Direct Provision: Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality

The committee is in public session. The committee is sitting today in its capacity as Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery that all mobile telephones must be switched off, as they interfere with the broadcasting system.

I am pleased to welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who has responsibility for new communities, culture and equality. I thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to be present today. I am sure members will be very interested to hear his views on the direct provision system and the progress of the report on direct provision.

Members agreed as part of the 2014 work programme that there was merit in conducting focused work that would address in a determined manner how the direct provision system worked, the extension of the remit of the Ombudsman to cover all aspects and bodies associated with the direct provision system and the extension of the remit of freedom of information legislation to cover all aspects and bodies associated with the direct provision system, including all the suppliers of goods and services whether from the private or public sector. The work of the joint committee commenced on 22 October 2014 with public hearings at which the joint committee invited the Irish Refugee Council, Anti-Deportation Ireland, Doras Luimní and SPIRASI to address members. It was subsequently agreed that members should visit four direct provision centres and, on 27 January 2015, a delegation visited the Great Western House direct provision centre in Galway city and the Mount Trenchard direct provision centre, County Limerick. On 10 February 2015, a delegation visited the Mosney direct provision centre in County Meath and, on 26 February 2015, we visited the Clondalkin Towers direct provision centre in Clondalkin, County Dublin.

The hearings with the Irish Refugee Council, Anti-Deportation Ireland, Doras Luimní and SPIRASI set the scene for members as to issues of concern. The visits to the four direct provision centres crystallised the issues in the minds of those who were part of the delegations. In terms of the report the joint committee will publish, the focus will be on the extension of the remit of the Ombudsman and the extension of the remit of freedom of information legislation to cover all aspects and bodies associated with the direct provision system. We wish to engage with the Minister of State responsible for this area. Given the Minister of State's work and initiatives, both policy and legislative, that are in train, it was agreed in the context of the committee's report that it would be important to have an exchange of views with the Minister of State responsible. In was in this context that an invitation was issued to the Minister of State, which he accepted. I am, however, aware that the chief executive officer of the Irish Refugee Council, Ms Sue Conlan, resigned from the working group on the asylum seekers issue. At the time the invitation issued, it would have been impossible to agree with the Minister of State that an unexpected, sudden resignation from the working group would be an agenda item. Accordingly, I am sure as a practising politician, the Minister of State will understand that, while I will keep the focus on extending the remit of the Ombudsman and on freedom of information legislation, I will allow members to put questions on breaking news, a position the Minister of State will understand, and will give him an opportunity to update the committee.

I invite the Minister of State to make his opening statement.

I thank the Chairman and members for inviting me to speak today on the direct provision system for accommodating applicants for international protection.

I have been to the forefront in seeking reform of this system and, to that end, I very much welcome the committee's interest in this matter. It is my wish that this engagement today helps, not hinders, the ongoing consultative process which I will explain in more detail in a few moments.

The direct provision system came about in the context of an unprecedented increase in the numbers of asylum seekers coming into the country in the late 1990s. At that time, the majority of protection seekers lived in Dublin and were treated as homeless, which involved emergency accommodation and local authority housing. The shortage of accommodation reached crisis point and the then Eastern Health Board understandably could not cope. There were reports of protection seeker families sleeping in parks. In November 1999, the Government resolved the crisis by having the needs of protection seekers met by a system of direct provision which involved the dispersal of protection seekers throughout the country.

It is 15 years later and more than 4,400 persons live in 34 asylum accommodation centres throughout the State, which is a reduction from 60 centres in 2008. That is a simple statistic. If one drills down further, one will see the human element involved. Of these residents, approximately one third are adult males, one third are adult females and one third are children. Drilling down further, 36% of residents have been in the overall system for up to three years, 43% for between three and seven years and 21% for seven years or more.

Everyone living in direct provision has his or her own story to tell. People may be at different stages of the protection determination process or may even have taken a legal challenge against a negative decision made in respect of them. Indeed, they may be at the end of the process but cannot move on. For example, more than 500 of the residents in the direct provision system have permission to remain in the State but cannot move on because of difficulties sourcing private accommodation. Almost 600 residents have deportation orders outstanding against them, the vast majority of which issued over a year ago. They are required to report periodically to the Garda National Immigration Bureau. There are many reasons orders are not or cannot be enforced, including the issuing of legal actions, the making of sequential protection applications for members within a family group, the absence of the travel documents required for the return to the country of origin and so on.

Members of the committee have visited centres to see for themselves the conditions in which residents live. I have done so too. I have visited a centre in Sligo, two in Waterford, two in Limerick, one each in Galway, Laois and Clare, three in Dublin and also Mosney. Members will have seen, as have I, that all residents share the common experience of a life revolving around waiting and hoping. Residents cannot cook for themselves, engage in work or otherwise gainfully occupy themselves during the day.

It has to be said that the direct provision system does not exist in a vacuum. It has to be seen in the context of the overarching international protection processing system of which direct provision is but one element, albeit a very important one to those who have to avail of its services. To make progress on direct provision, it is necessary to address both it and the protection system itself in a coherent, thought-out fashion. This is what the Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016 commits us to do.

In terms of processing, last week the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, published the general scheme of the international protection Bill, the aim of which is to reduce waiting times for asylum applicants. The key purpose of the Bill is to replace the existing multi-layered protection determination system with a single procedure, the aim of which is to enable timely and efficient protection decisions to be made. This single procedure will identify at a much earlier stage those who are in need of international protection and will be granted status and those who have no entitlement to stay in the State and who can safely return to their countries of origin. The single procedure has been requested for many years by many NGOs and others. The intention is for the Bill to deal with as many of those who are currently in the system as possible. A practical approach is envisaged with those who have reached a certain point in the existing process continuing along their current path while others at earlier stages of the process will be brought within the single procedure.

