1. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the reason for the delay in introducing legislation to criminalise hate crime; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48026/19]
1. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the reason for the delay in introducing legislation to criminalise hate crime; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48026/19]
The question is in the name of Deputy O'Loughlin but will be taken in her absence by Deputy O'Callaghan.
I wish to record my disappointment and surprise that two of my questions have been ruled out of order. The questions relate to the number of Garda vehicles and the staffing level of the Garda drugs unit. Obviously, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is not responsible for ruling questions out of order. The question I wish to raise with the Minister-----
I do not wish to cut across the Deputy. On the same issue, three of my questions have been ruled out of order. They relate to Operation Freeflow, the budget lines for the new Garda operational divisions and the number of community gardaí. I have been told these are operational matters for the Garda, but they are also issues of Government policy and matters about which the Government speaks very strongly. I am frustrated that these priority questions have been ruled out of order.
I cannot relieve the Deputies' frustration. Under the Garda Síochána Act, resources and operational matters are for the Garda Commissioner.
The questions also relate to policy matters.
I do not have details of the questions which were ruled out of order. Of course, I accept the rulings. I am happy to accept any question on matters for which I have responsibility. Deputy Sherlock referred to policy issues, and I accept responsibility for such issues. I am happy to consider the questions which were ruled out of order but this is not the appropriate time to so do.
Under the Garda Síochána Act, the Commissioner has responsibility for operational matters. The Minister has confirmed he is prepared to look at any policy issues that arise.
I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for allowing me to interject.
I do not wish to get into a debate with the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, but the Garda Síochána Act also provides in section 26(3) that the Commissioner is accountable to the Minister. The Minister has expressed his desire to be politically responsible for the Garda. That should be taken into account.
We will consider the matter further.
Question No. 1 relates to hate crime legislation and is particularly relevant in light of certain recent utterances in the political domain. When will the Department of Justice and Equality bring forward an update to the hate crime legislation?
I wish to recognise the interest and work of Deputies O'Loughlin and O'Callaghan in this important area, including Deputy O'Loughlin's co-sponsorship of a Private Members' Bill. It is important to clearly reflect that our law provides for prosecution of relevant crimes. Under current law, hate crimes are prosecuted under general criminal law rather than through a specific hate crime offence. Where a perpetrator is found guilty of a crime such as, for example, assault or criminal damage, a sentencing judge may consider a hate motive to be an aggravating factor that would increase the sentence.
I acknowledge the work of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who is present, in this area. In order to ensure that any new legislation in this field is as robust and effective as possible, the Minister of State and I, along with our Department, are finalising research on the effectiveness of legislative approaches in other jurisdictions to tackling hate crime. This research will allow us to learn from experience elsewhere and identify the approach that will work best in Ireland. When the work concludes in the coming weeks, I plan to incorporate the learning from the research and bring forward proposals for new hate crime legislation in the new year. These proposals will be published for discussion and an opportunity will be given to experts, communities and the public to share their views.
As the Deputy is aware, the Minister of State and I, through our Department, have been running a public consultation since October on the separate but related issue of incitement to hatred. The consultation will remain open until 13 December to gather the views of all stakeholders on how our laws should deal with those who actively seek to promote and encourage hatred and prejudice against vulnerable groups.
The Minister noted that there are two legislative areas of relevance in terms of hate crime, namely, crime being aggravated by the targeting of a specific group, and the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. The latter legislation is inadequate although its provisions are still relevant. We need to remind all people, particularly those in the political domain, that it is a criminal offence to publish written material that is threatening, abusive or insulting and is intended or likely to stir up hatred against groups because of their race, colour, religion or national origin. That should be brought to the attention of certain figures in the Minister's party, given their recent utterances.
