Seanad debates

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

3:05 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, and his officials to the House.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I move:


“That Seanad Éireann -
notes the calls from civil society organisations, legal practitioners, academics, human rights activists and Members of the Oireachtas for reform of Direct Provision, the administrative system for accommodating asylum seekers;
notes that, according to the latest available statistics from the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) Monthly Report June, 2013, there are 4,624 RIA residents 'live on the system' of whom 1,732 are children;
welcomes the commitment by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to meet with the Seanad Cross Party Group on Direct Provision, made at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Health and Children on 10 October, 2013; and
calls on the Minister for Justice and Equality to -
- outline his response to the recommendations of the Government's Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, in the Fifth Report (July 2012) for
- an examination to establish whether the system of Direct Provision itself is detrimental to the welfare and development of children and whether, if appropriate, an alternative form of support and accommodation could be adopted which is more suitable for families and particularly children; and
- the establishment in the interim of an independent complaints mechanism and independent inspections of Direct Provision centres and give consideration to these being undertaken through either HIQA (inspections) or the Ombudsman for Children (complaints);
- outline the legislative basis for payments to asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation and the effect on these payments, if any, of the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Act 2009 which precludes asylum seekers from being granted habitual residency status; and
- further to the Minister's announcement in January, 2013 that '[r]eform of the immigration system will be sustained in 2013 and I will be focusing on major
legislative and procedural measures such as the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill', to debate with Members of Seanad Éireann how best to reform Ireland's reception and asylum system.”.
I thank everyone who has signed and supported this motion, particularly my Independent group colleagues for allowing group time to be used. I wish to acknowledge the years the Minister spent as the Opposition spokesperson for children. He demonstrated a real understanding and commitment to the promotion and protection of children's rights in Ireland and I am confident it has been continued under his remit as Minister for Justice and Equality.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to re-publish in revised form the Immigration, Residency and Protection Bill, which is currently stalled on Committee Stage in the other House and which has been eight years in production.

I welcome this opportunity to have an open and frank discussion about the direct provision and dispersal system and to make suggestions for its reform process. This is a sensitive societal issue and I appreciate that the Government has decided not to table a counter-motion, thus allowing the debate to continue in a constructive and inclusive manner. All too often we perpetuate a political environment where Government concedes little for fear of exposing itself to liability. I wish this were not the case but I understand that it is. My hope is that the Minister and the relevant Departments are listening to what we are saying in a spirit of constructive engagement. We are all striving to make the society in which we live a better place for all who live in it. I also note that a root and branch challenge of the direct provision system taken by three families, has been given leave to proceed by Mr. Justice Colm MacEochaidh in the High Court yesterday.

It is very important that we as parliamentarians and legislators take ownership of the need to reform the current direct provision system rather than waiting and being forced into it by judicial imperative.

My entry point into the issue of direct provision is from a children's rights perspective. This perspective has been informed by my work on related issues as the former chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance; the recommendations of the Government-appointed special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon; and the concerns raised by advocacy groups. On that note I welcome to the Gallery for this debate Sharon Waters from the Irish Refugee Council and Lassane Ouedraogo and Reuben Hamakachere who have personal experience of the direct provision system and actively campaign to bring about its end. I also welcome the media coverage of the issue and in this regard I would like to commend the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund, set up to advance ethical investigative media coverage of three key issues - mental health; immigrant rights and integration; and children and young people's rights. It has recently funded Tom Mooney, editor of the Wexford Echo, and his series "The Children of Operation Hyphen", which included an article on the state of mental health of people in direct provision. The Minister facilitated my own recent visits to two direct provision asylum accommodation centres, with my colleagues Senators Fiach Mac Conghail and Katherine Zappone.

It has taken me a long time to wade through the mire that is the political discourse on direct provision. It has been difficult to establish which features of the system belong to the Minister's remit, the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or that of the Department of Social Protection. I have struggled to understand the distinction drawn between children "cared for by the State", as is used to describe children in direct provision, and children "in the care of the State". I have argued strenuously that children are children, irrespective of status, and that it is a stretch in credulity to claim that children in direct provision are in the care of their parents in circumstances where the parents' autonomy to make even basic decisions about their children's care - for example what and when to eat - is so limited as to render it absent. This is a concern shared by the Government's special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, which I will refer to again later.

My overwhelming concern is that the administrative system of direct provision, which has been operating in Ireland since April 2000, is detrimental to the welfare and development of asylum seekers, and in particular the 1,732 children currently residing in direct provision accommodation centres throughout Ireland. I am also very concerned that between 2000 and 2010, the direct provision and dispersal system has cost the State an estimated €655 million in contracts to private companies which are operating the centres on a for-profit basis.

In a recent letter to me as part of ongoing correspondences between our offices on direct provision, the Minister stated that the current system allows the State to provide a roof over the head of those seeking asylum in a manner that facilitates resources being used economically in circumstances where the State is in financial difficulty. I am not convinced the current system is the most economical and my colleagues, Senators Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Martin Conway, will elaborate on alternative models and cheaper options. Furthermore, the best interests of persons seeking asylum should outweigh financial considerations in the discharge of our international, regional and humanitarian obligations.

In my time as a Senator, I have identified and spoken on the Adjournment about a plethora of difficulties, including the dubious legality of the direct provision system, the lack of an independent complaints mechanism for residents, the absence of independent inspections of direct provision centres where children reside, the decision by Ireland to opt out of the EU directive to allow asylum seekers to enter the work force if their application has not been processed after one year, the fact that there are no prospects for post-secondary education for young asylum seekers, which is like hitting a pause button for an uncertain and doubtlessly lengthy period of time, the fettering arid erosion of normal family dynamics and functioning and the lack of autonomous decision making. I do not intend to elaborate on each of these concerns but I will say a few words about the lack of specific legislation underpinning the provision of direct provision.

I know the Minister is aware of this specific concern as we have corresponded in its regard. I note in the same letter I mentioned previously what I took to be a suggestion that since existing laws - and although it is unspecified in the letter I presume social welfare law would be a good example - would "otherwise specifically prohibit asylum seekers from being able to be provided with the basic necessities of life", we should simply ignore said provisions and carry on regardless. I fully accept and welcome that Ireland has an obligation under international and European human rights law to meet the needs of asylum seekers while their application for refugee, subsidiary protection or leave to remain is being considered. However, this must be done in a manner that complies with our own domestic legislation.

Direct provision was introduced in a haphazard manner in 1999 and 2000, with little concern for its relationship with Irish social welfare law. For several years, direct provision was viewed as part of the supplementary welfare allowance system, and this is evidenced from extensive documentation obtained by Dr. Liam Thornton under freedom of information and which I have furnished to the Minister in previous correspondence. Concerns were expressed by officials in the Department of Social Protection that the payment of €19.10 per week per adult and €9.60 per week per child was ultra vires, and the payment advice slips to asylum seekers continue to view the entirety of the direct provision system as being closely aligned with the system of supplementary welfare allowance, with deductions for accommodation, as administered by the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA. As the Minister is aware, supplementary welfare allowance can be provided in cash or in kind, and it appears that RIA, the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Justice and Equality had until recently considered supplementary welfare allowance as the legal basis for direct provision. To state that this scheme is wholly administrative, or that the Departments of Justice and Equality or Social Protection can act since the introduction of the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Act in 2009 contrary to legislation that debars asylum seekers from receiving supplementary welfare allowance displays a worrying approach of both Departments, which seem to consider that law does not apply to them.

Ultimate the failing of direct provision is the length of time asylum seekers remain in the system waiting for their claims to be processed. It is important to remember that when first introduced 13 years ago, direct provision was viewed as a time-limited system that would be for a maximum of six months. If this was the case, I would not be standing here today and I could tolerate the inadequacies that would present in that time period rather than the outright failings that present in this system, where the average length of stay is four years and a significant number have remained in the system for between five and ten years. This is far too long and leaves asylum seekers de-skilled, institutionalised, vulnerable to mental health issues and socially excluded.

The impact on children is particularly worrying. According to the Government's special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, "the specific vulnerability of children accommodated in the system of direct provision [is] the potential or actual harm which is being created by the particular circumstances of their residence, including the inability of parents to properly care for and protect their children and the damage that may be done by living for a lengthy period of time in an institutionalised setting which was not designed for long term residence". The long-term solution has got to be a streamlined status determination system where decisions are taken fairly and speedily, with quick recognition of those identified as in need of refugee or subsidiary protection or leave to remain, or a speedy human rights compliant removal or deportation process. I hope this will be delivered through the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill. I will make some recommendations when summing up the debate.

3:15 pm

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I second the motion before the House and extend a warm welcome to the Minister. I acknowledge that both he and his Cabinet colleagues have not set out the motion and it appears to have all-party support.