In addition to committing to legislative change in this area, the Government has set up an independent working group to report to it on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision and supports for asylum seekers. It is chaired by the former High Court judge, Dr. Bryan McMahon, and comprises senior officials from all relevant Departments, the UNHCR, representatives of academia and various NGOs who have a long-standing interest in this area and other representatives of civil society. The working group developed a work programme early on and established three subgroups to deal with the following themes. The first deals with conditions in centres, the second deals with supports for asylum seekers and the third deals with improving the processing of protection claims, essentially the long stay problem. Almost 40 meetings at plenary and subgroup level have taken place since the first meeting of the working group on 11 November 2014.

The working group has taken evidence directly from residents in the direct provision system both in writing and orally, visited centres around the country and spoken directly to residents. It has engaged with particular groups of applicants including children, victims of torture, victims of trafficking and sexual violence, members of the LGBTI community and has taken oral and written submissions from a number of experts in this field, including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. The chairman of the group has publicly stated that these contributions have informed the sense of urgency that has underpinned its work. He has gone on to say that all of its members are genuinely engaged in the task at hand, namely, to identify a set of recommendations to Government for improvements that will bring tangible benefits to existing and future applicants. The chairman says that the deliberations of the working group are at a crucial stage with each of the subgroups developing their proposals for submission to the plenary group over the next number of weeks. The Government recognises that the issues to be examined by the working group are complex and require thorough consideration to ensure that recommendations are practical and sustainable from a budgetary perspective and do not undermine existing border controls and immigration policies.

When I wrote to the committee on 21 October 2014, I said that I hoped to be in a position to brief members on the first stages of the working group's work. At that time, I anticipated that the working group would issue an interim report. However, as is the right of the independent group, it decided not to issue an interim report and proceeded with its work on the basis that it would issue a singular report. While the agreed terms of reference do not indicate a timeframe for the working group's deliberations, I understand that it will be only a matter of weeks after Easter when the report will be ready.

The working group published its work programme in November 2014 fleshing out the issues to be discussed by each of the three themed subgroups to which I referred earlier. I arranged for the work programme to be circulated to the committee before this meeting. From my own perspective, some of the key issues relate to the scope for residents to prepare their own meals within existing or new physical structures; limitations on the length of time persons spend in the direct provision system; financial supports; and improved processing times. It would be futile and damaging at this crucial stage of its proceedings to second guess the work of the group. We have to allow it to complete its work. I do not propose to engage in any detailed discussion on any of the issues in the work programme on which the working group may make recommendations. That is the group's job. I have every confidence in the capacity of the chairman and members of the working group to do their work.

This is a difficult subject. I have no doubt that there have been robust discussions within the working group. As practising politicians, we know that negotiations and discussions are sometimes hard and that there are varying shades among the membership of any group engaged in such discussions. We all recognise the importance of working together to achieve real, tangible change. I am firmly of the belief that more can be achieved within the working group than outside it. I know the committee will allow the process to continue and to give it a fair wind. As part of its deliberations, I had arranged for the working group to be provided with a transcript of the proceedings on this subject at this committee on 22 October 2014. Similarly, I will arrange for a transcript of today's proceedings to be provided also. I look forward to hearing the views of members on this matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his offer to send the transcript on to the working group. Our primary focus is on the issue of extending the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman and the Information Commissioner to the direct provision centre system. In doing that, we have had to examine the direct provision system itself. We are mindful that the working group has been tasked with that responsibility and we will respect its process and outcome. We hope we can assist the group in its work. While we may have recommendations for other sectoral committees in the Oireachtas, our primary focus is on the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman and the Information Commissioner. I will open the floor to members.

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus tréaslaím leis. Tá sé ráite leis cheana go bhfuil sé ag gniomhú ar an gceist seo agus aontaím go hiomlán leis go bhfuil sé fíor-thábhachtach gníomhú ar an gceist. We could discuss many issues relating to direct provision, but we-----

The Senator can ask three or four questions, but he should put one question at a time. Is that okay?

It is just to have a productive meeting.

I will focus on a number of issues. I have been on trips to some of the centres. Many issues were raised concerning the system's oversight, which was the initial reason for this meeting. The Ombudsman also raised issues. We have received interesting presentations. For example, Doras Luimní highlighted how social services had been alerted to more than 1,500 child protection or welfare concerns in the past five years relating to young people living in asylum centres. Authorities had been alerted to numerous cases of inappropriate sexual contact between adults and young children. Children are sharing bathrooms with unrelated adult men and women. Children and teenagers share bedrooms with their entire families. Children are often exposed to violent and sexual behaviour. Long stays can lead to poor mental health and psychological development issues. Living in confined spaces, a lack of fresh, nutritious food, no child benefit for asylum seeker children and witnessing and fearing deportations harm psychological development. The Minister of State is aware of the large number of issues involved, but it is important that we put them on the record as having been raised with us.

The sense that I get from most of the speeches on direct provision that I have heard from the Minister of State and his predecessor is that, if we sort out the length of time people stay in the system, the issues will be solved. After visiting the centres, I beg to differ. Does the Minister of State agree that direct provision is inappropriate as a system of housing people who are seeking asylum? The system is exacerbating people's difficulties, causing institutionalisation and creating a situation that is not healthy for the people living within it. Therefore, the system needs to be overhauled and rethought.

I have visited a number of centres. They vary in their standards. Some are excellent. Some are much less so. I could envisage staying in some, but there are some in which I would not spend a night. No matter what the standard of accommodation is, those who are seeking asylum do not want to live in direct provision centres.

I cannot stand over a system in which the issues that the Senator has outlined continue, that belittles people, in which people live hopeless, unproductive lives and where they stay for a number of years. I could stand over a system where there was a number of excellent centres in which people lived fulfilling lives and engaged in training, education and more, where they stayed for just a number of months, not years, and where the issues outlined by the Senator no longer existed. I cannot stand over a system in which the institutionalisation of families becomes a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly reality.

Initially, I was reluctant to engage with the committee on this issue because of the nature of the work that was being undertaken by the working group. In my personal opinion, we could have a system of direct provision that afforded people their dignity, but that would only be possible if people living in centres had excellent facilities and a meaningful existence, were rooted in the hearts of their communities with all of the essential links, had genuine family lives and their stays were short, by which I mean six months and no longer.

