Direct Provision: Statements

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.

I advise Members that group spokespersons and all other Senators have six minutes to make their contributions. As there is no Fianna Fáil Senator present, I ask Senator van Turnhout to make her contribution.

I hope the Minister of State has a little bit of latitude given the lack of Members in the House. We are approaching the 15th anniversary of the system of direct provision, a system that places asylum seekers apart and away from the community in conditions described by some as warehousing and others, who have made their way out, as open prisons. Therefore, it is not an anniversary that any of us here are celebrating. I welcome the Minister of State's willingness to come to the House and debate the issue and his statements on the issue.

The significant length of time that asylum seekers and their children may have to stay in direct provision centres is something that I have raised consistently in this House along with many of my colleagues, most recently in the context of the Immigration (Reform) (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill, initiated by my colleague, Senator David Norris, and me in October 2014. While we were not successful in our endeavour since our efforts on that date, I note that the Irish Refugee Council and Doras Luimní have published a joint proposal for a one-off scheme to clear the existing and significant asylum backlog, and I am happy to support that initiative.

There have been some welcome developments in recent months such as the assurances from the Minister for Justice and Equality that the international protection Bill will be published by the end of January. I am sure the Minister of State is confident of the input and expertise he can expect from this House in shaping the most robust, fair, accountable and transparent system for protection status determination as possible. I also very much welcome the appointment of the working group to examine improvements in the protection process and direct provision system, and it is on its work that I will focus. I noted with concern when reading the terms of the working group that the first proviso for the recommendations for improvements to be brought forward by the group states that "in light of the budgetary realities, the overall cost of the protection system to the taxpayer is reduced or remains within or close to current levels". The current system of direct provision is rampant with human rights breaches. While I do not need to remind the Minister of State, I would remind the Government of the position maintained by the international human rights fora that a state's obligation towards the promotion and protection of human rights is not diminished by economic and financial crises.

Like many, I eagerly await the recommendations of each of the three thematic groups, but I would be particularly interested to see the outcome from the theme two group which will deal with improved supports. There are a number of issues which I have raised repeatedly. One is access to education opportunities. I have long decried the fact that with no current prospects for post-secondary education, we are effectively hitting the pause button on young asylum seekers' lives. I meet them all too often and see that the light has gone out because there is no hope for them within that system. Another issue is access to the labour market. Ireland is the only country in Europe not to have signed up to the recast receptions conditions directive. I have yet to be presented with convincing evidence of the pull factor so desperately feared with respect to allowing asylum seekers access the labour market, but I have spoken to enough individuals trapped in the asylum system who have spoken of the devastating impact of enforced and prolonged idleness on their family dynamics, self-esteem and mental health to know that the human price paid is far higher than the cost of this so-called pull factor. There is scope to increase the weekly allowance paid to residents and children, which has not increased in 15 years, and with no entitlement to discretionary social protection supports, in effect we see many living in poverty and not being able to have the same, or even near the same, opportunities as other children. We hear it from teachers in primary schools that are accommodating children from the direct provision system.

A feature of the issues that will be dealt with by the theme one group, about which I am concerned, and I still cannot understand why we cannot do something about this within a matter of days or weeks, is the putting in place of a complaints process available to residents. I am baffled and utterly disappointed there is still no independent complaints mechanism in place. The Minister of State mentioned the judgment from Mr Justice Colm Mac Eochaidh where he found that the Reception and Integration Agency's complaints procedure was not sufficiently independent due to the fact that the RIA is the final arbiter in the process. I have tried to put myself in their position, and I trust the system, but bearing in mind that there is nobody independent in place, I would find it very difficult if I was put in their position to trust that system without the willingness to have an independent complaints mechanism. For example, the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, includes a provision in section 69 for referral of complaints to the Ombudsman for Children's office. We all trust in the State but the Child and Family Agency still has an independent complaints mechanism.

