I will share time with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien. We will have seven and a half minutes each.
As a country, we pride ourselves on being welcoming, kind and empathetic. Our own history of emigration gives us an understanding of the pain of leaving one's own country and the difficulties and challenges of settling elsewhere. As a people, we want to extend a welcome and a shelter to those coming here fleeing violence and war.
Over the past two decades there has been an outpouring of empathy and solidarity for people who are in the direct provision system. The public wants to see the best of our values, as a country, demonstrated in the supports we provide to people fleeing violence. Alongside the campaign to end direct provision, we have seen local support groups grow to assist people in the international protection process in practical and thoughtful ways, welcoming these new arrivals into their communities. At a time when politics in many parts of Europe and around the world are mired in anti-migrant and xenophobic dogma, in our own country the push to end direct provision has actually become louder and greater, and the belief that we can do better as a country has become widely accepted. There is not a Deputy in this House who has not received emails, phone calls or engaged with their constituents on this issue. I am really heartened by the engagement I have had with Deputies and Senators who are so aware of and engaged in this matter.
We can be under no illusion that there are groups and individuals who seek to sow hatred and division in our society. These groups use disinformation and play on people's well-meaning concerns to pedal racism and discrimination. They seek to play marginalised groups off against each other. Theirs is a mean-minded Ireland, one that is closed, unfriendly and filled with suspicion. It is up to every Deputy in this House to reject this policy and politics of division. We have enough compassion, humanity and political will to support those in need, those who are vulnerable and those who come here seeking our protection. Ministers, Deputies, Senators and councillors, all of us, have an absolute responsibility when a person comes to us and says, "I don't want these people here", to challenge and reject that view. We address concerns that come but in a responsible manner. We do not make politics out of hostility. We appeal to the better nature of Irish people who, we all know, are charitable, compassionate and kind.
Earlier this year, we as a Government took the first steps towards meeting the aim, set out in the programme for Government, of ending direct provision, with the launch of our White Paper which sets out the Government's new international protection support service. This new service will take a much wider, more holistic view of the needs of international protection applicants, rooted in the idea of integration from day one. The new system will be divided into two phases. Phase 1 will identify the needs of individual applicants. Applicants will be accommodated in reception and integration centres for no more than four months, where they will have access to wraparound supports, including healthcare, education and language support, and employment supports to enable them to live independently and integrate into their communities, should they receive a positive decision on their application for international protection.
Phase 2 offers community-based accommodation across Ireland for those who are still awaiting a decision on their application. In both phases, applicants will continue to have access to wide-ranging supports, should they need them, recognising that applicants have diverse needs, depending on their situation, and require further support to successfully integrate into communities.
My Department is working closely with the Housing Agency, which will support us to purchase and build houses and apartment complexes in various locations across the country. I met with the Housing Agency last week, and a memorandum of understanding has been drafted with it and is being finalised at the moment. The accommodation that we obtain will be managed for us by approved housing bodies which will also manage the building of new housing. We will work to complete the transition to the new model by December 2024. A detailed implementation plan is now being developed which will drive forward significant changes for each year between now and 2024.
While the White Paper sets out an ambitious proposal for ending direct provision, there are almost 7,000 people living in the current system. We are committed to improving the system for them as soon as possible. Earlier this year, we introduced pilot vulnerability assessments and, since February, this has applied to all new applicants. To date, 268 applicants have entered the vulnerability assessment process with 161 assessments complete and 107 ongoing.
The Government has also committed to introducing independent inspections of all direct provision accommodation, and my officials are progressing this with the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, at the moment. As we all know, HIQA is the gold standard for independent inspection and rigour of inspection.
In the programme for Government, we committed to ensuring that international protection applicants can access driver licences and bank accounts. My colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is progressing the road traffic (miscellaneous provisions) Bill, which will allow us to provide driver licences to international protection applicants.
Bank of Ireland recently announced that it would allow international protection applicants open bank accounts. I very much welcome this announcement and would like to commend the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, on its ongoing work on this and its ongoing engagement with various banks. The Department of Justice has also introduced changes to the right of applicants to access the labour market meaning applicants are now able to apply for access six months after they have registered their application, if they have not received a first instance decision in this time.
In February, I wrote to all direct provision providers instructing them to ensure period products are provided free of charge within their accommodation. In March, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, and I announced that from the start of the 2021-2022 academic year, international protection applicants who have permission to work and are seeking to access post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses will no longer have to pay international fees. These changes will improve the lives of people as they progress through the international protection system and I am committed to making further improvements in the months and years ahead.
In making a home here, people seeking protection strengthen and enrich our communities and, as a State, we have an obligation to support their integration. Throughout the process of implementing the White Paper, I am committed to engaging with Deputies and working constructively with local communities across the country in order to welcome new residents. We know the Irish public wants to see an end to direct provision and see those who are coming here seeking protection receive better supports. The White Paper commits us to doing this and will allow us to deliver on these key goals.