Email Newsletter – November 2013

We are now midway through the new Oireachtas term and already so much has happened. On the future of the Seanad, the people have spoken and decided it is an institution of democracy they wish to retain. Their decision adds to my sense of purpose and I feel encouraged and revitalised in my efforts to secure positive change.

 

My newsletter is just a snapshot of the work I am doing and for those of you who wish to follow my work more closely, and input more directly, I invite you to view my website http://test.jillianvanturnhout.ie/. In particular, I am interested in hearing from people who wish to contribute a written piece to my guest blog spot. The idea behind the guest blog is to give space to civil society, NGOs and interested members of the public to raise the issues that concern them, many of which I share. I am eager to ensure that I remain plugged in and connected with people’s realities and the challenges they face. I do not necessarily stand behind each and every position expressed in the blog pieces. Rather they are intended to provide food for thought and discussion

www.jillianvanturnhout.ie

 

I am providing links to some selected activities for you to view at your leisure:

 

Childline Breakfast Morning

Budget 2014

Direct Provision

Non Seanad Contributions

 

There are a number of important Bills that I will be working on in the coming weeks and months, including the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013, revised Heads of Children First Bill, Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill 2013, Family Relationships and Children Bill 2013, Freedom of Information Bill 2013 and the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Bill 2013. I will also continue to pursue health and children related issues through my membership of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children and I hope to have a dedicated section on my website in place in the coming weeks where progress can be monitored.

 

Best wishes,

 

Jillian.

Childline Breakfast Morning

Childline, which celebrates its 25 year anniversary this year, provides an invaluable service for children and young people in Ireland. Childline receives over 2,350 calls and messages daily. Sadly, 38% of these calls and messages go unanswered. This represents the unheard voices of 800 vulnerable children and young people each day. Childline doesn’t only listen to and support young people. It saves lives. Childline needs more funds to answer more calls from children. And so, to mark Cheerios Childline Breakfast Together Week, 7-13 October 2013, myself and Deputy Jerry Buttimer co-hosted a fundraising coffee morning for all Members and staff in the Oireachtas. We were delighted to be joined on the morning by Ashley Balbirnie, CEO of ISPCC, staff from ISPCC as well as Childline volunteers.

 

[Please insert photo already send to you]

 

It was a lively morning and very well attended. Thanks to generous donations from friends, colleagues and supporters to ensure much sought after raffle prizes we managed to raise €1250. This means an extra 250 calls from children and young people will be answered!

 

 

Budget 2014

As a Senator, this was my third Budget and Social Welfare and Pensions Bill respectively. In setting out my stall at Second Stage of the latter Seanad Debate, I made it clear to the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton TD, that I accepted the need to find savings in public spending. I also emphasised the importance of addressing budgetary measures, fiscal adjustments, and social welfare cuts and changes against the backdrop of six extremely difficult budgets since 2008 and in the context of their cumulative impact-since this is the reality of how they are being experienced by people.

 

Upon careful consideration, I focused my interventions on three Sections of the Bill: Section 5 Maternity Benefit; Section 6 Adoptive Benefit; and Section 9 Jobseekers Allowance. I tabled three amendments opposing the Sections and endeavoured to be constructive in my opposition. Ultimately, my amendments were defeated when pushed to the vote and I in turn voted against the Sections at Final Stage of the Bill.

 

It can be easy to feel disillusioned and powerless in the face of debates on policies and decisions that have been made long before they reach the Seanad, which is often the case with Budget, Finance and Social Welfare Bills. However, these debates provide scope to secure commitments around important issues. My probing on the Youth Guarantee yielded important information and clarity and I was delighted that my initiative ultimately secured the commitment from Minister Burton to have a debate on the Youth Guarantee in the Seanad before it is finalised. I was also very pleased by the commitment I got around the Government’s intention to address surrogacy in the forthcoming Family Relationships and Children Bill 2013and its intention to consider surrogacy leave. When the Finance (No. 2) Bill 2013 is debated in the Seanad on 11 and 12 December I will be raising my serious concern over the decision to replace the One Parent Family Tax Credit (OPFTC) with the Single Person Child Carer Tax Credit (SPCCTC), which will only be available to the primary carer of the child and will negatively impact children.

 

 

Direct Provision

I am continuing to explore every avenue available to highlight my concerns over the welfare and development of asylum seekers, particularly the children of asylum seekers, who are spending on average 4 years and in many cases between 5-10 years in State sponsored Direct Provision Accommodation Centres. Most recently I used out Group’s Private Members Business in the Seanad to table a Motion calling on the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter TD, to:

 

  • Outline his response to the recommendations of the Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, in the Fifth Report (July 2012) for:

i.            An examination to establish whether the system of Direct Provision itself is detrimental to the welfare and development of children and whether, if appropriate, an alternative form of support and accommodation could be adopted which is more suitable for families and particularly children; and

 

ii.            The establishment in the interim of an independent complaints mechanism and independent inspections of Direct Provision centres and give consideration to these being undertaken through either HIQA (inspections) or the Ombudsman for Children (complaints).

 

  • Outline the legislative basis for payments to asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation; the effect on these payments, if any, of the Social Welfare and Pensions (No.2) Act 2009 which precludes asylum seekers from being granted habitual residency status; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
  • Further to the Minister’s announcement in January 2013 that “[r]eform of the immigration system will be sustained in 2013 and I will be focussing on major legislative and procedural measures such as the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill”, to debate with Members of Seanad Éireann how best to reform Ireland’s reception and asylum system.””

 

Minister Shatter’s response to the Motion was very disappointing. Ultimately his message was that Direct Provision in its current manifestation is here to stay. I am not willing to accept this and was bolstered by the Seanad debate, which saw full cross party agreement that the current Direct Provision system is in need of urgent reform.

 

Furthermore, by raising the issue regularly as a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children, I am very pleased that on my initiative the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD, has agreed to meet with members of the Seanad Cross Party Group on Direct Provision, where I hope to secure her commitment to commission the examination into the impact of the system on children.

 

Non Seanad Contributions

I am delighted when I am asked to speak at conferences and events outside the Seanad.  I think these forums are a wonderful opportunity to share our collective knowledge and expertise, so much of which I take back into my work as a legislator. Over recent weeks I have participated and spoken at a number of diverse and exciting events including: delivering the Carmichael Centre’s Kate O’Sullivan memorial lecture; giving the key note address at the Youth Work Ireland’s National Conference: chairing a panel at Dublin City Council’s seminar on Participation and Intergenerational Dialogue: presenting to young professionals about leadership and wrath at the National College of Ireland’s Seven Deadly Skills event and interviewing Gordon Jeyes, Chief Executive-Designate of the Child and Family Agency, at a Social Work Conference in Cork.

 

 

 

 

Report on the Grocery Sector by the Joint Agriculture and Food Committee

Wednesday, 20th November 2013

I welcome the Minister of State. This report is outside my work area, so it is great we can have this debate and that I can get an opportunity to hear my colleagues who have been able to provide such expertise in the drafting of the report. I thank my colleagues on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, namely, Senators Comiskey, Mooney, Mary Ann O’Brien, Ó Domhnaill, O’Keeffe and O’Neill. I join in the thanks and commendations to Deputy Andrew Doyle who chairs that committee and who brought all members together. Reading the transcripts of the debates and the report, the committee produced a final report endorsed by all.

I am part of a group which includes Senator Mary Ann O’Brien who has yet again proved her expertise in her area and demonstrated that balanced approach. I am speaking only as a consumer but we are able to have the full package as others are able to speak about different areas.