In 2012, the Minister for Justice and Equality was able, by way of ministerial order or statutory instrument, to give effect to a decision to extend the remit of complaints for children in prisons.

That was done literally overnight. I know there was a lot of preparation work beforehand, but it was able to be done to ensure that the Ombudsman for Children could take complaints from children in St. Patrick's Institution. Since then, complaints have been made, but it is nowhere near opening the floodgates, which was the argument used. It has not happened in the case of St. Patrick's. It is the final arbiter, so I ask why it is not in place. I find it unacceptable that the RIA says it will be the final arbiter of its own work.

Another matter under theme one about which I have a concern is catering facilities in direct provision centres. In so far as I understand, direct provision centres were originally self-catering - or at least, self-catering step-down facilities were provided in order to prepare successful asylum seekers for independent living. These facilities have effectively been closed over the years. Is self-catering regarded as a pull factor? Is it a deliberate policy of the RIA to close these self-catering units? The official line from the RIA is that the policy is supported by the value-for-money report carried out in 2010 and that it was done purely based on economic considerations. I do not accept this, because the value-for-money report did not consider the health and social inclusion costs for asylum seekers - their physical, mental and psychological health. I refer to Dr. Bernard Ruane, who spoke to colleagues at the Irish Medical Organisation conference in 2008. Dr. Ruane said there was a 90% rate of depression among asylum seekers who have been here for six months. He identified their cramped living conditions and the prohibition on working as factors contributing to their depression. We must be mindful of this point.

The Minister of State will know that I could say so much more on this topic. With regard to child protection concerns, I implore the Minister of State to be cognisant of the findings of Dr. Carol Coulter's second interim report on the child care law reporting project. She found that social exclusion, poverty, isolation and disability were common features among the mothers and fathers facing court proceedings, and there is an acknowledgement that minority groups, including asylum seekers, are thus particularly vulnerable. This concern is supported because in one in four cases she examined at least one parent was either a member of an ethnic minority, an asylum seeker or a member of the Traveller community. This prevalence is evident. I ask the Minister of State why we are not seeing more action from the National Action Plan Against Racism. It seems as though the plan has been shelved. I would like to say a lot more, but those are my points for now. I ask why we cannot do something now about the complaints mechanism.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. He has been in office just over six months and this is probably his second or third time speaking about direct provision in the Seanad. This is an issue that is very close to the hearts of many Senators. The all-party working group on direct provision was founded from this House through Senator van Turnhout, Senator Ó Clochartaigh and others, including myself. We have endeavoured to keep this issue in the public domain by debating it here. Senator van Turnhout tabled a very interesting and successful motion on this issue last September which was addressed by the Minister of State.

This country has been campaigning in the United States - with some success and with limited success in other ways - for the rights of our own citizens, the 50,000 of our people who are undocumented in the United States. These people are unable to come home for funerals, for weddings, for special family events and to see elderly relatives. Yet this country, in my view, has, in some way, not necessarily turned its back but turned sideways in terms of how it deals with the vulnerable people who come to our country. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when signs were seen in America and in other European countries saying, "No Irish Need Apply." In a way, that is what we are saying to people who are living in direct provision. Our attitude is, "We do not particularly want you; we are putting you in a holding cell." Senator Ó Clochartaigh has arranged visits to direct provision centres in Galway, and asylum seekers have visited Leinster House on a couple of occasions. They have outlined to us in graphic detail the psychological trauma, the absolute sense of hopelessness and the sense of being a prisoner with no sentence, in that they do not know when their sentence will finish. As a society we cannot, we should not and, so far as I am concerned, we will not tolerate that. We need action. It is only since the Minister of State came into office that we have had the working group, which is not letting the dust settle under its feet, because it is working. Mr. Justice Mac Eochaidh's judgment outlined in detail that the complaints procedure was not independent, was not fair, was not fit for purpose and needed to change. This must be the number one and immediate priority that the Minister of State may have to deal with outside of the working group in order to put a system in place that has the confidence of people who are in direct provision. That is a small step that can be taken as a matter of absolute urgency, because the courts of the land have found that it is not fit for purpose.

