Children’s Rights Alliance lecture marking the work of Jillian van Turnhout

Children’s Rights Alliance lecture marking the work of Jillian van Turnhout
Senator in Seanad Éireann from 2011 to 2016
in The Ark, A Cultural Centre for Children

13 April 2016

Speech by Jillian van Turnhout

Thank JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (1)you Children’s Rights Alliance for this wonderful opportunity to reflect on my path to children’s rights advocacy and my term of office in Seanad Éireann.

So, what can you expect from this evening? I plan to start by sharing a bit about myself and my journey. I will use some of the legislation we dealt with in the Seanad to offer insights into both success and failure and how best to avoid the latter.  I hope you will find it interesting and to the NGOs in the room, I hope it will help you both understand life inside the bubble and how best to shape it.

As I look around the room I see so many friends and supporters.  I know I couldn’t do what I do without you.  On this note I want to begin by giving a very special thank you to my husband Michael who is my rock.  A huge thanks to my Mum, Jenny Hassett and my late Dad Michael Hassett for always believing in me and nurturing the eternal optimist in me who believes she can make the world a better place.  To my brothers John and Gerry for the reality checks and keeping me grounded. And to my sisters-in-laws Philo and Gina for always cheering me on.  My Researcher and Assistant in the Seanad over the last 5 years, Amy McArdle, is also here tonight and I want to pay her a special thanks for all her support and expertise as our time working together comes to an end.  Amy, I wish you good fortune as you move to your exciting new challenge.

My Dad lost his Mum at the age of 8 and lost his Dad less than 3 months later following a bicycle accident. Unbeknownst to him, my Mum, living only a short distance away, would soon be grieving the loss of her Dad. So much tragedy in their early years and both tell of how narrowly they escaped a fate in one of the children’s institutions we are only too aware of today. They were lucky you see. They both had strong, determined adults who believed in them. So, while they grew up in hardship, they grew up knowing they were loved. This is the gift they gave to me and my brothers, the gift of growing up wrapped in love. When asked what one thing I would want for every child?  My answer is always “to have an adult who believes in them fully and strives with them to realise their dreams”.  It has taken me until now to realise that their experience, and the experience they gave to us their children, was a key factor drawing me to children’s rights.

JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (2)For the first 12 years of my career I worked in the private sector but throughout this time I was working with children and young people in a voluntary capacity not least through my involvement with the Irish Girl Guides. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a Girl Guide! I have endeavoured in every role and position I have held to date to live by my Guide Promise and Law to ensure that “I think of others before myself”.

Just over 20 years ago I was elected as Secretary General to one of the then three European youth platforms – it brought together all the International Youth Organisations at a Council of Europe level.  Over three years I worked in Brussels with the leadership of the other two youth platforms to successfully merge into the European Youth Forum – a sole platform for youth organisations across Europe.

On returning to Ireland I was honoured to be elected as President of the National Youth Council of Ireland.  Now, I know I’m showing my age here but I remember getting my first mobile phone in this role and the excitement of waiting for it to ring.  I also remember doing my first radio interview and my Mum, who remains my dedicated media consultant to this day, giving me her first piece of advice “I hope you are not going to be one of those moaners who is always complaining.  If you want to be a game changer then you need to focus on how to solve the problems”.

I went on to be a member of the European Economic and Social Committee which is an advisory body of the EU and was honoured to be elected to the position of Vice President.  As part of my work on the EESC I was a member of the EU-China Round Table, which took me back and forth to China over several years.  In this role I was the rapporteur on its Children’s Rights Report.

I still remember my job interview in the Central Hotel for the Children’s Rights Alliance in May 2005. I remember thinking it was a long shot since my professional experience until then was primarily in the private sector, albeit with the advantage of significant performance driven results expertise, but still it was only my voluntary work that was directly relevant to the work of the Alliance.  Perhaps I needed to think more like a man and focus on all the things I could offer.

In accepting the role I met every metaphor going-baptisms of fire, roads hit running, and deep ends plunged. Within my first year in the Alliance we produced a Shadow Report and had appeared before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, we also produced a children’s report to the Committee and had agreed a Social Partnership deal entitled, somewhat optimistically, “Towards 2016”.

In my time in the Alliance I worked with many wonderful and talented people and I would like to take this opportunity to wish one of them, Maria Corbett, every success with her exciting new venture.  Maria recently announced she is going to take up a full time PhD with NUIG to examine the process of how we decide to take children into care. I can’t think of a better person for the job.  During this time, I also developed a great relationship with Prof Geoffrey Shannon whose legal expertise I have always appreciated. Thank you both for your firm and lasting friendship.

It was on taxi ride through Shanghai’s equivalent of Temple Bar in 2011 that I received the fateful phone call from the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, inviting me to accept his nomination to the Seanad. I hope you will appreciate just how surreal a moment that was for me! To this day I remember clearly him stressing that he wanted me to be truly independent and keep my own voice.

So this evening, in the spirit of ‘keeping my own voice’ I intend to peel away some of the layers of legislative mystery. While the Seanad transcripts will give you the “record” of how various Bills pass through the House, I will give you a behind the scenes look at what really influenced and shaped some of the legislation I worked on.

Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012
In preparing for the Local Property Tax Bill in 2012 I knew that many children and youth JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (3)organisations owned residential venues and was concerned they would face paying significant Property Tax bills. I rang the Department of Finance to explain my concerns. As it happened, the Official I spoke to had had a daughter in the Girl Guides and got exactly what I was talking about.  In December 2012 I tabled an amendment to the Bill to exempt venues owned by children and youth organisations from the Property Tax. The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan TD, did not accept my amendment but did commit to come back with an amendment to achieve the same aim in a few months.  I took him at his word and in March 2013 he came back and granted the exemption and specifically cited Guiding and Scouting as an examples of why he was doing so.

As we all know, there is often a disconnect between law making and the practical reality on the ground.  There is no better feeling in the world than knowing you have bridged that disconnect and won a victory for civil society.

Protection of Children’s Health (Tobacco Smoke in Mechanically propelled Vehicles) Bill 2012
On New Year’s Day 201JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (4)6, the Protection of Children’s Health (Tobacco Smoke in Mechanically Propelled Vehicles) Act of 2014 came into effect in Ireland. This legislation extends the workplace ban on smoking to all vehicles where children are present.  The impetus for this important legislative change was in fact the Protection of Children’s Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012, which I initiated with Senators John Crown and Mark Daly with the support of John’s assistant Shane Conneely. We started the process optimistically in spring 2012 with a view to its passage before the summer recess.  Instead what ensued was months of tedious meetings and games of tag with John Crown stressing the urgency of the Bill, Mark working the political aspects and me bringing the children’s rights expertise but also the diplomacy necessary to calm the waters and steady the ship.  Each of us played to our strengths. In the end, some three years later, even though only a handful of words from our original Bill remained due to amendments but we got it over the line.

Adoption (Identity and Information) Bill 2014
Tens of thousands of Irish adoptees don’t know their original names, who their parents JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (5)are or their medical history.  In November 2014 I co-sponsored legislation with Senators Averil Power and Fidelma Healy Eames to recognise the right to identity of adopted children.

As an adopted child, an adoptive parent and a children’s rights advocate, we each brought our own unique perspectives to the table.  Thanks to cross party support in the Seanad we persuaded Government to allow the Bill pass through Second Stage (no mean feat!!).

For those who are not au fait with the legislative process, there are 5 Stages in the passage of a Bill but it is the middle 3 that are the most substantive.  In short:

  • First Stage initiates the Bill and gets it on the agenda of the first House (Dáil or Seanad);
  • Second Stage is the general debate on the purpose, intention and scope of the Bill;
  • Third Stage (aka Committee) goes through the Bill section by section and considers individual amendments;
  • Fourth Stage (aka Report) allows you to review issues raised at Committee and table additional amendments; and
  • Fifth Stage (Final) sees a vote on entire Bill.

A successful Bill then goes to the other House, and follows stages two to five and then hopefully it is enacted into Law.  Many Bills, particularly those not initiated by Government, fall or stall at one hurdle or another…and some reappear as a Government Bill down the line!!

Back to our Adoption Bill and we are now at Committee Stage the third stage of the Seanad process.  Unusually, since we were the authors of the Bill, we had tabled a considerable number of amendments to address issues raised by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, James Reilly, at Second Stage.  Averil and I worked as a tag team and it was the one and only time I occupied the Fianna Fáil front bench seats in the Seanad.  It became clear as we were working through the amendments that the Minister and his officials had decided to neither engage nor oppose our amendments.

While this was allowing us to whiz through the changes we proposed it was all very bizarre.  It was at this point I got a text message from an Official in the House kindly pointing out that the schedule did not limit us from pushing the Bill through all stages.  So, following a speedy consultation with Averil, we agreed to give it a go but not before giving the Minister his opportunity.  I took to my feet and asked the Minister if he would be willing to engage with us on our Bill before Report Stages, which we were willing to take another day otherwise we would progress all Stages.

