I welcome the opportunity to put aside some misconceptions about the direct provision system and to listen to the views of colleagues from across the political spectrum on the system as it operates today. The structure of the debate means I will not be able to respond at the end, unfortunately. I will try to get in contact with colleagues after the debate to respond to the issues they raise. I apologise for not being able to respond in the Chamber, but that has not been provided for in this debate.
I would like to set out the context for the establishment of the direct provision system. Services for all protection applicants who are in State-provided accommodation or who live in the community are delivered under the Government's policies of direct provision and dispersal. This policy was established in 2000 when the then health boards, which were responsible for homeless people, found themselves unable to cope with a large influx of individuals who were claiming asylum in Ireland. Some 1,500 people in the protection process were being provided with accommodation and full board by the Government in May 2000, but that number had increased to 4,200 by May 2001 and to 7,200 by May 2005. As of the middle of this month, some 4,500 people are living in State-provided accommodation, 77% of whom have been in such accommodation for three years or less. I will return to this issue later.
It is important for us all to be clear on our understanding of what exactly is meant by direct provision. It is the system whereby State services are delivered directly to protection applicants through the relevant Department or agency. For example, the Department of Education and Skills delivers education services through the established school system and the HSE delivers medical services through the established GP and hospital systems. In the case of the Department of Justice and Equality, full-board accommodation is offered to residents while their applications for protection are being processed. Not every person who seeks international protection in Ireland chooses to accept the offer of full-board accommodation. Many applicants choose to live with colleagues, family members or friends in communities across the country, as they are entitled to do. Direct provision is not about detention, disregarding human rights or treating people in the protection process differently from people in the wider community. Since this system was established in 2000, some 60,000 people have been provided with full-board accommodation and full access to the State’s medical and education services. Last evening, over 4,000 people were provided with full-board accommodation by the State. If the State was not providing this service, where would these people have stayed? How would they have been provided with medical and health care? How would children have been linked in with preschool, primary and post-primary education?
During previous debates on direct provision in these Houses and in the media, there has often been a focus on calls to end the system. I have yet to hear anyone say what they would replace it with. Would they replace it with a system based on cash or vouchers? If colleagues have suggestions for what we might replace the current system with, I ask them to give me the details of what they would like to see happening. I assume that we do not want the vulnerable people whom we have a responsibility to protect to join the lengthy social housing waiting lists or to enter the private rental market with little hope of finding affordable and secure accommodation. The offer of State-provided accommodation is a guarantee that everyone who walks into the international protection office today will have a bed, food, a shower and medical care tonight. They will not be forced to spend the night on the streets or to seek emergency housing. This arrangement is not something to be thrown away blindly without care for its replacement, particularly as we have a housing crisis.
No system is without room for improvement. Our job is to continue to enhance and develop the entire system so that the best possible set of facilities and services can be provided to those in our care. To that end, the Government commissioned a retired judge, Bryan McMahon, to chair a working group charged with compiling a report into the protection process and the system of direct provision. His report, which was published in June 2015, forms the basis for ongoing improvements across the entirety of the system, involving all relevant Departments and agencies.
A Programme for a Partnership Government states:
Long durations in direct provision are acknowledged to have a negative impact on family life. We are therefore committed to reforming the Direct Provision system, with particular focus on families and children.
On 23 February we published the latest audit of the implementation of the recommendations contained in the McMahon report, which shows that 121 of the recommendations have been implemented, with a further 38 partially implemented or in progress. In total, 92% of the 173 recommendations have been implemented, partially implemented or are in progress, a significant increase on the figure of 80% we reported on last June.
The Department is implementing a large number of commitments contained in A Programme for a Partnership Government within two broad themes. The first of these is by way of reforming legislation with the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 on 31 December 2016. A key feature of this legislation is the introduction of a new single application procedure that will, in time, significantly accelerate the protection-determination process and, by extension, reduce the length of time which applicants spend in State-provided accommodation. The new processing arrangements will determine certainty of status at an earlier stage for those entitled to international protection within the State. The Act is intended to achieve the desired balance between treating asylum seekers with humanity and respect and ensuring more efficient immigration procedures and safeguards.
Under the regime that existed up to the commencement of the Act, the protection process had four discrete steps: a refugee status determination at first instance; a refugee status determination on appeal; a subsidiary protection determination at first instance; and a subsidiary protection determination on appeal. Members will appreciate that, in light of the multi-layered protection system which existed up to 31 December 2016, those refused asylum at first instance but still pending in the protection process could be pending at asylum appeal stage, pending at-first-instance subsidiary protection stage, pending at subsidiary protection appeal stage, or be challenging an asylum subsidiary protection determination in the courts through the medium of judicial review proceedings. The process could, therefore, be and very often was of considerable length. Figures prepared for consideration by the working group to report to Government on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision and other supports for asylum seekers, in 2015 showed that 2,695 persons had been in State-provided accommodation for three or more years at that time. Recent analysis has shown that this figure has now been reduced to just over 1,200 persons. The number of persons in State-provided accommodation for five years or more has been reduced to fewer than 600 persons.
Our analysis has also shown that practically all cases of persons living in State-provided accommodation for over five years which could be processed have now been processed. The remaining approximately 250 cases have been reviewed and cannot be processed for a number of reasons, including applicants judicially reviewing earlier decisions. This was a major achievement and has impacted directly on the lives of a large number of persons in the protection and related systems.
