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Direct Provision System

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 29 November 2018

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Questions (2)

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

2. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans for the direct provision model going forward; and if he will discuss recent events regarding new centres. [49877/18]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Justice)

The issue of direct provision is once again in the public eye. I will take this opportunity to condemn entirely the quite disgraceful arson attack that took place in Moville. Having said that, while the issue is in the public domain and is being discussed, it is my view that direct provision is a deeply flawed and broken model. It effectively warehouses those seeking asylum in this country for prolonged periods of time. It is neither sustainable, efficient, affordable nor humane, and it is time for the Government to move beyond that model, end direct provision and take an alternative approach. I will elaborate on that, and am happy to engage on the issue.

Since 2015, this Government has transformed the system known as direct provision and will continue with this programme of reform. At a time of serious pressure in the accommodation market it is important to note that any person who presents himself or herself seeking international protection will immediately be offered shelter and a range of supports. Since Ireland opted into the EU's recast reception conditions directive, this has all been placed on a statutory footing ensuring such services are provided as of right.

The improvements to living conditions for applicants for international protection have been significant over recent years. These include the implementation of self or communal catering arrangements in a number of accommodation centres. As a result of this initiative, over 1,500 residents in five centres has now moved to the independent living model. In parallel with the delivery of these changes, a number of other accommodation centres are providing self-catering facilities with fresh food provided by either the contractor or the residents themselves. In total over 2,900 residents in the centres are no longer under the direct provision model as originally set-up, and further progress will be made in this area.

In addition, there have been significant improvements to recreation opportunities, such as the provision of outdoor sports pitches, including all-weather facilities, as well as the introduction of teenagers rooms in centres to provide social areas for this age group. Friends of the centre groups have also been established in each centre. This initiative aims to bring residents, community and voluntary groups together with a view to increasing integration opportunities and providing for the development of greater community linkages with the residents and the centre.

Following the McMahon report, a standards advisory group was set up in 2017. The work of this group is to build on the recommendations of that report and to develop a set of standards for accommodation provided for those people seeking the protection of the State. The standards will meet the standards set out in the recast reception conditions directive and the European Asylum Support Office, EASO, guidance on reception conditions. Operational standards and indicators will also take account of national developments in the provision of services to those in the protection process. They will take due cognisance of the responsibility to promote equality, prevent discrimination and protect the human rights of employees, customers, service users and everyone affected by policies and plans as defined by the public sector equality and human rights duty. A working document has recently issued for widespread consultation.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The decision to opt-in to the directive is a significant and positive measure, not only in addressing the matter of labour market access, but also extending to children’s rights, rights for unaccompanied minors, vulnerable people, new appeals processes, healthcare and education provision. In addition, any complaints about accommodation and related matters can be made to the Ombudsman and Ombudsman for Children as appropriate.

We have already introduced far-reaching and important reforms to the overall system and this process will continue as we strive to make further improvements in the future. The nature of international protection is that it is demand led and accordingly the State must provide sufficient accommodation to meet that demand. This process is underway with the aim of meeting both short and medium-term requirements.

I have previously indicated that Ireland, unlike most other European countries, has no NGO run centre. I take this opportunity to reiterate to civil society, including to approved housing bodies, that we would welcome an expression of interest from them to offer to provide such reception facilities. My officials have begun to explore with civil society what might be possible in this regard.

With regard to recent events, the Minister and I have already condemned in the strongest possible terms the recent arson attack in Moville. There is no place in a civilised society for that type of behaviour and it does not represent the views of the vast majority of decent people who recognise the need to offer assistance and welcome for those in need of international protection.

While I acknowledge movement on certain issues including the right to work, although I am of the view that it is not entirely perfect, there are still very significant issues. Direct provision is a model that has been criticised roundly by NGOs and the public at large as being far from fit for purpose, particularly for families. I fear that in future years we will hear many stories about it and will look back upon this episode with great regret. We also have to confront the fact that it is very bad value for money. This substandard and inhumane accommodation has cost the taxpayer €1.25 billion since 2001. To house a parent with two children costs the State €40,000 per year in direct provision. Would it not be not only far preferable from a human rights perspective to locate those seeking asylum in directly provided accommodation rather than by contract through the private sector? This could be done through a non-profit housing association. People could have own-door accommodation rather than dormitory-style accommodation. They could then be encouraged, when they are able, to seek their own accommodation, and be provided with the means to do so.

It is completely unacceptable that the Members are continually breaching the rules they themselves have set. I am not specifically referring to Deputy Ó Laoghaire. It is happening all the time. Time is being wasted and people who are waiting to have their questions answered are missing out. I am asking every side to adhere to the times allocated.

I have previously indicated that Ireland, unlike most other European countries, has no NGO-run centre. I take this opportunity to reiterate to civil society, including approved housing bodies and others, that I would welcome any expression of interest from that cohort that would offer to provide reception and housing facilities. There is no blockage there. Officials have begun to explore with civil society organisations what might be possible in this area. A value for money and policy review was carried out in May 2010 on the whole issue of a reception and integration agency and an accommodation programme and it was found that it provides the best value for money. It was a really comprehensive study, and I invite the Deputy to read it, if he has not already read it, and perhaps he would come back to me with his views on it. It found that: "[alternative] options would be significantly more expensive than direct provision and concluded that the use of direct provision has proven to be the correct choice in providing for the accommodation needs of asylum seekers." That study was carried out in 2010.

On the suggestion that there could be a State building programme, it should be noted that over the longer term the number of asylum seekers has varied widely, from as few as 1,200 in the 2000s to 1,500 in other years. Any system of accommodation must be flexible to cater for wide variations in demand.

In the long run the value for money aspect would change substantially because the property or asset would be permanent rather than something that is constantly renewed and paid for. Tendering does not suit that kind of process. The State should intervene directly and seek to provide permanent accommodation. Acting in conjunction with NGOs or housing associations should be an option on the table.

It is fair to say that communities that have been identified as locations for direct provision centres have been very welcoming, and that is very positive. However, some of the challenges faced by residents of those communities should be identified. Moville is ten hours, travelling through the Six Counties, which is not allowable, from Dublin. Kenmare is probably an overnight trip. It is possible to travel to Lisdoonvarna in one day, involving a very short period of time in Dublin. Mount Trenchard does not even have public bus access. People have to be in Dublin for interviews, appeal hearings and renewals of certificates. This is not an acceptable situation. As much as possible should be brought to the direct provision centres, but the Department should also directly provide transport for the residents.

We are very much aware of the issue of transport to Dublin. With that in mind, my Department has agreed with a contractor to arrange overnight accommodation and comfort breaks for those travelling to Dublin from the accommodation centre in Sligo. We will also source overnight accommodation in Dublin if required. I have also requested that the Department examines the logistical and resource implications of business being carried out at the remote centres.

It would mean that rather than asylum seekers having to travel to Dublin, officials would travel to the centres. The Deputy is right in that regard.

I join with the Deputy in condemning in the strongest terms the recent arson attack in Moville. There is no place in civil society for that type of behaviour. It does not represent, as he rightly said, the views of the vast majority of decent people who recognise the need to offer assistance and support to those seeking international protection.

I draw the Deputy's attention to the value for money report that examined the direct provision system. It found it was not up to speed with respect to value for money. The Value for Money and Policy Review of the Asylum Seeker Accommodation Programme was a comprehensive and impressive report carried out by the RIA in 2010.

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