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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 22 Oct 2014

Vol. 235 No. 2

Immigration (Reform) (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill 2014: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The great Middle English poem, "The Owl and the Nightingale", contains a section in which the owl is impugned for her untidy nest, bad behaviour and disgusting manners. The owl replies majestically by saying that whatever about this, it is nailed to the barn door of the crucifixion to warn off the other birds. That is, and has traditionally been, the attitude of the Government - to nail the asylum seekers to the door of the barn to frighten off any presumed inflow of asylum seekers.

I thank David McCarthy and Dr. Liam Thornton of University College Dublin and NASC, National Immigrant Support Centre, which is issuing a statement in support of this Bill.

The Bill seeks to draw a line under applications for refugee status, subsidiary protection and-or leave to remain where there has been no ultimate determination of these claims within four years. Systems and processes in place for determining what status an individual should be entitled to, if any, have not been fit for purpose. I can offer an example, a court case in January 2014 dealt with by the distinguished former High Court judge, Ms Justice Maureen Harding Clark. This decision from the High Court in A.A.M.O (Sudan) v. Refugee Appeals Tribunal involved a Sudanese national, Mr. A. A., who had applied for asylum in Ireland in 2009. This was refused by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner. Mr. A. A. appealed the decision to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, RAT, but the Refugee Appeals Tribunal refused to recognise Mr. A. A. as a refugee. He then had to go to the High Court.

In opening her decision, Ms Justice Harding Clark stated: "Sometimes the court is called upon to review a decision which is so unfair and irrational and contains so many errors that judicial review seems an inadequate remedy to redress the wrong perpetrated on an applicant. This is such a case." She noted, in significant detail, the poor decision of the RAT member. At paragraph 22, Ms Justice Harding Clark stated the nature of the errors with the RAT's decision infected the legality, fairness and constitutionality of the decision. Her astonishing assessment of the behaviour of the RAT member occurs in paragraph 23 where she stated that the sole reason for the RAT rejecting the asylum claim is that the tribunal member simply did not like the applicant. The decision was sent back to the RAT, which again refused Mr. A. A. refugee status in the face of clear evidence that Mr. A. A. fell squarely into the limited definition of what is a refugee. Only on a third hearing of the RAT did Mr. A. A. gain refugee status in this country.

The Bill also seeks to deal with people who have had a deportation order issued against them but it has not been effected, leaving them in a type of limbo. The Government's stated position is quite reasonable, but action is non-existent. The statement of Government's priorities for 2014 to 2016 states: "While ensuring continued rigorous control of our borders and immigration procedures, we will treat asylum seekers with the humanity and respect they deserve. We are committed to addressing the current system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers to make it more respectful to the applicant and less costly to the taxpayer." Let us see the colour of the Government's money. Nothing has happened.

In late July, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, stated the direct provision system required radical reform. He said as much a couple of weeks ago in this House when my colleague, Senator Rónán Mullen, raised this issue. The Roman Catholic Church, in the person of the Bishop of Elphin, Dr. Kevin Doran, speaking at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Sligo, said that when people applied for asylum it is reasonable for the State to make a fair judgment as to whether they should be given refugee status, but it is not reasonable that the process should go on for years, nor is it fair that men, women and children should be required to live in conditions which prevent them from living a normal family life, developing their skills or earning their own bread. The bishop went on to say: "Living such a half-life would suck the music out of the soul of any human being." What a wonderful phrase from a Roman Catholic bishop speaking in Sligo.

How can we stand over it? Consider the time line. In 1999, on International Human Rights Day, the then Government proposed the system of direct provision. In 2001, the Reception and Integration Agency was established, taking over from the director of asylum seeker support. In 2002, to show how Irish public attitudes are formed, the Irish Mirror carried a headline stating, "Free Cars for Refugees" and "Cash grants to buy BMWs". One hears everywhere that they are given free cigarette money, free cars and so forth. In 2003, community welfare officers were legislatively prohibited from providing rent supplement to asylum seekers and, in 2004, the habitual residence condition was introduced and asylum seekers were further prohibited from this system. In 2007, there was an attempt by the Department of Social Protection to place the direct provision payment on a legislative footing, but this was scuppered by the Department of Justice and Equality. One Government Department was fighting against another.

In 2008, there was the first attempted legal challenge. A gentleman who was sleeping in a factory took a case to the High Court and won it, but s it did not go to a conclusion, it had no general application. His case was sorted out.

In 2009, FLAC successfully challenged the blanket exclusion that appeared to operate denying asylum seekers any social system payments. That was a legally binding decision but it was overturned by the Government introducing legislation, not to address the wrong but to the copperfasten the wrong that was being done.

There were 4,360 asylum seekers at the end of 2013: 86% of all asylum seekers have been in direct provision accommodation for 12 months or longer; over 15% of all individuals in direct provision have been there for over seven years; 43% of individuals in direct provision accommodation have been condemned to such accommodation for five years; 1,666 people, or 38% of all those in direct provision, are children; there are more people in direct provision now than people detained in prison; and €850 million of taxpayers' money has been paid out to the people who administer this scheme for profit.

Despite recommendations by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the Free Legal Advice Centres, the Irish Refugee Council, NASC and the Irish Immigrant Support Centre that is based in Cork, that HIQA be responsible for independent inspections and complaints mechanisms, the Government has completely ignored their call. We had the recent case where the commercial manager of one of these places excluded members of NGOs who were going to visit. The payment of €19.20 - how niggardly - per adult per week and €9.60 per child per week has been the same for the past 13 or 14 years ever since the system was introduced.

Ireland does not participate in either Council Directive 2003/9/EC laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers or Directive 2013/33/EU of the European Parliament and Council of 26 June 2013 laying down standards for the reception of applicants for international protection. There is no legislative basis for the system of direct provision in Ireland. Ireland does not currently operate a single procedure for the processing of applications for international protection.

I would like to refer to another court case in the North of Ireland where Mr. Justice Stevens quashed an order to return a Sudanese family because he noted:

....the significant hardship asylum seekers in Ireland face, including their inability to work on pain of criminal sanction, the low rate of subsistence allowance, communal accommodation, meals, a hostile environment towards family life, isolation and health problems.

He continued by saying:

The well-being both emotionally and financially of the primary carer and the importance of that to the well-being of the children in her care would point significantly to the best interests of the children being to remain in Northern Ireland.

I mentioned "The Owl and the Nightingale" and the idea that good conditions for asylum seekers would effectively act as a draw. This is scuppered by a report carried out in 2002 for Oxfam and the Refugee Council in the United Kingdom entitled Poverty and Asylum in the United Kingdom. The definitive conclusion reached was that the prospect of receiving benefits was not a significant factor influencing their decision to come to Britain and most wanted to work and support themselves rather than be dependent on the state.

Let me come to the issue of food - a very basic thing. People coming from different traditions, different religions and different family traditions want-----

I should be shown some latitude as there was a long delay before the Chair was occupied.

People attach values to food that are often determined by attitudes, belief and environmental and religious practices. People in the centres live in a situation of disempowerment. The majority of people recently surveyed who live in these circumstances complained that the food provided did not cater for the diverse cultural needs of asylum seekers. In addition, the food system does not allow religious asylum seekers to freely practice their various religious practices. It was unsuitable for babies, toddlers and children, was high in salt, sugar and fat content and they spoke about their own disempowerment. We should at least provide cooking facilities in all direct provision centres, consult the residents about their food needs, ensure staff employed by direct provision are attuned to the needs of these people, and allow kitchens to be used at night during the month of Ramadan by Muslim asylum seekers.

