The issue of direct provision centres has been troubling many people for quite a while. During the recent controversy about mother and baby homes, I came to the conclusion that there has always been a view in Ireland that some children are somehow lesser children. This cannot be dismissed as something that happened in the past. It is clear from the way Irish society views Roma children, Traveller children or poor children in general that it sees some children as lesser children than others. It is very difficult not to agree with this conclusion when one examines the way the State deals with children who are in direct provision centres. As the Minister knows, these centres were designed as a six-month solution for asylum seekers on their arrival in Ireland. We have 35 of these centres in the Republic. Given that three of them were purpose built, it is clear that most of the time we are talking about hostels or other such unsuitable accommodation.
The weekly allowance received by asylum seekers in direct provision centres is €19.10. The payment in the case of children is €9.60. This amount has not changed for 14 years. Some 59% of all residents have been in direct provision for more than three years. I remind the House that the initial intention was that this would be a six-month solution. Some 31% of residents have been in direct provision for more than five years and 9% for more than seven years. The number of people we are talking about - approximately 4,300, some 1,700 of whom are children - is higher than the State's prison population. The inspection regime in these centres is managed by the Reception and Integration Agency, which I understand outsources a substantial number of health and safety inspections to the private sector. I do not think this is good enough. Responsibility for overseeing the health and mental well-being of 1,700 children should be given to an agency like the Health Information and Quality Authority.
It is inevitable that 50 years from now, people will look damningly at this Republic and this Government for the way we have treated and accommodated these children. Do we have a policy on how to move from the current direct provision scandal? Will we commit to putting in place a system that will allow families to move on, for example, by guaranteeing them a definite decision on their status within six months? Why are we overseeing a system that can cause a child to spend seven or nine years in a direct provision centre? Do we view the children who live in these centres, many of whom are Irish born, as members of society and citizens of the Republic? Are they seen as lesser children with lesser rights under this Republic, just as the children in the mother and baby homes were seen back in the day?
Obviously, the Minister has an intimate understanding of this situation due to her previous role as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Now that she has been appointed as Minister for Justice and Equality, she is ideally placed to rid this Republic of this scandal. There will come a time when we will know about the long-term damage and mental trauma caused by requiring children to live their lives in this limbo. Articles will be written about this issue and the Dáil record will be investigated. When these arrangements come back to haunt us in years to come, people will ask what this Government did about them. Regardless of what previous Governments did and irrespective of who established these centres in the first place, deep and challenging questions will be asked about what we did at this time to resolve this situation. I will conclude by repeating my fundamental questions. Are we going to commit to reverting to the six-month understanding? Will we transfer the inspection regime to a more suitable agency, such as HIQA?