I refer to the legislation which provides for hate crime to be taken account of as an aggravating factor. It is important to point out that there have been many promises to review hate crime legislation or put new legislation on to the Statute Book. As far back as 2000, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, former Deputy John O'Donoghue, stated his Department was reviewing the effectiveness of laws on incitement to hatred. A review was carried out by the University of Limerick in 2008. In reply to a parliamentary question tabled in 2016, the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, stated there would be a review of the 1989 Act. It is important that we take that into account and get an answer from the Minister on when this legislation will be brought forward. A public consultation has recently been announced. When are we likely to have a proposal from the Department?
On the Deputy's remark regarding unacceptable commentary in the course of the by-elections which are under way, I wish to categorically dissociate myself from comments made by Ms Verona Murphy, a Fine Gael candidate in Wexford. I am sure Deputy O'Callaghan will do likewise in respect of the remarks of a candidate standing for Fianna Fáil in another part of the country. It is incumbent on all Members to ensure that unacceptable commentary is treated as such. In that regard, I note certain apologies given by the candidates involved.
I agree that there is an importance and a certain urgency to reforming the law in this area. My Department is leading several cross-Government initiatives to tackle racism. As the House will be aware, the migrant integration strategy published in 2017 sets out the Government's commitment to the promotion of migrant integration and provides a framework for a wide range of actions to support migrants to participate fully in Irish life. It includes actions to promote intercultural awareness and combat racism and xenophobia, including a review of legislation relating to racially motivated crime and hate speech.
I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in this area. Both of us are aware of the urgency involved here and intend to act accordingly.
I am not aware of any utterances by any Fianna Fáil candidate, as a candidate, in terms of making statements that could offend or incite hatred. We have a broader problem in this country and throughout Europe in respect of incitement to hatred of individuals. If one looks at the UK, one can see that there has been a significant rise in hate crimes recorded in England and Wales. In 2018-19, 103,000 such offences were recorded in England and Wales, while in 2012-13, the number was only 42,000. There is a reason that these offences are increasing. It is partly due to populism and partly due to social media. Some of it is also due to intolerance. Obviously, there has been greater immigration into countries in recent years. This appears to have been used inexplicably as justification for it as well so we need to challenge these utterances and to be very severe about it. Hate crimes are not just an attack on the victims and social groups, but an attack on society. It will damage community relations in this country if we are prepared to tolerate certain groups being targeted because of their status.
I agree fully with and welcome the Deputy's comments in this regard and I trust that they are reflective of the views of all elected Members of this House but what are we going to do about it? In respect of the justice sector, in addition to the steps taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, I acknowledge the importance of the process of establishing a new anti-racism committee that will include representatives of the public and both the private and voluntary sectors. This committee will have a mandate to examine what needs to be done by public sector bodies as well as the wider community to challenge racism and racist commentary head on in this country. An Garda Síochána has also taken a number of important steps recently that are consistent with the migrant integration strategy. A diversity and integrity strategy has been adopted, including a working definition of hate crime, to assist An Garda Síochána in delivering a victim-centred service and ensure that it responds consistently and in a robust manner to reports of hate crime. I am confident that the approach being taken, including research and providing the opportunity for experts and members of the public to provide their views through the consultation process, will help ensure that the legislation we are bringing forward will deliver a safer, fairer and more inclusive Ireland for everybody.
2. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views on passport checks taking place on the Border at Garda checkpoints and on public transport, the reason for same and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47532/19]
As the Minister is aware, in recent times, checkpoints have been placed on the Border. There has been a renewed effort by An Garda Síochána to have these checks and people have been asked for their passports. I have come across cases where Irish citizens living in the North and working in the South who have crossed the Border every day for the past ten to 15 years have found that in the past 12 to 18 months, they have been stopped and asked for their passports. I have also spoken to people who have told me that this also happened to them when they used bus transport. It is a new phenomenon about which many people seem to be concerned because they are worried about the impact of Brexit and that this is the beginning of that impact.