Before I finish I would like, with the Cathaoirleach's indulgence, to put the voices of a couple of people on the record. These are voices of people talking about their food. Yesterday, for instance, my friend went to a friend's house, cooked a chicken with sauce there and brought the leftovers home. I said to him "Put it in the fridge as you will get sick keeping it in your room as it is too hot." He said he would not put the leftover chicken in the fridge because if he did someone else would take it.

Let me give another instance. A person stated:

For myself, I could do with one extra piece of fruit a day. They say it comes from higher, they cannot give it to you and there is nothing they can do. I don't want to argue. You know you have to say thank you. They say if you go back home to Africa people there are starving. If you don't want food, go back. We have no choice. You have to follow. I heard the chef say this and I strongly rejected it and asked him to clarify. He said this is our European dish and if you do not want it in Europe, go back home.

Another person said, "Frankly, I feel I am eating in Guantanamo as security people are standing there with walkie-talkie radios, talking to each other and it is not a place you would wish to eat."

The issue of food is a very bad one. I would like to indicate now what I will take up when I conclude the debate. There are other issues such as overcrowding, the financial allowance and comparison with good practice, even patchy practice in the rest of Europe. Ireland stands ashamed and condemned by this and by the inaction of Government on this important matter of human rights. I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence.

I second the Bill. I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome Dr. Liam Thornton and David McCarthy to the Visitors Gallery.

I welcome the support we have received from NASC for this Bill. I believe this is reflective of a growing momentum, both politically and in the public domain, to address the unacceptable conditions referred to by some as warehousing and even as open prisons imposed on individuals and families residing in direct provision accommodation.

I would like to mention again the work of the former Seanad cross-party group on direct provision that is now open to all Members of the Oireachtas. Yesterday evening, Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh held a briefing with Ms Sue Conlan from the Irish Refugee Council and Mr. Reuben Hambakachere from the IRC's core group of asylum seekers and refugees. Both Ms Conlan and Mr. Hambakachere are members of the recently established working group formed to examine the improvements to the protection process and the direct provision system, the establishment of which I have warmly welcomed on the floor of the House.

In the group's composition I am delighted to see personal experience, academia, civil society and departmental views represented. I wonder if additional space might be available to incorporate more members currently or recently residing in direct provision accommodation. I ask the Minister of State to confirm when the working group will meet for the first time. I understand the first report of the working group's proposal is anticipated before Christmas and wonder if its schedule of meetings and detailed terms of reference have been formalised.

Let me return to the Bill before us. I welcome and thank Senator David Norris for the opportunity to second the Bill. I believe it is a fair, workable and appropriate solution to the State's current inability to deliver a speedy and robust yet fair and transparent status determination system. I welcome the Government's commitment to the introduction of a single protection procedure.

My many and specific concerns about direct provision have been put on the record of this House on many occasions. In summary, I approach it from a children's rights perspective. Mr. Hambakachere put it perfectly yesterday at the briefing when he said, "Children in direct provision are children like any other children and parents in direct provision are parents like any other parents."

As of June 2014, there are 1,420 children in direct provision which is about one third of all residents. I recognise that those who have spent a significant time in direct provision may be at different stages of the status determination system or have deportation orders outstanding and may be engaged in litigation before the courts. However, of the 4,296 current residents in direct provision accommodation, over 2,093 - nearly half of all residents - have been in the system for four years or more. Startlingly, over 16%, or 698 people, have been in direct provision accommodation centres for a period of seven years or more. Many of the children among this number were born in direct provision and so they are countless. I have met them and there are children aged between five and nine years in this State who know nothing other than direct provision. For me, this is an unacceptable state of affairs and a moral failing on our part. This Bill is an attempt to begin discussions on the difficult and complex issue of regularisation of status for those who have been here for some time.

It is particularly appropriate that the Minister of State is in the House because I welcome and support the role this Government and others play in campaigning for the 50,000 or so Irish citizens who have irregular migrant status in the United States.

The Bill seeks to focus our minds on similar people from other countries who want the same compassion and rights in Ireland as we are currently seeking for our brothers and sisters in the United States. We cannot contradict ourselves in the Seanad when we are in the United States arguing for regularisation of status. The Bill offers an opportunity to bring some humanity to the determination and deportation process. It will act as a catalyst to ensure we get the single protection procedure right and consider claims fairly and accurately within a limited period. The Bill maintains strong protections to ensure the Minister can, for clear and specified reasons, remove a person from the State even if she would otherwise qualify for a residence permit.

As Senator David Norris said, we are open to engaging with others in the House and elsewhere to modify and clarify issues with the Bill in its current format, but I urge that the Bill would proceed to the next stage. This would send a clear message indicating that we are serious about regularising the status of these people and that it is not acceptable for the only experience of certain children between five and nine years of age to be in a direct provision centre. We stand over this message. The Minister of State will go to the United States and use the same arguments I am using on the floor of the House today to argue that our brothers and sisters in the United States should be regularised and I agree with him. Let us not contradict ourselves in the House today. Let us show compassion. Let this go to the next stage.

I welcome Senator David Norris's Bill. It is a genuine attempt to put this issue back on the agenda. The House can be proud of the role it plays in terms of highlighting this issue. I commend my two colleagues, Senators Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Jillian van Turnhout. They were involved in what was initially the Seanad all-party group on direct provision, which is now the Oireachtas all-party group on direct provision. Unfortunately, the Government is not in a position to support Senator David Norris's Bill. This is not because it does not agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator David Norris but because of numerous different concerns and issues. I do not intend to go into them because I am sure the Minister of State will do so in his address.

I believe Senator David Norris is making an honest effort to deal with a situation which is appalling and unacceptable. We have spoken ad nauseam in the House about direct provision and the conditions that people are expected to live in. Some have been living in direct provision accommodation for up to a decade. Some children in certain families will be born there and will still be in direct provision at nine years of age. There are many examples of that and of families sharing only one room, of parents who cannot watch television because their children are in bed and of children who do not have the freedoms of normal children to play or grow up in a normalised environment. It is an archaic system, brought in to deal with a crisis at short notice and it is clearly not working. It is inhumane, seen as such by international bodies and it is something we need to deal with as a Government. I welcome the clear commitments from the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, in this area as well as his energy. When he came to the House he spoke on this issue with passion, clear commitment and intent. We should facilitate him with the space he needs to bring forward an acceptable resolution to this problem.

I also welcome the review group and the steering group to which Senator Jilian van Turnhout referred. People such as Sue Conlan on the group will bring empathy, experience, understanding and a deep familiarity with the problems and outrageous challenges with which people within the direct provision community have been living on a daily basis for many years, unfortunately. I understand the Irish Refugee Council has certain concerns about the Bill.

The council was not consulted.

I take these concerns seriously because I have worked with the Irish Refugee Council.

They can be dealt with on Committee Stage.

I went to Lisbon in Portugal with Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh for a day to look at what they believe to be a more acceptable practice for dealing with people who come requiring asylum.

Unfortunately, the Government is not in a position to accept the Bill, but I believe the issue is moving on, and far quicker than previously. Considerable credit should go to some of the reputable journalists in the country who have continuously highlighted the issues and concerns associated with direct provision. I have in mind Carl O'Brien of The Irish Times who has been relentless in his coverage highlighting this scourge in our country and our time. It is worth acknowledging Brian O'Connell on "Today with Sean O'Rourke" also. He has visited these centres and has been forthright in his reporting. The producers of "Today with Sean O'Rourke" deserve to be mentioned in this regard also.

