Topical Issue Debate

Direct Provision System

Some very disturbing photographs of a gentlemen in direct provision in St. Patrick's Accommodation Centre in Monaghan were recently circulated on social media. The phenomenon they show is not new. I would like to quote that gentleman:

I am living in St. Patrick's Direct Provision centre in County Monaghan for a long time and sharing a room with 3 persons even during Covid-19 outbreak in this centre. Last week I got this infection all over my skin, I don't know if it is mould in room or the numerous cockroaches and mice.

In the programme for Government we are committed to ensuring that Ireland provides protection to those seeking refuge from conflict, torture and persecution and, in doing so, we agree that direct provision needs to be changed. We have committed to ending direct provision and ensuring that communities are intrinsically involved with and consulted in the provision of accommodation for those who are fleeing their countries, usually due to war.

As of 15 November, 228 people were being accommodated at St. Patrick's Accommodation Centre in Monaghan. Four other premises, hotels and guest houses are used to provide accommodation while a further 183 people are accommodated in temporary accommodation throughout County Monaghan. A significant number of people are in direct provision in County Monaghan alone. I have received numerous calls to my office from people questioning the Government's plans for a further direct provision centre in Ballybay. The Minister's office has said that his Department has no plans for such a development, but it would be most helpful if he could confirm that today.

The Government has committed to the ultimate phasing out of direct provision, which I welcome. As we know, there is nothing humane about the conditions for those living in these facilities. In their current state, the facilities do not provide the proper opportunities to integrate with the communities in which residents are living. Moreover, the local communities are not afforded the proper opportunities to engage with the process, which creates division, suspicion, ill-feeling and separation. I know the scenario I have outlined is not unique to County Monaghan. It is replicated in many centres throughout the country. I would like the Minister to commit to checking on the well-being of the people in St. Patrick's Accommodation Centre. I would like to hear his plans and those of the Government to phase out direct provision in this country.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter - I know she raised it a number of days ago as well - and for giving me the opportunity to come back and speak directly to the House on the matter. I am happy to do so. I am aware of social media reports circulating on this matter, and some Deputies, including Deputy Niamh Smyth, have contacted me directly about these reports.

To set the broader context, all accommodation centres are subject to regular unannounced inspections by both my officials in the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, and an independent inspectorate company, QTS Limited. These inspections are generally undertaken twice yearly by my officials and once yearly by QTS. Inspections cover a wide range of issues, including the quality of the food, fire safety and other health and safety issues. Regular visits are also made to all emergency accommodation centres by IPAS. Any issues that are brought to the attention of IPAS are raised with the accommodation provider for resolution.

St. Patrick's accommodation centre was inspected by an IPAS official on 24 September and again by QTS on 11 November. These inspections did not reveal any major issues at the centre. However, during the second inspection QTS noted that there had been a cockroach infestation in an annexe to one of the buildings used for accommodation. QTS also noted that the provider had taken the appropriate remedial action and had engaged an exterminator and that the matter was at an end.

In recent days my attention has been drawn to reports that a resident in St. Patrick's was suffering from a medical condition for which he could not access appropriate medical care. I assure Deputies that, as a rule, access to mainstream medical services through the primary healthcare system is available to all direct provision residents, who have access to medical cards. I am informed that in this case the gentleman in question had a phone consultation with a doctor, resulting in a treatment option being provided, and that further in-person medical care, located very close to the accommodation centre, is at all stages available to the gentleman to avail of. I assure the Deputy that I continue to make inquiries to ensure that whatever additional steps are necessary to provide this gentleman with medical care are taken urgently. I intend to review the inspection reports on this centre and will continue to engage with IPAS on its findings and any recommendations that are specific to the centre.

IPAS has a complaints policy which is widely disseminated in centres. Complaints are made initially to the centre manager with a view to informal resolution. If a person is not satisfied with the outcome of his or her complaint, he or she may make a complaint to IPAS, which will investigate the matter and take appropriate action. As of last year, in the event that the resident is not satisfied with how his or her complaint is dealt with, he or she has full access to the services of both the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. Both bodies have been undertaking both individual and collective reports on direct provision. There is also a confidential freephone support service run by the Jesuit Refugee Service. It was introduced in May of this year in the context of Covid.

