Seanad debates

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

4:30 pm

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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Before we begin, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, to the House. It is his first visit since his recent promotion on which I congratulate him and wish him well.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann–- notes the continuing operation of the ‘Direct Provision’ régime applying to those persons seeking asylum in the State;
- notes recent Reception and Integration Agency data which shows that the average length of application process for an individual asylum seeker is 48 months and that an average stay in the direct provision régime is 52 months;
- notes that, with the exception of Lithuania, Ireland is the only EU member State to deny asylum seekers the possibility of obtaining employment;
- notes the provisions of Article 4 and Article 7 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the rights recognised therein of all persons in the State;
- recognises that, as a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, Ireland is obliged to ensure that accommodation centres for asylum seekers in direct provision are ‘adequate’;
- recognises that Ireland, as a signatory of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, should ensure the availability of services to assist persons fleeing torture in their home countries, in accordance with the guidelines published by the United Nations Committee Against Torture;
- affirms that those who arrive in this State fleeing persecution, indiscriminate violence, war and torture should be accorded respect for their human dignity and fundamental human rights and should be housed and treated accordingly; and
- commends the report prepared by the Free Legal Advice Centres entitled ‘One size doesn’t fit all’, which highlights many of the serious issues affecting the health and welfare of asylum seekers within the direct provision system;and calls on the Government–- to ensure that the environment of each direct provision reception centre is such as to ensure the security, safety and comfort of each resident;
- to ensure that full consideration is given to Ireland’s international legal obligations by the newly established Review Group for Direct Provision in its work;
- to take measures to establish female-only and family-only reception centres so as to ensure the protection of children and due regard for the rights of families;
- to grant asylum seekers the right to seek and secure paid employment, subject to reasonable conditions;
- to provide, or ensure the provision of guidelines, to ensure appropriate treatment for survivors of torture; and
- to establish immediately a review mechanism for those people who have been housed in direct provision for four years or more, with a view to allowing such persons compassionate leave to remain in the State.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach freisin. I also would like to welcome the various guests in the Visitors Gallery from the Mosney and Montague reception centres, as well as representatives from the Spiritan Asylum Services Initiative, SPIRASI, and the Jesuit Refugee Service and others who are engaged by this important issue.
This is not the first time that the direct provision regime has been debated in this House. The regime has been in place for nearly 15 years, during which it has visited significant suffering and degradation on those people who have had the ordeal of living in the system and those unfortunate enough to find themselves still trapped in the bleak limbo of direct provision. It is a matter of great concern and shame to all of us that the Government continues to defend the operation of the system in practice and in principle, although I acknowledge where the Minister of State’s sympathies lie which he has expressed clearly. It gives me cause to wonder whether the State is letting people languish in the system, so as to deter other possible arrivals in the country. If that were the case, then it is immoral and unacceptable. If the system is designed to effectively treat people as human shields against a feared influx of immigrants, then it is truly disgraceful and a perverse course of action when one considers the war zones from which some of these applicants come.
There are currently 4,353 asylum seekers in 34 centres across the State under contract to the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, with 727 new entrants to the direct provision system between 2012 and 2013. Between 2005 and 2013, the RIA has spent €690 million on the direct provision system. Looking beyond the simple statistics, it is the system's treatment of children that I find particularly abhorrent. None of the children in the system are responsible for their situation. They are forced to grow up in conditions of extreme abnormality. No civilised country should stand over this, in particular considering our recent constitutional amendment on children's rights. It is abnormal for a child to grow up in a situation where their parents cannot work to give them the basic necessities of life or not to know what it is like to have a family pet because of the way the system operates. This brings home the bizarre nature of this existence for so many. Addressing the immediate concerns raised today should not prevent the Minister making a principled commitment to abolish the direct provision system in its entirety, although my motion does not go that far.

Ireland has most recently been criticised by the UN Human Rights Committee. Although I find that committee somewhat corrupt in its direction on some issues, I nonetheless note its criticisms of Ireland on direct provision. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Committee against Torture have levelled serious criticisms of our State in its treatment of people seeking asylum. Reports have noted the unreasonable periods of time which asylum seekers have spent in the direct provision system and have expressed concern at the potential negative impact the policy has had on the welfare of asylum seekers. They highlighted in particular the lengthy process and the poor living conditions.

It is a matter of concern to me that conditions seem to vary a great deal from one reception centre to another. Some have the ability to give people a key to their own room and their own family space while others require people to live in close quarters and share rooms with people from another country and another culture whom they never met before, with possible consequences for their sense of security and safety, and certainly with consequences for their sense of human dignity which is not respected in such situations. Joining the concerns of the United Nations, Council of Europe commissioners for human rights have queried our approach to asylum seekers. In 2011, the former commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, noted the lack of progress made on the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill and encouraged the State to update the law as a matter of urgency.

In addition to the concerns of the UN and the Council of Europe, we have had criticism closer to home, perhaps most damningly, from the Northern Irish High Court in August last year, in the case of B. and C. Mr. Justice Stevens ruled an applicant family from Sudan seeking subsidiary protection in Northern Ireland could not be returned to this State under the Dublin II regulation as sought by the UK Border Agency, because he noted the significant hardship asylum seekers in Ireland face, including their inability to work on pain of criminal sanction, the low rate of subsistence allowance, communal accommodation, meals, a hostile environment towards family life, isolation and health problems.

Last Sunday night in Portlaoise I spoke to a person who week after week has to spend more than 30% of her allowance on prescription charges. These amount to €7.50 out of a payment of €19.10. We know how prescription charges roll on from week to week and they are not just a once off. This may seem a minor issue but it illustrates how awful the system is for people. Mr. Justice Stevens held that the best interests of the applicant children would not be protected if they were returned to the direct provision system here. This should make troubling reading for any Minister. He noted that if the applicants were returned to Ireland their mother would be unable to work in the Republic but could possibly work in the North. The family members would be forced to live in a communal direct provision hostel in the Republic but in Northern Ireland they would have their own accommodation and budget and could cook their own meals. The minor children, B and C, could develop their own sense of belonging and separate identity in Northern Ireland, which they could not do in direct provision centres in the Republic of Ireland. The judge noted there are significant physical and mental health issues among asylum seekers in Ireland due to the significant amount of time they must spend in the system.

As I stated, comparing the various centres where people are accommodated one sees some can provide basic amenities such as a key, while in others people live in close quarters. Is the Government doing this on the cheap? On what basis is it decided to use one particular centre or another? I would be very worried if financial reasons were invoked to deprive people of a bare minimum of respect for their human dignity that they might at least enjoy in a better centre. It is shameful that findings such as the above were made by our neighbours on this island, and it is an indictment of the manner in which direct provision operates that a High Court judge in the North would have such a scathing criticism to make about how we protect vulnerable children in this State. One year on we await the outcome of legal challenges mounted in our courts.

Family and female friendly centres are essential and this is the first reform I propose. It features in the motion. This would ensure the protection of children and due regard for the rights of the family. I do not need to recite our constitutional provisions on the family. During my recent visit to the centre in the Montague Hotel in Emo, a point raised again and again by those I met was the length of time asylum seekers must endure living in a state of limbo in the centres. I saw conditions whereby a family of two adults and two children were expected to share one room accommodation. This type of living arrangement is what we once had in rural cottages and the urban slums which prevailed in Ireland in the 19th century.

It was not healthy then and it certainly is not healthy now. The lack of privacy can lead to quarrels and occasionally violent incidents due to the lack of space. The most obvious element missing is respect for human dignity. This system robs people of that. People in jail who also have rights at least have a date on the door. Many people in the direct provision system do not have that certainty about what will happen to them in the future. That is a source of enormous stress and is not good for the their mental well-being.

The Government-appointed Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, recommended 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 to be adopted that was more suitable for families, particularly children. The idea that a family would be denied the space to have family time with children, to cook a meal for their children, to have a normal relationship between parents, and between parents and children, is remarkable. It does not work in this day and age and it should not have worked in any day and age.

A key measure for reform which ought to be adopted immediately is the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism through the Ombudsman for Children, although my motion does not deal with that today. A simple amendment to section 11 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 would give the ombudsman's office the power to investigate asylum-related matters. That would go some way towards showing a changed approach from Government.

The treatment of women in the system is deplorable. There are several male-only reception centres but there are none which provide solely for women. Many women who seek asylum in the State are fleeing the most gruesome and unimaginable conditions, sometimes involving sexual abuse or rape, and for those victims to be placed in a system where there is an underlying fear, perhaps in some cases of a recurrence of abuse, is shocking.

I will refer briefly to the three other issues in the motion on which I want to focus, one of which is the right to work. I understand people's concerns about the challenges our economy faces but the right to seek work is a core element of human dignity. Asylum seekers in this country come with a variety of talents and a multiplicity of skills. Lithuania is the only country apart from Ireland that does not grant the right to seek work at some stage during the asylum process. That must change, and that is not mentioned in the Government's amendment.

I call on the Government to provide guidelines to ensure appropriate treatment for the survivors of torture and also that there would be a review mechanism for long-term residents. On the basis of compassion it should be possible for people who are at least four years in direct provision to be given leave to remain in the State. Yesterday, I met the man who describes himself as the "king of Mosney". He is from Iraq and he is nine years in the system. Nobody will be sent back to Iraq. Let us have reality and acknowledgement of the basic requirements of human dignity. Let us change this awful system.

I thank the many heroes including the asylum seekers who have honoured us with their presence here today but also the agencies working closely to bring change. There are positive elements in the Government, and I include the Minister and others, but we need to see delivery now. We do not need a working group to tell us much more about what needs to change; we know it already.

