another source of refugee flows. That gives us an insight into the situation in people's home countries. From time to time, we are able to use the network to support people here who have problems with administration in another country. It is quite important for us to be networked. It provides a real perspective on the issues as they affect Ireland. We can see them in the global context in which asylum and immigration must be seen.
In that context, do issues arise where a person from a particular country is living in Ireland and a family member is seeking asylum in a different EU jurisdiction? I have come across one situation where people in this position have been trying to bring the family unit together. Does the Ombudsman have a role there or any advice in that respect? I understand that so far it is not allowed.
We do not intend to do that to the Deputy. I am sure she will be the good wine today. I will call Senator Black, to be followed by Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile and Deputy Bríd Smith, who by the way will not be the last because the Chairman always goes last in this committee. She will be before me.
I thank Mr. Tyndall for his presentation and for the reports. The oversight of his office is important. I also support extending it to cover those other administrative matters.
I wish to follow up on an answer to Deputy Connolly's question regarding the vulnerability assessment. I have read replies to parliamentary questions on this, which describe a basic medical screening carried out in the Balseskin centre. A full vulnerability assessment, as legally required by the EU directive, should include mental health and sexual abuse as well as a physical check. Is this something the Ombudsman could follow up on with RIA officials?
When we visited direct provision centres, I found that mental health was one of the biggest issues for clients. Can the witnesses talk us through how a standard interaction between their offices and a centre works? Perhaps they could pick one centre and tell us how often the Ombudsman is there, how many staff attend, how the meetings are carried out. I just want to get a clear understanding of how it all works.
Mr. Sean Garvey:
We have a programme of visits and we have visited all the centres in the past couple of years, some of them more than once. We contact the centre a week in advance and alert it to our visit. We ask it to display a notice of our visit on its noticeboards and to bring it to the attention of residents, so that the maximum number of residents can speak to us on the day. We generally set ourselves up in an open, communal area within the centre because, even though we are satisfied that centres inform residents, some residents still do not know we are coming until they see us there on the day. If people want to talk to us individually and privately, we will have arranged a private room for that purpose. We explain our role and then speak to individuals about specific issues they may have. If it is an issue we cannot look at, we will tell them on the day. Such an issue may relate to delays in asylum applications, in which we have no role. If it is something we can look at, such as access to GP and medical cards, we take the individual's details and try to work something out for them with our contacts in the Department or the HSE. If there are centre-specific issues such as issues relating to food, access to cleaning equipment for rooms, etc., we always meet centre management after meeting residents to explore the issues. It is a useful forum in which to resolve day-to-day issues. Management may not have been aware of an issue and residents are sometimes reluctant to approach management directly. When they hear about it from us, we have found management to be open and proactive in resolving issues. For logistical reasons, we tend to visit a number of centres in the same geographical area over a two-day period as this means we can visit the maximum number of centres in the minimum time. This year, we have visited 25 full-time centres and between 12 and 15 emergency centres and we will do more.
Mr. Paul Mallen:
In advance of our visit, we also notify the key NGOs in the area and ask them to inform any residents with whom they may be dealing. We ask centre managers to alert any friends of the centre, which are voluntary and community groups that work across the direct provision system.
I have a problem with that. We have heard that residents in visiting centres are afraid to engage with the system. As a lot of the centres have cameras, management can see them. They are afraid that, after the Ombudsman's staff leave, they may be treated disrespectfully and get into trouble if they talk to them. They are afraid to go into the rooms where interviews happen, lest they be targeted as troublemakers. We have to address this issue. Will the delegates talk about the steps taken to ensure secrecy and confidentiality? Would it be a good idea to have spot checks? I would love to do them. Mr. Tyndall has said the residents are afraid to speak to figures in authority such as the Ombudsman's staff because they believe they are part of the system. Could the Ombudsman not go to the local community centre or somewhere the residents would feel safe and could open up about the realities of their lives? Some of the stuff we saw was pretty scary.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
In one recent instance as we accepted that there was a likelihood that people would not speak to us, we made separate arrangements for them to meet us offsite. We do this to some extent in the case of emergency accommodation. There is, however, an advantage in being at the centre, as one can see the facilities, etc. Taking all complaints offsite would not work; a combination is necessary. We will go away and think about this matter. Up to now our role has been to deal with complaints from residents. We have become the de factoinspectorate because there is nobody else doing it. Other ombudsman offices in other countries take on the role of an inspectorate in a more engaged way but that would require a different approach from the one we have taken up until now. I am reasonably confident that people who have spoken to us have not been disadvantaged as a consequence, but I understand the points the Senator is raising. We will go away and give the matter some thought. Where it has been put to us that people are reluctant to speak to us, we will make arrangements to meet them offsite. Such an arrangement is in place.
