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 Header Item Direct Provision System (Continued)
 Header Item Agriculture Scheme Eligibility

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 844 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald] Anybody - researchers, Oireachtas Members, residents of centres, NGOs and so on - can examine these reports in detail.

Asylum accommodation centres do not exist in isolation. In fact, they are subject not only to inspections by the Reception and Integration Agency, but other State inspections. They are, for example, subject to inspection by fire officers and, in respect of food issues, to unannounced inspections by environmental health officers. RIA centres are occupied on a 24-7 basis and maintenance issues are an ongoing fact of life. Where problems are found as a result of these inspections, they are fixed. This is precisely the purpose of an inspection regime. Of course, some problems need time to fix. In regard to overcrowding, for instance, all RIA centres are subject to the requirements of the Housing Acts 1996 to 2002. Where a family increases in size such that these requirements are no longer met, alternative suitable accommodation is offered by the RIA. Some families decline such an offer, however, because they are settled, in so far as they can be, in the centres.

The RIA takes the issue of vulnerable persons in the system very seriously. All staff in direct provision centres are Garda vetted and there are robust policies in place relating to child protection, sexual harassment and violence. There is a specific unit within the RIA, the child and family services unit, which is headed up by an official seconded from the Child and Family Agency. I have spoken to this official about the importance of being very alert to the issues the Deputy raised. The individual in question has very good clinical expertise in the area of child welfare and protection. Details of the work of this unit can be found on the RIA website. As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I met with officials from the Department of Justice and Equality to discuss the child protection policies in place in these centres in order to ensure they were, for example, subject to Children First procedures. I was assured that this is the case. I also made recommendations that the visibility of children in direct provision should be more evident in all reports and statistics that are gathered. In addition, I wanted to make sure that children in direct provision have access to the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, which they do.

I appreciate the point the Deputy is making regarding the care and welfare of children in direct provision as it is currently operated. The operation of the system is kept under review. I have acknowledged that the length of time residents have spent and are spending in direct provision is an issue that needs to be addressed. I have absolutely no desire for applicants to remain in the protection system any longer than the minimum period it takes to process their cases. Many of the issues the Deputy raised today are on our agenda. The direct provision system is not ideal, but it does facilitate the State in providing a roof over the heads of those seeking asylum, that is, those persons seeking to be allowed to remain in the State on humanitarian grounds. The system is inextricably linked to the surrounding international protection process.

A key priority for the Government in this area must be to bring forward the legislative reform aimed at establishing a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds for protection and any other grounds presented by applicants seeking to remain in the State. The current system is too complex, with too many different elements to it and various opportunities for judicial review which invariably mean that rather than a decision being taken quickly, applicants are spending many years in the system. I met some applicants in Mosney who have been there for nine years. That is not acceptable. I would like to simplify and streamline the existing arrangements by removing the multi-layered and sequential processes and providing applicants with a final decision in a more straightforward and timely fashion. With that in mind, I am reviewing, in consultation with my officials, the work done to date on the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, following which I will decide on how best to progress the implementation of the Government's priorities. In particular, I wish to examine whether amendments to certain sections of that Bill would allow us to expedite the establishment of a single application procedure. Such a reform would transform what has been happening for more than a decade in respect of applicants who arrive in this country.

Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: Information on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Zoom on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin I thank the Minister for her reply, which shows she is well aware of the realities of the direct provision system and the challenges they present. The fact that she has visited a centre gives me great hope that she will be in a good position to address the problems in the system. Nevertheless, I hold fast to the view that the subcontracting out of the inspection regime to the private sector does not offer sufficient protections and that it should be brought under the auspices of the Health Information and Quality Authority. It is clear that the Minister recognises what needs to be done to tackle this issue, including the necessary legislative changes. Moreover, she seems keenly aware of the damage caused when children spend years in these types of settings. There is no requirement to for that point to be reinforced.

Will the Minister indicate the type of timeline she envisages for the legislative measures to which she referred? Can she give a commitment that we will revisit this issue in a structured and timetabled fashion rather than discussing it on the basis of media reports or by way of a Topical Issue debate or parliamentary question? Will she give a further undertaking to the House that in the time left to this Government, be it two years or less, reform of the direct provision system will be a priority? We should be able, at the end of our term in government, to say we have made solid progress for the sake of the children and families involved. We should be in a position to point to the steps we have taken and the results achieved.

We should at least be able to say we did that much for these vulnerable children. These children are not lesser. They are living in this Republic, and that means something. After all that has happened in this country, we have a deep understanding of the trauma and long-term damage that can be done to children if there is not a proper focus on their social, emotional and educational needs at this vulnerable time in their lives. To summarise, I am asking the Minister to elaborate on the potential for HIQA to step in as inspector and, second, to give a timetable for nailing down the improvements in this area which the Minister is clearly committed to driving forward.

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald In regard to the inspection regime, HIQA is being asked to do a great deal of things at this time. For instance, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I asked it to examine child protection teams, what the benchmarks should be and the progress that needs to be made. That progress is under way. I am not sure HIQA is necessarily the right body for what the Deputy is proposing, but I understand where he is coming from. I will ask my officials to examine the issue to see whether any additional safeguards can be built into the direct provision inspection regime, with particular regard to children in the system.

In regard to the timetable for progress, I will be reviewing the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill in the coming weeks and will make a decision quite soon as to whether we can move on the protection procedure as a first step. There will be different views on whether we should do that or whether it should continue to be integrated into the larger immigration Bill. I wish to make sold progress on this matter within the timeframe the Deputy outlined. Moving away from the current multi-layered structure could, on its own, be an important initiative from a legislative point of view in order to deal with the issues we are discussing here today.

Agriculture Scheme Eligibility

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Tom Hayes, for taking this matter.

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