Asylum Seeker Accommodation (Continued)

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Áine Collins: Information on Áine Collins Zoom on Áine Collins] I acknowledge there has been talk of new legislation with an immigration and refugee Bill to be published which might address some of these matters. How does the Minister foresee the current problems being resolved? As mentioned earlier, currently there are 4,600 people claiming asylum of which one third are children. One of the issues in the report was that many of these children are being minded by older children and are unsupervised in the centres. This is of concern to all of us from a health and safety perspective and for many other reasons. I understand there is an average of approximately 1,000 new entrants every year.

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter): Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter I thank the Deputies for raising what is an important issue. The first thing to be highlighted about yesterday's report in The Irish Times, which has been missed, is that it shows that the inspection regime put in place by the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, of my Department is working. Finding things which are wrong and having them fixed is the purpose of a good inspection regime. This is not in any way to seek to minimise the contents of the reports which of course are treated with the utmost seriousness by the staff of my Department who have the difficult job of operating the direct provision system.

The Reception and Integration Agency is responsible for the accommodation of 4,400 asylum seekers in 34 centres throughout 17 counties. When the Government took up office in March 2011 that number was 5,900. There has been a reduction of 25% over the past two and a half years. RIA centres are occupied on a 24 hour, seven day a week basis. The report in The Irish Times was based on all inspection reports for seven specified centres over the course of 12 months and involved the release of 95 documents under freedom of information provisions. While, naturally, the worst elements of these reports were highlighted, in fact most inspection reports are positive. Again, this is not to minimise the content but to point out that they do not tell the full story.

Contractors have an important duty to comply with the terms of contracts they enter into with the Reception and Integration Agency. Some of the issues raised in these reports arise as a result of some residents unintentionally blocking fire exits, leaving children unattended, using rice cookers, etc. The responsibility to look after the children rests in fact with the parents who are in the centres and they have responsibilities in this area. I am not blaming the residents - far from it - but we should acknowledge that this is an ongoing challenge for staff working in the centres.

All 34 asylum accommodation centres in the direct provision system are subject to a minimum of three unannounced inspections a year, one by an independent company, QTS Limited, under contract to the RIA and two by RIA officials. In two serious cases 30-day notices were issued in which the contractor was told that the contract would be ended if problems were not rectified. In both cases the problems were addressed within 48 hours, requiring the lifting of the 30-day notice. Centres are also subject to inspection by fire officers and, in respect of food issues, to unannounced inspections by environmental health officers. It is incorrect to say that staff are not vetted; they are vetted. As part of their contractual obligations each centre must be inspected annually by a qualified and competent person with professional indemnity who must issue a certificate of compliance with regard to fire safety.

Reference was made to overcrowding. All RIA centres are subject to the requirements of the Housing Acts from 1996 to 2002. Where a family increases in size to the point that these requirements are no longer met, alternative suitable accommodation is offered. However, some families decline these offers and may decide to stay where they are until more spacious accommodation within an existing centre becomes available.

The RIA has a robust child protection system. The instances of children being left alone were dealt with immediately and education of parents and guardians with reference to their responsibilities is a key feature of any follow up. In all cases, the primary carers for children are their parents.

There was mention in the article of suicides being covered up. That is untrue. In the 14 years of RIA's existence only one person, a newly-arrived asylum seeker, can with certainty be said to have committed suicide and that happened while the individual was being detained in hospital. It did not happen in one of the centres.

Inspection templates have been changed and new training for staff took place earlier this year. All completed inspections carried out from 1 October 2013 will be published on the RIA's website. Transparency is important. By "completed" I mean the inclusion of responses by contractors to the report's findings. The RIA believes, as do I, that transparency is the key to maintaining standards. Residents have been assured time and again that complaints under the RIA house rules are legitimate and will not adversely affect their protection claims or lead to unwanted transfers. Any suggestions to the contrary are simply untrue and, unfortunately, may have the effect of dissuading residents from using the complaints mechanism in the way intended.

The direct provision system seeks to ensure that the accommodation and ancillary services provided by the State meet the requirements of asylum seekers while their applications for international protection are being processed. It is essentially a cashless system which provides them with full board accommodation free of utility or other costs. While accommodation services are provided by RIA, other State supports are provided by the appropriate Department or agency. For example, health services are provided through the HSE, social welfare supports through the Department of Social Protection and education through the Department of Education and Skills and so on. Except in exceptional circumstances-----

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard J. Durkan): Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan The remainder of the reply will have to be included later.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter Perhaps the Acting Chairman will let me finish this one sentence. Except in exceptional circumstances no asylum seeker is obliged to live in RIA accommodation. Some choose to live on their own resources or with friends or family. Down through the years many have not availed of direct provision. Essentially, the system is intended for those who arrive in the State seeking international protection and who are otherwise destitute.

Deputy Michael McCarthy: Information on Michael McCarthy Zoom on Michael McCarthy I thank the Minister for his reply. It is a short timeframe. Are we considering conducting an examination of the centres? Let us consider the matter from a Government point of view. Are we satisfied that what the Minister has said is the case? Has the Minister considered signing up to the reception directive? This guarantees people who are in these centres certain rights and standards of accommodation. In fairness, it is not too much to ask that we treat people with decency or give them standards in terms of accommodation and so on and so forth. In some member states asylum seekers are allowed to work if their application for asylum has not been dealt with in six months. If the system here militates against their application for asylum and adds to the difficulty in terms of direct provision, then we must deal with the anomaly that it creates. Has the Minister considered whether Ireland should sign up to the reception directive?

Deputy Patrick Nulty: Information on Patrick Nulty Zoom on Patrick Nulty Not every member of staff working in direct provision centres has been Garda vetted. The social welfare supports to which the Minister referred amount to less than €3 per day for an adult and less than €1.50 per day for a child. Many of the people living in these direct provision centres have come from experiences of torture, whether physical, mental, sexual or psychological. These people require help and support. They should have their assessment judged quickly and humanely. I put it to the Minister that if he had to live in one of these centres for a week he might not agree that the protections and facilities in place are adequate.

Deputy Áine Collins: Information on Áine Collins Zoom on Áine Collins I thank the Minister for his response. The issue is about the time that people are in these centres. The old idea was that they would only be there for six months. It was to be a stop-gap to get them to a safe place when they arrived here quickly. It is about seeing how we can process their rights as quickly as possible. There is no way it should take between seven and nine years. That is a lifetime for a small child born here or who has come here, whatever the case may be.

We must go back to the legislation process to determine how to change it and ensure the loopholes currently in place and used are closed down - people are going back to court and delaying the process - in order that these people can be brought into a proper and normal environment where they can rear their children. Many of these people have children. The major issue is how quickly we can change the existing status and make the system far more efficient.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter I will deal with some of the questions that have been raised. I was asked to look at it from a Government perspective. The reason there is an inspection system in place is in order that it is properly and adequately inspected and that where problems are identified, they are addressed.

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