Wednesday, 27 January 2016
Direct Provision: Motion
That Seanad Éireann:- welcomes the final Report of the ‘Working Group to Report to Government on Improvements to the Protection Process, including Direct Provision and Supports to Asylum Seekers’, published in June 2015;
- notes, according to the latest available statistics from the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), in its Monthly Report September 2015, there are 4,814 RIA residents ‘live on the system’ of which 1,225 are children;
- welcomes Ireland’s ratification of the Third Optional Protocol on a communications procedure of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which allows individual children, including those in Direct Provision, to submit complaints concerning specific violations of their Convention rights;
- asks the Minister for Justice and Equality to outline the exact progress of the recommendations, in relation to children and young people, drawing specific attention to the following recommendations:- child-friendly materials containing relevant legal information should be made available and widely distributed, including through special information services for children such as specialised websites (Recommendation 3.262);
- the remit of the Office of the Ombudsman and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children should be extended to include complaints relating to services provided to residents of Direct Provision accommodation centres, and transfer decisions following a breach of the House Rules (Recommendation 4.135);
- Tusla – Child and Family Agency should liaise with the RIA to develop a welfare strategy within the RIA, to advise on policy and practice matters and to liaise on individual cases as required (Recommendation 4.199);
- Tusla and the HSE should identify a named social worker on their respective child protection, mental health and primary care teams to be the identified lead social worker for a Direct Provision centre in their area (Recommendation 4.199);
- the Minister for Justice and Equality should establish an inspectorate (or identify an existing body), independent of the RIA, to carry out inspections in Direct Provision centres against the newly approved standards (Recommendation 4.226);
- all families should have access to cooking facilities (whether in a self-contained unit or through use of a communal kitchen) and their own private living space in so far as practicable (Recommendation 4.75); and
- the Direct Provision weekly allowance for adults should be increased from €19.10 to €38.74 for adults and from €9.60 to €29.80 for children (Recommendation 5.30).
The Minister of State is welcome to the House.I avail of the opportunity to welcome to the Visitors Gallery Dr. Bryan McMahon, chairman of the working group which is to report to the Government on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision accommodation and support for asylum seekers.
I am pleased that the last motion to be debated during Private Members' business in the 24th Seanad looks at the living conditions of children and young people in the direct provision system. Our group has used its time to consider this issue and I have spoken about it at every available opportunity, including in numerous Adjournment debates and debates on legislation, in an effort to bring the plight of children to the fore. This is the critical issue of our time. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. I fear our failures and the treatment of children in the direct provision system will be the subject of a Ryan report in the future, but we have an opportunity to make changes now. All too often we look back in shock at what happened in the past and say how desperate it was, but what we do now with that knowledge is on what we should be judged.
My entry point to the issue of direct provision is from a children's rights perspective. My perspective has been informed by my previous work in the Children's Rights Alliance, the recommendations of the Government appointed special rapporteur on child protection, Professor Geoffrey Shannon, the concerns raised consistently by advocacy groups, my visits to two direct provision asylum centres as an independent Member of the Seanad and the recommendations of the working group. It has taken me a long time to wade through the mire that is the political discourse on the direct provision system. I have struggled to understand the distinction drawn - I still do not agree with it - between children cared for by the State, as children in the direct provision system are described, and children in the care of the State as those in foster care and other care systems are described. I have argued strenuously that children are children, irrespective of their status, and that it is stretching credulity to claim that children in the direct provision system are in the care of their parents in circumstances where their autonomy to make even basic decisions about their children's care, for example, on what and when to eat, is so limited as to render it absent.
The direct provision system is detrimental to the welfare and development of asylum seekers and, in particular, the 1,225 children residing in direct provision accommodation throughout Ireland. There is a plethora of difficulties, including the dubious legality of the direct provision system, the lack of an independent complaints mechanism for residents, the absence of independent inspection of centres in which children reside, the decision by Ireland to opt out of the EU directive to allow asylum seekers to enter the workforce if their applications have not been processed after one year and the fact that there are no prospects post-secondary education for young asylum seekers. It is like hitting the pause button for an uncertain and, doubtless, lengthy period.
I appreciate that we have made some moves, but for most of the children, there is this cliff, the fettering and erosion of normal family dynamics and functioning, the lack of autonomous decision-making and the negative impact on the mental health of adults and children in the direct provision system. The ultimate failure lies in the length of time people remain in the system waiting to have their claims processed. I note the efforts the Government has made to reduce the length of time involved through the International Protection Act 2015 by introducing a single procedure to deal with international protection applications, but the reality is that the average length of stay is four years. However, a significant number have remained within the system for five to ten years. Some 55% have been on the waiting list for more than five years. I ask the Minister of State to think of all the things we have achieved in the past five years when he is on the election trail. There are people who have been in the direct provision system for that period of time. What a substantial loss of time it has been for the individuals, families and, particularly, children who have spent their entire childhood in direct provision centres. They are waiting for their lives to resume.
I was saddened to read in the final report on the child care law reporting project by Dr. Carol Coulter and her team, presented in November 2015, that children born in 2007 were still in the direct provision system. The only time they spent outside it was when they were placed in foster care while their mother received treatment for a mental illness.
There are more than 17 recommendations in the report of the working group which are specific to children and young people. I take the opportunity to thank the Children's Rights Alliance and its member organisations for ensuring the unique vulnerability of children in the direct provision system was not lost in the process. I will cover briefly the first of those recommendations that we have cited in the motion. My colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, will speak to the others.
There is a need for child-friendly materials containing relevant legal information. The reality for all of us in full health is that the system is very legalistic; as it can be intimidating, people need support, particularly children who are unaccompanied and seeking guidance on how to pass through the system and for what they need to apply. We need to ensure the material is in a language they can understand in order that they can appreciate the ramifications of the decisions they will take.
The remit of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children should be extended to include complaints about services provided, transfer decisions and so on. Ireland ratified the third optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which involves a communication procedure. It allows individual children, groups of children and their representatives, including those in the direct provision system, to submit a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child about specific violations of their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I had the privilege of attending the hearing on Ireland before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The question was rightly asked how Ireland had in place a system that allowed children in the direct provision system to make a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child but yet they had no right to make it to the Ombudsman for Children. How can this be the case? Technically, the recommendation that the remit of the Ombudsman for Children be extended is supported in the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 which in section 69 includes a provision on the referral of complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. Technically, it requires nothing more than a ministerial order or a statutory instrument similar to the one made in 2012 when the decision was made to extend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children to receive complaints from children in prison. It is a question of political will. It is absurd that one can report to a UN body based in Geneva but not to the Ombudsman for Children. I know that the Ombudsman for Children is ready and willing to receive these complaints and wants to be there for all children in Ireland.
The lack of an independent complaints mechanism is completely out of step with the jurisdiction conferred on the office of ombudsman across the Continent. In November 2014, in CA and TA - a minor - v.the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Minister for Social Protection, the Attorney General and Ireland, Mr. Justice Colm Mac Eochaigh found that the RIA's complaint procedure was deficient, not sufficiently independent, owing to the fact that it was the final arbiter in the process and that some elements of its house rules were unlawful. I do not care what anybody says, I trust the system, yet I would not be comfortable in making a complaint to those who I perceive as being part of the asylum system. We need to develop a welfare strategy and ensure all children have a named social worker based within the Child and Family Agency, not within the system in which a decision will be made on an application. I have argued for the application of the HIQA national standard for the protection and welfare of children, for the involvement of the Health Service Executive's child and family services, particularly where a referral is made by the child and family services unit in the RIA to the HSE of a child. It is shocking that there is still no independent inspection regime or national standards for direct provision centres, given that we know that there is a significantly higher referral rate for child protection and welfare cases from direct provision centre than among the general population. In one in four cases at least one parent is from an ethnic minority or an asylum seeker or Traveller. I implore the Minister of State to be cognisant of the consistent findings in child care law reporting projects that social exclusion, poverty, isolation, mental health issues and disability are common features of mothers and fathers facing court proceedings and the acknowledgement that minority groups, including asylum seekers, are particularly vulnerable.
My colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, will speak in greater detail about the issues related to the weekly allowance. There is also the issue of those seeking jobs.Ireland and Lithuania are the only two EU member states that apply a blanket prohibition on asylum seekers entering employment or setting up a business in the state. In conclusion, I wish to quote the words of Bill Frelick, the refugee programme director at Human Rights Watch. He said: "Ireland should recognise work not only as a source of dignity, but as providing a livelihood that is integral to sustaining asylum seekers in the pursuit of their right to seek asylum."
I second the motion. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. This might be our last time engaging formally. The Minister of State might be busy over the next while as we wait to be nominated or re-nominated. I wish him all the best in the general election. In his short time as Minister he put an impetus and full public support behind the report of the working group on improvements to the protection process. I acknowledge the chairman of the Abbey Theatre, but more important the chair of the final report, which is an exemplary document. This is the benchmark. There is no need for us in either of these Houses or in any future Oireachtas to revisit the matter except to update the data. Nothing else is required. I would like to hear the view of the Minister of State on the matter.
The report is an extraordinary document. It is a historical document of anthropological importance. It contains much detail. All Departments and agencies, from the Attorney General’s office to the Department of Social Protection and Tusla, were part of the working group. It is an extraordinary achievement that there was no dissenting voice or minority report. I accept there was one resignation. Ultimately, this is a well lauded and well researched document, which has a considerable status in any way we might benchmark or judge the Government and future Governments.
The report took a while. It was published in June 2015. The Independent group in the Seanad has spent quite a long time addressing the issue. I will never forget it. To my shame, before I had the honour of being nominated and appointed as a Senator I was never in a direct provision centre. My first visit was with Senator van Turnhout and Senator Zappone on a cold, snowy March afternoon in 2013. That is already more than two years ago; it is almost three years ago at this stage. It was a depressing time. It was depressing to leave the Athlone direct provision centre. There was nothing wrong with it except it was soulless. It was devoid of humanity. Everything was done legally that I could see yet what struck me centred around the basic ritual of cooking dinner – one might call it a human right. How could anybody in this State define what a family is if they cannot cook around a cooking ring, gas fire or whatever else in a kitchen? It took me a couple of days to try to articulate that. In a way, that is why we wanted to include a reference to it. It is chilling when one sees the description in the report and the reference to it in the recommendations. Recommendation 4.75 describes the need for residents to set up a sandwich making facility providing a selection of yoghurts, juices and fruit etc. at breakfast time in the canteen, as is done in some centres. That in itself is an extraordinary description of what is absent in many of the centres. The report recommends the Mosney model as one that should be rolled out. I would like to hear what has been done in that regard.
The Government has not come up with a counter-motion but it is important for us as Senators and legislators to hold the Government to account. Families in direct provision cannot call themselves a family if they are denied the very ritual of making a meal in the morning or having the ingredients required to make a sandwich. That is something on which I would like the Minister of State to comment.
The motion outlines that 1,225 children are still in direct provision. Has the number decreased since the publication of the June 2015 report? Are the numbers going down or up? Family dignity also extends to another major recommendation in the report, namely, that the weekly allowance for adults should increase from €19.10 to €38.74 and for children from €9.60 to €29.80. The Minister of State made an announcement that the latter payment should be increased by €6. Such an increase would bring the payment for a child to €15.60, which does not go far enough.
It is. As someone said to me yesterday a 15 year old is still a child. There are demands on children on a weekly basis. I have two daughters myself who were once teenagers. Costs arise when they go to the party of a classmate or go out with friends. Having seen the direct provision centre in Athlone I do not know how children could go from there to see a film or become involved in whatever cultural activities they might require to enhance and support their own emergence as young adults in this State. The sum of €15 is such a paltry amount. What was the reason behind only increasing the payment by €6?
The great thing about the report is that everything is costed. The Minister of State’s colleague, Deputy Howlin, was represented on the working group. I echo Senator van Turnhout’s statement. The lack of political will is stalling the implementation of many of the recommendations. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State’s comments on the weekly allowance and also the cooking facilities.
Very often when we have debates in this Chamber they concern issues that are significant on the public radar in economic terms. Given the day that it is in it there is much talk about the banking inquiry, the fiscal rectitude of the country and of policy makers, but very often we overlook the real issues affecting people who live within the State. Those who live in direct provision facilities should, under the Constitution, given the year that is in it, have exactly the same rights, opportunities and level of equality available to every other child or citizen within this country. We have accepted those people and we have provided them with a new opportunity but, unfortunately, that opportunity is very restricted.
I commend what Senator Mac Conghail said. I have not read all of the report but I read certain parts of it in preparation for today’s debate. The report is very detailed. I understand the chairman of the working group is present this afternoon. I agree that the working group has done the State and the asylum system some service. The report has identified all of the shortcomings in the direct provision service and looked at the 7,937 people in the system on 16 February 2015. Alarmingly, 55% of those people were in the system at that point in time for five years or more. That is unacceptable. Senator Mac Conghail has outlined the circumstances in which those individuals, children and their families have to live. Those of us who are lucky enough to have a home in this country take it for granted that those facilities are readily available but, unfortunately, we know from the homeless crisis and those in direct provision that some people are living in circumstances in which many of us would not like to find ourselves. The State has an obligation to intervene. The intervention that is being provided is not being provided quickly enough or effectively enough. Grave shortcomings have been identified in the report, which should act as a blueprint for the transitions that are required and ensure that the agencies that have not been fulfilling those responsibilities will take action.A number of those agencies have been referred to and are outlined in the Private Members' motion that has been brought before the Seanad this evening.
As this Seanad goes into its twilight era, as we go into the final weeks before a general election, and as we approach the centenary celebrations of 2016 we have to reflect on what is really important as a society. We have to decide whether it is more important to drive the economic recovery while allowing impoverished children, and others who are impoverished within our country, to stay in the position they are in. It is important to drive economic recovery and to share and reap the rewards that it brings. This country is a welfare state, as are most western democracies. We are no different. The welfare we provide in direct provision is not adequate and does not meet its purpose. One of the recommendations I read was on the issue of school children and the provision of an educational initiative for principals and boards of management to enlighten them on the impoverished circumstances in which such children find themselves. It should not have to happen yet it was one of the recommendations in the report. Those children should have the same opportunity as every other child within the State. We have taken them on board and given them a new life but that new life is not what it should be. The recommendations, as has been said by the sponsors of the Private Member's motion, have outlined it much better than I could. They are at the cutting edge and have done much work in this area over the last five years. I commend them for putting it forward this evening. It is unfortunate that there are not more Members present to debate this important issue which must be debated and must be taken on by Government.
There are roadblocks, which there will be in every Department, but unless the political will is there to challenge those roadblocks nothing will happen. I am not throwing a political charge at the Government on this issue because it is an issue that has been around for some time. It must be addressed urgently. It will be helpful if decisions can be made quickly before the election, through ministerial orders or otherwise. Some work has been done on making this contribution but it is not nearly enough, given the expensive living environment in which we find ourselves. My contribution is aimed at supporting the motion and I hope the Minister of State will have some enlightening words to say this evening.
