I have been asked by my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, TD, to respond to this motion by putting forward a counter motion as follows:
“That Seanad Éireann, recognising that the current system of ‘ Direct Provision’ has existed for 14 years; that the Minister and the Minister of State in the Department of Justice and Equality having visited several centres both agree on the need to review the current system; and that a key concern identified by those working in the sector is the length of time people spend in the system with over half of the residents being in the system for over four years, welcomes the commitments in the Statement of Government Priorities 2014 - 2016 to:
a) establish an independent Working Group to report to Government on improvements with the protection process, including Direct Provision and supports for asylum seekers and
b) to reduce the length of time the applicant spends in the system through the establishment of a single applications procedure, to be introduced by way of a Protection Bill as a matter of priority.”
I welcome this opportunity to respond to the points raised in this Private Member’s motion and to speak more generally about the subject in order to assist Members gain a fuller understanding of all the issues involved.
It is no secret that I personally have many difficulties with the Direct Provision system as it currently operates. I have described the system as inhumane and I do not resile from that description. I am entitled to hold that view even if it may conflict with the views of others in Government. A debate on this subject is long overdue and is now taking place at a serious level not just because of what I have been saying but because of the long and persistent questioning of the system by NGO’s, international bodies and by many other members of the Oireachtas.
This House will know from recent media reports that there is an ongoing series of protests in asylum accommodation centres. I want to make it clear that while I fully respect the rights of residents to protest, I cannot condone the targeting of individuals working in certain Direct Provision centres or the stopping of people going about their lawful work. I have visited a number of centres and, while my concerns about the system are unabated, I fully accept that persons there, as well as in the Reception and Integration Agency, are working on a day to day basis in the interests of the residents and bring a high level of commitment to their work.
This system has been in operation for 14 years and no click of my fingers is going to end it immediately. The system is a creature of Government and, depending on the outcome of the review, it will require Government approval to change it. Nonetheless, I can say to this House and to those outside it that change can take place more rapidly that anyone has thought previously through the working group review mechanism referred to in this counter motion which I am putting before this House.
I should also point out that, quite apart from these political developments, there has been activity on the legal front. The six week hearing in the “CA and TY” Judicial Review proceedings in the High Court challenging, inter alia, the legality and constitutionality of the Direct Provision system ended on 28 July, 2014 and a reserved judgement is awaited. This judgement may also affect the future of the system.
My job as Minister of State is to ensure that the commitment to a review is honoured. An important first step in the setting up of this Working Group will be the convening of a morning Round Table Consultation tomorrow Thursday 18 September. The purpose of this Roundtable is two fold. Firstly to engage with Non-Governmental Organisations active in the area to enable them to outline the key issues for them in relation to the State's current arrangements for asylum seekers. And, secondly, to use the output of the Consultation to inform in more detail the terms of reference of the Working Group.
A number of themes and issues which are reflective of the current debate on the State’s arrangements have been identified for discussion at the Roundtable. These include the material needs of applicants in direct provision, including the direct provision allowance and exceptional needs payments, limitations on the length of time persons spend in direct provision, education and delays in the international protection determination process. In other words, all of the calls made on Government in Senator Mullen’s motion can be addressed through this working group in a calm, considered and detailed way.
Whatever changes need to be made to the way we deal with asylum seekers, I do need to acknowledge that the Direct Provision system has enabled the housing and other needs of over 51,000 asylum seekers to be met since it was introduced. No one has ever been made homeless.
Nonetheless, people spend too long in Direct Provision. There are very many reasons why this is so. Approximately 50% of persons in the Direct Provision system have either Judicial Review applications pending, are the subject of deportation orders, or are seeking leave to remain in the State for non-protection reasons. A recent examination of cases in the direct provision system suggested that the overwhelming majority of cases are in the system longer than 4 years – the cut-off date suggested in Senator Mullen’s motion - the applicants or their family members have legal proceedings pending, having exhausted all the processes in the protection system.
With regard to the protection process more generally, the counter motion acknowledges the commitment to introduce a separate Protection Bill to establish a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds for protection. This reform will simplify and streamline existing arrangements and provide applicants with a final decision on their protection application in a more straight forward and timely fashion. It will also, as a consequence, reduce the length of time that applicants spend in the direct provision system. The aim is to have the Bill passed through the Oireachtas by Easter, 2015
The independent working group process which I commend to the House in our counter motion is a sensible one. It allows for necessary change to be identified and managed effectively without the dangers which would be generated by peremptory actions. I acknowledge that the system of direct provision was created to avert a homelessness crisis. It is important any outcome of a review of the system does not serve to re-create the crisis which led to its establishment in the first place. Many suggestions in relation to reform of the Direct Provision system have an underlying assumption that numbers coming into the State seeking asylum will continue to fall and that it is a static not a dynamic issue. So far in 2014 asylum claims are running 40% higher than 2013.
I commend this counter motion to the House.