Direct Provision Report: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions entitled 'Report on the extension of the remit of the Ombudsman to cover all aspects and bodies associated with the Direct Provision System (DPS) and the extension of the remit of Freedom of Information to cover all aspects and bodies associated with the DPS including all the suppliers of goods and services, whether from the Private or Public Sectors', copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 7th May, 2015.

I wish to express my appreciation on behalf of the committee for the opportunity to discuss the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions on the extension of the remit of the Ombudsman to cover all aspects and bodies associated with the direct provision system, DPS, and the extension of the remit of freedom of information to cover all aspects and bodies associated with the direct provision system, including all the suppliers of goods and whether from the private or public sectors.

Ireland is the only EU member state without a single refugee or asylum seekers application process, a key reason the direct provision system is not fit for purpose. In terms of European directives, Ireland did not opt in to Directive 2003/9 which laid down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers. If Ireland had agreed to opt in to that directive, then Oireachtas approval would have been required. However, the Government decision not to opt in did not require any Oireachtas approval. When Directive 2003/8 was recast under a new directive, namely, 2013/33, and the Government again took the decision not to opt in, once again no Oireachtas approval was required. That is a gap, a lacuna, that needs to be addressed for the very simple reason that the policy environment in 2003 was vastly different to the policy environment today.

Earlier this year, I met with counterparts from the Welsh Assembly, who said that petitions for a parliament or an elected assembly are often the canary in the coal mine, a metaphor for an early warning of serious danger ahead. It is a phrase that has remained with me over the course of detailed work on Ireland's direct provision system by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, which I have the privilege of chairing. In recent months, the committee has visited four direct provision centres nationwide and hosted a series of meetings in Leinster House on the topic. The resulting report on the direct provision system, which was published recently and is being debated today, is a canary in the coal mine moment. The report pulls no punches in criticising the application system for being unnecessarily complicated and lengthy. The current fractured process, which is responsible for the delays in issuing decisions, has been criticised by the European Union Court of Justice.

It was a system that was designed and resourced to be a short-term solution, but given that one in five residents are in the direct provision system for seven or more years the direct provision system is no longer a short-term solution. That, and that alone, is more than sufficient to justify the statement that the system is utterly unfit for purpose. The heightened media coverage in recent months and resulting increase in public awareness of the inadequacies of the current system are to be welcomed. Our cross-party committee report adds weight to the emerging consensus on the grave deficiencies in the current system. The report finds the delay in processing the applications of residents is inexcusable, perpetrates inequality and ill treatment at a State level and leads to a systemic problem with the provision of public services.

Another key finding is that the weekly allowances of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child, which have not changed since they were introduced 15 years ago, are insufficient, derisory and have been eroded to the point of being insulting to residents. We are calling for the allowance to be raised. Ordinary Irish citizens have access to the Ombudsman to advance concerns on public service delivery, while those in the direct provision system do not. We, therefore, have a section of Irish society being neglected and quite possibly being discriminated against because at a very basic human level they are being treated differently to other citizens in not having the system of which they are a part open to oversight. While the current system is in place, the respective jurisdictions of the Ombudsman for the public service and the Ombudsman for Children must be extended to include the direct provision system.

We also call for the Freedom of Information Acts to be extended to include the direct provision system and the Reception and Integration Agency. Given that robust independent oversight is required, the Reception and Integration Agency should also establish a pre-Ombudsman independent complaints system for residents. Our cross-party committee also has particular concerns in relation to Ireland opting out of EU rules laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers. Only two countries in Europe have opted out - Ireland and Denmark. The reason Denmark opted out is that its legislation was stronger than the directive. It wanted stronger supports than were provided for in the directive. As I said, our committee is deeply concerned that the Oireachtas never had the opportunity to express its view on Ireland's approach to opting out of both Directive 2003/9 and Directive 2013/33. The directives compel member states to ensure that applicants have access to the labour market not later than nine months, and we are calling for the restriction on applicants' right to work to be lifted as soon as possible.

Having visited four centres in Galway, Foynes, Mosney and Clondalkin, and heard first-hand the complaints of residents, the committee calls for greater access to health services and child care. Resident after resident pointed to access to appropriate health services, including mental health services, as a major issue. Therefore, we are calling on the Joint Committee on Health and Children to follow up on these concerns. We were particularly moved by the meetings with residents in the various centres. I am mindful that many of these residents have come from dreadful situations in their own countries. They have been traumatised and experienced God knows what. To have that trauma exacerbated by being stuck in what is essentially a prison, except that one can go for a walk outside every day and avail of services, for many years is unacceptable.

Ireland per capita is the biggest contributor to overseas aid, a legacy of which we are immensely proud. That is matched by the huge contributions by the Irish people directly to various charities that work overseas. Clearly, Irish people have a passion for those who are caught up in these devastating situations overseas.

I discovered earlier this year by reading a book that Ireland is the only country which today has a population that is less than in the early 1800s. All of us in these Houses know the reason for that. We have seen millions of our sons and daughters emigrate throughout the decades from the early 1800s through to today. In recent years, our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters travelled to Australia, Canada, Britain and the US. They were not asylum seekers but economic migrants. For our migrants in the US, the undocumented Irish, we seek to have their residency and status regularised. Of all the countries in Europe, I would have thought Ireland would be to the forefront not at providing an open door, because we cannot do that in the context of a European Union that does not and, therefore, we would invite to much of a demand, but at least have a system that reflects the decency of the Irish people and reflects our history of emigration.