One of the members, indeed. The Minister of State has a great sense of social justice. He is not afraid to express his view or to say that something is wrong when it is wrong. That is refreshing in politics because while we might think we get a lot of it, we actually do not. On that note, I wish him well over the next three to four weeks. I hope it works out for him.
I support this Private Members' motion and I am glad that an amendment has not been tabled because this is a serious issue for Seanad Éireann, which has prided itself on its pioneering campaigning on issues of exceptional importance to the citizens of Ireland. This is an issue of exceptional importance to the people of this country. I say this country because the people who come here seeking asylum and shelter do so because they are escaping a very difficult situation in their native countries. Let us not forget that millions of Irish people left here as a result of poverty and travelled all over the world. While they did not receive a universal welcome everywhere they went, by and large they did. When they were allowed to work, they made a significant contributions to the countries in which they worked. We all know of famous people such as John F. Kennedy and others who were enormously successful and who were the grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants from this country. There were thousands more who have repeated - perhaps not to the same extent - the phenomenal success in the areas to which they moved.
What is the difference between that and people coming to this country now that we are a First World country, in spite of our recent difficulties? There is none. The people who come here seeking refuge should be allowed to demonstrate their talents, contribute to society, build our economy, be part of our future, help us to carve it out and sculpt how this country sees itself in future. There is talent in the direct provision centres. I have visited a number of them with my good friend Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh who has excelled himself on this issue and who often makes some of us question whether we are doing enough. Senator Ó Clochartaigh never stops, which is to his eternal credit.
The all-party working group with Senator van Turnhout and others has driven this issue. It is an issue that has been driven by Seanad Éireann. The Minister empathises with the situation and, after being elected, set up a working group which made very fine recommendations that are being implemented, although not as quickly as we would like. However, the political will exists and I commend the sincerity with which it is being driven. There is much work left to be done. I hope this Government is returned after the election. If it is I would be very confident that the job will be finished. In that case, we will put an end to the despicable situation regarding direct provision and will treat people who come here for refuge with some dignity and respect. We will harness their talents, what is good about them and their culture and integrate them, their culture, their ways of life and their beliefs into our society to foster a better Ireland where everybody is equal.
This is an unexpected and unanticipated honour which I am happy to take up. I raised the issue of direct provision in October 2014 and was told in this House - I think by the Minister of State - that it would all be sorted out by April. That was accepted by the House but it has not been addressed. Will the Minister of State give us a progress report? What has actually changed? Apparently there has been some increase in the financial provisions for children but I am not sure that much else has changed. It is incumbent upon the Minister of State to tell the House if there has been some change. I accept his bona fides. He is a good and conscientious Minister of State and, like Senator Conway, I would like to see him re-elected. I agree with Senator Conway that he is the kind of person we need in public life. However, there is the question of the delivery of his promises.I note, on that occasion, that we would have won that legislation only for the fact that Fianna Fáil jumped ship at the last minute, and its three votes collapsed the Bill. I presume it assumed that something would happen and I do not think it has. It was the usual dog in the manger party politics. I do not blame my Sinn Féin colleagues in this House for that.
It is noticeable that the motion before the House falls into three sections: the invocation of various international treaties; a concentration on children and their rights under this; and finally, the question of an inspectorate, the question of food and so on. There are three distinct sections.
The history of this motion began in 1999, on International Human Rights Day, coincidentally, when the Government proposed a system of direct provision. In 2001, the Reception and Integration Agency was formed. However, there was no provision for paying asylum seekers any kind of proper financial provision. In 2009, Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, successfully challenged the intervention of the Government which prevented these asylum seekers from accessing social welfare. They won in the court. What was the reaction of the Government? It was to reverse this court decision by legislation. That, I believe, shows the attitude, not of this Government, but of the Government of that time. There has been a series of cases that I recited when I was introducing my Bill. One example was presided over by Ms Justice Harding Clark, who said:
Sometimes the court is called upon to review a decision which is so unfair and irrational and contains so many errors that the judicial review case seems an inadequate remedy to redress the wrong perpetrated on an applicant. This is such a case.
She sent it back to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal which was completely unrepentant. It was only on the third occasion that the gentleman in question had his application accepted.
Ms Justice Harding Clark talked about decisions being "unfair and irrational". I wish to second what was said by Senator van Turnhout about the extraordinary distinction between people cared for by the State and people in the care of the State. I cannot see any rationale for a distinction. What is worse, children can and have made complaints to the UN committee in Geneva, yet they are unable to make them to our own Ombudsman for Children. That is a shocking situation. I would say to the Minister that as he has a few days left in his current term of office - as we understand the Taoiseach is going to the Park on Tuesday next - he could make a ministerial order about this to empower and involve the Ombudsman for Children. I ask the Minister to do that. It would be a noble gesture as he leaves office. The Ombudsman for Children has consistently appealed to the Government to be included in this system. Therefore, there is absolutely no reason, with goodwill, this should not be done.
I turn to the question of the parents and family life. Many people say that direct provision does not provide a normal family environment. For growing children this is terribly important, as a prolonged spell living in this institutional setting can inhibit a child's healthy growth and development. As a result of this, for most families, who are the majority of residents being accommodated in centres where food is provided on a full board basis, family interactions around food are dictated by strict meal times and limited food choice. I raised this when I was introducing my legislation. One of the things that consolidates family is the family meal. There are also different cultural traditions. The kind of food provided in direct provision is completely unsuitable for babies, toddlers and children. It is high in salt, sugar and fat content and it disempowers the parents. The parents are expected to hand out this slop to their children, without any intervention themselves. They cannot cook themselves and there is no respect for their religious or cultural traditions. What do the children pick up from this? They pick up their parents' lack of empowerment. That makes it critically difficult. It can create a situation where children grow up without any memories of a shared family meal being cooked. The report of the working group on the protection process has a section on the effects of this on family life and children, which includes the following:
Parents often cited their feelings of inadequacy. Their authority as parents and capacity to act as role models for the children are undermined by their economic dependency and their lack of control over their daily lives. They cite a lack of capacity to infuse their traditions and culture in their children due to the lack of private family living space and cooking facilities.
One can understand that there is a feeling of cultural deprivation there. The last time I spoke on this issue I quoted an asylum seeker saying, "Frankly, I feel I am eating in Guantanamo as security people are standing there with walkie-talkie radios, talking to each other and it is not a place you would wish to eat." I think we need to take this into account. The idea that somebody feels as if they were in Guantanamo is rather chilling, and I would like to appeal to the Minister because we have this concept called the best interests of the child. This Government, to its credit, has striven to implement the best interests of the child throughout Irish legislation. I think the question of the best interests of the child should be taken into account when making legislation in this area.
I wish to put on the record some of the voices of people involved directly in the situation from the report of the working group. One such voice says that the "family has little control over decision-making regarding family life". What does that do for parental authority? Another is quoted as saying, "Neither the parents nor the children can enjoy privacy. It is also desirable to offer families a minimum of two rooms." Another resident said, "It is not normal for children to grow up in a situation where they have not seen their parents cook or where they are not sharing a meal in private." Another is quoted as saying, "When one has children, it is not easy to instil one's own cultural values on them, as they end up learning things from other residents." The other residents may come from completely different cultural backgrounds. The children, naturally, are imitative, and they pick up from these things rather than from their own cultural background. Finally, "Direct provision militates against children leading a life integrated in their schools and wider community - difficult to have their friends over to play." We must think in terms of the education process and people growing up, doing their junior certificate and leaving certificate, while their lives are being held in quandary.