I would like to speak about a few issues concerning the recommendations contained in the report. Some of the issues were contained a Private Members’ Bill entitled the Food (Fair Trade and Information) Bill 2009, but this report goes further than that. We have heard in this debate about the importance of the food sector to the economy from the perspective of the number of people employed in the industry and our ability to continue to grow exports, which is critical now but also in the years ahead. We want to ensure we continue to have that growth but we need to look at the recommendations in the report.

It is fair to say this report seeks to address one of the main issues in the sector which is the dominance of some of the large retailers in the grocery sector. This is the elephant in the room that we are discussing today. It is an issue we need to tackle head on. There are many positives but we also need to look at some of the negative consequences and find the way forward.

I appreciate and understand that perhaps we have to look to the EU and at an all-island approach, but will we be followers or will we take the initiative and a leadership role and say what we need to do, how we protect the consumer and the producers and that what lands on our tables is good quality food? Everybody wants to achieve that, so how do we do it?

I refer to the example Senator Mary Ann O’Brien gave us about the disparity in milk in prices. I have no doubt that if we were to drill down, we would find many other examples. That raises the question as to who is winning here. It is not the producers or the consumers. There needs to be a way where, to an extent, everybody can win and where nobody has the monopoly of winning the game every time.

I very much welcome the committee’s recommendation to amalgamate, under the consumer and competition Bill, the Competition Authority and the National Consumer Agency, which has been mooted for some time. I am glad that will come to fruition because to me, as an outsider, it makes sense. The directors of the authority and the agency have been planning for this and I am glad this process can get under way formally when the legislation is enacted. That move will benefit the consumer in the long term.

Many Members spoke about profits and gave different perspectives, which is very healthy. Sometimes there is deliberate confusion in terms of people having to give their margins. Giving the profits of a company does not give one the individual price sensitivity of a margin. We need to be very careful. We expect small companies and retailers to disclose their profits and yet we are saying that large multiples can, in effect, hide them. In the UK, some major companies which have not paid their tax have been exposed. I want to know how we can be assured that Ireland gets is fair slice of the tax take for these companies. Do we connect up with the UK, Belgium and France to check if we are getting our fair share or do we rely on the companies to tell us what they are getting with no checks and balances? We have to go further on that issue and I do not accept the lobby from the large multiples on it.

We could have a big discussion on alcohol. I do not agree with Senator Barrett. We need to get serious. There is legislation in place which needs to be commenced on separating the sale of alcohol from other grocery goods. At the very least, we should commence that. We do not have to wait to discuss it or draft it.

Independent Group Motion: Asylum Seekers and Direct Provision

Wednesday 23 October 2013

For full debate please see http://www.kildarestreet.com/sendebates/?id=2013-10-23a.178#g180

Senator Jillian van Turnhout

“That Seanad Éireann –

notes the calls from civil society organisations, legal practitioners, academics, human rights activists and Members of the Oireachtas for reform of Direct Provision, the administrative system for accommodating asylum seekers;
notes that, according to the latest available statistics from the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) Monthly Report June, 2013, there are 4,624 RIA residents ‘live on the system’ of whom 1,732 are children;
welcomes the commitment by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to meet with the Seanad Cross Party Group on Direct Provision, made at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Health and Children on 10 October, 2013; and
calls on the Minister for Justice and Equality to –
– outline his response to the recommendations of the Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, in the Fifth Report (July 2012) for
– an examination to establish whether the system of Direct Provision itself is detrimental to the welfare and development of children and whether, if appropriate, an alternative form of support and accommodation could be adopted which is more suitable for families and particularly children; and
– the establishment in the interim of an independent complaints mechanism and independent inspections of Direct Provision centres and give consideration to these being undertaken through either HIQA (inspections) or the Ombudsman for Children (complaints);
– outline the legislative basis for payments to asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation and the effect on these payments, if any, of the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Act 2009 which precludes asylum seekers from being granted habitual residency status; and
– further to the Minister’s announcement in January, 2013 that ‘[r]eform of the immigration system will be sustained in 2013 and I will be focusing on major
legislative and procedural measures such as the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill’, to debate with Members of Seanad Éireann how best to reform Ireland’s reception and asylum system.”.

I thank everyone who has signed and supported this motion, particularly my Independent group colleagues for allowing group time to be used. I wish to acknowledge the years the Minister spent as the Opposition spokesperson for children. He demonstrated a real understanding and commitment to the promotion and protection of children’s rights in Ireland and I am confident it has been continued under his remit as Minister for Justice and Equality.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to re-publish in revised form the Immigration, Residency and Protection Bill, which is currently stalled on Committee Stage in the other House and which has been eight years in production.

I welcome this opportunity to have an open and frank discussion about the direct provision and dispersal system and to make suggestions for its reform process. This is a sensitive societal issue and I appreciate that the Government has decided not to table a counter-motion, thus allowing the debate to continue in a constructive and inclusive manner. All too often we perpetuate a political environment where Government concedes little for fear of exposing itself to liability. I wish this were not the case but I understand that it is. My hope is that the Minister and the relevant Departments are listening to what we are saying in a spirit of constructive engagement. We are all striving to make the society in which we live a better place for all who live in it. I also note that a root and branch challenge of the direct provision system taken by three families, has been given leave to proceed by Mr. Justice Colm MacEochaidh in the High Court yesterday.

It is very important that we as parliamentarians and legislators take ownership of the need to reform the currentdirect provision system rather than waiting and being forced into it by judicial imperative.

My entry point into the issue of direct provision is from a children’s rights perspective. This perspective has been informed by my work on related issues as the former chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance; the recommendations of the Government-appointed special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon; and the concerns raised by advocacy groups. On that note I welcome to the Gallery for this debate Sharon Waters from the Irish Refugee Council and Lassane Ouedraogo and Reuben Hamakachere who have personal experience of the direct provision system and actively campaign to bring about its end. I also welcome the media coverage of the issue and in this regard I would like to commend the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund, set up to advance ethical investigative media coverage of three key issues – mental health; immigrant rights and integration; and children and young people’s rights. It has recently funded Tom Mooney, editor of the Wexford Echo, and his series “The Children of Operation Hyphen”, which included an article on the state of mental health of people in direct provision. The Minister facilitated my own recent visits to two direct provision asylum accommodation centres, with my colleagues Senators Fiach Mac Conghail and Katherine Zappone.

It has taken me a long time to wade through the mire that is the political discourse on direct provision. It has been difficult to establish which features of the system belong to the Minister’s remit, the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or that of the Department of Social Protection. I have struggled to understand the distinction drawn between children “cared for by the State”, as is used to describe children in direct provision, and children “in the care of the State”. I have argued strenuously that children are children, irrespective of status, and that it is a stretch in credulity to claim that children in direct provision are in the care of their parents in circumstances where the parents’ autonomy to make even basic decisions about their children’s care – for example what and when to eat – is so limited as to render it absent. This is a concern shared by the Government’s special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, which I will refer to again later.

My overwhelming concern is that the administrative system of direct provision, which has been operating in Ireland since April 2000, is detrimental to the welfare and development of asylum seekers, and in particular the 1,732 children currently residing in direct provision accommodation centres throughout Ireland. I am also very concerned that between 2000 and 2010, the direct provision and dispersal system has cost the State an estimated €655 million in contracts to private companies which are operating the centres on a for-profit basis.

In a recent letter to me as part of ongoing correspondences between our offices on direct provision, the Minister stated that the current system allows the State to provide a roof over the head of those seeking asylum in a manner that facilitates resources being used economically in circumstances where the State is in financial difficulty. I am not convinced the current system is the most economical and my colleagues, Senators Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Martin Conway, will elaborate on alternative models and cheaper options. Furthermore, the best interests of persons seeking asylum should outweigh financial considerations in the discharge of our international, regional and humanitarian obligations.