However, there are others, probably more than we can imagine. When management of such centres knows that the Ombudsman's representatives are coming, it is not in the best interests of the people who are in the centre. Those people are scared and frightened. There is also that piece about language.
We met some of the residents and they were very depressed, low and frightened, particularly families and single parents, for example single mothers, who feel hopeless. They want to get out and do some work but they also want to be able to talk about what it is like for them.
Can the Ombudsman meet children?
That is fine. I hope that the Ombudsman will consider something along those lines, where spot checks can be done and the Ombudsman's representatives can call unannounced. The residents would really appreciate that. Those could even be done off-site, which is something that would be really powerful.
One of the Deputies mentioned the role of non-governmental organisations, NGOs. Would that be something the Ombudsman might consider? If somebody complains to an NGO, would the Ombudsman consider talking to them or how would that work?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I have own-initiative investigation powers if an NGO highlights something with me that is bad practice. It has not arisen to a great extent with direct provision but it has arisen, for instance, with nursing homes.
I thank Senator Black and will be coming back on the some of the points she has raised. I know she would like to have gone into another gear again on the points she has made and I am underscoring that. I thank her for that. Is that fair comment?
I apologise to our visitors for missing the earlier part of their presentation. Mr. Garvey raised a point earlier about emergency accommodation in response to Deputy Connolly in mentioning that action is taken as soon as the Ombudsman's office becomes aware of an emergency accommodation centre. What is the process involved in the Ombudsman's office becoming aware?
Mr. Sean Garvey:
The way we structured our programme this year meant that we did it largely in spring and early autumn. We tend to avoid winter simply because road access can be difficult and so on. We also tend to avoid summer because there tends to be relocation of population within centres over the course of the summer because of the school holidays. We have found that we get the higher attendance of residents when we visit in spring and autumn so that is what we have been doing.
We have just competed our programme for this autumn. There is a small number of centres that we want to follow up on or have not yet reached but we have more or less finished. Once we become aware of where centres are, we can schedule a visit and generally, for logistical reasons, as I said earlier, as we try to maximise the number of centres we cover in one trip, we attend ones that are geographically close to each other.
Mr. Sean Garvey:
It would depend. That has not happened yet. The emergence and use of emergency centres is new. As Mr. Mallen said, we evolve our process as we go and another evolution at which we will need to look is whether we need to visit centres more quickly once we become aware of where they are.
I would commend that course of action because it probably says all that needed to be said when Mr. Garvey stated that part of the reason the office does not go to some of these places is because of road access. We are able to say, from our privileged position, that we will not go because it is tricky in the winter but people are living in these places. One of the big problems that we encountered when we met people who were living in such places was the issue of travel and being able to access transportation in and out of these places. I commend that course of action and ask our guests to have a think about that.
This committee understands, and from everything I have heard our guests say today, that there has been no reduction in the numbers of these centres. As the opposite is the case, the likelihood is that another centre will pop up this winter. I suggest, with the greatest of respect, that the witnesses make it a priority to visit newly-established emergency accommodation centres.
I want to ask briefly about the Ombudsman's statutory remit as it relates to the visits and observations that it makes. Some of the media were carrying the Ombudsman's statement about wanting greater powers in respect of the administrative process and that is fair enough and a legitimate call. I am keen to know how the Office of the Ombudsman has found the process of the recommendations or observations it makes to the Department or the relevant agency and the actions that have been taken. Is there an internal role that monitors what actions the Department has taken in response to recommendations or observations the office has made? Are the witnesses frustrated or prohibited by a lack of proactive functions to compel the Department to do some things?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
We meet the Department fairly regularly and the issues that arise during our visits are taken up with the Department. We monitor progress against those in subsequent meetings. The issues we raise with the Department are dealt with. The main issues on which the committee has been touching, about the length of time people stay in these centres and so on, does not often come up in those conversations. Those conversations are about practicalities, access to facilities and transport, movement between centres, access to medical cards and so on. Those are the kinds of issues we tend to be dealing with. Those issues are addressed by the Department. The issues around the length of stay and delay and so on are not part of that conversation.