I believe in positive politics and in consensual politics, under which we can achieve things. Members of the Opposition - Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Independent Members and others - are at one on the need for this problem to be resolved. I hope that 2015 will be the year in which we have a proper long-term, sustainable resolution to the problem of direct provision.

I call on the Minister of State to initiate an amnesty for anyone who has been in direct provision for longer than four years, irrespective of his or her circumstances, irrespective of whether his or her application has been turned down and is on appeal, irrespective of the background or the circumstances of the case. In the case of anyone who has been living in direct provision in this country for longer than 48 months, in my view, this State owes them an amnesty. Those who have been in direct provision for less than four years deserve fair play and proper procedure. They deserve their applications to be dealt with in a timely fashion.

Along with my colleague Senator Ó Clochartaigh, I visited a direct provision centre in Lisbon, organised by the Irish Refugee Council. While the system in Portugal is not perfect - certainly, the refugee council in Portugal would say it was not perfect - it is a lot more perfect than our system. It would be considered completely unacceptable for a person to be in a direct provision centre for longer than six months. They are usually dealt with on arrival. I would describe the centres as centres of excellence offering all sorts of facilities, including the opportunity to learn the language, to integrate and to become familiar with the culture of the country. Sporting facilities are available, as are proper, decent cooking facilities where people can cook their food of choice from their own country if they wish. There are significant advantages to the system in Lisbon, yet it is far from perfect, and that is what the people in Portugal would say. Certainly, if we are looking for a model system on which to base timeframes and facilities, the Portuguese system should be considered. I do not believe that for the millions of euro being expended on these reception centres we are getting value for money. We need to look at establishing State reception centres and we should consider having a far better system in airports and ports.

I have firmly believed for some time that a future Taoiseach will stand in the Dáil to deliver an apology to children who have grown up in direct provision. Unfortunately, that is something for which our generation is responsible. I refer to some of the apologies that have been given in the Dáil in the past year or two relating to what other generations have done, for which they were primarily responsible. I wish to point out that when the apology does happen in the future - I have no doubt it will happen - our generation will be responsible for treating people like that.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, to the House. I recall that when he came here not long after he had been appointed, he said that one of his priorities was to address this ongoing issue which has been, in a sense, a running sore in our immigration policy for almost 20 years.

At the beginning of the cycle of the Celtic tiger we began to attract more and more people into this country to the point where we had to set up some system to accommodate them. I have never been able to grasp the reasons people have been left in direct provision for so long. My understanding from people who know more about it than I do, is that it has a lot to do with our legal system, which allows people to go to the courts on a regular basis. If they have their initial appeal turned down, they can go again. In a way it may be a lawyer's paradise. I gather that is one of the issues. I am not sure whether anything can be done about that in legal terms to prevent people from exercising their right.

At the same time, as Senator Conway has said, we have ended up with people who have been in direct provision for so many years now, and it really must be a very difficult time for people. I saw one case recently reported in the newspaper where a very highly-qualified individual in Cork was not allowed to work. It must be very frustrating. I do not know whether the Minister of State is going to tackle this issue in his working group, other than giving them €19 or €20 a week. He did say there had been significant developments in two matters which he spoke about in the House in September. By the way, I compliment him for returning to the House within six months as he promised.

The operation of the independent working group set up last year seems to be what the Minister of State is going to hang a lot of his hopes on. It is to be welcomed. The working group set up three smaller, more focused working groups dealing with 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. I do not know how the Minister is going to do this under the present system. If asylum seekers are coming into this country they have to go through a particular process and I would like to think that, irrespective of the shortcomings in the system, they are at the very least afforded some dignity as human beings.