In my time as a Senator, I have identified and spoken on the Adjournment about a plethora of difficulties, including the dubious legality of the direct provision system, the lack of an independent complaints mechanism for residents, the absence of independent inspections of direct provision centres where children reside, the decision by Ireland to opt out of the EU directive to allow asylum seekers to enter the work force if their application has not been processed after one year, the fact that there are no prospects for post-secondary education for young asylum seekers, which is like hitting a pause button for an uncertain and doubtlessly lengthy period of time, the fettering arid erosion of normal family dynamics and functioning and the lack of autonomous decision making. I do not intend to elaborate on each of these concerns but I will say a few words about the lack of specific legislation underpinning the provision of direct provision.

I know the Minister is aware of this specific concern as we have corresponded in its regard. I note in the same letter I mentioned previously what I took to be a suggestion that since existing laws – and although it is unspecified in the letter I presume social welfare law would be a good example – would “otherwise specifically prohibit asylum seekers from being able to be provided with the basic necessities of life”, we should simply ignore said provisions and carry on regardless. I fully accept and welcome that Ireland has an obligation under international and European human rights law to meet the needs of asylum seekers while their application for refugee, subsidiary protection or leave to remain is being considered. However, this must be done in a manner that complies with our own domestic legislation.

Direct provision was introduced in a haphazard manner in 1999 and 2000, with little concern for its relationship with Irish social welfare law. For several years, direct provision was viewed as part of the supplementary welfare allowance system, and this is evidenced from extensive documentation obtained by Dr. Liam Thornton under freedom of information and which I have furnished to the Minister in previous correspondence. Concerns were expressed by officials in the Department of Social Protection that the payment of €19.10 per week per adult and €9.60 per week per child was ultra vires, and the payment advice slips to asylum seekers continue to view the entirety of the direct provision system as being closely aligned with the system of supplementary welfare allowance, with deductions for accommodation, as administered by the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA. As the Minister is aware, supplementary welfare allowance can be provided in cash or in kind, and it appears that RIA, the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Justice and Equality had until recently considered supplementary welfare allowance as the legal basis for direct provision. To state that this scheme is wholly administrative, or that the Departments of Justice and Equality or Social Protection can act since the introduction of the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Act in 2009 contrary to legislation that debars asylum seekers from receiving supplementary welfare allowance displays a worrying approach of both Departments, which seem to consider that law does not apply to them.

Ultimate the failing of direct provision is the length of time asylum seekers remain in the system waiting for their claims to be processed. It is important to remember that when first introduced 13 years ago, direct provision was viewed as a time-limited system that would be for a maximum of six months. If this was the case, I would not be standing here today and I could tolerate the inadequacies that would present in that time period rather than the outright failings that present in this system, where the average length of stay is four years and a significant number have remained in the system for between five and ten years. This is far too long and leaves asylum seekers de-skilled, institutionalised, vulnerable to mental health issues and socially excluded.

The impact on children is particularly worrying. According to the Government’s special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, “the specific vulnerability of children accommodated in the system of direct provision [is] the potential or actual harm which is being created by the particular circumstances of their residence, including the inability of parents to properly care for and protect their children and the damage that may be done by living for a lengthy period of time in an institutionalised setting which was not designed for long term residence”. The long-term solution has got to be a streamlined status determination system where decisions are taken fairly and speedily, with quick recognition of those identified as in need of refugee or subsidiary protection or leave to remain, or a speedy human rights compliant removal or deportation process. I hope this will be delivered through the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill. I will make some recommendations when summing up the debate.

Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter TD

I thank the Senators who proposed the motion and all of those who have spoken on an issue of great importance in which I have had great personal interest for a considerable time. This important debate coincides with some events which have taken place over the past 48 hours in the State, which are not directly related to the direct provision issue but are related to the welfare of children.

I want to say to the House, and it is important I have an opportunity to say this, two children were removed from two families in the State in the past 48 hours in circumstances in which An Garda Síochána had serious concerns about the welfare of the children. Normally I would not address any specific cases which arise, and up to now when asked I have stated these are matters to be dealt with by the courts, but I want to report to the House the concerns which arose relating to the children have been proved to be groundless. I understand the two children concerned are children of the parents concerned and there is no reason for any doubts in this regard.

I am conscious An Garda Síochána has a very important role in dealing with child protection issues, particularly under the child care legislation of 1991 as amended, and circumstances do arise where for the protection of children it is necessary that An Garda Síochána intervenes and takes them to a safe place. I have no doubt the gardaí in this instance acted in good faith in the intervention which took place. However I have concerns with regard to each of these matters and I will ask the Garda Commissioner for a report on the background to each of these instances with a view to reviewing the procedures which applied in a manner which ensures An Garda Síochána continues to perform the very important role it must play for the protection of our children while also ensuring the type of situation which has arisen in each of these cases, which impacts on family members, mothers, fathers and children, can be avoided in so far as it is possible

I am conscious these events took place in a background or backdrop of events which have taken place outside the State, but it is very important in ensuring the welfare of all children is safeguarded and that every child in the State is afforded, where necessary, the protection of the State, that no group or minority community is singled out for unwarranted attention or suspicion with regard to child protection issues.

 

It is important that events which take place off this island in other states are not automatically assumed to be replicated in this State or in other states throughout Europe to the detriment of any particular group or minority being singled out. I am not suggesting this in any way was a motivation of the members of An Garda Síochána who in good faith acted in a manner they deemed appropriate in the interests of children, but it is important we do not get caught up in some of the concerns and the media spotlight which have arisen in the context of cases in other states about which there are genuine causes for concern. One case elsewhere, which is very high profile, is still a matter of investigation and a matter to be dealt with in the courts of another jurisdiction. I hope Senators will forgive me if I have taken this opportunity.

As I sat here, Members may have wondered why, on occasion, I was accessing my phone. It was not out of a discourtesy to anyone but because the results of certain tests were coming through to me and I was anxious to ensure I knew as soon as possible. The families concerned are being informed and, indeed, the court and the HSE are being informed. I believe these matters are sufficiently serious to warrant being mentioned in this House. I am conscious there is a very substantial interest in these matters outside this House, across the country and, indeed, elsewhere across Europe. It is important that the record on these matters be addressed.

I now want to return to the issue we are dealing with this evening and perhaps the House will give me some latitude by way of time to address these very important issues.

As I said earlier, I welcome this debate and the opportunity to respond to the points raised by Senators, and to speak, if I can, more generally about the subject in order to assist Members gain a fuller understanding of all the issues involved. At the outset, as Members will be aware, I have on several occasions in this House and in the other House responded to many, if not all, of the points referred to in this motion, and one of the earlier speakers referred to the number of times I have addressed this issue in this House. I am, of course, happy to address these issues again in the course of my contribution to this debate.

In saying this, it is important that I state that, for the avoidance of any doubt or misunderstanding and as has already been referred to, the issues under discussion here are currently being litigated through a judicial review application in the High Court, which essentially challenges the legal validity of the direct provision system. An application for leave for judicial review in that Mundeke case, so named after the applicants seeking the review, was formally heard in the High Court on Monday of this week, and the likelihood is that a full hearing of the case will take place early next year. I mention this with no purpose other than to ensure that all Members are aware of the most recent developments in this highly contested area of public policy. This can give rise to sharp differences of opinion among the wider community and, on occasion, is discussed in simplistic terms and in the colours of black and white when, unfortunately, in the complexities that arise, there are various shades of grey.

I do not know, and it may not be the case, whether this motion is being co-ordinated with developments in the case that is taking place in the courts as part of what is obviously an ongoing campaign against direct provision. Regardless, the House will understand that I cannot say anything here which will pre-empt the State’s response to the legal challenge that is taking place.