Based on that, does the Minister of State accept what the Ombudsman for Children and the Ombudsman are saying? Even if a stay were to last no longer than six months, such a system would need an independent oversight mechanism. It is unacceptable that there is no such mechanism in place currently.

That is the reason the issue is being discussed by the working group. It is also the reason that the group comprises people from the Children's Rights Alliance who have child protection expertise. I am sure that they are making their opinions robustly known and that the recommendations will be at the forefront of the report whenever it arrives on my desk.

The Minister of State alluded to something that is key to most of the issues, namely, signing up to the EU's reception directive. It is a fundamental principle, but the decision to sign up can only be taken by the Government. That decision will inform whatever legislation is to be introduced. My understanding is that only two EU countries have not signed up to the directive. It would give people the right to an education and work, issues that many asylum seekers raised with us. They sit around day after day and cannot access the workplace. As part of the new legislation, is it envisaged that the Government will sign up to the directive? It would put in place the rights for which many of those involved are asking and, hopefully, reduce the level of grievances.

Is the Senator asking whether the directive will form part of the protection Bill?

Yes. Many of the issues raised with us when we visited the centres related to how people must sit around in centres, cannot work and have no right to an education. A part of the reason given for this is that we have not signed up to the reception directive, which would give people those rights. Whenever this matter was raised in the Houses, we were told that the directive would be covered under the immigration, residence and protection, IRP, Bill. We do not have that Bill now, but the protection Bill. If we sign up to the reception directive as part of that, it should put in place rights for people after six months to work and have an education.

The Senator is right, in that the IRP Bill was wide, large legislation and had been going around the Houses for a number of years. It made sense for the Minister to remove from that Bill the protection Bill, the general scheme of which has only just been published. The intention is for the latter to undergo the pre-legislative stage before a committee. It is within that process that Members can make their opinions on the EU directive known. The working group will also have opinions in that regard. I am not trying to be evasive, but I am minded of the fact that we established a working group that people were determined to keep independent. It is for a deliberate reason that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and I have not been involved in the group, namely, we did not want a perception of political overtones in or unwarranted political influence over its work. We wanted to ensure that people could make their comments or representations or do their work without involvement from or interference by practising politicians.

I expect that the members of the working group have made the Senator's points. I expect that those issues will be to the forefront of their minds as they compile their final report, which is due a number of weeks after Easter. I also expect that members of the justice committee will make the same recommendations during the pre-legislative stage of the protection Bill.

Is the Minister of State concerned that one of the key stakeholders in the working group resigned last week because it was not allowed to comment on the heads of the Bill? The group requested that the heads and the legislation's extent be discussed. The stakeholder stated that issues like the reception directive, which should be taken on board during the Bill's development, were not discussed. Therefore, and with great regret, Ms Sue Conlan on behalf of the Irish Refugee Council, IRC, withdrew from the working group, which was a major move. There is a sense that the group is being used as cover to avoid going into some of the details. Given what we have heard from the likes of Ms Conlan, however, those issues were not discussed prior to her reservation. She felt that she had no other option but to resign. To remain would have been construed as agreement with what was happening.

The IRC and Ms Conlan can speak for themselves.

That is what Ms Conlan said.

I can only speak from my perception of how the group is working. As I have outlined in my statement, I firmly believe that, if one wants to get solutions, the best place to be is in a room with people who are determined to find them.

I am committed to finding a way forward and want to turn the page on the current system. Many people in the Houses of the Oireachtas have raised deep concerns about the system. From the first moments I walked into this House people from all parties have raised concerns about the process and direct provision, in particular. We have had quite a number of robust exchanges in the Seanad on the matter. It is to the credit of Seanad Éireann, in particular, for taking on the issue. It has raised issues and concerns about direct provision with me for quite a while.

I know that the place for improvements and changes in the system is within the working group. I know that the people in the subgroups have remained with the process and are determined to be part of something that will deliver real change. This is a once in a generation opportunity, after 15 years of overseeing the system, to deliver something that will lead to change. My decision to not be involved with the group in a hands-on manner was deliberate. I trust the people engaged in the process and know them to be people of integrity, both within the Department and the various NGOs.

We have talked about direct provision for a number of years. For many of the people involved this has been a 15-year campaign. My involvement has been shorter and dates from my appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality. We are so close to getting a report that will deliver change that I am willing to wait until I see it. I believe the chairman and members of the group will be proud of their work and that we will, collectively, be proud of the report when published. I have anticipated the recommendations and am sure that we will collectively look back on this period saying it was a job well done.

I shall allow the Senator to ask a final question now because other members have indicated a wish to comment.

It is important to put on record that Ms Sue Conlan has spoken for herself. In her letter of resignation she said:

The decision not to allow the Working Group, which contains experts on international protection law as well as lay people, to have sight of and indeed comment upon the Heads of the Bill is regrettable. In addition, the intransigence from officials from the Department of Justice in attempting to reach a compromise over people in the system for more than five years, makes it impossible to reach agreement for a process that will give people in Direct Provision the relief that they need. The draft report from the group which has been looking at living conditions, despite it being a report from the sub-group, from the perspective of the IRC, reads too much like a document of the Reception and Integration Agency.

I do not necessarily want to comment on her letter but it is important to put it on the record.

Private contractors represent another huge issue. Some of the figures put on record here, by Doras Luimní in particular, are of huge concern. It has claimed that Ireland has paid over €850 million to private contractors for accommodating asylum seekers since 2002 while €62 million was paid in 2012 and €55 million was paid in 2013. It was highlighted that many of these private contractors have been involved in property development, etc. previously. Also, some of them have offshore accounts and have beneficial owners in offshore jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands and the Isle of Man.

