Amendment No. a1 is in the name of the Minister and is on the first additional list of amendments dated 16 December 2015.
International Protection Bill 2015 [Seanad]: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. a1:
In page 7, after line 29, to insert the following:
“(3) An order under subsection (2) may, in respect of the repeal of the Act specified in section 6(1) effected by that section, appoint different days for the repeal of different provisions of that Act.”.
I will now deal with amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4.
Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4 are related and will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 8, to delete lines 6 to 10 and substitute the following:
“ “applicant” means a person who—
(a) has made an application for international protection in accordance with section 15, or on whose behalf such an application has been made or is deemed to have been made, and
(b) has not ceased, under subsection (2), to be an applicant;”.
This grouping of amendments relates to the definition of various terms for the purpose of this Act. Amendment No. 1 is a minor amendment to the definition of the term "applicant". Amendment No. 2 provides a definition of the term "biometric information", which is referenced in section 2. Amendment No. 4 provides a definition for the term "DNA profile" which is referenced in section 2.
I am dizzy because of the substituting of new amendments. Will the Minister of State explain this amendment?
The amendments are being discussed together. Does the Minister of State want to add anything?
Is this a technical amendment?
Is it just a technical amendment?
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 8, between lines 10 and 11, to insert the following:
“ “biometric information” means information relating to the distinctive physical characteristics of a person including—
(a) measurements or other assessments of those characteristics,
(b) information about those characteristics held in an automated form, but does not include references to the DNA profile of a person, and references to the provision by a person of biometric information means its provision in a way that enables the identity of the person to be investigated or ascertained;”.
Amendments Nos. 3, 5, 177 and 178 are related and will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 8, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
“ “chief international protection officer” means the person appointed under section 74 to be the chief international protection officer;”.
Amendment No. 3 provides a definition of a chief international protection officer who will be responsible for the management of the international protection office which will be established in the Department of Justice and Equality. Amendment No. 5 provides a definition for the term "international protection officer". Amendment No. 177 inserts a new section into the Bill on international protection officers. This section provides inter alia that these officers shall be independent in the performance of their functions under the Act. Amendment No. 178 inserts a new section into the Bill on the chief international protection officer. It provides for the appointment of the chief international protection officer by the Minister and that this person shall be independent in the performance of their functions under the Act.
Which amendment are we dealing with?
We are dealing with amendment No. 3. I have already said we are discussing amendment Nos. 3, 5, 177 and 178 together because they are related. The Minister of State has explained that combination.
Will the Minister of State clarify if this is the amendment proposing to change the term "authorised officer" to "international protection officer"?
I want to make one preliminary point. We have been handed bits of paper with substitute and additional amendments. A whole series of new amendments is being proposed by the Minister at this stage and the Bill is being guillotined. It is outrageous that we have to deal with all this while trying to keep track of what is going on with such a significant Bill dealing with people who are the definition of vulnerable people - refugees and asylum seekers fleeing desperate situations. It is unacceptable.
In the case of this particular amendment, the Irish Refugee Council says it is utterly opposed to this particular change because it is, effectively, the privatisation of a Civil Service role. There is no reference in the Bill to the training and qualifications of an international protection officer. Will the Minister of State explain exactly what the point of the amendment is? Will it result in, as the Irish Refugee Council suggests, the privatisation of Civil Service roles and a sort of Irish version of Frontex - in other words a privatised, untrained police force without adequate or suitable qualifications policing a new fortress Ireland policy?
I have heard various descriptions of the Bill and the tone of this debate brings more emotive language to the discussion of this Bill, which is completely unnecessary. Why would the Minister for Justice and Equality appoint somebody who is completely unfit for the job? This individual will come from the Civil Service and will meet UNHCR standards. The overall point of the Bill, which the Deputy alluded to, is to ensure that people do not languish in the protection system for years on end, which is the overarching problem identified by every NGO I have come in contact with concerning the protection system in Ireland. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that applicants for protection in this country will get a decision on their application within six months and finality on that decision within 12 months. There will not be a situation in which they languish in the system, many in direct provision, for a long number of years. That is the point of the Bill. The international protection officer will be a person of the highest standard who will exercise his or her duties fairly and independently.