One other statistic is from a book by Mr. Raymond Crotty in 1987. At that time, he revealed that of all the children born here since the foundation of the State through to 1987, about 65 years, half of those who survived childhood had emigrated. That is a shocking statistic. In rural communities, we are particularly aware of the devastating impact of the loss of our generations. I put that on the record as a reminder to all of us of why this failure is absolutely unacceptable and unsustainable moving forward and how it does not reflect the true character and the true values of the Irish people.

The sad reality for me is that the centres are out of sight and out of mind. I believe that if our people could meet these residents and look into the eyes of the men and women I met, which showed the despair they have about their situation, this would not be tolerated for one more day. This is a shame on our people. It does not reflect the true values of our people and it needs to stop as soon as possible.

As a parent, I am deeply disturbed when I think that one third of the 4,360 residents in the direct provision system are children. In the future, how will they regard our failure to stand up and say a wrong is being committed in the name of the people who elected us and we never said "stop".

I express my appreciation to the members of the joint committee, to the clerk, Mr. Ronan Lenihan, who put a huge amount of work into the report and attended all the visits to the centres and deserves particular mention, and to the excellent committee secretariat staff who worked so hard. I ask that this report be regarded as the canary in the mine. Action is needed. There is a big difficulty with the direct provision system but the root cause is the need to have a single asylum or refugee application process.

I welcome the report by the joint committee. Although important in itself, this will aid in the decision process to be engaged in by Government in the context of recommendations to be made in the forthcoming report of independent working group on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision and supports for asylum seekers. I understand that report will be presented to Government this month.

I thank Members of the joint committee for their diligence in going about their business in relation to this topic, in respect of which, as this House knows, I have had a long-standing interest. Quite properly, members made on the ground visits to four direct provision centres in Galway, Limerick, Meath and Dublin, and these were a cross section of the 34 asylum accommodation centres across the State in which 4,500 persons currently reside. The Deputy is correct in saying that approximately one third of those are children and approximately one third of those have been in the system for more than five years. Since my appointment as Minister of State last year, I too have visited centres in Waterford, Dublin, Sligo, Laois, Mosney, Galway, Limerick and Clare to see for myself the conditions in which these residents live. The dry facts set out in official documents and reports cannot properly convey the day-to-day realities which they face, which mostly revolve around waiting and hoping. None the less, I am glad the report also acknowledges that many owners, management and staff seek to alleviate the consequences of the direct provision system.

I also appreciate that the committee held two hearings on this matter, the first on 22 October 2014 involving asylum seekers and NGOs and the second on 1 April 2015 which I and two officials from the Department of Justice and Equality attended. At my appearance on 1 April, I made my own views on this subject clear to the committee. I cannot and will not stand over the system of direct provision.

In its report, the committee focuses on recommendations which fall within its remit but also makes recommendations on various aspects of the direct provision system for consideration by other relevant sectoral Oireachtas committees. I think this unusual approach is inevitable given the quite broad nature of the State's responsibilities in the area of international protection.

While my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and I fully support the independent working group under the chairmanship of a former High Court judge, Dr. Bryan McMahon, we do not know what recommendations will be made in its pending report. Equally, we have not sought to influence its conclusions. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume the report will address many of the issues raised in the joint committee's report. I understand the working group's report will amalgamate reports from three smaller and more focused subgroups dealing with specific themes: conditions in centres, supports for asylum seekers, and improvements in the processing of protection claims.

While I do not wish to anticipate the working group report, which is due to be presented to the Government this month, I will address the four recommendations in its report that the joint committee considers to be within its remit: that a pre-Ombudsman independent complaints system be provided for residents under the house rules of the direct provision centre; that the legal remit for the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman or Children be extended to include the direct provision system, as well as the administration of law relating to immigration and naturalisation; that responsibility for centre inspections be given to an independent body, such as HIQA; and that the Freedom of Information Acts be extended to cover the direct provision system, as well as the administration of the law relating to immigration and naturalisation.

The issue that is the subject of the first recommendation - the apparent need for a pre-Ombudsman independent complaints mechanism - came to the fore in the judgment issued by the High Court in November 2014 in the CA and TA case. Although the High Court found that the direct provision system did not breach human rights, it did find that certain aspects of the house rules dealing with guests, signing in and the lack of an independent appeals mechanism were unlawful. Although the issue was discussed at the working group, I understand it will not form part of its recommendations. Nevertheless, revised house rules which address the court's findings have been issued in the meantime. The rules now provide for the option of a final appeal to an independent complaints officer. I should record here that the judgment in the CA and TA case is under appeal.

The second recommendation concerns the extension of the legal remit for the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children to include the direct provision system and the administration of law relating to immigration and naturalisation. As things stand, this is a matter of legislation which falls within the remit of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Section 5(1)(e) of the Ombudsman Act 1980 and section 11(1)(e) of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 provide that neither ombudsman shall investigate any action taken by or on behalf of a person in the administration of the law relating to, inter alia, asylum. This has been interpreted to include the direct provision system. I note that the view of the current Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, as expressed to the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions on 11 March 2015, is that decisions on matters other than immigration status, including decisions on issues regarding accommodation, administration processes and internal complaints processes, are in his remit.

