Thank you for inviting me here today to speak with you on this very important topic.
Firstly, let me say that the Direct Provision system has provided accommodation, food, healthcare and other essential needs for more than 65,000 people since its inception some twenty years ago.
While it ensures that these basic needs are met, the intervening years have taught us that people claiming international protection need more than that. They need a holistic system that is responsive to their individual needs and that fully respects their dignity and right to privacy and family life.
A number of important reforms have been introduced in recent years under my predecessors, most notably the roll-out of cooking facilities across centres to support independent living; the introduction of labour market access to foster greater economic independence; and the agreement of National Standards to promote consistency in services and standards across centres.
But it’s not enough. And that is why the Government has committed to ending the current system of Direct Provision within the lifetime of the Government and to replacing it with a new international protection accommodation policy, centred on a not-for-profit approach.
Responsibility for the accommodation system is transferring from my Department to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Officials from both Departments are making the necessary arrangements to facilitate the transfer of functions as quickly as possible.
Last year, as Senators will be aware, we asked Dr. Catherine Day to bring together an expert group with representation from asylum seekers and NGOs to examine best practice in other European States in the provision of services to international protection applicants, to examine likely longer term trends and to set out recommendations and solutions. Any new system for the provision of accommodation and additional supports to international protection applicants will be informed by the Report of this Expert Group, which is expected by the end of September.
The intention is to publish a White Paper by the end of this year, informed by the recommendations of the Expert Group, which will set out how a replacement to the Direct Provision system will be structured and the steps to achieving it. It will be a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability and Integration, to progress the matter following the transfer of this function to his Department.
Turning now to what is happening in Cahersiveen. I appreciate the concerns that Senators have for the residents and which I also share. It is a matter of deep regret to me as Minister for Justice, and to the Department, that the residents of the Skellig Star in Cahersiveen felt their concerns required them to take this course of action.
I take those concerns very seriously, as do officials in the Department of Justice.
When a group of people feel they need to put their health at risk by refusing food, I am, of course, required to listen their grievances.
The transfer of direct provision residents to Cahersiveen arose because of the pandemic and the virus itself made their situation especially difficult.
I fully appreciate that the outbreak in the centre was extremely distressing for residents, for staff and the wider community. Thankfully, the HSE declared the outbreak over on 20 May and in the interim a number of measures have been introduced to make life more comfortable for the residents and especially the children who are living there.
My officials have been onsite in recent says to assess the situation first hand and to listen to the concerns of the residents.
They have also been tasked with examining issues raised around the provision of meals and any issues arising following the boil water notice currently in place in the town.
Following their visit, my officials are satisfied that residents have access to clean, safe drinking water and meals.
But I am conscious that residents still have concerns and any outstanding issues are being followed up for resolution as a matter of priority.
I am also aware that a number of residents have made applications for transfer from Cahersiveen to alternative accommodation.
The Department yesterday wrote to the residents in Cahersiveen to inform them that restrictions on transfers are now being relaxed. These restrictions were necessary as a precaution during the pandemic, but as we have been able to manage the effects of the pandemic in centres, those restrictions can now be eased.
The centre in Cahersiveen was opened as emergency accommodation at the outset of the pandemic. Our policy is always to withdraw from emergency accommodation as quickly as possible and in particular to ensure that families spend as short a period as possible in such accommodation. My officials will be implementing that policy in relation to Cahersiveen. Places for the first families are currently being identified and moves for them will be completed by the end of next week. Other residents in the centre will be moved to permanent accommodation as soon as spaces can be found. This process will be completed in a relatively short period of time and no more than a few months.
In the interim, my officials are also working on solutions to facilitate the transport needs of residents wishing to visit larger towns in the area and we will continue to listen to residents as regards other additional supports they may require in the wake of recent events surrounding the centre.
Since we opened the centre in March, in response to the early stages of the pandemic, the health and welfare of residents has been foremost in our mind.
That will continue to be case for me as Minister for Justice, for my colleague, Minister O’Gorman, and for the Government.
More generally, the replacement of the Direct Provision system will not happen overnight and existing centres will continue to operate in the short to medium term. But further changes will be made in the interim. Many of which have already been signalled to Senators in the Briefing Note circulated by Dr. Day including:
- Extending the right to work;
- Exploring alternative Housing models and funding provisions;
- Giving clear guidance to ensure all applicants can open bank accounts;
- Reducing the amount of time taken to process positive decisions;
- Ensuring binding standards for centres are applied and enforced by January 2021;
- Compulsory training and regular networking for centre managers;
- Moving away from the use of emergency accommodation;
- Ensuring vulnerability assessments take place; and
- Working with the Department of Transport towards providing access to driving licenses.
I’m sure that Senators would agree that these changes will have a positive impact on the lives of residents and should be implemented without delay. My officials are working on proposals for consideration to make this happen.
I thank Senators for their inputs to today’s discussion. All of you have raised important points that will be carefully considered by me and my Department.
As I said at the outset, I share the concern of Senators on what is happening in Cahersiveen.
This is a priority for me and for my Department. We are already working on solutions, as I have outlined. We will see that it’s done as quickly as possible for everyone and families will be moved by the end of next week.
In the interim, I thank the residents for their patience and I would implore them not to put their health and welfare in any unnecessary danger.
But of course, Cahersiveen is not the only centre where concerns have been raised. Others have been mentioned by Senators here today. This underscores the importance of the root and branch reform of the system for accommodating international protection applicants that we are now undertaking.
In the meantime, I would ask Senators to encourage any residents who are contacting them with their concerns to raise these directly with my Department for resolution. If the issue is not resolved to their satisfaction, the Offices of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children can provide further assistance. Alternatively, all residents have also been made aware of a Freephone number for the Jesuit Refugee Service, which they can contact in confidence to raise any issues.
The current system is far from perfect. I believe that the commitments we have made in the Programme for Government provide us with a unique opportunity after twenty years to finally get this right. I know that Minister O’Gorman is fully committed to this and both I, and all of Government, will provide every support required to achieve this. Asylum seekers who have come to this country in desperation and in need of our help deserve no less.
Having an Expert Group with representatives from asylum seekers’ groups, provides a unique insight into the lived experience of the Direct Provision system from the people who understand it best. Their insights will help to shape future Government policy to ensure that we have an accommodation and supports system that is fit for purpose and can be responsive to the needs of asylum seekers.
Like all of you, I look forward to seeing the outcomes of Dr. Day’s important work, which will feed into the development of the White Paper to chart a course for replacing the Direct Provision system and the steps towards achieving it.