Finally, to address the Deputy's specific question, I confirm that my Department has no plans to utilise any other properties in Monaghan or Cavan not already in use as accommodation for international protection applicants.

That will come as good news to those of us who are concerned for people who are living in inhumane conditions, as the Minister said. We know from information provided by his Department and the inspections that were carried out that the man in question was not exaggerating. There was no intent on his part to put out any false information or anything like that. The Minister has addressed that to some extent. As for people who find themselves in these situations, where there is a cockroach infestation in a centre, the Minister talked briefly about the health provisions in place. My understanding is that this gentleman looked to go to Cavan General Hospital but that support was not available to him. Could the Minister talk to us a little more about the health provisions in place - he has briefly summarised them - for people who find themselves in these situations?

I have checked the number of direct provision centres around the country. Monaghan seems to have a very high number of direct provision settings and centres, whether temporary or permanent. Monaghan Integrated Development does terrific work under Gabriel O'Connell in providing support to people. I think 183 was the figure I gave the Minister for one of the centres; 228 is the figure for St. Patrick's. Could the Minister talk to us a little about the type of provision the Government is putting in place in terms of resources for the likes of Monaghan Integrated Development to try to help these people to stand on their own two feet and to integrate into the community, with language and education? What is the Government doing to help these people?

It is important to say that all residents of direct provision centres are entitled to use the primary healthcare system and attend their local GPs. My Department makes provision for that. I do not wish to stray into the specific circumstances of the treatment of one individual - that would not be appropriate - but my Department and my office have been in contact, through IPAS, with the management of the centre in question to ensure that this gentleman gets the appropriate level of medical assistance. Every person in direct provision should get the appropriate level of medical assistance.

I am concerned about the statement that there were four people living in the room. My understanding is that only 7.5% of residents of direct provision accommodation now live in a room with more than two other unrelated people. I will double-check that point because what the Deputy says is not the information I have received. Those measures to reduce the number of people unrelated living together were brought in specifically as a result of Covid. That involved getting extra centres around the country, and that was the right thing to do during Covid because we wanted to thin the numbers in the existing direct provision centres as we know congregation is a definite Covid risk. My Department has received a substantial additional allocation for 2021 to support direct provision. One of the things we will do is to support these "friends of the centre" networks that have built up around the country. The Deputy referred to some of the local voluntary activity taking place in Monaghan. These centres are established in direct provision centres around the country, and I really want to support them because that gets the voluntary sector and the NGOs in to provide those additional supports. I have mentioned the Jesuit Refugee Service, which does huge work around the country in providing additional supports, particularly to those who are perhaps our most vulnerable.

Will the Minister confirm whether inspections have continued during the Covid period?

I will allow the Minister a further brief response but there is no provision for him to come back in.

Yes, inspections have continued during Covid.

Brexit Issues

Four Deputies have put their names to this matter. It will be difficult to accommodate them all given the time constraints, but we will see.

Tá fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. This issue is posing a number of problems on a number of fronts in that a licensed road haulier operator requires a designated qualified transport manager. The legitimate and hard-working hauliers have had such managers in situ and have done the necessary courses in order to fulfil the competencies required for this role. However, one of the potential issues now coming up is that there will be an obligation on these hauliers post Brexit to go through another rigorous process in acquiring an EU competency in transport, which is essentially a degree. I ask the Minister to use a little common sense and to try to get this sorted.

I raised this issue yesterday with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I look forward to hearing from the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, on the matter. We are 36 days from Brexit. Regarding certificates of professional competence, CPCs, there is an element of bureaucracy here that needs to be straightened out. We will have the same people on 2 January as we have now, with the same qualifications and the same experience. They will be equally as competent. We need to do away with this bureaucracy.

The requirement for transport managers to be resident in the EU is blind to the Good Friday Agreement and the relationship with the North. It is a significant issue that needs to be resolved.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this issue and for allowing me to be part of the debate, albeit with a few problems along the way.

That this situation has been allowed to get to this last-minute point is deeply concerning. It is my view that the matter can be easily resolved with political will. What we need to ensure is that transport management CPCs that were issued in the North of Ireland or in Britain will be recognised post Brexit. In terms of the residency clause referred to by Deputy Darren O'Rourke, we need that to be amended to ensure that Irish citizens who happen to live in the North are recognised as being able to hold this position. As a former MEP, it is my absolute belief that there will be clear willingness at European level to facilitate that. The Government just needs to make sure that it happens.