The first point to be made on this recommendation is that it is not intended under any circumstances that either ombudsman will serve as a first instance appellant authority in relation to day-to-day administrative complaints mechanisms. It is a requirement that a person who wishes to appeal to the Ombudsman must first try to solve the problem with the public body concerned using a formal local appeals mechanism. I have already referred to the changes in the house rules providing for a final independent complaints mechanism, even if that falls short of recourse to the Ombudsman. The current administrative processes which lead to decisions on asylum claims are substantially set out in legislation. First instance protection decisions are made by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and are subject to appeals before the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. Both offices are legally independent of the Minister for Justice and Equality and their decisions can be judicially reviewed by the courts. The Government would have to consider carefully how the addition of another independent body into this process would affect a system that is already complicated. Pending consideration by the Government of the report of the independent working party, there are no plans to change those legislative provisions to give either office the power to investigate asylum-related matters.

With regard to the second recommendation, and on the issue of processing, I point out that earlier this year the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, published the general scheme of an international protection Bill, the aim of which is to reduce waiting times for asylum applicants. The key provision of the Bill will be to replace the existing multilayered protection determination system with a single procedure, the aim of which will be to enable timely and efficient protection decisions. This single procedure will identify at a much earlier stage people who have no entitlement to stay in the State and can safely return to their country of origin. Further on this specific recommendation, notwithstanding the legal situation, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, and the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, have administrative arrangements in place with both ombudsman offices to assist and provide information on matters brought to their attention.

I will now turn to the third recommendation, which is that responsibility for centre inspections should be given to an independent body such as HIQA. While it is understandable that HIQA is cited as an example of an independent inspection body, it is not the only one. Moreover, its remit is strictly covered in legislation. It is important to point out that RIA, which is the unit in the Department of Justice and Equality responsible for the administration of the direct provision system, already engages an independent private body to carry out inspections of its centres. All centres are subject to a minimum of three unannounced inspections a year. One inspection is carried out by QTS, which is an independent company under contract to RIA, and the other two are carried out by RIA officials. All completed inspections are published on RIA's website and this adds to the transparency of the system. Researchers, Deputies, residents of centres, NGO officials and everyone else can examine these reports in detail. It has to be said that asylum accommodation centres do not exist in isolation. They are subject to RIA inspections and other State inspections. They are, for example, subject to inspection by fire officers and, in relation to food issues, to unannounced inspections by environmental health officers. This is not to say that the inspection regime cannot be improved, as it can. I await the working group findings in this regard.

The fourth recommendation relates to the freedom of information regime, which has long applied to INIS and RIA. By virtue of the Freedom of Information Act 2014, it has been extended to Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal with effect from 14 April last. The usual provisions and exemptions of the Freedom of Information Acts apply in relation to commercially sensitive matters. There are no special provisions relating to immigration-related matters. In order to be as transparent as possible, RIA currently makes available on request contract details for all contracts to the end of January each year in respect of all financial information up to the end of December two years previously. For example, at the end of January 2015, the records were updated to the end of December 2012. These records provide a context for the moneys paid for each contract, such as the length of the contract and the number of people for which services are contracted.

I believe the joint committee has performed a very useful public service with its report. That report, along with the report of the working group, will fully inform the Government in the decisions it will have to make in reforming a system which has been the subject of much-deserved criticism. I look forward to listening to this afternoon's Dáil debate on the report.

I am glad to be afforded an opportunity to speak on this issue. The system of direct provision for asylum seekers was 15 years old earlier this year. This issue has certainly led to much substantial debate, some of it informed and some of it misinformed. I would not say that some of the commentary sometimes borders on the hysterical, but it is certainly not always informed. Many issues have been raised about the duration of people's stays in direct provision and the impact this can have on family life and on children. The question of the right to work has also been raised. Deputy Mac Lochlainn summed it up when he said that the restrictions imposed on those in direct provision mean it is like being "in what is essentially a prison, except that one can go for a walk". It is not really conducive to family life and the best ways of rearing children, etc. Other issues have been raised, including the need for the weekly allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child to be increased. Issues relating to accommodation quality, access to third level education, mental health and transition from direct provision have also been highlighted.

As I said, over 15 years have passed since this system was drawn up as an Irish solution to an Irish problem. When efforts were being made at that time to find accommodation for asylum seekers in direct provision, guesthouses, hotels and other buildings that were fit for purpose, or sometimes not fit for purpose, were brought into use. In many cases, landlords, businessmen and entrepreneurs were following the money more than they were providing the correct service. We have come a long way since then. Many asylum seekers were accommodated in smaller towns around the country where they did not have direct access to public transport. We have moved a long way and we are now providing better accommodation, but it can always improve.

I take this opportunity to commend the work of the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, which has clearly found that the system is not fit for purpose. In a statement of priorities in 2014, this Government indicated that it is very much committed to addressing the issue of the direct provision system. This includes the introduction of a single application procedure for asylum seekers and the establishment of an independent working group to report to the Government on improvements in direct provision and support for asylum seekers. As we know from the report of the working group, a protection process is now imminent.

The direct provision system was a policy response 15 years ago to an accommodation crisis, when asylum seeker numbers increased from 362 applicants in 1994 to 7,724 in 1999 and a peak of 11,634 in 2002. The cost to the State of making direct provision arrangements has gone down, but it is clearly unacceptable that the average stay in direct provision facilities is four years. It is reported that in some cases residents have been in such facilities for up to 14 years. Dr. Colletta Dalikeni, a lecturer who has carried out much research in the area, raises some important insights about asylum-seeking families, many of whom are living at the margins of Irish society. She states that many of these families and social workers are caught between the child protection and immigration system, and there are clear questions of how to marry the legal framework with the need for an appropriate humanistic approach to complex issues.

