Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Direct Provision System
52. To ask the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his views on the decision not to implement the recommendations in the McMahon report on direct provision; the reason those recommendations were not implemented; if the recommendations of the Ombudsman for Children in his report on the safety and welfare of children in direct provision will be implemented before the new system of direct provision is in place; his views on the report by the Ombudsman for Children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35954/21]
My question follows up on the issues raised by Deputy Cairns. Why have the recommendations in the McMahon report on direct provision not been implemented? Will the recommendations of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children report, entitled Safety and Welfare of Children in Direct Provision, be implemented before the new system of direct provision is in place? What are the Minister's views on the ombudsman's report?
The Deputy has asked two quite broad questions and I will do my best to cover them. First, I have always stated my view that the current system of provision of accommodation for people in international protection is not fit for purpose. That is why we are replacing it and we have set out how we are going to do that in the White Paper. We are ending direct provision. In designing the White Paper, we had the opportunity to see the first draft of the report of the Ombudsman for Children. It was very much reflected in how we designed the White Paper, particularly the supports we are putting in place for children and ensuring Tusla is represented in the reception and integration centres that will be established.
The McMahon report was published in June 2015 and included a total of 173 recommendations for various Departments. The Department of Justice, which was then the lead Department, has indicated that 98% of those recommendations were either implemented or at least put in progress. It has been noted that the McMahon report resulted in substantial improvements in the direct provision system at that time. More than 70% of residents now have access to cooking facilities, for example, which was an important recommendation. It remains my Department's target that all centres will be capable of providing independent living facilities as soon as possible.
However, we know the McMahon report was coming from a low base. That is why we are not looking to tinker with direction provision; we are looking to end it and bring in a new system. I am also very conscious of the failings on the part of Tusla and IPAS that were illustrated in the report of the Ombudsman for Children. I covered several of them in my response to Deputy Cairns. The ombudsman recognised when he published that report the very substantial co-operation he received from both Tusla and IPAS, our full acceptance of the recommendations and our action to implement them as quickly as possible.
I appreciate that the situation has improved since the publication of the White Paper. However, as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Petitions, I was shocked when the ombudsman came before us recently to present his report. It highlights how children in the direct provision system are not deemed to be a vulnerable group. How that ever happened puzzles me. Inspections are not frequent enough and do not take account of the mental health and emotional needs of children.
In emergency response centres, they do not take place at all. The report also pointed out that the recommendations of the McMahon report have not been implemented. That is the point on which I want to focus because the Ombudsman told the Committee on Public Petitions when he appeared before it that there has never been a rationale behind the failure to implement the McMahon report or even the recommendations that came out of it. He suggested that political priorities and changes of Government may have contributed to that failure. As the Minister stated, the report of the Ombudsman for Children also pointed to the fact that IPAS failed to implement the recommendations. HIQA agreed to undertake inspections but the Ombudsman has noted that the legislative change that would be required could take years and we do not have that time. Does the Minister have proposals on the legislative change needed?
The Deputy is correct that implementation of the White Paper is key. We have to learn from the fact that parts of the McMahon report were not implemented. What we set out in the White Paper is a transition team. It is made up of new civil servants in my Department with the specific job of changing the system. I am not asking the people who are running the existing system and have their hands full with that to bring in the new system. Rather, I have set up a new team, the international protection support service, to do so. It is overseen by a programme board staffed by representatives of my Department and other Departments such as the Departments of Justice and Education and involving local authorities and the Housing Agency to bring in that wider degree of expertise because, as we know, dealing with the accommodation needs of international protection applicants will be very important. Finally, there is an advisory committee comprising three people who have an independent oversight role and a responsibility to, I suppose, hold my feet and those of the Government to the fire in terms of making sure we implement in a timely fashion.
I remind the Minister that the Ombudsman stated there is a lack of operational guidance between IPAS and Tusla. I appreciate he acknowledged that already. Those agencies both have responsibilities for children in direct provision, which has resulted in a situation in which children lack visibility in their systems. Direct provision is on the agenda of the Committee on Public Petitions again this Thursday. Representatives of Doras, an NGO, will attend the meeting alongside the Irish Refugee Council and are due to tell the committee that people in direct provision are 15 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety or post-traumatic disorder. Although I acknowledge that this country has failed for many years to have a fit-for-purpose mental health system, these are vulnerable children who have been in situations most of us cannot even imagine. Will the Minister give me a firm commitment that he will ensure, to the best of his ability, the changes in the White Paper will be implemented before the new system of direct provision is in place in a few years time?
In terms of the report by the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, many of those recommendations have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented in terms of the changes required of IPAS and Tusla. The Ombudsman has recognised the co-operation that both bodies have shown. I am sure he will continue to monitor our co-operation and our implementation of those measures and I absolutely appreciate that. The Ombudsman for Children and the Office of the Ombudsman both contributed to the process of establishing the White Paper and I think they both recognised what the Government is seeking to achieve in terms of the very significant change in how we accommodate persons seeking international protection and, in particular, how we accommodate their children. As I stated to Deputy Cairns, the introduction of the vulnerability assessment allows us to identify specific issues that each new applicant faces and make provision for those.