I have said it in this House in the past and I will say it again - it is my contention that in 20 or 30 years time a Taoiseach will be standing up in the Dáil delivering an apology to the young people and those forced to live in direct provision. It will be an apology similar to that offered to the people who lived in institutions and in respect of whom the State turned a complete blind eye. That will happen and it will be a shame on our generation in the same way as it has been a shame on other generations the way certain citizens have been treated. I am flagging this because we can do something about it. We must do something about it.

Thousands, even millions of Irish people have gone throughout the world and have been badly treated or well treated, depending on the circumstances. Often we refer to the signs in certain countries that stated, "No dogs, No Irish" and so on. We are all appalled at that type of thing, but what we are doing with the people who are coming in to this country seeking asylum in direct provision centres is no better.

The Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, is competent to deal with this issue, especially given his role with the diaspora and I wish him well in that regard. It is a group of people often forgotten, especially those who fall on hard times. We all hear about the success stories, the people who leave and then become millionaires or get elected to various parliaments throughout the world. However, we do not hear about the people who fall on bad times. The Minister of State has already started a new process and conversation in that regard. Unfortunately, it is with no joy that I say we will not be supporting the Bill. This is not because we do not agree with the principles or what Senator David Norris is trying to achieve. It is simply because there are technical aspects to it that are simply not working.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan. I am somewhat puzzled about why the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, is not present. I mean no disrespect towards the Minister of State, for whom I have considerable regard. I have some idea of why the Minister of State responsible is not here today; it is probably because he would agree with the Bill, if what he has said is correct.

Since the introduction of the system of direct provision successive Governments have failed individuals. In this regard I include Governments led by my party in the past ten or 12 years. I have had many occasions to meet people involved in direct provision. For this to go on as long as it has is wrong, although I do not lay all the blame at the feet of the Government. We have an opportunity today to make a real start. I spoke to my party leader and other colleagues in my party on the matter. While the Bill may not be perfect - no Bill on Second Stage is perfect - there are certain amendments we are keen to bring forward.

The only way to achieve this is to allow the Bill to complete Second Stage. The House could subsequently discuss how best to refine it in the light of some of the valid comments on its unintended consequences.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout and, most eloquently, Senator David Norris gave the key facts and figures for the numbers of people in direct provision accommodation, many of whom have been in the system for three, five or seven years. None of us would wish to live in this way. I have spent some time in the United States lobbying on behalf of undocumented Irish people, as is my responsibility. On one visit to Washington and New York in 2010, Congressmen and Senators of both parties raised with me directly the issue of direct provision. The Washington Post featured a headline on the issue in the week we arrived. The Minister of State will be aware from his role that many of our colleagues and peers in the United States have a clear view on our efforts to achieve fair play for our citizens residing there, most of whom are working and none of whom is locked up in a direct provision centre. I have been asked by colleagues in the Republican and Democratic parties to explain the reason people have spent seven, eight or nine years in Ireland undocumented, without a pathway to citizenship and unable to work.

All Senators have relatives or forebears who worked abroad, in some cases illegally. Cousins of mine had illegal status in the United States until recently. Irish people are afforded the opportunity to work in other countries and many of us have done so. Many made good abroad and even where they did not do so, they were at least given an opportunity to contribute to the countries in which they lived. Successive Governments, including the current one, have precluded people from demonstrating their worth to this country. This creates problems, including racism, because people talk down the good people in question by saying they are not working or contributing to the State. The reason they do not work or contribute is that they are not given an opportunity to do so.

I listened to the previous Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, make noble statements on direct provision in which he described the system as wrong and in need of reform. More recently, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, announced the establishment of a working group to deliberate on the issue. He informed us that addressing it was a priority for him. Today, Senator Martin Conway agreed with most of the points made by Senator David Norris. What is the problem? Senator Martin Conway has indicated that a number of technical issues arise, but how does one address technical issues in legislation? One does so by introducing amendments on Committee Stage.

The Irish Refugee Council has a problem with the legislation.

I am not aware of many Bills that completed Second Stage and were not subsequently amended on Committee and Report Stages. This Bill makes a start and allowing it to proceed to the next Stage would send a message to more than 4,500 people in direct provision accommodation that the State was doing something and there might be a pathway forward. The Government has not even set a clear timeframe for delivering legislation on this issue. Senator Martin Conway has effectively stated that while he has great sympathy for Senators David Norris and Jillian van Turnhout and the 4,500 people in direct provision centres, he is not prepared to do anything about it. That is also the message the Government is sending by refusing to accept the Bill. The House should pass Second Stage and thereafter examine the imperfections and technical issues to which Senator Martin Conway referred. Perhaps the Minister might indicate what these technical issues are.

The Irish Refugee Council is not a legislator, whereas the Seanad and Dáil are. Any issue arising could be addressed on Committee Stage.

The Bill presents Senators with an opportunity. Speaking as the leader of the Fianna Fáil Party in the Seanad, I am aware that my party's track record in the area of direct provision has been shameful in many instances. It was for this reason that I pushed hard to have my party support this Bill. If one is doing something wrong, one has the choice of continuing on the same path or changing tack by acknowledging where one was wrong and setting out to change it. None of us would like to live in a direct provision centre with no light at the end of the tunnel. Why do we expect other human beings to live in conditions in which they have no future?

As Senator Jillian van Turnhout noted, there are children who have not lived anywhere else than in direct provision accommodation. They were born in this country and they and their parents have not been given an opportunity to contribute to the State. I implore the Minister of State to allow the Bill to pass Second Stage. Let us then, as a group, draw up proposals to address issues or concerns that arise by means of amendment. In the absence of an agreement to do so, I expect the Minister of State to indicate precisely what the Government proposes to do to address this matter and when it will produce and implement legislation.

I welcome the Minister of State. Senator Darragh O'Brien has claimed the Government will not address the issue of direct provision. There is not a Senator who does not want the system to be changed and the terrible wrongs that are taking place put right.

I commend Senators David Norris and Jillian van Turnhout for proposing the Bill. From my work with Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, I am aware of the excellent work he has done on this issue. He has made Senators much more aware of what is taking place in the direct provision system. Just over one year ago, a replica of a direct provision site was erected close to Leinster House to show people exactly the atrocious and awful conditions in which people had to live. This has been ongoing for much too long. One of my main issues with the direct provision system is that companies are making millions of euro out of the hardship endured by those living in such centres.

It has been argued that the Government does not care. The establishment of the working group on direct provision is the primary reason the Government will not accept the legislation. Let us wait on the working group's recommendations and work together from there.

At the end of 2013 the Reception and Integration Agency was accommodating 4,360 individuals, of whom 1,666 were under the age of 18 years and 451 were between the ages of 18 and 25. I share Senator Martin Conway's view that a future Taoiseach will apologise for the direct provision system. It is not acceptable that children have spent their childhood in direct provision accommodation. We all recognise the fractured and complicated nature of the asylum system. This is a time for listening to the views of the working group before deciding what should be done.

Since the Minister of State, Deputy Áodhán Ó Ríordáin, was appointed, he has vocalised what many of us have been working on-----

I cannot answer that question. I ask for Senator Darragh O'Brien's co-operation in this matter. We should consider the recommendations made by the working group when it reports back to the Government.