Reference was made to improved financial, educational and health supports for asylum applicants. Does this mean they are going to be given more money or will they be allowed to work during the period? There was also reference to the improvements to existing arrangements for the processing of asylum applications. That, to me, is the most relevant of the three arms of the focus groups. I am not in any way wishing to diminish the importance of the other two, but if people are not in the system so long that they become sterile or frustrated, or lose their dignity as people, I think that goes a long way to preventing that happening. I am not sure how this is going to be addressed. How is it that other countries - Senator Conway referred to Portugal - seem to be able to address it in a way that we are not? This is because of our legal system. Are there ways of addressing this by introducing more legislation that will mean the system is speeded up and becomes more efficient? After all, I am assuming - correct me if I am wrong - that the people who are coming in with asylum applications are doing so, as they see it, on the basis of justifiable cause, that they have left a country where they will be persecuted or killed, or their families will be threatened, if they are returned there. I assume that is why people seek asylum.

I have often wondered what happened to the Dublin convention which was set up with a great deal of fanfare at the time, going back to the late 1990s probably. The objective was that if asylum seekers arrived here they would be returned to the country within Europe which they had left to get here. I often wonder, and I am not singling out any particular race or ethnicity, but I understand that in the wider sense, I am not just talking about asylum seekers, but in terms of ethnic origin, there are a significant number of Nigerians in this country yet there are no direct air flights from Lagos to Dublin, so they would have had to come through some other country. I am not singling them out particularly but there are other countries from which people have come which have no direct air links, so how do they get here? The anecdotal evidence would suggest they came in through London. Others have flown in from Amsterdam. I am curious to know what has happened the Dublin convention. Is it gone? I gather it is still there, but it does not seem to be enforceable or to have been enforced. It would have gone a long way to addressing this issue of asylum seekers being left in a legal limbo for more years than any of us care to want.

Overall, I welcome the Minister of State's focus on this and wish him well in his efforts to get to the bottom of it because it is in everybody's interests, both of this country and in the interests of the asylum seekers themselves, and indeed future applicants, that there is a clear, transparent, efficient pathway to eventually establishing whether they can stay.

I welcome the Minister of State and welcome the fact that we are debating this issue again. We debated it in September and again on 23 October in light of the Private Members' Bill. It is very helpful to have regular updates from the Minister of State on the issue of direct provision because it is matter of great concern to many of us on both sides of the House. We have always worked very constructively together to try and improve on the situation for those people who are in direct provision.

There have been many criticisms of the system and I share the critiques. It was, as we all know, introduced in November 1999 as something of a stop-gap measure to ensure there was not a homelessness crisis for people seeking asylum. It then turned into a much more long-term entity than was originally envisaged. FLAC has described it as a flawed system and I think we all accept that. I was delighted, as we all were, to see a commitment in the statement of Government priorities last July that this would be a priority issue to address, to ensure that asylum seekers are treated with humanity and respect and to ensure that the direct provision system is made more respectful to the applicant and so forth. I know it is also a particular personal commitment of the Minister of State.

In October, we also welcomed the establishment of the working group chaired by the former judge, Mr. Bryan McMahon, a hugely eminent person. Indeed, a wide range of NGOs and stakeholders are represented. I welcome the Minister of State's update today on the process that has been ongoing and in particular the fact that the group has been engaged in an ongoing direct consultative process, visiting centres and speaking directly to residents in the months since it has been established. I note that we are hopeful the group will report at Easter. I had understood that was a deadline, I think the Minister of State has clarified that in fact it is a hope. It would be very welcome if they were to do so and if we were to see changes made as a result.