4:50 pm

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Independent)
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I second the motion. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I saw the Minister on television last Sunday night playing soccer on a pitch in Dublin but I hope his amendment is something more than political football. I have heard the Minister, and many others, describe himself as a believer in progressive politics. The word "progressive" is often abused but I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that this amendment was put down by the Government. Perhaps it is a weakness of our political system that the Government seems to be unable to accept any idea, suggestion or proposal it does not make but has the Minister any objection to any word or sentence in Senator Mullen's motion? I am sure he does not. Is there anything in the amendment which adds to the motion? I do not believe that is the case. That the Minister of State and the line Minister are in agreement is not exactly news. Telling us what is contained in the revised programme for Government is not news. I do not blame the Minister for the amendment.

Sadly, this is how politics works in this country, the Government must proclaim it is always right and the Opposition is always wrong. We all are demeaned by this sort of amendment. I still look forward to the Minister of State's comments because he has expressed strong - I hope genuine - views on this issue of direct provision.
Senator Mullen outlined clearly the case for the motion and it is impossible to disagree with anything he said. In particular, I support his latter comments about the possibility of allowing the asylum seekers to work. We all recognise that the question of work is central to the economy. It is central to politics. Tragically, there are too many unemployed in this country, but it is immoral beyond words that asylum seekers are in reception centres for three, four or five years, or as in the case illustrated earlier, nine years, without an entitlement to at least seek a job. What sort of message does that send? How will it be reflected on, reviewed and written about in ten, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years' time? It will be yet another stain on the soul of society. Unlike the Ireland of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s in The Valley of the Squinting Windows, there is no hidden valley here. We all know what is and what is not going on, and it is simply not good enough.
Those in the reception centres across the country have come from tragic places; I am sure they are not here by choice. They never expected to end up as asylum seekers. Their stories are horrific. We have a moral responsibility to improve the conditions in which they live. The staff providing the services are doing the best they can. Their hands are equally tied; the budgets are extremely limited. How can we support a concept of a person living on an income of €19 per week, with no prospects, no future, no certainties, no idea as to when or what his or her future will be? It certainly is not good enough in a so-called modern republic.
I appreciate that the Minister of State's hands are perhaps politically tied and that he must propose and advocate his amendment. I hope he can suggest a timeframe for action. I want to put on record, obviously, my full support for the motion, but also my disappointment that there was even contemplation by Government of amending this motion because no Member of this House could disagree with any of the words of the motion or any of the sentiments of Senator Mullen in proposing it. Senator Mullen's motion must cause all of us to ask what type of society we want to create, what sort of message we want to send out and what sort of Ireland we want to inhabit. I ask the Minister of State, even at this stage, to consider withdrawing the amendment and accepting, in the spirit of humanity, the motion as presented. It would be a positive step forward and it would show the seriousness with which the Minister of State, his senior colleague and the Government are taking this issue.

5:00 pm

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after 'That Seanad Éireann' and substitute the following:"recognising that –
-the current system of Direct Provision has existed for 14 years;
-that the Minister and the Minister of State in the Department of Justice and Equality having visited several centres both agree on the need to review the current system; and
-that a key concern identified by those working in the sector is the length of time people spend in the system with over half of the residents being in the system for over four years;
welcomes the commitments in the Statement of Government Priorities 2014 - 2016 to:
-establish an independent Working Group to report to Government on improvements with the protection process, including Direct Provision and supports for asylum seekers; and
-to reduce the length of time the applicant spends in the system through the establishment of a single applications procedure, to be introduced by way of a Protection Bill as a matter of priority.".
I am quite happy to put on record that it is with a heavy heart that I am in a position where I have to propose a motion counter to that put down by my colleagues, all of which I agree with. All of the sentiments expressed by the two previous speakers are accurate and are a true reflection of what goes on in direct provision. I visited the centres with my colleague and friend, Senator Ó Clochartaigh, and others. I visited a number of centres and I was shocked and appalled at the inhumanity with which the State is treating citizens of the world.

It is simply disgraceful. I welcome the people in the Gallery and while I do not know them, I suspect some at least of them are residents of direct provision centres and they are most welcome. I wish to apologise on my own behalf as a Member of the Oireachtas for the manner in which they have been treated. It is totally unacceptable. Incidentally, before I continue, I wish to pay particular tribute to Carl O'Brien of The Irish Timesand Brian O'Connell of the "Today with Sean O'Rourke" programme for their work over the summer in highlighting this shame on our nation.

5:10 pm

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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However, in Deputy Ó Riordáin, we have a Minister who has called it as it is. His is a fresh face and a welcome, honest face in respect of signing up to not defending the indefensible, because he is not doing so. Consequently, I am quite happy to support a counter-motion in the knowledge that there is in place a Minister of State who I believe will act in this regard. He has made it a clear platform of reform on which he intends to see action in the next 18 months. This House owes him support by getting behind him in what will not be an easy endeavour. However, it is an endeavour he will fulfil and achieve. I simply have a feeling that given the events of the summer, the publicity and the light that has been shone into this part of our society, coupled with the appointment of a new Minister of State, matters are coming together and change will take place.

I personally believe the direct provision centres should be closed. When I visited one such centre in Galway, officials from the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, were present and to state they were defensive in the face of my questioning would be an understatement. I felt quite intimidated by the level of defensiveness displayed on that occasion. However, I will leave that where it is. I get annoyed when I see that this society is making the same mistakes in 2014 that it has made over the years. There have been investigations into what has happened in various institutions. There have been commissions and inquiries and Members' former colleague, Martin McAleese, carried out a comprehensive inquiry recently. However, in my heart and soul, I know that in 20, 30 or 40 years' time, people will be in this Chamber discussing commissions of investigation and public inquiries into the way in which people have been treated in such centres. It absolutely will happen when these children grow up and start to tell their stories, having become citizens of this country as I know they will. In 20 or 30 years' time, when the young people and the older people get freedom and citizenship and start to tell the stories of how they were treated and what happened on a daily or hourly basis in the centres, just as people in institutions during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s have done with such eloquence lately, there will be a national outcry that will result in a public inquiry. Moreover, the Taoiseach of the day, whoever he or she may be, will be making a public apology in Dáil Éireann on behalf of the people of Ireland. In my heart and soul, I have absolutely no doubt but that this will happen.

Consequently, as legislators, Members have a responsibility to stop the rot and to deal with it. We have done enough talking as this has gone on for 14 years. The present Government has been in government for three and a half years and at most has another 18 months remaining to it. Let us do the right thing and it always is proper to do the right thing. All one needs is the political will, which I believe exists, and I look forward to this issue being dealt with. There are issues such as not being able to work and that is a no-brainer. Some residents in direct provision centres are extremely talented people and with their hands, brains, creativity and imagination would make an enormously positive contribution to this society, were they facilitated, encouraged and fostered. It is shocking to think that children who attend school, sit the leaving certificate examinations and can get maximum grades and points are then not encouraged or supported to go on to university.

That is reprehensible and inhumane. When somebody reaches that level in academia but is not allowed to go on to university like those with whom he or she was in school, it is like cutting a flower before it has grown. What normal society does that? A society which calls itself an independent and respectful one does not do that.

5:15 pm

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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You have one minute left.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I could speak for the day on this issue.

Acting Chairman (Senator Michael Mullens):

I know you could.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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It is very simple. There should be an amnesty for anybody who is here for more than two years. That should be facilitated. It will probably not happen but let us at least deal with the direct provision issue, close down these centres and come up with a better model.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and wish him every success in his new brief. Hopefully, he will bring a fresh face and a fresh approach to many of the problems, in particular this one. There is an old maxim in law that justice delayed is justice denied. In this case, justice has been denied to these people.

Somebody asked me maybe two years ago why the State would not do something emphatic about this situation, namely, either send these people back to their original homes, which may not be feasible or would probably be totally improper at this late stage, or let them stay here. When I was a Government Deputy and a Government Senator, I was lambasted, in particular by members of the Labour Party, following inward migration and people looking for asylum and so on in the late 1990s. Around 1995, there was a trickle of people coming into this country. As a nation, we are historically known for outward migration and for travelling to different parts of the world.

This became a serious issue and there were queues and so on. Instead of the number being a couple of hundred per year, it was at one stage 1,300 or 1,400 per month. The number has eased off but it is absolutely appalling that people who are here for a long time are not being dealt with compassionately, sympathetically and fairly.

My party, Fianna Fáil, supports the motion and shares a number of the concerns surrounding the policy of direct provision, in particular excessively long waiting times when an asylum application is made. It is clear there is a significant problem surrounding the length of time a person spends in direct provision. It is important to put the following facts on the record. Currently, 46% of residents are there for three years or more. A further 14% have been there for seven years or more. This is clearly unacceptable, in particular for children whose early years are being impacted by the unsuitable living conditions of the direct provision facilities for families.

My party also sought to pass legislation in 2010, the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, which allowed for a new single integrated process of application for protection which would replace applications for refugee status, subsidiary protection and leave to remain. This legislation, unfortunately, has not yet been implemented. The Department of Justice and Equality has stated that the main factor that contributes to that upward trend is the length of time taken in the protection-humanitarian leave determining process, including legal proceedings. Another factor affecting the time delay is the lack of a single application process for asylum. At this stage, putting forward these positions is no longer an excuse.

According to the RIA's annual report for last year, by the end of 2013, 68.2% of RIA residents had first claimed international protection in Ireland three or more years previously. The percentage in 2012 was 59.4%. The report also reveals that 148 child protection referrals were made to the HSE last year by the RIA's child and family services unit which was notified of 182 incidents. Most were reported by the relevant centre's designated liaison officers while 24 were third party referrals, such as by the HSE or teachers. By contrast, the RIA received just six official complaints from asylum seekers throughout the country, four of which were upheld, which is a substantial ratio.

I am sure the Minister of State is well aware of them and I urge him to take them into account. Last year, 4,360 people were living in 34 direct provision centres. The figure was 10% lower than the figure in 2012 and 2013 was the fifth year in a row that the direct provision population had decreased. It is not the case, therefore, that the issue is snowballing. The report also reveals that the number of people spending long periods in direct provision is increasing. The average length of stay is 48 months, with 1,686 residents having spent a minimum of five years in the system. Of these, 604 have been in direct provision for seven years or more, which is an appalling statistic.