Senator David Norris referred to the payments of €19 and €6 per week made to adults and children, respectively. No one could live on these amounts. I read recently that toilet paper had been limited, with people being allocated a certain amount. This is an inhumane practice. Progress must be made on the issue.

I thank Senator David Norris for tabling the legislation and allowing Senators to have a conversation about the issue. Unfortunately, the technical issues with the Bill mean that it will be necessary to await the report of the working group before progressing.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an díospóireacht seo.

The irony of this debate is that it is happening at the same time as the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions is having hearings on direct provision. I apologise because I will have to leave after delivering my speech, and that is no disrespect to anybody in the House, but we have been calling for those hearings for the past year.

I do not disagree with any of the sentiments that have been raised about direct provision and, in fact, I agree with them wholeheartedly. However, I do not believe the Bill before us is about direct provision but rather about the legal status of people seeking asylum. Sinn Féin welcomes any efforts that aim to remedy the issues around direct provision and we have worked tirelessly on this issue in the all-party group on direct provision. We have repeatedly raised the issue with various Ministers, both in this and the other House, and with the Ombudsman, and we have worked closely with NGOs and asylum seekers themselves. Even as we speak, as I said, this issue is being debated in the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions on foot of our call to extend the powers of the Ombudsman on oversight of direct provision, which is very badly needed.

Nonetheless, we have very serious concerns about this Bill. Simply put, we do not feel this is good legislation and it could possibly be a retrograde step. For example, I have heard the comparison made between Irish immigrants in the United States and direct provision. The opening sentence of the explanatory memorandum of this Bill states: “with an estimated 50,000 Irish immigrants in the United States with an irregular migration status, it is important that Irish law deals compassionately with issues relating to migration status”. I agree that Ireland should deal compassionately with issues relating to migration. However, it is inaccurate to conflate or compare undocumented Irish people in the United States with people in direct provision accommodation in Ireland. Direct provision is a fully-fledged State-run system where, even down to the minutiae of food, people lack autonomy, individual choice and the most basic human rights.

The Bill aims to deal specifically with applications for refugee status, subsidiary protection or leave to remain that are outstanding for a period of four years, its intention being to clear some of the backlog of applications before a proposed new single protection procedure comes into force. The Bill also seeks to regularise the status of people who have been issued with deportation orders but are still resident in the State after a period of 12 months. However, for regularisation to take place, there needs to be irregularity. People who have outstanding applications for either refugee status or subsidiary protection cannot be said to have an irregular status. Instead, they are awaiting a decision on applications made under Irish law, which is itself in compliance with either international or EU obligations.

In addition, notwithstanding that applications for leave to remain follow a notice from the Minister of Justice and Equality that he or she is considering deportation, until that application has been determined, refused and followed by a deportation order, it cannot be said that a person is in the country irregularly. The use of the term “regularisation”, therefore, erroneously implies that those with outstanding applications in the three categories specified in the Bill have acted in a way that requires sanction by the State.

People with outstanding applications for a form of international protection are entitled to a decision on that application. There are defined entitlements that flow from either refugee status or subsidiary protection being granted. These include family reunification and the right to a travel document, neither of which is included in the rights which it is proposed will attach to residency in the Bill. The priority should, therefore, be to ensure final determination on those applications within a specified period, for example, six months, rather than the State being able to circumvent the obligation to provide international protection by granting ex gratia leave to remain. This may include active consideration of outstanding applications for judicial review against the Refugee Appeals Tribunal to ascertain if they can be returned to the tribunal rather than remaining in a High Court list of undetermined duration. Notwithstanding that a person will not be required to secure residency under the Bill if enacted, there is evidence that people who have opted for leave to remain when offered this under an ad hoc scheme operated by the Department of Justice and Equality, the most recent of which is for those resident for five years prior to April 2014, have not fully understood the implications of doing so and have been left, for example, unable to pursue family reunification applications.

The Bill automatically excludes people who should have an opportunity to be considered under a regularisation scheme. These include an immediate family member of the applicant who has been the subject of a deportation order and people with subsisting deportation orders which have not been in force for 12 months, regardless of the country to which the Minister proposes to return them. In addition, the Bill gives power to the Minister to revoke a residence permit issued in accordance with the Bill, if enacted, and to make a deportation order. The circumstances in which the permit can be revoked and a deportation order issued are too wide and there is no right of appeal against revocation and the issue of a deportation order. For example, revocation can take place after a term of imprisonment of one year has been ordered by the court, deportation can be ordered if the Minister deems the person’s removal “conducive to the public good”, for which there is no definition in the Bill, and revocation followed by a deportation order can occur when there has been “falsified or concealed information” in an application.

I hear the calls of my Opposition colleagues that we should allow the Bill to go forward to Committee Stage, when we could put forward amendments. However, I am afraid I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of amendments the Government has accepted from us on any Bill we have put before these Houses. I would have no faith that if the Bill went-----

How would the Senator get a Bill through?

We have the numbers to vote it through.

There would be the perfect opportunity to amend the Bill.

I would have no confidence-----

That is the argument for it.

Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh to continue, without interruption.

I would have no confidence in this Government accepting amendments on this issue. Although certain Ministers such as the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, are saying the right things, there is not full Government backing for change in the system. I say to Senator David Norris that I am not in a position to support the Bill, although I believe there are fundamental issues. I certainly support and applaud any efforts that are being made to change the system and I have serious issues with the direct provision system, as the House knows.

I ask the Minister to clarify once and for all the Government’s position on direct provision. We hear one thing from the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and very different statements from the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. When I asked her to clarify the position last week, she would not do that. I also want to ask the Minister when the first meeting of the newly-established working group on direct provision will take place. Although people have been informed they are on the group and that it is to report before Christmas, they have not even been told when the first meeting will be.

While I will work tirelessly with everybody here to have direct provision abolished and a proper system put in place, I am afraid I am not in a position to support the Bill today. I apologise but I have to leave to attend the committee.

On a point of order, I want to inform the House that Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh is incorrect when he says there is no provision for travel in the Bill. Section 7(2)(b) expressly provides that people in this situation shall enjoy the same rights of travel within, to or from the State as those which apply to Irish citizens. The Senator is incorrect.

That is not a point of order.

I welcome the Minister. I thank the proposers and seconders of this Bill for bringing it forward. I know there is a lot of work involved in preparing any Bill and explanatory memorandum, and I want to pay tribute to them for doing this. I know both the proposer and seconder are very passionate about this matter and they are using this forum to raise it and to bring forward a debate, which I welcome. However, the Government position has been set out quite clearly.

It is important in dealing with this issue that we look at the changes that have occurred since we came into government. I pay tribute to the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, who brought in a number of important changes. These include the introduction of new statutory arrangements governing the processing of subsidiary protection applications in the State, the decision to publish the protection Bill in January 2015, which will be published in January 2015, and the commitment which was given in the Government priorities 2014-16 to establish an independent working group, which has now been established. It is important also to see the seriousness of the Government in regard to the composition of the working group, which includes the following members: Judge Bryan McMahon, who has been appointed chairperson; Sue Conlan from the Irish Refugee Council; Eugene Quinn from the Jesuit Refugee Service; Fiona Finn, the chief executive officer of NASC; Greg Straton of SPIRASI; and Tanya Ward, the chief executive officer of the Children's Rights Alliance. These are just some of the people on this very experienced working group, all of whom have a huge contribution to make to ensure we get the changes that are required. I thank the Minister for bringing forward the changes and for establishing the working group.