There is huge concern over the actual set up of direct provision. There is also no legislative framework and seems to be an ad hoc system. Perhaps the Minister of State can tell us a bit more in terms of the following. How are these companies contracted? Are they publicly tendered? If so, where are the tenders advertised? How often are they advertised? How often are the contracts renewed? What is the criteria for renewal of contracts, etc? An oversight of between €53 million and €55 million a year of Government spending is a huge area of concern. Is such expenditure audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, etc? That is an area of huge concern in terms of the moneys involved as well as the private nature of the contracts, etc.

I shall ask Mr. Noel Dowling to relay the factual position, from the Department's point of view, and shall give my own personal perspective afterwards.

Mr. Noel Dowling

In terms of the contracting of private entities to provide Government services, it is not that unusual. Not all services provided, on behalf of the State, are provided by State officials.

In regard to the issue of certain companies being registered overseas and so forth, it is important to point out that it is a condition of the contract that any company, that is contracted to RIA, provides a tax clearance certificate every year. That means every single company that is engaged by RIA must be in good standing with the Revenue Commissioners.

A lot of these centres were established quite a number of years ago and we have not opened up new ones in recent years. In fact, we currently have 34 centres but at the end of 2008 we had 60 centres which means the number has almost halved over the period. It is not an expanding business in that sense. By definition, because they are places where people live, there is a tendency to keep centres as they are. We have had quite a number of difficulties and have had to close centres. As a few of the members will be aware, the last major centre that we closed a number of years ago was in Galway. It caused quite a deal of friction and difficulties because people had to be moved. As a result, there is a disposition to stick with the status quo.

Contracts are negotiated and a negotiated procedure is provided for in EU law. The Minister of State has made clear during several debates, and in response to parliamentary questions tabled about the matter, what will happen once this working group reports. Several things happened which disallowed us from going for a full tender process, one of which was a significant number of court cases. Last November we had a judgment on the CA and TA case which lasted quite a long period. In fact, it was the third case and the previous two cases had been withdrawn by the applicants. The court case lasted for six weeks and a judgment was issued in November 2014. It has not finished yet and is possibly still in play. The judgment challenged the entire direct provision system. It means there is no way in the wide world we could go tendering for something that we did not-----

Was there an initial tender process?

Mr. Noel Dowling

An invitation for expressions of interest was published in the newspapers.

Was that done at the beginning?

Mr. Noel Dowling

It was done up to 2010 or 2011, I am not quite sure in which year. A number of things came into play as a result. They were the court cases, the value for money report and, currently, a working group. Once the working group is completed there will have to be a tender process.

Our procurement offices in the Department, the Office of the Attorney General and so forth are well aware of the procedures that we follow. A fundamental difficulty with this matter is that we are not tendering for glasses, tables or microphones but for places where people can live and who are already in situ. They have linked into the local community, attend local schools and have established various social networks in the area. These issues must factor in a tender process. For example, 600 people live in Mosney. We could go for a tender process for the place and one may be able to get three centres to house 200 each but some distance away. Is it possible to close down a centre like Mosney and simply provide living accommodation in places that may be some distance away?

Is the Department not obliged, under EU law, to tender? Are the rules against that type of thing?

Mr. Noel Dowling

Our intention is to go for a tendering process. We have had initial legal discussions on how to do so. I must keep making the point that it is not a tender for a straightforward good. Account must be taken of the fact that people are in situ and that they have established links in various communities, particularly in regard to education and health. As the Minister of State has said, in response to various parliamentary queries on the matter, there will be a tender process as a result of all of this. Even as things stand, we are not 100% sure as to what we will tender for. The working group may come up with recommendations which, in turn, have to be decided upon by Government. That may change the very nature of the requirements that we would approach the market for.

With all due respect, up to now every time we have visited a centre we have been told that RIA provides accommodation and food and is not responsible for providing other services. Since the system began the Department has known what it had to contract for.

Mr. Noel Dowling

That is entirely true but where one lives decides the linkages that one has, where one's children go to school, which doctor one sees and which social connections one makes, so that is-----

There is a division in the Dáil. There are three Government and three Opposition Members present. We have an option here to continue, as we are paired off. Do the members agree to that or do they wish to go and vote? I am happy to stay. Is it agreed that we continue? Agreed.

I agree with Senator Ó Clochartaigh that, if one is a victim of rape, sexual violence or torture, one needs to have care that is better than can be provided by somebody who is running a dry cleaning company.

Is Mr. Dowling saying that, with regard to the European tendering process, there is no legal barrier-----

Mr. Noel Dowling

We do not believe so.

The RIA is operating legally.

Mr. Noel Dowling

The point I am trying to make is that a commitment has been given by the Minister of State already that, once the intentions of Government are clear, we can go for a tendering procedure. Any tendering procedure will have to take into account the fact that we are talking about established communities. It has to be factored in in some fashion or other.

Is it overseen by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform or the Committee of Public Accounts?

Mr. Noel Dowling

The Committee of Public Accounts has oversight of all expenditure incurred.

Has it ever been investigated by the Committee of Public Accounts?

Mr. Noel Dowling

The Senator should bear in mind that the direct provision system was investigated in detail by the Department of Finance and by various others in the "Value for Money" report in 2010. That was an indepth examination of the process involved and there have been various parliamentary questions and so forth in relation to this issue.

Does DPER have oversight of it?

Mr. Noel Dowling

DPER has oversight of all expenditure.

Does it do regular checks of the expenditure, the tendering process, the contracting etc.?

Mr. Noel Dowling

There is an internal procurement unit which links in with the DPER at all times.

Is that within the Department of Justice and Equality?

Mr. Noel Dowling

Yes, it is within the Department of Justice and Equality. It is not a standard tendering process. It cannot be. There is a commitment by the Minister to go for whatever form of tendering is appropriate when we have finalised what exactly it is we will be tendering for.

Is it Mr. Dowling's understanding that in terms of the legal framework, there is flexibility to factor in the issues that he has raised?

Mr. Noel Dowling

Yes. That is our initial legal advice on the matter.

I will not delay matters because I was not one of those who managed to get to the visits. I have been to a number of reception centres over the years for different reasons, representations and so forth. Visits were sometimes welcomed by the management and other times management were not happy with people visiting, especially public representatives, even if it was nothing to do with the conditions in the centre itself which were a problem in the past.