In the context of legal challenges generally, it is worth noting that a substantial number of those residing for long periods within the direct provision system are adults living with their children who have challenged in the courts, by way of the judicial review process, decisions made refusing applications for asylum and-or permission to remain in the State and whose cases await hearing or determination. There are presently approximately 1,000 such cases pending before the courts. Indeed, in many of the direct provision homes and accommodation I have visited, an overwhelming number of those being so accommodated, either themselves or their spouse, are engaged in litigation by way of judicial review, having been refused asylum. I believe that is an important statement to make. I am not challenging their right legally to bring judicial reviews but it is important to make the case clearly, as someone who comes from the perspective that, where someone is a genuine political refugee he or she should get refuge in this State, that there are many who claim to be political refugees who are not. I can say this having read the papers and seen the files.

These judicial reviews are taking place notwithstanding the existence of a detailed system of examination of asylum claims involving two bodies statutorily independent of the Minister, namely, the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. These bodies are to fulfil the State’s obligation to distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and economic migrants who have not obtained the appropriate visas for permission to remain in the State or work permits to obtain gainful employment.

I am aware that some of the strongest critics of the direct provision system outside of this House have said all that is required is “one last push” to have it brought down. They have been very slow to explain what they will replace it with. It is, of course, their right in our democratic system to take such an approach. However, in opposing the system of direct provision, which I have already freely admitted has many faults, I have yet to see any proposals, or at any rate, proposals grounded in the reality of the economic conditions we face, as to what could replace it without, in short order, recreating the crisis which led to its establishment in the first place. There is no gainsaying that truth, and anybody who believes otherwise is, at best, simply not prepared to face reality.

I listened with great interest to Senator Hayden telling me we should provide housing for practically everyone in direct provision and every future person who comes to the State seeking asylum. I do not know where I am to obtain the funding to do that. There is no reality in that. We have people born and living in this State who are currently in difficult financial circumstances but for whom the State cannot afford to provide housing because of the parlous financial circumstances of the State. We have to discuss these issues with a degree of realism. What would be the effect if we were providing a house for every applicant for asylum in the State? How many tens of thousands of people who are economic migrants would arrive in the State and say, “Hello. Could I have a house, please?”

Could we have some realism in this discussion? We must provide properly for those who are genuinely seeking political asylum, coming from some parts of this world where people are treated appallingly. However, let us not fall into the trap of believing that everyone who claims asylum is always, in all circumstances, telling the truth. Sadly, they are not.

The system of direct provision in this country is sui generis. There is no real comparator with any other form of accommodation being provided by the State. To understand the system, as well as its strengths and weaknesses, one has to take account of the circumstances which prevailed when it was first set up. The number of asylum applications in Ireland increased dramatically in the late 1990s. In 1998, some 4,426 asylum seekers applied for refugee status. In 1999, this figure rose to 7,724. On the basis of these trends, it was anticipated that between 12,000 and 15,000 would claim asylum in Ireland during 2000. At that time, the majority of asylum seekers arrived in Dublin, and still do, and the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers was handled, in the main, by the then Eastern Health Board, which treated the asylum seekers as homeless. In late 1999, the shortage of accommodation reached crisis point and the Eastern Health Board, understandably, could not cope. There were reports of asylum seeker families sleeping in parks because no accommodation was available for them. We have now forgotten that.

In November 1999, the Government decided to deal with the crisis by having the needs of asylum seekers met by a system of direct provision which also involved dispersal throughout the country. The Government’s decision was also made in the context of measures taken in other EU countries to control illegal immigration and to process large numbers of asylum applicants. The body set up under the auspices of my Department to carry out the Government policy was the Directorate of Asylum Support Services, DASS, which later became the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA. It was an important objective of the policy to ensure the availability of accommodation for all asylum applicants while their applications for asylum and leave to remain in the State were being processed and determined.

Since then, RIA policy has been to procure commercial properties such as hotels, hostels, boarding colleges and so on, from private operators through public advertisements seeking expressions of interest. This procurement policy is reflected in the current RIA portfolio. Of the 34 current centres, only seven are State-owned and, overall, only three are “system built”, that is, built specifically to accommodate asylum seekers. In terms of room capacities and facilities, RIA centres operate in compliance with relevant legislation. In regard to determining minimum room capacities, RIA relies on the Housing Act 1966, with particular reference to section 63 thereof dealing with the definition of overcrowding. In regard to shared bathroom and toilet requirements, RIA relies upon the Tourist Traffic Acts 1939 to 1998.

Where a family member, already in RIA accommodation, reaches ten years of age, RIA offers that family alternative accommodation which is deemed suitable for their needs.

In many cases, where the family profile has changed on the basis of age or a newly arrived family member, the Reception and Integration Agency can only offer alternative accommodation at another centre to keep within these rules. A family may, however, choose to refuse the offer of a transfer to an alternative centre because it prefers the current arrangement or wants to await a better offer. Where a family refuses an offer of alternative accommodation in such circumstances, the RIA keeps the family details under review and further offers are made as deemed suitable. The key point is that the Reception and Integration Agency must adapt existing premises for the purposes of accommodating asylum seekers. It is not realistic to expect bespoke accommodation for asylum seekers in accordance with what one may ideally wish to have in a centre.

In the current campaign against the system of direct provision there can be a tendency at times towards extreme claims which do little to help the residents involved. Regardless of how many times it is refuted, the canard continues to surface that asylum seekers in centres resort to suicide as a matter of course. Claims are also made that residents resort to prostitution in centres. Such claims have been investigated by the Garda in the past and found to have no basis. Any such allegation will continue to be investigated by the appropriate authorities in accordance with the law. Assertions about suicide, child abuse and prostitution among residents in asylum accommodation centres are still made by purported supporters of asylum seekers who would not dare to make such assertions in respect of any other identifiable group of persons in society.

While the direct provision system is not ideal, it facilitates the State in providing a roof over the heads of those seeking asylum or seeking to be allowed, on humanitarian grounds, to stay in the State. It allows the State to do this in a manner that facilitates resources being used economically in circumstances where it is under financial difficulty.

No Government can afford to ignore the likely consequences of a change to the system of direct provision. The system was examined in considerable detail in the 2010 value for money report which found there were no cheaper alternatives. If we were operating a system which facilitated asylum seekers in living independent lives in individual housing with social welfare support and payments, the cost to the Exchequer would be double what is currently paid under the direct provision system. I remind Senators that Ireland has still not exited the troika programme and even when we do, the State will next year spend €10 billion more than it receives through the many ways in which it obtains funding. If the State was to allow all asylum seekers to avail of full social welfare supports, including rent supplement, the immediate impact would be for all asylum seekers, including those not currently in accommodation provided by the Reception and Integration Agency, to avail of this financial support. As matters stand, not all asylum seekers live in direct provision accommodation as they are not compelled to do so. Accommodation is provided for those who cannot provide accommodation for themselves and do not have friends, family or others in the State who are willing to provide accommodation for them. Some asylum seekers live with friends or family or provide, from their own resources, for their accommodation needs.

A further concern is what is known across Europe as the “pull factor”. While the State has an important obligation to provide refuge for those in genuine need of protection and asylum and it is crucial that we comply with our international obligations in this regard, it is also appropriate to acknowledge that a significant number of those who have during the years sought asylum here have been economic migrants evading our immigration and visa requirements whose personal narratives have ultimately proved to be both untrue and unreliable. The State at this time cannot afford to provide supports and accommodation for individuals who so behave.