Surmounting the challenges will certainly not be easy, but I am confident that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, will introduce procedures to speed up the process that has seen some asylum seekers spending years in direct provision centres. It is fair to say that all stakeholders now know the problems, and we must find solutions. Not only should we make the system more respectful to applicants; we must also think about how it can be less costly to the taxpayer. Vast sums of money were thrown at this serious problem which did not address the core issue. It helped make many would-be entrepreneurs much richer, but they did not provide the correct service.

As we are discussing direct provision, asylum seekers and people seeking citizenship, a most encouraging aspect is the number of what have effectively become Irish citizenship days in the Convention Centre. Many asylum seekers have taken the oath to our nation to become Irish citizens and they are proud to do so. The joy on the day is something that must be seen to be believed. I know many who have taken part and they ring me on the day they become Irish citizens. I am very proud that these people are so happy to be accepted into our country, and I know they and their families will be valued members of our communities and the nation. They will go on to ensure that Ireland will remain a great nation.

There are a few issues that should be mentioned. I have heard some anecdotal evidence in the past two or three days about one issue in particular, although I know much has been done. This anecdotal evidence indicates that many people are coming to this country through the UK, taking the ferry from there to Northern Ireland, where there is an open border. There seems to be much welfare fraud, although I know it is being tackled. I hope this House will be able to debate that issue in future days and weeks. It seems many people are now getting married to European citizens but after seven years these can be seen as sham marriages. I know these issues are being raised as anecdotal evidence. In the past few days I met two different people who raised that matter. It would be remiss of me not to mention that there are difficulties and problems. We need to get answers. I understand the Department of Social Protection has done much work in tackling welfare fraud, but we must do more. I look forward to a debate on that as well.

This is a welcome report, as the people in direct provision are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. They deserve our protection and a solution to a long-outstanding issue. I hope the Government, along with other Members in the House, can help to solve this difficult issue and overcome the unnecessary delays. I look forward to debating these issues in the coming weeks.

I commend the Oireachtas joint committee on its work in the area, including extensive research and the manner in which it has sought to fully inform itself about a process that had been allowed to deteriorate in such a way that it necessitates immediate action. I pay tribute to all members of the committee and commend them on that work and the preparation of the report, which contains many recommendations. It is interesting in the context of this short debate that the Minister of State has set out a stall in response to the main recommendations of the report. He might elaborate slightly on them, although I know that in the absence of a final recommendation from the working group, he cannot respond in whole. He might give some indication as to his thinking and the mechanism that could be put in place that would reflect a meeting of all minds who have the best of intentions in this area. Such a mechanism should address the issue properly and effectively from now on.

In Fianna Fáil we share a number of concerns about the policy of direct provision. In particular, there is the excessively long waiting time before an asylum application is decided. Legislation should be introduced immediately to create a new single and integrated process of application for asylum. It is clear that there is a significant problem surrounding the length of time a person spends in direct provision. Approximately 46% of residents are there for three years or more, and a further 14% have been there for seven years or more. This is clearly unacceptable and the issue should be dealt with. In particular, the early years of children are impacted by unsuitable living conditions in the direct provision facilities for families.

In 2010, Fianna Fáil sought to pass the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010, which allowed for a new single and integrated process of application for protection, replacing applications for refugee status, subsidiary protection and leave to remain. This legislative provision has yet to be implemented, and I know the Minister of State has commented on the publication of the heads of a Bill relating to this earlier this year. We implore him and the Government to bring forward the relevant legislation in this area in order to effect the sort of change that we all agree is necessary.

The Department of Justice and Equality has stated that the main factor contributing to the upward trend is the length of time in the leave-determining process, including legal proceedings. Another factor in the time delay is the lack of a single application process for asylum, as I mentioned. On 25 March the Government published the heads of the new international protection Bill, whose principal purpose is the establishment of a single procedure for examination of applications for international protection or asylum in Ireland, incorporating eligibility for refugee status and eligibility for subsidiary protection status as well.

In the absence of our spokesperson in the area, one issue has come to my attention in preparing for this debate. Following publication of the heads of the Bill, Ms Sue Conlon, the chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council, resigned from the working group on the protection process, citing the publication of the heads of the Bill before the working group had had sight of or discussed the most significant changes in refugee law in Ireland for almost 20 years.

Will the Minister of State put that in context from his perspective and indicate how he believes the existing working group can have a meaningful input into any amendments that may emerge once the Bill is brought to the House?

I turn now to the Minister of State's response to the four main areas, as he saw it, of what was contained in the report. I hope I am interpreting his response appropriately, but he may correct the record if I am wrong. The first recommendation in the report refers to extending the legal remits of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children to include the direct provision system. The Minister of State appears to say that what he proposes can deal with it effectively, even if it falls short of the recommendation regarding the Ombudsman. If there are four main proposals, the Minister of State is saying that he is not prepared to accede to the first one but that what he is proposing can have the desired effect despite the fact that it falls short of what is sought in the report.

The second recommendation refers to the administration of the law relating to immigration and naturalisation. The Minister of State has said that while the working group continues its deliberations it would not be correct for him to respond to this request until such time as its work is complete. I take his response in good faith. It might be the right response. Does he have any indication as to when the working group will report and what does he propose to do thereafter? Might he amend the heads based on the suggestions that emanate from that source?

The third recommendation relates to the inspections. The committee saw fit to recommend that HIQA should meet the need in that regard. The Minister of State says that he believes the existing mechanism used for inspections should remain in place. He believes its remit, reporting mechanisms, recommendations and the scrutiny of those recommendations are sufficient for his Department to have full jurisdiction and he is happy that it is doing its duty. The committee recommends going beyond that by using an independent authority, but the Minister of State does not appear to be prepared to accept the recommendation.