The changes made in November 2013 in regard to dealing with applications for subsidiary protection are also important.

Therefore, it is not a case of the Government standing idly by and doing nothing to bring about change. Changes have been made, but it is important that we continue to make changes where necessary. For that reason, it is a little early to bring forward a Bill on this issue. We should consider waiting for the group-----

After 13 years.

In fairness, we have made a number of changes and have committed to making further changes and ensuring they are properly implemented. Since November 2013, we have transferred responsibility for processing applications to the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, ORAC. New arrangements have been made, including interviewing of applicants, an appeal mechanism has been introduced, internal resources have been redeployed to deal with the caseload, a legally qualified panel has been set up to assist the ORAC with processing applications, and the UNHCR is to assist with training and implementation of the new processing regime. These are some of the changes that have been brought about in the past 12 months.

The Minister committed to publishing the Bill regarding protection in January and the working group is due to report by Easter 2015.

The timeframe has moved. We were originally told it would report by Christmas.

The commitment is to report by Easter 2015.

That is the first I have heard of that.

Let us look at the issues carefully and ensure the Bill is carefully planned in a constructive manner so that we have a comprehensive scheme in place in the future to deal with this issue. Members who have been involved in debate on direct provision accommodation and in highlighting the deficiencies in the system have brought this issue forward, and I welcome that. However, it is also important that we approach the issue carefully and ensure we get long-term rather than short-term solutions. That is what we are asking on this matter and it is the reason we support the Minister in her approach to this debate.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, as I know him as somebody who listens and pays attention. The arguments being made are valid and Senator David Norris has put significant work into this Bill. The argument has been made and I suggest that we accept the Bill on Second Stage. We can then correct any anomalies in it on a later Stage.

Some Members have argued that the Government never accepts amendments, but it does. The Protection of Children's Health (Tobacco Smoke in Mechanically Propelled Vehicles) Bill, which was sponsored by Senators John Crown, Jillian van Turnhout and Mark Daly, was amended almost entirely on Committee Stage. We could do the same in the case of this Bill. This afternoon, three amendments put forward by Senator Sean D. Barrett were accepted on the Vehicle Clamping Bill. There are plenty of examples of the Government accepting a Bill and then changing, adjusting and improving it on Committee Stage. That is what should happen in regard to this Bill today.

The argument we are making concerns direct provision for a number of people who come into this country seeking asylum and hoping to be able to work, but who are not allowed to work. I believe people should be allowed the basic right to live a normal life if they are still waiting after four years for their situation to be resolved. That is a reasonable case to make.

On the right to work, Ireland has been widely criticised internationally for not allowing asylum seekers to work. In the United Kingdom, Malta and Bulgaria, asylum seekers may work a year after their application has been lodged. In Poland, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium, the wait is six months. In Austria, asylum seekers only have to wait three months, and in Sweden people can work the day after their application is lodged. This Bill's proposal that people must wait four years until they have the right to work if their case has not been resolved is, therefore, quite modest. We must reach a happy medium on this. If a person is willing to work, he or she should be given that chance. This Bill recognises that. If adjustments are required, let us ensure those adjustments are made.

As somebody who was in business for many years, I know the trauma people have faced. I remember a particular man who worked for me and was a very good worker. He told me he came from Portugal, so when I visited Portugal I sent him a card, but later I learned that he was not from Portugal but from Russia or somewhere else. He had a family with him, but was not able to work without telling lies or breaking the law. I believe there is no use in allowing talented and experienced people be effectively locked up and not allowed to contribute to society.

The business world can make a lot more of a contribution in this area. The input of organizations such as IBEC and ISME could be very beneficial when considering the future of the asylum system here. Consider the fact that many asylum seekers have language skills - I assume practically all of them have - and the fact that we have a massive shortage of language skills in this country. Consider the opportunity to deal with this shortage by allowing asylum seekers, after four years, to get into the workforce and use their language skills in a business, perhaps in helping a business expand into a foreign country. We need to open up a dialogue with business organisations in this regard.

Can the Minister of State confirm that the Government will not in fact be considering the right to work in the upcoming review of the direct provision system? If that is the case, as someone with a business background I find it extremely regrettable. Last year I visited the Google headquarters here and found it interesting to see the number of people walking around with microphones and earphones. I asked the Google boss what they were doing and he told me they were selling to different parts of the world. He explained that Google ensures that if it has a customer in eastern Stuttgart, somebody with an eastern Stuttgart accent will ring them. I understand that because, without bias, I know that if somebody from Donegal rings somebody in Cork, they may experience difficulty. The same might be true for Kerry also.

It happens with Cork fellas in particular.

I know that there is such a communication difficulty. Many of us get phone calls from people in India or some other place trying to sell us computer parts.

In this Bill Senator David Norris is making the point that people waiting over four years should be allowed to engage in a normal life while waiting for their situation to be resolved. We need to look at this from a business perspective. Those people who have been here for over four years waiting in direct provision for a decision should get priority in order that the backlog is cleared and those who have probably endured the most pain are cared for. Will the Minister of State inform us whether there are plans for future policy to give priority to those who have been waiting in direct provision for long periods? Could we even include something in this Bill to ensure some priority is given to people who have waited over four years? This would ensure that people who may be suffering as a result of waiting so long are given priority and that their cases might be resolved more quickly.

I would like to touch on one other issue, that of mental health. We are aware that those who have had to wait for long periods suffer significant stress and sometimes mental health problems. The onus of responsibility is on the Government and the people to ensure we have a way of providing for people who come here seeking asylum.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The importance of the Bill before us is that it focuses our minds in an urgent way on a humanitarian situation in our jurisdiction. There is no greater measure of a nation's worth or compassion than the manner in which it deals with immigrants. No country has more experience of that than Ireland, because our people have travelled throughout the world. We have varying stories of how they were received in the countries they adopted. Currently, there are 50,000 people from Ireland in America who find themselves in an irregular situation. I am sure that if we were debating that issue, we would pull out all the stops to ensure the people concerned were treated with the dignity to which they were entitled.

The same applies to those who come to our shores because of extreme deprivation. It is the Irish story all over again.

I am pleased that Judge Bryan McMahon will chair the working group. I cannot think of anyone more suitable, an eminent and compassionate gentleman in every sense of the word. This Bill could help him and his group in the work they have to do.

I do not say this in a derogatory or insulting way, but we are actually condemning people to non-person status, in some cases for seven years. I genuinely do not believe we want to have this on our national CV. It could be grossly misrepresented abroad whenever we were making a case about human rights in other jurisdictions. If one does not have a job and finds oneself unemployed, there is a lack of dignity. If work is available but one is not allowed to work, it is a unique form of deprivation and amounts to a lack of human rights. Were it not for the fact that the Bill is before the House and that Members such as Senator David Norris and others have raised the issue in the past - I have spoken about it on several occasions - the easy way out would be to sideline it and forget about the suffering of the people concerned.

Let us not talk about the adults involved but the children who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in limbo with no control over any possibility that they might get out of the situation. I do not think anybody in public life or any citizen of Ireland wants to see this continue into the future. The Bill is balanced in many ways. It would provide for basic human rights, whether it be employment, social welfare payments and so on, but it would not open the floodgates. It is evident in the draftsmanship that it is about tackling a problem. We can think about the live register and wonder about what might happen if some of the immigrants about whom we are speaking were to take up jobs, but that should not be a consideration. If we use that yardstick in this case we only demean ourselves as a people. There must be a broadness of mind in doing what is fundamentally right given our history as a country, more than any other. I do not know what the Minister of State's position will be, but I agree with Senator Feargal Quinn that unless we are afraid of ourselves as legislators, we will have plenty of opportunities to engage in debate on Committee Stage. If the worst should happen and we meet an insurmountable obstacle we cannot overcome in a focused debate, rather than depending on the Order of Business to raise the issue, it would provide much food for thought for Judge Bryan McMahon and his working group and the Government.