The average time spent in the asylum seeker system, at 52 months, is longer still. In Mosney, 53% of the 600 residents have been in direct provision for at least 60 months, while one quarter of 236 residents in the State-owned facility in Athlone have been living there for 84 months or more. The Athlone facility, the only centre in the State that is comprised of mobile homes, does not have a crèche, despite accommodating 50 children aged four years or younger and another 75 children aged between five and 12 years. Of the residents in the Ocean View direct provision centre in County Waterford, 31% have been in direct provision for a minimum of 72 months. Last year, expenditure on the 26 commercially-owned direct provision centres amounted to €45.7 million, which is an appalling waste of money. This funding could be put to better use.

I concur with previous speakers that we must grasp the nettle and deal with this issue sooner rather than later. We become worked up and worried about Irish people living in the United States, Canada and other countries, some of them illegally. They can work, socialise and send their children to school unlike asylum seekers living in our direct provision system. As a society, we should be appalled by this. We must place on record our view that this disgraceful position should not be allowed to continue. It is a festering sore and I urge the Minister of State and Government to deal with it swiftly and give the individuals in question their rights. As the previous speaker argued, an amnesty is required and the waiting lists for decisions must be eliminated. People must be moved out of the appalling conditions in which they live and the children in question must be afforded the rights Bunreacht na hÉireann confers on our own citizens. I hope the Minister of State will take heed of the virtually unanimous view of the House. Senators are unhappy with the current position.

5:20 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I am pleased to have an opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, to the House in his new capacity. As other speakers acknowledged, he has an impressive track record in speaking up in a highly critical fashion about direct provision and for the rights of those in direct provision centres. I have great confidence in his ability to make changes to the system in his new capacity.
I welcome those in the Gallery who have come to hear this debate. The Seanad debated this issue previously. As Senator O'Donovan noted, the Seanad speaks in a united fashion on this issue and all Senators have been highly critical of the system of direct provision. Senators Ó Clochartaigh,van Turnhout, Mac Conghail and others have a long track record in speaking out about direct provision and condemning many aspects of the system. On 23 October 2013, a motion on direct provision tabled by Senator van Turnhout and a number of her colleagues was not opposed by the Government side because we wanted to work together in a spirit of constructive criticism to find out how improvements could be made to the system. It is in that spirit, one in which none of us seeks to defend the indefensible, that I will second the amendment. All of us agree with the sentiments expressed in the motions tabled by Senators Mullen and Bradford and I commend both Senators on raising the issue. The amendment essentially seeks to give space to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, both of whom were appointed in the period since the debate took place in October 2013.
I remind colleagues that since the new ministerial team was appointed, the Government, on 11 July 2014, issued a statement of priorities which specifically addresses the direct provision system and acknowledges that it must be made more respectful to the applicant and less costly to the taxpayer. The Government agreed in its statement to reduce the length of time applicants spend in the system through the establishment of a single applications procedure and an independent working group.

The amendment to the motion acknowledges the problems with the system of direct provision. As we know, it has existed for 14 years and was introduced by a previous Government. We were rightly critical when in opposition of that Government because of the flaws in the system but it was introduced in order to meet what was seen as a very short-term crisis in housing. It was not envisaged at the beginning that people would remain in direct provision for more than approximately six months. A key concern is the length of time so many people spend in the system, particularly families and children. The amendment acknowledges this and that the Ministers have agreed on the need to review the current system. It is also noted that over half the residents in the system have been there for over four years, which is clearly unacceptable.

The motion, as amended, would welcome the solid commitments to establish the independent working group. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, will speak more about that, and there is to be a preliminary roundtable meeting to get the group up and running this Thursday. That will involve non-governmental organisations and those who are involved on the front line. It is envisaged that there will be a very short timeframe to report on improvements to be made in the system, and I hope issues like the right to work will be dealt with, as I anticipate they will, within that working group. I welcome that measure.

I also welcome the commitment to introduce a protection Bill as a matter of priority. There are three issues for all of us concerned with this issue. The first takes in the conditions in direct provision centres about which others have spoken so eloquently. These conditions are unacceptable, particularly for families and children. There is a lack of cooking facilities and so little privacy and space, as has been highlighted by Mr. Carl O'Brien and others familiar with the system. The conditions must be addressed as a matter of urgency and any centres providing inadequate accommodation, particularly for children and families, should be closed. As I have said, we should also consider moving families with children out of direct provision centres altogether and into independent accommodation. Some facilities operate on a self-catering basis, as the report from the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, notes. We should consider improving that system, allowing people to have their own cooking facilities and greater privacy and space. We are addressing this matter of conditions in centres and the amendment to the motion gives the Government space to do so. In the Seanad we should look to hold the Government to account on that and ensure the matter can be addressed within a short timeframe.

The second issue concerns the length of time involved, and other colleagues have spoken eloquently about this as well. It is unacceptable that people spend this length of time in the system. I know there has been discussion of children born into direct provision who are now eight or nine years old; they have lived all their lives in the system, which is unacceptable. The matter can be addressed through the mechanism described in the amendment of a single protection procedure to be introduced through a piece of legislation which will essentially be taken from the immigration, residence and protection Bill and fast-tracked through these Houses. I hope we will hear something about the timeline of that process. The legislative programme states that this will be introduced early in 2015 and I anticipate it should be passed by Easter 2015. Perhaps the Minister of State will speak to it.

The absence of a single protection procedure has been a major problem within the Irish system and Ireland remains out of step with the rest of the EU because there is a procedure of refugee status determination divorced from subsidiary protection. That slows the process and has made it extremely cumbersome and difficult for applicants within the system. That has contributed extensively to delays. The Irish Refugee Council produced an excellent document last year setting out the history of direct provision, pointing out that the single protection procedure is important and that steps to bring it forward are very welcome. Its absence has meant that people have spent far longer in direct provision than they should.

A third issue is more long term and it must be acknowledged in the debate. The overall process is deeply flawed, as has been acknowledged not just by this Government but also by the previous Government. We need to seek to progress and expedite the bigger immigration, residence and protection Bill so as to ensure our system of determination of claims is fair. There is much concern about the low numbers of people who receive positive declarations of refugee status through the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, ORAC. I considered the RIA report, which states that over the ten years from 2002 to the end of December 2012, only 6% of those who made applications for declarations of refugee status received positive recommendations. There have been international critiques of Ireland's low rate of recognition of refugee status. It is important that we provide for a single protection procedure to speed up the process but we must also ensure the process is fair and people will get a fair hearing. There has been much concern in the past about the absence of a fair hearing and what seemed to be a rather dismissive rejection of applications.

Improvements have been made to the ORAC system but we must acknowledge the need for reformed legislation. I am conscious that litigation exists on this and a judgment is due in the High Court by December this year. The CA and TYcase challenges the legality of direct provision and will have an impact on the report of the working group in terms of conditions in direct provision and the mechanism itself.
All of us want to see this system changed. If we cannot abolish it we must ensure direct provision is in place for as short a period as possible. People, especially families with children, must be dealt with swiftly and there should be a single protection procedure. The conditions in centres must be adequate so that people are treated humanely and with the sort of privacy and dignity we all deserve and require.

5:40 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State and welcome him to the House along with the visitors who are here today. I appreciate the constraints inherent to the Minister of State's office but I am confident he recognises and is committed to tackling the weaknesses and failures of the direct provision system in Ireland. The first conversation I had with the Minister of State after his appointment was on this issue.
I know the Minister of State is aware that Members of this House, particularly the founding members of the Seanad cross-party group on direct provision, Senators Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Martin Conway and I, have been at pains to raise the issue of direct provision over the past number of years. I take children's rights as my entry point to the issue and I remain extremely concerned that the administrative system of direct provision is detrimental to the development and welfare of children. Among my own interventions, including an unopposed motion on direct provision in October 2013 and five adjournment debates, I have raised a plethora of concerns including the dubious legality of direct provision, the denial of the right to work and the fettering and erosion of normal family dynamics. Young asylum seekers have no prospect of post-secondary education and this is like hitting the pause button for an indeterminate but lengthy period. Direct provision has a negative impact on the health, particularly the mental health, of adults and children - those of us who have visited centres do not need to read the research to know this because we can see it first-hand.
I thank Senators Mullen and Bradford for tabling this motion today as every opportunity to discuss direct provision is welcome. I also thank the media as investigative reporting has shone a light on direct provision, particularly in recent months, and this has enabled a better understanding as the term "direct provision" does not convey the horrors involved. Many people have approached me over the summer to discuss the issue, though I have been raising it for some time.
I have asked on many occasions in this House whether we should fix the system now or wait 20 years for a damning report that will shame us. I have written about direct provision in a number of outlets, including the humanrights.ieblog, which has excellent contributors to the matter. I have also contributed through the media and social networks but I am sometimes disappointed by the reaction of some members of the public. Some people suggest the direct provision system is very generous when viewed in light of growing poverty and homelessness in the Irish population. People suggest we should get our own house in order before worrying about others and I would like to address this notion.
I agree that poverty, homelessness and the increasing number of families at risk of homelessness through mortgage arrears and spiralling rents in the private rental sector are real and significant concerns and I will advocate in support of relief in these areas in the forthcoming budget. However, we cannot impose a hierarchy of priorities when it comes to the health and welfare of human beings. We are all equal and entitled to live with dignity no matter where we are born. Concern relating to direct provision does not have to come at the expense of concern relating to other issues. The world is full of injustice and we must strive to tackle it. I am confident that the majority of Irish people agree and this is why Ireland ranked highest in the recent Good Country Index. Per head of population and per euro of GDP, Ireland contributes more to the common good of humanity than any other country in the world but we must live up to this accolade on our home soil. We cannot only speak of what we do in other countries. The ultimate failing of direct provision is the length of time asylum seekers remain in the system, waiting for their claims to be processed.