The last one dealt with the freedom of information issue. Again, the Minister of State is happy that the existing mechanisms and facilities within the Department for information to flow are sufficient and do not require further recommendations in this area. The committee is at variance with that, so perhaps the Minister of State would elaborate on the issue.

It is incumbent on the Minister of State to broaden his response and to give an indication as to when the working group will report. That having been done, is there a mechanism through which the Minister of State could bring together all the parties and stakeholders, all of whom appear to have the same objective, to ensure there is all-party unity on this issue and to ensure the legislation is informed, correct and appropriate to address the humanitarian issue that must be addressed as soon as possible for those concerned?

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the report from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. I thank the committee for the report and congratulate it on the speed of its work. The report is comprehensive and all of us agree it is necessary.

Dealing with asylum has been a vexed issue for Ireland because we have experienced dramatic fluctuations in the number of people coming here over a short number of years. In 1994, just over 300 asylum seekers arrived on our shores, but over 11,500 arrived in 2002. The numbers dropped during the recession but are creeping up again. Last year there was a 50% increase on the previous year.

I was a Member of the House when the large numbers of people started to arrive to our shores seeking asylum. They were treated very differently from how they are treated now in terms of processing. They were treated as homeless persons and housed by local authorities. They received all the welfare services available to Irish citizens. However, the truth is that the services were quickly swamped. The local authorities, health services, education services and particularly our maternity hospitals found themselves unable to cope. Many pregnant women were brought directly from Dublin Airport to the Rotunda Hospital. It was something for which the hospitals could not plan.

The strain on the health, education, welfare and housing services and the growing cost of providing for asylum seekers demanded a rethink. Direct provision was introduced at that point. The change was also motivated by the difficulty the immigration services had in tracking asylum seekers when they arrived and dispersed around the country seeking work. It was very difficult to process their applications. It was particularly difficult to track unaccompanied minors, many of whom simply disappeared. They were supposed to be in the care of the health services but many of them just disappeared. To this day nobody knows what happened to many of them.

My recollection is that the introduction of direct provision was welcomed by most Deputies. It satisfied our consciences that migrants were being properly cared for, that they had access to health and education and were housed and fed. At the same time, it took problems that were becoming increasingly visible on the streets off the streets. There was a growing perception, and unfortunately there were complaints, that somehow asylum seekers were getting a better deal than Irish people and that they had easier access to housing and so forth. This was not the case. In reality, most of them were housed in bed and breakfast accommodation, which forced them out onto the streets during the day.

People considered the accommodation centres to be a perfect solution, but it was never envisaged that they would be a long-term solution and that families would live indefinitely in such conditions. It is unforgivable that people should spend years living in these centres and that entire childhoods should be spent there. I cannot begin to think of what the emotional and psychological effects are on children and what issues they will have in adult life.

In the media release from the Ombudsman on Wednesday he said the report called for the abolition of direct provision. To be honest, I did not see that in the report and I do not believe it should be abolished. However, it should be fixed. The report recommends bringing the system under the remit of the Ombudsman and making it subject to freedom of information. I am not convinced about either of those, particularly the latter. The justice system requires a level of confidentiality that might not apply to other areas of life. However, notwithstanding the legal status of their presence in this country, if asylum seekers are not going to have the same safeguards of their human rights as other citizens, it behoves the State to ensure that their human rights are protected and vindicated. I believe that will be recommended by the report of the working group and by the Minister.

The recommendations in the committee's report refer to the lack of privacy for families, the lack of income to pay for certain medicines, having to take children out of school to sign on and the absence of even basic self-catering facilities. These complaints are valid and should be examined as quickly as possible. That said, conditions in these reception centres are infinitely better than the conditions asylum seekers have left. However, they are not acceptable as a way of life that endures for years, and certainly not for seven and even 11 years in some cases.

Part of the problem is the length of time it takes to assess applications for asylum due to the three-stage process and the three appeal stages. The report suggests that the length of time is inexplicable, and I agree with that. It is no wonder that people call for asylum seekers to be allowed to work after a certain period as they await a decision. I understand this, because it must devastate people to have nothing to do day after day and year after year. It is ironic that training courses for work are provided but that they cannot work. However, I have a problem in regard to allowing asylum seekers to work. Apart from the fact that they are competing for jobs when there is a shortage of jobs for Irish citizens, there are other practical problems. The solution is not to allow them to work but to speed up the application process. I welcome the Minister of State's decision to introduce the fast-track single application process, which I hope will reduce the problem and prevent people from languishing indefinitely in these accommodation centres.

If we did not have a 10% indigenous unemployment rate and if we allowed asylum seekers to work, that would be like saying we were renouncing control of our borders entirely. We would be granting people who are here illegally the same rights to employment and the same freedom to move around the country as we accord our own citizens, EU citizens and citizens here on legitimate visas. Another danger is the pull factor if that kind of information is made known. Despite what one hears, few countries allow access to employment for asylum seekers. Most countries do not, and many go as far as putting asylum seekers into detention centres while they wait for their cases to be assessed. The solution is to get people out of reception centres as quickly as possible.

Our plan to introduce a single application process will not solve the problem on its own. The time involved is extended beyond the determining period by two factors. First, those who get a favourable decision on their application cannot move out because there is no accommodation for them. Therefore, they stay in the reception centres. Second, those who get an unfavourable decision are not deported. One way or another, many asylum seekers remain in the accommodation centres. This makes a complete farce of the asylum seeking system. Win or lose, few people move out of what was originally envisaged as temporary accommodation and very few are deported. Hopefully, the housing crisis will be resolved in time, but we need to get back to a situation in which rejection of an asylum seeker's application means something and those whose asylum claims are invalid are deported. Otherwise, there is no point to the system.

