I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Government on this important topic. I have made it clear before in this House that improving the system of direct provision to make it more humane is important to me personally and to the Government generally. Since I last spoke to the House on this subject on a Private Members' motion on 17 September 2014, there have been significant developments on two matters that I spoke about then - first, the High Court case challenging the direct provision system and, second, the operation of the independent group set up late last year to report to the Government on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision and supports for asylum seekers.
Dealing first with the legal challenge to the direct provision system in the case of C.A. and T.A. v. Minister for Justice and Equality, the High Court issued a judgment on 14 November 2014. This followed from a six-week hearing in the case ending last July. Though I cannot summarise here the 130-page judgment involved, I can say that, on the basis of the case as argued, the court could not find that the direct provision system breached fundamental human rights or was in breach of the Constitution because it is an administrative scheme without a legislative basis, or that the direct provision allowance, DPA, payment was ultra vires to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.
The court found that certain aspects of the house rules, which deal with the day-to-day operation of the direct provision system, were unlawful or disproportionate to their objectives. These relate to the absence of an independent complaints procedure as well as the procedures involved in relation to absences from centres and room inspections. This court decision does not hinder the task of the independent working group; rather, it helps it. After all, that something is lawful does not necessarily mean it should continue as it is. Direct provision is a creature of Government and it is entirely apt that Government should now review it in detail with a view to making better the lives of those living in it. This objective is best served through the forensic, structured, co-operative approach of a working group than through the strictly legalistic process of a court case. Even in relation to those aspects of the house rules where the court did find fault, it is better that the corrections to be made are processed through the working group in order that the necessary expertise can be brought to bear on the matter.
That expertise is obvious when one looks at the membership of the working group. It is chaired by former High Court judge, Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon, and comprises senior officials from all relevant Departments, the UNHCR, representatives of academia and various non-governmental organisations who have a long-standing interest in this area as well as a retired Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality and a former chairperson of the Local Authority Implementation Committee.
The working group has not allowed the grass to grow under its feet. I commend to the House the web page on the Department of Justice and Equality's website dealing with this working group. This provides details of its terms of reference, membership, work programme and work progress. I highlight two aspects of its work which I think are particularly important. First, it has established three smaller, more focused working groups to deal with specific themes, namely, improvements to the living conditions in centres aimed at showing greater respect for the dignity of persons in the system and improving their quality of life; improved financial, educational, health supports for asylum applicants; and improvements to existing arrangements for the processing of asylum applications with particular regard to the length of the process. So far, in addition to the three plenary sessions, 14 meetings of these subgroups have been held and excellent engagement by all participants has been reported.
Second, the working group is taking evidence directly from residents in the direct provision system, both in writing and orally. This evidence is not intermediated by Departments, by centre management or by NGOs. The working group advertised in each centre for written submissions from residents and I understand these have been very informative. The group is also engaged in an ongoing direct consultative process whereby its members visit centres throughout the country and speak directly to residents. This process will end in early February and will feed into the group's deliberations. A number of consultation sessions with particular groups of applicants, including children, victims of torture, victims of trafficking or sexual violence, and members of the LGBTI community will also be undertaken during that period. There will be an opportunity for some protection applicants to make oral submissions to a full meeting of the working group. The working group also agreed to invite a number of experts to make oral submissions to a future meeting.
The end result of all of this will be that the entire working group will have an excellent understanding of the direct provision system. It can then confidently fulfil its mandate to report to Government and indicate what actions could be taken in the short and longer term which are directed towards improving existing arrangements in the processing of protection applications and showing greater respect for the dignity of persons in the system and improving their quality of life by enhancing the support and services currently available.
The Government recognises that the issues to be examined by the working group are complex and require thorough consideration to ensure that any recommendations are practical and sustainable from a budgetary perspective and do not interfere with existing border controls and immigration policies. The agreed terms of reference do not indicate any timeframe for the working group's deliberations but the Government would welcome a report by Easter.
I am sure Members of this House would like a fair wind to be given to the working group and I will arrange for a transcript of these statements today to be given to its chairman. I would also add that I am delighted that this House is again debating the issue of direct provision. It shows that the Houses of the Oireachtas work best when we take an issue such as direct provision, work across parties to try to find solutions and raise its profile in order that it remains at the top of the political agenda.