With the greatest of respect, that is a very universal statement. We have met people who do not have medical cards and have been waiting for a prolonged period. There are other examples in respect of what Mr. Tyndall has just said. I am not sure that the evidence we have heard in other presentations or on our own visits points to a situation where these sorts of things are sorted. What Mr. Tyndall has just said sounded universal to me. We have raised things with the Department that are not sorted. I do not know that the universality of that is accurate.
My question is coming from a sincere place in trying to further enable the work of the ombudsman and the remit for our guests. The frustration for people finding themselves in these situations across the board probably rests with other agencies and the Department. Are there instances where the Ombudsman is consistently identifying a problem, whether identified by the residents themselves, politicians, NGOs, or agencies, which is not being properly addressed, rectified or sorted by the Department? If that is the case, how do we, collaboratively, ensure the Department and Government rectify such a problem? Not all of the evidence points that way because significant progress has been made in some fields but there is a substantial amount of evidence relating to emergency accommodation in particular that points to these issues not being resolved. It also suggests there is not a will to resolve them in many instances.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I will take a specific example about emergency accommodation and medical cards. When issues are brought to our attention, we raise them with the Department and the HSE to ensure they are addressed.
They are addressed in respect of the issues that are brought to us. As new emergency accommodation centres come on stream, then the issues may well arise again. The Senator and many of his colleagues in the Dáil bring complaints via my office and we are able to raise them also but it would help us to have a broader picture if they wish to engage with us in that way also. I did not intend to suggest that everything is absolutely splendid but just to say that as and when we raise complaints, they are addressed. Sometimes it will be individual ones and it may be that the systemic issues are not being properly dealt with. I will happily continue to work on those until we get them addressed. We find that things pop up as issues as the system is extended. As for the issues we are dealing with at the moment, we get fewer complaints and issues raised in respect of the older, more established centres. At present, the emergency accommodation is generating the principal additional work for us. Problems continue to crop up in some of the newer centres that have been addressed in older centres.
I suppose there is a difference between issues being addressed and addressed satisfactorily. That is the point I wish to nail down. Are the issues addressed satisfactorily?
I now understand a wee bit of the process of the visits. Is there a way for residents to contact the Ombudsman outside of the visits? Is there a hotline or other system of contact?
Mr. Sean Garvey:
Yes, there is. We have online contact details. We bring those details with us and we display them at centres we visit. We get a relatively small number of complaints from residents via that source compared with the visits. One reason we have continued and expanded the visits programme is we find that is the means by which residents raise most of the issues. They can and do contact us through other mechanisms, which we bring those to residents' attention, but in practice, most of our complaints arise from direct contact with residents on our visits.
Mr. Paul Mallen:
I wish to make a point about our work. We deal with individual complaints. We get a certain number of complaints from our visits and a certain number are made to the office. There is a parallel process going on regarding the thematic issues we have identified. As Mr. Tyndall said, the bulk of the work for us at the moment is in the emergency accommodation area. Reference was made a couple of times to medical cards. In addition to dealing with individual complaints from people in emergency centres, we are engaging with the HSE at a national level to resolve the fundamental problem of GP access in communities and numbers of asylum seekers arriving in a community at very short notice without prior planning and provision of services.
Reference was also made to personal public service numbers, PPSNs. Without a PPSN, one cannot access a medical card or basic payments or all the so-called material reception conditions that we are obliged to provide. Our office has engaged nationally with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to resolve the issue of the availability of PPSNs. Prior to the increase in numbers, they were processed in Balseskin, as Mr. Tyndall mentioned earlier. Many of the local offices were not familiar with the process. I understand there is a lower threshold for eligibility for asylum seekers. As a result of our engagement with the Department on the matter, I understand a briefing document was issued to the local offices so they are aware of what to do if somebody presents. That has helped.
We have been to one area twice within the space of three months. We were very busy on our first visit. The big issues were medical cards and PPSNs. When we went back to the area three months later, those issues had mainly been resolved. I know that is only one issue but as Mr. Garvey indicated, the process is evolving as we move on and as we identify thematic issues. As well as addressing individual complaints, we address issues at a national level as well.