I ask the Minister of State - and I am sure my colleagues on various sides of the House would agree with this - that he urgently make an order allowing children to make a complaint directly to the Ombudsman for Children. I very much look forward to hearing him say to this House that he will enact this provision. It would be a glorious way to leave office and I believe it would be in concert with the fact that, unusually, this Private Members' time has no amendment to it. It is the will of the entire House. I ask the Minister of State to listen to what we are saying today.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I would like to commend the Taoiseach's nominees on bringing forward this important motion. It is a fair and balanced motion and seeks clarification and an update.
As we are all well aware, the Government published a report on the protection process on the direct provision system last June and we are very honoured to welcome the chairman of the report group, Dr. Bryan McMahon, to the gallery. This report contained more than 173 recommendations. Any report that contains 173 recommendations clearly identifies that a lot of change needs to be made.
Today's motion deals primarily with children currently living in direct provision centres. While I appreciate that the Government has increased the payment made to children in direct provision from €9.60 to €15.60, it still remains a paltry sum when one takes into account the needs of children. One can only imagine how dreadful it must be to live for years in a shelter, when at the outset that period was meant to be six months. Many remain in direct provision for several years. The needs of the families and, most importantly, of the children of asylum seekers have to be met.
We must look at the right of a child not just to life, but also to life experiences, a concept which is limited not only to direct provision. Children did not choose to be brought to this country, nor indeed to be born into direct provision, but many are. Imagine going to school and never being able to invite your friend back to your home. Imagine never being able to attend a school friend's birthday party because one simply does not have the money to buy even the cheapest of birthday gifts.They are never able to go to see a movie with a friend or partake in any activity that costs money. I acknowledge the working group for its hard work, giving this minority group a voice to express its concerns. Reports by the Immigrant Council of Ireland and the Irish Refugee Council have scrutinised the direct provision system and they found poor living conditions which could be damaging to health and mental health. Ireland is one of two EU countries that does not allow asylees to work. They do not have access to social welfare, rent allowance or social housing. In simple English, they are unable to experience a normal family life which many of us take for granted. I appreciate that asylum seekers are obliged to go through the process and take proper and legal steps to be able to remain in the country. However, the length of time the process takes is frustrating for the asylum seekers and those who represent them and who are fighting for their rights. Senator van Turnhout outlined data on the numbers of people waiting and how long they have been waiting. I have made inquiries and am informed that each month between 60 and 80 residents in direct provision are getting leave to remain. This great but not fast enough for most of them and I hope the process will speed up.
As outlined in the motion by the Senators, Ireland has ratified the optional protocol and a communications procedure of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which allows individual children, including those in direct provision, to submit complaints concerning specific violations of their convention rights. There is, however, no provision to make a complaint to the Ombudsman for Children. It is a very reasonable request that children in direct provision come under the remit of the Ombudsman for Children. Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children has welcomed the proposal for the establishment of a committee to set standards for direct provision and an inspectorate to look at direct provision centres to see if the new standards are working. This also gives the children the feeling of inclusion in an agency that would help improve their lives. During its term, the Government has done a lot for the protection of children, such as the Children First legislation and the setting up of Tusla, but we must extend the same rights to children in direct provision. Families should be able to at least try to keep life as normal as possible for children while they await their applications for asylum to be processed. Nobody should have to wait for seven years or more. For some asylum seekers, it has been seven years of totally inadequate facilities in which to rear a family - as has been clearly outlined by other Senators - such as no cooking facilities and meals at the same time every day. Everyone must have the same meal as there is no variety on any given day. There are different nationalities, cultures and religions within each direct provision centre and yet there is no facility to accommodate people with the foods they may need or are used to. Children may have to live in a room with their entire family, possibly with young adults and their parents and share a bathroom with other residents of the centre. With regard to education, children have access to primary and secondary schools but finance becomes an issue. Children may not have funds to partake in such things as school outings or extra-curricular activities. The Minister of State, as a teacher, knows the extra costs for families when it comes to education. It is the little things the children cannot do because they do not have the money. They probably cannot take a swimming lesson or go on outings other children can go on because their parents can afford it.
I acknowledge the work done by the Government to help students to access third level education, if they have been in the country for five years. The students are very limited in what college they can attend as they would not be able to finance themselves through college. Even if they receive the special rate of the SUSI grant, it would only barely cover the accommodation costs, so the students are obliged to stay near the direct provision centre and are limited in what college or course they can take. The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, is doing its best to ensure all residents' basic needs are met. However, we must go further than that or, as former Supreme Court Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness has predicted, one day maybe not in the too distant future, we will have a Taoiseach standing in the Dáil making a public apology for the damage done to people during their time in direct provision. Direct provision could have long-lasting adverse effects on the health and mental health of many residents.
I acknowledge the work done to date by this Government but I urge whatever party is in Government after the next general election to continue the work to ensure anyone in direct provision is treated with dignity and respect and their applications are expedited as quickly as possible. Most of these people have fled their own countries in fear of their lives to avoid poverty, torture and even death. They do not expect Ireland to be the land of milk and honey but they would hope to receive fair and dignified treatment by the authorities and to live in a decent standard of accommodation while their application is being processed.
I will conclude by thanking the Taoiseach's nominees for tabling this motion. It is a good motion and they have always brought forward good motions in this House. They will probably be in the Lower House or in this House again in the future and that they will bring forward good motions again.
On behalf of the Government, I thank Senators Fiach Mac Conghail, Jillian van Turnhout, Katherine Zappone, Averil Power and Mary Ann O'Brien for tabling this Private Members' motion and for this opportunity to update the House on developments in the systems that operate in the State to offer protection and shelter to those in the asylum application process. It is important to always state in this House that what is good about this Parliament is that when questions are asked about immigration policy and protection policy, they come from a position of compassion. We are not having in Ireland what they are having in Denmark at the moment. We are having a conversation in Ireland where Government is being pressed to have potentially a more humanitarian approach. We do not have political posturing on an anti-immigration type platform. That is something we have to hold on to and about which we do not become complacent.
The issue does not become a feature of general elections nor does it become a feature of the political discourse at that difficult time for candidates. I believe that is appropriate and I hope we can hold on to that.
The term direct provision describes the system whereby the State directly provides accommodation and other ancillary needs for those who apply for asylum in Ireland. When an applicant presents himself or herself for protection, this State is in the position to immediately offer an applicant a place to stay, shelter, a bed, three meals a day and other services on a voluntary basis. The fact that Ireland, even at the height of its financial challenges, has maintained its commitment to a system of directly providing for applicants' needs is important and clearly demonstrates the State's commitment to support those fleeing persecution.
The Government acknowledged that what was to be a temporary system of shelter and provision has evolved into a more long-term provision and it is here that many challenges have arisen. This Government established a high level working group in October 2014 to report to it on improvements in the protection process, including direct provision and supports for asylum seekers. A comprehensive report, including 173 recommendations was submitted to Government by the chair, Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon, and published on 30 June 2015 and it is good to see him in the House this evening. This Oireachtas and those living in direct provision owe him a great debt of gratitude.
The report's key conclusion was that the system of directly providing for applicants' needs had evolved from being a short-term measure into a long-term one primarily as a result of the multi-layered determination and appeals process. The document held up by Senator Fiach Mac Conghail is the only document the Department is working off. Anybody facing into this election should make the commitment that document is the only document that any of us, on returning to these Houses, and hopefully returning to Government, should be seeking to implement in its entirety.
Applicants are currently involved in a sequential process where each element of their refugee application is considered, appealed or judicially reviewed and exhausted before any other information such as their qualification for subsidiary protection, can be considered. The sequence of appeal and review is then possibly repeated and exhausted before any other humanitarian matters can finally be considered for permission to remain. This sequential application system has meant that some applicants' needs are directly provided for by the State for long periods of time.