This is a challenging issue for all of us in Irish society, as an issue had arisen in the early 2000s which moved the Government to create a direct provision scheme in Ireland without a legislative or statutory basis. At the time, the Government hoped that it would resolve a temporary issue, although this ended up in a haphazard fashion, as noted by Senator van Turnhout. It was hoped the issue would go away; it was a case of out of sight, out of mind. Before my time as a Senator, I had no clue really as to what was involved in direct provision. I was a member of the middle class, although politically engaged and perhaps socially naïve. We speak sometimes about what the Seanad can contribute to or do for people and what it did for me is opened my eyes to the narrative of direct provision in Ireland 13 years later.

According to the latest statistics from the Reception and Integration Agency monthly report of June 2013, as quoted in the motion, there are 4,624 residents "live on the system", of whom 1,732 are children. Statistics, rules and regulation tell one story but only when I visited two accommodation centres, one in Athlone and the other in Hatch Hall, did the reality become quite sobering. At this stage I owe a debt of gratitude to my colleagues, Senator van Turnhout and Zappone, who allowed this "gifted amateur" to join the ranks of the two visits.

I was met by staff and officials from the Department who were open, courteous and polite. They answered all our questions. I did not know what to expect when I visited the centres but I saw nothing wrong or out of the ordinary or anything that broke a law yet a pallor of depression hit me on the way home. The three of us who on the way to Athlone on a snowy Monday afternoon last March were talking, debating and full of life, drove home in silence in an emerging realisation as we approached the M50 that what we had witnessed and experienced at the direct provision asylum accommodation centre in Athlone was lifeless. It is an institution devoid of community, history, colour, a homely atmosphere or the usual domestic mess and detritus one would imagine leaving behind in an apartment or house. I felt a lack of oxygen, atmosphere and joy as I left the mobile home site catering for 34 men, 71 women and 177 children.

Almost half of the residents in the Athlone centre have been waiting for their status to be processed for between five and seven years. The longest stay resident is six years and two months. The trick when one visits the accommodation is that one sees nothing wrong because one is there for three hours, not for three years or three months. Anyone who has ever gone on a caravanning holiday will know that the first week is full of excitement, especially if the weather is fine, but soon the lack of space, privacy and money become the dominant tensions. As Senator van Turnhout put it in proposing the motion, all children need to be raised in an atmosphere where care providers offer emotional protection and support. If nature starts the process, nurture should follow through. Are we hearing and bearing witness to the horror stories of the next generation of society, the next chapter of our nation's narrative? It was reported today in The Irish Timesthat an emergency care order was granted for an eight year old asylum seeker in a direct provision centre where she was born. She was later reunited with her mother. In making orders in their case, the judge commented that the child had spent her entire life in direct provision which "seems inappropriate". I do not make direct parallels with fiction but Emma Donoghue's novel The Roomcomes to mind. In it, the child who was being protected by the mother felt normal in an abnormal situation. Habit becomes normal and becomes an invisible corner in Irish society. I will not repeat the litany of shameful examples in Irish history that have been documented but we need to reform this inhumane provision.

According to the Irish Refugee Council report authored by Samantha Arnold entitled, State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion: "Parents in direct provision are unable to care for or govern the rules and customs of their family and the upbringing of their children due to the restrictions of living in centres. Direct provision is an unnatural family environment that is not conducive to positive development in children". We all know the good memories we have or hope to have growing up in a home: making pancakes in the middle of the night; having pizzas as we watch football with parents and siblings at odd hours, day or night; the sleepover during which, as a parent, one tries to quieten giddy young girls; or meeting the boyfriend of one's daughter for the first time when one pretends one is making a cup of tea 4 a.m. Those memories are impossible in Mosney, Hatch Hall or Athlone.

In a recent judgment on an application for judicial review in the Northern Ireland high court in Belfast, Mr. Justice Stephens outlined in detail his significant discomfort with the system of direct provision in the Republic. This ultimately led to a decision not to return a family of asylum seekers to the Republic. Mr. Justice Stephens clearly stated that the system of direct provision is contrary to the best interests of the child. Asylum seekers are not entitled to work. Adults are paid €19.10 weekly and denied their human rights to work and to protect and provide for their dependants. Three families have been granted leave to challenge the direct provision system of housing for the asylum seeker, as Senator van Turnhout mentioned. One of the families argued that the operation of the direct provision scheme is unconstitutional due to the lack of any originating legislative basis and the absence of independent or parliamentary scrutiny. This evening, I bear witness and give support to a more humane, child-centred and shorter processing system to resolving asylum applications in order that we can cherish all our children, including our asylum seeking children, all the time.

3:25 pm

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I commend Senators van Turnhout and Mac Conghail and their colleagues on tabling this important motion. I welcome the Minister to the House. Everybody wants a better system than what is in existence. Unfortunately, Ireland was probably caught with its eyes closed to this problem in the mid-1990s when asylum seekers travelled here for a better life and to escape torture and so on. The direct provision system that was put in place was the wrong answer to the problem but given many people were migrating here back then and Ireland was not prepared and did not have a structure, this was deemed to be the correct structure. However, the tales I have heard from people in direct provision centres and about such centres and the reports I have read in the media indicate otherwise.

I, along with Senator Ó Clochartaigh and others, visited two centres in Galway last week. One is the Great Western House off Eyre Square where we met management and officials from the Department and the RIA, all of whom were courteous, and residents. We also attended the Eglinton Hotel centre in Salthill where we met management and residents. There were a number of common themes and I noted a number of issues. The first was interesting in that everybody had the same story. The time they have spent in these centres is unacceptable. When one hears the harrowing stories of the people in these centres for more than ten years, it is inhumane, inappropriate and wrong and it does not do the great society we have any justice whatsoever. I heard stories of women giving birth to children who have not seen the outside of these centres at all. Luckily, some of them did the leaving certificate and benefited from our education system but they were unable to go on to college because there is no facility to enable them financially or otherwise. They cannot find the money anywhere because they are not allowed to work.

I refer to a contrasting issue between the two centres when we met the residents. In the Great Western House centre, we met the residents on their own and they were more amenable to telling us their stories. We heard about the conditions they have experienced and it was traumatic to say the least but when we visited the Eglinton Hotel centre, the manager decided to sit in on the discussion we had with the residents for whatever reason and the stories were muted. I am sure Senator Ó Clochartaigh will agree about this. There was no criticism of the facility or the food and the residents concentrated on the time they had been there. They were articulate people who were well able to make their case but, unfortunately, they were muted because the manager decided to sit in on our meeting with them. Senator Ó Clochartaigh and I, as guests of the Irish Refugee Council, visited a facility in Portugal, which is not without its flaws, but it is far superior to what we have here. Residents have an opportunity to engage and get to know Portuguese culture, benefit from the education system, integrate and build relationships in the communities in which they live.

We asked about the longest time a person has had to wait to be "released". My use of the word is considered. We were told 18 months would be considered desperate and totally inappropriate but it has been more than a decade here. The Portuguese example is one from which we could learn a lot, but it could be improved upon. As a country we should not need to look at international best practice; we should be able to set it.

The bottom line is that going back as far as the Famine our people have emigrated. They have had mixed experiences. They have been treated very well in some countries to which they went but they have also been treated appallingly in other countries. That can still happen. This country should lead the way in that regard. We should show that we will give back what our citizens have got elsewhere when travelling abroad.

I wish to reflect some comments that were made by the residents to whom we spoke. They said that if they were given a prison sentence, at least they would know they would be released by a certain date but at the moment they do not know. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to prioritise the issue. I acknowledge that these people have no votes, and perhaps that is why there has not been the political will to deal with the issue for the past decade. That does not make it right. They are citizens and human beings. We signed up to the UN Convention on Human Rights. We have a responsibility to do the right thing. This has been a useful and worthwhile debate. I look forward to the response of the Minister, whom I know is committed in this area. We have two and a half years left in government and we must deal with the issue so that the next Government, whoever that will be, will inherit a better system than we did.

3:35 pm

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to hear what Senator Conway had to say before rising to my feet. I thank Senators van Turnhout, Mac Conghail and Zappone for taking the initiative to table the motion during their Private Members' time. I also commend Senators van Turnhout and Ó Clochartaigh for their work on the issue for some time. The two Senators approached me and other Members a long time ago to ask us to take part in an ad hoc group with a view to working on the issue in terms of research, consultation and visits before bringing it before the House. That is a great example of how this House should do its work. It is testament to that approach that we do not have a Government amendment because Senators of all parties and none have been working on the issue for a considerable time. I welcome also the comments from Senator Conway. I have no doubt the fact we do not have an amendment has much to do with the work he has done in terms of getting Government support.

