Wednesday, 3 November 2021
Health (Inspection of Emergency Homeless Accommodation and Asylum Seekers Accommodation) Bill 2021: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to enable the Health Information and Quality Authority to inspect certain emergency homeless residential accommodation in respect of which assistance has been or is being given under section 10 of the Housing Act 1988 by a local authority within the meaning the Local Government Act 2001, to enable Health Information and Quality Authority to inspect reception centres and accommodation centres provided for asylum seekers to which the European Communities (Reception Conditions) Regulations 2018 (S.I. No. 230 of 2018) relate, and for those purposes to amend the Health Act 2007 and to provide for related matters.
As all Deputies know, there are far too many single people and families with children in emergency accommodation and in direct provision. In some cases, families are spending four or five years in emergency accommodation. Despite numerous Government commitments over many years, people continue to be trapped in the direct provision system for six, seven and in some cases eight years. Progress in ending the use of dormitory-style emergency accommodation and ending the use of direct provision is far too slow. While the primary focus must be on getting people out of these inappropriate forms of accommodation, it is crucial that while anybody is in emergency accommodation of any kind, the highest possible standards are adhered to.
Some years ago, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive developed a very good set of standards, the quality standards framework. However, the problem is they only apply to voluntary sector emergency accommodation and not to private sector emergency accommodation. The inspection regime is highly problematic. There are no inspections of private emergency accommodation. The funders of the voluntary sector accommodation are meant to do the inspections themselves. These are not independent and therefore there are conflicts of interest.
We have also seen very low levels of inspection, both prior to the Covid pandemic and during the pandemic. Meanwhile, on the direct provision side, the nature of the inspection regime is quite laughable. It is essentially a box-ticking exercise that does not in any way reflect the very difficult conditions and on many occasions the failure to comply with contractual terms agreed with the Reception and Integration Agency. We also have many reports, both from the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland and the Children's Rights Alliance, as well as good quality investigative journalism, including by thejournal.ieon foot of freedom of information requests, showing very considerable levels of complaints by people living either in private emergency accommodation or in direct provision.
At this stage, the case for fully independent inspections of all forms of emergency accommodation, whether for people experiencing homelessness or those who are in direct provision, is absolutely compelling. For example, we know the difference that independent inspections by HIQA made to the nursing home sector, something which is entirely commendable. Some time ago, I met officials from HIQA who shared the concerns of many people regarding the absence of an independent inspection regime for emergency accommodation and direct provision. The Bill before us today seeks to amend the legislation underpinning HIQA to give it the powers to conduct fully independent inspections of these two forms of accommodation.
Of course, we do not just need to give it the powers to do so; we also need to give it appropriate resources. Those people who are experiencing homelessness and those people who are fleeing war and persecution and seeking asylum are among the most vulnerable and the most at-risk sections of our community. Therefore, they should have even higher standards than anybody else in our society while they are enduring the emergency that they are in.
The Bill is very straightforward. I can see no reason the Government would oppose it if and when we bring it forward on Second Stage. I am very happy to introduce it today. I thank the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers for its very extensive assistance on the Bill. It was not easy legislation to produce. I am hoping for the Taoiseach's active support. I am sure, given that it has had the support of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers, he will see that the Bill not only makes eminent policy sense, but is well written from a legislative point of view and will encourage his Government colleagues to support it at a later stage. I commend the Bill to the House.