I note some figures from Deputy Ó Ríordáin's presentation. The first is that 21% of people have been in the system for seven years or more; there are 500 people who are, in fact, out of the direct provision system but still effectively in it; and there are another 600 who have deportation orders. That is the equivalent of a quarter of all of those who are in the system. I understand the question around the 600. There are quite a number of people who will oppose their deportation order. The fact that 500 people who have succeeded in getting the right to remain in Ireland cannot move beyond a direct provision centre beggars belief. In some ways direct provision is subsidising what the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government or the Department of Social Protection should be looking at because they are in centres and are being provided with food and accommodation. Some of these centres are quite cramped. If 500 people were taken out of the system they no longer have to be paid for but it might allow for greater space in some of these centres if they are still attended. What can happen there?

Does the Chairman want me to ask one question at a time?

Yes, one question at a time.

I will come back with a second question.

I will give my initial response to that. I do not know if Mr. Dowling or Mr. Kelly want to come in on that. On the people who are still in direct provision when they do not have to be there, I think there is a challenge for us in the future to find a step-down facility or a halfway situation because I think it would be unreasonable to expect somebody to go from a long period of living in a direct provision centre to trying to access essential services such as housing or social protection and not to have some kind of halfway situation. I do not know what that would look like but certainly the figures would suggest that people are finding it difficult to transition from direct provision into community living or independent living and it is their own decision to stay within direct provision. Certainly it is a challenge for us to find a resolution to that. I assume in the most recent past that the housing issue generally in the country was part of the problem. Does Mr. Dowling want to provide more context to that?

Mr. Noel Dowling

It is a relatively new phenomenon in the sense that in the past it was not quite as acute as it is now. The fundamental difficulty is getting affordable housing where people want to live. The rent supplement differs depending on the area where one wants to get a house. It is an issue that is being looked at in the context of the working group and the issue of transitioning from direct provision. I really cannot go any further than that but there is a big problem facing not only former asylum seekers leaving direct provision but also the State in terms of the supply of affordable housing.

The other issue is that if one has been in a centre for a number of years, if one's children attend the local school, if there is some kind of community linkage, or if one is doing some voluntary work in the community, then one probably wants to stay close to that general community in the short term. That can also be a factor in people staying in the centre beyond the period when they have to stay.

I understand that. Part of the reason people who are in direct provision want to stay in direct provision is the length of time they have been in it. If that issue is addressed it will not be a problem in the future because most people will want to move on and try to access housing closer to schools and services. If one is in Mosney one might not want to stay there for the rest of one's life; one might want to move closer to Drogheda or Balbriggan, for example. If there is no alternative one will try to keep a roof over one's head. I find it odd that there are people who are in direct provision who are in receipt of €19 yet there are now 500 people who theoretically could be working or at least receiving some type of State benefit beyond the €19 and they will be in the system and that will cause its own tensions. I am not saying there is a solution. Hopefully the working group will address that.

Mr. Dowling has mentioned that he hopes that the working group under Brian McMahon will report after Easter 2015 and I wish it luck in that. Will Mr. Dowling publish that report as quickly as possible and also indicate what the short-term, medium-term, and long-term issues are because some of the issues that have been highlighted to us over the years and from the reports from the committee members who attended can be addressed quite quickly as they are minor changes to policy?

Other aspects are long term, including housing, which is out of the Minister of State's hands. We need to see action very quickly so that, after the Minister of State receives the report, he will address elements within three months or six months. Otherwise, it will be another report stacked on a shelf, which is how some people view these reports.

There has been a level of heightened expectation because the work of the working group has been ongoing and there have been a number of visits to different centres. Members are aware of the centres and I have also been visiting centres. There will be a report to Government and the Government will decide to publish or not. It is my expectation that it will be published and it should be published. I agree with the Deputy there will likely be short-term and immediate fixes that could be introduced immediately and others are longer-term aspects. The report is the beginning rather than the end of the process.

One of the reports mentions the longest person in the direct provision system, who has been there 11 years. Others may be in the system for longer, although out of direct provision. Some 21% have been there over seven years. With or without the report, is that trend increasing or decreasing?

Is the Deputy referring to the average stay?

That number is concerning.

Mr. Noel Dowling

On a broad statistical point, the number in direct provision has been going down for a number of years but the proportion staying longer has gone up. There is a hard core of people whose situation is very difficult to resolve. Many of them may be involved in judicial review, which can take a long period of time to resolve. While the numbers are decreasing, the proportion of people who have been there for a long period is staying. Factors that produce that length of time are still there and, to a large extent, it is connected to deportation orders not effected and judicial review. The general point made by the Minister of State is that the working group under theme three is looking at the issue of long-stay people. That is an important point to note.

I pay tribute to Anti-Deportation Ireland, the Anti Racist Network and other groups that have spoken out on behalf of people in direct provision or, most important, the people in direct provision whose campaigning and protests brought this issue to the fore. I remind the Minister of State that he and I travelled to a big protest in Genoa in 2001 for the G8 meeting. One of the big slogans at marches attended by hundreds of thousands of people was that no human being is illegal. I think the Minister of State chanted that slogan along with the rest of us. The sentiment driving it is that all human beings deserve human rights and deserve to be treated with equality, dignity and decency. The notion of human beings being illegal and consequently treated in a different fashion from other human beings is abhorrent.

The context of our discussion is a scandal and another shameful incident in Irish history, where a group of people have been denied the most basic dignity and human rights for a prolonged period of time in a way that requires immediate remedy. We owe these people for the wrong done to them over the past 11 years. This should not be a change of policy but we owe them an apology and remedy for what they have been put through in the centres. That is the context of my questions.

