Thursday, 27 May 2021

Questions (11, 92)

Steven Matthews

Question:

11. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the details regarding in-person inspections of direct provision centres during level 5 public health restrictions in the first five months of 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26715/21]

View answer

Steven Matthews

Question:

92. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the position regarding in-person inspections of direct provision centres given that public health guidelines have been reduced; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26716/21]

View answer

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Children)

Concerns were raised during the previous two lockdowns that inspections of direct provision centres were done over the phone. This is very much a suboptimal alternative when one considers the vulnerability and exposure to risk experienced by people living in direct provision centres. Will the Minister detail the in-person inspections of direct provision centres during level 5 of the public health restrictions in the first five months of 2021?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 92 together.

Accommodation centres are currently subject to regular unannounced inspections by both officials in the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, and by an independent inspectorate company, QTS Limited. These inspections are generally undertaken twice yearly by my officials in IPAS and once yearly by QTS Limited.

Inspections cover a wide range of issues, including food quality, fire safety, appropriate signage and information for residents, as well as the condition of communal areas and sleeping quarters, adherence to hygiene and other health and safety measures. Completed inspections are published on the website www.ria.gov.ie.

Unfortunately, the current inspection programme was severely compromised by the Covid-19 pandemic after Christmas last year. However, I am pleased to report that QTS Limited was able to recommence inspections towards the end of February 2021. To date this year, QTS Limited has carried out 19 inspections. In 16 of these cases, the report of the inspection is due to be submitted to my Department shortly. In a further two cases, the Department is seeking responses from contractors on the findings of the reports. These reports will be published on the website to which I referred. One report is already published there.

During the level 5 restrictions, my Department continued to maintain direct contact with our centres and residents through regular newsletters, as well as through the availability of a helpdesk from IPAS. In addition, a freephone service, independently run by the Jesuit Refugee Service with funding from my Department, provides confidential support for residents.

My Department is engaging with HIQA to undertake the role of monitoring the services provided to those accommodated in our centres against national standards that were published in 2019. The national standards meet the requirements of the EU recast reception conditions directive which we voluntarily opted into in June 2018. It is intended that HIQA will begin this role shortly. A strong and transparent monitoring capacity is absolutely crucial to ensure the quality of services is maintained during the significant transformation process which will occur over the coming years in line with the White Paper on a new international support service which I published in February.

Now that level 5 restrictions have eased, my officials will shortly begin again to conduct inspections of all accommodation centres until such time as a formal agreement is completed with HIQA to take over this particular role.

To clarify, IPAS and QTS Limited inspections are being conducted over the phone. When does the Minister believe we will get back to in-person inspections? We must acknowledge there have been additional pressures on what is an already congregated setting, particularly in light of school closures. While allowances would not go so far as to be able to have social coffees every day, people in direct provision were very much limited during lockdown in what they could do. Have any of those additional pressures on the congregated setting been reflected in the reports? Have we managed to maintain the quality of services in the centres or has there been a marked diminution in this regard?

The Deputy stated the importance of getting back to in-person inspections by IPAS officials. As soon as public health restrictions allow for that to take place, it will continue.

Services provided on a voluntary basis by the friends of the direct provision groups have been impacted solely because of public health restrictions. Those involved in providing important supports have not been able to get into direct provision centres. As soon as public health restrictions allow for that to take place, we will see it recommence.

On the European Commission guidelines into which we voluntarily opted, will the Minister comment on the benchmark we are setting in direct provision? One of the recurring messages I have got from my interactions with people in direct provision is about being able to prepare their own food. I know progress has been made in that area. Will the Minster add a general comment on where we are in terms of the standards we apply to direct provision centres? We are looking to phase them out and make them something of the past. However, until such time as we reach that point, are we prepared to stand over the benchmarks we are setting for the service providers?

My key intention in terms of accommodation is to end the use of emergency direct provision centres which are primarily hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. We will be undertaking a round of procurement later on this summer for new accommodation. That will be centred on the idea of own-door and own-room accommodation. Particularly in the context of own-door accommodation, we will have a situation where people will be provided with cooking facilities.

I know not being able to cook for themselves is a major concern for people in direct provision. In Letterkenny, we opened a direct provision centre with own-door accommodation where people can cook for themselves. We opened a similar facility in County Galway.

In settings where we continue to provide meals, I know the quality has been criticised.

We look carefully at any new contracts that we are renewing and we investigate where complaints are coming in respect of residents and investigate those very thoroughly.

The next question is from Deputy Ó Murchú. We just will have time for him to introduce it.

In Question No. 12, I have brought up the case of early childcare services and accessing the national childcare scheme, NCS. There are a number of these services in danger. We are talking about the referrals from Tusla. I am aware that there are ongoing conversations and while Tusla will deal with the House – Coxs Demesne Youth and Community Project because it has a service level agreement, others do not. There is a possibility of using the Meitheal early intervention services by Tusla but beyond that we need to look to expanding and looking at the Department of Education and possibly school completion home-school liaison officers being able to refer children. We need early interventions as quickly as possible to ensure that services like Moneymore Childcare Centre in Drogheda are not obliged to close in September.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta agus tá brón orm anois mar níl an t-am againn chun freagra a fháil ón Aire mar tá deireadh tagtha anois le ceisteanna chun an Aire Leanaí, Comhionannais, Míchumais, Lánpháirtíochta agus Óige.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.