This is an incredibly important issue. We have more than 4,500 people in direct provision, including, as has already been mentioned, more than 1,700 children. As has been said by other Senators, whatever about people living in such conditions in one room for three or six months, the extended period, which is the reality faced by asylum seekers, is frightening. More than 3,138 asylum seekers have been living in direct provision accommodation for more than three years and 600 for more than seven years. That is seven years of living in conditions that often involve up to five or six people in one room, including children and teenagers of different genders. It can be difficult enough to have them all in the one house let alone in one room. Communal bathrooms are also a feature. In some cases there are single parents. They cannot leave some children unattended so they must all go to the bathroom together if a small child needs to go, even in the middle of the night. Parents have no freedom over cooking or other arrangements, which undermines their authority in respect of building a parental relationship with their children. The fact that they cannot work is of concern. We heard personal accounts put forward by the Refugee Council of Ireland and others about the impact that has. Parents are not able to act as a role model for their children as they cannot go out to work and provide for the families. Instead, the role is filled by the State. Children see food and shelter as things that are provided by a State agency rather than by their parents. We are the only EU country that has an absolute ban on work. In other countries, parents are entitled to work after a year.

Much of the problem surrounds the time period that is involved because whatever about not being allowed to work for a short period, the fact that someone would be in a country for up to seven years and not have any ability to provide for themselves or any independence or opportunity to work leads to institutionalisation in the long term. In such circumstances, how could one expect someone whose application is successful to have any real chance of integration into society and an opportunity to participate in what is essentially their new home? We can do better.

It is timely to have the system reviewed. It was set up in 2000 as a panicked short-term response because the application numbers for asylum seekers at that stage were in excess of 10,000 and there were 11,634 in 2003. The numbers had reduced to 940 in 2012. If ever there was an opportunity to get it right and to change the system it is now while there are fewer people applying for asylum. I am aware the Minister is examining the broader issue in the context of the reform of the overall asylum application process. He intends to introduce a single application system. I hope that will address in particular the issues around speed because if people are fleeing persecution they are entitled to have their applications decided on as quickly as possible. It is one thing if their applications do not stand up but the decisions should be made much more quickly. Those who are successful should be given every opportunity to have a new, independent life as soon as possible rather than being stuck in an institution of the State.

Other speakers have referred to the concerns expressed about the system by a host of persuasive and independent people. The special rapporteur on child protection, Geoffrey Shannon, has spoken about the child protection risk, as has the former Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly. Catherine McGuinness wrote a very moving article about how a future Government will have to apologise for what is going on because, as has been said today and previously in the House in the debate on the Magdalen laundries and other such issues in the past two years, child protection risks increase in such a system. The institutionalisation in many respects has parallels with what happened in the past. We have spoken about those issues and recent Governments have apologised for them, yet we know what is going on under our noses in the direct provision system. We cannot say we do not know. We have a responsibility to address it. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has pointed out the mental health consequences of people living for extended periods in what is essentially institutionalised care.

I welcome the debate. The motion is simple. The Senators responsible for it went to great lengths to leave it as unpolitical as possible. All it calls for is a review of the system, independent inspections and a complaints mechanism, and that child protection issues would be examined. I also welcome the fact that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, has agreed to meet with the ad hoc group. I hope the Minister, Deputy Shatter, will take on board the genuine concerns of Members on all sides and that it is something he will address.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to have this debate. I commend Senator van Turnhout and her colleagues in the Taoiseach’s nominee group because it is an important debate to have. I further thank the Minister and the Government for not tabling an amendment. As Senator Power said, it is appropriate that we would take a constructive cross-party approach on the issue. This is exactly the type of issue we should be able to constructively debate in such a way in the Seanad. It is good to do so just after we have had a fulsome debate on Seanad reform with the Taoiseach. This is a model of how things might be done. It is particularly appropriate on an issue such as this that we do not take a partisan approach along party-political lines.

It should be a matter of great shame to all of us that we have had a system of direct provision in place for 14 years, since November 1999, in which there may well be abuses. We are certainly conscious of inadequate facilities, at a minimum. There have been many reports and official criticisms of the direct provision system. The Minister, when in opposition, voiced criticisms also. Rightly, people are critical of the system. Former Ombudsman Ms Emily O'Reilly stated in July of this year that direct provision imposes a significant cost in terms of impact on physical and mental health, family, relationships and the ability to participate in society. She cited a particular case that she said would have been a major scandal had it happened in the case of an Irish citizen's family. It was a case involving the refusal by the HSE to pay supplementary welfare allowance to a mother of two in direct provision in a hostel. One of her children had attempted suicide. The child was put into care but the family remains separated because the woman was denied a welfare payment.

The FLAC report from 2009, which looks back over ten years of direct provision, states direct provision entails a flawed system and that is has failed to protect adequately the rights of those seeking asylum and protection in Ireland and should be abolished. It made practical recommendations as to how the system could be improved if it were to be retained. It is a matter of great concern and shame to all of us that the system continues to be in place. We need to examine practically how we can best reform it, if we are not to abolish it. The motion tabled by the Independent Senators is a really practical and constructive one because it seeks to address this very practical concern.

Let us examine the numbers. There has been a change and an improvement over the 14 years in that we now have much smaller numbers in direct provision. I am interested to note that the numbers have fallen since the figure in the Independent Senators' motion, 4,624 residents, was published. The figure is now 4,367 residents. Admittedly, it is not a very great reduction. The RIA report of 2012 states that in that year there were 4,841 persons accommodated in direct provision. This, in itself, marked a decrease of 11% from the same date in 2011. There certainly have been reductions in numbers, which is very welcome. However, the real concern, which the Minister shares and which is very honestly expressed in the report of the RIA, is the length of time for which people remain in direct provision. By the end of 2012, almost 60% of those in direct provision had been there for more than three years, as we have heard. The average length of stay, according to the report, is just under four years, or 45 months. The detailed figures suggest that over 400 people were resident in direct provision for seven years or more at the end of 2012. These are the really shocking figure on delay.

The motion very rightly pinpoints issues associated with children in direct provision. We know that approximately 1,700 persons in direct provision are children under the age of 18. The RIA figures suggest that one third of those in direct provision are single adults, but two thirds of the 4,300 people in direct provision, or 66%, are in family units. It is really the people in family units about whom the concerns must be most serious. The issues Senator Fiach Mac Conghail spoke about so eloquently, including privacy and normal family routines, are particularly at issue regarding children in direct provision. In the past, I have worked with groups that are particularly concerned about the plight of unaccompanied minors. I acknowledge there have been improvements in the conditions of unaccompanied minors, namely, children who are not living in a family unit and who are clearly the most vulnerable. Great efforts have been made to ensure that there are supports and protections for all children resident in direct provision centres. The RIA sets out in quite a lot of detail the measures that have been taken. However, we still should be examining in a practical way how we can address real concerns about inadequate supports and provisions for children who are currently in direct provision, many of whom have clearly been in direct provision for many years. A colleague alluded to the case highlighted in the newspapers today, that is, the case of the child who was born in a direct provision hostel and who, at the age of eight, was still there. These are real concerns about real children whose circumstances we need to examine now.

Is it possible, in the short-term, to consider moving families with children out of direct provision centres into independent accommodation? To be practical, we should at least examine the cases of those who have been in direct provision for more than three years. By way of pointing out an exceptional figure, the RIA says nearly 60% are in direct provision for over three years. Mine is a practical suggestion. Senator Power referred to the issue of the right to work of people who have been in the system for so long. Work would ensure they would not be a burden on the State. That could be a factor also.

The Minister stated a number of times that he will be introducing an amended immigration, residence and protection Bill. Clearly, in the longer term, that must be done to introduce a streamlined process for the resolution of asylum claims. The bigger picture, of which direct provision is just a part, is that we have a very poor record of positive decisions being made on asylum claims. A very low number of claims have been upheld over the years. There are serious problems with the mechanisms for determining asylum applications, which problems have been well publicised. A large number of judicial reviews of the process have been before the courts. Clearly, in the longer term, this matter needs to be addressed. I am delighted the Minister will be doing so. He is committed to it but there have been unfortunate and unavoidable delays in bringing forward the new legislation. In the short term, let us examine some practical ways to support and provide assistance to families with children in direct provision for a very lengthy period. If we do not do so, we will be facing future scandals and State apologies, as others have said.

3:45 pm

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for being with us this evening. I welcome the motion, and especially the work of Senators van Turnhout and Conway and others, and I also welcome the eloquent remarks Senator Fiach Mac Conghail.

Having listened to the contributions so far, I believe we can all conclude that none of us, not least our colleagues in the Gallery, wants the system we have. It is true to say it is in our power to change it. It is not fit for purpose. Considering the system's extraordinary difficulties, several of the contributors have noted the importance of a human rights-compliant system. We need a system that enables and upholds the human dignity of the people who come to our country.

