Thursday, 27 May 2021

Questions (6, 28, 40, 52, 81)

Gino Kenny

Question:

6. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his Department’s policy in relation to the direct provision system; the timeframe for ending same; if he will report on recent comments in the media in relation to the issue and the programme for Government policy on direct provision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42530/20]

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Paul McAuliffe

Question:

28. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the status of the implementation of the White Paper to End Direct Provision and to Establish a New International Protection Support Service including progress to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28729/21]

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Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Question:

40. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the progress made to date on the implementation of the white paper to end direct provision and replace it with a new international protection support service; the expected timeline for the implementation of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28453/21]

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Brian Stanley

Question:

52. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the number of asylum seekers who have been granted permission to remain in Ireland but are still living in direct provision centres; and the reason they remain in direct provision. [28442/21]

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John Lahart

Question:

81. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the consultation processes with key stakeholders in place and planned under the White Paper to End Direct Provision to ensure that measures reflect the needs of those most directly impacted; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28728/21]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Children)

My question refers to the commitment in the programme for Government to phase out direct provision. As the Minister will know, direct provision has existed in this country for more than 20 years. What was meant to be a temporary solution has become permanent, with devastating consequences for those in direct provision. I would like to hear the Minister's answer to this questions.

I propose to take questions Nos. 6, 28, 40, 52 and 81 together. They are all on this topic. I believe I have some additional time if the questions are grouped in this way. I thank the Deputy for the question. As he will know, the Government published a White Paper at the end of February in which the new approach to accommodating applicants for international protection in Ireland is set out. This approach will replace the current system of direct provision.

I am committed to the new approach being in place by the end of 2024. My Department has commenced the implementation process. This includes the putting in place of an implementation team and working to establish key governance structures, including a programme board and an independent advisory committee. I will announce details of the make-up of these two bodies shortly. The new approach will end congregated and institutional living and will focus on supporting integration from day one. Applicants will initially reside in one of six reception and integration centres, which will be State-owned and run by an NGO. After a four-month period, residents will move to accommodation within the community. This accommodation will be sourced through different strands, with the most appropriate accommodation being identified in conjunction with the individual applicant or family.

The White Paper proposes that accommodation will be bought, built or repurposed under urban renewal schemes for applicants who remain in the international protection process for longer than four months. The accommodation provided will include family homes, apartments, rooms in apartments and rooms in urban renewal buildings. The White Paper sets out a new model which, I believe, is distinctively different from the system currently in place. It will be centred on a human rights approach with key supports geared towards ensuring integration and independence.

A comprehensive consultation process with a wide variety of organisations, including residents of existing centres, other Departments, agencies, the Ombudsman for Children and NGOs, was completed when preparing the White Paper. The new model takes account of key issues raised in the consultation process. In addition to the responsibility of my Department, there will be key roles for the Housing Agency, which will support the acquisition and building of accommodation, and local authorities, which will co-ordinate integration supports at local level. Approved housing bodies will be commissioned and funded to deliver the accommodation needed and NGOs will provide supports to applicants as necessary.

The transition team I spoke about earlier is currently being assembled. It already is headed by a principal officer and additional staffing is to follow. Engagement and discussions has begun with key implementation partners. Much of the progress to date has focused on development of the new accommodation model. This includes discussions with the Housing Agency on available funding schemes for accommodation in the community and on the role that approved housing bodies will play in providing accommodation under the new model.

I have met the Housing Agency and I wish to acknowledge the significant additional staff resources it is dedicating to the implementation of the White Paper. I have also met the County and City Management Association, CCMA, recognising the key role that integration at a local level will play in the success of the White Paper roll-out. The CCMA is developing the allocation key on behalf of the local authorities, which will determine the number of accommodation units located in each county. Last week, I met the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and we discussed ongoing co-operation between our Departments on this issue.