From our perspective we are trying to generate a bit more light than heat. That is why we are very keen to tease out some of the minutiae of the issue.
Mr. Tyndall can tell me if it does not fall within his remit, but I am keen to get his view on people in emergency accommodation being relocated at short notice. We have heard of some instances where people staying in hotels have been put onto buses and sent halfway across the country to facilitate an outstanding booking in a hotel being used as emergency accommodation. Has that been raised with the Ombudsman's office? What are Mr. Tyndall's observations and thoughts on it? I add the caveat that it might not fall within his office's remit.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
It falls squarely within our remit and it has been raised. In my opening remarks, I was clear that after progress had been made in direct provision centres, the use of emergency accommodation puts us squarely back into the set of problems we had at the outset with direct provision. Emergency accommodation, for all of the reasons members have explored, is entirely unsuitable. Because it is being taken on at short notice, there are issues about the length of stay that is possible, so people are finding themselves in exactly the circumstances which the Senator described.
The issue Deputy Connolly raised about the need to move people on who have received permission to stay is fundamental at the moment. The numbers do not quite balance but if people who had permission to remain were able to move out of direct provision, the use of emergency accommodation could be reduced to a great extent, if not eliminated entirely. While that is a problem for the individual or the groups of people who are moved, in reality that is a problem linked to the availability of accommodation for the reasons I have described.
That brings me back to the earlier point about how we action a response to that. When the Department's assistant secretary was before the committee a few months ago the view expressed was that one could not apply direct provision standards to emergency accommodation and "Tá brón orainn. Sin é." Regarding the legitimate call the Ombudsman has made earlier for greater administrative powers, I need to get a clearer understanding in order to help the committee compile the report. Surely to God the responsibility must rest somewhere for these issues to be actioned. The Department is saying direct provision standards do not apply to emergency accommodation. When I asked if people could be moved again, I was told it could. None of us should be content with that, but someone must be ultimately responsible. It may well be the Department, but my concern and frustration is that listening to the Department, it seems content enough.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
As I have said, the only medium-term solution to this is to have an active resettlement programme initially, for those who have permission to remain and, ultimately, for those who have the right to work and who might be able to meet the costs of their own accommodation as a consequence. As long as emergency accommodation is used, the problems described by the Senator will continue. Essentially, we have gone back to the situation we had before direct provision was improved. Play facilities, the ability to cook and other such issues have been lost by the use of emergency accommodation. The only way to get around it is to resettle the people currently in direct provision in the short term to make room for some of the people who are having to use emergency accommodation. I cannot see any other practical solution.
I thank Mr. Tyndall for his presentation. I want to return to the question of how visits are conducted with regard to giving prior notice, setting up a time and with management knowing the Office of the Ombudsman is coming. I know it is not the remit of the Ombudsman but I have been reading the report published in May by the Ombudsman for Children's office on the same issue. It is interesting to hear what children say about prearranged visits by RIA. These visits are supposed to look after their interests but children told the Ombudsman for Children of their belief that if they make a complaint to centre management, it would have a negative impact on their living conditions in their accommodation. They also told the Ombudsman for Children that if they want to make a complaint against centre management to the Reception and Integration Agency, it was not clear to them how the complaint would be dealt with. Children also said they did not feel they were being listened to when they lodged complaints with centre managers. In this regard, several children said repairs would be made when centre inspections were expected and not until then. Children in other centres said facilities such as playrooms are often locked and unavailable to them except and until visits or inspections take place. If anything speaks to the need not to prearrange the visits to or studies of the centres, the children speak to it. It is proof that making arrangements in advance with these centres gives them the heads up to sort out everything and unlock the playroom and kitchen and let everybody have access. There is a community, particularly children but also, I imagine, their mothers, who are terrified to complain about this scenario because they will suffer penalties in the background and in the unseen areas this horrible system deals with.
In 2015, Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon said the people living in direct provision centres were like ghosts and that they were dehumanised and depressed. Four years later, after the recent visit by his office, does Mr. Tyndall concur in any way, sense or shape with this description? Will he comment on what I have said about the children?