At the end of Committee Stage we asked again and there was still no comment.  So we pressed ahead to Report Stage and then with thanks to the Government Senators jumped the final hurdle and took the fifth and final stage.  These last two stages took all of 30 seconds maximum.

We now had a powerful tool in our armoury on the Right to Identity for all adoptees.    We had a Bill that had passed unopposed through all stages in the Seanad.  Surely the Dáil could pick it up and amend it if and where necessary.

Our efforts pushed the Minister and the Department to publish its own Heads of Bill on Adoption (Information and Tracing).   The Heads had come a long way from formerly stated positions. There are still obstacles, which were highlighted during the excellent hearings by the Health and Children Committee and detailed in its subsequent report.  There are over 50,000 adult children whose right to their identity could soon be realised.  This issue is a ticking clock as many are aging and many not see the legislation published let alone enacted.  It is urgent.

Immigration (Reform) (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill 2014
Passing legislation is never easy and unfortunately things don’t always go to pJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (6)lan! Case in point, a Bill proposed by Senator David Norris and myself to provide a pathway to residency for asylum seekers who have been awaiting a decision on their protection application for 4 years or more.  We had worked on the substance and intention of the Bill with a number of individuals and organisations working with refugees and migrants.  We knew the Bill we initiated wasn’t technically perfect but we hoped for the support of the House to move the Bill to Committee Stage where the necessary changes could be made.   However, Senator Norris and I were blindsided by Sinn Fein.  They had been approached by another NGO working in the area who did not agree with the use of the term ‘amnesty’ and so lobbied to block its passage.  Sinn Fein voted with Government against the Bill and we lost the passing of Second Stage by 1 vote.  We never expected our Bill to pass into law rather we saw it as an important opportunity to highlight the appalling reality of Direct Provision and to put pressure on the Department of Justice and Equality to act.

I appreciate the motivation of the NGO concerned but I still think it was a short sighted step that showed scarce respect for their fellow NGOs and more importantly removed an important lever to effect change.

Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015
The Children and Family Relationships Bill really illustrates the importance of JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (7)collaboration and I wish to commend the Children’s Rights Alliance not only for their work on this Bill but for their unstinting support and expertise during my tenure.  Tanya Ward, Chief Executive, has proven her leadership, vision and acumen in spades since taking over the reins in 2011.

The Children and Family Relationships Bill was tabled and debated against the backdrop of the impending Marriage Equality Referendum.  This coloured much of the debate on the Bill but this legislation was so much more.  It represented the most significant reform of child and family law for a generation and finally put children at the heart of family law.

I watched in admiration as the Alliance united voices by forming a working group of members with diverse views to analysis and co-ordinate advocacy action.  They provided briefings and strategic communications at every level needed to effect changes to the Bill.  The Alliance built consensus amongst their membership, generated media and organised events.  Indirectly their work built consensus and support for the recognition of LGBT people as parents.  At this point, I also commend Minister Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice and Equality who personally steered this legislation through both houses.  It took 30 hours in Seanad Éireann alone.

As I talk about the Marriage Equality Referendum one of my greatest regrets in office is that we could not embody the same level of public engagement when it came to the Children’s Referendum.  The closest I got to tapping into mass public sentiment was JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (8)when I took on Child Beauty Pageants. I was inundated with support from parents and the public.  It showed me there is a strong public appetite to protect childhood but we haven’t been able to able make the link in the public mind with children’s rights.

Marriage Age
Not everything must be done through legislation. Tabling Motions under group speaking time can be equally effective.  In May 2014, we had a Seanad debate on the abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria that Boko Haram had threatened to sell into forced child marriage. I took this opportunity to voice my concern that exemptions to the marriage age in Ireland mean that, strictly speaking, child marriage is not prohibited here.

In June 2014, Senator Ivana Bacik brought forward a Motion calling on the Government to remove the court ordered exception to the legal age for marriage of 18.  Aware of my own interest in this children’s rights anomaly, Ivana invited me to second the motion and I detailed how in 2012 28 child marriages were permitted to take place in Ireland.  Just before Christmas the Government committed to setting the marriage age to 18 without exceptions.  I hope this is brought into law soon.

On a side note, I must take this opportunity to thank Ivana and wish her every success in her Seanad campaign.  I have grown in respect and admiration for Ivana – she is a great person to collaborate with. She’s whip smart and has an expert legal eye for legislative scrutiny.

My lowest moment
If you had asked me a few days before the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill I JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (9)would have said that this would be my most tense vote.  The debate was fractious, bigoted and filled with misinformation.  Little did I know my toughest vote would be within hours of that vote.

To set the scene, we were now operating in a Seanad where the Government was in the minority and needed Independents or opposition to support them.   In the short period of 3 hours leading up to my toughest vote I was shouted at in the corridor, grabbed, cornered and at one stage even pinned up against a wall – all by opposition parties and independent members– who felt they could ‘bully’ me into voting a particular way.   On a side note we are all friends again.  The vote in question was on a motion to delay the passage of the Referendum Bill proposing the abolition of the Seanad.  If I voted with the opposition, we would delay the passage of the Bill for 90 days.  However, in my head all I could think was that only six months previously we were one vote short of delaying the passage of the Social Welfare Bill that brought in the cuts to the Respite Care grant. If we couldn’t get our acts together to frustrate this utterly unfair cut, how in good conscience could we justify delaying the passage of a Bill that was about keeping our own jobs!!

No one from Government approached me about my vote.  On pressing the button I voted with my gut.  Along with my colleagues Senators Marie Louise O’Donnell and Fiach MacConghail we made the difference and ensured the vote for the Referendum would be put to the people.  The footage of the day will show how I was jeered and shouted at by opposition for being a ‘traitor’.  Funny how they changed their view when the people of Ireland gave the Seanad a mandate.

IndependentJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (10)
Being independent should not mean you are automatically in opposition.  As a Taoiseach’s nominee I had to work out what independence meant for me?  From the outset I believed it meant dealing with issues on merit. I voted with the Government where possible and clearly articulating my position where not. In the end we were operating in a minority Seanad and so each time I voted it counted – a power I had to use wisely.

Following my low point in the Seanad I was feeling increasingly isolated from both the Government Senators and Opposition Senators.  Some Government Senators felt I should automatically vote with them as I was a ‘Taoiseach’s nominee’.  Coupled with this I felt an increased sense of responsibility as the people of Ireland had voted to keep the Seanad.

So, I sought a meeting with the Taoiseach and despite everyone thinking we were in regular contact this took a few months to set up.  In fact, prior to this meeting the only advice I received from him was during my first days in office to pick a few key issues and stay on them if you want to effect change. Sound advice that I endeavoured to follow.

I met the Taoiseach and he listened.  I explained my frustration with the system, with trying to put forward amendments and feeling I was working in an echo chamber.  He repeated the advice he gave me when he first appointed me “I want you to be yourself and be Independent”.   It was only when I reached out that he leaned in to help and provide support to me.

Following this meeting he set up a weekly meeting for me with an advisor from his Department.  The only thing he asked was where possible I would give advance notice when I was not in a position to support the Government.  The payback for doing this was access to influence and in particular securing wins on a number of policy fronts.  At no stage during my time as a Senator has the Taoiseach ever tried to influence my vote.

Reform
There is much debate and talk about Reform.  I find most Members are very happy to JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (11)discuss any aspect of reform that won’t directly affect their lives.   I believe that reform begins with the individual.  I decided when I started to take a new approach to politics and so used my social media – twitter primarily – to account for my work and I also publish each year a statement of my salary and allowances to ensure maximum transparency.   Indeed, each year I return the unspent portion of my allowance and as there was no procedure up until last year I had to ‘gift’ it back to the Department of Finance.

An example of some of the reform introduced in my time is pre-legislative scrutiny to a significant number of proposed laws.  This allowed for Committees to bring in experts, civil society groups, public officials and the Minister responsible to provide testimony.

Health and Children Committee
My experience is on the Health and Children Committee.  In reality only five or six members keep each committee going.  If you attend for one minute or three hours your attendance is recorded in the same way.  I was fortunate that my Committee was under the excellent chairmanship of Jerry Buttimer who ensured we worked collaboratively and respectfully.  I am very proud of our work, much of it in areas I have already highlighted, but additionally our hearings on End of Life Care. I hope the report we published will come to fruition.

Many NGOs supported my work at the Committee. A particular thanks to Chris Macey of the Irish Heart Foundation and Angela Edghill of the Irish Hospice Foundation.  Their advocacy expertise was so helpful especially in my early days as was Chris’s sage advice when I was faced with a legal threat from tobacco industry stooges.