It is very helpful to see the work programme of the group and the sort of things it has been looking at. To speak on the sort of changes that could be made, there are two overarching issues. One is the issue of conditions in the centres, and Senator van Turnhout and others have pointed that out, and the other is the determination process by which people's applications are processed. To speak first on the reception conditions, the working group is talking about two themes: improvements to the direct provision system itself, namely, the living conditions in the designated centres; and improved other supports. On the first theme, one of the issues that has been of most concern to many of us is catering facilities. There are 34 centres in total and two of them are self-catering. Senator van Turnhout asked this question. Questions have been asked about the economy of self-catering facilities as opposed to facilities that are catered. It seems to me from the limited figures we have that the cost to the State of the two commercially-run self-catering centres was €480,000, as compared to €44 million for 25 centres that were commercially run. It is very hard to compare like with like - they may be different sizes and so on - but it does not seem as if the spend on the self-catering centres was huge. Certainly the social cost and the cost to family life for those who are not in self-catering facilities is a huge issue. It seems to many of us the biggest encroachment on children's rights and family rights that people cannot prepare their own food for their own families. If we could change one thing on that theme, I think that would be it. I know there is no issue for the providers if they are told by RIA to establish self-catering centres. There might be some cost associated with conversion but there is no other issue there.

There are also issues around transfer and complaints procedures that Mr. Justice Mac Eochaidh raised. There are also child protection issues, in particular the question of aged-out minors and how they are cared for, and separation within hostel facilities, so that families and children are not side-by-side, perhaps, with single men. That is a very practical issue on the ground in centres.

The second theme of educational opportunities is hugely important, as is access to the labour market.

I agree with my colleagues who asked why allowing asylum seekers access to the labour market under certain conditions would be a pull factor in Ireland when it is not a pull factor elsewhere. I have never seen this explained in all the Government briefings and I would like it to be explained. It seems we could facilitate access to the labour market for particular categories of asylum seekers - those who have been here for certain periods, and so on.

I also want to raise the issue of integration with local communities. I visited my local centre in Hatch Hall. Many local community groups have links with different direct provision centres, but we could be doing more to encourage that through school communities, local community groups, sports groups, and so on. We must look at that.

Regarding the determination process and how we fix it, others have pointed out the inordinate length of time people are staying in direct provision - 45% for five years or more, 55% for four years or more. I welcome the Government's promise to publish the international protection legislation, which will streamline procedures for the future. There is a subtext that it might be possible to enable that legislation to apply to certain groups of applicants already in the system. I would like to see that happen. We need to be more creative in respect of those who are languishing in the system, who have been there for many years. Senator Conway spoke of an amnesty. Personally, I support that. There are ways in which that could be done, perhaps without using the term "amnesty" - for example, where somebody has a lengthy judicial review application that has been going on for many years due to court delays and due to inadequacies at first instance. Ireland has had one of the lowest levels of recognition of asylum seekers at first instance. That is the root cause of the long periods that many people spend in the system - five, six or seven years. We could say to those people, "We'll settle your case at the door of the court. If you withdraw your application, you will be given leave to remain here." That is a practical, case-by-case way of addressing the issue and ensuring that people are not languishing for long periods of time. I think it is in keeping with the Government commitment to ensuring that people are treated with humanity and respect.

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil áthas orm go bhfuil sé ag brú na ceiste seo chomh láidir agus atá sé ag brú na ceiste seo. Tá mo thacaíocht iomlán aige á dhéanamh sin agus beidh mé ag cur tuillidh brú air. I take issue with some of the points that have been made up to now, although it is true that we are all fundamentally in agreement that the system of direct provision is a very serious issue.