I have a number of questions. My next one is on what the Ombudsman has requested the committee to do about extending his remit. I may have missed a bit at the beginning. Exactly what extension of his remit would he like to see? Would he like to see it with regard to the length of time for which people stay or the provisions on the right to work, which are very restrictive as people can only get jobs that pay them more than €30,000? Having restrictive provisions on the right to work is extremely unhelpful. I would say most people who do the grafting work in the Houses earn less than €30,000 per year. Is Mr. Tyndall seeking a remit with regard to these conditions? Perhaps he is seeking a remit with regard to the locations of the centres or access to medical facilities.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
Senator Black raised a similar point to the Deputy's first question on unannounced visits. As I have said, where we have been told people are reluctant to speak to us we have started to make arrangements for them to speak to us off-site. I take the general point about unannounced visits and we will take it away and give it serious consideration. I accept the point made that on occasion, centre managers and others may make efforts to ensure what is presented when we are there is acceptable where it is not otherwise. There is no formal inspection role for centres. My role as Ombudsman has to do with complaints from residents of direct provision centres. As I have said, we have become the only independent body, along with the Ombudsman for Children, that visits centres and, therefore, as the committee has heard, we have dealt with systemic issues that have arisen, as well as issues in the individual complaints we receive.
What I spoke of specifically in referring to an extended role was different. I said there were two causes for people having an extended stay in centres. One is the lack of access to affordable housing, an issue that was touched on by committee members. The second is the length of time it takes to make decisions in the asylum process. Clearly, where somebody appeals a negative decision, it is a matter for the courts to decide. It could not be within my jurisdiction, but where the initial decision is made by the Department, there is no reason the administrative process should not fall within my remit, as does the administration of other aspects of Government services. It would enable me to bring attention to bear on the delays. As standards are being introduced with the rolling changes to contracts or new contracts, as was described, it will enable us to comment on all of the issues covered by the standards, some of which were covered by the Deputy. The direct provision centres are within my remit if there is a set of standards, as there is in many aspects of public life. We use standards as measures when we deal with complaints about facilities and as the basis of an own initiative investigation. The issues are generally ones that either fall within my remit or are affected by the particular restriction about which we spoke in the administration of the system. If centres do not comply with the requirement to provide play facilities where children are present, it is something with which we could deal.
An issue at the core of the system - I wonder whether the Ombudsman has thought about or is able to examine it - is the privatised nature of delivering the system. Several companies make millions out of running direct provision centres. As far as I am aware, only seven centres are run by statutory bodies; the rest have all been privatised and are run by private companies which include Aramack, Barlow, East Coast Catering and Mosney. To say the least, they make a fortune out of them, which makes it in their interests to have cutbacks such as closing kitchens and turning off services at certain times in order that they can maximise profits. It would also be in their interests not to overspend on staffing and in having high standards. Perhaps if the system was run instead by the local authorities, the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills or the Department of Justice and Equality, it would mitigate the drive to make a profit and deliver a better system. Does Mr. Tyndall have a role in commenting on this issue or bringing it forward? It is a massive problem.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
It is very difficult for me to comment on it. The Deputy will understand the process by which public services are procured is a matter for Ministers, rather than those who are looking at them. It is my job to see whether they are well run in the context of complaints I receive, but who runs them is very much a political matter, rather than an administrative one for the Ombudsman.
That brings me to my final point. I have read the report of the Ombudsman for Children and listened to what Mr. Tyndall has said. The Department of Justice and Equality has a role in the matter. Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon did a big piece of work, in which he recommended that we end the system of direct provision, but instead it is increasing in size. There are the multiple problems of the housing crisis, the health crisis and mental health crisis. These are all issues on which we have touched. There should be an holistic approach taken to how we treat asylum seekers and refugees. I was very struck by what Deputy Connolly said when she spoke about what she believed was the vacuum in a place such Oughterard. Deputy Pringle also gave witness to the fact that there would be a kerfuffle if a centre was to open, but once it opens, there are no problems with people living in it or being in the local town or community. There can be an information vacuum, but there is also a responsibility on all of us not to be negative and give cause for hatred, racism and negative perceptions.
In this case, we have one responsible local Deputy like Catherine Connolly and another totally irresponsible one like Deputy Grealish, whose remarks should be withdrawn. What he said is outrageous. I am directing these comments at the public as much as at anybody else. Now that Deputy Grealish has opened up that chink, others are trying to follow him and compete with him by saying they are shocked by Africans coming over here and sponging off our system. With every hungry belly comes a pair of hands and a brain, and we should utilise that opportunity to give people the right to work and engage in society. The responsibility for what is happening lies with the system itself, because putting 300 asylum seekers, climate refugees or economic migrants into small towns and villages deprives them of a better opportunity to work, integrate, and access education and healthcare. The entire system begs questions, but we are dealing with it in salami slices. The witnesses, including the Ombudsman for Children, are doing a bit, as are many NGOs, but that method is not going to work. It will not come together like that. I thank the witnesses for their report, recommendations, and observations. It has been very helpful having them here today.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I cannot comment on them.