Relative to other countries, such as Italy, the number of people seeking asylum in Ireland is very small. This will change, whether we like it or not. The number of people crossing the Mediterranean will continue to increase for as long as the gap in the standard of living between Europe and Africa exists. World population growth will start to decrease in approximately 30 years, but in the meantime most of the expected 2 billion growth in the world population, from 7 billion to 9 billion, will happen in sub-Saharan Africa. If people are poor and hungry in Africa today, they will be poorer and hungrier then and will want to leave. I do not believe that sinking or capturing boats in the Mediterranean will do anything to stop the wave of immigrants coming from Africa. It is time to think about investing in solving the problem at source and reducing the push factors of poverty, famine and conflict, which make it seem worthwhile to many asylum seekers to risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean. Hundreds are doing so daily.

The Dublin Convention is not working. Italy has given up even trying to adhere to it and has effectively opened its northern borders to Europe, and asylum seekers are moving out of Italy in waves into Europe. This issue is influencing elections in Europe and will soon start to change governments. We need an honest debate on this issue in Ireland and in the European Union about what we will do to change this situation. Will we increase aid or change our policies in respect of Africa? Will we open our doors to Africa or will we close them completely? Alternatively, will we accept quotas, and if so, how many asylum seekers will we accept?

I was pleased to see that Ireland has increased the number of asylum seekers it will accept from Syria. Clearly, these people are asylum seekers. Tomorrow, I will visit the Turkish-Syrian border, where 2 million refugees and asylum seekers are waiting for the conflict to end or to move on into Europe. Turkey has accommodated these refugees at the moment. Imagine the situation if this number of people arrived into Ireland or Europe and the destabilising effect that might have. This is a wake-up call for Europe and for the need to have an honest debate on this issue. We must decide what we are going to do and then do it. One way or another, the wave of immigration is almost unstoppable and we need to plan how to handle it.

I have spoken on this issue a number of times previously. I welcome and support this report and congratulate the committee members on the work they have done. In the context of reports that have come from committees, in my brief time in the Dáil, this is one of the best we have seen. It is clear and concise and makes some excellent recommendations. I commend the committee and welcome the opportunity to speak in favour of the report.

Our direct provision system is not fit for purpose. It is a stain on the nation. The Government has done much in a relatively short period and in general has prioritised the right issues. However, we must not leave this issue on the table. When it comes to the next election, I do not want this issue to be in the manifesto of Fine Gael, the Labour Party or any other party. I want this to be an issue for which we have found a conclusion, a proper and definitive answer as to how we will reform and change our system.

I commend the work the Minister of State has done and the personal interest he has taken in this issue and look forward to the report that is due to be issued at the end of this month. I urge the Minister of State to act on that report immediately. If we do not act on it, a resolution of this issue will be delayed. Other governments have blamed the failure to act on delays, but let us not find ourselves blaming the calling of the next election for a delay that means we do not have the chance of dealing with it in time. The Minister of State will get all the support he needs from backbenchers for whatever work he tries to do following the report.

On previous occasions, when discussing this issue in the House, I have had the opportunity to speak about the personal stories that I and others dealing with this issue have come across. I first got involved in politics six years ago and from the first day people came to me with their stories. I heard stories of mental health difficulties, abuse of power in the provision centres and bullying. I heard stories from this almost hidden community in our society. These people are almost lost within Irish life. Now, because this situation has gone on for so long, the majority of the stories we hear are about children who have grown up in direct provision. The only memories they have are of direct provision. How have we allowed this to happen and what does it say about this country in this day and age?

Other speakers have referred to the problems these people will have as a result. This is a terrible legacy for them. The impact of the system on children from a young age is that this becomes their life. Unfortunately, it is not something they can get away from easily. Adults have also had a difficult time, and I have come across many of these. As they have moved into nationalisation and become citizens, they have found reasons to hope and be happy and have begun to rebuild their lives. This has not happened without difficulty, but they have got that chance. However, it is far more difficult for a child who has only known this system. It is wrong that children have grown up in this system.

I support the recommendations. I also believe we need to introduce an amnesty, because what was meant to be a temporary system - for six months or more - has evolved into a more permanent system. On average the process takes four years, although I have met people who are in the system far longer. This is our fault, but it is also our responsibility. I believe these people deserve an amnesty and that we should make them citizens. This should be one of the recommendations the Minister of State makes when he finally gets the opportunity to resolve the situation. I commend the report and the work he has done. It is one of the best reports to have come through the House since I was elected to it.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions. As I said previously, this is one of the issues that goes beyond politics in this House. I have been impressed by the level of interest that Deputies and Senators from different parties have taken in this discussion on this area of direct provision. However, references to welfare fraud do not help when we are discussing the issue of direct provision in this country. We have had a love affair with incarcerating people. We did it in mental institutions in the 1950s. We did it in the Magdalen laundries and industrial schools, and we continue to do it with the direct provision system. I know Department officials do not like those comparisons, and they know that when the original decision was made to establish direct provision centres - there were 60 initially and now there are only 34 - it was in response to a particular situation. The amount of time that it was envisaged somebody would stay in a direct provision centre was six months and now people have been living there for more than ten years, and there are children who know nothing else but a direct provision centre. That has belittled them and stripped them of their dignity.