In a similar vein, I was happy to draw on my European experience in challenging the alcohol industry and its attempts to frustrate and stymie legislative efforts to address alcohol related harm.  The drinks industry has a role – to make profits for its shareholders.  They have no role, whatever guise they choose to wear, in the formulation of health policy.   I think my views are clearly known.

Constituency
Senators shouldn’t have constituencies. Certainly not geographical ones.  As an independent Taoiseach’s nominee I definitely didn’t have one but I did endeavour to use the platform I was given to continue working with NG0s, civil society organisations, community and voluntary sector organisations and interested members of the public to JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (12)help achieve our shared objectives.  I want to thank each and every one of you who has helped and supported Amy and I throughout the past five years across a broad range of issues. Your insight and expertise has been essential to the quality of our input and in helping us to convey the reality on the ground.

One thing I would stress to you is the importance of collaboration. It is the missed opportunity I see all too often in Leinster House. An organisation will come to meet me in my Seanad office and say “A is critically important” and then the next day another group within the same sector will come to me and say “B is the most important”.  These groups need to work together to determine and agree the priorities, not offer a choice for politicians to decide.

Coin drop machine
One of the greatest privileges of being a Senator is theJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (13) opportunity to meet and engage with a wide range of peoples who bear witness to their personal circumstances.  We
have done so much damage in the past and the only way we can truly demonstrate we have learnt from our mistakes is through the actions we take now.  I wish I had a magic wand or a do-over. Instead I feel I am operating one of those coin machines you see in arcades.  You have to put a lot of coins in to hit the tipping point for change.

There are many issues where I feel I have put in a considerable amount of coins but we have yet to see progress. In particular, I highlight the situation for transgender, non-binary and intersex children.   In 2015 Ireland passed ground breaking gender recognition legislation into law.  However, it is silent when it comes to children under 16 –despite my efforts to introduce an interim gender recognition mechanism.   Minister James Reilly has committed his Department to doing more research in the area in time for the review of the Gender Recognition Act in 2017.  I am also sitting on a Working Group hosted by TENI and hope with several others to ensure children have a voice and a place in our laws.

Shelter
JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (14)
I cannot leave today without mentioning the untenable homelessness crisis faced by children and their families, which is compounded by the shortage of social housing and the State’s failure to regulate the private rental sector.  It is incumbent on us to ensure all children – homeless children, children from the Traveller community and children in Direct Provision –  have secure and appropriate accommodation.

Corporal PunishmentJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (15)I want to end on a high and the achievement of which I am most proud- havingchampioned and secured the effective ban on the physical punishment of children in Ireland.  A few months before this win a high level official in the children’s area told me that it would be impossible.  I succeeded by drawing on all in my armoury – all that I have amassed and using every ounce of social and political capital I had built up.   I have documented the official story in the Irish Journal of Family Law but let me take you behind the scenes here.

As early as 2011 I had spoken in the Seanad on the need for Ireland to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement and I continued to raise the issue throughout my tenure. Behind the scenes I researched the issue, drew on International experiences and identified the piece of Legislation I would use as my vehicle.  The Children First Bill was perfect as it was about child protection and yet it contained no penalties or sanctions and so no one could say I was trying put parents in jail.  I also knew the Government would work to ensure this Bill was brought into law as it was a key plank of its reform of child welfare and protection.

The Committee Stage of the Children First Bill was taking place on 23 September last.  At 10am the previous day I met an Advisor and several officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to discuss my amendments to the Bill.  Over the summer recess I submitted several substantive amendments and I had been waiting for this moment.  In our meeting I said I was willing to concede on the other amendments but that corporal punishment was my red line.  They tried very hard to dissuade me but I did not see any other Oireachtas Member willing to put their head above the parapet on this issue and so I had to do it before my time was up.  Even if I lost, I intended to force a vote and let the record show who in the Seanad was willing to be listed as saying it is acceptable to hit children.   It was a tense meeting.

At 4pm that same day, I was invited to meet Minister Reilly and the Secretary General of the Department.  My persistence on the issue meant he had spent the day trying to find a way forward through discussions with his officials and the AG.  In that meeting he gave me a commitment he they would do the change but I needed to buy them some time to work out the how.  We agreed that I would postpone a vote at Committee Stage but one way or the other we would be voting on an amendment at Report Stage.

I had been working with the NGOs and in particular the Children’s Rights Alliance, ISPCC and Mummy Pages who were all outstanding in playing a subtle but vital role in getting the ban on corporal punishment over the line. It worked, with thanks to my fellow Senators who all supported me; the NGOs and children’s rights advocates; and some really outstanding civil servants and advisors.

Through this action the Government has put children first and provided leadership that will hopefully give confidence to other countries across the globe, including our nearest neighbours, to protect children from violence.

There is so much more I could mention but let’s keep it for another day!  It has been a roller-coaster ride that I feel so privileged to have been on. I learnt so much, not least how to hold my nerve and persevere with my eyes fixed firmly on the goal.  I believe I made the most of the opportunity.  I worked extremely hard to effect the most change I could. I don’t know what my future holds but as ever I am optimistic and confident that I will rise to my next challenge.

I would like to thank my fellow Senators from across the house for their collaboration and cooperation.  It has been an immense honour.  Most of all I wish to thank all of you for your input and support during my tenure.    Thank you the Children’s Rights Alliance for giving me an opportunity to share my experiences and to the Ark for providing such a wonderful venue.  Thank you ALL.

END

Motion: Direct Provision

The Minister of State is welcome to the House. I avail of the opportunity to welcome to the Visitors Gallery Dr. Bryan McMahon, chairman of the working group which is to report to the Government on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision accommodation and support for asylum seekers.

I am pleased that the last motion to be debated during Private Members’ business in the 24th Seanad looks at the living conditions of children and young people in the direct provision system. Our group has used its time to consider this issue and I have spoken about it at every available opportunity, including in numerous Adjournment debates and debates on legislation, in an effort to bring the plight of children to the fore. This is the critical issue of our time. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. I fear our failures and the treatment of children in the direct provision system will be the subject of a Ryan report in the future, but we have an opportunity to make changes now. All too often we look back in shock at what happened in the past and say how desperate it was, but what we do now with that knowledge is on what we should be judged.

My entry point to the issue of direct provision is from a children’s rights perspective. My perspective has been informed by my previous work in the Children’s Rights Alliance, the recommendations of the Government appointed special rapporteur on child protection, Professor Geoffrey Shannon, the concerns raised consistently by advocacy groups, my visits to two direct provision asylum centres as an independent Member of the Seanad and the recommendations of the working group. It has taken me a long time to wade through the mire that is the political discourse on the direct provision system. I have struggled to understand the distinction drawn – I still do not agree with it – between children cared for by the State, as children in the direct provision system are described, and children in the care of the State as those in foster care and other care systems are described. I have argued strenuously that children are children, irrespective of their status, and that it is stretching credulity to claim that children in the direct provision system are in the care of their parents in circumstances where their autonomy to make even basic decisions about their children’s care, for example, on what and when to eat, is so limited as to render it absent.

The direct provision system is detrimental to the welfare and development of asylum seekers and, in particular, the 1,225 children residing in direct provision accommodation throughout Ireland. There is 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 inspection of centres in which children reside, the decision by Ireland to opt out of the EU directive to allow asylum seekers to enter the workforce if their applications have not been processed after one year and the fact that there are no prospects post-secondary education for young asylum seekers. It is like hitting the pause button for an uncertain and, doubtless, lengthy period.

I appreciate that we have made some moves, but for most of the children, there is this cliff, the fettering and erosion of normal family dynamics and functioning, the lack of autonomous decision-making and the negative impact on the mental health of adults and children in the direct provision system. The ultimate failure lies in the length of time people remain in the system waiting to have their claims processed. I note the efforts the Government has made to reduce the length of time involved through the International Protection Act 2015 by introducing a single procedure to deal with international protection applications, but the reality is that the average length of stay is four years. However, a significant number have remained within the system for five to ten years. Some 55% have been on the waiting list for more than five years. I ask the Minister of State to think of all the things we have achieved in the past five years when he is on the election trail. There are people who have been in the direct provision system for that period of time. What a substantial loss of time it has been for the individuals, families and, particularly, children who have spent their entire childhood in direct provision centres. They are waiting for their lives to resume.

I was saddened to read in the final report on the child care law reporting project by Dr. Carol Coulter and her team, presented in November 2015, that children born in 2007 were still in the direct provision system. The only time they spent outside it was when they were placed in foster care while their mother received treatment for a mental illness.

There are more than 17 recommendations in the report of the working group which are specific to children and young people. I take the opportunity to thank the Children’s Rights Alliance and its member organisations for ensuring the unique vulnerability of children in the direct provision system was not lost in the process. I will cover briefly the first of those recommendations that we have cited in the motion. My colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, will speak to the others.