I recently visited centres in Lisdoonvarna and Wicklow that were the subject of considerable controversy before they opened. There was speculation at the time about what impact they would have, and none of those perceived damages occurred. I commend local communities across Ireland and organisations such as the GAA, NGOs and churches that have worked so hard to support and integrate people into communities. It has been a great success.
It was noted earlier that the tourism and hospitality industries in Ireland provide opportunities for people to work. It is frustrating for many asylum seekers, including some I have met, who were skilled professionals in their own countries to find themselves doing low-paid work in Ireland. However, the ability to work has helped people integrate. In Lisdoonvarna, young people come in from school who are clearly very much part of the community. It is important to find ways to avoid putting people in inappropriate temporary accommodation in the short term. That is a huge challenge that needs to be met. People who have come to our country, in my experience, want to work. They have not come here to sponge off our community, but to work. The way in which the right to work was so enthusiastically embraced by people in the centres is an object lesson that demonstrates that these people want to make a contribution to our communities, and have done so whenever they have had the opportunity.
Addressing the time these people spend in inappropriate temporary accommodation is the big challenge we face. There is also huge pressure because people want to be in Dublin, where there is neither much direct provision nor much access to affordable rented housing. That is an ongoing problem. People finding work and integrating into communities elsewhere in Ireland may well be to our advantage in the long term, because in other countries concentrating people in particular communities has given rise to problems at a later date. People being present across our communities will benefit us in the long term.
That may go beyond my remit.
That is interesting. I have one more question based on what Mr. Tyndall said. He has raised an interesting point about people's ability to settle in various areas. Am I right in saying the right to work is very restrictive? Has it been opened up from the original position?
Mr. Sean Garvey:
To my knowledge, there are no restrictions on the right to work under the directive. People were temporarily given the right to formally seek work permits under the work permit scheme which was very restrictive and designed for non-EU citizens who were seeking entry to the country. However, since the element of the directive which granted people the right to work was implemented, it is universal.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I have been trying to avoid commenting directly on the issue because it is a matter of Government policy, rather than administration. I confine my remarks to saying people who have embraced the right to work have benefited greatly from it and there is no reason others would not benefit in the same way.
I thank the delegates for their report and presentation. I have read the Ombudsman's opening statement. I only have one question. I ask the delegates to tell me if it has been asked because it is rude to start repeating questions.
The Ombudsman is aware that we have visited direct provision centres. He has done work on this issue. The recast EU directive on reception conditions was mentioned. What can a vulnerable person going through the cycle of emergency accommodation do to challenge it legally? There have been reports on the issue; there is an outreach team, while various agencies or NGOs are providing for oversight and an element of reporting on it. How can it be dealt with properly in order that there will be an outcome for the people who are badly affected? That is my only question and Mr. Tyndall can tell me if it has been answered.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
It has not been answered directly. The recast directive provides a lens through which we can look at complaints raised with us. We can use the standards that arise from it as a means of assessing whether somebody is receiving treatment consistent with the directive, an issue we can address in our work. I have stated we are happy to take on board specific instances that come to the attention of Deputies or Senators, or any intelligence they may have that can feed into our work. It might include complaints received on behalf of individuals, or they might want to draw attention to issues where people are reluctant to speak to us on visits and should be seen offsite. We are happy to pick up and address all of those issues. In the future we will be looking at complaints with the directive in mind. If Members, whether individually or as a committee, think we need to pick up on certain issues, we are very happy to hear from them.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
My office offers a free alternative to the courts, in which one does not require legal representation.
People obviously have the right to raise these issues through the court system, if they choose to. While my office can only make recommendations, our experience has been that those recommendations are accepted not least because the scrutiny of the Oireachtas on Departments, Government agencies and local authorities is such that if there is a reluctance to accept recommendations, usually the pressure brought to bear by the democratic process has meant that people have fallen in line with the recommendations.
I thank Deputy Jack Chambers and will make a number of points myself.