Let me make a couple of remarks on the direct provision system, primarily on Ireland's opting out of some EU directives, as this has a bearing on what we are speaking about. The EU directive on reception conditions lays down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers. That directive seeks to ensure that basic human rights are met in terms of accommodation, food, medical care and access to education. The directive also seeks to address delays in the system and the right to work. It provides that if a decision has not been taken within one year of an application for asylum, where the delay is not the applicant's fault, member states shall "decide the conditions for granting access to the labour market for the applicant." This is an attempt to encourage member states to ensure that their national processes are conducted in a timely manner and that applicants are given an element of certainty. As we are all aware, under the Treaty of Amsterdam Ireland can legitimately opt out of such directives.

In the other House, the Minister stated reasons for our opting out of the directive, citing concerns that granting asylum seekers access to the labour market would lead to an increase in the number of asylum applications. He referred specifically to an increase in applications in 1999. However, many of us are aware that organisations working in this area have taken issue with linking the right to work to an increase in application numbers. Those organisations instead attribute the spike in the figures in 1999 to Ireland's decision to accept 1,000 people from Kosovo in the wake of considerable civilian displacement in that region at the time. It is true to say that Ireland is now the only EU country that does not allow an asylum seeker to work after a designated period. It is in our power to change that. There is evidence that people become deskilled and demotivated after years of social exclusion and dependency on the direct provision system.

Disappointingly, Ireland has opted out of the new directive on common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection. This recast directive would have given certain vulnerable applicants extra protections on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or experience of sexual violence. These protections will not be available to LGBT, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, people, the survivors of sexual violence or human trafficking. Perhaps incorporating similar provisions into the forthcoming immigration residence and protection Bill might be considered.

Senators Fiach Mac Conghail and Martin Conway have spoken about conditions in direct provision centres. There are significant problems with the accommodation centres, including a lack of privacy, shared and cramped living spaces and toilet facilities. I remember well when we drove back from one visit to one centre and how awful we felt, as Senator Fiach Mac Conghail mentioned.

LGBT people often face specific problems in these conditions. Some of them have fled from situations of extreme homophobia and transphobia only to find themselves living in a shared space which can be a microcosm of the society they experienced in their home countries. Conditions here were a factor in a refusal by a Belfast court to transfer an asylum seeker to the Republic. It found significant evidence of physical and mental health issues for people living in direct provision accommodation.

Direct provision accommodation has also been identified as inappropriate for victims of human trafficking. There is a difference in the treatment of asylum seeking victims of trafficking and other suspected victims of trafficking. The Garda National Immigration Bureau does not identify people in the asylum process as possible victims of trafficking, nor does it grant them a recovery and reflection period or temporary residence permit, despite their co-operation with the Garda. The State’s rationale for this is that residency permits are only given to potential victims of trafficking when they are required or regarded as needing permission to remain in the State. The State believes asylum seekers do not need residency permits because they already have temporary permission to stay in Ireland as asylum seekers while their asylum applications are being processed. This results in asylum seeking victims of trafficking having less access to safe and appropriate accommodation, education, training and work than other victims of trafficking, as well as to the possibility of acquiring long-term status in the State. This means that the State is operating a discriminatory system which may be in contravention of Article 3 of European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and the UN Palermo Protocol under Article 14.

I know the Minister agrees that we need a system that is human rights compliant and respectful of the people involved. I have tried to raise several issues relating to EU directives in that regard.

3:55 pm

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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This debate on how best to reform Ireland's reception and asylum system is one of great importance. I commend Senator Jillian van Turnhout for her work in this area and bringing the motion before us. There is no question that those in direct provision accommodation are among the most vulnerable in our society. It is up to us to ensure procedures and facilities are in place to make sure their first months in Ireland are ones in which they will be treated with dignity and respect.

The latest statistics from the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, in June 2013, indicate there are 4,624 RIA residents in the system, of whom more than one third are children. I noted Senator Jillian van Turnhout's efforts in this regard.

The direct provision system is unique and it is hard to directly compare it with any other type of accommodation. Some accommodation centres have more outdoor and indoor facilities than others. It seems children tend to have a variable quality of opportunity to participate in education and recreation. The RIA and centre management work with local schools, community groups, sports groups and NGOs, non-governmental organisations, to link children and families with community initiatives, sports and other activities to ensure access to the best available package of services. However, much like the quality of facilities available in any given community, these provisions can vary.

Direct provision centres are monitored three times a year, twice by the Department of Justice and Equality and once by an external company. These reports occasionally highlight weaknesses. However, they also provide a useful role and an assurance that minimum standards are being adhered to.

This debate is on how best to reform Ireland's reception and asylum system. We need to find a balance between practicalities such as costs and geographic considerations and the ability to provide for those who are in these centres. On reforming the system, it is best to focus on three points. What is international best practice? How can we adapt it? Is there a way to expedite the process? It strikes me as remarkable how long some people spend in the system. There over 4,600 people within it. This comes at a financial cost but also at a cost to the livelihoods and liberty of those within it.

In an international context, it seems co-ordination is of particular importance. Despite the variety of structures in different states, a common feature is that while action takes place on the ground, it has to be connected to the broader decisions being taken at national level. This requires building institutional confidence, fully involving local networks, achieving a common understanding among all stakeholders about immigration and integration and providing the people who work at local level with information on the policies in place. For example, in Spain there is an information website, integralocal.es, in this regard.

Co-ordination is needed in reference to various levels and issues. In the first place, the concept behind the integration policies requires co-ordinated definitions to ensure a common understanding of the fundamental aims of integration policies. That is still far from being the case. Similarly, a different understanding of the aims of integration is apparent both across and within countries. Better co-ordination is not only necessary between the different levels of government but also between NGOs, various ministries and European institutions.

Despite these co-ordination problems, there has been general agreement that the system must remain flexible enough to allow for initiatives to be taken in the field. Action should come first and co-ordination should follow. Co-ordination should take place through the actors involved in the different processes. In addition, a framework agreement between the federal and regional levels could be beneficial for the coherence of integration policies at different levels. EU countries without a federal structure could also benefit from using elements of the Spanish fund structure in terms of co-ordination. Ireland should look to international best practice to see which elements should be trialled here.

The Health Service Executive has stated the concerns about the welfare, safety and well-being of children in direct provision accommodation are reported to the HSE children and family services in line with the Children First guidelines. Referrals include welfare concerns such as a parent being hospitalised, parental illness, a child unsupervised by an adult or mental health concerns about a parent, while a smaller number would relate to child protection concerns. There is a specific unit within the RIA, the child and family service unit, the role of which is to manage, deliver, co-ordinate, monitor and plan all matters relating to child and family services for all asylum seekers residing in the direct provision system. This unit directly links with An Garda Síochána, when necessary. The Minister is working with the relevant agencies to ensure children who reside in direct provision accommodation are afforded the same level of welfare and protection as their counterparts in the wider community. While conditions are difficult and not ideal and funding is tight, I welcome the motion.

I welcome this motion, debate and the forthright discussion we have had on how we can improve the well-being of those 4,600 people in the system and those who come in the future.

4:05 pm

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim céad fáilte roimh an Aire. The Minister has probably answered more Adjournment matters on this issue than any other in the last two and a half years between me, Senator van Turnhout and others, so he is aware that we are very concerned about the issue, not without foundation. I commend the Taoiseach's nominee Senators on bringing forward this debate, particularly Senator van Turnhout. I also commend the Fine Gael spokesperson on justice, Senator Conway, who has taken a proactive role in ensuring this debate has happened. This is probably the most significant debate I have been involved in since I have been here in the last two and a half years. We have a chance to make a real difference here tonight. The 4,600 people in direct provision are listening in and noting what is happening here tonight and are very concerned.

The Minister inherited an appalling system and a backlog in the courts, which was part of the problem in that it was taking so long to process asylum applications. He has taken steps on that issue and I recognise that he has decreased the backlog, but he has acknowledged there is a long way to go. A number of forces are coming together on this debate on direct provision. We are examining the legal scenario where the High Court challenge has come forward. We have seen the Northern Ireland High Court decision not to return a Sudanese family to direct provision in the South because it was not in the best interests of the children. That is a damning indictment of the system.

I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions and have heard first-hand the former Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, express concerns about the system, particularly on the lack of independent oversight. People have said there are visits and a certain amount of oversight but that is seen as the people who are administering the system investigating themselves. Her concern was that there needs to be an independent complaints system for people within the system and independent oversight.