I am very taken by the human stories that, individually and collectively, we have come across in direct provision centres. One man in Limerick has been completely broken by what we have done to him. Obviously, his circumstances in the country where he came from resulted in him being very vulnerable but we have compounded that and broken him. I feel a great sense of duty to that individual, and to the other 4,500 people who are living in the system, one third of whom are children and one third of whom have been living there for over five years. I would stay in some of the centres but I would not spend a night in some of the others. I recall seeing in one centre a corridor of eight sleeping units separated by curtains. I would not stay in it, and I would not expect anybody else to stay in it either.

While every other country in Europe seems to be strangled with the conversation around immigration and xenophobia, this House and this country can be proud of the fact that we have not allowed the issue of asylum, immigration or integration strangle our political debate, and it does not come to the forefront of election discussions. However, I am awaiting the publication of the report. Decent, honourable people who are as critical of the direct provision system as anybody could sit on that working group. The reason for its establishment was to assemble the people who know the system best as well as officials who are overseeing the system and officials from different Departments who need to be discussing issues with them such as education, the environment and social protection, and allow them come to conclusions. On one particular issue I am led to believe that 15 individual meetings took place. That is why, when I was expecting originally that we could assemble the group in September and have a report by Christmas, it has proved almost impossible to do it in that timeframe. While I was hoping to get the report last month, it now appears it will be ready this month but if we want to do something, we have to do it well.

It would be my intention, and I am sure the intention of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on receipt of the report to bring it to the Government first, publish it and then implement it because all the hard work has been done. All the convincing of officials has been done and as Deputy Murphy rightly said, it is now the responsibility of the Government to implement it during this term.

In this post-referendum era when we are all talking about equality, there are other groups in society who want to know what this new feeling of equality will give to them. They are members of the Traveller community, people who live in socially and economically deprived areas, young people, old people, people new to our country, and certainly people living in direct provision centres.

While my individual responses to the report may have left some Deputies less than inspired, and I appreciate Deputy Mac Lochlainn's endeavours in this regard which reflect very well on his chairmanship of the committee and the members also as this is an issue they have taken on and feel so strongly about, when the report is published and people see what it contains we can finally turn the page on what has been a shameful period in Irish history that we cannot defend. On the day I became Minister of State with responsibility for new communities in the Department of Justice and Equality I said this was not a system I could stand over. It is a system that belittles and dehumanises people. We cannot stand over a system where people are languishing for years, with a sense of having no future.

A number of things have to happen. What kind of system could I oversee? What kind of system could we stand over? It was initially envisaged that direct provision would be a system to tackle the homelessness crisis. I can envisage a system where there is an excellently run centre, with proper oversight, links to the community and proper cooking facilities for families. It can be suggested by people who do not understand the importance of proper cooking facilities that they are unimportant but they are very important to a mother and father who need to prepare food for their children. We need proper family orientated dwellings. We must do away with the idea, which I have seen in some centres, of a wardrobe in a single room separating the children's and the parents' sleeping conditions. That is outrageous. We must do away with that and have proper family living facilities but we must only ever envisage that somebody would be there for a matter of weeks or months, and certainly not more than six months and certainly not for a period of years. The asylum system should treat these people with respect and dignity and we should not have a situation where people are languishing in it for years.

It is the responsibility of Deputies in this House to make contributions to this debate, not to respond to uninformed, ill-judged, unresearched comments from constituents. They should base all their comments regarding the asylum system or integration issues on facts. That is very important when we are dealing with people who are vulnerable.

We have a fantastic opportunity now, in this post-referendum era and as we face into the commemoration of the 1916 Rising, to reassess our values as a Republic, and this is one of the areas which has been a stain on our reputation over the past number of years.

When the report comes to Government, and I have been told it will be this month, although I was expecting it next week - there may be a slight delay on that - the responsibility then is not just to publish but to implement. If people such as representatives from the UNHCR, SPIRASI, the Children's Rights Alliance and the Jesuit refugee group, as well as representatives from academia and people with a history in the trade union movement, have taken the time, under the stewardship of Bryan McMahon, to come up with a report over this number of months, and they see it is workable, it is then the responsibility of Government to act and to ensure it is implemented in a timely fashion.

Regardless of how humane our system of direct provision is here, nobody wants to live in these centres. They want to live a full and productive life, and we must be conscious of that. Currently within the system there are 500 people who have leave to remain and do not need to be in direct provision, but we have an issue in terms of housing. We have 500 individuals who have been granted permission to start a life in Ireland but they do not have the facilities to do so because of a housing issue and other supports they believe are necessary to transition. That transitional period will be key to how we facilitate people to move out of direct provision and remain connected with the community in which they have been living for some time and where their children may be in school. Helping them to integrate into that community and society and having supports available for them so that they can make that transition will be key as well.

Regarding issues to do with education, young people in primary and secondary education can, as the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has already indicated, move on to third level.

I do not accept the argument that asylum seekers should not be afforded the right to work. My personal opinion is that we are standing outside the European norm when it comes to facilitating asylum seekers with the right to work. That will remain an issue of contention and debate but the manner in which we have conducted this debate is a credit to this House, the political parties who serve in it, the Seanad and the committees which have raised this as an issue that we should pursue and correct.

Rather than taking credit in this House for the way the debate has been conducted, the greatest credit we will get is for implementing the report that will be given to the Government in the next few days. We can then finally put to bed the scandal of direct provision. Hopefully, those within the system can see a brighter future and we can have a system of which we can be rightly proud in a country that calls itself a republic.