Work is also under way to establish a programme board and an external advisory group, which will form the governance structure for the project as committed to in the White Paper. The programme board will comprise representatives of Departments and agencies, the local authorities and NGOs with a role in the delivery of services for international protection applicants. At least one former resident of the direct provision system will be represented on the board and experts will be invited in, as necessary, to support the delivery of key areas such as housing and human rights. The programme board will be a proactive entity that will oversee the transition to the new international protection support service. The external advisory group will be a three-member group and will consist of a mixture of expertise in areas such as human rights, housing and change management. It will provide external advice to support implementation of the new international protection support service and will also format a function of calling out, in the event that the Department is falling back in respect of reaching targets. I will be announcing details of the membership of both entities in the coming weeks. I envisage that the first meeting of the programme board will take place in June.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I welcome the Government's commitment to phase out direct provision, which as I have said previously, has been a cruel system for those seeking sanctuary in Ireland. When they came to Ireland, they were given sanctuary but in a system of direct provision that sometimes lasted for up to seven to eight years. It is good that it is being phased out. How confident is the Minister that it will be phased out in the lifetime of this Government and has he encountered any resistance from the multitude of civic bodies and Departments involved in this area on the grounds that this may not be feasible over the lifetime of this Government, which, if it runs its course, will be four years? Has the Minister encountered such resistance?

As none of the other Deputies involved in this grouping is in the room, I will return to the Minister. I beg Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's pardon.

I am up in the Gods. I acknowledge the Minister's commitment on this issue. I know how hard he worked to get this commitment into the programme for Government and how hard he has worked within his Ministry since to deliver the White Paper, which, I believe, is finally providing a pathway to ending direct provision, which has been a blight on our nation for the past 21 years.

I have taught some of the children who have lived in direct provision. I have taught children who were born in Ireland but lived in no other context than in a direct provision centre. I have talked to their parents who say the experience is one of life in limbo, as they have had to press the hold button on their lives and they cannot see a way forward. The Minister outlined some of the steps he proposes to take to fulfil the White Paper. What specifically is being done to drive down the processing time for the international protection applications? I would like to see that turned around in a shorter timeframe. Whatever about own-door accommodation, we need to get these people processed and through our system as quickly as possible.

In terms of processing time, working is ongoing in the Department of Justice. Significant additional resources have been put in to a better IT system but also to put in place additional staff to speed up the processing time at first instance and the appeal stage. My colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is committed to delivering in that regard.

On the question raised by Deputy Gino Kenny, I have not encountered resistance. Rather, I have received support from all elements of Government towards the delivery of the commitment. It is a commitment across Government and I am committed to delivering it. The timeframe is tight. I know there has been some criticism of it not being delivered until 2024. In terms of what we are trying to do in providing that level of accommodation, as someone who has been involved in local authorities, the Deputy will know how difficult that is but I am committed to doing everything that I and my Department can do to ensure we have phased out direct provision by the end of 2024.

The most important people in this debate are the people who find themselves in direct provision. People have exited direct provision and played a huge part at community and national level, having worked and raised families here. They are a great addition to their communities. There is a cohort of over 7,000 people still in direct provision, some of them for many years and in pretty bad situations in terms of accommodation. In terms of a request, they want the processing system to be reviewed. It is not acceptable that human beings, sometimes whole families, are locked up in hotel rooms for years. People will look back and ask how those people were treated so badly because of where they came from or because of the colour of their skin. The Minister understands the need to phase out direct provision. In the meantime, how can we challenge the processing system such that people can leave direct provision and be able to give something back to Ireland? That is all they want to do.

My original question deals more specifically with the issue of timelines. While I acknowledge 2024 as an endpoint, the Minister referenced a number of initiatives, such as the implementation team, the programme board and the external advisory group. In order that the people currently within the direct provision can see light at the end of the tunnel, are there specific timelines for any of those elements in order that we can map progress and tick off the different stages as we move through them? Can the Minister provide additional clarity in terms of concrete timelines for completion of those elements to ensure achievement of the 2024 target?

I am fully aware of how difficult that life in limbo is for residents, having engaged with individuals living in direct provision and the groups representing them. This is why we have a commitment to have someone on the programme board who has gone through the system and will feed back directly into the work being undertaken.

In response to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's earlier question, I outlined some of the points on processing. I will say that as soon as the Catherine Day report was published last October, the Department of Justice immediately established its own programme board to work on the very specific issue of processing. That Department is accountable to a Cabinet sub-committee on the delivery of these commitments, as is my Department.

We set out an indicative timeframe in the White Paper. Once the transition team and the programme board are established in the coming month, I will give them an opportunity to do a little bit of work so they can set out a clearer implementation timeframe once they are up and running because they will be in the best position to indicate deliverables as we go forward.