That was echoed recently in the concluding observations of a committee that I, unlike Senator Mullen, respect, the UN Human Rights Committee. The long-term solution has got to be a streamlined status determination system that will deliver a speedy, and robust, yet fair and transparent process. I hope this will be delivered through the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2013 and through the single protection procedure. My colleague, Senator Zappone, will address exploitation and trafficking.

I welcome the Government’s recent announcement that a working group is to be established. I insist that the right to work be discussed. Senator Mac Conghail will elaborate on this issue. I hope the working group is made up of people with wide-ranging expertise in areas such as health, education, justice and social work. I have written to the Minister of State and to the Minister for Justice and Equality with a recommendation on this. I hope the Government makes recommendations by the end of December. We also need to give resources to the system, such as the single protection procedure and whatever system is put in place.

In the interim I remain steadfast in my call on the Government to immediately establish an independent complaints mechanism, for example, through the Office of the Ombudsman, and to commence the independent inspections of direct provision centres where children reside. The Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, inspects all other centres but when I ask for this I am told to hold on, HIQA inspects centres where children are in the care of the State, not being cared for by the State. This is semantics. These children do not have a normal family life. Whatever way one wants to talk about it, one only has to go and see it. It is not a standard family life. A person is seconded from the Child and Family Agency to the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, to consider child protection complaints. I have no question about the bona fides of that person but no one would go to RIA with a concern about child protection because it is perceived as the agency dealing with one’s application. We need an independent complaints mechanism and drop-in inspections. These are profit-making centres. They are not doing this out of good will. This is not Crosscare, an organisation for which I have great respect. These people are making a profit out of the misery of people in Ireland.

I am opposed to direct provision but I take the Minister of State at his word. I want to see a timely report. I will be back very soon if not. I have a track record of returning to the issue. We need to respect people’s right to private life and family life. We need to find a way to do that. It has been done in the United Kingdom in an appropriate manner. I do not want us to deal with it piecemeal. I can understand the need for direct provision for three to six months in a more humane system because we have to process the applications but it cannot be tolerated for any longer. We will support the Minister of State but we have a record of coming back on issues.

5:50 pm

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome this debate. My overwhelming reaction is that it is incredible that our system operates at such a snail’s pace and that it takes such a long time for someone to come out the other end. I note that the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, given the fall in numbers in recent years, are processing cases rather speedily. I note also, however, that asylum applications are up 40% in the year to date. The difficulty arises it appears both from judicial reviews of decisions made and applications for subsidiary protection and appeals through the courts. In the circumstances it is quite understandable that there is disquiet among support organisations involved about the mental and physical well-being of the people who spend such a long time in the system. Nobody can say there are no problems. The Government accepts there are and the Minister of State will tomorrow host a round table with officials and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, working in the asylum field. They will discuss the matter and allow the working party’s terms of reference to be set in light of the NGOs’ concerns.

Senator Mullen’s motion is not being acceded to as it seeks to pre-empt the working party’s deliberations. In order, however, to properly assess the issue it is necessary to consider some facts. The appeals refused figure from the Refugee Appeals Tribunal has hovered around 90% for the past ten years. Sometimes the impression is given that we are discussing actual refugees when the majority of cases are those of economic migrants or those applying for some other form of leave to remain. Additional to this is the fact that over 50% of those in direct provision have judicial review proceedings pending or in train, have deportation orders pending or are applying for leave to remain for non-protection reasons. It is also the case that of those in the system longer than four years, the overwhelming majority, be it the applicant or a family member have legal proceedings pending either because they have been ordered to be deported or are appealing decisions not to grant them leave to remain.

In response to the specifics of the motion I do not believe that we should allow those who claim asylum as opposed to those who are granted asylum the right to work. It is important to consider this matter carefully before accepting such suggestions. This would have the effect of adding several thousand to our dole queues.

As regards accommodating those seeking asylum or protection in centres, I very much welcome the required improvements. The current conditions are unacceptable and I cannot support them. The simple solution to these issues which we have never managed to grasp is that we should provide a simple, fair and quick system for determining applications for both asylum and subsidiary protection. During the time they spend here, people should be treated humanely in appropriate accommodation, the lack of which seems to be the main bone of contention. The Government is committed to providing such a system and will do so. It will introduce a protection Bill by the middle of next year. This new legislation will provide a single application procedure which will be more simple and streamlined than the current multi-faceted and complicated system. Additional to the institutional reforms in the application and decision-making process, there are continual delays in our court system which increases the problem. I have mentioned the long delays in the superior court and it is to be hoped that the new court of appeal will assist greatly in that regard although it is something that we should discuss in this House as a single topic at a future date.

We can all agree that anyone who has been granted refugee status or another form of protection in this jurisdiction should be welcomed into our communities and those awaiting a decision should get it in the shortest time possible and should be treated humanely in the interim. The system is at fault and needs to be urgently fixed. I welcome the decision of the new Minister of State to establish a review group and his wish to provide a process that takes no more than 12 months from beginning to end. That is far too long. Six months should be sufficient. That can be discussed when the Bill comes before the House.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. I think he will be a good Minister of State. His heart is in the right place on this matter. That leaves me a little bit puzzled by the flaccid amendment the Government has put down. I do not think it is necessary. The world would not collapse if this motion went through. I compliment my colleagues on putting down this important motion.
Senator Naughton referred to economic migrants. They have a very good case. I cannot think of a better reason for getting out of a country than being subjected to grinding poverty, misery and squalor. Many of the refugees drifting towards Italy and being drowned are coming because of grinding poverty. In some circumstances we caused that poverty. This country built the largest factory trawler on earth, The Celtic Dawn. When it was banned from European Union waters it was sent to Senegal where it destroyed the indigenous fishing industry. The Senegalese then came to Europe where they were dismissed as economic migrants. We caused a situation and then blamed the victims. I would be happy to include them.
Of course this small island cannot take in all the world’s refugees but it is noticeable that we are very sympathetic when a famine occurs in Ethiopia or elsewhere but when it gets a bit closer to home we hear stories about people sponging. I have heard respectable people say they get free cars and cigarettes from the State. That is absolute rubbish and balderdash. When this was introduced in 1999 it was to be for a period of six months. Now people are there for ten or 12 years, and not allowed to work. This is the only country apart from Transylvania or some place in Europe that does not allow people to work, which is stupid. They are excluded from social housing and from social welfare. They receive €19.50 a week whereas the providers of this accommodation which is contracted out earn €50 million. There is a hell of a contrast between €50 million and €19.50.
The fact that people have been here for so long means they need education. There are several young people, including a young woman I read about, who is ready to go to university, like all her colleagues at school but she is not entitled to free university education. She has been told that as a foreigner she must pay three times the amount an Irish person has to pay, €10,000. How does one get that on €19.50 a week?

Some 4,360 people were being accommodated at the end of 2013. Some 2,872 of them were being accommodated in 851 family units. What is a family unit when one cannot cook, use one's own cultural traditions, eat the food one is used to or see one's parents cooking? Although the numbers have declined by 46% since the peak in 2005, the average length of time spent by residents has increased. We have a decrease in the number of people applying and an increase in the amount of time they are kept in the system. That is very worrying. Almost 70% of the people - the exact figure is 68.2% - have been in the system for three years or more.
I would like to speak about the most extraordinary situation in Mount Trenchard. I applaud Mrs. Justice Harding Clark for drawing attention to this matter. As a result of a protest that was organised, some of the inmates were transferred within ten minutes. That was obviously a punishment. A group of people who went in to see the situation was were denied entry by the owner of the facility, Mr. Hyde. What does the contractor have to do with people's human rights? The same concerns apply in respect of the issue of health care. There is no provision for the Department of Health to have any responsibility or oversight for the welfare of people in this situation. It is alleged that some women are being forced into prostitution to make money to look after their families. The Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, who is a highly respected person, has complained strongly about it.
I wish to put a number of recommendations to the Government. They are not my own - they come from other sources. First of all, we need to know the facts. There should be an audit. We should forget about all these commissions of inquiry. That sort of stuff is wearying because it always means the issues get kicked into touch. It would be simple enough to do an audit to ascertain whether our provision of asylum care meets our international human rights obligations. Those who are still awaiting a decision after a year should be entitled to supplementary welfare allowance, as any other destitute person in this State would be. Various sections are quoted in the briefing document that has been provided to me. If the full rate of supplementary welfare allowance is not granted, the rate paid to asylum seekers should be increased to €65 a week for adults and to €38 a week for children. When the Government guillotined the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Bill 2009 as it was going through the Dáil, it axed the habitual residence provision. I believe this should be opened up again. It is not tolerable that a significant provision in this sensitive area of human rights and welfare was guillotined without being debated in either House of the Irish Parliament. I put it to the Minister of State that this should be opened up for examination.
Before I make a final point as an addendum to the very important Northern Ireland case, I would like to pick up on Senator Mullen's hope that the Government is not afraid on policy grounds to improve the current situation, which it accepts is disastrous, on the basis that it might prove an allurement to other people to come here, particularly from the United Kingdom. Such an attitude would be a very nasty one, but it seems to be reflected in the current policy. I would like to refer to a recent article by Carl O'Brien in The Irish Times, which quoted from a 12-page Government document on this issue:

Although the system is "not ideal", any improvements raise the risk of asylum seekers from the UK moving here to avail of better conditions ... "Leaving aside the considerable difficulty in putting in place alternative reception conditions for those asylum seekers already here ... the biggest concern would be the 'pull factor' involved," the papers say.
It is an established fact that the Government had set its face against making improvements in case they would attract more asylum seekers. There has been a decline in the figures in question because our punitive system, which is against people, makes it less attractive to be here. I have spoken to some asylum seekers. I compliment them on being here today. They are dignified and well presented. Some of them come from my own native land - the Congo. When I asked one of them where he comes from, he said he comes from Mosney. It is an awful thing to have to say that one comes from Mosney. When I was a kid, Mosney was a holiday camp.
I will conclude by speaking about the Northern Ireland case with reference to a sentence from the judge's deliberations that was not quoted by my colleague, Senator Mullen. The judge in that case quashed a request from the United Kingdom Government to send a Sudanese asylum seeker and her three children back to Sudan. He said, in addition to what was quoted by Senator Mullen, "that the well-being, both emotionally and financially of the primary care giver and the importance of that to the well-being of the children in her care would point significantly to the best interests of the children being to remain in Northern Ireland". The authorities 90 miles up the road are so significantly better than us at providing conditions for those seeking asylum that a High Court judge decided to quash an order from the United Kingdom Government. That is a reproach to all of us. I know the Minister of State's heart is in the right place. He must be reassured by the fact that virtually every speaker, with differing degrees of passion or commitment, has spoken about the need to reform this area of Irish life.