One of the major flaws of the system is that it was privatised from day 1. I do not condemn any individuals in the system but I was struck recently when I noticed an advertisement by one of the companies involved in direct provision. It was talking about a completely different line of work, pitching for cleaning contracts in State organisations. The ethos of many of the people running these centres is not about looking after the people in the centres but about running a facility. As Senator Conway said, we visited two centres in Galway and the Department officials and people in the centres were very courteous to us but we were all struck by the previous careers of the people involved. Two people running one of the centres are former bank managers and somebody running the other centre is a former hotel manager. That tells us much about the type of system we have.

It would be more appropriate if the centres were State-run or if there were an NGO involvement in running the system. I am concerned that the people running the system are dealing with people who may come from a war-torn or a very difficult background and who may have serious mental or social issues. The people running the centres are not given enough training and are not equipped to deal with the complexity of the situations they are in. It is a serious issue that there is no legislative basis to the system. I welcome our guests in the Gallery.

As has been previously stated, Senator Conway and I visited Portugal to examine the Portuguese system. We could not transpose the Portuguese system to an Irish scenario but it shows there is a different way of doing things. It dispelled many of our fears that if we had a different system, a flood of people would come in. That has not been the Portuguese experience.

From listening to the testimony of people in direct provision there is a sense that people who come into the Irish asylum system are guilty until proven innocent. It is quite combative and they feel interrogated as soon as they arrive. On questioning people in the Portuguese scenario, the NGOs and department of justice officials work together on point of entry from day 1. The system is much more about hearing the stories of the people coming. Quite a large number of people are turned away at point of entry, which seems fair, but people are given leave to stay if it is felt that their case is plausible.

We need to dispel a number of myths about the people in asylum in Ireland. I have heard horror stories saying people are milking the system, most of them do not have bona fide cases, many of them are troublemakers who have been involved in criminality and they get involved in criminality here, etc. This is the kind of rhetoric we hear. I was happy that the people from the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, and the management in the centres dispelled that. They said the vast majority of people in the system are model citizens, never give any trouble and are not involved in criminality, and they are very supportive of them.

Serious issues have been raised about adults sharing rooms, the uncertainty of the system and the length of time people are there. Some of the people have great skills. I have met physicists, musicians, bank managers and vets who have been in asylum. The fact that they are not upskilling or using the skills they have is soul-destroying for them. It is important to quote some of the asylum seekers I have met and what they have said to us about the system. One lady I met last week said:

We did not commit a crime. We came here seeking help. When you are an asylum seeker you are a nobody.
There are situations where a mother, father and three children are in the same room. I have been on holiday with my children and I find it very difficult over a weekend to spend that much time in the same room with my children, but people have been six, seven or eight years in that situation and that is very difficult. There are also issues around the conjugal rights of a couple in such a situation, and how they can have their own privacy. Children ask their parents, "Why are we here?" "Why can we not go?" "We have seen other people move on; why are we not moving on?" People are saying they have suffered enough. Children are being bullied and called names in schools.

One lady said, "We all have our dreams, but this is killing our dreams." Many people are dying inside and they are traumatised by the wait. There are major issues here and the Minister is aware of them. The single males in the system also have their issues. One can imagine being a 25 to 35-year-old single person who has to share a room with three other people for years on end. Major issues have been highlighted.

I welcome the cross-party support for this motion. We have a chance to do something. I would welcome immediate action on this issue. We must examine the EU reception directive, the right to work and the right to education. The Immigration, Residence and Protection, IRP, Bill must be brought forward more quickly. We must examine issues of integrating asylum seekers from the point of entry, the role of NGOs in individual cases and being in a support role. Funding from many NGOs has disappeared in the last number of years and that independent oversight is a very important issue. I could go on all night and I will certainly bend the Minister's ear again, as I have done to most of the Ministers who have come in here, and I will continue doing so unless we see action.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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I congratulate the authors of this motion, which has received cross-party support. I have spoken on it on a number of occasions. We all take different perspectives and have different expertise to bring to bear on this. Senator van Turnhout has emphasised child protection in the direct provision system. I echo some of Senator Ó Clochartaigh's words on the right to a home. I have an entire speech that can go back over all the statistics on the number of people in direct provision, the amount of State money spent on it, how utterly ineffective the system is, how many years people are spending in it, the number of people who have committed suicide in direct provision and the number of allegations of child abuse in direct provision. A society that claims to value the individual and family, protect children and advocate the idea that we all have a right to a home cannot stand over our direct provision system.

I agree with Senator Ó Clochartaigh. The fact of the matter is families live in one room. The normal type of family scenario is to have space to have family time with children, to cook for the family and to provide for it, and, as was rightly pointed out, space to have a relationship between two partners and between those partners and their children. The bottom line is this does not exist in direct provision and this is a scar on the face of this country. We are all very much agreed across the board this must be a priority for the Government. I do not want to sit down in this Chamber in two years' time and have the same debate again. We cannot hold our heads up as a country if the situation continues. We cannot talk about what we have done for the survivors of the Magdalen laundries and in a number of other instances if we do not tackle direct provision.

I want to approach this from a practical perspective. We need to make a statement here today we will deal with it on a gradual and integrated basis. To start with the State could guarantee to those who have been in direct provision the longest a home in which they can live, have a proper family life and lead a dignified existence in this country, which is the reason they are here in the first place. I would like to see an initial commitment that anybody who has been in direct provision for longer than a period of three years will have their housing situation met within six months. I would then like us to commit to dealing with the housing situation of anybody who has been in the system for between a year and a half and three years within a further period of six months. Therefore, within a year anybody who has been in direct provision for a period longer than a year and a half will have been housed appropriately. This does not mean I am willing to stand over direct provision as it exists. I am not. Direct provision is no different from the type of hostel system provided for homeless people which is also hopelessly inadequate. It is part of a wider picture and does not just apply to people in direct provision. It also applies to those living in long-term homeless accommodation, but this is an issue for another day.

We must work towards a situation where nobody is in direct provision and nobody is inappropriately housed. No family should live in direct provision in one room. There should be appropriate family housing, appropriate means to cook a meal, appropriate means to spend time with one's children and appropriate means for children to have study and recreational facilities. This must be our bottom baseline and it behoves us as a society to fight to protect this. All of the long-term inhabitants of direct provision should be housed in the community as a matter of urgency and we need a time commitment for this to happen. Within direct provision nobody and no family should live in inappropriate accommodation.

We can speak indefinitely about the situation. I ask the Minister to state today we are prepared to end this and that we will do so. We have all read the reports on the circumstances in which some of these families live, and they are quite astonishing. It is unbelievable and we should not stand over it. To really progress we need timescales and a direct commitment to end this and move the people in such accommodation into the community. There are wider issues which I am sure Senator Bacik dealt with. People's applications for asylum must be turned round within a decent period of time. It is not the fault of somebody living in direct provision for eight years they are living there. We need to move on from this. I congratulate the Senators for bringing forward the motion and it is something with which we can all agree.

4:15 pm

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senators who proposed the motion and all of those who have spoken on an issue of great importance in which I have had great personal interest for a considerable time. This important debate coincides with some events which have taken place over the past 48 hours in the State, which are not directly related to the direct provision issue but are related to the welfare of children.

I want to say to the House, and it is important I have an opportunity to say this, two children were removed from two families in the State in the past 48 hours in circumstances in which An Garda Síochána had serious concerns about the welfare of the children. Normally I would not address any specific cases which arise, and up to now when asked I have stated these are matters to be dealt with by the courts, but I want to report to the House the concerns which arose relating to the children have been proved to be groundless. I understand the two children concerned are children of the parents concerned and there is no reason for any doubts in this regard.

I am conscious An Garda Síochána has a very important role in dealing with child protection issues, particularly under the child care legislation of 1991 as amended, and circumstances do arise where for the protection of children it is necessary that An Garda Síochána intervenes and takes them to a safe place. I have no doubt the gardaí in this instance acted in good faith in the intervention which took place. However I have concerns with regard to each of these matters and I will ask the Garda Commissioner for a report on the background to each of these instances with a view to reviewing the procedures which applied in a manner which ensures An Garda Síochána continues to perform the very important role it must play for the protection of our children while also ensuring the type of situation which has arisen in each of these cases, which impacts on family members, mothers, fathers and children, can be avoided in so far as it is possible

I am conscious these events took place in a background or backdrop of events which have taken place outside the State, but it is very important in ensuring the welfare of all children is safeguarded and that every child in the State is afforded, where necessary, the protection of the State, that no group or minority community is singled out for unwarranted attention or suspicion with regard to child protection issues.

Senators:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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It is important that events which take place off this island in other states are not automatically assumed to be replicated in this State or in other states throughout Europe to the detriment of any particular group or minority being singled out. I am not suggesting this in any way was a motivation of the members of An Garda Síochána who in good faith acted in a manner they deemed appropriate in the interests of children, but it is important we do not get caught up in some of the concerns and the media spotlight which have arisen in the context of cases in other states about which there are genuine causes for concern. One case elsewhere, which is very high profile, is still a matter of investigation and a matter to be dealt with in the courts of another jurisdiction. I hope Senators will forgive me if I have taken this opportunity.