The single procedure will speed up the processing of claims and the clear ambition here is that the day of applicants residing for very lengthy periods in direct provision will be over. For many years, people have rightly sought an end to the sometimes lengthy multi-sequential determination process. The new process is addressing those very issues. It is in the interest of everyone, not least the applicants themselves, that all protection applications are dealt with speedily, efficiently and in accordance with the highest international standards.
The second major theme of improvements is in the area of the delivery of services overseen by the Reception and Integration Agency of the Department of Justice and Equality and other Departments and Government agencies. The Reception and Integration Agency oversees the provision of full-board accommodation for protection applicants while they await decisions on their claims for international protection.
Following the McMahon report and, in particular, since the publication of A Programme for a Partnership Government, a number of recommendations on physical improvements to accommodation are being implemented. The following are some examples. There has been the introduction of full independent living at the Mosney accommodation centre. Each family is now able to acquire fresh food to their liking so they may prepare meals themselves. The new home-cooking arrangements at Mosney went live on 23 January 2017. Residents' kitchens have been installed in a number of accommodation centres to provide for home cooking by residents and their families. Cooking facilities are being rolled out to other centres including the State-owned centres in Killarney, Tralee, Athlone, Knocklisheen in Limerick and Kinsale Road in Cork, as well as in Ballyhaunis, Millstreet, St. Patrick's in Monaghan and any other centres in which families are resident.
There has been a complete refurbishment consisting of triple-glazed windows and doors, and refurbished interiors in each accommodation unit at the Athlone accommodation centre. A number of outdoor playgrounds and football pitches have been improved to provide for all-weather facilities. Centres now have teenagers' rooms to provide social areas for this age group. Recommendations in the McMahon report that involve structural changes or improvements will be implemented as quickly as possible, with due consideration of possible fire safety, building regulation and planning issues.
The Department has also co-ordinated the preparation of a multi-departmental information booklet for persons who have been granted any type of leave to remain in the State. The booklet contains practical and useful information for residents on housing, finances, health care, education as well as television licences, public transport and other related matters. It has been prepared with the assistance of the National Adult Literacy Agency to ensure that it is presented in plain English. The booklet has been translated into a number of languages. In addition to the publication of the booklet, a number of NGOs have been awarded moneys under the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund specifically to provide assistance to persons who have been granted protection and who are now in a position to move out of State-provided accommodation. At the end of December 2016, there were approximately 450 persons with some form of status continuing to reside in State-provided accommodation. Notwithstanding the housing crisis, we are working with the NGO community and residents alike to ensure that those with permission to remain in the State are assisted in finding mainstream accommodation as soon as possible and that State-provided accommodation remains available for those in most need. Those people, even though they have permission to remain, are still provided for in these centres.
In January 2016 the Minister for Social Protection increased the rate of allowance paid to children in State-provided accommodation from €9.60 per week to €15.60 per week. In recent years, the Minister for Education and Skills introduced a scheme to provide supports in line with the current student grant scheme to school leavers who are in the protection system and meet the eligibility criteria.
Another key recommendation of the McMahon report was that the remit of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children should be extended to cover those who are living in State-provided accommodation. This has now been implemented and both offices will begin to accept complaints with effect from Monday, 3 April 2017. Obviously, these two offices are completely independent and objective. We welcome that and we look forward to any advice they might have for us in those areas. They are completely free to visit any of these centres at any time.
As can be seen from the foregoing, significant improvements have either been implemented or are being implemented across all aspects of the system of supports for those in the protection process. This work will continue through the remainder of 2017 and beyond. Our intention is to ensure that the best possible service is provided to those seeking protection by way of a speedy, effective and efficient decision-making process combined with a system that meets the basic needs of persons in that process.
I take this opportunity to say that I would welcome applications from groups or organisations with proposals to provide, run and manage accommodation centres in response to the current call for expressions of interest published recently by the Department. I have visited many of the accommodation centres under contract to the Department since taking office. I know that in recent times other Members have also visited accommodation centres in a discreet and respectful manner without fanfare or publicity, respecting the privacy and sensitivities of the people there. I will continue to have an open approach to any colleagues who wish to do so in the future. When colleagues speak here today some will do so from the experience of having visited these centres and know what they are talking about. Their experience is recent and not historical, going back over five or ten years.
I have spoken with residents and representatives of residents. I have listened to their concerns and I am working on addressing them. This work will focus on improving processing times and improving the facilities available to all those in our care. The work we are currently engaged in will improve the processing time for applications for international protection and the accommodation and facilities being provided by the State for those in the protection process.
I look forward to hearing the views of Members on this matter. Constructive criticism is always welcome. I assure all Members that their views will be carefully considered as we continue to enhance the full range of services being provided to those in the protection system. As I said at the outset, I regret that I will not be able to respond to this debate this morning. However, I will respond to colleagues' comments and suggestions, including offers of assistance they may have for people who come to our shores looking for asylum. These are different from people who are refugees who get accommodation in the emergency reception and orientation centres, EROCs.
That is a different system completely and one should not mix those two up. EROCs are totally different from the direct provision system.
I hope colleagues will agree that we are working hard to improve the direct provision system, as I said, to have more speedy decisions than we had up to now so that applicants will not have to wait as long for a decision to be made and to continue to improve the conditions where people are living. As I say, I have visited lots of these centres and will continue to do so. I meet the people there and listen to them. I met one lady the other day and she said, "I feel safe. I have no complaints. I am safe. I am happy. I am looked after. I have friends who look after me."