6:00 pm

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I think this is his first visit since his elevation to ministerial office. He is very welcome. He has certainly hit the ground running over the last few weeks. I have been reading in the newspapers about the various commitments he has been making. I would like to wish him all the best in his new role. I know he has a genuine interest in this area. I hope he will be given an opportunity to make a real difference. I am sure this portfolio will keep him very busy. I will be happy to help in any way by picking up the slack in Dublin Bay North while he is going around the country fulfilling his various duties.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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That is very decent of the Senator.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin North Central, Labour)
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I thank her for the offer.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I commend Senators Mullen and Bradford on the tabling of this motion today. We have discussed this matter in the House on several occasions over the last two years. I have been working with Senators van Turnhout and Ó Clochartaigh and other members of the cross-party group on this issue for some time. We have been trying to get a cross-party consensus to deal with it. I think issues of human rights are bigger than all of us individually or politically. There should be a genuine bipartisan consensus on how we address such issues. We need to ensure people are treated with dignity.
I have to say I was heartened to read in the newspaper about the Minister of State's comments on the need to tackle this problem. The last time we discussed the issue, in the presence of the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, we got fairly cold comfort that anything was going to be done. I am glad that shortly after his appointment, the new Minister of State singled this out as an area he would like to address. Having read the amendment to the motion before the House, I have to say I share the concerns expressed by some Members about whether there is a broader commitment beyond the Minister of State's office - at the Cabinet table, in particular - to deal with this issue. I do not see anything remotely objectionable in the Private Members' motion that has been proposed. It is really disappointing that the Government has tabled a bland amendment to that motion instead of accepting it. The amendment merely restates the commitment that was made in 2011, and repeated earlier this year, to the effect that this area will be reviewed and changes will be made.
When the legislative programme was published earlier today, I was disappointed to note that the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010 is still listed as awaiting Committee Stage debate. Of course that has been the case since November 2010. That was how far it reached under the last Government before it fell. It was reinstated by this Government but nothing has happened on it for three years. It has been suggested that the Bill will be progressed sometime in 2015. That is the only indicative date we have been given. No more information than that was given in today's legislative programme. I hope the Minister of State will give us some more information. I know he has not spoken yet. Maybe he will have more to say when he makes his remarks. I think this is an area in which we need to move beyond expressing concern in this House. We need to move towards action.

The former Supreme Court judge, Mrs. Catherine McGuinness, has said a future Government will end up apologising for the direct provision system and in particular the conditions for children in those centres in the same way as the current Government and its predecessors have apologised for torture that was visited upon people in residential institutions and Magdalen laundries in the past. This is an area in which we need to see much greater urgency and commitment. Like many other Members, I visited the exhibition across the street curated by the Immigrant Council of Ireland and the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. A mock room from a direct provision centre was created to show the typical conditions in which people live. One could have five or six people – an entire family of two adults and four children - in a tiny space that is probably half the size of the Minister of State’s office. No peaceful space was allocated for teenagers studying for exams nor was there any room for small children to play in comfort. No privacy was available to parents. Communal toilets and shower facilities presented another risky situation as children shared them with other adults. Such a situation raises obvious child protection issues. The conditions are appalling and it is beyond time that something was done about it.

Overall, two things must happen. First, we must tackle the length of time people wait for a decision. That is a large part of the cause for the long stay in direct provision accommodation. It should not take years for somebody to get an initial decision on his or her asylum application and for them to fight appeals and take court cases. We need a streamlined process. That is what the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill was intended to bring about. I urge the Minister of State to progress the legislation as soon as possible. People should not spend longer than the originally intended six months in direct provision centres. Child protection risks must be addressed even in the case of sharing such a cramped space for a short period, be it a day, a month or a year. We must ensure facilities are safe for children and women, especially single women who do not have any family backup or another adult to look after them. The Immigrant Council of Ireland has pointed out that some women have come from situations where they have been raped and subjected to the most horrific sexual violence and then find themselves in mixed facilities where their safety is put at risk. People whom the Garda believe are victims of trafficking are also put into centres where the traffickers know where they are and can make contact with them through other individuals and put pressure on them. Such a situation is scandalous.

Regardless of how long a person is in a centre, the conditions should be safe and fair. Nobody should be there for more than six months. People should be given the right to work after a reasonable period, for example, a year is typical in most European countries. We must devise a system that is fair to everybody. The country is entitled to have a robust immigration system and to control who comes in and out but we also have responsibility as a humane nation to ensure that people who flee torture and persecution have the right to build a life in this country and to do everything we can to integrate them and not institutionalise them in an environment into which none of us would bring our families.

6:10 pm

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, on his appointment and welcome him to the House. His bona fides on the issue are not in any way questionable. Shortly after his appointment he was on record as saying the system is inhumane and the conditions in which people are expected to live is intolerable. He also said that the length of time people spend in the centres is outrageous and that new legislation would limit the periods a person spent in the system to between six months and 12 months. He further said that he believed in the extension of the right to work and that it should be an option to work after a certain period because if people who spend a long period in another country are not allowed to work, they either retreat into themselves or find a parallel economy in which they use their skills in the same way as the vast majority of EU member states allow. As someone who has had strong views on direct provision for a long period, I was very proud of those comments. I am proud of the record of the Labour Party on the issue.
I very much welcome the announcement of the review group. I agree with my colleague, Senator Naughton, that the review group should report within a short period. I accept there are two issues at stake, namely, direct provision itself and the facilities involved, and also the length of time people spend in the system before their right to remain in this country is adjudicated upon.
I am also conscious of the fact that judicial proceedings are ongoing – the CA and TY judicial review, which has and does challenge the legal basis of direct provision – and also the right to work and whether family and private life rights are being respected in the direct provision scheme. I do not know why that is meant to be a question because the answer is quite clear. They are not respected in the direct provision scheme and neither are some of the other questions being considered in the legal challenge questions per se. They might be legal questions but they are certainly not questions. At the Tom Johnson summer school – Labour Youth’s summer school – a lady and her two children gave a very harrowing account of their time in direct provision. The older girl had just sat her leaving certificate and she explained how her family went to bed at 7 p.m. every night so that she could study. She got an excellent leaving certificate and as has already been pointed out, she has no future in the education system in this country. That is not acceptable in a civilised society. Like many other Senators, I will hold the Minister of State to account for what he has said and for what I believe he will do to alter the situation in this country.
I wish to focus on an issue I would very much like the Minister of State to address in the review. Much has been said about housing for people in direct provision. We had a debate a number of months ago and at the time I noted that the The Irish Timeshad published the reports of inspections across accommodation centres in the previous 12 months. They found numerous breaches regarding fire safety, blocked emergency exits, breaches in child protection with older children minding younger children, residents being served cold food due to inadequate kitchen facilities, bedrooms in need of repair, leaks, faulty heating systems and rotten floor boards. The list went on and on. As someone who believes strongly in the right to a home for everybody living in this country, I urge the Minister of State to ensure the review group would consider closely and seriously the housing situation of people in direct provision. Nobody living in direct provision should be subjected to accommodation that does not meet the minimum standards for housing in this country. I refer the Minister of State to the minimum standards for private rented housing, which are minimum standards. No accommodation provider in this country should be allowed not to meet the standards. I urge the Minister of State to make that one of the requirements for the review group.
It is of concern that we have spent so much money on non-State providers of direct provision accommodation. Serious amounts are involved. I am open to correction but not one provider’s contract in this country has ever been terminated. That is not good enough considering what we know to be the criticisms that people have made of their accommodation. I would like the matter to be investigated. It appears that in this situation two and two does not equal four. We must show serious concern for the right to a home for people living in direct provision, their right to have a family life, for their children to be able to study, for them to be warm, and to be able to cook their own food. They are basic, fundamental human rights that we do not need any court in the land to adjudge as we know them to be true.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and congratulate him on his appointment. Like many others, I believe he can bring about change in this arena. I welcome the visitors. Their presence makes a difference to us. It also makes a difference to the debate and I believe it will make a difference to the impact of the debate. I thank the visitors for being present.

We are all aware of the fact that this is a very timely debate. I thank Senators Mullen and Bradford for tabling the motion. The issue is one that places people in an extremely vulnerable position. It has been the focus of the campaigns of many human rights groups and is causing great concern across the country.

I also want to acknowledge the leadership of Senators Ó Clochartaigh and van Turnhout on discussions on this issue, as well as that of other Members in the Seanad cross-party group on direct provision.

The Seanad held public consultation hearings on Ireland’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in May 2014. We heard then the devastating evidence from civil society groups working in this area. The Seanad submitted a report to the UN committee on human rights expressing our concern about the impact the system of direct provision is having on the physical and moral integrity of asylum seekers, as well as their right to private and family life, points about which other Members have already spoken eloquently.

Other Members have spoken about the failure of the State to put in place an independent appeals mechanism available to persons living in direct provision to ensure independent and transparent oversight. I welcome the fact the Government has appointed an independent working group that will review direct provision and the protection process soon.