The report urged action on addressing this length of time issue and the Government with the approval of this House, passed the International Protection Bill on 18 December 2015, addressing 26 of the report's 78 recommendations specifically in relation to the protection determination process.The successful implementation of this reform should ensure that in future, delays in the processing of applications will not be the cause of persons spending lengthy periods in direct provision.
While the International Protection Act's scope did not extend to what is called direct provision, it deals with the application process and by extension those in direct provision and the length of time they will spend there. There have been calls for direct provision to be abolished but these are consistently made in a context of an absence of any alternative system being proposed. As a Government responsible for protecting vulnerable people, we can not leave them to their own devices or to some unspecified system that those who call for abolition have never set out a practical alternative.
Regarding the operation of the direct provision centres, all contracts entered into by the Department follow approved tendering procedures. We would welcome applications from groups or organisations which have expressed great concerns about the standards in direct provision to submit their proposals to provide, run and manage such centres. As recently as last August, the Department invited expressions of interest from persons interested in providing accommodation and ancillary services for persons seeking asylum in the State. The Department continues to welcome such expressions of interest. It is my understanding that an open, transparent and competitive tendering process will commence shortly for the management of State owned accommodation centres. For the information of the House, I have visited many of the centres, two in Waterford, three in Dublin, Mosney, Laois, Galway, two in Limerick, Clare, Mayo and Sligo, so I know what I am talking about. The State funds the service providers and I reiterate once again that it is open to any group which feels a better service can be provided to make such a proposal and it will be processed properly through our approved tendering procedures. In the meantime, it is clear from the working group report that the current system has challenges that must be met, especially for those who rely on this accommodation and support for longer periods than planned. The working group was particularly concerned about the impact long-term institutional residency has on children. Many of the contributions here were made in terms of the impact it has on children, rightly so.
The International Protection Act takes the reforming step of introducing a single application procedure which will significantly simplify the system of determination and allows for all information to be considered in the first instance without any dilution in best practice in proper procedures or due process. This delivers on the commitment given in the Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016, "to legislate to reduce the length of time the asylum applicant spends in the asylum determination system and consequently in Direct Provision through the establishment of a single applications procedure." The Act is in compliance with the United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees and with the related EU directives on asylum procedures and qualification into which Ireland has opted.
From the outset, the Department of Justice and Equality placed the "best interests of the child" at the centre of discussions with the Attorney General's office in preparing this Act and ensured that this value was placed in a number of specific provisions of the published Bill. Both the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and I repeatedly assured Oireachtas Members that this principle is at the heart of the Act and will be embedded in best practice in the protection process arising from the introduction of a new single application procedure. These matters were given careful scrutiny by the Council of State and the President signed the Bill into law on 30 December 2015.
In the motion before the House, Senators have rightly drawn attention to the context in which we operate. This Government through a referendum passed by the people ensured that children now have full constitutional protection. This Act must be read in the context of the constitutional obligations set out in Article 42A(1). It is also to be read in the context of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, including Article 24(1) which states: "in all actions relating to children, whether taken by public authorities or private institutions, the child's best interests must be a primary consideration".
I acknowledge the serious and helpful engagement of Senator Jillian van Turnhout and the Children's Rights Alliance with Department officials and their combined efforts to ensure that children's best interests are protected in the Act and in our protection system. This debate follows on from that co-operation.
The Department on publication of the International Protection Bill set out its commitment in this area and ensured the "best interests of the child" was placed in sections 24, 35 and 57 in the original Bill presented to the Oireachtas. In the Seanad, the Department introduced a further amendment requiring Tusla to consider legal advice as well as its own information as to when a child in its care should become an applicant - section 15(4).
As a result of the constructive engagements in both Houses and with NGOs which engaged with the Department, a number of further amendments were accepted by the Government to the Act to give further assurance as to the Government's bona fides on protecting children in our protection process. As a result, to offer further reassurance to advocates who rightly promote the best interests of the child, the "best interests principle" or child positive amendments have been incorporated in sections 15(4), 20(7), 24, 27, 35 and 52 to 57, inclusive.
The Government has also provided more resources for the processing of applications in the system five years or more and there has been a noticeable acceleration in grants of status and in addressing legal challenges arising in respect of older applications in the current system. As Minister of State, during the summer, I completed the work of a task force designed to assist those granted status in leaving direct provision and I am pleased to report that despite accommodation pressures, 57% were found to be able to leave within three months and this rose to 86% within six months of being granted status. I confirm the statistics as outlined by Senator Marie Moloney. Since the publication of this report and because of the extra resources afforded to the Department in the last budget, between 60 and 80 people per month in direct provision are getting leave to remain. I would add that more than 80 deportation orders have been revoked since publication of the report, which is welcome.
This is considerable constructive activity and welcome to all in the protection system or who advocate on their behalf. The work is continuing and these matters are the subject of ongoing deliberations in the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Service Reform. Important progress has been outlined above in implementing the report's recommendations notwithstanding the significant challenges faced by Ireland and the European Union arising from the migration crisis in the Mediterranean area occurring in the months following the report's publication. The Department is involved in an audit of progress on the implementation of recommendations to update the Cabinet committee at present. The motion asks for updates on specific recommendations of the working group which I will now deal with.
In response to the Senators' query on recommendation 5.30 that the direct provision weekly allowance for adults should be increased from €19.10 to €38.74 for adults and from €9.60 to €29.80 for children, I am pleased to inform the House that the Tánaiste and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, jointly sought and obtained Government approval to increase the weekly allowance to be paid to children by six euro earlier this month. This amounts to a more than 60% increase on the previous level, acknowledging that this allowance had not been increased since its introduction. These recommendations remain on the Cabinet committee's agenda for further consideration. The changes are good but I concede they are not good enough.
The Minister for Health's implementation of the waiving of prescription charges has also eased another serious financial pressure on parents who had to meet those costs from their direct provision allowances. Senators referred to the potential oversight role of the Ombudsman for Children. I confirm to the House that the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is meeting the Ombudsman for Children next Wednesday to discuss this and other issues.
In addition, I welcome the swift implementation by the Minister for Education and Skills of the working group's recommendations in regard to children living in direct provision to be supported to access third level education which positively impacted on children during this academic year. In regard to recommendation 3.263, the International Protection Act's implementation will involve a thorough review of all materials, guidelines and agreements to ensure best practice. Interviews with unaccompanied minors are conducted in specially designed child-friendly interview rooms in the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, ORAC, on Mount Street. A representative from the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, attends the interview with the child applicant and assists them throughout the whole asylum process, including helping them with their initial application and with explaining to them what to expect in the protection process.
The Refugee Appeals Tribunal will become the International Protection Appeals Tribunal. To date the tribunal has not had any appeals from unaccompanied children or minors. The tribunal published a guideline on dealing with child applicants in the past year. This followed extensive consultation with various interested parties, including the Ombudsman for Children, and a two-day inter-agency training course on dealing with child applicants. The Legal Aid Board has an information leaflet, written in plain English, on the service it provides to asylum seekers. This leaflet is translated into various languages and is also contained on the board's website. The leaflets are made available to applicants in the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner on registration. Specialised legal information including early legal advice is given to all unaccompanied minors in the care of Tusla via a dedicated unit in the law centre in Smithfield.