The decline in the number of those applying for asylum arriving in Ireland, from 11,600 in 2002 to 1,000 in 2012, is bucking the generally upward trend in the European Union. It must be borne in mind that the common travel area between Ireland and the United Kingdom, which for many decades has delivered immeasurable economic, social and cultural benefits, would possibly be abused by those using the asylum system simply to avail of better economic advantages in a context where Ireland provided better social supports and housing than are available in the United Kingdom.

No asylum seeker has ever been left homeless in the State. Unfortunately – it gives me no pleasure to say this – the same cannot be said by the public authorities responsible for homelessness issues among the indigenous population. Asylum seekers receive nourishment on a par with and, in some cases, superior to that available to the general population. They receive a health service on the same basis as Irish citizens and it is, in many cases, far superior to what is available in their countries of origin, rightly so. Children of asylum seekers are provided with primary and secondary education in the local community on the same basis as the children of Irish citizens.

The direct provision system remains a key pillar of the State’s asylum and immigration system and I have no plans to end it at this time. I accept, however, that the length of time spent in direct provision accommodation and the complexity of the asylum process are issues that need to be addressed. I have visited a number of asylum accommodation centres, most recently last Friday when I visited the Ashbourne centre in Glounthane, County Cork. I am concerned at how long people spend in the system. My resolve, therefore, is to deal with the factors which lead to delays in the processing of cases in order that asylum seekers spend as little time as is necessary in that accommodation system.

As with other states, Ireland has individuals and families who apply for asylum and have genuine grounds for seeking asylum under the relevant international provisions in place and our domestic laws. Of those granted citizenship in the ceremonies in which I was engaged on Monday last in the convention centre in Dublin, 195 were political refugees. A substantial number of people who are economic migrants present with stories seeking asylum which turn out to lack validity. There are individuals who adopt false identities and pretend to come from troubled parts of the world when they do not. There are also individuals who will claim to have been in war zones and when the matter is further investigated, it transpires they were in London, Birmingham or elsewhere when they alleged they were in Sudan, Somalia or some other troubled region. This is a real problem in dealing with the asylum system. Many also play the system by instituting one legal challenge after another to delay the inevitable, sometimes to the point of launching legal challenges as they are about to board an aircraft to be returned home. That is their right, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the right of easy access to the courts in this respect is almost without equal in the world.

There is a need to bring balance to the discussion on asylum seekers. In the context of the wider community and those campaigning, there is an assumption that every single individual who applies to seek asylum is giving a truthful account of his or her circumstances and is a genuine asylum seeker. On the other side of the debate, there are small numbers of individuals who doubt whether any applicant for asylum ever tells the truth. We must adopt a balanced approach and ensure no individual who truthfully documents events or circumstances in respect of which asylum should be granted is refused the protection he or she seeks, while also ensuring those who deliberately abuse the asylum process to evade our immigration laws do not benefit or, by their conduct, undermine our asylum system and the basic humanity it is right to afford to those in need of protection. We must ensure the integrity of the asylum and immigration system is upheld in order that assistance is afforded to those who genuinely seek asylum, while not allowing the system to be undermined by those seeking unfair advantage.

Having made these general points about the direct provision system, let me deal with the various points raised in the motion, the first being the view of the Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, in his fifth report in July 2012 that the system should be examined with a view to establishing whether it is detrimental to the welfare and development of children and, if appropriate, an alternative form of support and accommodation should be adopted which is more suitable for families, particularly children. The Reception and Integration Agency affords the highest priority to the safeguarding and protection of children through the full implementation of the Children First guidelines. It has a fully staffed child and family services unit, the head of which is seconded from the Health Service Executive. Any review of the type proposed would have to take account of the wider purpose of thedirect provision system in the overall context of the State’s response to the issue of asylum seekers and immigration control generally.

The accommodation system cannot be in place solely in its own context. It is inextricably linked with the surrounding international protection process. An amended immigration, residence and protection Bill will be published, the purpose of which will be to substantially simplify and streamline the existing arrangements for asylum, subsidiary protection and leave to remain applications. It will do this by making provision for the establishment of a single application procedure in order that applicants can be provided with a final decision on all aspects of their protection application in a more straightforward and timely fashion. I had wished to bring forward this legislation much sooner. It has been one of my great frustrations that it has not yet proved possible to publish the legislation in its final form.

However, as Members will be aware, by necessity, troika-related legislative requirements have had to trump all other proposals, no matter how meritorious. The available pool of legislative drafting expertise is quite small and is subject to the same resource restrictions as all other areas of the public service. However, I expect that this situation will be alleviated shortly and that the Bill will definitely come before the Oireachtas next year. It was originally my hope to have seen it in 2012 but that proved impossible. Everything possible is being done on the legislative drafting side to bring about publication by 2014.

In relation to the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism through the Ombudsman for Children and independent inspections of direct provision centres undertaken through HIQA, it is not clear from the rapporteur’s report that he was aware of how these issues are actually dealt with. I see no basis for HIQA involvement. Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, centres are already subject to inspections three times a year, twice by Department of Justice and Equality staff and once by an independent company called QTS. Indeed, the media reports last week about shortcomings in some RIA centres came about from the release under FOI of inspection reports carried out by RIA which showed that the inspection system was indeed working. Where problems within direct provisionaccommodation are identified, I ensure that these are addressed. RIA will publish on its website all completed inspection reports on its centres undertaken since 1 October 2013. In future, anyone seeking these reports will not have to make any application under freedom of information legislation. I want these reports to have maximum transparency.

Although not stated explicitly in the report, the rapporteur appeared to be making an analogy with the HIQA inspections of children’s detention centres but there are several distinctions to be drawn. Senator van Turnhout had some difficulty with some of these distinctions but they are valid distinctions. First, only a small number of children are at present in detention while approximately 1,200 children are in the 34 RIA centres around the country. Second, HIQA carries out the inspections on a contract basis for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and not under the specific HIQA legislation. The inspections are based on the standards drawn up by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, not by HIQA. Third, the inspection standard of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs takes into account that these children are in the care of the State, that the State acts inloco parentis, in the context, in most cases, of proceedings having been taken in respect of child care matters. While the RIA has, of course, a duty of care to all its residents, both adults and children, in no case is it acting in loco parentisin respect of children in the centres.

On the recommendation to extend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children to direct provision centres, I see no basis for changing the law in this regard. Section 11(1)(e) of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, provides that the ombudsman shall not investigate any action taken by a public body where the action was taken in the administration of the law relating to, inter alia, asylum. While the office currently does not have the power to investigate asylum-related matters, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INS, including RIA, has administrative arrangements in place with the office to assist and provide information and to help resolve any matters brought to its attention. The rapporteur’s report also does not make clear that the ombudsman does not serve as a first instance appellant authority for day-to-day administrative complaints mechanisms. It is a requirement that a person who wishes to appeal to the ombudsman must first try to solve the problem with the public body concerned using formal local appeals mechanism.

With regard to the legislative basis for payments to asylum-seekers in direct provision accommodation, asylum-seekers cannot work under section 9(4)(b) of the Refugee Act 1996, they cannot access rent allowance under section 13 of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2003, nor are they entitled to a range of benefits, including child benefit, as they are deemed to be not habitually resident under section 246(7) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.

The Minister for Social Protection has already responded to Dáil questions on this matter, to the effect that under thedirect provision system asylum-seekers are provided with full board accommodation and other facilities such as laundry services and access to leisure areas. To take account of the services provided, a direct provision allowance of €19.10 per adult per week and €9.60 per child per week is payable in respect of any personal requisites required. Following the introduction of the statutory habitual residence condition in May 2004 and subsequent legislation, asylum-seekers are not entitled to receive most social welfare payments. The payment of the weekly direct provisionallowance is made on an administrative basis by the Department of Social Protection on behalf of my Department. It continues to be open to any asylum seeker to seek assistance for a particular once-off need by way of an exceptional needs payment under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme as contained in section 201 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. There is no automatic entitlement to an exceptional needs payment as each application is determined based on the particular circumstances of the case.