That is a very unsatisfactory response. Speed is one thing but justice is another and justice trumps speed. We should ensure that we have a fair and just process for people seeking asylum, who in many cases have come from the most awful situations possible. While everybody is in favour of shortening the inordinate length of time that people are left languishing in direct provision, a fear has grown as I have tried to get to grips with the Bill.
Like other Deputies, I indicated in my Second Stage speech that in the rush to ram this legislation through what was being smuggled in was not a mechanism that would speed up the process in the interests of asylum seekers but rather a process that would make it more difficult for people to get into the State in the first instance and to fast-track their deportation. The legislation also provides An Garda Síochána and the immigration authorities with additional powers in the deportation of people and for an ill-defined new category of immigration officer to be called an international protection officer to, possibly, replace civil servants. The Irish Refugee Council which has a better handle on this issue than most of us here is concerned about these proposals, as are all other NGOs, as the Minister of State is well aware. They are concerned that there is a move towards privatisation of the immigration process by way of the replacement of civil servants with a type of private frontier security service. That is what they suggest is the risk in what is proposed. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of their views on this proposal. Will he reassure us that their concerns, to which I attach some weight, are misplaced?
I am fascinated by the terminology used by the Deputy, including that this legislation is being rammed through the House. It has been around for approximately 15 years-----
There will be no guillotine.
-----the result of which is that this issue has not been addressed. Every NGO of which I am aware has been calling for a long time for the introduction of a single procedure mechanism. The Deputy will be aware that the expiry of the term of office of the Government is approaching. It is important in the context of the current protection process in Ireland that we put this issue to bed and put in place a single procedure to ensure the system will be more transparent and efficient. The current system is not fit for purpose.
On the Deputy's reference to the lack of a definition of international protection officers, the purpose of these amendments is to define their role. They will be civil servants trained to UNHCR standard. The point of the exercise is to ensure improvement of the system. I am sure the Deputy will agree that, owing to a lack of reform of the current asylum system for many years, it is broken. What we are attempting to do by way of this process is review and assess it in a humane and proper fashion, understanding all the while that even since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for this area and the appointment of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to her portfolio, the situation has changed radically in terms of the number of people coming to Ireland to seek protection, including those who are coming here because of the situation internationally. Be that as it may, the objective is to put in place a protection process to deal with individuals with dignity and respect and to ensure their applications will be processed in a fair and independent manner.
I have the briefing notes I received from the Irish Refugee Council. The Minister of State has not responded directly to its concern that trained and qualified civil servants are to be replaced by externally recruited personnel who may not receive adequate training. The council also raises concern about the powers of the Minister to revoke authorisations for international protection officers, IPOs, if a particular IPO is viewed as being too generous in his or her decision-making. As I understand it, this proposal opens up the possibility of the position being outsourced to be filled by people who are not qualified, the fear being that there will not be justice or proper consideration of applications for asylum. The Minister of State has not responded on the specific issue of the possible outsourcing and privatisation of these roles.
The Minister of State has said in response to Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett's contribution that an "international protection officer" as defined in the amendment will be a civil servant. However, the amendment does not define who is qualified to be an international protection officer. All that is stated in the amendment is that they may be appointed or removed by the Minister. It does not state who the people will be, what their qualifications should be and what their role will be when in place. Perhaps the Minister of State might clarify why, if it is intended that IPOs will be civil servants, this is not specified in the amendment.
There are only so many times I can repeat the same point. All international protection officers will be civil servants who will be trained to UNHCR standard. The suggestion that what is being proposed will lead to the outsourcing of these roles is tiresome. That is not the case. IPOs will be civil servants who will be trained to UNHCR standard and will exercise their role independently.
We heard what the Minister of State said in his first and second responses. Perhaps he might address the point made by Deputy Thomas Pringle about where that is stated in the Bill.
The Deputy is correct that it is not specified in the Bill. The staff of the international protection office will be civil servants transferred from the Refugee Application Service to take up this role. They will be civil servants who, as I said, will be trained to UNHCR standard. I assume what the Deputies opposite are suggesting is the highest possible standards in the processing of applications might not be adhered to. We must have a system in which people can have faith. In this regard, there are international standards we have to uphold. As a country, we must ensure our international process is in line with that in place in every other European country. Our protection process in recent years has not been one of which we can be proud. Part of the reason for this is legislation of this type has not been given priority for more than 15 years. We are now in a position where we can address this issue appropriately. I assure Deputies that international protection officers will be civil servants who will be trained to UNHCR standard and that we will deal with applications on that basis.
