Wednesday, 14 November 2018
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Direct Provision System
I am deeply concerned that instead of trying to dismantle the shameful and unacceptable direct provision system, the Government is hell-bent on expanding the number of centres operating across the State. Direct provision is the incarceration of innocent people and, with good reason, it is often referred to as the Magdalen laundries of our generation. I received an email last week from the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, last week to invite me and others to a meeting tomorrow evening to outline its proposals to open a direct provision centre in the Grand Hotel in Wicklow town. This was somewhat disingenuous as I am informed that 13 rooms in the hotel are currently occupied under RIA's direct provision system already. As such, it appears this is not a proposal but is already being rolled out. Centres are often referred to as "holding camps" and as sites of deportability. For the Department to open another centre in the Grand Hotel in Wicklow town amid public outrage at the system is to show utter contempt for public opinion and refugees alike.
There is also a great deal of concern in the country about the loss of the only hotel in Wicklow town and the impact of that on tourism. Questions have been asked about how this fits into the recently launched tourism strategy for Wicklow. To open a new direct provision centre in Wicklow town will not serve the vulnerable people we must serve and protect as they arrive in the State seeking international protection. It will also not serve the recently launched tourism strategy. The only people it will serve are those private parties who are making multiple millions from this system. What is the Minister doing to dismantle the direct provision system? What process is used to identify the accommodation centres used? In this instance in Wicklow, were other centres actually considered?
Whether a person is refused or granted asylum, the process is taking far too long. Those people are kept locked up given the way it is done. Media reports from the last few days suggest that some people appear to be making a business of going around the country getting hotels to access the financial gain, to put it bluntly. When agreeing terms with a prospective person or company, does the Department check if the buildings proposed are planning compliant and does it check whether recreation facilities will be available for the vulnerable people involved? Are the buildings fire compliant? Does the Department check whether there are legal challenges in the background or does it simply make an agreement on a facility? I am referring in particular to the centre in Roosky.
For the State to meet its obligations as set out in Directive 2013/33/EU, which lays down standards for the reception of persons seeking international protection, and SI 230 of 2018, the State must have available sufficient accommodation to meet the demand of persons in the protection process. Due to significant demand, my Department has sought to identify additional accommodation by publishing notices seeking expressions of interest in the national press as the current accommodation portfolio will not meet the demand. It is by way of an expression of interest in response that the premises in Wicklow town and elsewhere were offered to the Department. To answer Deputy Fitzmaurice in that respect, officials do not go around looking for places. They are offered to the Department by the owners. As with all our accommodation centres, whether they are located in rural or urban areas, my Department will work closely with all relevant State agencies such as the Heath Service Executive and the Departments of Education and Skills and Employment Affairs and Social Protection to ensure that the services the residents of the accommodation centre require will be available to them.
All contractors are obliged to meet the reasonable transport needs of residents. Where an accommodation centre is not in place where public transport is readily available, additional transport arrangements are provided in consultation with Reception and Integration Agency. I stress that transport costs are funded through the local community welfare officer or RIA as appropriate. The contractor at each centre will also be required to set up a "friends of the centre" group as recommended in the McMahon report to facilitate linkages between the residents and the local community to encourage integration. My Department works closely with such groups to achieve these aims. Planning is checked with the relevant local authority to ensure there is compliance. Fire regulations are also checked out with the local authority. Recreation areas are important, as Deputy Fitzmaurice points out, and they are available. I cannot answer any questions about legal challenges. Deputy Brady asked if other sites were looked at but it does not work that way. Centres are offered on foot of a call for expressions of interest. If a centre is suitable, the Department enters into discussions with the owner or contractor to agree a contract to provide for people. We are all concerned about the people who come here looking for protection. That is paramount.
These are not Magdalen laundries. People are free to come and go. I ask that people do not use that kind of terminology as it is not fair to the people who live in the centres to have them described as holding camps. That is not the case. People are free to come and go from the accommodation which is offered to them. They do not have to take that offer up and some do not. Some people have friends and relatives with whom they can stay. If somebody arrives at Dublin Airport, Cork Airport or any of the ports and applies for asylum tonight, he or she will be offered accommodation if he or she needs it.
The likely alternative is for them to be on the streets and no Members want that. We are currently at capacity because approximately 3,500 people will seek accommodation under that process this year. That is why we put out a call for expressions of interest under which interested parties will offer accommodation to the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA.