I want to acknowledge the tremendous work of groups such as Nasc in Cork, Doras Luimní in Limerick, the Irish Refugee Council and the Immigrant Council of Ireland on the complex issues involved. They have highlighted the conditions for people in direct provision and particularly the children who are growing up in the centres. I concur with Senator Mullen’s recommendation of an amendment to the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 to ensure it is clear and indisputable that the Ombudsman for Children can scrutinise what happens in these centres and receive complaints concerning child welfare. I also concur with Senator van Turnhout’s recommendation for an independent complaints mechanism in this regard.

One point that is often forgotten, although Senator Power raised it earlier, is the placing of suspected victims of human trafficking in direct provision centres. That is simply wrong. It leaves some of the most vulnerable women in Ireland in great danger. In the case of suspected victims of trafficking, we are talking about women who are traumatised, who have often been tricked into coming into the country with false promises of a dream of a new life, job or marriage only to find out in a car park in Dublin Airport that they are destined to a life of threats, abuse and rape. The lucky few will at some stage manage to escape that abuse. However, far from meeting our international obligations to provide these trafficking victims with somewhere safe and secure, they are placed in the mixed accommodation of direct provision. This raises many serious concerns.

Immigration and asylum agencies such as the Immigrant Council of Ireland agree that the placing of victims of multiple rapes in mixed accommodation can add to the trauma women face and can place them in immediate danger of further abuse. Neither does the direct provision system place the victim beyond the reach of her abusers. She can be contacted and intimidated into withdrawing testimony to the Garda or even forced back into prostitution again. It is essential these victims, whose experience in many cases have triggered important criminal investigations, get the chance to reflect and recover in safe, private and secure accommodation, as well as being allowed to co-operate with the authorities without any fear associated with the role of witness.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland, together with its partners which provide sheltered housing, have made a submission to the Department of Justice and Equality to resolve some of the issues I have outlined and which will be made public in the coming days. The document sets out in detail how detected trafficking victims could avail of a range of accommodation types and a better guarantee of confidentiality and security, particularly in view of the stigmas associated with trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation. Will the Minister of State ensure these proposals are considered by the independent group which will examine the direct provision system?

6:20 pm

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit agus comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis as a cheapachán. Fáiltím go mór leis na ráitis atá déanta aige maidir leis an ábhar seo ón am a cheapadh é. Mar a deirimid i nGaeilge, ní ionann caint agus gníomh. Beimid ag súíl leis na gníomhartha réasúnta luath.

I want to acknowledge the great people I have met since I started campaigning on this issue and welcome all those present in the Gallery for this debate. I have met astrophysicists, doctors, nurses, scientists, musicians, hairdressers - not that I need one - mechanics, carpenters, bakers, teachers, businesspeople, lawyers, etc.

A few red herrings have been thrown into the debate. The direct provision system is not acceptable for anyone. The Minister of State is a former school principal. Imagine if he found himself sharing a room with four other males of the same age from different backgrounds for nine years, not knowing when he would get out. This is simply unacceptable.

It is important he clarifies the Government’s policy on this issue. We are hearing mixed messages, even today, from several spokespersons. For example, we referred to amending the Ombudsman Act. Sinn Féin brought the amendments to the House when this legislation was recently debated so that the oversight issues, raised by Emily O’Reilly and her successor, Peter Tyndall, could be addressed. However, they were opposed by the Minister responsible, Deputy Howlin, and Labour Party Members. I hope this has changed and the Minister of State can clarify the Government’s policy on the oversight issue.

Claiming this issue can only be dealt with by the IRP, immigration and residency protection, Bill is a red herring. Obviously, there is a need to reorganise the law around asylum-seeking. However, there are two different issues at stake. There needs to be a legal basis for dealing with those seeking asylum in this country. Second to that, there needs to be a system of accommodating those people while they are here. This is the issue that needs to be reformed immediately. The IRP Bill will take time but I understand the Minister can change the direct provision system quickly because it has no legislative basis. Direct provision, from my understanding, was a Fianna Fáil Government solution, done on the back of an envelope to deal with an asylum situation in which it found itself. It is a privatised system. Private companies, some of them cleaning companies, are making millions of euro out of this system. Up to €53 million a year is spent on the direct provision system when the refugee accommodation system in Portugal only costs a fraction of that, €2 million a year. How many houses could be built for €53 million a year? What kind of mortgage could the Government leverage to build social housing with such funds? I wager it would be more than enough to house the numbers seeking asylum in this country.

There is also an issue around the contracts for providing direct provision services and their procurement. We need clarification on how often they are done. Is it by public tender? How come it seems to go to the same companies all the time? There is the possibility of non-governmental organisations teaming up to provide a new accommodation system which needs to be addressed too.

The conditions of the direct provision system are unacceptable for the majority of people in it. We do not have to wait for the IRP legislation to determine the legal status to reform direct provision. I welcome the Minister of State’s earlier comments on that. The privatisation of the system from day one was the wrong approach to this issue. There are good people running the centres. I have met many of the managers, good people trying to do a good day’s work. However, they are only there to put a roof over people’s heads and feed them. The food in many centres is totally unsuitable and many are not allowed cook for themselves. There is also an issue of the training of those running these centres. Many of those in the system have come from traumatic experiences and could have severe mental health issues. Those who run the centres do not have specific training in dealing with such issues which is unacceptable.

We saw much unrest over the summer in centres in Foynes, Athlone and Cork. The right for those in direct provision to work should be an absolute right that should be put in place. I was taken aback by the statement over the summer by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, that she was surprised there was a prostitution issue in some of these centres. This has been brought to attention in the Seanad and the Dáil previously.

On the topic of education, there have been issues around school books being provided for children and grants being made available for children who have done the leaving certificate examination but what about the adults in the system who want to further themselves in education? They must be dealt with also.

How much has it cost to fight legal cases over the years? How much has the State paid to fight the asylum seekers in the courts and who has profited? That is a huge question that needs to be answered. What about the funding for support groups which has been systematically reduced? Those in direct provision are not looking for anything extra. The argument is often put forward that they are trying to cream the system and take things away from the Irish. That is a spurious argument and is unacceptable. What these people are looking for is a right to dignity, a right to parent their children and a right to fulfil their own potential. I will support the Minister of State - we do not always agree on everything - if he fights for that objective.

6:30 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's time has expired.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I will finish very quickly. I agree with Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness, former Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, Mr. Peter Tyndall, Ms Emily Logan and all the Senators who have contributed. Tá sé in am gníomh anois. Beimid ag tabhairt go leor tacaíochta don Aire Stáit. Tá súil agam nach bhfaighimid an freagra céanna a bhfuaireamar ón Teachta Shatter nuar a bhí sé anseo mar Aire an t-am deireanach a phléamar an ábhar seo. Tá mé cinnte nach bhfaighimid.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I wish to move an amendment to the Order of Business to extend the time for this debate. It was due to conclude at 5.45 p.m. but given that it started late, the two hours is not due up until 6.17 p.m. I propose that the time for the debate be extended to conclude not later than 6.17 p.m. if not previously concluded.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tréaslaím leis ar a cheapachán. Tá súil agam go gcabhróidh an díospóireacht atá ar siúl anseo inniu leis san obair atá idir lámha aige. Tréaslaím freisin leis an Seanadóir Mullen toisc an suim atá léirithe aige san ábhar seo. Cabhraíonn an bunobair agus an taighde atá déanta aige linn uilig anseo.

I am pleased the debate is taking place today. I do not believe any of us has a monopoly of compassion in this area. The debate is about one thing only - how we can help the Minister of State, the Department and the Government in this very important area. A term that comes to mind immediately is human dignity. That has to be the foundation of whatever we might do for these visitors who come to our country, whether we call them asylum seekers or by any other title. I always think of Irish people who emigrated in the past to America or Britain and realise there is absolutely no difference in the story of Ireland and emigration and that of the asylum seekers we are talking about. There was good and bad in regard to the Irish story at that particular time. The deficiencies and the inadequacies which existed are still part of our folklore today. We still hear how Irish people were treated in the countries of their adoption. We should learn from that and ensure a similar situation does not apply when we have the opportunity, the power and the resources to do what is right in this case.

I have seen many asylum seekers who have integrated well into Irish society and have found them to be an enriching influence on ourselves. It is clear from our history that the same thing happened when people came to Ireland down through the centuries. It was they who made up the story of Ireland that we have today. The people we are talking about can make a very positive contribution to our way of thinking, our views on life and our interaction with other countries. That is from where we must start. We must not see them as a nuisance or as a chore that we have to go through. We should extend a céad míle fáilte to them and do everything possible to give them the opportunity to realise their aspirations and ambitions in life not only for themselves, but their children. That is very important.

We must look at the case histories at our disposal today for all the good that has been achieved. We must acknowledge that and if we fail to do so we are playing politics with the subject itself. However, we must also look at the other side. That people find themselves in a limbo for, say, 60 months is not acceptable under any circumstances. Just as a person might find himself or herself institutionalised in another situation, there is an aspect of institutionalisation in this instance, when a person lives in those conditions for five years which does not give one the opportunity to use whatever resources are available because of the way one has been treated. There is also a mindset which is exceptionally important. If people believe they are not considered to want to make a contribution in the country of their adoption, emotionally there will be certain constraints on them from day one. There is another aspect to it also. Let us think of the community in which they are residing. If they are residing in what is basically an institutionalised state, how does the community view them? In the past we have seen how badly Travellers have been treated and stigmatised and demonised. We knew it was wrong at the time and we have always known it was wrong. Later we saw what came out of that. There were certain excesses on the side of Travellers which was not fair to them.

I am aware the Minister of State intends to have a hands-on involvement in this area. I would say to him if it is a matter of resources that we are not talking about huge resources. If it is mismanagement of resources, as one Senator mentioned, that should be looked at, but above all else the culture of welcome is important. The case histories which we could all enumerate for the next couple of hours may be the exceptions, although I do not think they are the exceptions but whatever they are they should be tackled.