As I sat here, Members may have wondered why, on occasion, I was accessing my phone. It was not out of a discourtesy to anyone but because the results of certain tests were coming through to me and I was anxious to ensure I knew as soon as possible. The families concerned are being informed and, indeed, the court and the HSE are being informed. I believe these matters are sufficiently serious to warrant being mentioned in this House. I am conscious there is a very substantial interest in these matters outside this House, across the country and, indeed, elsewhere across Europe. It is important that the record on these matters be addressed.

I now want to return to the issue we are dealing with this evening and perhaps the House will give me some latitude by way of time to address these very important issues.

4:25 pm

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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Yes. The Minister will have an extra five minutes.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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As I said earlier, I welcome this debate and the opportunity to respond to the points raised by Senators, and to speak, if I can, more generally about the subject in order to assist Members gain a fuller understanding of all the issues involved. At the outset, as Members will be aware, I have on several occasions in this House and in the other House responded to many, if not all, of the points referred to in this motion, and one of the earlier speakers referred to the number of times I have addressed this issue in this House. I am, of course, happy to address these issues again in the course of my contribution to this debate.

In saying this, it is important that I state that, for the avoidance of any doubt or misunderstanding and as has already been referred to, the issues under discussion here are currently being litigated through a judicial review application in the High Court, which essentially challenges the legal validity of the direct provision system. An application for leave for judicial review in that Mundeke case, so named after the applicants seeking the review, was formally heard in the High Court on Monday of this week, and the likelihood is that a full hearing of the case will take place early next year. I mention this with no purpose other than to ensure that all Members are aware of the most recent developments in this highly contested area of public policy. This can give rise to sharp differences of opinion among the wider community and, on occasion, is discussed in simplistic terms and in the colours of black and white when, unfortunately, in the complexities that arise, there are various shades of grey.

I do not know, and it may not be the case, whether this motion is being co-ordinated with developments in the case that is taking place in the courts as part of what is obviously an ongoing campaign against direct provision. Regardless, the House will understand that I cannot say anything here which will pre-empt the State's response to the legal challenge that is taking place.

In the context of legal challenges generally, it is worth noting that a substantial number of those residing for long periods within the direct provision system are adults living with their children who have challenged in the courts, by way of the judicial review process, decisions made refusing applications for asylum and-or permission to remain in the State and whose cases await hearing or determination. There are presently approximately 1,000 such cases pending before the courts. Indeed, in many of the direct provision homes and accommodation I have visited, an overwhelming number of those being so accommodated, either themselves or their spouse, are engaged in litigation by way of judicial review, having been refused asylum. I believe that is an important statement to make. I am not challenging their right legally to bring judicial reviews but it is important to make the case clearly, as someone who comes from the perspective that, where someone is a genuine political refugee he or she should get refuge in this State, that there are many who claim to be political refugees who are not. I can say this having read the papers and seen the files.

These judicial reviews are taking place notwithstanding the existence of a detailed system of examination of asylum claims involving two bodies statutorily independent of the Minister, namely, the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. These bodies are to fulfil the State's obligation to distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and economic migrants who have not obtained the appropriate visas for permission to remain in the State or work permits to obtain gainful employment.

I am aware that some of the strongest critics of the direct provision system outside of this House have said all that is required is "one last push" to have it brought down. They have been very slow to explain what they will replace it with. It is, of course, their right in our democratic system to take such an approach. However, in opposing the system of direct provision, which I have already freely admitted has many faults, I have yet to see any proposals, or at any rate, proposals grounded in the reality of the economic conditions we face, as to what could replace it without, in short order, recreating the crisis which led to its establishment in the first place. There is no gainsaying that truth, and anybody who believes otherwise is, at best, simply not prepared to face reality.

I listened with great interest to Senator Hayden telling me we should provide housing for practically everyone in direct provision and every future person who comes to the State seeking asylum. I do not know where I am to obtain the funding to do that. There is no reality in that. We have people born and living in this State who are currently in difficult financial circumstances but for whom the State cannot afford to provide housing because of the parlous financial circumstances of the State. We have to discuss these issues with a degree of realism. What would be the effect if we were providing a house for every applicant for asylum in the State? How many tens of thousands of people who are economic migrants would arrive in the State and say, "Hello. Could I have a house, please?"

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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That is not what I am suggesting.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Could we have some realism in this discussion? We must provide properly for those who are genuinely seeking political asylum, coming from some parts of this world where people are treated appallingly. However, let us not fall into the trap of believing that everyone who claims asylum is always, in all circumstances, telling the truth. Sadly, they are not.

The system of direct provision in this country is sui generis. There is no real comparator with any other form of accommodation being provided by the State. To understand the system, as well as its strengths and weaknesses, one has to take account of the circumstances which prevailed when it was first set up. The number of asylum applications in Ireland increased dramatically in the late 1990s. In 1998, some 4,426 asylum seekers applied for refugee status. In 1999, this figure rose to 7,724. On the basis of these trends, it was anticipated that between 12,000 and 15,000 would claim asylum in Ireland during 2000. At that time, the majority of asylum seekers arrived in Dublin, and still do, and the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers was handled, in the main, by the then Eastern Health Board, which treated the asylum seekers as homeless. In late 1999, the shortage of accommodation reached crisis point and the Eastern Health Board, understandably, could not cope. There were reports of asylum seeker families sleeping in parks because no accommodation was available for them. We have now forgotten that.

In November 1999, the Government decided to deal with the crisis by having the needs of asylum seekers met by a system of direct provision which also involved dispersal throughout the country. The Government's decision was also made in the context of measures taken in other EU countries to control illegal immigration and to process large numbers of asylum applicants. The body set up under the auspices of my Department to carry out the Government policy was the Directorate of Asylum Support Services, DASS, which later became the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA. It was an important objective of the policy to ensure the availability of accommodation for all asylum applicants while their applications for asylum and leave to remain in the State were being processed and determined.

Since then, RIA policy has been to procure commercial properties such as hotels, hostels, boarding colleges and so on, from private operators through public advertisements seeking expressions of interest. This procurement policy is reflected in the current RIA portfolio. Of the 34 current centres, only seven are State-owned and, overall, only three are "system built", that is, built specifically to accommodate asylum seekers. In terms of room capacities and facilities, RIA centres operate in compliance with relevant legislation. In regard to determining minimum room capacities, RIA relies on the Housing Act 1966, with particular reference to section 63 thereof dealing with the definition of overcrowding. In regard to shared bathroom and toilet requirements, RIA relies upon the Tourist Traffic Acts 1939 to 1998.

Where a family member, already in RIA accommodation, reaches ten years of age, RIA offers that family alternative accommodation which is deemed suitable for their needs.

In many cases, where the family profile has changed on the basis of age or a newly arrived family member, the Reception and Integration Agency can only offer alternative accommodation at another centre to keep within these rules. A family may, however, choose to refuse the offer of a transfer to an alternative centre because it prefers the current arrangement or wants to await a better offer. Where a family refuses an offer of alternative accommodation in such circumstances, the RIA keeps the family details under review and further offers are made as deemed suitable. The key point is that the Reception and Integration Agency must adapt existing premises for the purposes of accommodating asylum seekers. It is not realistic to expect bespoke accommodation for asylum seekers in accordance with what one may ideally wish to have in a centre.

In the current campaign against the system of direct provision there can be a tendency at times towards extreme claims which do little to help the residents involved. Regardless of how many times it is refuted, the canard continues to surface that asylum seekers in centres resort to suicide as a matter of course. Claims are also made that residents resort to prostitution in centres. Such claims have been investigated by the Garda in the past and found to have no basis. Any such allegation will continue to be investigated by the appropriate authorities in accordance with the law. Assertions about suicide, child abuse and prostitution among residents in asylum accommodation centres are still made by purported supporters of asylum seekers who would not dare to make such assertions in respect of any other identifiable group of persons in society.

While the direct provision system is not ideal, it facilitates the State in providing a roof over the heads of those seeking asylum or seeking to be allowed, on humanitarian grounds, to stay in the State. It allows the State to do this in a manner that facilitates resources being used economically in circumstances where it is under financial difficulty.