With regard to the final issue raised concerning a debate with Members of Seanad Éireann as to how to best reform Ireland’s reception and asylum system, only someone unfamiliar with parliamentary affairs would think that there has been little or no debate about the merits or otherwise of the direct provision system. I have answered over 50 parliamentary questions on the topic this year, as well as five Seanad Adjournment debates, not including this one. RIA has facilitated three visits by Members to asylum accommodation centres. Senators are welcome to visit any further centres they wish to visit. It is one of my practices as I travel around the country and without media attention to quietly visit our prisons and our courts and to meet with members of An Garda Síochána. Quietly and without any great fanfare I have visited a number of our asylum-seeker accommodation centres and met and talked to many of the people residing therein. I intend to continue this practice. In its previous iterations, the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill has been extensively debated in the Oireachtas and no doubt will be debated again when finally I can introduce the new Bill which we hope to publish.

I wish this were an issue with an easy resolution but this is not the case. It is a challenge, not just for Ireland but for the EU as a whole and the issue is discussed at practically every Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting at the various locations. The direct provision system is a necessary feature of this country’s asylum and immigration system. It is a system which ensures a roof over the head of every asylum-seeker. However, I would prefer to have a system where asylum seekers spend less time in that system. That is where my energies will be devoted. I want to see the new Bill published. I want us to get to a position, which we have not as yet achieved, where all the applications made by those seeking asylum, including all the different applications that can be made, are dealt with in one application. I want to have an appeals system which is to the satisfaction of everyone so that in the future, those seeking asylum do not feel the need to make multiple applications to the courts.

In conclusion, after we have enacted our legislation, which I hope will meet with a widespread welcome, which will ensure that we are fully meeting all our international obligations and which will address issues of concern to some, I will then revisit the possibility of our becoming parties to some of the EU measures to which Senators have referred. There is merit in looking at a system which ensures that we treat those who are genuine asylum-seekers as best we can, with the caveat that in all contributions on this issue, I urge Senators to take note of what I have said that many people are genuinely seeking asylum but, unfortunately, others are economic migrants masquerading as asylum-seekers. This is a problem right across Europe. We live in a State that does not have an open-ended fund into which we can simply dip to provide ideal accommodation and supports for everyone who arrives at our borders. We cannot provide the ideal within the current economic climate for all of our citizens. There are limits to what we can do. We need to take a reality check when debating this issue.

I am very conscious, in the context of those who are currently within the direct provision system, as well as those still involved in the process but living with friends, relations or in their own accommodation, of the welfare of children resident in this State for many years. It is an issue that will have my continuing attention, and Senators should notice that the number of people currently in direct provision is a smaller than it was on 9 March 2011.

I will first deal with the Minister’s statement on the events of the past 48 hours. I thank him for his honesty in sharing his concerns and the plans for the proposed review. I agree the Garda Síochána has an important role to play as part of the child protection system. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the amount of detail that went into the public domain with these cases, and I support the Minister’s proposal for a review.

I have plenty of food for thought arising from this evening’s debate and I thank all colleagues for the contributions. I assure the Minister I am fully aware of the separation of powers, and the motion today is a culmination of my work as a Senator and that of my colleagues. Senator Moran raised the 2010 value-for-money report, which clearly indicates that the social welfare option costs are the same as direct provision, so I am finding it quite difficult that we are being played against each other. Examining the current funding of some providers, it seems many have moved to unlimited companies to hide profits. I would happily sit down with colleagues to work on an alternative model that would be based on human rights and be economically sound, if we felt it would get a fair hearing.

I have been careful with my wording on this issue and I am disappointed at the response. I wanted to have a constructive debate; instead the Minister’s response has added bricks to the wall. I do not want to table Adjournment debates and use up departmental time going back and forth. I would like to sit down to talk about how we reform this system. I do not want to ask questions about this case or that case. That is why I worded the motion as I did. Along with my colleagues, civil society organisations, legal practitioners, academics, human rights activists, I am calling for reform. I am sure Senators would be happy to co-ordinate with a grouping to sit down to talk about the solutions if we believe they will get a fair hearing.

The Minister mentioned Dr. Geoffrey Shannon’s report. Why not ask him to conduct the examination he proposed in his special rapporteur report if he is so assured of the facts? There is merit in doing a report on the effects of direct provision on the welfare and development of children.

I worked to have a constructive debate but I feel like I have had a few wallops. The Minister said “No” to any independent mechanism and to investigating conditions for children and he refuted the economic arguments, even though the value for money report defends what we said. There has to be a better way for us to reform policy. We are here together and we want to work with the Department. I read what the Minister said when he was in opposition. His comments were much stronger than mine during this debate. Why can we not find a way to sit down to reform this system? The difficulty when it is all boiled down that is my colleagues and I can put faces to the many figures that have been provided in this debate. I realise what we are doing and I do not want in ten years’ time to stand anywhere and say, “Well, we knew that was happening but we did nothing”. We have to do something.

 

Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013. All Stages 5-7 November 2013

 Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Fifth Stage (7 Nov 2013)

I, too, thank the Minister and her officials for their co-operation in advance and during the debate and hope the co-operation will continue. I remain concerned about the cuts to the maternity benefit and the jobseeker’s allowance, a concern shared across the House.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to come here to discuss the Irish plan for the youth guarantee. She ably shared the information with us on how she showed leadership at European level on the issue. We are clear that she is committed to ensuring that the youth guarantee is a good plan.

Having listened to the debate, particularly on section 9, some good ideas were expressed from all across the House. We could add and give our support to the youth guarantee in order to ensure that it is successful for young Irish people.

 

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Report Stage (7 Nov 2013)

They are actually from the Department of Social Protection.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I remind the Senator that we are speaking on the amendment. I have given her a bit of latitude in her response but we have had quite an extensive debate on this issue.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

We are speaking on the amendment. I have given the Senator an extreme amount of latitude on this.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

To the amendment.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I remind Senator Harte to speak to the amendments. We cannot revisit the discussion on section 9.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I remind Senator Harte that this amendment proposes that reports be laid before the House. I ask him to confine his remarks to that topic.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

Amendment No. 3 has been ruled out of order because it poses a potential charge on the Exchequer. Amendment No. 4 proposes the insertion of a new section. Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I ask the Senator to confine her comments to the amendment.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

Much of what the Senator is saying relates to the debate we had on section 9. I was listening very carefully and I am very involved and I ask the Senator to confine her comments to the amendments that have been tabled.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

Okay.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

Okay.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

Will the Senator keep to this section? In the first round there was a good deal of latitude on the sections, so can we keep to the section?

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I am encouraging the Senator to pursue that.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

Senator, let us keep to the section.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

The Senator should speak to section 9.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

Yesterday on Second Stage I highlighted the fact that this is a critical issue. I believe the cut is regressive and is likely to exacerbate the difficulties that these young people are already experiencing in getting back into employment and training. I noted yesterday that during the boom times young people were at the top of the list for getting into employment. Therefore, there is nothing to support the narrative being spun that young people are sitting on sofas at home or whatever. That is not the experience I have had.

I wrote directly to the Minister and I received replies. We did a follow-up overnight and I am awaiting the subsequent replies. I was talking to the Minister’s officials and I will take them at their word when they say they will come back to me with detailed replies in respect of the questions. Therefore, I will not use my time today to go through each of the questions. However, I am concerned about these cuts because of the overall message we are sending to young people. We are cutting the jobseeker’s allowance but not enough appropriate training places are available. I will discuss the youth guarantee shortly but we have cut funding successively to youth work organisations. We should consider all of these things as a cumulative package.