It has already been said that this issue is absolutely straightforward. We have been dealing with Brexit and we all realise there is no good Brexit for Ireland. We have looked at mitigation, which is what the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocol are about. We hope that we will have them. What we have here is hauliers who are currently operating with recognised CPC qualifications that will not be recognised post Brexit. We have to introduce sensible solutions and mitigations. We also need to deal with the residency issue. I put it to the Government that this issue needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible. Deputies referred to conversations they have had with other Ministers. Deputy McHugh and I raised this issue with the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, at the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. The Government knows about the issue. We just need to ensure that a solution is provided for the people who require it for their livelihood.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. EU legislation sets out several requirements that must be satisfied in order to be eligible to hold a road transport operator licence, one of which is professional competence. In order to fulfil this requirement, every road transport undertaking in Ireland or, indeed, any other EU member state must have a nominated transport manager to effectively and continuously manage its transport activities. The transport manager must hold a certificate of professional competence in either road haulage or road passenger transport, depending on the nature of the operator's business. This certificate must be issued by an EU member state and is ordinarily obtained by passing a written examination. As highlighted by the European Commission in 2018 and, more recently, in July of this year, after the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December, transport managers' CPCs issued by an authority of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, or a body authorised by the United Kingdom will no longer be valid in the EU.

As part of the Government's Brexit preparations, the Department of Transport carried out a review and identified approximately 200 individuals with a UK-issued transport manager CPC who are currently nominated as transport manager for Irish road transport operators. The Department recently wrote to these transport managers and the relevant operators to ensure they are aware of the position as outlined by the European Commission.

There are steps that affected transport managers and operators can take to ensure they continue to be in compliance with the relevant EU legislation. Individuals who hold a UK-issued transport manager CPC and who wish to act, after the end of the Brexit transition period, as transport manager for a road transport operator based in the EU, including Ireland, will need to obtain a transport manager CPC issued by an EU member state. This affects UK-qualified transport managers working for Irish operators, but also those working for other operators based in other EU member states.

As outlined in the Department’s correspondence to those UK transport manager CPC holders who work as transport manager for Irish-based transport operators, the Department has communicated with the European Commission on this important issue. I am pleased to inform the House that the Commission yesterday evening indicated that before the end of the Brexit transition period we may issue a corresponding Irish transport manager CPC to those UK-qualified individuals working for Irish operators. This is extremely welcome news for those affected transport managers and operators as it means that the transport managers will not now be required to undertake an Irish exam in order to continue to work as transport manager for an Irish operator.

In light of this clarification received from the European Commission, my Department is now examining as a matter of urgency the arrangements that must be put in place in order to allow for the issuing of corresponding transport manager CPCs to affected individuals. A further communication will shortly be issued to affected transport managers and operators to inform them of this recent update from the European Commission and to outline what needs to be done in order to obtain an Irish transport manager CPC. We will advise impacted transport managers to apply before the end of the year to avail of these new arrangements, and will communicate this as soon as possible. It is important to note that those affected will not need to sit an exam to secure an Irish CPC.

I do not know what to say. I am delighted. There is no doubt that the operators and hauliers who take their business really seriously and have many challenges ahead of them will be absolutely delighted with this news. I thank the Minister of State for the follow-up. Obviously, Deputy Ó Murchú and I value the fact that the message put across the table yesterday at the meeting of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, of which we are both members, reached the ears of people in the European Commission. I am absolutely delighted and very much look forward to how this will work out with the Department of Transport. That was a long-winded way of thanking the Minister of State.

The Minister of State provided a welcome update regarding one of the elements of this issue, namely, the CPC. I would like to hear from her regarding the requirement for transport managers to be resident in the EU. There is a specific Irish context in terms of the North, the Good Friday Agreement, and the way people live in one area but commute across the Border to work in another. That is an anomaly that still needs to be addressed. I have not heard anything from the Minister of State on that issue.