The bottom line is that we are honest brokers and seen as peacemakers internationally in arguing for human rights. This morning we took on board the plight of the Palestinians. There are so many issues on which we have shown ourselves to be strong advocates of human rights. This is an issue on our own doorstep which, under any circumstance, cannot be justified. We have legislation which we have the privilege to debate and if it flounders here, not only will we have lost an opportunity but we will have added salt to the wounds on the sense of inhumanity abroad.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan. I commend my colleague, Senator David Norris, for introducing the Bill to debate this and related issues which we have debated a number of times around the direct provision system and those seeking asylum and permission to reside in Ireland. I commend the Senator for making a thoughtful contribution to what is, undoubtedly, an ongoing debate.

Before dealing with the Bill, I wish to refer to an issue on which others have commented, that is, whether Private Members' Bills, motions and amendments have been accepted in this House. The Government has a good record in accepting amendments, something on which Senator Feargal Quinn commented. Three amendments tabled by Senator Sean D. Barrett were accepted by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe----

To the Vehicle Clamping Bill.

-----to the Vehicle Clamping Bill 2014. Today, at the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, reminded us that she had accepted an amendment proposed by Senators Katherine Zappone and Jillian van Turnhout and others, on which I had supported them, to extend the powers of the Human Rights and Equality Commission. It is a substantive amendment which will strengthen the work of the commission, the membership of which we approved today after a good debate at the committee. We have had motions on this issue also in the House. As an Independent Member, I had Private Members' Bills accepted. It is not just a matter for the Government; it requires a good deal of collaboration on a cross-party basis, as we saw when Senator Averil Power tabled the motion on the recognition of a Palestinian state which, as Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú mentioned, many of us across the floor supported. That is the strength of this House - we work well on a cross-party basis. I, therefore, commend Senator David Norris and welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill.

I agree with the Bill in principle to regularise the position of those who have spent a long period in a legal limbo. That is what the Bill is about. However, we are at the commencement of a process to achieve real change in the direct provision and asylum application systems in Ireland, which is hugely welcome and about which Senator Colm Burke and others have spoken. I, therefore, ask Senator David Norris to give a little more time to the process which is ongoing. A working group has been established.

I should start at the beginning. On 11 July the Government, having reshuffled Ministers, issued a new statement of priorities which specifically addressed the direct provision system and agreed to reduce the length of time applicants spent in the system through the establishment of a single application procedure and the establishment of an independent working group. In this House on 17 September we discussed a motion on direct provision which was taken by the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who promised reform. The following day he was due to meet stakeholders with a view to establishing a working group and on 30 September in the other House announced its establishment. In fairness, the explanatory memorandum to Senator David Norris's Bill acknowledges the appointment of respected independent experts to the working group on the protection and direct provision systems, chaired by Judge Bryan McMahon, which may also result in positive changes to the protection system overall. It will result in positive changes, about which there is no doubt. On 13 October the Minister of State announced the membership of the working group, having announced on 30 September that its chairperson would be Judge Bryan McMahon. As others mentioned, the membership includes representatives of the Irish Refugee Council, the Jesuit Refugee Service, SPIRASI, the Children's Rights Alliance, UNHCR Ireland, independent academics and so on. It is a really good working group.

The Minister of State has many times strongly criticised the direct provision system, a critique we all share across the floor of the House. The system has been in place for 14 years; it is not the creation of the Government. Those of us who were in opposition have acknowledged that it was created as a stop-gap measure to ensure individuals would be housed and given shelter. It was intended as a short-term measure, that the individuals concerned would be in direct provision accommodation for no longer than six months. The figures have been quoted many times.

From the Reception and Integration Agency's own figures 68% of those who are in direct provision spend three or more years and the average stay is 48 months. I recently visited Hatch Hall, a direct provision centre a stone's throw from here and met individuals who had been in the system for ten years. Undoubtedly the system was not set up with that purpose. As I said on 17 September, practical changes could be made to ensure greater respect, dignity and better conditions for those in direct provision accommodation. Simple steps could be taken such as creating self-catering units which are in place in two of the direct provisions centres.

We can improve the conditions in direct provision centres. Three issues have been identified as needing to be addressed. The Bill does not address all of these issues but the working group is addressing a much more comprehensive set of issues. It is addressing the conditions in direct provision as well as the length of time people spend in direct provision. That will be addressed not just by the working group but through the mechanism of the single protection procedure to be introduced through the legislation, to be fast tracked through the Houses. It is anticipated that the Bill will be passed by Easter 2015 and the Minister may comment on this.

I understood the working group would report by Christmas. Senator Jillian van Turnhout and I both did a double take when we heard it would be done by Easter. In fact we received a briefing from the Department of Justice and Equality which does say Easter, but I would appreciate if the Minister of State could clarify it. I did check. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, in his speech to the Dáil on 30 September referred to "the working group which will be asked to submit a first report to Government by the end of the year". At that point, there was a December deadline. Easter was spoken of as the deadline for implementing reforms, which will be fair, but we need more clarity on that issue.

The Bill seeks to regularise people's position and to ensure a right to work is built in at a certain point. I am not clear on when that should be or on the categories to whom it should apply. I am not sure that I could say for certain that this Bill takes the correct approach. It applies, as I read it, to a large category of persons, not just those who have had applications for asylum refused and who have been in the system for more than four years, but a broader category under section 4(2)(c). I would need more clarity on the categories to whom it is intended to apply.

We need to see overall reform of the immigration system. That is acknowledged and that is beyond the scope of this Bill or that of the working group, but I anticipate the working group's report.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.

I support Senator David Norris's Bill, but I did not intend to speak on it. The longer I was listening to the contributions, the more frustrated I became with what I was hearing. It seems that everybody in this House agrees we need a solution. Everybody in this House agrees that what Senator David Norris has produced is a solution, albeit it may be a rough diamond.

I want to go back in time. I left Ireland as an economic refugee when I was 16 years of age to go to the United Kingdom. I was treated fairly. When I arrived on the island of Britain, I had hope, I had the expectation of a job, a career. I had something to look forward to. God help the poor individual who arrives in Ireland and all he or she can look forward to is direct provision accommodation.

Some years ago when my business failed I remember finding myself in the sitting room with the walls coming in around me because I could not find the motivation to get up and do something about it. Imagine if one has the motivation and there is nothing one can do because an organisation says one cannot do anything. This is fundamentally wrong in every sense of the word. This summer I visited Ellis Island, and I could imagine what it would have felt like to arrive into this massive hall, but at the other end there was hope of a career, hope of advancement and a future. What future is there when one is locked into direct provision accommodation?

I have had considerable experience in the past number of years of working with those who came to this country as refugees. I have never encountered the work ethic that these people have. They have hopes and dreams for their children.

With all due respect, the Senator is saying, " Hear, hear," but at the same time he is knocking -----

I have met them also and have experienced exactly the same.

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell to continue, without interruption.