Like the practice of the Ombudsman's office heretofore, we were obliged to give notice of our intended visits earlier this year. Among the abiding impressions and memories is the remaining smell of fresh paint. Is the Ombudsman as familiar with that as we most certainly are? It has stayed with me ever since.
Mr. Sean Garvey:
On that point, in our experience we have not found that. Perhaps that is a reflection on the esteem in which a visit from a committee was held. I am not being facetious. On one or two occasions they commented that the food was better because we were coming. That was earlier in the process and those centres have now gone to self-cooking. That comment about food was made to us a number of times earlier in the process. We have not noticed any physical differences as a result of our visits.
A number of things come to mind. One is the issue of complaints received and complaints raised. Our exposure, certainly in my own case and that of Senator Black and it probably applies to others, is not confined to the committee's visits. Many residents do not raise issues. Such issues can be referenced and what other yardstick can be measured, other than complaints received and complaints raised? Many do not raise complaints because they are vulnerable people and such vulnerability is acting as a brake on their coming forward. Some of the big issues, like the dignity of work, are so important. I totally concur with Mr. Tyndall's remarks that this has made a significant difference in the lives of so many. Without putting a tooth in it, the nine-month restriction is unnecessary and very restrictive. Whatever about having any such timeframe applied, nine months is wholly inappropriate.
The length of time is the big issue. I know of people who have been resident for many years in direct provision centres including, as the Ombudsman's office have indicated, 900 people who already have status but who remain there. I recently made representations on the housing need one of such family with Irish-born children. The local authority responded, however, that their application would be progressed as soon as they took up private rented accommodation in the wider community and that their application did not come directly from the direct provision address. This is a very serious matter. This may not be within their gift. Economic and financial restrictions may not make that a live option for that family.
As for emergency accommodation, I come from a part of the country where there has been a significant cluster of such accommodation provision.
In the course of our visit to that neck of the woods - Senator Black kept referring to it as "up there" but it is where I come from - we met good people, who one might call "friends of" and who are keen to be of support and assistance. I concur with Mr Tyndall, who made two specific requests of us in his opening remarks.
The emergency accommodation situation is wholly and absolutely inappropriate and unacceptable. The resourcing responsibility for RIA rests with the Government in the first instance. RIA must, however, be responsible for taking the initiative and identifying the means by which we are in a position to meet our international obligations for people who present on our shores, many of whom are in fear of their lives. It is a very pressing and continuing need. It may in time ease with the resolution of conflicts in different global locations. As matters stand, there is no indication that any of these crisis points in different parts of the globe are anywhere near a resolution.
In picking up on some of the responses given, are no vulnerability assessments being carried out independently, which is the key word here? Can I have some elaboration on that point, please? During my exposure, and that of colleagues, to a direct provision centre, one young person presented documentary evidence, which I can only accept in good faith, to the effect that that person was a child. However, on foot of representations with which I followed up - some colleagues will recall the case in question - RIA absolutely rejected, even with the documentary evidence presented, that the young person was 16 years of age. It held rigidly to this view and refused to provide for the needs of that very young person. I have to accept the evidence provided as to the birth certificate, which appeared to be a valid legal document. This is the only case that comes to mind as to vulnerability but there is nobody more vulnerable than an unaccompanied child, even one of 16 years of age who may be physically developed. Could the Ombudsman's office address that issue for me, not necessarily the particular case in question or its type, but the issue of the vulnerability assessments? Can the office clarify the area of responsibility where this should be done and whose role this is in the first instance?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
The responsibility for undertaking the vulnerability assessments will fall to RIA. In responding to Senator Black and others, I made clear that we have not received complaints on this topic. We will take it away now and will look at the issue and raise it in our meetings with RIA, as the committee has brought it our attention today. It has not been something that has come to us as an issue. Clearly, it is one we need to be sighted on and we will make sure to bring it forward and to report back to the committee on the outcome of our work.
I cited a particular case that I followed up myself as Chairman of the Committee on Justice and Equality.
The response I got was that RIA had decided the person in question is not 16 years of age, with no evidence provided. I have to say, with all respect to RIA, and this is not the only issue, this is not acceptable to me as Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. We have had RIA before us in the past and I certainly will address these matters with it when it presents at some point in the future.