There is a need for child-friendly materials containing relevant legal information. The reality for all of us in full health is that the system is very legalistic; as it can be intimidating, people need support, particularly children who are unaccompanied and seeking guidance on how to pass through the system and for what they need to apply. We need to ensure the material is in a language they can understand in order that they can appreciate the ramifications of the decisions they will take.

The remit of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children should be extended to include complaints about services provided, transfer decisions and so on. Ireland ratified the third optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which involves a communication procedure. It allows individual children, groups of children and their representatives, including those in the direct provision system, to submit a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child about specific violations of their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I had the privilege of attending the hearing on Ireland before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The question was rightly asked how Ireland had in place a system that allowed children in the direct provision system to make a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child but yet they had no right to make it to the Ombudsman for Children. How can this be the case? Technically, the recommendation that the remit of the Ombudsman for Children be extended is supported in the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 which in section 69 includes a provision on the referral of complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. Technically, it requires nothing more than a ministerial order or a statutory instrument similar to the one made in 2012 when the decision was made to extend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children to receive complaints from children in prison. It is a question of political will. It is absurd that one can report to a UN body based in Geneva but not to the Ombudsman for Children. I know that the Ombudsman for Children is ready and willing to receive these complaints and wants to be there for all children in Ireland.

The lack of an independent complaints mechanism is completely out of step with the jurisdiction conferred on the office of ombudsman across the Continent. In November 2014, in CA and TA – a minor – v.the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Minister for Social Protection, the Attorney General and Ireland, Mr. Justice Colm Mac Eochaigh found that the RIA’s complaint procedure was deficient, not sufficiently independent, owing to the fact that it was the final arbiter in the process and that some elements of its house rules were unlawful. I do not care what anybody says, I trust the system, yet I would not be comfortable in making a complaint to those who I perceive as being part of the asylum system. We need to develop a welfare strategy and ensure all children have a named social worker based within the Child and Family Agency, not within the system in which a decision will be made on an application. I have argued for the application of the HIQA national standard for the protection and welfare of children, for the involvement of the Health Service Executive’s child and family services, particularly where a referral is made by the child and family services unit in the RIA to the HSE of a child. It is shocking that there is still no independent inspection regime or national standards for direct provision centres, given that we know that there is a significantly higher referral rate for child protection and welfare cases from direct provision centre than among the general population. In one in four cases at least one parent is from an ethnic minority or an asylum seeker or Traveller. I implore the Minister of State to be cognisant of the consistent findings in child care law reporting projects that social exclusion, poverty, isolation, mental health issues and disability are common features of mothers and fathers facing court proceedings and the acknowledgement that minority groups, including asylum seekers, are particularly vulnerable.

My colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, will speak in greater detail about the issues related to the weekly allowance. There is also the issue of those seeking jobs.Ireland and Lithuania are the only two EU member states that apply a blanket prohibition on asylum seekers entering employment or setting up a business in the state. In conclusion, I wish to quote the words of Bill Frelick, the refugee programme director at Human Rights Watch. He said: “Ireland should recognise work not only as a source of dignity, but as providing a livelihood that is integral to sustaining asylum seekers in the pursuit of their right to seek asylum.”

………………..

I thank, in particular, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail who worked with me on this issue, on which we have been at one. I also thank Senators Brian Ó Domhnaill, Martin Conway, David Norris, Marie Moloney, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Ivana Bacik. It is great that the House is united on the issue.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh is correct to ask what we have achieved. For me, what is most depressing is that we can unite on an issue, but the question is whether we can really bring things forward. Senator Fiach Mac Conghail is correct – as we have the working group’s report, we do not need to have long discussions; we need to move to its implementation. I would like to see the progress reports of high level groups published in order that the process is transparent.
I have listened to the debate on the importance of cooking facilities for families. There is the issue of costs because people need materials in order to be able to cook. We can have that debate, but I will go home tonight and decide the time at which I want to eat and what I will eat. I do not have to depend on a service that provides for me to eat at a specific time. How many of us eat at the same time every day? That alone is institutionalisation. Friends have told me how difficult they find it when they are in hospital for one week. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in a direct provision system.
On the issue of tenders, why are we allowing people to profit from the misery of others? I have a fundamental problem with this. Why is the State not providing the service? Why do we not ask an NGO to do it? There are some really excellent NGOs working in this area. I am thinking of Crosscare, but I am sure there are others. I have seen first-hand the work they do.
On the remit of the Ombudsman for Children, I believe it could be done by statutory instrument or ministerial order. It is, therefore, an issue of political will. If one goes back to the debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas on the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, this issue was raised. Would we leave an especially vulnerable group of children and young people outside the scope of the Ombudsman for Children’s investigatory remit? In response the former Minister Mary Hanafin said, “The children of asylum seekers and refugees will have access to the Ombudsman for Children in the same way as every other child in Ireland.” That is what the Houses were told. The only thing excluded is the administration of the law, that is, the procedures for defining and determining whether a person is entitled to a particular status. She also explained:
If, however, there are problems in relation to delays, the provision of accommodation, nutrition, housing, etc, those issues are covered. This provision is only to ensure there is not a duplication of the actual process of the administration of the law.
Why does the Ombudsman for Children not have a remit to look at the application? We live on an island, but we really are an island as far as the rest of Europe is concerned because children in other countries can go to their ombudsman for children. It is enshrined in the Constitution that all children are equal, yet now we say we will interpret it slightly differently and that children in direct provision centres do not have the same rights. The Ombudsman for Children and Mr. Peter Tyndall made a joint submission to the working group which clearly explained the benefits, from their involvement in the direct provision system, that their experience could bring and the ease with which they could move into that space if allowed to do so.
The Minister of State has talked about the additional resources that would be needed. It makes me more fearful because it means that he believes there would be lots of complaints and resources needed. What is happening if we know that we will need all of these additional resources? We would need some resources. He goes on to say it is also important to recall that the working group looked specifically at the possibility of setting up a separate complaints procedure but rejected the idea in favour of extending the remit in order that the established offices could take on this role. It is welcome that the Minister for Justice and Equality will meet the Ombudsman for Children next Wednesday. I hope we will move on this issue because it is about giving people hope.
I explain that my job is about nudging. When one is in a direct provision system, it is difficult to understand the nuances in things moving forward and progressing. People need hope and we need to see some big changes. We need to see an increase in the amount of money given to those in direct provision centres in line with the working group’s report. Although a figure of 60% makes for a good news day, it has not risen in 15 years. The people concerned cannot afford to do the normal things children do. I want to be happy that we are moving forward and have a great report, but we are not doing enough. I hope that when the House comes back, Senators will again unite and push firmly for change.
I thank the cross-party group and all Senators who have united on this issue. In particular, I thank the working group’s members, the secretariat, the different Departments that have come together on the issue and, in particular, Dr. Bryan McMahon. We now need to stop the discussion and begin implementation. We need to ensure hope for all citizens and that children are children first and foremost.

Motion: Children and young people in Direct Provision

The following motion will be taken from 4pm to 6pm on Wednesday 27 January 2016.

“That Seanad Éireann:

– welcomes the final Report of the ‘Working Group to Report to Government on Improvements to the Protection Process, including Direct Provision and Supports to Asylum Seekers’, published in June 2015;

– notes, according to the latest available statistics from the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), in its Monthly Report September 2015, there are 4,814 RIA residents ‘live on the system’ of which 1,225 are children;

– welcomes Ireland’s ratification of the Third Optional Protocol on a communications procedure of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which allows individual children, including those in Direct Provision, to submit complaints concerning specific violations of their Convention rights;

Asks the Minister for Justice and Equality to outline the exact progress of the recommendations, in relation to children and young people, drawing specific attention to the following recommendations:

– child-friendly materials containing relevant legal information should be made available and widely distributed, including through special information services for children such as specialised websites (Recommendation 3.262);

– the remit of the Office of the Ombudsman and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children should be extended to include complaints relating to services provided to residents of Direct Provision accommodation centres, and transfer decisions following a breach of the House Rules (Recommendation 4.135);

– Tusla – Child and Family Agency should liaise with the RIA to develop a welfare strategy within the RIA, to advise on policy and practice matters and to liaise on individual cases as required (Recommendation 4.199);

– Tusla and the HSE should identify a named social worker on their respective child protection, mental health and primary care teams to be the identified lead social worker for a Direct Provision centre in their area (Recommendation 4.199);

– the Minister for Justice and Equality should establish an inspectorate (or identify an existing body), independent of the RIA, to carry out inspections in Direct Provision centres against the newly approved standards (Recommendation 4.226);

– all families should have access to cooking facilities (whether in a self-contained unit or through use of a communal kitchen) and their own private living space in so far as practicable (Recommendation 4.75); and

– the Direct Provision weekly allowance for adults should be increased from €19.10 to €38.74 for adults and from €9.60 to €29.80 for children (Recommendation 5.30).”

– Senators Jillian van Turnhout, Fiach MacConghail, Mary Ann O’Brien, Averil Power and Katherine Zappone.