The asylum status is a fundamental international status and the UNHCR is strong in its opinion that it should retain that international status for many different reasons. The Bill will proceed on that basis. The suggestion about outsourcing and privatisation does not stand up to scrutiny. These will be civil servants trained to the highest UNHCR standards.
I take what the Minister of State says at face value. I accept he believes that these will be civil servants trained to the highest international UNHCR standards. The problem, however, is that when the Bill is passed this will not be provided for in black and white. The Bill will provide solely for the power of the Minister to appoint and revoke the appointment of the international protection officers. Where is the assurance on what is intended? On implementation of the Bill in a couple of months' time, it may well be that staff will be transferred from the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner. That may happen in the first instance but 12 months or two years down the line, if the Department decides to do it, there will be no legislative provision to prevent the outsourcing of the processing of applications. The legislation will not have defined the qualifications of the officers or what is required of them. On that basis, we cannot have any faith in the legislation in terms of the role, qualifications and functions of the international protection officers when appointed.
The Minister of State can express all the noble aspirations he wishes but at the beginning of the Bill we find an example of how this legislative process is fundamentally flawed. We are on amendment No. 3 and the Minister of State looks a bit lost as to the point being made and is having to consult civil servants for explanations. Prompted by the Irish Refugee Council, we are pointing out a significant gap in the legislation but there is no possibility of the Minister of State taking on board what we are saying.
Today's Committee Stage is a sham. The point of Committee Stage is to allow us, having digested the arguments, to return in a week's time to amend the Bill if legitimate issues, gaps or problems have been identified, but that cannot happen today. The process will be short-circuited and the Bill will be guillotined. We are only at the beginning of the Bill yet it will become apparent as we move on through it that there are many problems with it. In calling this Committee Stage, we are engaging in a charade because anything we say will be immaterial.
There is a real problem with the Bill given its failure to define the role and qualifications of the people who will be overseeing the application process. All the aspirations about a fair system of asylum and applying the highest standards mean nothing because they are not properly defined in the Bill.
Like Deputy Pringle, I also accept the Minister of State's bona fides on the issue. I believe the Minister of State believes that is what an international protection officer will be but the legislation does not say it. It is important to note that this is not an ideological conspiracy or an attempt to undermine the Minister of State. The points we are articulating are not our own. They have been formulated and researched by the people at the coalface who are working with refugees. These people participated as equals in the working group at the invitation of the Minister of State. They came up with very good suggestions for how we might improve the broken system the Minister of State referred to earlier as a system not fit for purpose. The process included Department officials and representatives from NGOs and the suggestions were costed and signed off on. These people are telling us that their observations are not contained in the Bill. The Bill is still not fit for purpose.
It is very wrong to rush through something so important. We are dealing with the welfare and lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. These people come here looking for refuge and asylum. We owe it to them not to rush the Bill. Even now, at the 11th hour, I would ask that we take some advice and pull back. We will be left with an unmitigated mess otherwise and I think the Minister of State is beginning to realise it.
It is implicit in section 73 that international protection officers will be civil servants. The Minister is not empowered to authorise anyone who is not a civil servant. Section 73 provides, "The Minister may authorise in writing such and so many persons as he or she considers appropriate to perform the functions". The Minister cannot authorise anyone who is not a civil servant. Only a civil servant can perform this function. While it may not be explicit, it is certainly implicit in the section. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputies.
I appreciate the comments made about my bona fides. We are attempting to improve the Bill and we are accepting many of the amendments tabled by the Opposition in order to make it better. There is no intention here but to do the best for those vulnerable people who seek our protection and have a system that works better.
What section did the Minister reference?
We will have one more contribution and then I will put the amendment to the House.
I am reading section 73 and it amplifies further our concerns. Section 73 deals with "Contracts for services". It provides, "The Minister may enter into contracts for services with such and so many persons as he or she considers necessary to assist him or her in the performance of his or her functions under this Act".
That is not what the Minister of State said.
It is a recipe for outsourcing if ever I heard one.
It does not mention public servants anywhere.
Absolutely. It does not mention public servants anywhere. I do not know what the Minister of State is talking about.
I have already outlined that the Minister can only authorise civil servants to carry out these functions. He or she cannot authorise anyone else. It is implicit in the text.
Where does it state that in section 73?
