Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Direct Provision System
51. To ask the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the immediate steps he is taking to address the child safeguarding concerns raised in the report of the Ombudsman for Children, Safety and Welfare of Children in Direct Provision. [36288/21]
My question is about safeguarding concerns in respect of the direct provision system. In April, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children published its report entitled Safety and Welfare of Children in Direct Provision, which identified a range of child protection and welfare concerns, including that staff members working in centres had not been vetted to work with children and a failure to report a serious child protection concern. What assurances can the Minister give that these issues are being addressed?
I welcomed the report of the Ombudsman for Children and accepted its recommendations in full. I received the report soon after responsibility for the international protection accommodation service, IPAS, was transferred to my Department. Its content makes for difficult reading. IPAS has embarked upon a series of actions, planned for the short and medium term, that will build upon existing work to ensure the recommendations of the Ombudsman for Children are implemented as quickly as possible. I am encouraged by the comments of the ombudsman, Dr. Niall Muldoon, regarding the co-operation with his office by both IPAS and Tusla and the measures taken by them since they received the report. Both agencies and my Department will continue to work collaboratively with the ombudsman on this matter.
The key priority will be to move all remaining children and families still residing in congregated hotel-style living to own-door or independent living accommodation. With this in mind, a full public procurement process will take place in 2021 with the aim of securing the additional spaces required to end the use of emergency accommodation by IPAS. The procurement will have a specific focus on the provision of child-friendly accommodation that allows parents and children to enjoy a quiet and private family life.
A new resident welfare team has been established within IPAS to manage cases of individual families and single residents identified as having special reception needs and ensure such needs continue to be identified and addressed in the most appropriate way possible. The multidisciplinary team includes social workers and experts from the fields of education, health and childcare. IPAS is also committed to working with Tusla during 2021 to develop interagency protocols and operating procedures that will ensure both organisations are sharing information on relevant cases. All existing and new centres will be required to develop a child safeguarding statement. IPAS will work with Tusla to ensure that compliance with child safeguarding statements and Children First legislation is audited this year.
I see the ombudsman's report as a significant contribution to promoting dignified and appropriate accommodation for people seeking international protection. My Department will continue to work with IPAS and Tusla on these issues.
The ombudsman's report highlighted systematic faults in the direct provision system. The report was unambiguous in stating that the direct provision model "does not have the best interests of children, or the protection and promotion of the human rights of the child refugees at its core". We know many asylum seekers are vulnerable due to language barriers, lack of social supports and the traumas of forced migration. There is an inherent kind of power imbalance between staff and residents, which is made clear in the report, with one parent fearful of making legitimate complaints due to the risk of reprisals and weaponisation of child protection. While I really welcome the Minister's commitment to ending direct provision, we know it will take years to achieve. Can he guarantee that staff members in the centres will be vetted to work with children and trained in child protection?
The ombudsman is absolutely right to highlight the inappropriateness of the direct provision system to deal with the needs of anybody, particularly those of children. That is why we brought forward the White Paper proposing to end direct provision and replace it with a new international protection support service, with all the wrap-around supports it entails. As the Deputy notes, this will take a number of years to achieve, specifically, until the end of 2024. I have outlined some of the immediate actions both IPAS and Tusla are taking, individually within their own spheres but also together. This is important because one of the findings of the ombudsman's report was that the two bodies were not talking to each other. Both now come under my responsibility and that will help to ensure there is full co-operation between them. Our introduction of the vulnerability assessment is really important because it will ensure that when somebody new comes into the international protection system, we can immediately identify specific vulnerabilities they may have and make provision for them within the services we provide.
There has been a clear failure by previous Governments and State agencies to oversee direct provision. Is the Minister working with the Minister for Justice to address issues such as IPAS's failure to follow its own child protection and welfare policy? What is he doing in response to the failures on the part of Tusla that were identified in the report, including its failure to co-ordinate services to meet the needs of children in direct provision and identify a named social worker for a direct provision centre in one area? In light of this country's history of child abuse in State-sponsored institutions, we all hope the Department of Justice and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth will work together to ensure the highest standard of child protection practice. That is not the case at the moment, unfortunately, but I am glad the Minister is working towards it and we all support him in doing so. The ombudsman's report details a catalogue of failures to protect incredibly vulnerable young people.
I will give the Deputy some further information on what is happening in this area. Additional child safety training will be rolled out to all centre managers during 2021, as soon as the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. The child safeguarding statements will be translated into all relevant languages across all centres, which will enable people to understand them immediately. In terms of the wider issues, particularly issues that fall under the remit of the Department of Justice, such as the times for processing international protection applications, I will be engaging with the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, on them later this week. The point has been made by me, by NGOs and, in particular, by people living in direct provision that it is only by getting the processing times directly shortened that we can have real success in terms of the implementation of the White Paper. I will be working on that with both the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, when she returns from leave.