I was not aware that raising a Topical Issue matter could have such an impact. I certainly was not aware of the power of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. All of those are welcome. It is good news that those concerned will not have to sit a test. It is really important that the process the Minister of State is initiating is free of bureaucracy or a financial penalty or cost on those involved. Like Deputy Darren O'Rourke, I urge the Minister of State to ensure that Irish citizens who happen to live across the Border are not discommoded as a result of a decision which they completely opposed in the first place. Bearing in mind that the majority of people in the North voted to remain in the European Union, it would be a travesty if they were discriminated against.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. We also need an answer on the related issue of residency. Like Deputy McHugh, I obviously put this completely down to our interaction at the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs yesterday. The constituent of mine who approached me on this issue thanks the Minister of State and me, as well as Deputy McHugh for the small part he played in my game.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions and for raising this issue. It is welcome news that will come as a relief to many transport managers around the country. On the EU residency requirement for transport managers, in accordance with Article 4 of Regulation (EC) 1071/2009, the transport manager for a road transport operator based in the EU must be resident in the EU. That was communicated to the transport managers in that communication by the Department. As I stated, my Department is working very hard to communicate this news to transport managers and the fact that they will not need to sit the exam, which is very welcome in the run-up to Brexit at the end of the year.

Primary Care Centres

I am delighted to be able to introduce this matter, which relates to the need for a primary care centre for Birr. The town has a growing population and also serves south Offaly and, indeed, people from north Tipperary. The people of the area have been left without a Midoc service for well in excess of two years. I am aware that the Sláintecare policy emphasises the need for the delivery of primary care units and acute services within the community.

I stress the urgent need for a commitment to be given to establish a primary care centre in Birr. There was great disappointment when the application for approval of a site that had been earmarked for the centre was refused by the HSE after 12 months of waiting for a response. I was very disappointed, as a Deputy serving the area, not to get an answer to my parliamentary questions on this issue. I commend the cathaoirleach of Offaly County Council, Councillor John Carroll from Birr, who has done fantastic work on this issue. Councillor Carroll met with HSE representatives recently and it is my understanding that there are now three options on the table for a site for the centre.

I implore the Minister of State to ensure that her Department commits to the timely delivery of a primary care centre in Birr. The services it would provide are badly needed and there is a shortage of GPs in the town. If we had a state-of-the-art primary care centre, it would likely attract GPs to the town, which would solve that problem at the same time. Will the Minister of State to commit to engaging with the HSE to secure the delivery of this facility for Birr? I have tried engaging with it and am very disappointed to say that I have had little or no response. My understanding is that when the site application was refused, after 12 months of people waiting to see what was happening, the decision was communicated by way of a telephone call to the county councillors in Birr. That is totally unacceptable.

This is a very serious issue and we need a commitment that progress will be made on it. The people of Birr deserve better and I am here today to ensure, on their behalf, that everything is done to secure the delivery of the primary care centre and that the process is not dragged out any further. As I said, the town has been without a Midoc service for more than two years, which puts it at a huge disadvantage. We must think of our elderly population and the children with particular needs who require access to acute services within a primary care setting.

I thank Deputy Nolan for raising this issue. On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, I acknowledge the Deputy's work in advocating for the people of counties Offaly and Laois. I know she has concerns about the progress of the delivery of a planned primary care centre in Birr. Although the HSE has responsibility for the delivery of such centres, there is, of course, a level of engagement with officials in the Department of Health on those projects. I welcome the opportunity to update the Deputy on this important project.

First, I assure the Deputy that the HSE has not abandoned proposals for a primary care centre in Birr. In fact, it is continuing to work closely with local GPs and is engaging with private developers to ensure the residents of Birr and its surrounding area will ultimately have access to a purpose-designed, well-equipped, high-quality facility. The development of these centres, like other building projects, is dependent on many outside factors, including the suitability of available locations and planning processes. An additional complicating factor with this development is the desire to secure the commitment of local GPs to sharing accommodation and delivering healthcare services alongside HSE staff in support of a multidisciplinary team approach to patient care.

