Immigration (Reform) (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill 2014

First Stage: 22 Oct 2014
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Ivana's Contributions

Second Stage: 22/10/2014

Immigration (Reform) (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill 2014: Second Stage

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan. I commend my colleague, Senator David Norris, for introducing the Bill to debate this and related issues which we have debated a number of times around the direct provision system and those seeking asylum and permission to reside in Ireland. I commend the Senator for making a thoughtful contribution to what is, undoubtedly, an ongoing debate.

Before dealing with the Bill, I wish to refer to an issue on which others have commented, that is, whether Private Members' Bills, motions and amendments have been accepted in this House. The Government has a good record in accepting amendments, something on which Senator Feargal Quinn commented. Three amendments tabled by Senator Sean D. Barrett were accepted by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe----

Senator David Norris: To the Vehicle Clamping Bill.

Senator Ivana Bacik: -----to the Vehicle Clamping Bill 2014. Today, at the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, reminded us that she had accepted an amendment proposed by Senators Katherine Zappone and Jillian van Turnhout and others, on which I had supported them, to extend the powers of the Human Rights and Equality Commission. It is a substantive amendment which will strengthen the work of the commission, the membership of which we approved today after a good debate at the committee. We have had motions on this issue also in the House. As an Independent Member, I had Private Members' Bills accepted. It is not just a matter for the Government; it requires a good deal of collaboration on a cross-party basis, as we saw when Senator Averil Power tabled the motion on the recognition of a Palestinian state which, as Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú mentioned, many of us across the floor supported. That is the strength of this House - we work well on a cross-party basis. I, therefore, commend Senator David Norris and welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill.

I agree with the Bill in principle to regularise the position of those who have spent a long period in a legal limbo. That is what the Bill is about. However, we are at the commencement of a process to achieve real change in the direct provision and asylum application systems in Ireland, which is hugely welcome and about which Senator Colm Burke and others have spoken. I, therefore, ask Senator David Norris to give a little more time to the process which is ongoing. A working group has been established.

I should start at the beginning. On 11 July the Government, having reshuffled Ministers, issued a new statement of priorities which specifically addressed the direct provision system and agreed to reduce the length of time applicants spent in the system through the establishment of a single application procedure and the establishment of an independent working group. In this House on 17 September we discussed a motion on direct provision which was taken by the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who promised reform. The following day he was due to meet stakeholders with a view to establishing a working group and on 30 September in the other House announced its establishment. In fairness, the explanatory memorandum to Senator David Norris's Bill acknowledges the appointment of respected independent experts to the working group on the protection and direct provision systems, chaired by Judge Bryan McMahon, which may also result in positive changes to the protection system overall. It will result in positive changes, about which there is no doubt. On 13 October the Minister of State announced the membership of the working group, having announced on 30 September that its chairperson would be Judge Bryan McMahon. As others mentioned, the membership includes representatives of the Irish Refugee Council, the Jesuit Refugee Service, SPIRASI, the Children's Rights Alliance, UNHCR Ireland, independent academics and so on. It is a really good working group.

The Minister of State has many times strongly criticised the direct provision system, a critique we all share across the floor of the House. The system has been in place for 14 years; it is not the creation of the Government. Those of us who were in opposition have acknowledged that it was created as a stop-gap measure to ensure individuals would be housed and given shelter. It was intended as a short-term measure, that the individuals concerned would be in direct provision accommodation for no longer than six months. The figures have been quoted many times.

From the Reception and Integration Agency's own figures 68% of those who are in direct provision spend three or more years and the average stay is 48 months. I recently visited Hatch Hall, a direct provision centre a stone's throw from here and met individuals who had been in the system for ten years. Undoubtedly the system was not set up with that purpose. As I said on 17 September, practical changes could be made to ensure greater respect, dignity and better conditions for those in direct provision. Simple steps could be taken such as creating self-catering units which are in place in two of the direct provisions centres.

We can improve the conditions of the direct provision. Three issues have been identified as needing to be addressed. The Bill does not address all of these issues but the working group is addressing a much more comprehensive set of issues. It is addressing the conditions in direct provision as well as the length of time people spend in direct provision. That will be addressed not just by the working group but through the mechanism of the single protection procedure to be introduced through the legislation, to be fast tracked through the Houses. It is anticipated that the Bill will be passed by Easter 2015 and the Minister may comment on that.

I understood the working group would report by Christmas. Senator van Turnhout and I both did a double take when we heard it would be done by Easter. In fact we received a briefing from the Department of Justice and Equality which does say Easter, but I would appreciate if the Minister of State could clarify it. I did check. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin in his speech to the Dáil on 30 September referred to "the working group which will be asked to submit a first report to Government by the end of the year". At that point, there was a December deadline. Easter was spoken of as the deadline for implementing reforms, which will be fair, but we need more clarity on that.

The Bill seeks to regularise people's position and to ensure a right to work is built in at a certain point. I am not clear on when that should be or on the categories to whom it should apply. I am not sure that I could say for certain that this Bill takes the correct approach. It applies, as I read it, to a large category of persons, not just those who have had applications for asylum refused and who have been in the system for more than four years, but a broader category under section 4(2)(c). I would need more clarity on the categories to whom it is intended to apply.

We need to see overall reform of the immigration system. That is acknowledged and that is beyond the scope of this Bill or that of the working group, but I anticipate the working group's report.