The Minister of State has put a lot of emphasis on the working group and it is very alarming that some of the concerns of people who have campaigned on this issue, including the asylum seekers and the people concerned, expressed about the working group before it was set up now appear to have been realised by the decision of the Irish Refugee Council to come off the working group. That is very disturbing and raises serious questions about the credibility of the working group. I want to know what the Minister of State thinks about this. Some of the concerns were expressed by campaigning groups before it was set up and the Minister of State has placed emphasis on the working group's recommendations and independence but now a credible player, the Irish Refugee Council, has resigned from it. Does that worry the Minister of State?

Is that the Deputy's first question?

It certainly worries me and places question marks over the process.

I remember travelling to Genoa in 2001. I remember the people I travelled over with and I remember not travelling back with them. I involved myself in a few protests and then joined Oxfam in not protesting on the second day because of the type of activity some people were engaging in at the time. I remember getting tear gas for my troubles but that is a trip down memory lane.

That was by the Italian police.

On the working group, people are in politics if they want to achieve things. If they believe something is wrong and must be remedied, fixed or reformed, the job is to find some way to do it. People in the working group have been working incredibly hard and have been campaigning on the issue for quite some time, as have politicians in the House. I give credit to some sections of the media. We can be critical of them in the political system but I have great respect for a number of campaigning journalists. They have given the human dimension and stories behind the reality of direct provision. How do we come to a conclusion? What is the best way of advancing the cause of those within direct provision sectors who want a life? The determination of Government was to assemble a group of people who are experts in the field. We could have been accused of having a working group made up of people who have a particular perspective but we invited people who know the system inside out from the advocacy point of view and asked them to play their part in finding a solution. This involves people who are campaigners on the asylum system, the protection system, campaigners for children, academics, people with a trade union background and those with a history of finding solutions to real problems. I want conclusion brought to their deliberations but nothing is ever simple in life. I wish it were so. In trying to find a solution, we must find something that will last and work. We have inherited something I cannot stand over and I have made my language as clear and forthright as I can. I am quite sure people in the Department of Justice and Equality do not like me saying things with such forthright language because it is a system they have been trying to deal with over a period of time.

What is more important than my position or the positions of those on the working group, is what will happen when that report is published and how it will affect the lives of people in the system. I go to these centres and see the children there, and I consider their lives and futures. I meet people, the same age as myself, who have literally been broken by the system. I met a man in Limerick who was in a bad way when he got here, but the system we have has compounded his misery.

I see children who do not have the basic family-based type of modelling for food preparation that every other child takes for granted. It is very much a human reaction to a system. It is not a black and white report. We are dealing with human beings and their aspirations and dreams, which we have in our hands. So what do we do with that? We are charged with that awesome responsibility. The best thing to do is to get in with like-minded people who are charged with looking after the system, to try to find a better one.

The Deputy may have already rejected what the working group is doing. He may have already rejected what the report says, even before he sees it, but I will not do so because I trust the people who are doing the work.

I do not reject it, because I have not seen it. My question was whether it concerned the Minister of State that a credible player like the Irish Refugee Council has withdrawn from the working group on the basis already alluded to by Senator Ó Clochartaigh. To my mind, that raises serious questions about what is going on in the working group. I have no doubt that there are other decent and credible people there, but there is something wrong if the Irish Refugee Council pulls out of it.

In advance of all this, concerns were raised by the asylum seekers themselves, their representative groups and others who advocate on their behalf, that the whole thing could just be a rubber-stamping of administrative changes that the Department had already decided upon. That is worrying. Everything the Minister of State says about the wrongs that have been done just echo what I am saying. However, is the credibility of the process we are setting up called into question by a credible player like the Irish Refugee Council pulling out? The Minister of State has replied, but he has not really answered the question.

The Deputy can put his question again.

I also asked about another matter. Ultimately, these decisions come back to the Minister of State. I take the point about bringing like-minded people together, which is fair enough. We need to do that urgently because we are 15 years too late, but then it comes back to the Minister of State. Some details are up for discussion about how exactly we do the right thing and that there may be some difficulties in doing so. Other things, however, are not up for discussion. First, we have wronged all the people who have gone though the system if, as the Minister of State rightly says, we cannot stand over it.

It is shameful what has been done to children and shameful that people have had that many years of their lives robbed from them. It is also shameful, for example, that victims of sex trafficking are put into direct provision centres in completely inappropriate circumstances. It is shameful that children do not have money to buy school books. It is also shameful that they do not have access to proper health care due to prescription charges and lack of money.

Is it part of the remit to make as much recompense as we can to the people we have wronged? Will the Minister of State say that that will be done? We owe those people in the same way as we owe those who were in the Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes. These are absolute racing certainties, otherwise we are not doing what needs to be done. We are not doing right by these people and it comes back to the Minister of State.

Is the Minister of State worried about the Irish Refugee Council pulling out of the working group? Can he say anything about what will happen, one way or the other, regardless of the deliberations of this group? They have to happen because they are the right things to do.

The Deputy asked two straight questions. The Irish Refugee Council can speak for itself, but the best place to be is making these points within the working group. That is my answer to the Deputy's first question.

Second, I want this working group to succeed. From its very beginning most people were willing to give the group a fair wind. A minority were willing it to fail and tried to find reasons to pick holes in it. Hand on heart, however, I am impressed by the composition of the working group, the issues it is addressing and the way it has set about its work. The number of meetings it has had, including the establishment of various sub-groups, are also impressive.

If the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and I had been attending every single meeting of the working group, we would be accused of political interference. In addition, people would say the group was not independent and its members could not speak openly. However, the working group has rightly gone out of its way to hear as many testimonies of the realities of living in direct provision as it possibly could.

We have a short time in politics and my time in this Department will most likely be short as well, with possibly a year to go. In that time, more than anything, I want to achieve reform in this area. I know that the working group will deliver that. The Deputy may not have the same faith as I do, but I have it. I trust that when the report comes out, and hopefully the Government will agree to publish it - I expect so - it will be the beginning of a whole new start for people in the protection system. Their faith in the working group will have been justified.