I understand that the original site identified for the centre was at the existing rugby club facilities in Birr and that agreement had been reached between the HSE and local GPs on developing this location. However, planning permission was refused by An Bord Pleanála in June 2018. This was an extremely disappointing development but the continued commitment to deliver a centre was demonstrated by the HSE's inclusion of Birr in a national advertisement in May 2019 seeking expressions of interest to deliver centres under the operational lease model. This advertisement resulted in a number of potential locations being identified in Birr. Offaly County Council proposed a site known locally as the rectory lands.

Discussions are continuing on how best to proceed, although they have been somewhat hampered by the Covid-19 crisis. I am aware that local GPs have indicated that they do not wish to pursue the council's option and their preference remains the original rugby club site. I understand they intend to make a submission under the new Offaly county development plan to that effect. The HSE has recently written to interested parties identified in the May 2019 advertisement inviting them to submit their best and final offer for the development and operation of a primary care centre in Birr. The HSE hopes these submissions, when returned, will be considered early next year and, in the absence of further issues arising, enable an indicative centre operational date of quarter 3, 2022.

I have no doubt that Deputy Nolan and the local community in Birr are frustrated by the delays in progressing this project, but there should be no doubt that there is still a commitment to building a primary care centre in Birr. The HSE and other stakeholders continue to work to make that plan a reality and fulfil the Sláintecare vision of delivering better care, closer to people's homes and in their local communities.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I am greatly appreciative of the information she provided because it was not known to me or to the local councillors exactly what was happening. The communication from the HSE in this matter needs to improve. I welcome that the Minister of State has got this information for us and that she is facilitating my questions on this important and urgent issue for the people of Birr and the wider area of south Offaly and north Tipperary.

I have another question for the Minister of State. She said that it the HSE hopes to made a decision on submissions received in the first quarter of 2021. I welcome that information, as I said, but we really need ongoing updates from the HSE on the matter. I do not want to have to keep chasing it for answers. In fairness, when I sent in my parliamentary questions to the Minister, they were acknowledged, but there was no follow-up from the HSE. This issue must be a top priority for the Department because the establishment of a primary care centre in Birr is very important to the people living there. I do not want to be back here in two years' time saying that nothing has happened and the sod has not yet been turned. I really hope we can get things moving very quickly and get the project off the ground.

I reiterate that the HSE needs to step up to the mark. Its communication thus far has been dire. I would like to see a timeline of what is happening as we go along. If the HSE could provide a briefing on the progress being made, as it is made, that would be very helpful. My constituents are very concerned about this issue and I, as their Deputy, would love to see the primary care centre in place. The cathaoirleach of Offaly County Council is also working very hard on the issue, as I outlined. Instead of promises, we want certainty that the project will be delivered. As it progresses, we want to be able to engage with the HSE and get feedback on it.

I thank the Deputy for her constructive points. I can hear the frustration and annoyance in her voice regarding the slow pace of this project. The development of primary care centres to accommodate primary care teams and GPs in one location is an essential enabler of the delivery of community and primary care services nationwide. The driving force behind the development of the centres is the desire to support the implementation of new models of care that offer patients access to high-quality healthcare services and resources closer to their homes and in their local community.

As I have outlined, there are different factors that can have an impact on the delivery of a primary care centre. These delays are intensely frustrating for all involved, especially local communities who, rightly, wish to see local services developed. Notwithstanding the delays in this instance, the HSE continues to work closely with local GPs and is engaging with private developers to progress the development of a centre in Birr. I assure the Deputy that both my Department and the HSE are fully committed to the Sláintecare programme. The development of primary care centres will continue to be an important building block in enabling the vision of Sláintecare to become a reality. Indeed, significant progress has been made on the roll-out of centres nationally. There are now 135 centres operational throughout the country, up from 70 at the end of 2012.

To reiterate, the HSE recently wrote to interested parties identified in the May 2019 advertisement inviting them to submit their best and final offer for the development and operation of a primary care centre in Birr. The HSE hopes that these submissions, when returned, will be considered early next year and, barring any further issues arising, enable an indicative operational date for a centre in the third quarter of 2022.

To clarify, an indicative centre operational date is when it would plan to have it open. These centres provide a setting in which a wide range of health professionals can deliver better care closer to people's homes in their local communities. I sincerely hope the people of Birr will be able to avail of such a facility in the not-too-distant future.

I accept the Deputy's point about the frustration with the lack of communication from the HSE. It is very frustrating and I will convey that to the HSE.