The media coverage of people who are being prepared to be sent out of the country is absolutely heart rending and heart breaking. They are people who have been here for a while, have settled down and worked with their neighbours and are respected and admired and have made a contribution to society. They are being taken from Ireland and exported rather than deported, often back to a dangerous environment again. That is not good for Ireland, our morale or our mindset that this should be happening on our island in our name when we can do something about it. I wish the Minister of State well. This issue is not a political football and it should not be a political football. We should all work together through the agencies and the spokespersons for the asylum seekers whom I have found to be very tolerant, well researched, focused and realistic. That is a good starting point.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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Ba mhaith liom fáilte chaoin a chur roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Ó Ríordáin ar a chéad turas go dtí an Seanad. Molaim é agus molaim Páirtí an Lucht Oibre toisc an portfolio atá curtha le chéile acu. Tá meascán maith suimiúil idir pobail nua, cultúr agus comhionannas sa phost nua atá aige.

I welcome all our guests in the Visitors Gallery. This is not the first time the Seanad has discussed this horrendous human rights issue around direct provision in Ireland. I welcome the motion from the Senators as a timely one. The Seanad can be proud of itself as continually keeping the issue of direct provision on the political agenda. Twelve months ago our group of Independent Senators, including Senators Jillian van Turnhout and Katherine Zappone, proposed a motion in this House which was accepted by the Government.

What we need to see now is action. The Minister of State has been a breath of fresh air since his appointment and his statements and opinions on direct provision for asylum seekers are welcome. We have faith in him, although he will have a short time in office and the clock is ticking. We do not have to convince the Minister of State as we had to convince the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, and some of the civil servants in the Department who resisted change. I look forward to supporting the Minister of State in this debate and there are questions about timing. We do not want prevarication as this is not a political issue, as Senator Ó Murchú so eloquently mentioned. We have interested visitors in the Gallery and I know the Minister of State has integrity with this issue.

I accept that not all asylum seekers have a just or reasonable case to seek asylum in this country. The process in addressing or assessing these applications must be quick, as the delays in the process of asylum claims and prolonged accommodation of asylum seekers in direct provision centres leads to the dehumanising of persons. As recently as 23 July 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council in its observations of the Civil Society Report to the Fourth Periodic Examination of Ireland under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights expressed concern at the lack of a single application procedure for the consideration of all grounds of international protection, leading to delays in the processing of asylum claims and prolonged accommodation of asylum seekers in direct provision centres, which is not conducive to family life. The committee also regretted the lack of an accessible and independent complaints mechanism for direct provision centres, as mentioned by my colleague, Senator Zappone.

The committee recommends that the State would take "appropriate legislative and policy measures" to establish a single application procedure with a right of appeal to an independent appeals body without further delay, including the adoption of an immigration, residence and protection Bill. It should also ensure that the duration of stay in direct provision centres is as short as possible and an accessible and independent complaints commission should be introduced for direct provision centres. We are looking for time-related action.

I welcome the Government's amendment and I disagree with some of the criticism in the motion. I will give this Minister of State a chance until the end of January. This Minister of State has been extraordinarily vocal over the summer, which is welcome, and he has been unequivocal in his work. I welcome the Government's amendment, which indicates its priorities. These are to reduce the length of time an applicant spends in a system through the establishment of a single application procedure, to be introduced by way of a protection Bill as a matter of priority. The clock is ticking. The Government today published the legislative programme for the autumn session, however, and I am concerned that such a Bill does not appear to be a priority. Will the Minister of State clarify how the publication of the legislative programme ties in with his timescale? I want to consider that before deciding how to vote.

As I have mentioned in previous debates, particularly the Seanad discussion last October, I have visited two direct provision centres; the Orwellian language labels them as "reception and integration centres". It is an unnatural and lifeless experience which sees young people and children being raised in sterile, unimaginative and inert environments where there is no joy. Imagine growing up in Ireland with no joy. We know about this and people are experiencing that today. It is an environment where no family life that might be described as normal can be achieved. This is a dehumanising process in which children have no proper role models in how to behave normally in a functional society. They are reared with no evidence of participation in family rituals such as cooking a meal. We know there are more than 1,600 children residing in direct provision.

My time is running out. I believe this system should be abolished, as it is a fresh wound that will fester in our Republic. It is not a scab from previous injustices but it is currently festering on the body politic of our Republic. I congratulate those in the media, including Mr. Carl O'Brien, Ms Sinead O'Shea and Mr. Brian O'Connell, for pushing this issue. The motion, as proposed, calls on the Government to grant asylum seekers the right to seek and secure paid employment, subject to reasonable conditions. I would like to see the Minister of State's response to the right to work. We know every member state of the European Economic Area, except the Republic of Ireland and Lithuania, grants asylum seekers the right to work at some point in the application process. The UK grants the right to work after 12 months if an applicant is still awaiting a decision, although the job must be on a list. Will the Minister of State confirm if the right to work is part of the terms of reference for the working group? Will he revert on the timescale? Asylum seekers are denied the right to work, leading to further stigma and a reduction of integrity and dignity that asylum seekers should have as they try to integrate into the Republic.

6:40 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Senator Mooney.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators Mullen, Bradford and Norris for raising this very important issue. As somebody who lives besides the Mosney centre and who has visited it, although not recently, I know it is certainly not a place one would want to send people. The Government amendment is somewhat unfortunate, although I accept that the Minister of State has good intentions. Blaming the previous Government may be fair enough but maybe it is not in the spirit of what we are trying to get done. We recognise that there is a concern being recognised, particularly the length of time involved in this process. The amendment differs from the original motion with regard to employment and the female-only and family-only reception centres.

It must be said that the State has a legitimate interest in a robust immigration policy but it also has international obligations. When the Refugee Act 2006 was passed, it was certainly a topic of conversation in my college, as it was seen as a very progressive piece of legislation. The new Bill is urgently required. One of the key reasons for delays in asylum centres is the length of time it takes for a court challenge, and the Government will not be able to legislate those out of existence. The Irish Constitution allows for such challenges. Courts will have to do their business much more efficiently, and efficiency in the courts system will have an impact as well.

Those already in the system must get the right to work. In the other House, my colleague, Deputy Ó Fearghaíl, called for an amnesty, which is worth considering. The people in the system have been in it for too long. Apart from our international obligations to refugees, which are solemn and important, we have an interest in having a robust immigration policy. It is a legitimate concern of the State, which should be balanced while considering the sheer hardship and trauma that many of the people living in these centres have experienced over many years.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I am very grateful to Senator Byrne for allowing me a couple of moments to speak. This is an important debate and I am glad to have the brief opportunity to make a contribution. I echo all the comments made in welcoming to the Gallery those who are interested in this issue. I had particular interest in Senator Ó Clochartaigh's contribution, in which he spoke about the diversity of occupations involved. That leads me to think that even if the Government allowed asylum seekers currently waiting for their application to be processed to work, there may be registration problems for many professions. I have experience of professions in Ireland resisting those who have trained outside this country or who have qualifications from another country. It adds another dimension to the issue.

My main focus is why it takes so long to process applications. I am first to concede, as Senator Ó Clochartaigh mentioned, that this asylum programme was initiated in the midst of chaos. We were experiencing the beginning of the Celtic tiger in 1997 and 1998 and the country had a pull factor. It became an economic paradise for people.

They regarded Ireland rather than other countries that traditionally receive asylum seekers as the country to come to. I fully accept that many of them have probably been here since that time or beyond.

The Minister of State is now the person in charge. He has made certain commitments. I agree with Senator Mac Conghail that he should be given time to work them through. I also appreciate what Senator Byrne, as a working solicitor, has said that there are legal problems. However, I fail to understand why it takes seven, eight or nine years for people to have their applications processed. They should either be shipped out of the country or kept in the country, but this halfway house has led to everything we have heard this afternoon. If the Minister of State did nothing else, he should try to speed up the process. I do not know what that involves and he might clarify why it is taking so long. I understand part of the reason relates to the legal context in which these applications are made and the continual appeals. I do not believe those continual appeals are acceptable. Surely there should be some legal mechanism to ensure a speedy resolution.

The proposers and the Government amendment both agree that there should be some sort of time limit in this regard. I have some sympathy with the last elements of the proposers' motion which states that we should establish a mechanism for those people who have been housed in direct provision for four years or more, with a view to allowing such persons compassionate leave to remain in the State. There should be some sort of halfway house there.

As I said at the outset I do not want in any way to impugn the credibility or human dignity of those living in direct provision. However, there is a responsibility on the Government. This is not something new, as can be seen from the debates on the matter going back over ten or 12 years. The Government has a responsibility to have a speedy and efficient process under which those who are seeking asylum are either turned down and sent back to where they came from or they are allowed to stay. There is no other halfway house. This is the greatest challenge the Minister of State is facing in his new job, in which I wish him very well.