No Government can afford to ignore the likely consequences of a change to the system of direct provision. The system was examined in considerable detail in the 2010 value for money report which found there were no cheaper alternatives. If we were operating a system which facilitated asylum seekers in living independent lives in individual housing with social welfare support and payments, the cost to the Exchequer would be double what is currently paid under the direct provision system. I remind Senators that Ireland has still not exited the troika programme and even when we do, the State will next year spend €10 billion more than it receives through the many ways in which it obtains funding. If the State was to allow all asylum seekers to avail of full social welfare supports, including rent supplement, the immediate impact would be for all asylum seekers, including those not currently in accommodation provided by the Reception and Integration Agency, to avail of this financial support. As matters stand, not all asylum seekers live in direct provision accommodation as they are not compelled to do so. Accommodation is provided for those who cannot provide accommodation for themselves and do not have friends, family or others in the State who are willing to provide accommodation for them. Some asylum seekers live with friends or family or provide, from their own resources, for their accommodation needs.

A further concern is what is known across Europe as the "pull factor". While the State has an important obligation to provide refuge for those in genuine need of protection and asylum and it is crucial that we comply with our international obligations in this regard, it is also appropriate to acknowledge that a significant number of those who have during the years sought asylum here have been economic migrants evading our immigration and visa requirements whose personal narratives have ultimately proved to be both untrue and unreliable. The State at this time cannot afford to provide supports and accommodation for individuals who so behave.

The decline in the number of those applying for asylum arriving in Ireland, from 11,600 in 2002 to 1,000 in 2012, is bucking the generally upward trend in the European Union. It must be borne in mind that the common travel area between Ireland and the United Kingdom, which for many decades has delivered immeasurable economic, social and cultural benefits, would possibly be abused by those using the asylum system simply to avail of better economic advantages in a context where Ireland provided better social supports and housing than are available in the United Kingdom.

No asylum seeker has ever been left homeless in the State. Unfortunately - it gives me no pleasure to say this - the same cannot be said by the public authorities responsible for homelessness issues among the indigenous population. Asylum seekers receive nourishment on a par with and, in some cases, superior to that available to the general population. They receive a health service on the same basis as Irish citizens and it is, in many cases, far superior to what is available in their countries of origin, rightly so. Children of asylum seekers are provided with primary and secondary education in the local community on the same basis as the children of Irish citizens.

The direct provision system remains a key pillar of the State's asylum and immigration system and I have no plans to end it at this time. I accept, however, that the length of time spent in direct provision accommodation and the complexity of the asylum process are issues that need to be addressed. I have visited a number of asylum accommodation centres, most recently last Friday when I visited the Ashbourne centre in Glounthane, County Cork. I am concerned at how long people spend in the system. My resolve, therefore, is to deal with the factors which lead to delays in the processing of cases in order that asylum seekers spend as little time as is necessary in that accommodation system.

As with other states, Ireland has individuals and families who apply for asylum and have genuine grounds for seeking asylum under the relevant international provisions in place and our domestic laws. Of those granted citizenship in the ceremonies in which I was engaged on Monday last in the convention centre in Dublin, 195 were political refugees. A substantial number of people who are economic migrants present with stories seeking asylum which turn out to lack validity. There are individuals who adopt false identities and pretend to come from troubled parts of the world when they do not. There are also individuals who will claim to have been in war zones and when the matter is further investigated, it transpires they were in London, Birmingham or elsewhere when they alleged they were in Sudan, Somalia or some other troubled region. This is a real problem in dealing with the asylum system. Many also play the system by instituting one legal challenge after another to delay the inevitable, sometimes to the point of launching legal challenges as they are about to board an aircraft to be returned home. That is their right, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the right of easy access to the courts in this respect is almost without equal in the world.

There is a need to bring balance to the discussion on asylum seekers. In the context of the wider community and those campaigning, there is an assumption that every single individual who applies to seek asylum is giving a truthful account of his or her circumstances and is a genuine asylum seeker. On the other side of the debate, there are small numbers of individuals who doubt whether any applicant for asylum ever tells the truth. We must adopt a balanced approach and ensure no individual who truthfully documents events or circumstances in respect of which asylum should be granted is refused the protection he or she seeks, while also ensuring those who deliberately abuse the asylum process to evade our immigration laws do not benefit or, by their conduct, undermine our asylum system and the basic humanity it is right to afford to those in need of protection. We must ensure the integrity of the asylum and immigration system is upheld in order that assistance is afforded to those who genuinely seek asylum, while not allowing the system to be undermined by those seeking unfair advantage.

Having made these general points about the direct provision system, let me deal with the various points raised in the motion, the first being the view of the Government's Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, in his fifth report in July 2012 that the system should be examined with a view to establishing whether it is detrimental to the welfare and development of children and, if appropriate, an alternative form of support and accommodation should be adopted which is more suitable for families, particularly children. The Reception and Integration Agency affords the highest priority to the safeguarding and protection of children through the full implementation of the Children First guidelines. It has a fully staffed child and family services unit, the head of which is seconded from the Health Service Executive. Any review of the type proposed would have to take account of the wider purpose of the direct provision system in the overall context of the State's response to the issue of asylum seekers and immigration control generally.

The accommodation system cannot be in place solely in its own context. It is inextricably linked with the surrounding international protection process. An amended immigration, residence and protection Bill will be published, the purpose of which will be to substantially simplify and streamline the existing arrangements for asylum, subsidiary protection and leave to remain applications. It will do this by making provision for the establishment of a single application procedure in order that applicants can be provided with a final decision on all aspects of their protection application in a more straightforward and timely fashion. I had wished to bring forward this legislation much sooner. It has been one of my great frustrations that it has not yet proved possible to publish the legislation in its final form.

However, as Members will be aware, by necessity, troika-related legislative requirements have had to trump all other proposals, no matter how meritorious. The available pool of legislative drafting expertise is quite small and is subject to the same resource restrictions as all other areas of the public service. However, I expect that this situation will be alleviated shortly and that the Bill will definitely come before the Oireachtas next year. It was originally my hope to have seen it in 2012 but that proved impossible. Everything possible is being done on the legislative drafting side to bring about publication by 2014.

In relation to the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism through the Ombudsman for Children and independent inspections of direct provision centres undertaken through HIQA, it is not clear from the rapporteur's report that he was aware of how these issues are actually dealt with. I see no basis for HIQA involvement. Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, centres are already subject to inspections three times a year, twice by Department of Justice and Equality staff and once by an independent company called QTS. Indeed, the media reports last week about shortcomings in some RIA centres came about from the release under FOI of inspection reports carried out by RIA which showed that the inspection system was indeed working. Where problems within direct provision accommodation are identified, I ensure that these are addressed. RIA will publish on its website all completed inspection reports on its centres undertaken since 1 October 2013. In future, anyone seeking these reports will not have to make any application under freedom of information legislation. I want these reports to have maximum transparency.

Although not stated explicitly in the report, the rapporteur appeared to be making an analogy with the HIQA inspections of children's detention centres but there are several distinctions to be drawn. Senator van Turnhout had some difficulty with some of these distinctions but they are valid distinctions. First, only a small number of children are at present in detention while approximately 1,200 children are in the 34 RIA centres around the country. Second, HIQA carries out the inspections on a contract basis for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and not under the specific HIQA legislation. The inspections are based on the standards drawn up by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, not by HIQA. Third, the inspection standard of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs takes into account that these children are in the care of the State, that the State acts inloco parentis, in the context, in most cases, of proceedings having been taken in respect of child care matters. While the RIA has, of course, a duty of care to all its residents, both adults and children, in no case is it acting in loco parentisin respect of children in the centres.

On the recommendation to extend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children to direct provision centres, I see no basis for changing the law in this regard. Section 11(1)(e) of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, provides that the ombudsman shall not investigate any action taken by a public body where the action was taken in the administration of the law relating to, inter alia, asylum. While the office currently does not have the power to investigate asylum-related matters, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INS, including RIA, has administrative arrangements in place with the office to assist and provide information and to help resolve any matters brought to its attention. The rapporteur's report also does not make clear that the ombudsman does not serve as a first instance appellant authority for day-to-day administrative complaints mechanisms. It is a requirement that a person who wishes to appeal to the ombudsman must first try to solve the problem with the public body concerned using formal local appeals mechanism.

With regard to the legislative basis for payments to asylum-seekers in direct provision accommodation, asylum-seekers cannot work under section 9(4)(b) of the Refugee Act 1996, they cannot access rent allowance under section 13 of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2003, nor are they entitled to a range of benefits, including child benefit, as they are deemed to be not habitually resident under section 246(7) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.

The Minister for Social Protection has already responded to Dáil questions on this matter, to the effect that under the direct provision system asylum-seekers are provided with full board accommodation and other facilities such as laundry services and access to leisure areas. To take account of the services provided, a direct provision allowance of €19.10 per adult per week and €9.60 per child per week is payable in respect of any personal requisites required. Following the introduction of the statutory habitual residence condition in May 2004 and subsequent legislation, asylum-seekers are not entitled to receive most social welfare payments. The payment of the weekly direct provision allowance is made on an administrative basis by the Department of Social Protection on behalf of my Department. It continues to be open to any asylum seeker to seek assistance for a particular once-off need by way of an exceptional needs payment under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme as contained in section 201 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. There is no automatic entitlement to an exceptional needs payment as each application is determined based on the particular circumstances of the case.