In regard to recommendation 4.199, the working group was fully aware that a welfare strategy already exists both in terms of liaison structures and also in terms of individual case management. Tusla reports that a document outlining this strategy and a protocol governing same is currently being further developed jointly by themselves and the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, which is responsible for the centres. This updated protocol will be available from mid-February. It is important that we be clear and that the working group was fully aware that Tusla and RIA have had structures in place for several years to assist in collaboration on inter-agency communication, information and case management both in regard to the general population of children and families in direct provision and also with "aged out" unaccompanied minors. Their recommendation was designed to ensure that this best practice would be embedded in the system and we are happy to offer such reassurance.This collaboration is achieved both through organised inter-agency meetings and on an ongoing basis in respect of individual case management.
Tusla also advises that it is currently progressing the arrangement to identify a named social worker on its child protection team both internally within the line management structure and in collaboration with the HSE and RIA. It is intended that there would also be linkage between the child protection social worker and the social workers on the mental health and primary care teams with the staff member in each centre who is identified by RIA as the designated officer for Children First. This arrangement will be put in place by mid-February.
The HSE is in the process of strengthening links with its mental health division to ensure the mental health needs of people living in direct provision are adequately addressed. The HSE sits on a high level group chaired by RIA comprising statutory representation from the Department of Social Protection, Tusla, etc., and it works collaboratively to address any issues emerging or that have been escalated. These agencies were represented on the working group and the HSE is working towards enhancing linkages across the operational system so that there is a named person in each community health organisation to whom queries in respect of direct provision centres in that catchment area can be directed.
In respect of recommendation 4.226, inspections of direct provision centres are currently carried out by RIA and by an independent contracted private company. These regular and unannounced inspections are made to ensure that services provided to residents are satisfactory and that all health and safety requirements are being met. The services that each centre must provide to residents are also set out in the RIA house rules, which were revised around the same time the working group report was published and were distributed to all centres. A new complaints system was introduced by RIA in 2015 allowing for complaints to be appealed to an independent officer. Complaints made since have been addressed locally and the appeal officer has not received any request to intervene. It is important to monitor the impact of these improvements and we are doing so as part of the report's consideration process.
Establishing another inspectorate or extending the remit of an existing body to carry out inspections in direct provision centres will require further operational consideration. The establishment of any new body will naturally have resource implications while extending the remit of an existing body may necessitate a legislative change. For these reasons, this recommendation remains under active consideration and the officials in my Department will continue to explore the available options as to how this might be progressed.
In respect of recommendation 4.135, I again note the progress being made by RIA's new and more independent complaints system to swiftly address issues that arise. Extending the remit of the Office of the Ombudsman and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children may also require a legislative change in addition to having resource implications for staffing levels in both offices to deal with the increased functions. Discussions between officials of my Department and the Office of the Ombudsman took place in December last. It is expected that similar discussions will take place with the Ombudsman for Children next Wednesday. I would hope that progress can be made quickly on this matter.
In respect of recommendation 4.75, while the recommendation of the working group that we should provide all families with access to cooking facilities and their own private living space is certainly desirable, it is not easy to implement in the short term. The impact of a substantial increase in demand for accommodation which coincided with the publication of the working group's report cannot be understated. We have seen a 120% increase in protection applications in 2015 and with our acceptance of a further 4,000 applicants under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, IRPP, this has brought a further demand on the resources available in the market place to meet the needs of increasing numbers and our commitment to establish emergency reception and orientation centres for the new arrivals under the IRPP. We have no reason to believe that this trend will not continue in this and in subsequent years.
Reconfiguring the existing centres to provide communal kitchens and private living space at a time of rapidly increasing demand would, as I understand it, involve a significant restructuring of the property portfolio currently held by RIA in the Department. It may also have the unintended consequence of reducing bed capacity at a time when the number of daily asylum applications being made in the country is increasing significantly. We must also acknowledge that there is a shortage of accommodation in the State generally which also impacts on our ability to tender for suitable accommodation which may need to be procured.
It is important to note that 15 direct provision centres already provide access to a communal kitchen where residents can prepare their own meals and we are looking to extend and enhance such provisions, where possible. Four of these centres have their own self-contained catering units for each family. All accommodation centres have access to kitchenette facilities where residents can heat food or make tea and coffee. The Department is currently examining logistical solutions in respect of existing property and is consulting with the Office of Government Procurement on the best approach to future tenders for direct provision accommodation. In considering any changes to accommodation centres, special attention must also be paid to ensure continued compliance with all planning, health and safety and fire regulations, etc., as recommended in the report of the working group.
It is clear progress is being made and that we are meeting the challenge to considerably reduce the time applicants are dependent on the system of direct provision for their needs by that ensuring a quality-driven single application procedure - the most significant reform of our protection process in a decade - is deliverable through the International Protection Act.
Meeting the needs of those in need of protection requires more than one line solutions. The working group did a thorough job in recommending changes in key areas of the protection process, including direct provision and support services. Important progress has been made in six months, most especially in the key pillar of positive change and legislation for a fair and efficient single application procedure which addressed the matters raised by 26 of the working group's recommendations.
I am confident the current review of progress on the working group's recommendations being undertaken by my Department will yield further cross-departmental progress and that the ongoing deliberations by the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Service Reform will agree more significant progress in an area which has been of concern to this Government. In initiating the first review of this area through a high level working group, delivering on implementation of its recommendations and in passing the single most important reform of the cumbersome sequential application procedure - the root of so many challenges in the protection process - we have been a Government whose practical response to a system that has been unchanged for 15 years will yield progressive results in the years ahead. We are prioritising the delivery of a protection system which is fair and efficient, providing for the needs of those in need of our protection at a time of challenge and change which we must meet across Europe and beyond. It is to the eternal credit of this House that this issue has been constantly raised. I thank Members from all sides on behalf of the children and those living in direct provision for their tenacity in pursuing this issue.
Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Is dóigh gur seo an tseans deireanach a bheidh againn san suí áirithe seo den Seanad áirithe seo leis an scéal seo a phlé. Mar sin, cuirim fáilte roimh an deis an díospóireacht seo a bheith againn. I welcome this debate as I welcome any debate on direct provision. We do not oppose the motion as I do not see anything in it that is opposable. However, I put on record my disappointment in all of us as a Parliament that we have failed over five years to abolish direct provision. I am not saying this to have a go at anybody in particular but it is one thing I feel very passionately about.
The Irish Refugee Council said recently that:
Several attempts have been made to reduce the potential harm to asylum seeking and refugee children, most recently in recommendations of the Report of the Working Group on the Protection Process, the increase in the allowance for children, the intention to speed up the decision making process in the International Protection Act 2015 and the establishment of new centres under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme. None of these end the practice of requiring children to live in communal institutions alongside complete strangers.
It goes on to say that:
The Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) in May 2015 found serious concerns in relation to child protection and welfare services for children in Direct Provision. Their findings included: physical or mental illness of parents impacting on capacity to provide quality care for children; mental health issues for children and parents; lack of clothes and toys; parent(s) isolating themselves and their children from networks and support services. In addition, amongst the protection concerns were proximity of children to unknown adults living on the same site and inappropriate contact by adults towards some children.
It is very important in the context of this debate to say that the issue is not just about the length of time people are in the institutions, the issues relate to the institutions themselves no matter how long those people are in them. We cannot get away from that fact. We have talked about the working group report. The working group was precluded from putting forward recommendations on direct provision because it was not in the terms of reference. It was specifically precluded because it was looking at the process so alternative models could not be proposed by the working group, which led to frustration and at least one NGO pulling out of the working group because of its frustration. When this NGO tried to put forward positive recommendations about changing direct provision and coming up with a different model, it was told it could not do it because it was not in the terms of reference.