6:50 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I call the Minister of State. I ask him to bear in mind we are due to finish at 6.15 - it has already been extended by four minutes - and then Senator Mullen has four minutes to respond. We are totally against the clock but it is not the Minister of State's fault.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin North Central, Labour)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí uilig as ucht an fáilte a chur said romham um thráthnóna. I welcome those in the Visitors' Gallery who have come from Mosney and Portlaoise. I am sure I recognise at least one person from Hatch Hall and representatives of SPIRASI.
I have been asked by my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, to respond to this motion by supporting the Government amendment, which states:

To delete all words after 'That Seanad Éireann' and substitute the following:"recognising that –
-the current system of Direct Provision has existed for 14 years;
-that the Minister and the Minister of State in the Department of Justice and Equality having visited several centres both agree on the need to review the current system; and
-that a key concern identified by those working in the sector is the length of time people spend in the system with over half of the residents being in the system for over four years;
welcomes the commitments in the Statement of Government Priorities 2014 - 2016 to:
-establish an independent Working Group to report to Government on improvements with the protection process, including Direct Provision and supports for asylum seekers; and
-to reduce the length of time the applicant spends in the system through the establishment of a single applications procedure, to be introduced by way of a Protection Bill as a matter of priority.".
I welcome this opportunity to respond to the points raised in this Private Member's motion and to speak more generally about the subject in order to assist Members gain a fuller understanding of the issues involved.
It is no secret that I personally have many difficulties with the direct provision system as it currently operates. I have described the system as inhumane and I do not resile from that description.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin North Central, Labour)
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I am entitled to hold that view even if it may conflict with the views of others in Government. A debate on this subject is long overdue and is now taking place at a serious level not just because of what I have been saying but because of the long and persistent questioning of the system by NGOs, international bodies and by many Members of the Oireachtas, especially Members of Seanad Éireann.
I congratulate members of the media who have been highlighting this issue. The House will know from recent media reports that there is an ongoing series of protests in asylum accommodation centres. I want to make it clear that while I fully respect the rights of residents to protest, I cannot condone the targeting of individuals working in certain direct provision centres or the stopping of people going about their lawful work. I have visited a number of centres and while my concerns about the system are unabated, I fully accept that persons there, as well as in the Reception and Integration Agency, are working on a day-to-day basis in the interests of the residents and bring a high level of commitment to their work.
This system has been in operation for 14 years and no click of my fingers is going to end it immediately. The system is a creature of Government and depending on the outcome of the review it will require Government approval to change it. Nonetheless, I can say to this House and to those outside it that change can take place more rapidly than anyone previously thought through the working group review mechanism referred to in the Government counter motion.
Quite apart from these political developments, there has been activity on the legal front, as already mentioned in the debate. The six-week hearing in the CA and TY judicial review proceedings in the High Court challenging, inter alia, the legality and constitutionality of the direct provision system ended on 28 July 2014 and a reserved judgment is awaited. This judgment may also affect the future of the system.
My job as Minister of State is to ensure that the commitment to a review is honoured. An important first step in setting up this working group will be convening a roundtable consultation tomorrow morning, 18 September. The purpose of this roundtable consultation is twofold. First, it is to engage with non-governmental organisations active in the area to enable them to outline the key issues for them with the State's current arrangements for asylum seekers. Second, the output of the consultation will be used to inform in more detail the terms of reference of the working group.
A number of themes and issues which are reflective of the current debate on the State's arrangements have been identified for discussion at the roundtable consultation. These include the material needs of applicants in direct provision, including the direct provision allowance and exceptional needs payments, limitations on the length of time persons spend in direct provision, education and delays in the international protection determination process. It will also address the issue of the right to work. In other words, all the calls made on the Government in Senator Mullen's motion can be addressed through this working group in a calm, considered and detailed way. I expect the group will have three months in which to come up with its recommendations and I want to stick to that. Nobody wants a group that sits for six or nine months. I believe three months is a realistic target for a report to be issued.
Regardless of the changes that need to be made to the way we deal with asylum seekers, I need to acknowledge that the direct provision system has enabled the housing and other needs of over 51,000 asylum seekers to be met since it was introduced. No one has ever been made homeless.
Nonetheless, people spend too long in direct provision. There are very many reasons for this. Approximately 50% of persons in the direct provision system have judicial review applications pending, are the subject of deportation orders or are seeking leave to remain in the State for non-protection reasons. A recent examination of cases in the direct provision system suggested that in the overwhelming majority of cases in the system longer than four years - the cut-off date suggested in Senator Mullen's motion - the applicants or their family members have legal proceedings pending, having exhausted all the processes in the protection system.
With regard to the protection process more generally, the Government counter motion acknowledges the commitment to introduce a separate protection Bill to establish a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds for protection. This reform will simplify and streamline existing arrangements and provide applicants with a final decision on their protection application in a more straightforward and timely fashion. It will also, as a consequence, reduce the length of time that applicants spend in the direct provision system. The aim is to have the Bill passed through the Oireachtas by Easter 2015, with the heads of the Bill to be approved and published in January.
The independent working group process which I commend to the House is a sensible one. It allows for necessary change to be identified and managed effectively without the dangers which would be generated by peremptory actions. I acknowledge that the system of direct provision was created to avert a homelessness crisis. It is important any outcome of a review of the system does not serve to re-create the crisis which led to its establishment in the first place. Many suggestions to reform the direct provision system have an underlying assumption that numbers coming into the State seeking asylum will continue to fall and that it is a static not a dynamic issue. So far in 2014, asylum claims are running 40% higher than in 2013.
I have been heartened, as I am sure many in this House will have been, by the public outcry on the issue, which is in marked contrast to some of the emotions that may have been witnessed ten years ago. I believe we are on the side of public sympathy on the issue. I have been invigorated and energised by the debate that has taken place here today.

As part of my role as Minister of State in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht I have responsibility for commemorations as well. The Proclamation we will be discussing, celebrating and commemorating in two years' time weighs heavily on my shoulders, as it does on the Members of this House. We must be honest with ourselves. We cannot commemorate, celebrate and acknowledge that document if we do not sort out issues such as direct provision. We cannot have a republic that has lesser children. While the system remains in its current form, we are destined to have within our country children who are considered to be lesser. We cannot stand over that and I will not stand over that. I have been visiting centres throughout the country. I am mindful of the comments that have been made about issues around trafficking, sexual assault, rape and torture that people within the system have suffered. I met the expert team in Beaumont Hospital who have confirmed this to me and stated their concerns about the people they have been treating from the reception centre in Balseskin in Finglas, who after a period of treatment then move to a centre in places such as Mayo. That is not the best care for people who have suffered such trauma and abuse in the country from where they have come. Many issues must be addressed.

People have also discussed the issue of education. I am a great believer that education is a great liberator. No matter what happens in one's life, whatever trauma or setback one gets, such as losing a job, a relationship break-up or having to travel from one country to another, education will always help one to bounce back. We must ensure within the working group that the issue of access to education is addressed. The comments of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan in this regard are to be welcomed.

I think everybody across this House has said that this is not a party political issue, that it is an issue on which we can work to achieve together. I will return to this House when the report from the expert group is issued, and from there we will have a process to achieve a system that collectively we can be proud of and not one of which we are ashamed.

7:00 pm

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Ba bhreá liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach Seanadóir agus, dar ndóigh, leis an Aire Stáit. Measaim go raibh díospóireacht fíor-suimiúil againn. Is léir go bhfuil an-suim ag na Seanadóirí uilig sa cheist seo. Gabhaim buíochas leo as ucht an taighde agus gach rud eile atá déanta acu le cur leis an díospóireacht ar an gceist fíorthábhachtach seo.

I welcome the speech by the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin. As I said at the outset I appreciate his commitment to dealing with direct provision. I thank the 15 or 16 Senators who contributed to this debate. I single out Senator Zappone's speech and I welcome what she had to say on trafficking. We are very much at one on those issues. I am glad she raised this issue which is one of profound concern and goes to the heart of what human dignity is all about. I acknowledge Senator van Turnhout's previous motion on this issue last year and her comments today. I note that last year the Government accepted that motion and I am disappointed that despite the Minister of State's bona fides on this issue, which I do not question, it remains the fact he is a junior minister so far and we have good will expressed by Government and by previous Ministers who have supported reform and yet have been unable to deliver it.

To my colleagues who are considering whether they should support the Government's counter-motion, it disregards all specifics we have proposed in our motion. It specifically excises any issue of opening up the possibility of people being able to work. That came across very strongly in Senator Hildegarde Naughton's comments, which were disappointing. It is quite clear that there is a strong resistance to any revisiting of the issue about whether people should be allowed to work. I remind Members that the only other country where asylum seekers are denied the possibility of seeking work at some stage in the asylum process is Lithuania. It also excludes the specific recommendations in terms of guidelines for the support of victims of torture and the recommendation that there would be female-only and family-friendly reception centres. There can be no good reason for excluding those specifics.

I simply do not buy Senator Bacik's idea that this counter-motion is to allow space to the working group. What does that mean? Is it not the prerogative and indeed the duty of the Oireachtas to agree on what we think the working group should be going with? If it were the other way around and the working group came out with proposals, we would be quoting the proposals we agreed with. It makes absolutely no sense for us as elected representatives not to make specific recommendations about desiderata, about things we think are necessary and essential. I note and I welcome that the Minister of State said that the working group would include the issue of work. I notice that was not included in his script. I wondered why that was. I wonder whether I should read any significance into the fact that he added by way of a verbal addendum the notion that the working group would look at the issue of the right to work. That did concern me. I am not in any way questioning him on the issue.

I believe the Minister of State is deeply concerned about this issue. I advise him not to be afraid to walk on an issue of principle should he have to. There is a precedent, a Minister of State did vote in accordance with her conscience in the recent past and the Minister of State should not be afraid to do so either. I would be very concerned if I were the Minister of State by the inadequacy and the vagueness of the counter-motion before us today. He does not have to take a lecture from me on the matter as I know he is concerned. When one considers that the clothing allowance for children, which is given twice a year, has been cut from €75 to €50, it brings home the meanness in the current system. We have not followed through on the European asylum system directive on receptive conditions, which lays down minimum standards, and this reveals a lack of commitment to getting things right. This must change. We, the Seanad Members do not need to wait on the outcome of the deliberations of the working group. I wish the Minister of State the very best of luck with the round-table. It is very important that it is happening but we should certainly be clear that what we are recommending needs to happen and needs to happen soon. That is the reason I am pressing the motion.

Amendment put:

The Seanad divided: Tá, 27; Níl, 19.

Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden; Níl, Senators Rónán Mullen and David Norris.

Amendment declared carried.

Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."

The Seanad divided: Tá, 27; Níl, 19.

Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden; Níl, Senators Rónán Mullen and David Norris.

Question declared carried.