I am on page 27, section 73.
In terms of the amendments, "The Minister may authorise in writing such and so many persons as he or she considers appropriate to perform the functions conferred on international protection officers by or under this Act". These people can only be civil servants.
What page is the Minister of State on?
Are we looking at the Bill as passed by the Seanad?
Section 73 is on page 75.
Section 73 is on page 75.
Has the Department read the Bill? We are on page 75.
Does the Minister of State wish to make a further comment?
I am working off the list of amendments. The central point is that section 73(1) provides, "The Minister may authorise in writing such and so many persons as he or she considers appropriate to perform the functions conferred on an international protection officer". The Minister cannot authorise just anyone to fulfil this role. This is implicit. No Minister in any circumstance can authorise anyone within his or her Department who is not a civil servant. That is the reality of the situation. It is implicit in the Bill.
We will deal with this once more and then I will put the amendment to the House.
The Minister of State is, in fact, referring to the new section 73 that is proposed in one of his amendments. Is that what he is referring to? If it is, it provides, "The Minister may authorise in writing such and so many persons as he or she considers appropriate to perform the functions conferred on an international protection officer by or under this Act". It provides for any such persons he or she may consider appropriate. It could be anyone. It could be me.
There will be people who will make the decision. There will be people who will assist the individual in terms of the operation of the office but the international protection officer who makes the decision will be authorised by the Minister and that person must be a civil servant.
That is not what is in the Bill. The section states, "The Minister may enter into contracts for services with such and so many persons", it does not say that such persons are also to be public servants or civil servants.
I ask the Minister of State to clarify whether he is reading from an amendment that he intends to put to the House later or whether it is in the original text of the Bill.
These are Government amendments-----
We are dealing with amendment No. 3.
We are dealing with a group of amendments relating to the functions of the international protection officer. The issue arising relates to the outsourcing or privatisation of this service. What I am trying to outline to the Deputies opposite is that implicit in the Bill is that such individuals will be civil servants, as appointed by the Minister and the Minister cannot do otherwise. That is in the Bill.
It is stated not in the Bill.
We have a difference of opinion on the matter so I will put the amendment.
- Barry, Tom.
- Breen, Pat.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Byrne, Catherine.
- Byrne, Eric.
- Cannon, Ciarán.
- Carey, Joe.
- Collins, Áine.
- Conaghan, Michael.
- Connaughton, Paul J.
- Conway, Ciara.
- Coonan, Noel.
- Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
- Costello, Joe.
- Creed, Michael.
- Daly, Jim.
- Deenihan, Jimmy.
- Deering, Pat.
- Dowds, Robert.
- Doyle, Andrew.
- Durkan, Bernard J.
- Farrell, Alan.
- Ferris, Anne.
- Griffin, Brendan.
- Harrington, Noel.
- Hayes, Tom.
- Heydon, Martin.
- Howlin, Brendan.
- Humphreys, Kevin.
- Keating, Derek.
- Kehoe, Paul.
- Kenny, Seán.
- Kyne, Seán.
- Lawlor, Anthony.
- Lynch, Ciarán.
- Lyons, John.
- McCarthy, Michael.
- McEntee, Helen.
- McFadden, Gabrielle.
- McGinley, Dinny.
- McLoughlin, Tony.
- McNamara, Michael.
- Mitchell, Olivia.
- Murphy, Eoghan.
- Nash, Gerald.
- Neville, Dan.
- Nolan, Derek.
- Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
- O'Donnell, Kieran.
- O'Donovan, Patrick.
- O'Dowd, Fergus.
- O'Mahony, John.
- O'Reilly, Joe.
- Phelan, Ann.
- Phelan, John Paul.
- Quinn, Ruairí.
- Rabbitte, Pat.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- Stanton, David.
- Tuffy, Joanna.
- Walsh, Brian.
- Boyd Barrett, Richard.
- Broughan, Thomas P.
- Calleary, Dara.
- Collins, Joan.
- Collins, Niall.
- Cowen, Barry.
- Creighton, Lucinda.
- Crowe, Seán.
- Daly, Clare.
- Doherty, Pearse.
- Dooley, Timmy.
- Ellis, Dessie.
- Fitzmaurice, Michael.
- Fleming, Tom.
- Grealish, Noel.
- Halligan, John.
- Healy, Seamus.
- Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
- McDonald, Mary Lou.
- McGrath, Mattie.
- McLellan, Sandra.
- Mathews, Peter.
- Moynihan, Michael.
- Naughten, Denis.
- Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
- O'Dea, Willie.
- Pringle, Thomas.
- Smith, Brendan.
- Tóibín, Peadar.
- Troy, Robert.
- Wallace, Mick.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 8, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:
“ “DNA profile” has the meaning it has in section 2 of the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014;”.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 9, between lines 19 and 20, to insert the following:
““international protection officer” means a person who is authorised under section 73 to perform the functions conferred on an international protection officer by or under this Act;”.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 10, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:
““separated child” means a child under the age of 18, who is outside his or her country of nationality or, if a stateless person, outside his or her country of habitual residence and who is separated from both parents, or from his or her previous legal or customary caregiver;”.
Although section 14 goes some way towards defining an unaccompanied minor, there is still a lack of clarity regarding how a determination will be made on whether someone is taking responsibility for the care and protection of the child concerned. This is particularly concerning in the light of the potential situation where a child has been trafficked. The proposed amendment would bring the Bill more into line with the Separated Children in Europe programme and the UNHCR's definition of separated children. This definition was also recommended by the Irish Human Rights Commission in its observations on the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2008. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UNHCR also define both separated children and unaccompanied minors in their guidance.
As with all other amendments, I appreciate the attempt being made to improve the Bill and safeguard the best interests of those who are seeking protection in Ireland, particularly children. Before we entered into this process, the term "best interests of the child" was mentioned three times in the Bill. If we conclude today's proceedings successfully, the term will be mentioned in the Bill seven times as a result of the interaction we have had with Opposition Deputies who have been trying to improve it by tabling positive amendments.
A lot of it comes down to terminology which is consistent with EU directives. The term “separated child” is not defined in the EU directives to which the Bill seeks to give effect. Unfortunately, I cannot agree with the proposed amendment as the term does not need to be defined and is not one used in the text of the Bill. All children who arrive in the State will be protected by the provisions of the Bill, with the best interests of the child taken being the primary consideration.
I have pointed out that the amendment we have put before the House is more in line with the Separated Children in Europe programme and the UNHCR's definition. On the advice the Minister of State is getting from departmental officials on this issue, why would they not accept an amendment that is more in line with the definition these organisations use?
We have to keep in line with international terminology and EU directives. I repeat that the term is not defined in EU directives and our legislation has to keep in line with such EU directives. I appreciate that the Deputy is attempting to improve the Bill in the best interests of children.
Following our deliberations, the best interest of the child will be implicit and explicit throughout the Bill, which many would suggest would not have happened if it was not for Opposition and Government amendments. In this particular situation, we are dealing with terminology and the proposed term is not defined in the new directives.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 10, between lines 30 and 31, to insert the following:
“ “stateless person” means a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law;”.
This amendment is linked to the previous one and adds a definition that a "stateless person" means a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law. This is proposed to try to strengthen the Bill in terms of its definitions and also aims to assist in meeting our international obligation in terms of asylum seekers.
Those of us on the Opposition side who have submitted amendments have engaged with the range of NGOs which work with asylum seekers. I do not question the Minister of State's integrity in this regard and I appreciate he must take legal advice and guidance from his officials on these matters. However, a range of NGOs that both he and I respect are experts on these areas and they have profound concerns. I did not call a vote on the previous amendment because I would like to have more debate on the issues raised in the different amendments and every vote stalls us for 15 or 20 minutes. Today we are going to see example after example of areas where this Bill is deficient. I believe that even at this late stage, the Minister of State should consider deferring it until the new year and should take the intervening period to engage with the NGOs in order to strengthen the Bill and address their concerns. Otherwise, we will end up with a Bill that the Opposition cannot support. That would be disappointing because we support the single application procedure. However, the problem is that this procedure dealt with in isolation from other matters that need to be dealt with and without providing the necessary protections means this Bill is not the one it needs to be.
I appreciate what the Deputy is saying. We all want to be in a position to support a single procedure mechanism. I have no difficulty with taking soundings from NGOs and am aware of their concerns. However, the Government is entitled to disagree. Our amendments and the advice we have received from the Attorney General and officials must also be considered. A number of voices must be taken into consideration.
