Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Direct Provision System

9:35 am

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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2. To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to set out her plans regarding the current direct provision system in view of concerns that it is archaic, inhumane and not fit-for-purpose; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35740/14]

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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There has been a long overdue focus in recent times on the direct provision centres. I welcome much of what the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has said on the matter. We have been raising this issue throughout this Dáil session. The Minister's predecessor, Deputy Shatter, was deeply disappointing in his responses and attitude to this issue. It is refreshing to hear a new message coming from the Department and the Minister of State. I am keen to get more meat on the bone today in respect of what the Department will do.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I appreciate Deputy Mac Lochlainn has an interest in this area. The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, of my Department is responsible for the accommodation of protection applicants who come to Ireland in accordance with the Government policy of direct provision. The policy has been of long standing and has had various twists and turns in terms of trying to accommodate the people involved. It is associated with the crisis in homelessness that existed ten years ago when the decision was taken to provide these direct provision centres.

It is important to get across to the public the message that direct provision means full board accommodation is given to people in a variety of centres throughout the country. We have 4,330 people staying in 34 asylum centres. Let us put this in some context. The number of asylum seekers this year is running at a 40% high, although, obviously, from a low base in recent years. There has been a 40% increase this year. That is a reflection of a European-wide demand in respect of refugees as well as unrest in many countries. It is important to note the pressures that this creates on the State in terms of resources, accommodation and provision for the people who are arriving and who are often in a distressed state. We want to make real improvements, where possible, and we have made several commitments in the Government programme.

I imagine Deputy Mac Lochlainn will agree with me that the main concern of people who are in direct provision is the length of time involved. It is long overdue to have a focus on the single procedure and that is what we are doing. I will have heads of the Bill to Government within two to three weeks and we will progress that legislation in the coming months. It will probably be Easter 2015 by the time we get to implement it. Effectively, this means new arrivals will be dealt with within a year or a year and a half at the maximum. That will make a significant difference. This has been widely welcomed by the NGO community.

We have established the working party to examine what improvements can be made in the immediate future to the system as it exists at the moment.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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Of particular concern is the impact on children in these centres over a long period because of the cramped environment and the food. The food is outside of their cultural experience. I listened to some of the excellent journalistic reports on radio about deep-fried foods. This is food we recommend families should not be eating all the time. Yet this is what is being given to them every day. There is a sum of €15 per week. People are trapped in this situation and impoverished for a significant period. The Minister is right to say we need to dramatically speed up the process of application. Moreover, we need to focus in particular on the rights of the children. It has been said to me that this is like the modern equivalent of the Magdalen laundries. Perhaps it is not as extreme but it is another example of the State failing young people in particular in this situation.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Some 51,000 people have been accommodated in the centres over a period. There are issues that can be further addressed. We want to ensure the system is as humane as possible. Unlike many other countries we do not detain people here. We make this accommodation available while they are going through the legal system and process. Deputy Mac Lochlainn is right in that we want to give the children who are in direct provision the best possible experience they can have in this country. One of the things that happens here - sometimes people forget this - is that every child in direct provision goes to the local primary school or secondary school. It is a credit to past Governments in this regard. We have a system that ensures children are connected to the local community and get the benefit of our education system.

Deputy Mac Lochlainn referred to cramped conditions. There are a small number of self-catering units. I would like to see more and I would like to see families having greater autonomy in so far as they can within the direct provision system. However, Deputy Mac Lochlainn is aware that there is a resource issue in terms of provision and it is also a question of changing the type of accommodation. The working group will examine what changes can be made to improve the situation of families. Furthermore, there are strong child protection policies in place as well.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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The other issue of concern I wish to raise in this area is that of accountability. When we are providing a public service there is freedom of information and accountability to the Ombudsman. However, in the case of the private businesses that provide these services on behalf of the State, these do not apply. Therefore, we cannot look at how the money is spent or the type of food or accommodation provided.

They are not truly held to account, even though taxpayers' money is paying for this. That is the first issue.

The second issue is the reports of women in these centres turning to prostitution. I have seen the Minister's concerned remarks about that, but it is the inevitable outworking of a long-term situation when people find themselves trapped. I urge the Minister to move speedily on this. We lost three years with the Minister's predecessor who refused to accept that this is an issue. I welcome the language used by the Minister and her colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, but it is time to move quickly. Three years have been lost due to the appalling approach of the Minister's predecessor. The change must happen quickly.

9:45 am

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I caution against unrealistic expectations. As various people have said recently, this is a Europe-wide problem in terms of the demands in Europe, particularly in southern Europe, and the number of refugees as a result of unrest internationally. It is a complex issue that is placing huge demands on countries throughout Europe. I have made it clear that we will do whatever we can to improve conditions and to ensure that human rights are protected. My predecessor did excellent work on citizenship, work that had not been done previously in this country.

I do not accept it is inevitable that women in direct provision must resort to prostitution. I have asked for reports from the Garda on any harassment that might be taking place. If there is information available to show that women are being solicited or put under pressure, that must be examined and managers in local centres must be highly sensitive to it. Certainly, I do not see it as inevitable.