International Protection Bill 2015: Second Stage, 2 December 2015

Senator Jillian van Turnhout: It is almost ten years since the last substantive legislation was introduced in this area. I am cognisant of what we are trying to do today. It is complex. It has been difficult for Members and the civil society organisations specialising in the areas of refugees, asylum and children’s rights issues – from whom many Members, including myself, seek guidance and advice in advance of parliamentary debates – to analyse the intricacies of this Bill in the time that has been given to us. On the other hand, I appreciate the effort on the part of the Government to bring this important Bill to fruition before the Christmas recess.

I intend to focus my intervention and my engagement on this Bill to issues relevant to children and children’s rights, because I believe this is the area where I can add my expertise. In this regard, I thank the Children’s Rights Alliance for its support in helping me to understand the complexities of the Bill.

Article 22 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges Ireland to ensure that children seeking or holding refugee status, whether unaccompanied or not, should receive appropriate protection and assistance in the enjoyment of the rights of the convention and other applicable human rights treaties. The State is further obliged to assist a child in the tracing of his or her family and in obtaining information relevant for reunification. In circumstances where the child’s family cannot be found, the child is entitled to the same protections as other children deprived of their families under the convention.

In 2006, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the State to “take necessary measures to bring [its immigration] policy, procedures and practice into line with its international obligations, as well as principles outlined in other documents, including the Statement of Good Practices produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Save the Children”. As the Minister is well aware, Ireland will be examined before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in January 2016, in other words, in a few weeks’ time. It would be very disappointing if the provisions for children in this Bill were found by the committee to be wanting in respect of our convention obligations. My concern in this regard is further heightened by the fact that the key recommendations of the working group on direct provision in respect of children are not implemented in this Bill. It is disappointing that there have been no positive reforms for the 1,600 children currently in the direct provision system – they are the most vulnerable group of asylum seekers – despite a HIQA report in May 2015 identifying serious child welfare and protection concerns in a number of children and family services areas.

I realise it is outside the scope of this Bill, but the Minister knows of my view on the importance of having an independent complaints mechanism similar to that afforded to the Ombudsman for Children. I have raised the issue with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs as well.

I am also concerned about payments, particularly payments to children. They have not changed in 15 years. At the least, the payments should be brought in line with the qualified child increase as referenced in the working group report. I imagine that is a decision for the Minister for Social Protection but perhaps the Minister for Justice and Equality could advise the Seanad on the matter.

I welcome the provision in the Bill for the new single application procedure to streamline and speed up the application process. It is long overdue. Even ten years ago people were talking about the establishment of an independent protection appeals tribunal and the inclusion of child-specific forms of persecution as grounds for protection. These are referenced in section 7(2).

One substantive area I have difficulty with relates to the notion of the best interests of children and how this is dealt with in the Bill. I thank the Minister and her officials for their engagement in the past 24 hours to try to see how we can strengthen the relevant provisions and work together. Let us consider the provisions relating to the best interests of the child in Irish legislation. It was the current Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, who, during her previous role as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs at the time of the passage of the Child and Family Agency Bill as well as recently with the Children and Family Relationships Bill, put the key provisions relating to the best interests of the child into Irish law. I am keen to ensure we progress that legacy with this Bill.

Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as it relates to the best interests of the child is clear. My difficulty is that the Bill only refers to the best interests of the child in a limited way, for example, in cases where international protection has been granted upon recognition of a child’s status in the application of a medical examination to determine the age of an unaccompanied minor or in certain aspects of the conduct of protection interviews for unaccompanied minors. The working group report recommendation stated that the International Protection Bill 2015 should reflect the general principle contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child to the effect that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children.

I submitted an amendment yesterday, but I have since redrafted it to ensure that in introducing the idea of the best interests of the child as the primary consideration, nothing in this legislation shall affect any provisions that are more conducive to the realisation of the rights of the child contained in other enactments or international law. For example, the European Court of Human Rights has asserted the importance of the child’s best interests. It also stressed the importance of reuniting the child with his or her family unless it is not in the child’s best interests. I have submitted an amendment to ensure that the best interest principle is subject to the obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Another area I have concerns over relates to training for authorised officers on children’s rights. The working group report made clear that there should be a provision requiring decision-makers who take decisions in respect of children and those who interview children have received appropriate procedural and substantive training. This could be specific training on children’s rights and certified qualifications in interviewing children. Perhaps that is something the Minister could address. I have not tabled an amendment on the matter at this point but I will do so on Report Stage if I believe it is not being dealt with. Section 34(8) relates to how personal interviews by authorised officers may be dispensed with where the applicant is under the age of 18 years and he or she is of such an age and degree of maturity that an interview would not usefully advance the examination.   Will the Minister to look at the Children and Family Relationships Act which includes the provision for a court to appoint an expert to determine and convey a child’s view? I agree with the recommendation by the Children’s Rights Alliance that the Bill should include a provision that section 34(8)(b) can only be exercised upon the appointment of an expert on the views of children. Perhaps that is something we can look at.

Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is very clear on the issue of child detention: “The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”. It was of great concern to me when I read section 20(1)(c) in conjunction with section 20(7). The latter provides that a child under 18 years can be detained as an adult if there are reasonable grounds for believing the person is not under 18 years. I believe this is a breach of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s general comment No. 6 which provides that in cases of uncertainty as to the individual’s age, the individual should be given the benefit of the doubt and should be considered a child. I realise that the Bill’s provision has been inserted to protect a Garda who, using reasonable presumption, makes such a decision. In response, I have submitted an amendment that I hope will provide protection for children’s rights and provide balance. I thank my group colleagues, Senators Fiach Mac Conghail, Marie-Louise O’Donnell, Averil Power, Katherine Zappone and Mary Ann O’Brien, who have supported the two amendments I have tabled for Committee Stage.

Statements on Direct Provision 22 January 2015

I hope the Minister of State has a little bit of latitude given the lack of Members in the House. We are approaching the 15th anniversary of the system of direct provision, a system that places asylum seekers apart and away from the community in conditions described by some as warehousing and others, who have made their way out, as open prisons. Therefore, it is not an anniversary that any of us here are celebrating. I welcome the Minister of State’s willingness to come to the House and debate the issue and his statements on the issue.

 

The significant length of time that asylum seekers and their children may have to stay in direct provision centres is something that I have raised consistently in this House along with many of my colleagues, most recently in the context of the Immigration (Reform) (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill, initiated by my colleague, Senator David Norris, and I in October 2014. While we were not successful in our endeavour since our efforts on that date, I note that the Irish Refugee Council and Doras Luimní have published a joint proposal for a one-off scheme to clear the existing and significant asylum backlog, and I am happy to support that initiative.

 

There have been some welcome developments in recent months such as the assurances from the Minister for Justice and Equality that the International Protection Bill will be published by the end of January. I am sure the Minister of State is confident of the input and expertise he can expect from this House in shaping the most robust, fair, accountable and transparent system for protection status determination as possible.

 

I also very much welcome the appointment of the working group to examine improvements in the protection process and direct provision system, and it is on its work that I will focus. I noted with concern when reading the terms of the working group that the first proviso for the recommendations for improvements to be brought forward by the group states that “in light of the budgetary realities, the overall cost of the protection system to the taxpayer is reduced or the remains within or close to current levels”. The current system of direct provision is rampant with human rights breaches. While I do not need to remind the Minister of State, I would remind the Government of the position maintained by the international human rights fora that a state’s obligation towards the promotion and protection of human rights is not diminished by economic and financial crisis.

 

Like many, I eagerly await the recommendations of each of the three thematic groups, but I would be particularly interested to see the outcome from the theme two Group, which will deal with improved supports. There are a number of issues which I have raised repeatedly. One is access to education opportunities. I have long decried the fact that with no current prospects for post-secondary education, we are effectively hitting the pause button on young asylum seekers’ lives. I meet them all too often and see that the light has gone out because there is no hope for them within that system. Another issue is access to the labour market. Ireland is the only country in Europe not to have signed up to the Recast Receptions Conditions Directive. I have yet to be presented with convincing evidence of the pull factor so desperately feared with respect to allowing asylum seekers access the labour market, but I have spoken to enough individuals trapped in the asylum system who have spoken of the devastating impact of enforced and prolonged idleness on their family dynamics, self-esteem and mental health to know that the human price paid is far higher than the cost of this so-called pull factor. There is scope to increase the weekly allowance paid to residents and children, which has not increased in 15 years, and with no entitlement to discretionary social protection supports, in effect we see many living in poverty and not being able to have the same, or even near the same, opportunities as other children. We hear it from teachers in primary schools that are accommodating children from the direct provision system.