I applaud the Minister of State's faith. However, faith is one thing but there should be a determination to achieve certain results which I do not think are open for discussion. That is the point I am making. Some things are open for discussion, but others are not. I do not see how we can justify the system the Minister of State has inherited. In fact, he has clearly said we cannot justify it and that something must be done about it. I have not heard anybody put forward a credible argument in this regard, however. I know what the Minister of State thinks and what he has expressed in the past.

People in the system deserve the right to work. The working group could legitimately examine how that could be made to happen. The Minister of State and his Government colleagues have to say that the end game, which will happen soon, is that asylum seekers will be allowed to work. It is unacceptable, wrong, inhuman and degrading that they should be incarcerated for any substantial length of time in a situation where they are denied that basic right.

What is the bottom line? What are the red lines that are not negotiable? It is the Minister of State's job to set them out. How long do people have to be in the system before they are allowed to work? We could debate that straight away, but the Minister of State might have an argument for doing so in six months. There have to be certain bottom lines. Children should not be put in situations where they could have inappropriate sexual contact. Families must have proper cooking facilities, also. These things should be clearly set out.

I have a suggestion for everybody present. I am mindful that the Minister of State agreed to come here before the working group reports. He said he would have preferred to come before us afterwards in order to have a more constructive debate on the outcome.

I very much appreciate the fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has come today to allow us to get on with our report. We will publish our own report in the near future and so will the working group. Our hope is to complement the working group and to feed into its process. I suggest that perhaps later this year, possibly in six months time, it might be prudent to invite the Minister of State back to discuss at that remove the outcome of the working group, our recommendations, what has happened since and where we go next. That might be helpful. I share the frustration of Deputy Boyd Barrett. As Chairman of the committee I have visited the direct provision centres, as has the Minister of State, and all members present. I also understand the limitations on the Minister of State. Having already outlined his strong views on the matter, he does not want to be seen to direct the work of the working group but it might be helpful if we agree that in six months time the Minister of State could come before us again to recap on where we are at.

I shall respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett and you, Chairman. I have two brief points. First, the assumption that some things are off limits to the working group is incorrect. There are no limits to what can be discussed by it. The right to work is being openly discussed. I believe we are practically the only country in the European Union to have a limitation on allowing refugee applicants to work. My views on the matter remain the same. Assumptions have been made about the working group which do not stand up to scrutiny.

I welcome your suggestion, Chairman. Every political system across Europe has been strangled with immigration. We in this Parliament are spending time in the Seanad and in the Dáil responding to oral questions and written parliamentary questions on trying to improve the situation for people who come to this country seeking protection. That is a credit to these Houses and to the committee and other committees that wish to debate the issue. I agree with your suggestion, Chairman.

I thank the Minister. We shall book a date in the autumn session on which to revisit these issues when we have had a chance to look at the recommendations of the various reports.

I, too, welcome the fact that we are having this discussion. I give credit to the Minister of State for at least enunciating the need to radically change the situation but I give most credit to the people in the asylum process who fought on the issue and demanded justice. However, before we throw bouquets at ourselves for the fact that we are discussing it, we must deliver. I hope we all agree on that.

I am pleased to hear the right to work is being openly discussed. However, I do not think there is much to discuss except that must be allowed to happen. Is an amnesty being discussed for those who have been incarcerated in a system that the Minister of State and everyone else have acknowledged is wrong?

Again, the Deputy is pre-empting the report.

I am only asking whether it is being discussed.

There are no limits to anything anybody wants to discuss. The Deputy can list 47 different things he wants to know are being discussed.

That is a pretty big one.

To my knowledge, all issues are being discussed. Nothing is off limits, but I have not been at a working group meeting. I am allowing the group to have the independence it sought. The group is an independent working group outside of political interference. I know the members are discussing all the issues the people in this room, those outside it and those who are in direct provision centres feel passionately about.

Given that the transcript has been passed on to it, I hope the group will seriously consider an amnesty as a minimum remedy for the wrong done to people. The other issue on which we have touched that is unacceptable is the veil of secrecy and lack of transparency and oversight in terms of what has been going on in direct provision centres, which have been excluded from the normal inspection and oversight process. That is shocking. We were all shocked by what was revealed in the clerk's report, when representatives from the centres came in and talked about the number of people who died in direct provision. We do not know the full circumstances of those cases as there was no proper oversight. It is shocking stuff. There must be an absolute commitment that the situation will be fully remedied. I accept there can be discussion of how we do that but there should be no doubt that it is going to be done and that the Minister of State is determined it will happen.

I am conscious that the transcript of today's meeting will be sent on to the working group and that it will have a chance to listen to the perspectives expressed. Understandably, there is public disquiet and concern about the resignation of Sue Conlan, but I also wish to send the clear message to the working group that we wish it well. We will wait with anticipation for the outcome and reserve our deliberations until the process is brought to a conclusion.

I do not have many questions because the Minister of State has indicated on many occasions that he cannot answer questions on the working group. We are not talking about our immigration system, we are talking about our protection system. Our protection system is extremely important. It is an international commitment by the country to look after those who by reason of persecution on the grounds of race, nationality or political opinion are fleeing their country and seek sanctuary. That is something on which one would not get an international convention today if one tried to do it. One would never get countries to agree to a system where they have an obligation to take people in. We must cherish the fact that we have it and that it is up and running. The protection system has been supplemented by European law on subsidiary protection on the right not be sent back to a place where one can be harmed.

Since day one in this House I have been extremely critical of the system of direct provision. It is something of which I have personal knowledge from very early in my political career from doing constituency work and clinic work with President Michael D. Higgins, then Deputy Higgins. We met people day in and day out who were in the immigration system. We were in Lisbrook House, which was closed two years ago. We met asylum seekers and saw them over a period of years. We saw them change and lose something inside themselves.

I was banging my head, as were many other Deputies and Senators, for three to four years waiting for something to happen. For all the good words we got from the previous Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, nothing came out of it. We were constantly told that the immigration Bill was due in six months time but when one asked again six months later we were told it would appear in a further six months time, yet nothing ever emerged. It was rare for the impression to be given that there was any desire to change the direct provision system. That changed dramatically when the Government set out its mid-term priorities. As I understand it, the Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, negotiated that it would be a Government priority to address the direct provision system. In the interim we have seen the protection Bill come into being and a working group was set up by the Minister of State. That is something about which we can be extremely positive. I, for one, am delighted something has happened.