There is no current plan to dismantle our accommodation centres because there is no available alternative. Similar systems are in operation across Europe. The McMahon report has been published and the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children ensure that standards in direct provision are as high as possible. As the Deputies will be aware, there was a change to the law as alluded to by Deputy Fitzmaurice to speed up the decision-making process to progress people through the system. The number of people in the system varies with frequent arrivals and departures. We are doing our best to move people through the system as quickly as possible.
The Minister of State missed the key point. I did not describe the centres as Magdalen laundries. Rather, the NGOs which deal with refugees seeking protection in this State did so. They are right to point out that direct provision centres are the modern-day equivalent of Magdalen laundries. The problem is that the Government is turning to the private sector to address the accommodation needs of these refugees. We need to provide accommodation for asylum seekers but the reliance on the private sector in that regard is part of the problem.
I wish to offer a short-term accommodation solution to the issue I outlined in Wicklow town. The district hospital in the town closed in 2010-11. It is vacant and in State ownership. It is close to all of the services the Minister of State outlined need to be in place and could be brought on stream to a high standard and meet all the needs of the refugees quickly and cheaply. That would ensure Wicklow town does not lose its only hotel. It would mean moving away from paying for private sector accommodation and would allow us to develop secure, safe, publicly provided accommodation that is suitable for the needs of asylum seekers.
We must ensure that the process of seeking asylum is not long and torturous. The lengthy waiting time is part of the problem, with people locked in direct provision centres for three or more years. The process must be sped up to ensure that places in the centres are freed up for asylum seekers.
I ask the Minister of State to pass on my proposal regarding Wicklow district hospital to RIA and his Department.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Is he or his Department concerned at what appears to be the concentration of contracts in the hands of certain providers? He is correct that it is not the fault of the Department and that people are free to tender for the contracts. Is there a concern that some providers are seeking the contracts for three, four or five centres? I welcome that the Minister of State clarified that the centres must be compliant with planning law and fire certification. If there is a concentration of supply, does the Department check what legal stipulations apply to those tendering for multiple contracts? I presume the contracts would not be signed before that is carried out.
I again urge caution in drawing comparisons to the Magdalen laundries. There is a significant difference. Those in direct provision were offered accommodation. They can come and go as they wish and they are treated very well. Inspections are carried out by the Ombudsman for Children among others. It is a completely different situation. Not all of the centres are operated or owned by the private sector; some are owned by the State. I will consider the proposal made by Deputy Brady regarding Wicklow district hospital.
On legal issues, I ask Deputy Fitzmaurice to notify us in writing of any legal concerns he may have. The centres are rigorously checked by RIA.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important topic. Earlier this year, RIA published in the national press a call for expressions of interest in providing premises to meet the increasing demand for accommodation for persons in the protection process. I emphasise that we put out a call for expressions of interest. The Department and RIA do not go around picking places and knocking on doors. The call sought expressions of interest from parties interested in providing accommodation and related services on an urgent and emergency basis. It was issued in response to an unforeseen demand for accommodation and related services for persons arriving in the State seeking international protection.
The criteria against which the Department assessed the offers of accommodation were availability, standard of the property, ability to provide communal and social spaces for residents, ability to cater at mealtimes and proximity to various other services. It should be noted that the premises were offered to the Department by individual contractors across the country and the Department did not randomly choose any location over another. It should also be noted that several centres are located in rural areas and are run successfully with all residents having access to required services.
Following on-site assessments carried out by staff of the Department, the Grand Hotel in Wicklow town, Caiseal Mara Hotel in Moville and Shannon Key West Hotel in Rooskey were deemed suitable. The premises are, or after refurbishment will be, capable of providing meals to residents, have the scope to provide the required communal and social areas and are located close to other social services with the support of additional transport if needed. My Department has engaged with the chief executives of local authorities in each of the areas and has provided elected representatives with information regarding the opening of the new accommodation centres. As with every other accommodation centre in the country, the Department works closely with all relevant Departments and agencies to co-ordinate the delivery of State services to residents. The Grand Hotel in Wicklow and Caiseal Mara Hotel in Moville are contracted to accommodate approximately 100 persons for one year pending compliance with all regulatory requirements. The indicative timeline for the opening of the centres is within the next two weeks. The hotel in Rooskey is not expected to be available until later this year after the completion of necessary refurbishment works.
The Department recently commenced a public procurement exercise under which public tenders for the provision of accommodation and ancillary services by way of independent living for persons in the protection process will be advertised to meet accommodation needs in the longer term. This process is scheduled to continue throughout 2019 and be completed in 2020. It will be delivered via a series of regional competitions.