It is not fair to say that other models have not been proposed because they have. We have proposed them in these Houses and the Irish Refugee Council has also made alternative proposals to the Minister in its document Direct Provision: Framing an alternative reception system for people seeking international protection.Senator Conway and I visited the Portuguese refugee council and the version in Portugal of a reception system. While we noted on our return that one cannot simply take a system and superimpose it here, we saw a system there that certainly appears to be much more humane and is working a lot better. It allows people the dignity of the right to work and the right to education after six to nine months and it processes applications in a much more humane and rapid manner. Other models therefore exist and it will be incumbent on whoever is seeking election to not simply go to doors with the working group report but to state whether he or she wishes to abolish direct provision and the next Government will be obliged to return to that issue. I fear the consequences of the passage of the International Protection Act and note that at the outset of the Minister of State's contribution, he stated "what was to be a temporary system of shelter and provision has evolved into a more long-term provision". I believe this to be the first time I have heard a Minister actually state this because heretofore, it always has been claimed it was a temporary scenario and would be reformed. However, it is quite obvious that in accepting the International Protection Bill, the system has been copper-fastened for years to come. I put it to Senators on the Government side that when they accepted that Bill, they copper-fastened many of the problems with the rights and conditions in direct provision about which they are complaining. I certainly place much criticism for the architecture of the direct provision system with Fianna Fáil, which put it together. I refer to how it is a privatised system, that €53 million per year is being spent on these centres and there is very little oversight over many of the companies involved. In a number of cases, they have their bank accounts offshore and there is no oversight of how the moneys are spent in a public forum or through these Houses and this is a question of serious concern to me and to many organisations with which Members engage on a regular basis.
Why are we not moving towards the international position of allowing a right to work and a right to education for asylum seekers, as is done in almost every other developed country in the world? On the right to education, I note the Minister of State indicated there has been movement in this regard. My understanding is a pilot project was put in place by the Minister for Education and Skills, who promised that no other children coming through direct provision would be discriminated against if they sought to go on to third level. I have heard of instances in which people who wished to proceed to third level education have been turned down for education grants and I certainly seek clarification on that issue. As children born into direct provision are not citizens of Ireland and are not cherished in the same way as every other child born in this country, how can one laud and applaud the work the Government has done? It is completely unfair that those children would be treated as second-class citizens in this day and age. Moreover, children in direct provision still are discriminated against because they are not eligible for children's allowance and issues remain in respect of family reunification. As has been noted by previous speakers, there is an issue with regard to oversight and the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children have repeatedly called for such oversight. If a meeting is held next week, I hope this can be conferred in some way, as that at least would be a move forward. However, I also call for the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, to be given independent oversight of direct provision centres, as this also would be really important.
As a Parliament, all Members have failed in this session by not having abolished direct provision. Many people have worked in many ways to do that and I do not know where is the stumbling block. I believe the Minister of State wished to reform the system but was stymied in some way. I do not know whether this is because of the Minister of State's partners in government, whether it is for reasons within the Department or whatever but it certainly is an issue that will not go away. I believe it will be our Magdalen laundry in the future and it is a scandal that we are not living up to the international human rights of the people in direct provision and we still have a great deal of work to do in that regard.
I welcome Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, to the House and welcome the opportunity to debate the issue of direct provision which, as other colleagues have noted, Members have debated a number of times previously. I commend Senators van Turnhout and Mac Conghail and their colleagues from the Taoiseach's nominee group on bringing forward this motion, which is being debated in the best tradition of the Seanad, that is, it is framed in a manner that invites a co-operative and cross-party approach. This is helpful and I am delighted to support it wholeheartedly. It rightly draws attention to and highlights particular aspects of direct provision as they relate to children and it is really useful for Members to focus on this, as they have not had the opportunity previously to focus specifically on children in direct provision. I take the Minister of State's point that debates on direct provision in this House in particular but also, it must be said ,in the other House and generally in public discourse in Ireland have been focused on the need for compassion for those in direct provision and for those who are migrating to Ireland generally. It is a very different context to that which obtains in Denmark or in our near neighbour in the United Kingdom, where a much more heated and polarised debate about immigration and migration is evident, and I greatly welcome this.
I also welcome the publication of the report of the working group on the protection process, which lies at the heart of this motion. Like other Members, I welcome the chairperson of the working group, Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon, to the Visitors Gallery and thank him for producing the report and for being present for the debate and taking the time to attend. Members had a specific debate on direct provision almost one year ago and Members debated it again in December in the context of issues arising in the International Protection Bill. Clearly, however, one point that emerged through those debates was that until last year, the system had remained unchanged since its introduction, as everyone is aware, as a stopgap and temporary measure in 1999 and 2000 by the then Fianna Fáil Government as a way to ensure the immediate accommodation needs of those immigrating to Ireland would be met. As Members are aware, the single biggest issue that has arisen and everybody's single biggest concern with direct provision, which was highlighted in the working group report, is that of delay whereby a system brought in as a temporary stopgap for approximately six months per applicant has become a place in which children have been brought up and people have spent years without resolution of their legal status. This really has been the biggest issue and I therefore welcome that this issue was addressed for the first time in December of last year through the International Protection Bill. This Bill responded to key recommendations in the report to reduce the length of time people will spend in direct provision, to try to address the aforementioned serious concern regarding the length of time spent and to establish a streamlined and single applications procedure, which will meet many of the concerns of many Members.
I recall that when Members debated this subject one year ago, there was a much higher number of people in direct provision who had been in direct provision for a lot longer. In examining the more recent figures from the Reception and Integration Agency, I welcome that the number of such people has reduced, although it is still too many people as approximately 25% of those in direct provision have been there for more than five years. The position certainly is better than one year ago when the equivalent figure was 45% but speedier progress must be made on this issue of delay and time spent in direct provision. While many Members had issues with aspects of the International Protection Bill, it introduced this hugely important reform and, as the Minister of State has noted, specifically referred to the need to ensure the best interests of the child were protected in a range of different provisions. I commend Senator van Turnhout, in particular, who really pushed on that issue and secured amendments both here and in the Dáil on it to ensure adherence to the best interests of children would be specifically required.
After the issue of delay and time spent in direct provision, the next biggest issue identified by most commentators has been the impact on children and on families and on family life. This subject again is at the heart of this motion and of many of the report's 173 recommendations. Current figures show there are slightly more than 700 family groups and slightly more than 1,200 children still in direct provision. I wish to refer specifically to some of the recommendations in the working group report, which again are highlighted in the Independent Senators' motion. In particular, I refer to the recommendation on access to cooking facilities. I also have visited these centres and, as other colleagues have stated, the absence of a facility for cooking probably is the point that stands out most starkly. Cramped space is an issue and difficulty with having play and recreation facilities also is a subject of recommendations in the report but it is clear that the lack of cooking facilities really undermines a cohesive family life for those families who are in direct provision. I note the working group's specific and tailored recommendation that all families should have access to cooking facilities, whether in a self-contained unit or through the use of a communal kitchen. While the working group recognised it might take some time to reconfigure existing centres or bring new centres online, it suggested the end of 2016 as the date by which that recommendation should be implemented fully.That is of some concern, although I accept there are very difficult practical issues in putting that recommendation in place. I accept that cooking facilities are made available in some centres. I know from talking to some of the people who run the centres that they will have to provide cooking facilities for families if they are directed to do so. It will be difficult to do in some of the buildings and it will clearly take some time to change. It is one key recommendation that needs to be achieved. I am heartened by the fact that tenders will be invited to provide accommodation and perhaps it might be built into a tender. If people are tendering, they should include in their tender provision for independent cooking facilities for families. We could require new facilities to be provided, while acknowledging the difficulty of adapting existing facilities.
