The single most important issue identified by the working group in 2015 that had to be resolved was the length of time that many in the protection system had to wait before the application was fully determined.
It is worth noting that at the time of the working group negotiations, more than 50% of direct provision residents had been five or more years in the system. The legal process was complex and protracted, as a result of which many remained in the system and in direct provision centres for many years before their application for protection was determined. Confined in centres designed initially to accommodate people for no more than six months and where all meaningful employment was prohibited, the residents found that the living conditions became increasingly oppressive as the waiting periods drifted from weeks to months to years.
Recent trends in the number of asylum applications and the direct provision population indicated that new fault lines are emerging in the system. There are now approximately 6,100 people in direct provision. Four years after the report, it is worthwhile to review the progress made in implementing the working group recommendations. If I may, because of the limited time available, I will concentrate on big ticket items. First, I will speak about the right to work. Combined with the long time in direct provision centres, applicants who were denied the right to work suffered incredibly as a result. They became deskilled, depressed and felt themselves to be useless, to say the least. I remember one resident said, "As we wait for time, time kills us", which paints a depressing kind of a scene. The recommendation of the working group was that those waiting for a first instance decision for more than nine months should have access to the labour market. The Supreme Court, in May 2017, held that the blanket ban in place against working was unconstitutional and, unusually, it asked the Government to put forward its proposals to rectify the situation. After some hesitation and toing and froing, the Government went beyond what the court required and opted into the recast reception conditions directive, something that had been advocated by some reformers for a long time. It could be said, therefore, that the Supreme Court's intervention prompted a more generous response from the Government than that suggested in the measured proposal from the working group four years earlier. This response was much to the advantage of the protection applicants.
Asylum applicants have the right to work after nine months. The question remains, however, whether the right to work is fully effective, as it appears that some difficulties have arisen when residents in direct provision sought to obtain a driving licence or open a bank account. Moreover, the opportunities to work may be restricted for residents located in remote centres. Such obstacles should be removed if it is shown that they restrict residents' rights to access the labour market. I visited a couple of centres in the past week. In one centre with 57 residents, 38 of them are now working and three of that group are in further education. Another centre, which was for women only, had 86 residents and approximately 70% were working. In a third centre, which was for men only, approximately 70% were working. I hasten to add that the centres were located in a tourist area where work was available. The morale in the centres where people were working was wonderful and the right to work was very much appreciated.
The second issue was allowances. The working group recommended that the allowances of approximately €19 for adults and €9 for children be doubled. That was not done immediately but it was done in the past month. Together with the right to work, this has made a significant difference to the morale and comfort of the residents in direct provision centres.
The third issue relates to the role of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. Their respective remits have been extended to cover residents in direction provision centres. This change was sought by the residents and is having a very liberating and comforting effect because they can now make complaints without fear of retribution.
The fourth issue is cooking and independent living. One of the big complaints we got from residents was that they could not make independent decisions about eating. They had to go to canteens at given times and eat the food that was presented to them. It was a big issue for families in particular who were denied the privilege of sitting down together as a family at given times and making choices and culinary preferences. Progress has been made in this regard. We recommended that all direct provision centres have independent living in the sense that there should be a shop where residents could purchase their food and facilities to cook it themselves. That has been done in approximately 38% of centres. Another approximately 1,400 residents have the right to cook but they do not have a shop and must shop elsewhere. Some progress has been made in that respect but it is significant to note that, as yet, none of the State-owned centres has provided access to a food hall and cooking facilities under the agency's independent living model. The State owns seven centres and none of them has provided independent cooking facilities. I am informed by the Department that discussions with the Office of Public Works are ongoing in that regard. There may be technical or logistical problems but it is notable that while 50% of centres have some form of cooking facilities available, the State-run centres have not provided any such facility.
We also concentrated on accommodation standards, as it was felt that the accommodation in some of the centres was lacking. We recommended that there be a uniform minimum standard. I am pleased to note that in recent years national standards have been drafted and are now with the Government for final approval. These incorporate the minimum requirements set out in the recast reception conditions directive. That should help to promote equality, prevent discrimination and protect human rights, as defined by the public sector equality and human rights duty. Moreover, future tendering competitions will insist that all providers demonstrate their ability to conform to these statutory obligations.
The sixth issue relates to a phenomenon that has asserted itself in this country since the report was published, namely, the shortage of accommodation generally. The shortage of accommodation throughout the State, which was noted and considered by the working group, has become more acute since 2015. I need not tell members that as they are dealing with it every day. In 2018, there was a sustained increase in new applications, averaging more than 300 per month. That has put greater pressure on the existing stock of the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, in that more protection applicants continue to live in direct provision centres while waiting for determinations. Alternative accommodation is not readily available for those who might wish to avail of it and they cannot move out. Those who have received positive decisions are obliged to continue to live in direct provision centres for the same reason. At present, it is estimated there are between 700 and 800 such persons trying to transition out of direct provision but cannot do so. Owing to the shortage of accommodation, the RIA is also obliged to provide emergency accommodation outside of the centres. That is a costly business. It costs in the region of €99 a night per person to accommodate those who cannot be accommodated in direct provision centres. It may be understandable that the RIA should do that to ensure protection applicants have a roof over their heads, but it is important that the lessons of the wider housing sector are learned and that this short-term fix does not become a long-term solution.