I welcomed the Minister’s commitment yesterday in the Seanad to the effect that she would come back for a debate on the youth guarantee. It is critical that we have the debate before the Irish plan is submitted to the European Commission.

 

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

According to the Department’s briefing note on the youth guarantee scheme, this will take place before the end of December. I seek clarification on the commitment made to have the debate by then. The timing of the debate should factor in when the plan becomes available to us and the plan should be the basis of the debate before it is submitted to the Commission. That would allow time for us to play a role in ensuring that we get buy-in and include all the people that need to be included in the plan. It is critical that we get this right.

This should be a joint initiative between the Department of Social Protection and the Departments of Education and Skills, Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Children and Youth Affairs because labour and activation issues are not in a vacuum. From my own experience of youth work organisations I believe they can play a critical role.

I saw a little of the Oireachtas committee earlier today. We heard it eloquently described how youth work organisations were getting at some of the hard-to-reach young people and how the organisations were able to engage them into the workplace. Youth workers have a real insight and trust with young people. If we think about it, most adults in a young person’s life are not there by choice. We do not choose our parents, teachers or doctors. However, traditionally a youth worker or someone involved in a young person’s life in that way can have a significant role. I am conscious that there were excellent presentations made on the youth guarantee today and therefore I will not speak to it too much. However, I am concerned about the original or initial allocation of €14 million earmarked for it. In reality, and if we are serious, the figure should be approximately €100 million in the first year because a total of €66 million of that sum would be reimbursed from the EU. We have to spend the money first and then it is reimbursed. Therefore, the cost to the State will be €34 million. We need more clarity on the numbers, places and the budget available. Let us consider the €46 million figure. What are the costings for the 1,500 JobBridge places? What are the costings for JobsPlus for young jobseekers? What are the costings for the 1,000 extra places on Tús? What are the costings for the 750 new places on the momentum scheme?

My colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, cannot be here today, unfortunately, but he has asked me to raise with the Minister the situation for professional actors who are currently in receipt of the jobseeker’s allowance. They have been told they must go on Tús programmes for one year. The result of this will effectively mean that they must put their profession on hold for that time. The reason is they are not seeking full-time employment according to the Department of Social Protection. The Department sees their acting as a sideline hobby. Senator Mac Conghail sent me correspondence he received which detailed how a young actor was told that he cannot take up part-time work. By its very nature, acting is about short, part-time work. The person at the Intreo centre said everyone would like to be famous but that when an actor is not working he is not an actor, he is unemployed. The official insisted that the actor should go on a one-year training course with Tús if he wanted to continue to qualify for the jobseeker’s allowance. This individual has said he is happy to do part-time work to supplement his income and he is only seeking the half-time jobseeker’s allowance. There is something about understanding the nature of acting because it tends to be short work unless one gets a job in a soap opera. Even then, one is at the discretion of the writer.

The difficulty is that the Tús programme involves working for 19.5 hours per week, which is great when the employer will give actors the flexibility to do acting jobs. However, if not, ultimately, they cannot take up the work that they are keen to do. This applies not only in the case of actors. I have heard from many young people about the need for flexibility and the opportunity to take a chance when a chance comes upon them. A person could be offered a three-month placement. If a person takes a three-month work placement or a job it is fantastic but the transition to get back onto jobseeker’s allowance is so long that we must question whether it is worth it. Naturally, it is worth it to have a job but what if it represents a detrimental decision financially? We need to consider how people transfer in and out of jobs. We are in a far more flexible workplace now. If a person takes a three-month opportunity, often a job will come out of it. However, it is a leap of faith and it is a case of trying to find the flexibility and ensure that people can transition.

Yesterday in her speech on Second Stage the Minister referred to JobsPlus. She stated, “I want to tell Members here, many of whom are actively involved in employment or familiar with many employers, that on 1 January, young jobseekers aged under 26 will qualify for JobsPlus if they are without employment for more than six months”. My understanding was that this was for people aged under 25. Will the Minister clarify that she meant under 26 years? Was that correct? It would be welcome news if this was the case.

We have discussed flexibility and training places and the issues I have outlined in my questions. Let us consider the figures and leave aside the quality of the places, which is one of the arguments. Let us consider the increase in payments if a person goes back on an education programme and the differentials that arise. A person aged 25 years on jobseeeker’s allowance gets €144 up to a maximum of €160 per week if she goes on the back-to-education allowance scheme. The incentive in that case is €16 per week. Likewise, a young person aged 18 to 24 years will get €100 on schemes such as JobBridge with a maximum of €150. This is a low income to live on, especially if people have to pay the costs of getting to their place of internship, lunch, clothes and all the things that come with it. Can we consider working towards having a basic rate for all those in education or training and having the same rate across the board? It could be an allowance of €188 or something that would represent an incentive, something we could look at in time to work to such that not every scheme is different.

I agree that every young person is different and for some, the back to education programme or the JobBridge scheme is the right choice at present. For the sake of €10 or €20, I would not like young people to make a different choice that is not in their best interests on a purely monetary basis. Members do not want that as they want such people to get back on the pathway to the right place to which they wish to go. Consequently, streamlining should be considered and a way found to have all young people on the same rate. I will leave it there for the present but these are some of the issues I have with regard to the cuts.

 

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I endorse what the Minister said about surrogacy. The case I was citing to her is just one case, but we know there are other cases. I welcome the briefing note that we received on the Family Relationships and Children Bill 2013. I look forward to it being debated in this House.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I will not rehearse the discussion we had on section 5 but I endorse it and it is related to this issue. Has the Minister given consideration to providing surrogacy leave? The Equality Authority has advised on this; I refer to the Ms Z case. A teacher with a rare medical condition preventing her from carrying a pregnancy, although she had healthy ovaries, arranged for a surrogate to give birth to herself and her husband’s genetic child using IVF. The child was born in April 2010. The woman applied to the Department of Education and Skills for paid maternity leave and was refused. She was offered unpaid parental leave by her employers. She took a case to the Equality Tribunal and it ended up before the European Court of Justice. One of the court’s advocate generals suggested that since adoptive parents are entitled to maternity leave under EU law, the national courts could assess whether it is illegal to apply different rules to adoptive parents and parents through surrogacy while another advocate general said that where surrogacy is allowed in a country, the mother taking care of the baby was entitled to leave to ensure the unhindered development of the mother-child relationship. The Equality Authority has advised the Minister for Justice and Equality to provide support to the small number of families availing of surrogacy similar to that provided to adoptive parents. Has that been considered?

 

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

The Minister mentioned arrangements in other countries. I could provide a list of other countries in which there are preferential arrangements in relation to maternity and paternity benefits. I want the record to show that Ireland is not a leader in the world in respect of maternity benefits and leave.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I echo and agree with everything Senator Power said. I spoke about this on Second Stage yesterday so I will not repeat myself but I am concerned because I know part of the narrative is that the payment is going up for some people while it is going down for others. The payment is going down for 95% while it is going up for 5%.

Ms Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council said a reduction of maternity benefit will force many women to go back to work earlier than they wish to. This is not in the best interests of women, their children or society as a whole. Senator Power has clearly outlined that some employers pay a top-up payment to women on maternity leave. In this case the employer may take a financial hit but some will not choose to take such a hit. We may see that significant classes and types of job will be directly cut by this reduction. Ms Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance has stated that Ireland is currently in the middle of a baby boom and to reduce maternity benefit at this time is economically counterproductive, counter-intuitive and will discourage women from having babies.