 

A feature of the issues that will be dealt with by the theme one group, and I still cannot understand why we cannot do something about this within a matter of days or weeks, is the putting in place of a complaints process available to residents. I am baffled and utterly disappointed there is still no independent complaints mechanism in place. The Minister of State mentioned the judgment from Mr Justice Colm Mac Eochaidh where he found that the Reception and Integration Agency’s complaints procedure was not sufficiently independent due to the fact that the RIA is the final arbitrator in the process. I have tried to put myself in their position, and I trust the system, but bearing in mind that there is nobody independent in place, I would find it very difficult if I was put in their position to trust that system without the willingness to have an independent complaints mechanism. For example, the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, includes a provision in section 69 for referral of complaints to the Ombudsman for Children’s office. We all trust in the State but Child and Family Agency still has an independent complaints mechanism. In 2012, the Minister for Justice and Equality was able, by way of ministerial order or statutory instrument, to give effect to a decision to extend the remit of complaints for children in prisons. That was done literally overnight. I know there was a lot of preparation work beforehand, but it was able to be done to ensure that the Ombudsman for Children could take complaints from children in St. Patrick’s Institution. Since then, complaints have been made, but it is nowhere near opening the floodgates, which was the argument used. It has not happened in the case of St. Patrick’s. It is the final arbiter, so I ask why it is not in place. I find it unacceptable that the RIA says it will be the final arbiter of its own work.

 

Another matter under theme one about which I have a concern is catering facilities in direct provision centres. In so far as I understand, direct provision centres were originally self-catering – or at least, self-catering step-down facilities were provided in order to prepare successful asylum seekers for independent living. These facilities have effectively been closed over the years. Is self-catering regarded as a pull factor? Is it a deliberate policy of the RIA to close these self-catering units? The official line from RIA is that the policy is supported by the value-for-money report carried out in 2010 and that it was done purely based on economic considerations. I do not accept this, because the value-for-money report did not consider the health and social inclusion costs for asylum seekers – their physical, mental and psychological health. I refer to Dr. Bernard Ruane, who spoke to colleagues at the Irish Medical Organisation conference in 2008. Dr. Ruane said there was a 90% rate of depression among asylum seekers who have been here for six months. He identified their cramped living conditions and the prohibition on working as factors contributing to their depression. We must be mindful of this point.

 

The Minister of State will know that I could say so much more on this topic. With regard to child protection concerns, I implore the Minister of State to be cognisant of the findings of Dr. Carol Coulter and team’s second interim report on the child care law reporting project. She found that social exclusion, poverty, isolation and disability were common features among the mothers and fathers facing court proceedings, and there is an acknowledgement that minority groups, including asylum seekers, are thus particularly vulnerable. This concern is supported because in one in four cases she examined at least one parent was either a member of an ethnic minority, an asylum seeker or a member of the Traveller community. This prevalence is evident. I ask the Minister of State why we are not seeing more action from the National Action Plan Against Racism. It seems as though the plan has been shelved.

I would like to say a lot more, but those are my points for now. I ask why we cannot do something now about the complaints mechanism.

Address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Catherine McGuinness on Children’s Rights in Ireland

Thursday, 19th June 2014

“I welcome Judge Catherine McGuinness. It was a joy to listen to her, but her words have provided us with a stark reminder and challenged us in this House for work ahead. I note her work on the Children’s Rights Alliance Report Card, and she rightly pointed to the work of Tanya Ward, Maria Corbett and all the team at the Children’s Rights Alliance. She also pointed to work of the member organisations of the Children’s Rights Alliance which come together to provide evidence and put together the Report Card. I am delighted to welcome representatives of many of them to the Gallery. In fact, we could not fit them all in, so there are people in the wings waiting and listening. I could use up all my time listing every organisation, but I want to focus on some current issues. I want also to note the work being done by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Geoffrey Shannon, and his annual report. His report and that of the Children’s Rights Alliance provide an invaluable tool for me as a legislator and policymaker. It is good to see that the state supports these initiatives.

The programme for Government 2011 to 2016 set out an ambitious reform agenda for children and family services. Senator Bacik has listed many of the things that have been accomplished since then. Equally, there are areas of concern that impact on the daily lives of children and we need to shine a light on those. As I am sure Ms McGuinness and my colleagues in this House will know, I am strongly committed to pursuing the gamut of children’s rights through my “senatorship”. We have had in this Senate excellent debates on children’s rights, most recently on beauty pageants and protecting childhood. In the autumn, we had a interesting debate on direct provision and valuing youth work. They were really good, informative debates and I pay tribute to my colleagues.

Other speakers have mentioned survivors. When I have met survivors over the years – we were campaigning before the children’s rights referendum became a reality – many said to me that the real testament would be to see children’s rights articulated in the Constitution of Ireland. Chief among the advancements that we have made was the passage of the children’s rights referendum on 10 November 2012. Unfortunately, the enactment of the amendment Bill, the will of Irish people, has been subject to lengthy postponement pending finalisation of the second part of a legal challenge by Mr. Justice McDermott in the High Court before a full appeal can proceed to the Supreme Court. The delay in the legal process is a source of frustration when I think of the body of legislation that has been passed since November 2011 that could have benefited from a constitutionally recognised best interests of the child principle. I also feel sadness when I think of the number of children of married parents, many of whom have spent the vast majority of their childhoods in the care system, who have now turned 18 since we voted as the people of Ireland and are eligible for adoption. Their rights have been expunged. It is my sincere hope that priority is given to the delivery of the judgment in the High Court, that the challenge will be given priority listing in the Supreme Court and that it is ruled upon as expediently as possible.

While Ms McGuinness is before us, I want to address two specific issues that are facing children today and seek her guidance. Chapter 5.4 of the Children’s Rights Alliance Report Card looks at children in detention. It states that, according to a communication that the alliance received from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 103 young people were detained on remand in 2013 for 138 different periods ranging from one day to several months. We have to bear in mind that a young person may be remanded more than once pending the outcome of proceedings. The number of children detained on remand, particularly the significant percentage of them who do not go on to receive a custodial sentence, raises serious concerns about Ireland’s compliance with the international and domestic principles of detention as a last resort for children, which incorporate a presumption against detention of children accused of criminal offences. I want to ask Judge McGuinness’s opinion on the practice of the Children Court of remanding children for assessment despite section 88(13) of the Children’s Act clearly stipulating that the court should not remand a child in detention on the basis solely of care or protection concerns. I want to ask her how the absence of a formal system of bail support and services in Ireland impacts on a child’s ability to meet their bail conditions, with the consequent risk of their receiving a custodial remand for failure to comply.

The second issue that I want to raise is that of direct provision, which Ms McGuinness mentioned. Chapter 6 of the Report Card opens with a piece by Dr. Liam Thornton entitled, “Closing Our Eyes: Irish Society and Direct Provision”. Dr. Thornton has done some excellent work, as have many NGOs such as the Irish Refugee Council and Doras Luimní. I put forward a motion on direct provision in this House last October. We were all at one on this issue. Unfortunately, the Minister then was not at one with us, but we will keep pursuing it and we have a very good Seanad cross-party group working on the issue. We know the high number of children who are in the 34 direct provision accommodation centres. Can Ms McGuinness give us advice on what immediate action could provide greater protection to children who are caught in the direct provision system? What could we do in the immediate future? All Senators in this House have agreed that such centres are not places for a child to be accommodated, especially beyond three-month or six-month period. I thank Ms McGuinness again for her address. She has given us many challenges.”

Full debate transcript available here

19 April 2013: Questions to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, for answer before the meeting of the Committee on Health and Children.

Question 17: Child and Family Support Agency

Question 16 (Senator Jillian Van Turnhout)

Question 18 (Senator Jillian Van Turnhout)

Question 17: Child and Family Support Agency.

To ask the Minister to share with the Joint Committee on Health and Children the Implementation Plan for the new Child and Family Support Agency; including details of the transfer arrangements from the NEWB, Family Resource Centres and HSE; and the referral pathways for children and families to the new agency.

Vision for Child and Family Agency
The Programme for Government commits to “fundamentally reform the delivery of child protection services by removing child welfare and protection from the HSE and creating a dedicated Child Welfare and Protection Agency, reforming the model of service delivery and improving accountability to the Dáil.”

I established a Task Force to advise on the establishment of this new Agency. I requested the Task Force to base its work on “best practice in child welfare, family support and the delivery of public services, and according to principles that:

• The welfare of the child is paramount;
• Children and families should be supported in their local communities to the greatest extent possible;
• The welfare of children is founded upon strong and loving families and supported by the purposeful and shared responsibility of the state and society to always protect and promote their welfare;
• The Agency will operate to the highest standards of performance and value for money;
• Children will receive the best parenting when received into the care of the state.”

The final report of the Task Force was published in July last year and made recommendations on a number of key issues. The Task Force provided a specific chapter on the vision for the Agency, amongst which included the following:

“The Child and Family Support Agency, working in collaboration with the Department, provides leadership to relevant statutory and non-statutory agencies, ensuring that the conditions needed to achieve children’s wellbeing and development are fulfilled.