I take issue with the idea of an amnesty, because to give somebody an amnesty implies that they have done something wrong, that they have broken the law, etc. Under international human rights law, these people deserve determination of their cases in some way. Going back to the suggestions that have been made by the Irish Refugee Council and Doras Luimní, we need to consider this in relation to the different categories of people with outstanding protection claims: people with leave to remain applications pending, people with applications pending before the High Court, people with deportation orders, and victims of trafficking. I would like the Minister of State's response on those recommendations. Has he seen them, has he discussed them with the organisations, and does he agree with them? To blindly say we will give an amnesty does not fulfil our actual human rights obligations to the people we are talking about. We must also put to bed the idea that we should tinker around with direct provision. Direct provision as a system is totally flawed. The concept is flawed. We need to admit that it is flawed, come up with a different concept and work on the transition from what we have at the moment to a much better system. We all talk with many people involved in the direct provision system. I know the Minister of State does as well. To be brutally honest, they are sick to the teeth of our having debates on the issue. Every time I meet them, they say, "You are talking about it, but what is happening?". The working group has an important role, but there are certain things the Minister of State and his Cabinet colleagues could do fairly quickly, and I will be pushing for them to do so.

I know time is going to catch me on this, so I am going to bring up a very serious issue that has come to light recently - namely, deaths in the system and the lack of information as to how they are being recorded by the RIA. I have statistics from a parliamentary question that my colleague Deputy Michael Colreavy tabled for me. We have had 61 deaths in the system since 2002. A quarter of those deaths were among infants from zero to five years of age. I am very concerned about that and I am sure the Minister of State is too, because one quarter of all deaths in that age group seems an inordinately high proportion in any cohort of the population. We need to ask questions about why that is so. I note that in an answer to a previous parliamentary question, the former Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, said that records were based on informal information and were not official records of death. I know from making inquiries in this area that there very little information is given. That is not good enough. The Minister of State must go back to RIA, get more information and put a better process in place. That leads to my support of calls from other Senators regarding the oversight. Sitting on the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, I have heard Emily O'Reilly, Peter Tyndall, Emily Logan and others say that we must have oversight of this system. People have a right to complain. They should not have to complain to the people who are incarcerating them. It is unacceptable. This must be addressed by a simple amending Bill to give the Ombudsman for Children, in particular, and the Ombudsman the right to take complaints in that system.

I have asked the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, on a number of occasions in this House - often abusing parliamentary privilege, because my question was unrelated to the Bill she was here to discuss - whether she supports the statements the Minister of State has made on direct provision. She has not given me a direct answer on that. I am afraid the Minister of State does not have full Government backing on the issue of direct provision. I wish he did, and I wish Government would act more quickly. Can he clarify for us whether he has full Government support for his efforts to change this system? I note also that another pending court case relates to a lady under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. Perhaps he would like to comment on the way that was implemented in her case, because she did not have a right to leave the country.

The other two areas on which action could be taken are the right to work and the right to education. We do not need a working group to tell us the current situation is wrong. These rights are recognised internationally. They are recognised in almost every other European state. Our State should recognise them. Many people in direct provision liken the system to being in prison, but actually it is probably worse than prison. They tell me that at least when one is in prison, one knows when one's sentence will end, and one also has educational opportunities. They do not have this. It is unacceptable in this day and age. A promise was made by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, about young people in direct provision going from the leaving certificate to third level education. Could the Minister of State give us an update on that? Will they be allowed continue their education into third level? Some of these young people have been here most of their lives. I have not heard any statements on this in the recent past, so perhaps the Minister of State could clarify that.

There are also issues with regard to social welfare that could be addressed immediately. The amount of money people receive in direct provision is totally inadequate for the costs they incur. I note that the reason the case the Minister of State alluded to in his opening statement fell apart is that direct provision has no legislative basis. If this is the case, then it can be changed. Serious concerns have been raised by Doras Luimní in particular at the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions about the cost of direct provision. A number of the companies involved in direct provision are unlimited offshore companies. Who is auditing these companies? Who is auditing the money that is going into them? Why can we not bring them in front of the Public Accounts Committee to check how the moneys are being spent in the companies that are being contracted by the Minister of State's Department? In addition, from my understanding, the contracts are on a roll-over basis. They are renewed on a year-to-year basis. Perhaps the Minister of State could clarify that. That is what RIA has told me. If so, what is the tendering process? I have never seen a tender in a public newspaper for somebody to run a direct provision centre. It seems very strange, if we are spending €53 million a year of State funding, that there is no full oversight of the way that money is being spent. We need to examine that. There are many more questions, and I am sure we will get another opportunity to ask them, but I fully support the Minister of State. The issue of infant deaths is very serious and we must examine it.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for the work he is doing in this area. One of the big issues we need to approach is the question of the time delay in the processing of applications. Some 21% of those currently in direct provision are there for seven years or longer, while 13.1% are there for six to seven years and 10.6% are there for five to six years. Quite a number of people, therefore, are in the system for more than five years. That is a huge problem, especially in the case of young people. If they are in direct provision and the decision is made that they can no longer stay in Ireland, going back to their own jurisdiction is a huge battle from their point of view, because how can young people adjust in that system to going back into the country their parents are from?