Others have mentioned the need for the Ombudsman for Children to be able to intervene and the safeguards to ensrue child protection. I welcome the progress that has been made in that regard.
The issue of education is hugely important. Like the Minister of State, I welcome the swift implementation of the recommendation made in that regard. The Minister for Education and Skills moved very quickly to ensure children in direct provision centres had access to third level education. That was hugely important and it will have a positive impact on many families.
I commend the Senators who brought forward the motion. I am glad that we can unite on it and hope the next Government will continue to implement the recommendations of the working group with speed.
I thank, in particular, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail who worked with me on this issue, on which we have been at one. I also thank Senators Brian Ó Domhnaill, Martin Conway, David Norris, Marie Moloney, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Ivana Bacik. It is great that the House is united on the issue.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh is correct to ask what we have achieved. For me, what is most depressing is that we can unite on an issue, but the question is whether we can really bring things forward. Senator Fiach Mac Conghail is correct - as we have the working group's report, we do not need to have long discussions; we need to move to its implementation. I would like to see the progress reports of high level groups published in order that the process is transparent.
I have listened to the debate on the importance of cooking facilities for families. There is the issue of costs because people need materials in order to be able to cook. We can have that debate, but I will go home tonight and decide the time at which I want to eat and what I will eat. I do not have to depend on a service that provides for me to eat at a specific time. How many of us eat at the same time every day? That alone is institutionalisation. Friends have told me how difficult they find it when they are in hospital for one week. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in a direct provision system.
On the issue of tenders, why are we allowing people to profit from the misery of others? I have a fundamental problem with this. Why is the State not providing the service? Why do we not ask an NGO to do it? There are some really excellent NGOs working in this area. I am thinking of Crosscare, but I am sure there are others. I have seen first-hand the work they do.
On the remit of the Ombudsman for Children, I believe it could be done by statutory instrument or ministerial order. It is, therefore, an issue of political will. If one goes back to the debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas on the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, this issue was raised. Would we leave an especially vulnerable group of children and young people outside the scope of the Ombudsman for Children's investigatory remit? In response the former Minister Mary Hanafin said, "The children of asylum seekers and refugees will have access to the Ombudsman for Children in the same way as every other child in Ireland." That is what the Houses were told. The only thing excluded is the administration of the law, that is, the procedures for defining and determining whether a person is entitled to a particular status. She also explained:
If, however, there are problems in relation to delays, the provision of accommodation, nutrition, housing, etc, those issues are covered. This provision is only to ensure there is not a duplication of the actual process of the administration of the law.
Why does the Ombudsman for Children not have a remit to look at the application? We live on an island, but we really are an island as far as the rest of Europe is concerned because children in other countries can go to their ombudsman for children. It is enshrined in the Constitution that all children are equal, yet now we say we will interpret it slightly differently and that children in direct provision centres do not have the same rights. The Ombudsman for Children and Mr. Peter Tyndall made a joint submission to the working group which clearly explained the benefits, from their involvement in the direct provision system, that their experience could bring and the ease with which they could move into that space if allowed to do so.
The Minister of State has talked about the additional resources that would be needed. It makes me more fearful because it means that he believes there would be lots of complaints and resources needed. What is happening if we know that we will need all of these additional resources? We would need some resources. He goes on to say it is also important to recall that the working group looked specifically at the possibility of setting up a separate complaints procedure but rejected the idea in favour of extending the remit in order that the established offices could take on this role. It is welcome that the Minister for Justice and Equality will meet the Ombudsman for Children next Wednesday. I hope we will move on this issue because it is about giving people hope.
I explain that my job is about nudging. When one is in a direct provision system, it is difficult to understand the nuances in things moving forward and progressing. People need hope and we need to see some big changes. We need to see an increase in the amount of money given to those in direct provision centres in line with the working group's report. Although a figure of 60% makes for a good news day, it has not risen in 15 years. The people concerned cannot afford to do the normal things children do. I want to be happy that we are moving forward and have a great report, but we are not doing enough. I hope that when the House comes back, Senators will again unite and push firmly for change.
I thank the cross-party group and all Senators who have united on this issue. In particular, I thank the working group's members, the secretariat, the different Departments that have come together on the issue and, in particular, Dr. Bryan McMahon. We now need to stop the discussion and begin implementation. We need to ensure hope for all citizens and that children are children first and foremost.
I thank Senators for raising this issue. When the history of it is written, Seanad Éireann and those in it who have advocated for children will be acknowledged. Those in direct provision centres will be thankful for what has been said. I remind Senators that the system was set up at a time when the people who came to this country seeking protection were living in parks and sleeping on benches, with no facilities available to them. That was the reason the direct provision system was established initially as a short-term measure. It should have been radically reviewed within five years, but during those five years there was a citizenship referendum which focused on those coming to the country from abroad. I ran for election for the very first time at the time of that citizenship referendum and it upset me. It was my first foray into politics and the emotions stirred at the time were quite despicable. This should have been done an awful long time ago. At the time we had 10,000 asylum applicants a year. That was the nature of the system trying to cope. The reality is that although we had a fantastic opportunity to do this a number of years ago when resources were available, it was not done. Now we find ourselves in a situation where we are trying to sort out the situation as numbers increase. In 2015 there were over 3,000 applicants, a doubling of the number the previous year. We have committed to accepting 4,000 refugees from the Syrian crisis.
I never made a commitment to abolish this system and do not believe it can be abolished. Some Members of the House have said we should abolish the direct provision system and that there are alternatives being offered. I have not seen one that is viable. For me and people working in the Department who care about the issue deeply, abolishing the system would mean sticking 4,500 people on a housing list or asking them to find private rented accommodation for themselves. That is not a viable option. I would stand over a system in which people lived in an excellent centre for a number of months but not grew up or raised a family.
That is the intent behind the reforms we are overseeing. The tragedy of direct provision, as with other aspects of public policy that have failed, is that a short-term measure becomes a long-term solution.
When given responsibility for this area, I did not just want to read reports and engage with NGOs, but wanted to see, smell and taste the centres myself. I have seen, smelt and tasted the desperation in those centres and know exactly what is happening in them. However, NGOs now tell me they see a change. They see the letters being sent to people who have been in direct provision for over five years. They know there is a sense of hope arising because of the report of the direct provision protection working group. Now they can see, because of the resources that have been put in by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the most recent budget, that more people are getting leave to remain and more people are moving out of the centres and building lives for themselves. Some 60 to 80 people a month are getting leave to remain and are moving out of the centres
There is a challenge in that regard, because we had approximately 450 cases of people with leave to remain who were still in direct provision because they could not find accommodation elsewhere. We had approximately 18 cases of people who remained in direct provision for a year after they had obtained leave to remain. The solutions are not simple. However, I agree with Senator van Turnhout that it is about nudging and edging our way out from a catastrophic policy disaster towards providing individuals, families and children with a sense of hope and expectation. It is much more than throwing slogans around. It is actually dealing with situations humanely and properly.
I contend and agree with everybody here that permission to work, the right to work, permission for individual payment, the right to education and the right to prepare food are necessary. The right to prepare food may sometimes be dismissed as a trivial issue, but it is not. It is central to parenthood and central to how a child understands connectivity within the family.
The working group report is the only game in town. It is the only document anybody is working on and is not sitting on a shelf but is live and being implemented. I would love to have the opportunity to come back after the general election to work with others in these Houses to ensure we implement that report, because in this commemoration year, children living in direct provision centres need a commemoration that speaks of something better and brighter for their lives. I assure Senators this is currently happening on an incremental basis.