As the Deputy will appreciate, every State has a duty to protect its own security and prevent illegal immigration, human trafficking and other organised crime activity. The Border with Northern Ireland is somewhat unique as it is a jurisdictional border between the two states where the common travel area also exists, in other words, where Irish and British citizens are entitled to travel between both states. However, it is the case that immigration controls have to be deployed from time to time to detect and prevent persons abusing the common travel area to enter the State illegally.
Although there are no permanent immigration controls in place between this jurisdiction and Northern Ireland, An Garda Síochána implements mobile immigration controls to tackle illegal immigration and human trafficking. As the Deputy is aware, a central tenet of policing in this country is to uphold people’s rights and it is important to note that while these interventions target potential immigration abuse and other crimes, they are not passport controls. In this context, I am informed that there is daily operational level co-operation between immigration officers and members of the Garda National Immigration Bureau and their UK counterparts, including intelligence-led operations, to prevent abuse of the common travel area. A person can be refused leave to enter the State if it is determined that the purpose of entry is an abuse of the common travel area. There is a long-standing regulatory framework around the common travel area that has been agreed between the Irish Government and authorities and the authorities in the UK.
I am informed by the Garda authorities that the immigration border control unit conducts immigration checks, both preventative and intelligence-led. This includes checkpoints and checks on public transport or other public service vehicles travelling from Northern Ireland, including on the Enterprise train. These checks have been conducted over a number of years in order to identify and prevent persons from illegally entering the jurisdiction in line with the requirements of sections 11 and 12 of the Immigration Act 2004 relating to documents of identity and supply of information and, in some cases, the production of documents.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
It is evident from the number of detections of illegal immigrants entering the State through Northern Ireland that immigration controls are required from time to time to prevent abuse of the common travel area. As of 31 October this year, 158 illegal immigrants had been detected attempting to enter the State in this way.
These checks are fully compatible with the Good Friday Agreement and common travel area arrangements and I am satisfied that An Garda Síochána and the UK authorities, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland, continue to work together very closely to enhance and facilitate law enforcement and public safety in both jurisdictions.
I am sure the Minister would accept that many people experience this as a hardening of the Border. They experience it as people being asked for documentation they were not asked for heretofore. Even during the days of conflict, this level of identification - people being asked to produce their passports - was seldom sought. This is now happening. Many people on this island who voted for the Good Friday Agreement understood that it was all about removing the Border and making it invisible, which has happened and has been an achievement by everyone concerned. I have spoken to people who are in the transport business. Certainly people who drive buses tell me that in recent times, this has become something that more regularly happens to them. Buses are being stopped and personnel go up and down buses and ask people for their passports or identity. This would have been a very rare occurrence up until probably 18 months or two years ago. It is now happening and people are afraid that it is an agenda to harden the Border as a precursor to whatever kind of Brexit may come.
We understand that the Government has an obligation and nobody is suggesting that there is no obligation in this regard. We are on an island and people who come here must go through ports or airports where they must produce identification anyway. The issue of the Border in Ireland should be something we recognise. The Minister has already said that it is a unique situation.
I disagree with the Deputy when he points to these immigration checks as being somewhat new. They are not new. They are under our legislation and the common travel arrangements. It is evident from a number of detections of illegal immigrants entering the State through Northern Ireland that immigration controls are required from time to time to prevent abuse of the common travel area. In fact, as of 31 October 2019 alone, 158 illegal immigrants had been detected attempting to enter the State in this way through Northern Ireland. These checks are fully compatible with the Good Friday Agreement and the arrangements under the common travel area. I am satisfied that An Garda Síochána and the UK authorities, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland, continue to work together very closely to enhance and facilitate law enforcement and public safety in both jurisdictions. This is not a new phenomenon.