We should be working together to solve this problem. We should be doing it straightaway. We should be giving these people hopes and dreams. I apologise for calling them "these people", they are our brothers and sisters. We talk about technical issues. I am not long enough in this House to understand filibustering, but to me that is what is happening.

Let us get off the podium and move together. The issue can be resolved on Committee Stage. If Senator David Norris has produced a rough diamond, which in all fairness, I would be rather surprised about, let us polish it on Committee Stage and stop talking about reports that will arrive God knows when and get down to work together and solve the problem; let us begin that when we take a vote on the Bill.

I thank Senator David Norris for bringing forward this Bill. I did not intend to speak, but I am glad to be here to speak about it.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House to respond on behalf of the Government to the Immigration (Reform) (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill 2014. I thank Senator David Norris for introducing the Bill, Senator Jillian van Turnhout for seconding it and all those who spoke, including, Senators Martin Conway, Darragh O'Brien, Mary Moran, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Colm Burke, Feargal Quinn, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Ivana Bacik and Gerard P. Craughwell. I do not know if this is Senator Gerard P. Craughwell's maiden speech, but let me congratulate him for being here.

Unfortunately due to other unavoidable commitments, neither the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, nor the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, was in a position to be here. I am delighted to be here, as I have a particular interest in this area.

Almost every Monday evening, in my clinic in Tralee, somebody will visit to which the subject of our discussion will apply. I thank Senators David Norris and Jillian van Turnhout for outlining the objective of the Bill and the rationale for bringing it forward at this time.

The Bill clearly seeks to address the position of persons who entered the State's international protection system and who after four years are still awaiting a final decision on their request to remain in the State. As Senators will know, this is a situation of which the Government is very aware as reflected in its responses to date to addressing the delays in the protection system.

There is no doubt that it is taking far too long for applicants to work their way through the protection system in Ireland and for a final determination to be reached on their application. However this is a complex area of law and administration and there can be many reasons for the delays that arise. I will return to those shortly. The need for the existing arrangements to be changed is reflected in the long-standing policy to introduce a single application procedure in the area of international protection.

Since taking office, the Government has taken a number of actions to address the difficulties that have arisen in this area over the years. I think it would be helpful to the debate if I set out what has been done to date and the plans for the future. Before doing so, as it is important that Members understand the context in which those actions and future plans are being taken, I will take the opportunity to set the scene, so to speak, for the House.

What people are we talking about? There are approximately 3,700 persons with asylum or subsidiary protection application decisions pending. In terms of the number of people who it is intended to bring within the ambit of the Senator's Bill, 48% of those persons are in the system for four years or more.

As I have said, there are reasons, to which I will return, why this is the case.

How are such applications investigated in Ireland? Under the current law, there is a very cumbersome process. The current system is multi-layered and sequential. It requires that the investigation and decision relating to the refugee application, including any appeal that may be taken in that regard, be completed first. Only then may a person who is refused refugee protection have their application for subsidiary protection investigated and decided upon at first instance and appealed thereafter in the event of a negative decision. A person who is refused international protection is then liable for deportation from the State. However, as part of the process, such persons may seek permission to remain in the State under immigration law. Senators will recognise the unwieldiness of such a system and the need for a simpler, more streamlined and efficient procedure. However, even that is not the totality of the opportunities available to persons to have issues relating to their applications for international protection to be addressed.

Overlying all of what I have just described is the opportunity for applicants for international protection to seek leave from the High Court to judicially review any, or every, decision made on their application as they make their way through the process. While recognising the entitlement of everyone to seek redress from the courts, in many instances the delay in finalising cases is due to applicants challenging negative decisions by initiating judicial reviews at various stages of the process simply in order to delay the date of arrival at a final decision in their case and their departure from the State. The initiation of judicial review proceedings on any one decision can add between three and four years to the time it takes to reach a decision in respect of that application, such are the delays currently being experienced in the courts. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 applications cannot be finalised because of such legal challenges. Hence the need for a single application procedure. This is the approach adopted in every other European Union member state.

As Senators may be aware, the Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016 contains a number of commitments in the area of asylum. This was referred to by Senator David Norris. Of particular relevance to the Bill being discussed today is the commitment to introduce a protection Bill to establish a single application procedure. Work on the Bill is ongoing in the Minister's Department and the expectation is that the Bill will be published at the start of 2015 and enacted by Easter 2015. In preparing the Bill, I understand the Minister's Department is also examining to what extent the new single procedure can be applied to persons currently in the protection determination process.

In addition, the Government has committed to establishing an independent working group to report to the Government on improvements in the protection process, including direct provision and supports for asylum seekers. The terms of reference and membership of the working group were announced last week. Among the issues to be considered by the working group is the length of time persons spend in the protection applications system, the non-execution of deportation orders, and the impact that court proceedings have on the finalisation of decisions. These two initiatives will go a long way towards addressing the issues which have given rise to the Senator's Bill.

I might add that the Government has already introduced new statutory arrangements governing the processing of subsidiary protection applications in the State, following which significant inroads have been made in processing the backlog of cases involved. The European Union (Subsidiary Protection) Regulations 2013, introduced in November last year, substantially enhanced the arrangements for investigating subsidiary protection applications by replacing what was an entirely paper-based procedure undertaken in the Minister's Department with an investigation procedure involving a personal interview, now undertaken by the Office of Refugee Applications Commissioner, and the right to an oral appeal before the Refugee Appeals Tribunal against any negative first instance decision. A panel of legally qualified persons was also established to assist the commissioner with the investigation of these applications. Under these new arrangements, some 1,600 applicants have indicated their wish to proceed with the investigation of their applications, while a further 205 persons have applied for subsidiary protection since November 2013. By 10 October, a total of 609 investigations, or 38%, had been completed. These new regulations have been widely welcomed by civil society.

Although the Bill before us today is clearly well intentioned and motivated by a concern, which the Minister herself shares, about the length of time people spend in the protection system, it could have potential negative consequences which perhaps have not been envisaged by the Senators concerned. Before going any further and for the avoidance of doubt, the Minister wishes to put it on the record that Ireland is not closed to immigrants. It must not be forgotten that 30,000 students arrive here every year from outside the European Union, the great majority of whom can work up to 20 hours a week in term time and 40 hours outside term time. The thousands of students here from other EU member states can obviously work on a completely unrestricted basis. Each year over the past number of years alone, over 80,000 people from outside the European Union who have been allowed to remain in the country longer than three months have, as they are required to in law, registered their presence in the State. The vast majority of these immigrants have the opportunity to work in the State. Moreover, last year alone, nearly 30,000 immigrants were granted Irish citizenship. Obviously they can all work on the same basis as any Irish citizen.

Having said that, the Minister considers that the Bill essentially amounts to a standing amnesty for those who would seek to make false protection claims in the knowledge that if they can hold out for four years they will gain residence status. This is a potential magnet for false protection claims and irregular migration, not least in that it also confers potential benefits in respect of family members. Senators should be aware that in some cases these exceed those benefits available to persons who use legal migration channels. False protection claims also delay the processing of genuine protection applications. The Bill also actively incentivises the evasion of deportation orders. Fundamentally, it fails to appreciate the distinction between delays arising from the framework of the protection system itself and those generated by the actions of applicants.

The application of the proposed regularisation framework to persons seeking international protection, as compared with persons whose presence in the State is "irregular", is considered to be inappropriate. Persons seeking international protection status are not irregularly present in the State, as such persons are legally present until such time as their protection application is finalised, at which point their temporary permission to reside in the State ceases to be valid. The State has a legal obligation under national and EU law to investigate all protection applications made in this jurisdiction. Applications must be examined individually and decisions based on the specific merits of each case.