With regard to the final issue raised concerning a debate with Members of Seanad Éireann as to how to best reform Ireland's reception and asylum system, only someone unfamiliar with parliamentary affairs would think that there has been little or no debate about the merits or otherwise of the direct provision system. I have answered over 50 parliamentary questions on the topic this year, as well as five Seanad Adjournment debates, not including this one. RIA has facilitated three visits by Members to asylum accommodation centres. Senators are welcome to visit any further centres they wish to visit. It is one of my practices as I travel around the country and without media attention to quietly visit our prisons and our courts and to meet with members of An Garda Síochána. Quietly and without any great fanfare I have visited a number of our asylum-seeker accommodation centres and met and talked to many of the people residing therein. I intend to continue this practice. In its previous iterations, the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill has been extensively debated in the Oireachtas and no doubt will be debated again when finally I can introduce the new Bill which we hope to publish.

I wish this were an issue with an easy resolution but this is not the case. It is a challenge, not just for Ireland but for the EU as a whole and the issue is discussed at practically every Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting at the various locations. The direct provision system is a necessary feature of this country's asylum and immigration system. It is a system which ensures a roof over the head of every asylum-seeker. However, I would prefer to have a system where asylum seekers spend less time in that system. That is where my energies will be devoted. I want to see the new Bill published. I want us to get to a position, which we have not as yet achieved, where all the applications made by those seeking asylum, including all the different applications that can be made, are dealt with in one application. I want to have an appeals system which is to the satisfaction of everyone so that in the future, those seeking asylum do not feel the need to make multiple applications to the courts.

In conclusion, after we have enacted our legislation, which I hope will meet with a widespread welcome, which will ensure that we are fully meeting all our international obligations and which will address issues of concern to some, I will then revisit the possibility of our becoming parties to some of the EU measures to which Senators have referred. There is merit in looking at a system which ensures that we treat those who are genuine asylum-seekers as best we can, with the caveat that in all contributions on this issue, I urge Senators to take note of what I have said that many people are genuinely seeking asylum but, unfortunately, others are economic migrants masquerading as asylum-seekers. This is a problem right across Europe. We live in a State that does not have an open-ended fund into which we can simply dip to provide ideal accommodation and supports for everyone who arrives at our borders. We cannot provide the ideal within the current economic climate for all of our citizens. There are limits to what we can do. We need to take a reality check when debating this issue.

I am very conscious, in the context of those who are currently within the direct provision system, as well as those still involved in the process but living with friends, relations or in their own accommodation, of the welfare of children resident in this State for many years. It is an issue that will have my continuing attention, and Senators should notice that the number of people currently in direct provision is a smaller than it was on 9 March 2011.

4:55 pm

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for the comprehensive response. There are approximately ten minutes remaining and a number of speakers are indicating a wish to speak. Perhaps if they could share time we might be able to get in everybody.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I will be as brief as possible in order to allow other Senators to contribute. I commend the Minister for his very comprehensive response to the Private Members' motion and although I do not find myself very often agreeing with the Minister, his response was both sensible and welcome. He has taken on board the very valid concerns being put forward with the motion by the Independent Senators. I also acknowledge the response by the Minister this evening with regard to the very regrettable position in which two families in the State found themselves. As the Minister rightly points out, child protection is at the core of what we all believe as public representatives. The circumstances of both these families this week are regrettable but I am pleased the Minister has given an update to the House this evening and that the children have been returned to their lawful and biological parents.

Everybody in the House, along with the Minister, has indicated that direct provision needs reform. The independent appeals office that has been mentioned would be welcomed on this side of the House, together with the legislation that is due to be published some time next year. It is the right way to go and there are many discussions to be had, not least the debate on the cost to the Irish taxpayer of any changes. We cannot just subscribe to a particular position overnight where there is a change to the €62 million availed of by the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, in 2012. The Minister correctly pointed out that there are 100,000 Irish citizens waiting for social housing and people living under direct provision should be in more permanent accommodation. It is about finding a balance and solution that political parties and taxpayers can live with.

There are human rights issues at the core of what is being brought forward in this motion. They have been highlighted by Independent Senators and many other Members of the House, as well as the Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, before she departed for her European post. They have highlighted cases where asylum seekers have been in direct provision hostels for more than three years, as well as the constraints placed on those people. There are cost implications for the State, and we cannot suddenly find 3,000 or 5,000 houses to accommodate families or individuals who are here as asylum seekers. The issue is a bit more complicated than that, and when the legislation is published next year, we will have the opportunity to deal with the matter. I know the Minister is committed to the issue as he has spoken on it even in opposition in the Dáil. He has highlighted the need to reform direct provision and the process must be updated. Nevertheless, recognition must be given to both the financial constraints and the dire position of some legitimate asylum speakers.

I will say no more other than to thank and commend the Independent Senators for putting the issue on the agenda and having the discussion. It is important to have discussions on human rights issues like this ahead of legislation being published and the debate on such legislation when it comes to the House.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I will not waste any time. I thank the Minister, Deputy Shatter, and commend the Independent Senators for bringing forward this topical human and children's rights issue. I am grateful for the Minister's comprehensive response and speech, as well as the fact that he has recognised the problem, although due to unfortunate constraints relating to drafting expertise, the important Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill is not ready for publication.

I will cut to the chase and it is reasonable to ask somebody who is seeking refugee status to await a decision in temporary accommodation for a maximum of 12 to 18 months, as Senator Hayden mentioned. It is abusive and cruel to ask people to wait, in some cases, for five to six years. Some people have been waiting for up to ten years in these substandard arrangements. Having worked with some of my colleagues, I have seen the lack of privacy and appropriate conditions in rooms, which is appalling.

I will throw away my notes because I only have two minutes, but I will raise an issue that has not yet been aired. The Minister spoke of the 2010 value-for-money report. Today I read an article about a company netting a profit of over €90 million providing accommodation for asylum seekers. I know we are nearing the end of the debate but perhaps this could be discussed further. Considering what these people are being given - we all recognise that the position is difficult and the point has been made that there are bad apples in every barrel - we must weigh up both sides of the equation. Somebody is making money. The Minister commented on the 2010 report but perhaps the Minister could comment further on the figures, some of which are astronomical.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I will first deal with the Minister's statement on the events of the past 48 hours. I thank him for his honesty in sharing his concerns and the plans for the proposed review. I agree the Garda Síochána has an important role to play as part of the child protection system. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the amount of detail that went into the public domain with these cases, and I support the Minister's proposal for a review.

I have plenty of food for thought arising from this evening's debate and I thank all colleagues for the contributions. I assure the Minister I am fully aware of the separation of powers, and the motion today is a culmination of my work as a Senator and that of my colleagues. Senator Moran raised the 2010 value-for-money report, which clearly indicates that the social welfare option costs are the same as direct provision, so I am finding it quite difficult that we are being played against each other. Examining the current funding of some providers, it seems many have moved to unlimited companies to hide profits. I would happily sit down with colleagues to work on an alternative model that would be based on human rights and be economically sound, if we felt it would get a fair hearing.

I have been careful with my wording on this issue and I am disappointed at the response. I wanted to have a constructive debate; instead the Minister's response has added bricks to the wall. I do not want to table Adjournment debates and use up departmental time going back and forth. I would like to sit down to talk about how we reform this system. I do not want to ask questions about this case or that case. That is why I worded the motion as I did. Along with my colleagues, civil society organisations, legal practitioners, academics, human rights activists, I am calling for reform. I am sure Senators would be happy to co-ordinate with a grouping to sit down to talk about the solutions if we believe they will get a fair hearing.

The Minister mentioned Dr. Geoffrey Shannon's report. Why not ask him to conduct the examination he proposed in his special rapporteur report if he is so assured of the facts? There is merit in doing a report on the effects of direct provision on the welfare and development of children.

I worked to have a constructive debate but I feel like I have had a few wallops. The Minister said "No" to any independent mechanism and to investigating conditions for children and he refuted the economic arguments, even though the value for money report defends what we said. There has to be a better way for us to reform policy. We are here together and we want to work with the Department. I read what the Minister said when he was in opposition. His comments were much stronger than mine during this debate. Why can we not find a way to sit down to reform this system? The difficulty when it is all boiled down that is my colleagues and I can put faces to the many figures that have been provided in this debate. I realise what we are doing and I do not want in ten years' time to stand anywhere and say, "Well, we knew that was happening but we did nothing". We have to do something.

Question put and agreed to.

5:05 pm

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.