First, I acknowledge the genuine personal commitment of the Minister of State to equality and how he applies it to his work. In respect of the initial speech, I appreciate that the Department would want to respond to a number of the recommendations in the report and give its perspective. This is, of course, its right. The responses show disputes between the interpretation of current legislation between the Department of Justice and Equality and the Ombudsman. The reason the committee undertook this report is the fact that one of our key responsibilities is to work with the Ombudsman to look at areas of concern. The previous Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, who is now the European Ombudsman, repeatedly raised concerns about the failure to extend her jurisdiction to include the direct provision centres. The current Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, outlined those concerns and raised them with the committee at a number of hearings.

As part of its work, the committee also met with the Ombudsman for Children who also raised concerns about oversight. This was why we undertook the report. I note that following our recommendations, press statements were issued by both offices. The Ombudsman referred to the unambiguous independent oversight of that system, which is the key point. He used the word "clarification". I will read into the record the comments of the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, because they are even more important. In response to our report, he said:

Every child in Ireland, regardless of their status, deserves the same protection with the same access to an independent complaints mechanism. One third of the 4,360 people currently residing in the Direct Provision System in Ireland are children (i.e. 1,453) and these children are being clearly discriminated against by failure to have any access to such a complaints process.

He went on to say:

The long-standing position of my Office is that the current exclusion to the investigatory remit of the Office in relation to the administration of the law regarding asylum and immigration relates only to decisions on status; my Office believes everything else - including issues regarding accommodation, administration processes and internal complaint handling - are in remit. However, the Department of Justice and Equality does not share this understanding. We have continually recommended that the Oireachtas put the matter beyond doubt and provide clear, unambiguous access for protection applicants to my Office.

He concluded with the following:

My Office aims to achieve systemic change through its investigatory work by tackling the root causes of the complaints we receive. Following this morning's recommendations by the Dáil PSOP Committee and the upcoming publication of the Report from the Working Group on Direct Provision there is now an opportunity to clarify the remit of the OCO so that my Office can fully investigate complaints related to the Direct Provision System in Ireland and by doing so, ensure that Ireland is on par with international best practice.

I do not think the working group will adjudicate but it is important to engage with Department officials, possibly meet the two ombudsmen to see where they believe there is ambiguity and a lack of clarity and recommend that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform legislates for that. I know both offices are respected by these Houses, are independent and have the respect and trust of the citizenry.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission's recommendations are as good a contribution, if not better, than what we have done. The commission, which is a body that is independent and respected by these Houses, pointed that the ombudsmen do not have appropriate oversight of the system. I welcome the fact that there will be change to the pre-Ombudsman complaints system within the House rules. There is a dispute concerning whether a complaint should go to that independent body before it goes to the Ombudsman. This is generally the case. The committee always says that the citizen should go through the complaints system available to them, regardless of whether it is the HSE or the council, to demonstrate that he or she utilised that system to try to get the concern addressed. It then goes to the Ombudsman when he or she has exhausted this route. This is known to be the case. The issue is whether an appropriate, respected system that is understood to be independent exists. Is information provided to residents in these centres? Is the Ombudsman advertised in all of these centres as a recourse if people have exhausted other avenues? Will there be posters with contact details for the independent complaints procedure? Can we make it completely accessible in all of these centres? They all have a central desk with information posters and residents' representative groups so it would be important that they are informed of their rights once the Ombudsman's role is clarified and strengthened in this regard.

The next point relates to HIQA. I note that the Reception and Integration Agency talks about an independent private body called QTS. That is not really good enough. It notes environmental matters and fire safety as well but there should really be a range of statutory agencies that can exercise oversight and inspect the centres. It has put in place an arrangement relating to an independent private company. I do not think the public would accept that for public services. This is why we have independent ombudsmen or inspection agencies. HIQA is a robust organisation. The matter needs to be looked at again. I will be challenging the Reception and Integration Agency and the Department about whether it is really appropriate for a private company to operate an inspection system rather than for it to be dealt with clearly through legislation and a robust statutory agency with a clear set of established standards. This depends on whether the system continues.

The response from Department officials that was incorporated in the Minister of State's speech is that freedom of information is pretty much covered already. The usual exclusionary provisions apply in respect of commercially sensitive matters. The Ombudsman, who is the freedom of information commissioner, clearly interprets that there is a need for him to cover all aspects of the system. For example, are the private companies which run these centres subject to freedom of information? They are being given public money to run these centres.

Those who run the centres have been subjected to robust criticism but the committee found those who own and manage the centres we visited to be open, frank and concerned about the welfare of residents. We all agree that the system is not fit for purpose. The people who live in these centres are aggrieved and distressed, and that naturally leads to conflict. Anybody who deals with this cohort of people must manage conflict. It would be unfair if I did not acknowledge that the owners and managers of the centres we visited fully co-operated with the committee, answered all of our questions and provided us with full and open access. They also outlined their perspectives on these matters, which reflected their concern for the welfare of residents. The problem is the system rather the people who manage the centres, and that is what we need to reform.

I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has a genuine passion for equality and addressing the challenges that remain across the equality sector. I urge him to engage with the two ombudsmans' offices to clarify their remaining concerns so that they can be resolved through either legislation or changes to departmental rules. It is clear that the Department and the ombudsmans' offices disagree on these matters, but we need to resolve this as our next step.

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate our report and thank those who contributed to the discussion. I look forward to studying the report of the working group and to the development of an application system that does not leave people to languish for years in these centres.

Question put and agreed to.
The Dáil adjourned at 1.05 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 16 June 2015.