The difficulty is that the taxation measure came into effect from 1 July 2013, so it is beginning to hit now. That figure of €3,500 combined with this cut and the taxation measure sends out a damaging signal to women. I would like to see Ireland move to a combined system of maternity and paternity leave. In that way we could bring about greater gender equality because employers would regard men and women in the same way. However, it is a regressive step to reduce the amount.

It is not just NGOs who are warning about this. IBEC has also warned that some companies may have to review their maternity benefits as a result. Top-up payments to bring salaries up to normal levels during maternity leave are standard practice in most companies. For example, IBEC’s head of HR development, Ms Mary Connaughton, said the change could cost the typical large employer with 12 employees on maternity leave an extra €10,000 a year. That is something they would have to consider. That is why I have tabled an amendment to oppose these cuts.

 

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) (5 Nov 2013)

The Senator is taking time from his colleagues.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) (5 Nov 2013)

Senator Zappone, without interruption, please.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) (5 Nov 2013)

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Second Stage (5 Nov 2013)

I welcome the Minister to the House. It is important to realise that this is the sixth in a series of cumulative cuts for many people. While we are discussing individual cuts in the Bill, I am very aware that many families and individuals have been hit six times in one way or another. It is my third time to discuss the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill in this House.

I feel slightly disillusioned because of the way the budget process is handled in Ireland. No matter how we cut and slice the Bill, it is about how we make political decisions. There is a strong public perception that the decision has been made to target vulnerable groups and hit already stretched families and individuals. I look at countries such as Denmark which has an open and transparent budget system. The Danish Government lays out the budget targets, debates in which people will get involved ensue and then the budget decisions are made. I question our processes, including the way we can invite groups to appear before committees, such as the Joint Committee on Health and Children without any real influence on the decisions that are made in the budget process. This is an issue for a wider debate on another day.

Today, I wish to discuss the aspects of the Bill on which I have particular concerns and have tabled three amendments. First I will address section 5 dealing with maternity benefit. I understand the rationale for the cuts and the argument that it will bring the level of payment up for some and down for others, but it will decrease the payment by €32 per week for 95% of the recipients. This reduction will affect the vast majority of recipients. Any parent will be able to articulate the significant costs associated with newborn babies. The cuts have a cumulative impact and this comes on top of the cuts in the 2012 budget, in which the maternity benefit was taxed and reduced the real value of the payment even further. The National Women’s Council of Ireland has calculated that in less than one year the cut to maternity benefit is nearly €3,500 per mother. I have the details of that calculation. We know from studies conducted internationally and in Ireland and Government reports that the first year of a child’s life is very important. I have major concern that over two budgets we have cut that payment by €3,500 per child. That is a matter of concern. I have similar concerns on the adoptive leave and the rate of payments to a person adopting a child as the same arguments will apply.

As the Minister will be aware from my e-mail last Tuesday, to which she responded with detailed answers, I have substantive issues with section 9 which deals with jobseeker’s allowance. I am extremely concerned as are others about these cuts to the payments to young unemployed people. I think it is regressive and is likely to exacerbate the difficulties these young people are already experiencing trying to get into employment and training. I am also very concerned about an urban-rural divide on this issue. It is easier for those based in Dublin to go for an interview, but the young people who are based in rural areas may have great financial difficulty in getting to the interview. Some young people who are offered a three month job placement face obstacles when going on and off social welfare benefits. This is a major issue because it is difficult to have one’s allowance restored after a three month placement.

I refer to the availability and appropriateness of training places and to the youth guarantee. I do not believe we are investing enough ,nor do I believe enough has been announced. Over the years, there have been successive cuts to youth organisations. I am interconnecting these issues because it is all about young people and the message we are sending to them. I listen to the narrative which is saying to young people that it is to incentivise them to go to work but the figures do not support that. During the boom times, the take-up rate among young people was the highest across the EU. Young people want to go out to work and want to be in education and training.

I am concerned the OECD report, Getting Youth on the Job Track, which was only published this September, clearly stated:

A comprehensive national strategy to tackle the very high unemployment rates among young people is lacking. Youth policy is fragmented, with several Government departments taking individual action. A more co-ordinated and tailored approach to the youth unemployment problem is required.

It is talking about Ireland. That is probably at the heart of the issue. We can debate the cuts but it is about the alternatives for young people.

In 2011, 40% of our young people aged between 16 and 24 were at risk of poverty. That is the highest rate in the EU and that is the group whose payments we are choosing to cut. It is at the highest risk of poverty but we are saying we might cut the payments.

I asked for details on the €32 million in savings on the basis of the cuts to jobseeker’s allowance. I also asked for the estimated number of recipients affected and I was informed that it would be 13,767 for 2014, which does not tally with the figures I worked out. The reply to a parliamentary question asked in September showed there were 20,853 young jobseekers aged between 21 and 24, the two years affected by the cut in 2014. That does not take into account any new entrants. If I take the €72 million saving to be made and do a simple calculation of the €44 per week, it shows 31,468 persons are affected. I will go back to the Minister’s Department because the sums do not make sense and I cannot work out these figures. I am trying to understand how many places and how many young people we are looking at.

The Minister highlighted the back to education allowance scheme, but a person must be 21 years of age to qualify for that scheme. There were 25,000 people on that scheme in 2013, of which 6,500 were under 25 years of age. That is approximately 26% of the people on that scheme. The Department said it was not possible to be precise when giving a number for the total of education places available for young people. Part of the problem is that we do not know the number of places available. We are saying to young people that we want to encourage and incentivise them to take up appropriate training and work, but I am hearing from young people that the places are not available.

In regard to the savings from the cuts, the Department said the cuts will affect 13,767 people. I estimate the figure to be approximately 20,000, but even if we differ on that, the reality is that the answers I have received show there are 5,250 places available. Where is the incentive? Young people are told that for every job for which they apply, there are 32 applicants. We are sending mixed messages to young people.

I mentioned the youth guarantee. The Department said it held consultations. There was a briefing on the youth guarantee on 14 October last and there was a general presentation by the Minister’s Department and some discussion in smaller groups. Organisations were invited to make submissions to the Department. The plan is being finalised by an interdepartmental working group but nobody, including myself, as a Senator, and organisations working with young people, has any idea what is in that plan.

An Oireachtas committee will meet tomorrow at which organisations such as the National Youth Council of Ireland will be represented but they do not know the detail of the plan. Will the Minister come to the House for a debate on the youth guarantee and the plan the Government will submit to the European Commission on labour activation measures for young people? All of us regularly consult organisations that represent the group to whom I refer and a debate would be healthy.

 

Seanad: Order of Business (5 Nov 2013)

I thank the Leader for ensuring that the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013 will not be guillotined. We need to have a very important debate. I have put down three amendments to the Bill and I tried to be constructive. I have also been in touch with the Minister’s office over the past week with several questions, so I look forward to the debate over the coming days and will make my decisions based on what we hear on the floor of this House.

I echo the calls for a debate on water supply in the Dublin area, especially with regard to the quality of the water as well as the communications issues involved. Communications issues also apply to the local property tax and medical cards and I wonder whether the State should use organisations such as NALA in communicating to people in plain English exactly what is happening and when it is happening.

The major issue I would like to raise is about what took place yesterday in the Hague in respect of child exploitation material. We have had some good debates in this House on the issue, and I have issued a report on it as well. I believe Ireland needs to bring in a system of filtering for child exploitation material. I do not believe that will be a panacea, but it has been proven to be a deterrent and that is what we need to do. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to clarify to the House the steps he will take in transposing the European directive into Ireland. That was one of the recommendations in the directive. We have had a considerable debate in the House, but we should continue to play a role in leading the debate and calling for action on behalf of children in Ireland who are being exploited in order to have images to upload to these horrendous sites.

 

 

 

 

 

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”