In one of his responses on advice of intention to attend, Mr. Mallen gave an elaboration that it is not given only to the management of a centre. Did I pick it up correctly? Who advises the NGOs? To which NGOs did Mr. Mallen refer with regard to advising those in a particular catchment that the Office of the Ombudsman proposes to visit somewhere? He went on to say the office also advises the management to let the friends of the centre know. Will Mr. Mallen be a little clearer as to the methodology of how the friends of the centre are advised? Does the Office of the Ombudsman do it directly or is it dependent on the management of the centre communicating the information to whoever in order to inform the friends?
Mr. Paul Mallen:
We ask the management to notify the friends of the centre. We are not always aware of the groups in a particular centre. This has evolved. During the course of our visits, we have engaged with various NGOs that provide the service and we speak to them directly. They are the main national-based NGOs working in the immigrant area, such as the Irish Refugee Council, Nasc, the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI, and Spirasi. It includes any body that has input or involvement with the asylum community. We have ten or 12 on the list, which is growing as we engage. Recently, I was contacted by an advocacy service provided by an NGO to asylum seekers in the Dublin area and there will be further engagement with it. The list is growing. I send them a copy of the notification we send to the centre and I ask them to bring it to the attention of anybody they deal with in the particular area. This has been done for every centre we visit.
From my exposure to the matter, some of the friends of the centre groups in various parts of the country have been able to structure drop-in centres. In the area I am most aware of and exposed to, it is super. It is all part of the efforts of very good people in the community. I would cut out the management as a dependent means of advising. If there is an identifiable address with a permanent presence it should be for more than five days a week. It is even more important at weekends that there is an address and somebody can be contacted.
Last weekend, I attended an event in my home town organised by the ISPCC and want to acknowledge it because it was absolutely wonderful. We waited while the bus came from the distant direct provision centre, that some are all too familiar with. The young people came in from the centre for the evening event and it was absolutely super. I take my hat off to the parents and friends who all contributed. The ISPCC must be acknowledged for its initiative in ensuring inclusivity. It was a powerful simple hour in the evening.
Many of my colleagues have spoken about and reflected on some of the bigger issues.
In some centres, there is a tussle between rigidity and flexibility. We all need a little bit of flexibility in our lives. Rigidity is giving rise to unnecessary points of interface or conflict. These are not big issues. They are small things for people in life situations they see as being very confined, but they can grow exponentially. Rigidity should be okay; there must be rules. The application of rigidity in the situations I can think of, however, is beyond acceptable. There is also a conflict between respect and what I would regard as pettiness. I could not start to outline the instances and examples of pettiness being applied in many of these situations. People in this room, and anyone watching the meeting, would be incredulous. They would think, "God bless us; is this really happening?" It really and truly is. If anyone listening has any role at all in all of this, I ask them to put the pettiness aside. People deserve respect. The last thing is the battle between meanness and fairness. I see all of these things in the experiences of many people whose introductions to our society have been discoloured by this rigidity, pettiness and meanness. That is not our people; that is not what we are about. Our people are very different from that. I would like to see flexibility, respect and fairness as the new absolute principles of engagement with those who present seeking our help.
I will conclude with that. Is there anything Mr. Tyndall would like to say before we bring our engagement to a close?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
First of all, I am extremely grateful to the committee for the level of engagement it is showing on this issue. It has been a very important discussion and, arising from it, we will reconsider how we engage, whether we need to engage off-site, and whether we need to be visiting without advance notice. We will consider how to ensure that we engage with local representative groups, NGOs, friends of centres and so on. We will also consider the issue of vulnerability assessments and picking up on vulnerable people even where they have not been brought to our attention. We will also consider how to ensure that the rights granted by the directive are being vindicated. Those are things we can do. Some of the other things can only be done by the Oireachtas.
I thank the committee again for bringing ways in which we can improve to our attention. We will try to do that.
I thank Mr. Tyndall very much indeed. As I indicated, when we publish our report we will, of course, provide him with copies. On behalf of the committee, I thank Mr. Tyndall, Mr. Garvey, and Mr. Mallen. I wish all of them, and the entire team in the Office of the Ombudsman, continued success in making a difference in the lives of ordinary people. We depend so very much on what they do. The Joint Committee on Justice and Equality wishes them well. I thank them for their engagement and I thank the members for their attendance. The joint committee is adjourned until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 October, when we will commence our series of hearings on online harassment.