I accept that it is not a new phenomenon from the point of view of the legislation that governs it but it is a new phenomenon from the point of view of it being applied and implemented so harshly. That is the point. We have the DUP and others in the North who clearly want to build a border that is as hard as possible. There is an onus on all of us to ensure that does not succeed and that we do not allow that to happen. Nobody is suggesting that there should be open borders or that immigrants should flow into the country freely. We all understand that. We are on an island and anyone who comes to the island must go through an airport or sea port and there are checks in those places. The Minister would have to acknowledge that this issue is something we all understand but we also understand that we have the Good Friday Agreement, which is about washing away the hard Border and making sure it does not negatively affect the lives of people who live in the Border region or people who want to move freely across the Border. I understand what the law says and also that the law has always been there but the point is that the Garda National Immigration Bureau is now implementing it in a much harsher manner than it has done until now, which is more than regrettable.
I ask the Minister to use his offices to ensure that discontinues as quickly as possible.
Any measures outlined by the Deputy are fully in accordance with the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and the common travel area. In this regard, the Government and our colleagues in the UK are firmly committed to maintaining the common travel area and the rights enjoyed by our citizens who travel freely between these islands and between North and South every day. In this regard, there is a long tradition of co-operation between Ireland and the UK. We will continue to work closely together to enhance the security of the external common travel area border in order to facilitate what must be legitimate travel. Implementation of this work is overseen at senior level in the Department of Justice and Equality and in the Home Office in the UK through the common travel area forum, which meets regularly to address matters of mutual concern and interest.
As I said, there is daily co-operation on an operational level between immigration officers, members of the Garda National Immigration Bureau and their counterparts in Northern Ireland. This co-operation is intelligence-led in order to prevent abuse of the common travel area. Any such measures are fully consistent with the legal framework we enjoy now.
3. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if a response will issue to the call from the Law Reform Commission for a change in the way consent is considered in rape trials; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48027/19]
In 2016, the Attorney General requested the Law Reform Commission to produce a report on how consent is considered in rape trials. That report was published earlier this month and it made significant recommendations on how the law in respect of consent in rape should be changed. Does the Government propose to accept that recommendation and, if so, does it intend to introduce legislation giving effect to the Law Reform Commission's recommendations?
I warmly welcome the publication of the Law Reform Commission’s report on knowledge and belief concerning consent in rape law. As the Deputy may recall, the report was prepared by the commission in response to a reference from the then Attorney General, on behalf of the Government. The report is a thorough and expert examination of this complex issue. I assure the Deputy that my Department is closely examining its recommendations with a view to bringing forward amending legislation.
It is important to understand the context of the report. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 has been widely recognised as landmark legislation dealing with consent and exploitation in sexual activity. For the first time, it set out in statute what consent actually means, namely, a free and voluntary agreement between people to engage in sexual activity. The 2017 Act also set out a non-exhaustive list of circumstances where consent is impossible, such as when a person is asleep or unconscious; if a person is being held captive; if a person cannot communicate his or her agreement due to physical inability or disability; if a person is mistaken or misled about who the other person is, or what the activity is; or, for example, if a person is so drunk or intoxicated that he or she is not in a position to consider the activity and make up his or her own mind. In order for a jury to find a person guilty of rape, three things are necessary: sexual intercourse must have taken place; the person must not have consented; and the accused person must either have known that person did not consent or must have been reckless as to whether he or she consented.
During the Oireachtas debate on the Bill, the issue of whether a person’s belief in consent must be reasonably held was discussed in some detail. It was on foot of those debates that the Attorney General and my predecessor as Minister discussed the matter and agreed to refer it to the Law Reform Commission for detailed consideration. That is the report the Deputy has mentioned.
I thank the Minister for his reply. This is a complex and complicated aspect of our law. Nonetheless it needs to be amended. We need to recognise that at present when it comes to the issue of consent, a man is believed to have honestly and genuinely consented if he believed the woman was consenting. At present that is a subjective test. That was the test that was recognised as being the law by the Supreme Court in the 2016 case of the DPP v. O'R. On foot of that decision the Attorney General requested the Law Reform Commission to prepare a report.
Under the law as it exists, it appears that a man can have an honest, though unreasonable, belief that the woman was consenting and that would be a defence to rape. The Law Reform Commission report seeks to change that subjective test to an objective test, which is preferable. It would obviously still maintain the rights of the accused in such a trial. The report puts a further onus on an individual when having sexual intercourse with another person to ensure that it is reasonable to believe that the other person is consenting.
