In response to this question, I will firstly explain the direct provision system, how it came about, why it remains a necessary feature of the State's asylum and immigration system.
The accommodation of asylum seekers through the direct provision system is the responsibility of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) of my Department. Direct Provision means that the State, through RIA, assumes responsibility for providing for asylum seekers suitable accommodation and certain other services on a full board basis. All accommodation costs, together with the costs of meals, heat, light, laundry and maintenance are paid directly by the State. Asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation also receive a weekly cash allowance which takes account of board and lodgings and other ancillary benefits provided through the direct provision system. Asylum seekers can also apply to Community Welfare Officers (CWO) for assistance to meet a particular once-off need by way of an exceptional needs payment under the Supplementary Welfare Allowance scheme. Payments under this category cover once-off costs such as back-to-school clothing and footwear.
In addition to full board accommodation, RIA coordinates, through other Government bodies, a number of ancillary services to asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation. All asylum seekers are offered free medical screening on arrival in the State and are allowed access to health services on the same basis as for Irish citizens. Asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation will generally qualify for a medical card whereby they are eligible to receive a wide range of health services free-of-charge including GP services and prescribed medicines. Other HSE-provided supports include Public Health Nurse (PHN) service as well as a dedicated asylum seeker psychological service in Dublin.
Asylum seeker children are entitled to access free Primary and Post-Primary education on the same basis as an Irish citizen. In addition, English language supports are made available to adult asylum seekers; in some cases facilities are provided on-site in RIA accommodation centres for such classes. At a number of centres, RIA has provided facilities for on-site preschool services.
As of today, RIA has 39 asylum seeker accommodation centres throughout the country. The system is a constantly evolving one, taking account of the ebb and flow of residents and of the financial resources available to RIA. Overall demand for RIA services is declining. At the beginning of 2009, RIA was accommodating an overall number of 7,002 asylum seekers. Today, it is accommodating just over 5,500 persons, a reduction of over 21% during this period.
The direct provision system was a necessary response to the large numbers of asylum seekers who arrived into the State from the late 90's. Before 1999, these asylum seekers were treated as homeless under the structures then in place. These structures were entirely unsuited to the situation facing Ireland and the homeless service of the then Eastern Health Board could not cope and there was a serious prospect of widespread homelessness among asylum seekers.
In response to this serious and unprecedented challenge, the organisation which was subsequently named the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) was established to coordinate the scheme of dispersal and direct provision for asylum seekers
The direct provision system is only one element of the State's response to its international obligations on the asylum issue. As well as educational, health and welfare costs there is the asylum determination system itself, as well as the downstream judicial and policing costs. In the period 2005 to 2009 inclusive, the total amount spent across the whole of Government on asylum seekers was €1,275.31 million of which €424.43 million was spent on the direct provision system. Quite clearly, meeting our international obligations in this respect consumes very considerable public monies. But Ireland is not unique in this respect. All countries which take their responsibilities in this area seriously are faced with similar calls on their financial resources. There are no cheaper alternatives to the direct provision system. This was a key finding in the recent Value for Money Report on the direct provision system which was published in 2010 and is on the RIA website —www.ria.gov.ie. In fact, if we were operating a system which facilitated asylum seekers in living independent lives in individual housing with social welfare support and payments, the cost to the Exchequer would be double what is currently paid under the direct provision system.
In relation to the standard of accommodation provided in direct provision, the deputy may wish to note that all accommodation providers are required under contract to ensure that accommodation centres comply and operate in accordance with all statutory requirements of local authorities and state agencies in relation to bedroom capacity, food, food-hygiene, water supply, fire safety and general safety.
In addition, all operators are required to offer menus which reflect the reasonable ethnic dietary customs of asylum seekers. There are 96 nationalities with hugely divergent food and ethnic needs accommodated by RIA at present and in all the large centres, 56-day menu cycles are in place. Other centres, depending on their size, operate 28-day and 14-day menu cycles. In addition, particular emphasis is placed on meeting, to the greatest extent possible, specific needs of asylum seekers. For example, special arrangements are made to cater for the needs of Muslims observing Ramadan.
RIA independent external assessors to conduct comprehensive inspections of all centres on at least an annual basis. These inspections are always unannounced and the inspectors look at all aspects of the accommodation centres in relation to the proprietors' obligations under the contract. These inspections cover such areas as reception, staff cover, menus, facilities being provided, maintenance of the property and fire and safety issues. In addition, RIA has an internal Inspections Unit which conducts inspections of each of the properties used to accommodate asylum seekers at least on a twice yearly basis. Further unannounced visits are made to accommodation centres throughout the State on a regular basis by senior management to ensure that standards are being maintained. Staff from the Agency hold information clinics on a regular basis in accommodation centres which afford asylum seekers an opportunity to comment on accommodation and operating standards and to discuss other general issues.
Any diminution in standards which comes to the attention of the RIA is immediately followed up and proprietors are instructed to make any changes and improvements deemed necessary. Follow-up inspections are also arranged as appropriate. In cases where standards stipulated in the contract have not been met and the proprietor has not made sufficient efforts to remedy the situation, the contract may be terminated.
A number of asylum seeker accommodation centres have received the Excellence Ireland Quality Association mark (or equivalent) and each year, a number of them qualify as finalists and also feature as winners in the overall National Q Mark Awards. In the most recent award ceremonies (held on 14/10/2011) two centres — Balseskin and Clonakilty — received overall national awards for excellence. RIA welcomes the recognition of standards shown by the EIQA award and the commitment shown by staff and management at the various centres towards achieving and retaining the relevant standards required. The Deputy should note that, notwithstanding the stringency of its own contractual requirements, RIA does not oblige operators to obtain Q Marks (or equivalent).
RIA staff liaise with providers of accommodation in other European countries and have visited centres elsewhere in the EU. While no two countries accommodate asylum seekers in exactly the same way, RIA strongly contends that the treatment of asylum seekers in this country is, at a minimum, on a par with the best on offer in this context anywhere in the EU. The direct provision system delivers a high standard of service, a consistent standard of service and value for money to the taxpayer through coordinated service delivery to asylum seekers.
I do not believe that any alternative model would deliver the same level and consistency of service to asylum seekers. While the operation of direct provision is being constantly monitored, and is kept under continuous review in my Department, I have no intention of seeking a change in direct provision policy at this time.