In terms of the specific amendment and the term "stateless person", we must keep in line with international law and EU directives. I cannot accept the proposed amendment as the term is not defined in EU directives. If the term is not defined, it is not a term we can entertain. It is not defined in the EU directives that this Bill gives effect to.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 11, to delete lines 5 to 26 and substitute the following:
“(2) A person shall cease to be an applicant on the date on which—
(a) subject to subsection (3), the Minister refuses—
(i) under subsection (2) or (3) of section 46 to give the person a refugee declaration, or
(ii) under section 46(5) both to give a refugee declaration and to give a subsidiary protection declaration to the person,
(b) subject to subsection (3), he or she is first given, under section 53(1), a permission to reside in the State, or
(c) he or she is transferred from the State in accordance with the Dublin Regulation.
(a) a recommendation referred to in section 38(3)(b) is made in respect of an applicant, and
(b) the applicant appeals under section 40(1)(a) against the recommendation,
notwithstanding the giving, under section 46(4)(a), of a subsidiary protection declaration to the applicant on the basis of the recommendation, he or she shall, for the purposes of this Act, remain an applicant until, following the decision of the Tribunal in relation to the appeal, the Minister, under section 46, gives or, as the case may be, refuses to give him or her a refugee declaration.”.
This amendment provides further clarity on when a person ceases to be an applicant under the Bill.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 11, between lines 35 and 36, to insert the following:
“(4) The Minister may provide for regulations on Reception Conditions and Facilities for persons subject to this Act.”.
This amendment links direct provision to the Bill. The Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions considered the issue of direct provision over a considerable period of time. We visited and met asylum seekers in different centres across the State and we came to the conclusion that the system is not fit for purpose. Deputy Boyd Barrett is also a member of the committee and he worked hard on our report.
On Second Stage, I said that over the past 15 years, our approach to asylum seekers is in contradiction to our international responsibilities. It is almost as is we are schizophrenic in our approach. In terms of overseas development aid, we have been world leaders and have the highest per capita contribution to it. We are respected across many countries and regions, in north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, for our contribution to peacekeeping as part of our overseas development aid. However, when it comes to our approach to asylum seekers, we just have not managed to align it properly with our responsibilities. This is a collective failing of the Irish people.
On the other hand, we campaign for the rights of the undocumented Irish. We are economic migrants, not asylum seekers. I am a west of Ireland man, a Donegal man. Significant numbers of my people, including members of my family and myself, had to emigrate as economic migrants. Asylum seekers are people who come here alleging - in most cases they are genuine - they are leaving war-torn, desperate situations to try to form a new life. We have international obligations towards them and yet we have failed them for long periods. The single application procedure will speed up the application process, which means people will not be stuck in direct provision centres. However, we need to address the issue of the centres.
The working group made many recommendations for improvement. I believe that imperfect as this amendment is, it is necessary. While the principle of the Bill is fine, we believe it needs significant amendment. It needs to be aligned with a proper reception and integration strategy for asylum seekers who come here. They need dignity. Ours is the only State in Europe that has opted out of the European directive that says that after nine months as an asylum seeker, a person is entitled to work. That is shameful and there is no other way to describe it considering our history. We are the only country in the world today that has a population lower than we had in the 1800s. We have a history of mass emigration, with 500,000 leaving in the past number of years - economic migrants to Australia, Canada and around the world.
I am not talking about an open door policy, but about a policy that meets our international responsibilities and that gives people dignity while we decide swiftly and fairly on their applications. That is what we want to achieve. We have not reached that point and that is the reason I want this amendment accepted. I want it to link these policies together. I appreciate the amendment may not be accepted and normally in that situation I would call a vote but I do not want to waste debating time. I call on the Minister of State to respond to my points and to give some assurance about how he will implement the issues raised.
I echo Deputy Mac Lochlainn in saying it is disappointing that this Bill is not only being rushed but it is not accompanied by other measures long wished for by asylum seekers and those who support them, chief of which are the granting of the right to work and the ending of the shame and scandal that is the direct provision system.
As when dealing with other legislation, despite the guillotining and short-circuiting of the proper legislative process surrounding this Bill, I got as many amendments in as I could.
If I had the time, I would have put in another one about an amnesty for all those who have been failed.