In addition, where regularisation is to be applied in appropriate cases, Senators should be aware that in agreeing the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum at the European Council in October 2008, member states made specific commitments "to use only case-by-case regularisation, rather than generalised regularisation, under national law, for humanitarian or economic reasons". While the pact is not legally binding, the political commitment among member states, then and now, is clearly against any form of process that would in any way legitimise the status of persons present in the State without first examining the merits of their individual cases.

In Ireland's case there are also considerations based on maintaining the integrity of the common travel area with the United Kingdom, which must be taken into account. Any significant departure from well established policies in this respect would have a major impact on the operation of the common travel area both here and in the United Kingdom.

It must also be emphasised that broad regularisation programmes are problematic, particularly as they could give rise to unpredictable and potentially costly impacts across the full range of public and social services.

Without going into the detail, the Bill does give rise to a number of significant questions, not least of which include the lack of clarity therein in relation to what happens to extant protection applications in circumstances in which the applicant stands to gain the automatic residency provided for in section 6; and the automaticity with which residence must be granted without any prior consideration of exclusion grounds of the type set out in section 8 of the Bill. At a minimum, national security and criminal background checks would have to be considered.

Furthermore, there are potential legal difficulties arising from section 5 which would require the revocation of deportation orders lawfully made, thus calling into question the basis on which the order was made in the first place. Accordingly, and for the reasons which I have already outlined, the Minister is opposed to the Bill even at a conceptual level.

The Minister hopes Senators will acknowledge the efforts being made by the Government to address long-standing and difficult issues relating to Ireland's protection system. In that regard, the Minister wishes to make it clear to the House that the Government intends to proceed with its planned course of action on the legislation front and looks forward to receiving the recommendations of the working group to report on the improvements that can be made to the current protection system, pending the introduction of the protection Bill.

A number of issues were raised with regard to the establishment of the aforementioned working group. The chairman is the former High Court judge, Mr. Justice Bryan MacMahon, who is an excellent choice. He has been present at all of the confirmation of citizenship ceremonies for the last four years. Those ceremonies are testament to the Government's commitment to the regularisation of the status of asylum seekers who come to this country. The chairman will be writing to working group members in the coming days and the first meeting is expected to take place in the week commencing 3 November. I will raise Senator Jillian van Turnhout's question about additional members on that working group with the Minister. The terms of reference for the working group were announced last week.

The system of direct provision was referred to by several Senators today and one of the terms of reference of the working group is that members would consider what improvements could be made to the system. As I read it, direct provision is still Government policy and the working group will be examining how the system can be improved. I hope that clarifies matters in that regard.

I thank Senator David Norris for raising this very important issue. Although I am standing in for the Minister today, this is an issue that I face almost every Monday evening in my clinic in the Grand Hotel in Tralee, County Kerry. I can really empathise with those people who have been waiting so long for their situation to be regularised. I hope the commitment I have given here on behalf of the Minister will be fulfilled in order that by next June we will have a structure in place that will give hope to those people who wish to regularise their status.

This Bill was not drafted in the belief that it would be a panacea for all the shortcomings and complexities of the current situation. That said, where is the hope here? What we are being presented with is a kind of endless long-fingering which is a great mistake. I have already corrected Sinn Féin representatives who said there were no provisions for travel in the Bill, which there clearly are. It seems there is a kind of puffed up vanity thing going on for Sinn Féin and I deplore that.

The Minister of State spoke about the right of the Minister to deport individuals and so on. That right is plainly provided for here in section 8(1)(iii), which states that a residence permit can be revoked and a deportation order issued if "the deportation of the person would, in the opinion of the Minister, be conducive to the common good". The Minister of State also argued that this Bill is a potential magnet for false protection claims but that is very easily rectified.

The chief executive of Nasc, Ms Fiona Finn, who is a member of the working group, has fully supported this Bill. Where does the Government stand now, when a member of its own working group is supporting this Bill? The Minister of State also made reference to vexatious appeals to string things out but the Government has already indicated that it will take a fast track approach to this. The most telling phrase in the Minister of State's response was that the Bill is "unpredictable and potentially very costly in its impact". That is where the real nub is. The Government is afraid it will cost a few bob, rather than handing out €19.20 to asylum seekers.

Reference was made to a lack of clarity with regard to what happens to extant protection applications in circumstances where the applicant stands to gain the automatic residency provided for in section 6 of the Bill but this could all be amended and looked at again. There is nothing to stop a protection application at all in the legislation. The Minister of State also spoke about the automaticity with which residence must be granted without any prior consideration of exclusion grounds of the type set out in section 8 of the Bill. He also referred to the potential legal difficulties arising from section 5 which would require the revocation of deportation orders lawfully granted. The State has a right to decide who enters and who stays and no court in this country would challenge the right of the Government to make such decisions so that is a lot of utter and total hot air on the part of the Department.

I thank all those who took part in the debate which was very informative and useful. However, things are being left to linger, like the case of a woman in a wheelchair in a second floor apartment who is concerned about what will happen if there is a fire. A fire could happen any time in the next six months. We are told "wait six months and something might happen" and maybe it will, but what about that woman in her apartment?

I wish to deal with the situation of children. It is appalling to think that children do not have proper provision for play. Some of these children have been through school and are waiting to go to university but they are treated as aliens. They get €19.20 per week but are expected to fork out €10,000 for fees. How about that? That is a plain injustice. The fifth report of the special rapporteur on child protection highlights the need for research on "the potential or actual harm which is being created by the particular circumstances of their residence including the inability of parents to properly care for and protect their children and the damage that may be done by living for a lengthy period of time in an institutionalised setting which was not designed for long term residence".

On the issue of overcrowding, the Housing Act 1966, section 63(b) states that a house shall be deemed to be overcrowded where "the free air space in any room used as a sleeping apartment, for any person is less than four hundred cubic feet (the height of the room, if it exceeds eight feet, being taken to be eight feet, for the purpose of calculating free air space)". Direct provision centres are overcrowded according to the Housing Act of 1966. Section 63(a) of the same Act states that a house shall be deemed to be overcrowded when the number of persons ordinarily sleeping in the house and the number of rooms therein are such that "any two of those persons, being persons of ten years of age or more of opposite sexes and not being persons living together as husband and wife, must sleep in the same room". That is happening all over the place. It is an absolute outrage and a scandal. The slow motion approach is a reproach to all of us.

I had intended to speak about comparisons with other countries but we are about the worst in Europe. I completely reject what the Sinn Féin representatives said about people in America. The situation is actually worse because they are not fleeing torture or war but are economic migrants, which we, in this country, simply reject out of hand. I thank Senator Feargal Quinn for putting the comparative situation in Europe into perspective. We should really be ashamed of what we are proposing to do.

Question put.
The Seanad divided by electronic means.

Under Standing Order 62(3)(b), I request that the division be taken again other than by electronic means.

Question put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 20; Níl, 25.

  • Barrett, Sean D.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Crown, John.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Heffernan, James.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Brien, Mary Ann.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • Zappone, Katherine.


  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D'Arcy, Jim.
  • D'Arcy, Michael.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Higgins, Lorraine.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • Reilly, Kathryn.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • Whelan, John.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Gerard P. Craughwell and David Norris; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.
Question declared lost.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Ar 10.30 maidin amarách.