The Agency is responsible for the wellbeing of children and families who require targeted supports due to family and social circumstances. These range from support to families in the community to highly specialist interventions where children are at risk of being unsafe. Such children and families are not an isolated grouping nor are they a static grouping as children and families can move in and out of needing support as their life circumstances change.

In fulfilling its statutory role, the Agency ensures that:
• The needs of such children and families are identified at the earliest sign of their emerging need;
• A coordinated set of supports that addresses all the facets of a child’s wellbeing is put in place which incorporates and utilises well-developed interagency working mechanisms;
• The effectiveness of the supports is monitored;
• For the services provided directly or funded by the Agency, service delivery systems and practice are continuously reviewed to ensure they respond successfully to changing needs, and unmet need is clearly identified as a part of ongoing planning and reporting processes to the Department and the Minister;
• It provides mechanisms to engage with children, families and communities regarding the design and quality of service provision.”

I share the view of the Task Force that in order to achieve genuine improvements for children and families, the Agency must have a broader focus than child protection. Prevention, early intervention, family support and therapeutic & care interventions are all key to the provision of integrated multi-disciplinary services for children and families based on identified need.

It is my intention that the new Agency will address the persistent and difficult issues which have been found regarding the standardisation of services, communication, professional collaboration and coordination, and sharing of risk assessment, management and treatment for many children and families with the most complex needs. At the same time, the Agency will have a role in supporting families more universally – providing less complex, less intrusive, less expensive responses which have a preventive function.

The new Child and Family Agency and the wider transformation of children’s services represent one of the largest, and most ambitious, areas of public sector reform embarked upon by this Government. The reforms are much deeper than structural or organisational change as they embrace operational, cultural and inter agency improvement. As such, they will not be delivered overnight and the organisational arrangements are intended as an enabler of the improvement in outcomes which will be the real service goal in the years to come.

Progress on Planning and Implementation
On 13th July 2012, Government approved the drafting of Heads of a Bill to provide for the establishment of the Agency. The detailed policy decisions to inform the drafting of legislation were set out in these Heads of Bill and approved by Government in November last. Such policy includes:

• The functions and legal remit of the Agency;
• The constituent services that are to make up the new Agency;
• The governance arrangements between the Minister and the Agency and between the Board and the Executive;
• The funding relationship between the Minister and the Agency;
• The arrangements for the Agency to contract others to provide services on its behalf;
• The arrangements for dissolving the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board; and
• Provisions for the transfer of staff, assets, liabilities and contracts.

The Government decided that the constituent elements of the Child and Family Agency on establishment day will be made up of:

● Child welfare and protection services currently operated by the HSE including family support and alternative care services.
● Other child and family related services for which the HSE currently has responsibility including pre-school inspections and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services.
● Psychologists working in the community setting in relation to children and families
● The Family Support Agency.
● The National Educational Welfare Board.

The scope of these services is sufficiently broad to capture an enhanced range of both universal and targeted services operating to a unified management structure. These will constitute the immediate service responsibilities of the new Agency. Further consideration will be given to the subsequent transfer of additional services to the new Agency after the initial set-up phase and following further consideration of relevant recommendations of the Task Force in consultation with relevant departments.

The Agency will function as a separate statutory body with strong governance and a framework of public accountability underpinning its operations. The Agency will have a board appointed by the Minister based upon expertise and competency. Therefore, accountability and transparency will be a key feature of the governance and performance management frameworks to be introduced in the legislation.

The legislation must provide for the reassigning, under law, of the sensitive and complex legal responsibilities which arise in relation to the care and protection of children and the promotion of their welfare. Particular care is also being taken in respect of the disaggregation of the functions from the HSE to ensure that there are no unintended consequences (for either the Agency or the services remaining within the HSE) in the separation of functions, either in legal terms or in terms of the practical operation of day-do-day services for children and their families or other HSE clients.

Work on the drafting of the legislation has been progressing in conjunction with the Office of Parliamentary Counsel. The legislation is at an advanced stage and once it is finalised it will be brought to Government for the purposes of approving its introduction to the Oireachtas. The legislation is on the A list of the Government’s legislative programme and I intend to bring it before the House in this current term.

While the legislative process is under way, all necessary organisational preparations are continuing in parallel. These preparations are being led by the Programme Director/CEO Designate of the Child and Family Agency, Mr Gordon Jeyes. The preparations are being supported by an oversight group chaired by the Secretary General of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In addition to the CEO Designate, its membership includes officials of the departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Health and Public Expenditure and Reform; HSE Children and Families and a representative of the CEO of the HSE.

The oversight group is supported by a joint Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Child and Family Agency project team (led by the CEO Designate) which is driving day to day delivery of the overall project. Its responsibilities include the full range of activities required to bring the project to completion. Representatives of the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board are also members of the team and are actively involved in leading the requisite change management programmes within those agencies. The project team undertakes integrated project planning, risk management and reporting. It reports to the Oversight Group and relevant matters are escalated to the Oversight Group if necessary.
Progress achieved to date in preparation for the Agency includes:
• the separation of children and family services within the HSE from other health and personal social services, with discrete management responsibilities and budgets;
• recruitment of a senior management team to lead the agency. All positions with the exception of the Chief Operations Officer and Head of Education Welfare are currently filled. These two positions are currently being re-advertised/advertised;
• the establishment of a dedicated sub-head for children and family services within the HSE Vote to bring transparency to the current budget of HSE children and family services;
• the undertaking of an external due diligence process, under the auspices of the two Departments, to inform the reassignment of budgets from the HSE to the Child and Family Agency;
• the establishment of an industrial relations process to communicate with staff representatives and resolve issues to facilitate the transition to the new Agency;
• the issuing in January 2013 of personal letters to almost 4,000 staff across the HSE, NEWB and FSA informing them of the plans to establish the new Agency and that it is intended that upon establishment their employment will transfer;
• commencement of external inspection by HIQA of the child welfare and protection services, in line with the goal of promoting enhanced transparency;
• the continued implementation of a comprehensive national change programme for the operational improvement of children and family services. This includes detailed design of referral pathways and assessment frameworks in order to ensure national consistency;
• continued implementation of the integration of education services within the NEWB and the development of the Family Resource Centre network in advance of the relocation of responsibilities to the new Agency;
• the appointment from January 2013 of Mr Gordon Jeyes as fulltime Programme Director for the establishment of the Child and Family Agency; and
• the recent approval of the Government that name of the new Agency will be the ‘Child & Family Agency’.

In line with the public service reform programme the replication and duplication of transactional or support functions such as payroll, financial transactions and property management will be avoided. These can be more effectively provided on a shared service basis in order to ensure that costs associated with disaggregation are entirely minimised. Accordingly, preparations are in place for the HSE to provide significant levels of such shared services to the new Agency. This will involve process and technical development within the HSE. HSE has recently received approval to contract for IT system enhancements necessary to facilitate this service which will be implemented this year.

In addition to these organisational preparations the decision has been taken to commence governance preparations on a shadow basis pending the enactment of legislation including its provisions for a Board. The Government has approved the appointment of Ms. Norah Gibbons as first Chairperson of the board of the new Child & Family Agency. Ms Gibbon’s expertise and experience in the area speaks for itself. It is intended that Ms. Gibbons will initially be appointed as Chairperson of the existing Family Support Agency which is one of the agencies being incorporated into the new Child & Family Agency. The appointment process will include appearance before the Oireachtas Health & Children Committee in line with procedures for the appointment of the chairpersons of state bodies. My Department will also be seeking expressions of interest for other board members by means of advertisement on the publicjobs and Department websites.
These appointments will reflect the intention, pending the legal establishment of the Child and Family Agency, to have the FSA Board prepare in advance for the governance task associated with the new Agency and provide oversight and direction to the preparations at an organisational level which are underway for the new Agency. The newly appointed board of the Family Support Agency will play this role on an administrative basis in addition to its existing statutory functions. Day to day statutory responsibility for child welfare and protection services and education welfare services will remain with the HSE and the NEWB respectively until these are transferred on the enactment of the necessary legislation. This approach reflects the overall strategy to undertake as much preparation as possible in advance of legislative enactment and the consequential transfer of onerous operational responsibilities.

It is important not to underestimate the scale of change involved and the absolute necessity for a carefully planned approach to be adopted while embarking upon such large-scale change within this crucial area of the public service. The approach to the project is informed by learning from the establishment of other major agencies, particularly where preparatory time was inadequate. Such preparations include allowance for sufficient consultation and consideration of the legislation by the Oireachtas and stakeholders in the period immediately ahead. A precise date for the establishment of the Agency will be set when consideration of the legislation by the Oireachtas has advanced.