I encountered a case, not long ago, where a person from South Africa who had gone through the end of primary school and the entire five years of secondary school was informed he could no longer remain in Ireland and had to return to South Africa. That was a huge change for that person because technically he grew up in this country and that is another reason to seek change. One issue that the working group is looking at is processing applications in a more expeditious manner and whether judicial reviews can be processed faster. In fairness to the courts system, a lot has been done in this area but seven years still sounds an extraordinary long period to be in a system without a final decision being made.

It is important that we convey accurate information to the public. When Cork Institute of Technology surveyed students, only 2.5% of them were aware that an allowance of €9.60 was paid per child and only 30% were aware an adult asylum seeker received an allowance of €19 per week. These statistics show there is a lack of information among the public. We must give people the facts about the 4,500 asylum seekers because misinformation is quoted in the media from time to time. In fairness, there has been balanced reporting but some people have stated incorrect information from time to time. It is important to convey the correct information to people.

I note that the working group is looking at whether financial support for asylum seekers should be reviewed. The current payment rates have been in existence for a number of years. The working group is also looking at the important aspect of expediting the procedures for dealing with applications and ensuring final decisions are made at a far earlier date.

What happens when the decision is made that a person cannot remain in the State? What support is given to people to help them return to their own country? Are they helped to prepare for a move when their asylum application fails? I am not sure whether enough is done in that area. The matter should be examined by the working group. People fear returning home even when there is no evidence of danger. When people go home, especially young returnees, they must adapt to the cultural change. We must look at this matter and take on board the idea of preparing people.

In 2015, 1,456 people applied for asylum for the first time. Mediterranean countries have had a huge influx of people from non-EU countries. Does the Minister of State foresee an increase in the number of people coming here over the next two to three years? Has the number of asylum seekers stabilised? Is there an indication that the situation may change?

I thank the Minister of State for the work that he has done and I wish him well. Once the working group makes its proposals I know he will be fully committed to implementing its recommendations.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. At a time when cynicism about politics is at is height it is a great credit to this House that this issue has been raised here consistently. There is a level of understanding and agreement across the House on the importance of this issue. I feel keenly that as public representatives we have a responsibility to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, have no political power, cannot access mainstream media and are often, as in this case, on the edge of society. If such people do not have advocates in this House then they will not get them anywhere else. It is vital that both Houses of the Oireachtas debate the matter. It is a credit to this House that the issue of direct provision has been raised repeatedly. I am quite happy to return here and give updates on where we are.

One expects statements from the Government or a Department to have a mix of legalistic language and deal with the issues of High Court cases and legislation. Every Senator here who has contributed to this debate will agree with me that we must get back to the human stories behind direct provision. I have visited direct provision centres up and down this land over the past number of months and since I was given the opportunity to serve as a junior Minister. I have visited centres in Waterford, Limerick, Sligo, Laois, the Balseskin Reception Centre in Dublin and Galway. Hand on heart, as an asylum seeker, I could see myself spending a period of weeks or months in some centres but there were some in which I would not like to spend a night.