Some members of the eminent group of people on the working group are no fans of the Government or the political parties. They are very critical of the current system and want to change it. I regret that Sue Conlan resigned from the group. She gave her reasons. The Irish Refugee Council, IRC, is perfectly entitled to take such a position but I would not like to see it as a reflection on the group itself because a lot of independent, good-minded people are still on it and by their continued participation on it, they take a different view as to how best to bring about change. That should also be put on record.

The recommendations of the independent group will be brought to the Minister of State. I acknowledge and respect the fact that he said he would come back to the committee to discuss it. Many of us who have been very vocal on this issue are holding our fire while waiting to see what comes out of it. When the Minister of State comes back to the committee I would like that we would not just discuss the report but also the supplementary issue of how the recommendations will be implemented. There must be an action plan, timetable, timescales and funding models. There is no point in getting all of this traction and finally getting something going to get a report that sits on a shelf. The report must be implemented. I will challenge the Minister of State in that regard because that is what I want to see happen.

The overarching question is that of "when" with respect to people in the system. As the Deputy has quite rightly said, we do not want a report, with recommended actions and Government support, but no timeline for those actions to be taken. It is not my decision as to whether the report will be published but I assume it will. On receipt of the report we can collectively ensure that whatever actions are recommended can be seen to be enacted. The people in the centres and the system deserve and need that. They need us. People often correctly diminish politics in many circumstances but we are genuinely charged with the responsibility of looking after the interests of possibly the most vulnerable people in our country. If a report comes in that again heightens expectations and people finally believe - after years and possibly a decade or more of being in the system - that there is finally a breakthrough, the last thing they want is a report that is put on the long finger or not implemented as a matter of urgency.

I accept the invitation to return if we can view it as a collective effort, across parties and non-partisan, to put our efforts behind ensuring that recommendations can be driven forward if they are accepted by the committee. We have seen that done in the Seanad before.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh has indicated that he wishes to make an additional point but I will make some comments before that. Our committee visited four direct provision centres and I am pleased we have done so. There are issues of commonality between those who run and manage the centres and the asylum seekers. It is universally agreed that the length of time for people remaining there is unacceptable. These places were originally designed for stays of six months. Without getting into detail and saying whether some centres were good and others were bad, I will speak to the overall system. Citizens might be content to stay in some centres for six months but there are many where they would not be content to stay. It is entirely unacceptable for people to be there for anything up to 14 years in any centre. That is a universal argument from the people who run the centres, asylum seekers and anybody else involved with the process.

The issue of prescription charges is also important. The cost is €19 per week and prescription charges must also be paid, so that must be addressed. There is also an issue regarding kitchen facilities. One of the dynamics any parent has with a child is teaching them about cooking and cleaning; it is a social exchange of parenting from one generation to another. The people in these centres come from a multitude of countries and cultures, with wonderful and rich ethnic aspects of food etc. Food is at the centre of so many cultures and there should be an ability to have a place where people can pass on to children those cooking skills and enjoy the process. The people who run the centres and asylum seekers stressed this as a common point.

I could be here for hours outlining my points. There is also the issue of somebody having leave to remain but there being no housing available. That is not unique to people in the direct provision system and it is true across Irish society. The centres will continue to seek asylum seekers and house them until they can get housing. If these people have leave to remain and the rights of every other citizen, should they continue to just have €19 per week? Do they have the right to a job and education? Should they get the full social welfare payment and work out some arrangement with respect to food and upkeep? Is there flexibility in this regard? These are just some themes and I know the Minister of State knows the issues as well as I do. I could go on but some of these matters stand out as something that could be addressed.

The issues raised are at the forefront of the matters engaged by the working group. I may be giving a similar answer about not impeding the work or being seen to interfere too much. The Chairman mentioned parenting and modelling food preparation. That can sometimes be overlooked as a minor issue but it is not as we are talking about people's childhood. Some people in 50 or 60 years will be saying that they spent their formative years in a direct provision centre. That is strong in my mind in dealing with the issue.

Some staff in these centres work really hard and care passionately about people under their care. They make the same comments to me, the others present today and people in the system. Every day, they see the humanity and family life with which they engage. A child playing with a kitchen may not know what it feels like to pour something and may not know how to ask for juice because they are not used to that model of parenting. It has a long-lasting effect when we consider the responsibility that we have to try to change this system. All these issues arise from a sense of care and what family life, human life and connectedness should be like.

Deputy Nolan's point is important as asylum is a sacred international status. It is something that is very serious and important. We are mindful of that but life is short, and childhood is particularly short. When we composed the working group and gave out invitations, we wanted to have people with a child focus and understanding at the heart of deliberations. I know that is the case so I look forward to the report being published and discussed here further.

This is very relevant and it goes back to where the debate started, with the Ombudsman, the Ombudsman for Children and discussions of oversight. There has been much discussion about the working group and proposals. Everybody agrees there will be some form of change and a different system but currently we have a particular system and the transition will take a while. Both of the ombudsmen are clear that they want oversight of the current system. All the people we spoke to in the system have said exactly the same to us and it is within the remit of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, who is directly responsible to this committee. Does the Minister of State agree there is absolutely no reason the ombudsman legislation could not be amended and extended to allow this remit? That would allow a free, independent and impartial complaints system for those people who will be in the system today and tomorrow. The ombudsmen want it now and it is important that we do it.

As the working group is so close to its final determination, it is realistic to wait until it has concluded. Both the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children have been in touch with the Chairman and had robust discussions. The Chairman is clear about their opinions on the matters, as I am. We will await the report.

This committee has already stated that we support the request of the ombudsmen and the Commissioner to have their jurisdiction extended. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the meeting, as it has been a really helpful exchange. We thank the Minister of State and his officials for their time.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.50 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Wednesday, 15 April 2015.