Also, in light of the high cost of emergency accommodation, one wonders in these circumstances whether it would be more economical for RIA to consider expanding its own stock by building on State-owned sites.
I leave until last the most important issue that was identified by the working group as a problem in the system, namely, the length of time that applicants remain in the system, and this is due to the processing. To cut it short, the working group felt that anyone in the system for more than five years should be got rid of in that they should be dealt with expeditiously and they should be fast-tracked out of the system. It was felt that was the humane thing to do. Five years was fairly arbitrary and five years is a long time, but we were talking about people who were in there for six, seven, eight or nine years at that time. We felt that five years should be set as the minimum. We also felt that if that was not done quickly, that group of people would continue on into the new system which was introduced in 2015 in the single application process. The single application process was agreed by the Government before we were even sitting. This was to simplify the legal process and to reduce the three hearings to one hearing, but we warned, and the working group was strongly of the view, that unless the backlog was cleaned out, the backlog would continue to contaminate. I do not mean to use the word "contaminate" in a pejorative sense but to upset the expeditious dealing with the reign that would come in. The Government does not accept our proposal on that. However, it did try to address the five years plus people on an ad hoc basis and it got through 2,000 of them fairly quickly in the next two years. However, a bulge was still left in the system which continues to go through the system today and it clogs up the administration.
I refer to the current administration. In dealing with these matters, about 3,600 come in every year and we are told that it is able to process 3,900. If only the current people coming in were being dealt with, the present system would adequately deal with them, but it is complicated by the legacy that I have spoken of coming into the system so that there is still a delay. Nowadays there is a backlog of about 19 months before an applicant can have his or her case heard. That is too long and the Department is working on it to try to get it down to 15 months and 12 months and it is hoping that it will do so within a year, but those are aspirations. At present there is an 18 to 19-month delay between application and processing, so that is too long.
The ad hoc scheme for long stayers ceased with the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 in January 2017. However, 4,000 existing cases that are still in the system were transferred into the new single procedure. The failure to deal with this group, as the working group had recommended, hindered the success of this new single application system. This is far too long.
There have been many improvements in the system since the working group has made its report. It is not perfect but this is a changing space and this has to be monitored every year to see that the improvements are made. It was submitted that in 2017, the working group report was the first review of the analysis of the direct provision system since it was introduced, and membership of the group included representatives from every Department involved as well as non-governmental organisations, NGOs, working in the area and a number of academics and other experienced individuals. For the most part, the recommendations made by the working group were pragmatic and achievable, and this is not surprising given the membership of the group. In particular, the public servants from the various Departments ensured that the political realities were well articulated when possible solutions were being debated.
The report provides a valuable infrastructural analysis of the direct provision system and identifies many problems and issues of concern as well as suggesting reforms in many areas. Some of the recommendations were adopted and implemented fairly quickly while others were deferred. Even where there has been delay, however, the report has kept the direct provision question continuously on the political agenda. In any event, it is generally recognised that the programme of action set out in the report is still valid and is one that the Government is trying to implement.
Since the publication of the working group report, there have been significant improvements, including the resolution of an estimated 2,000 long stayers who are here in the system for five years, the establishment of a new international protection procedure, the introduction of communal catering in family centres for many, the extension of the role of the Ombudsman's office, the introduction of a right to work for eligible protection applicants, increased direct provision allowances, and the development of a national standard for accommodation. While there has been considerable progress, there still remains significant work to implement the working group's recommendations fully, and it is concerned that some improvements are being unwound by the accommodation crisis. Without doubt, the housing crisis poses the greatest practical challenge to identifying an alternative to the direct provision system where residents might be allowed to live with greater dignity.
It should be acknowledged, however, that four years have passed since the working group report was published and there have been significant changes at home and abroad in this area in that time. In particular, one might mention the following in this regard: Brexit, Angela Merkel's unilateral acceptance of 800,000 migrants into Germany and the backlash that followed, the housing crisis in this country, the election of Mr. Trump in the USA, and the rise of right-wing politics in Austria, Hungary and other European countries in the east. The last time I looked, it was estimated that there were 68 million people forcibly displaced in the world and there is no indication that a limit has been reached on this yet. The landscape continues to change and the Irish response to asylum seekers who arrive on our shores in search of refuge and protection must also be continuously sensitive to all these geopolitical trends and developments.