First Stage: 27 Jan 2016
Oireachtas Link: http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/seanad2016012700002?opendocument#S01000
Direct Provision: Motion
Wednesday, 27 January 2016
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, to the House and welcome the opportunity to debate the issue of direct provision which, as other colleagues have noted, Members have debated a number of times previously. I commend Senators van Turnhout and Mac Conghail and their colleagues from the Taoiseach's nominee group on bringing forward this motion, which is being debated in the best tradition of the Seanad, that is, it is framed in a manner that invites a co-operative and cross-party approach. This is helpful and I am delighted to support it wholeheartedly. It rightly draws attention to and highlights particular aspects of direct provision as they relate to children and it is really useful for Members to focus on this, as they have not had the opportunity previously to focus specifically on children in direct provision. I take the Minister of State's point that debates on direct provision in this House in particular but also, it must be said ,in the other House and generally in public discourse in Ireland have been focused on the need for compassion for those in direct provision and for those who are migrating to Ireland generally. It is a very different context to that which obtains in Denmark or in our near neighbour in the United Kingdom, where a much more heated and polarised debate about immigration and migration is evident, and I greatly welcome this.
I also welcome the publication of the report of the working group on the protection process, which lies at the heart of this motion. Like other Members, I welcome the chairperson of the working group, Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon, to the Visitors Gallery and thank him for producing the report and for being present for the debate and taking the time to attend. Members had a specific debate on direct provision almost one year ago and Members debated it again in December in the context of issues arising in the International Protection Bill. Clearly, however, one point that emerged through those debates was that until last year, the system had remained unchanged since its introduction, as everyone is aware, as a stopgap and temporary measure in 1999 and 2000 by the then Fianna Fáil Government as a way to ensure the immediate accommodation needs of those immigrating to Ireland would be met. As Members are aware, the single biggest issue that has arisen and everybody's single biggest concern with direct provision, which was highlighted in the working group report, is that of delay whereby a system brought in as a temporary stopgap for approximately six months per applicant has become a place in which children have been brought up and people have spent years without resolution of their legal status. This really has been the biggest issue and I therefore welcome that this issue was addressed for the first time in December of last year through the International Protection Bill. This Bill responded to key recommendations in the report to reduce the length of time people will spend in direct provision, to try to address the aforementioned serious concern regarding the length of time spent and to establish a streamlined and single applications procedure, which will meet many of the concerns of many Members.
I recall that when Members debated this subject one year ago, there was a much higher number of people in direct provision who had been in direct provision for a lot longer. In examining the more recent figures from the Reception and Integration Agency, I welcome that the number of such people has reduced, although it is still too many people as approximately 25% of those in direct provision have been there for more than five years. The position certainly is better than one year ago when the equivalent figure was 45% but speedier progress must be made on this issue of delay and time spent in direct provision. While many Members had issues with aspects of the International Protection Bill, it introduced this hugely important reform and, as the Minister of State has noted, specifically referred to the need to ensure the best interests of the child were protected in a range of different provisions. I commend Senator van Turnhout, in particular, who really pushed on that issue and secured amendments both here and in the Dáil on it to ensure adherence to the best interests of children would be specifically required.
After the issue of delay and time spent in direct provision, the next biggest issue identified by most commentators has been the impact on children and on families and on family life. This subject again is at the heart of this motion and of many of the report's 173 recommendations. Current figures show there are slightly more than 700 family groups and slightly more than 1,200 children still in direct provision. I wish to refer specifically to some of the recommendations in the working group report, which again are highlighted in the Independent Senators' motion. In particular, I refer to the recommendation on access to cooking facilities. I also have visited these centres and, as other colleagues have stated, the absence of a facility for cooking probably is the point that stands out most starkly. Cramped space is an issue and difficulty with having play and recreation facilities also is a subject of recommendations in the report but it is clear that the lack of cooking facilities really undermines a cohesive family life for those families who are in direct provision. I note the working group's specific and tailored recommendation that all families should have access to cooking facilities, whether in a self-contained unit or through the use of a communal kitchen. While the working group recognised it might take some time to reconfigure existing centres or bring new centres online, it suggested the end of 2016 as the date by which that recommendation should be implemented fully. That is of some concern, although I accept there are very difficult practical issues in putting that recommendation in place. I accept that cooking facilities are made available in some centres. I know from talking to some of the people who run the centres that they will have to provide cooking facilities for families if they are directed to do so. It will be difficult to do in some of the buildings and it will clearly take some time to change. It is one key recommendation that needs to be achieved. I am heartened by the fact that tenders will be invited to provide accommodation and perhaps it might be built into a tender. If people are tendering, they should include in their tender provision for independent cooking facilities for families. We could require new facilities to be provided, while acknowledging the difficulty of adapting existing facilities.
Others have mentioned the need for the Ombudsman for Children to be able to intervene and the safeguards to ensrue child protection. I welcome the progress that has been made in that regard.
The issue of education is hugely important. Like the Minister of State, I welcome the swift implementation of the recommendation made in that regard. The Minister for Education and Skills moved very quickly to ensure children in direct provision centres had access to third level education. That was hugely important and it will have a positive impact on many families.
I commend the Senators who brought forward the motion. I am glad that we can unite on it and hope the next Government will continue to implement the recommendations of the working group with speed.