The Minister has pretty much acknowledged that the direct provision system and what has happened to asylum seekers to date in this State has been utterly unacceptable. If we acknowledge that, we should also look to compensate those who have suffered this through an amnesty for the people we failed in the direct provision system. There was a failure to give people the right to work, for example. It is something that should accompany this Bill, as it should also see the end of direct provision so as to allow people the right to work.
The spirit that should inform this Bill and all the measures the Minister needs to take in order to move from a failed, dysfunctional and, in some cases, scandalous, process is the presumption that anybody seeking asylum here could be one of the people fleeing the bombed out cities of Syria, who suffered torture or who has been in the most horrendous positions. The presumption should be of their bona fides as asylum seekers fleeing the worst possible scenarios rather than that they may not be legitimate asylum seekers, and that therefore it is right to essentially imprison them in the direct provision system or empower authorities to find excuses to refuse their asylum applications or have inordinate delays.
I welcome the single procedure, as most people do, but there is an absence of a proper legislative process in dealing with this Bill and accompanying measures, such as those proposed by the petitions committee. I commend Deputy MacLochlainn and the secretariat of the petitions committee on the huge amount of fantastic work on this. It is very disappointing that we are not simply dissolving or abolishing the direct provision system, putting in place the right for asylum seekers and refugees to work at a minimum of nine months. That is instead of being penned up in the scandalous system that is direct provision.
We are dealing with two separate issues if we are talking about the Bill and the direct provision system. Approximately half of the people here seeking asylum are in direct provision and half are not. There are approximately 4,500 people in direct provision and a similar number are not. Members know the working group was established 18 months ago and it reported earlier this year. A number of those recommendations are being worked on. It is the only document in town when it comes to direct provision and nothing else is being entertained. It is the document that the Government is working from and many of the recommendations are in this Bill. Other recommendations, such as those relating to the right to work provision mentioned by the Deputy, are currently being assessed by the Cabinet sub-committee on social policy.
I have visited approximately 14 centres around the country. The overarching and main issue that is constantly being raised is the length of time in the system. It does not matter what kind of wonderful conditions that anybody could possibly put in place for people seeking protection as they just want out. It is not a place to live for a long period or, certainly, to raise a family. We do not accept the amendment because this is a different issue from what is being dealt with in the Bill.
Since the publication of the report between 60 and 80 people per month who have lived in the direct provision system over five years have been getting leave to remain. The report's recommendations are being implemented, even in this Bill. We have seen over 80 deportation orders quashed since July. Other recommendations are yet to be effected. If we get to a stage where every asylum application is assessed within six months, it would logically follow that asylum seekers could access the labour market and other entitlements.
When direct provision was first established, it was a response to a homelessness issue. There were 10,000 applications per year in the early 2000s and people were living in parks and playgrounds, sleeping on benches because there was nowhere for them to live. It was a homelessness crisis in the asylum system. The direct provision system was established with the intention that applicants would be there for a number of months. I could stand over a system where people would live in a facility for a number of months but I cannot stand over a system that belittles people because they are there for years on end. That is why we put together a working group to consider the entire process, including direct provision. It did not advocate an amnesty but rather that anybody in the system for over five years should see a fast-track approach in their application. That is exactly what is happening and I have mentioned the figures already.
This is for new applicants and to deal with them in a fairer and more transparent fashion so that they do not have to languish in a protection system for years on end. This is so we do not have the scandalous position of families living in and children being born in centres, living there for nine, ten or 11 years and knowing nothing else but the walls of a direct provision centre. We are trying to effect reform to deal with the backlog of applications in the system. For the information of the Deputies opposite, approximately 450 people in direct provision have leave to remain but have nowhere to go because of housing issues. I have had to take on the responsibility of chairing a task force, examining the information and empowering people to be able to access accommodation, dealing with local authorities and housing agencies to ensure that families can get out of direct provision into accommodation to rebuild their lives. They have an absolute right to do that. We are working with them. The worst thing we could do to a family is say that they have leave to remain and show them the door. We have not done that. There are approximately 18 cases of people who have been in direct provision for more than a year after they get leave to remain status.
I understand and admire the Deputies' intent and campaigning zeal on the issue. We have worked together on this issue, as we have with many Deputies opposite. The intent of this Bill is to have a process that is much more humane and transparent, so as to deal with the issue much more quickly than the current system. Direct provision is a separate issue that is being dealt with through the report, which has been signed off by many non-governmental organisations in the field. Its recommendations are being implemented as I speak.