I met a man in a direct provision centre in Limerick who is quite literally broken. It is very difficult not to be affected by meeting someone like that. He is completely broken. He had come from difficult and vulnerable circumstances when he arrived here. As a society, system and country we have compounded his misery and broken him and I do not know if he will ever be repaired. I feel keenly that we have a responsibility to him, and also to children, who have been broken by the situation in which they find themselves. On my visits I noticed children playing a game called kitchen in the play spaces provided in direct provision centres. When they were playing they looked for an orange dispenser in the toy because that is the only way they know to get orange juice. It has never been given to them by their mother and they do not know about food preparation. Therefore, it is very disconcerting for me to see that this country still persists in prolonging its love affair with incarceration. Apparently in the 1950s we had 250,000 people in mental institutions. Ireland also has a history of mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries and an industrial schools system, yet again we revert to incarcerating and storing people while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed.

The current system was first brought in as a reaction to about 10,000 people a year coming into the country and wanting to ensure nobody was ever made homeless, as Senator Bacik has said. The system has proven successful because no asylum seeker who has gone through this process has ever been made homeless. The number of asylum seekers today is much reduced. I reject the idea of a pull factor and collectively we have to reject the idea of a pull factor.

I agree with the Minister of State.

There is a belief that whatever improvements we make, whether we make the system more humane, treat people with dignity, aspire to have a system that we can be proud of, somehow flares will be set off and people will come here who would not have done otherwise. There is more movement of people across Europe now than since the end of the Second World War so naturally statistics will reflect the change. There has been an increase in the number of asylum applications in Ireland but that number has been collapsing for the past ten to 12 years. The number has decreased, from a figure of around 10,000 down to around 800 over the past number of years. If there has been an increase then it is a reflection of what is happening across the European Union.

I am loth to discuss many of the issues raised here because I want to give the working group the independence to deal with them collectively and make recommendations to Government. We will deal with them as a collective set of recommendations. I think the group can be radical and find solutions. When the working group finalises its deliberations and makes recommendations we will find a way to implement workable and sustainable solutions that will make the current system work an awful lot better.

As regards the Government's commitment to this issue, the statement of priorities of both Government parties was signed off on last summer and it included reform of the direct provision system. A commitment was made that a protection Bill would be brought before the Oireachtas and that will happen this month. In addition, a working group has been established. I wanted to see the full report done by Easter. There is an expectation that there may be an interim report as well. In fairness, however, rather than asking the working group to spend time on an interim report, it is reasonable to wait a number of months for the full report.

I feel keenly about our responsibilities as a society. I spend half my time in the Department of Justice and Equality and the other half in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I also spend a lot of time on commemorations, which affects my mindset on this. When we talk about the 1916 Rising, the Proclamation and the centenary in 2016, in addition to rights, responsibilities and opportunities for all our citizens, that was aspirational 100 years ago. We also talk about the precious nature of childhood, treating people with dignity and true republican values. When we see the names of the seven people who signed the Proclamation, two of them were not born in Ireland. Another two of them were sons of migrants to this country.

Through this working group and the generosity of the political system, we have an opportunity to break down much of the cynicism that people have about Irish politics. Members of this House consistently raise an issue that they know is wrong, but I am not sure if their clinics are full of people who are necessarily raising the matter or if their e-mail accounts are full of people raising it either. However, they are raising it on a cross-party basis because they want to see changes. That is when our political system works best.

I want to come back and engage with this House as often as I possibly can. I appreciate the opportunity to do so. I commend Senators' commitment to this issue. When the legislation comes through, it should be thoroughly scrutinised. When the working group's report is debated in the House, let us work collectively to ensure it can be implemented. When the five years of this Oireachtas are over, we will be able to say that is one good, solid piece of work that we achieved collectively.

On a point of clarification, is the protection Bill the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill that was stalled in 2010?

The protection Bill element is a single procedure.

Is that coming through?

Sitting suspended at 3.45 p.m. and resumed at 4.20 p.m.