I thank Senators for inviting me here to speak today on what is a very important topic for them, and for me as Minister for Justice and Equality.
The direct provision system has provided accommodation, food, healthcare and other essential needs for more than 65,000 people since its inception some 20 years ago. While it ensures their basic needs are met, the intervening years have taught us that people claiming international protection need much more than that. They need a holistic system, one that is responsive to their individual needs and one that fully respects their dignity, right to privacy and to family life.
A number of important reforms have been introduced in recent years under my predecessors, most notably the roll-out of cooking facilities in centres to support independent living. I acknowledge that is not the case everywhere, but that is the intention. Another change has been the introduction of labour market access to foster greater economic independence, and the agreement of national standards to promote consistency in services and standards in centres. However, that is not enough. That is the reason the Government has committed to ending the current system of direct provision within the lifetime of the Government and to replacing it with a new international protection accommodation policy that is centred on a not-for-profit approach.
Responsibility for the accommodation system is transferring from my Department to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Officials from both Departments are making the necessary arrangements to facilitate the transfer of functions as quickly as possible. Last year, as Senators will be aware, we asked Dr. Catherine Day to bring together an expert group, with representation from asylum seekers and NGOs, to examine best practice in other European states in the provision of services to international protection applicants, to examine likely longer term trends and to set out recommendations and solutions. Any new system for the provision of accommodation and additional supports to international protection applicants will be informed by the report of the expert group. The report had been expected by the end of the year but it has now been brought forward to the end of September. The intention is to publish a White Paper by the end of this year, which will be very much informed by the recommendations of the expert group, which will set out how a replacement to the direct provision system will be structured and the steps we can take to achieve that.
It will be a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability and Integration, to progress this matter following the transfer of these functions to that Department in the coming weeks.
Turning now to what is happening in Cahersiveen, I appreciate the concern that Senators, and others who have raised the issue with me, have for the residents. I share these concerns. It is a matter of deep regret to me as Minister for Justice and Equality that the residents of the Skellig Star in Cahersiveen felt their concerns required this type of action. I take these concerns very seriously, as do officials in the Department. It is a very serious situation that a group of people feel they needed to put their health at risk by refusing food in order to have their concerns listened to.
The transfer of direct provision residents to Cahersiveen arose because of the pandemic. It has been a very difficult situation for everybody. In particular I acknowledge how difficult this has been for the residents, who include children, not just in dealing with the move from where they had been staying but the subsequent challenges we have all had to endure during the Covid crisis.
I fully appreciate that the outbreak in the centre was extremely distressing for residents, for staff and the wider community. I am thankful the HSE declared the outbreak over on 20 May. In the interim, a number of measures have been introduced to make life more comfortable for the residents, particularly for those children who are living there.
My officials have been on site in recent days to assess the situation first hand and, most importantly, to listen to the concerns of the residents. They have been also tasked with examining issues raised around the provision of meals and any issues arising due to the boil water notice in place in the town. Following their visits, my officials have informed me, based on their examinations, that residents have access to clean and safe drinking water and meals. I am conscious they cannot cook their own meals, which is something we see in many places, and this is very difficult. I am someone who likes to cook and prepare my own meals and I know this is a very difficult situation for people. Residents have concerns and any outstanding issue is being followed up for resolution as a matter of absolute priority.
I am also aware that a number of residents have made applications for transfer from Cahersiveen to alternative accommodation. Yesterday, the Department wrote to the residents in Cahersiveen to inform them that restrictions on transfers are now being relaxed. They had been imposed throughout the country because of the pandemic. These restrictions were necessary as a precaution during the pandemic but as we have been able to manage the effects of the pandemic in the centres these restrictions can now be eased.
The centre in Cahersiveen was opened as emergency accommodation at the outset of the pandemic. Our policy always has been to withdraw from emergency accommodation as quickly as possible and, in particular, to ensure that families spend as short a period as possible in such accommodation. My officials will be implementing this policy in relation to Cahersiveen. Places for the first families are being identified and their moves will be completed by the end of next week. Other residents in the centre will be moved to permanent accommodation as soon as spaces can be found. This process will be completed in a relatively short period of time, no more than a few months. Realistically, I would like to see this done by the end of the year. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, who will take over the portfolio and this is something to which we can agree.
In the interim, my officials are also working on solutions to facilitate the transport needs of residents to ensure they can visit larger towns in the area and we will continue to listen to residents as regards other additional supports they may require in the wake of recent events surrounding the centre.
Since we opened the centre in March, in response to the early stages of the pandemic, the health and welfare of residents has been foremost in our mind. This will continue to be the case for me as Minister for Justice and Equality, just as it will be for my colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and for the Government.
To discuss the issue of direct provision more generally, the replacement of the direct provision system will not happen overnight, unfortunately, and we know this is the case. Existing centres will continue to operate in the short to medium term but further changes will be made and I will outline some of them. Many of these have been signalled to Senators in the briefing note circulated by Dr. Day. They include extending the right to work. Having visited Mosney recently, I know one thing people want to be able to do when they come from a country where they have been working and providing for themselves and their families is to be able to work. The impact that not working can have on their mental health is huge. Other changes include exploring alternative housing models and funding provisions and giving clear guidance to ensure all applicants can open bank accounts. This is something simple but absolutely vital. Also included is reducing the amount of time taken to process positive decisions. While this time has been reduced significantly in recent years we need to reduce it even further. Other measures include ensuring that binding standards for centres are applied and enforced by January 2021. These changes also include compulsory training and regular networking for centre managers and moving away from the use of emergency accommodation. This is not a place we want to be and we need to move away from it as soon as possible. Other changes include ensuring vulnerability assessments take place and working with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on providing access to driver licences. In the interim, before the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, takes over, I will try to address these issues as we know they cannot happen overnight.
I am sure Senators will agree these changes will have a positive impact on the lives of residents and should be implemented without delay. My officials are working on proposals for consideration to make this happen.
I assure Senators we are doing everything in our power to address the concerns that residents of Cahersiveen in particular have raised. I acknowledge how difficult this must have been and continues to be for them, not least because of the pandemic but also because of the move from where they had been staying, potentially away from family and friends. We want to ensure that in the interim those who have remained will be supported as much as possible and accommodation is being sought for families moving next week. I would like them to feel the course of action they have taken is not the necessary one. I take these concerns very seriously and hope we can address them.