I am pleased the Deputy recognises that this is not only a most sensitive area of the law but also a most complex area. As the law stands, the mental element of the offence of rape is not present if the accused honestly believed consent was given, so long as that belief was genuine, no matter how unreasonable or irrational. As a result, a person who held a genuine but completely unreasonable belief that the other person consented would not be found guilty of rape.
It was on foot of those debates that the Law Reform Commission was asked to give the matter detailed consideration. As the Deputy has said, the report recommends a change in the law to state that the belief of the accused person in consent must be reasonably held. It also touches on some of the surrounding matters which are being examined elsewhere, such as rape myths and stereotypes, obstacles to prosecution in rape cases, the treatment of victims in rape cases and other related matters.
I am giving the matter urgent consideration and will be mindful of the recommendation. I think we will have an opportunity to discuss the issue again at an early date.
As legislators, we need to recognise that we have a problem in this country with people, particularly women, coming forward and being prepared to make complaints in respect of rape and other sexual offences. Part of the reason is that they find the process very intimidating and threatening. While ensuring an accused has a fair trial, we also have an obligation to put in place laws that make it more conducive for people to make complaints when they have been victims of sexual abuse. At present, the proper test should be that somebody looking at what happened objectively would think it is reasonable or unreasonable for the person to have believed consent was forthcoming. It is unfair for persons to be able to defend themselves in our legal system on the basis of saying, "Well, I honestly thought that she was consenting", even though anyone objectively looking at it would regard that as a grossly unreasonable basis of assessment. I welcome the Minister's statement that he is bringing forward this legislation. It is complicated but we need to introduce legislation in line with the Law Reform Commission recommendation.
Lest the House be under any misapprehension, while the intention may be to introduce amending legislation, it will not happen within the coming weeks or months. We have the important contribution to the debate of the Law Reform Commission report. The timing of the report is particularly welcome, given the review of protections for vulnerable witnesses in the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences, chaired by an expert barrister, Tom O’Malley. That report is due to be completed by the end of this year.
I intend to give early consideration to these two sets of recommendations. I have asked my officials to examine the Law Reform Commission report in detail with a view to introducing proposals to implement its recommendations. Any recommendations which may arise from the O’Malley review group and which may be of assistance in supporting victims and vulnerable witnesses will feed into this process, while, of course, maintaining the necessary fairness and balance which must at all times be inherent in our criminal justice system.
4. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the number of times the Garda air support unit has been used in each of the years from 2016 to 2018 and to date in 2019; the reason for deployment; the cost involved for each deployment; and the areas from which funds were obtained. [47838/19]
The question is self-explanatory. How many times has the Garda air support unit been used in each of the years from 2016 to 2018 and to date in 2019? What was the reason for deployment and the cost involved for each deployment? From what areas were funds obtained? I seek a perspective from the Minister regarding the use of this service.
The Garda air support unit was established in 1997 and provides a 24-hour proactive and reactive service in support of front-line operational gardaí and specialist units. Two helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft are currently assigned to the unit. It provides invaluable support to operational gardaí in the course of their duties. I am informed by An Garda Síochána that while specific information on each deployment cannot be supplied, the unit deploys in circumstances where there is an immediate threat to life; incidents of crime or terrorism; an immediate threat to public order of a serious nature; when it is important to gather information on and attend at incidents relating to crime, public order and traffic; searches for missing persons; and where it may be necessary in the context of Garda operational requirements.
I am further informed by Garda authorities that the unit's aircraft have been deployed on a total of 5,414 occasions since 2016. The details requested by the Deputy are set out in the following table:
No. of Times Deployed
2019 (up to 14 November 2019)
I am advised by the Garda that the current cost per hour for each helicopter flown, including maintenance costs, is €1,089. The cost for fixed-wing deployment is borne by the Department of Defence. The Deputy will have specific knowledge on that area, given his previous and current portfolios.
Under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for managing An Garda Síochána and for the allocation and efficient use of Garda resources. However, as the Deputy will be aware, the resources provided by the Government to An Garda Síochána have now reached unprecedented levels. We have provided a €92 million capital investment for An Garda Síochána this year, which is a 50% increase on last year. Capital investment will increase further to €116.5 million in 2020.
I thank the Minister for his reply. We all agree that this is an invaluable service that we would wish to see further resourced if possible. Do the vast bulk of those deployments take place in the Dublin metropolitan area? Is there scope for extending the deployment of the resource to a more diverse geographical area, including the south, south west, west and north west of the country, particularly in light of the current strain on policing in some of those regions? When events such as music or sporting festivals take place, where thousands of people gather, is there any interaction between An Garda Síochána and the event promoters regarding the costs borne by the State for the provision of those services?
I do not have a regional breakdown of the more than 5,000 engagements, but I would be happy to see if such information can be acquired by An Garda Síochána. I know from anecdotal experience that this is far from a Dublin-only service, and I invite the Deputy to agree with me on that. I would be happy to provide information for other parts of the country insofar as I can. I am anxious to ensure that An Garda Síochána continues to manage the use of its resources in an effective and efficient way. I acknowledge the record investment of €1.76 billion in An Garda Síochána in the 2019 Vote, which was increased to €1.882 billion for 2020.
I appreciate the Minister's reply. We all agree that it is an invaluable service. I welcome the fact that the Minister will provide some information on the geographical spread of those deployments.
I am happy to do so, provided that information is available to me.
5. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if the fact that 35% of residents of direct provision centres have been there for more than two years will be addressed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47617/19]
As of this month, approximately 7,500 people are availing of accommodation services under the direct provision system run by the Department of Justice and Equality. In total, 35% of those residents have been waiting in direct provision more that two years, and 22% have been waiting more than three years. What is the Government's plan for dealing with this ever-increasing issue and does it have a proposal for ensuring people can get out of direct provision much faster?
I thank the Deputy for his question. International protection is a complex legal process driven by both national and international law, which works to protect the rights of those genuinely seeking protection by ensuring that all applications are examined in a consistently rigorous and fair manner. My Department has introduced a number of measures aimed at reducing the time taken to determine applications. The International Protection Act 2015 introduced the single procedure process for the determination of protection applications. Under that process, all elements of a person's protection claim, including refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permission to remain are considered together rather than sequentially.
An applicant who applies for international protection today can expect to receive a first instance recommendation or decision within approximately 15 months, provided no complications arise. Prioritised cases, which include especially vulnerable groups of applicants such as unaccompanied minors, are being processed in just under nine months. My Department is working hard to achieve a target of nine months in the vast majority of cases. An additional €1 million has been provided in budget 2020 for immigration service delivery, which includes provision for additional staffing to fast-track applications. This will further reduce the time needed for considering applications for international protection as well as pressures on the accommodation systems.
As of 31 October 2019, the mean length of stay in international protection accommodation services, IPAS, was 21 months, down from 38 months in 2015. That is a reduction of 17 months over four years. Where an applicant has been in a centre for many years, there is generally a complex set of reasons. These can include difficulties and delays in the applicant producing the required documentation and in verifying that documentation. In addition, such cases generally involve the applicant having received a negative decision or series of negative decisions on their application and then exercising their right to appeal, often through the courts, which can take time.
The figures on those in centres over three years also includes a substantial group of people who have received permission to remain. While we wish that those granted permission to remain will move on from centres in order that new applicants can access service provision, approximately 847 people with refugee status continue to live in the centres. A total of 532 of those people have been residing in the centres for three years or more. This represents 30.69% of the total number of applicants who have been IPAS residents for three years or more, which is 1,743. While people are under no obligation to accept accommodation in the IPAS, the Deputy will be aware of the current difficulties faced by people trying to source and secure accommodation. My Department is assisting those with status to access mainstream housing with the support of organisations such as Depaul Ireland, the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Peter McVerry Trust. So far this year, 675 people have been assisted in transitioning from IPAS to permanent homes in the community.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. We have to be frank here. I regret to say that a message is going out that the Government has lost control of the issue of direct provision. The public are getting that impression because proposals for direct provision centres are being blocked simply because of local opposition. The message going out is that the country is unable to sustain the numbers involved and that if people put up local objections, they will be able to stop centres being built. We know that is not the case. The numbers applying for international protection and subsidiary protection in this country are relatively small by European standards. Some 3,600 applied last year, and up to 4,000 will likely apply this year, for reasons that have been explained. Part of the problem is that there is huge uncertainty about where people will stay. I welcome the Government's recent announcement that it will try to use State accommodation to house these people, for which we have been calling for many months and years. State accommodation can be used. Alternatively, we may have to build State accommodation for this purpose, as it is a long-term issue. I ask the Minister of State for an update on what will happen with that State accommodation.
Every option is being pursued to try to identify and locate accommodation for people who come here looking for international protection. As I said, so far this year, of the people who have received status, 675 have got help to transit into permanent accommodation in the community. Officials from the Department meet regularly with colleagues from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and staff from the City and County Management Association to work collectively to ensure those with status or permission to remain are assisted to move on to longer-term accommodation as soon as possible.
A new accommodation centre opened in Borrisokane on 28 October. Eight families have now moved there and have settled in well. I thank the community in Borrisokane for their co-operation, assistance and support in establishing friends of the centre there and showing Borrisokane to be a very welcoming town. We also have accommodation centres in other parts of the country, 39 in all, and they are all working very well. Local friends of centres have been established, local people are assisting and, in fact, in some cases problems arise because the local people send in too many gifts and presents to the people living in the centres as they are so generous. I call on all other communities in the country to look at this and to see the benefits accommodation centres bring. There is nothing to fear, as the Deputy said, and nothing to be worried about. We have the records. People can visit centres, see them in operation and meet the people to see how well the centres are working.
In other similar European countries, such as Denmark and Finland, there is a similar system to here in that they have accommodation centres where people stay while their applications are being considered. Where we differ is that people are staying for too long. We have seen that 22%, which works out at 1,600 people, have been in direct provision centres for more than three years. That allows people to say, legitimately, that this system is unfair on humans and is inhumane. We need to recognise that we need to stop situations developing where people are kept here for longer than one year. This accommodation is suitable for people to stay for one year while their applications are being processed.
Of course, part of the problem is the housing crisis because the reason people are staying on in direct provision centres, and we know there are 770 people there who have been granted international protection, is because when they go out into the outside world, they find it impossible to get accommodation. Therefore, it is linked to the housing crisis.
I acknowledge what the Minister of State has said. There are very many communities, including people in my own constituency and throughout the country, who welcome migrants. We need to talk more about those welcoming communities rather than just highlighting the objections in a small number of communities.
I thank the Deputy for his comments. Last week, we launched Community Sponsorship Ireland, to which I bring the attention of colleagues. Through this initiative, local communities can welcome a refugee family into their community, and there have been a number of examples during the pilot scheme, which has worked very well.
The mean length of stay in accommodation is now 21 months, which is down from 38 months in 2015, so progress is being made and I am determined progress will continue to be made in this regard. This year, with the help of Depaul Ireland, the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Peter McVerry Trust, we have assisted 675 people to move into accommodation in the community from IPAS accommodation. A huge effort is being made to shorten the time people are in the centres, to shorten the amount of time it takes to make decisions, and to help people move on into accommodation when decisions have been made in their favour.
As I said, this is a complex area and there are many reasons people spend longer than we would like in the centres. However, I am sure the Deputy will agree with me that progress is being made and I want to confirm that progress will continue to be made in this important area.