Conclusion
In conclusion, it is considered that the intensive preparations underway and summarised here will provide for the effective establishment of the Child and Family Agency and will bring a dedicated focus to child protection, family support and other key children’s services for the first time in the history of the State, contributing in time to the transformation of what are essential services for families and communities.

Question 16 (Senator Jillian Van Turnhout)

To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to set out and provide details on the process for the selection of the sites; programmes; interventions; and supports to be provided under the new Area Based Approach to Child Poverty Initiative in 2013.

Written Response
The Area-Based Approach to Child Poverty Initiative was allocated €2.5m in Budget 2013. The amount allocated will rise to €4.75 in 2015. It is hoped that this Initiative will be co-funded by Atlantic Philanthropies and discussions are ongoing to this end. This Initiative will build on and continue the work of the Prevention and Early Intervention Programme (PEIP) which supported projects in Tallaght, Ballymun and Darndale/Belcamp/Moatview.

The new Initiative reflects the Programme for Government commitment to adopt an area-based approach to child poverty in co-operation with philanthropic partners, drawing upon best international practice and existing services, to break the cycle of child poverty where it is most deeply entrenched.

I can confirm that the focus will be, very firmly, on outcomes, rather than inputs and outputs, and these will be referenced in (a) the selection of areas where children are most disadvantaged, and (b) in measurement of the success of interventions.

It has been proposed that the Initiative will consist of the following components:

• Continuation of interventions, where appropriate, in the 3 existing PEIP sites, subject to those programmes being supported by positive evaluations and evidence regarding impact and cost effectiveness
• Selection of 6 sites (including as appropriate proven programmes in existing PEIP sites), where multi-faceted approaches to addressing Child Outcomes via evidence based programmes will be implemented. The impact of these interventions will be monitored in a cost-effective manner, to ensure they have the intended outcomes on child well-being
• In time, the mainstreaming of proven, cost-effective evidence-based programmes into service delivery in a wider context than the areas specifically participating in the Area-Based initiative.

The Initiative is being overseen by a Project Team, chaired by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs with participation of the Departments of An Taoiseach, An Tánaiste, Public Expenditure & Reform, Environment Community & Local Government, Education & Science, Health, Social Protection, HSE, and including Atlantic Philanthropies. The Project Team is supported by the Centre for Effective Services (CES) and Pobal, which has been asked to act as the fiscal agent for the Initiative.

A Working Group to Support the Project Team has been established. At present it consists of DCYA, CES, Pobal and Atlantic Philanthropy.

My Department published details on its website on 12th April last outlining the overall selection process. Details of a seminar arranged for 25th April where the Initiative will be explained to potential applicants have also been published. It is intended that Applications will close by the end of May, and Stage 1 of the selection process is expected to be completed at the end of June. It is inspected that the finalisation of proposals may be effected more quickly in the case of some successful applicants than with others, depending on their readiness. Shortly and in advance of the seminar my Department will publish detailed guidance for applicants and an application form. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs will be happy to supply the committee with copies of these documents as soon as they are published.

The criteria for selection of proposals to attract support under the programme are as follows:

• Evidence of need – The level of poor outcomes for children in the target area
• The quality of the proposal
• Additionality & Sustainability – The degree to which the proposal leverages other resources
• Understanding & ability of the applicants to capture outcomes

The Working Group and Project Team will conduct assessments of the proposals and recommend projects for selection.

Who should apply?
Applications are invited from area-based groups of not-for-profit organisations, with a proven track record of working with statutory and non-statutory service providers and local community groups with a capacity to form consortia. These consortia must be in a position to propose and deliver an area based initiative that delivers on the programme’s objectives of:
Breaking the cycle of child poverty within areas where it is most deeply entrenched and where children are most disadvantaged, through integrated and effective services and interventions that address:
1. Child development, and/or
2. Child wellbeing and parenting, and/or
3. Educational disadvantage,
From pre-natal to 18 years of age.

Proposals are invited across all elements but particular consideration will be given to proposals that focus on the quality and effectiveness of services and interventions from birth to 6 years of age.

What will the programme provide?
Successful applicants will receive funding to implement proven and cost-effective early intervention and/or prevention programmes and practices. The level of funding which will be available to individual projects for the duration of the programme will vary depending on the scale and impact of each initiative and the level of existing resources allocated to the area concerned. It will be a requirement of funding that the programmes and practices are implemented collaboratively by all relevant service providers in the area, both statutory and non-statutory, using existing resources. Applicants should have regard to the fact that, while the initiative is expected to provide additional levels of funding until 2016, the objective is to work towards withdrawal or reduction of additional funding from then on.

Research and evaluation
Research and evaluation were key elements of the PEIP and will continue to be important components of the new initiative to ensure that the outcomes from the interventions are evaluated and measured. Given that the new initiative will build on trialled and proven leaning from the PEIP, and other prevention and early intervention projects funded by the State and/or Atlantic Philanthropies, the research and evaluation component is expected to be less onerous and will be centrally directed.

Successful applicants will be subject to on-going research and evaluation requirements, overseen at central level by an Expert Advisory Committee. This process will be assisted by the Centre for Effective Services, acting on behalf of the Department.

Mentoring
With the exception of applicants who demonstrate an acceptable record in the delivery of prevention and early intervention programmes (e.g. the existing PEIP sites), successful applicants will be expected to avail of mentoring assistance over the course of the new initiative.

Systemic Change
It is anticipated that the initiative will expand over time, both in terms of the number and type of area based interventions and the degree of systemic change and mainstreaming of evidence based programmes and practices which is taking place. In tandem with this, it is anticipated that the range of area based projects which will be included in the initiative, will broaden.

Applications will also be required to demonstrate an approach which is based on additionality to existing levels of service provision and resources both statutory and non-statutory i.e. the proposal should demonstrate how existing services, practices and resources will be made more efficient and more effective as a result of the proposal. In effect, the initiative is expected to promote improved inter-agency collaboration at local level leading to systemic change which is capable of being replicated on a broader or national scale.

Question 18 (Senator Jillian Van Turnhout)

In light of the Fifth Report (July 2012) of the Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Geoffrey Shannon, to ask the Minister to confirm the status of:
• The examination he called for 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.

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

Written Response

No answer provided.

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.

 

Order of Business, 8 October 2013

Tuesday, 8th October 2013

I also wish to comment on the report on direct provision centres referred to by Senators Hayden and Crown and reported on by Carl O’Brien today in The Irish Times. I have raised this issue on numerous occasions in this House, as have some of my colleagues, most notably Senator Ó Clochartaigh. We have continually called for clarification on many issues. I still have a concern about the money that goes from the Department of Social Protection to the Department of Justice and Equality without any legal basis, in my opinion. I have never been able to get an answer to my question as to the basis under which that money is transferred. I ask the Leader to organise an urgent debate with the Minister for Justice and Equality on how we can reform the asylum system in Ireland and particularly the reception facilities currently in operation.

Earlier today a report was published by HIQA into the children’s high support unit in the HSE Dublin north east region. Unusually, HIQA issued an immediate action plan, which demonstrates the seriousness of the report. While I welcome the statement from the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs that all operations in the centre will cease, what will happen to the two children currently in the unit? That was not dealt with in the Minister’s press release. How will children who are in need of high support be accommodated in the future? At the time of the report, there were four children and young people in that high-support unit. Most seriously, the report states that staff were instructed to lock the doors of the unit by the national director for child and family services. The report also highlights serious risks in the context of fire safety. I ask for clarification on this issue. Did a directive come from the national director for children and family services to lock doors? If so, it indicates a cultural problem that is totally unacceptable and which causes alarm bells to ring. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to the House urgently to address these questions, which are directly affecting children today.

The Politics of Direct Provision

 

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; the concerns raised by advocacy groups; and my own recent visits to two direct provision asylum accommodation centres as an independent member of Seanad Éireann.

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 remit of the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or indeed 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 firstly, children are children irrespective of status and secondly, 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.

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 1,808 children currently residing in direct provision accommodation centres throughout Ireland . There are a plethora of difficulties, many of which I have raised under Adjournments of the Seanad 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 and erosion of normal family dynamics and functioning; and the lack of autonomous decision making.

But, the ultimate 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 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 4 years and a significant number have remained in the system for between 5-10 years.

And so, the long term solution has got to be a streamlined status determination system that will deliver a speedy, and robust, yet fair and transparent process. I hope this will be delivered through the Immigration, Residency and Protection Bill, which the Minister for Justice has committed to re-publish in revised form, but which ultimately been 8 years coming down the track.

In the interim, I call on the Government to take the following steps: conduct an examination to establish whether the system of direct provision itself is detrimental to the welfare and development of asylum seekers, in particular children, and whether, if appropriate, an alternative form of support and accommodation could be adopted which is more suitable for families and children; to establish an independent complaints mechanism; and to commence independent inspections of direct provision centres where children reside.

1Reception and Integration Agency, Monthly Status Report, February 2013: http://www.ria.gov.ie/en/RIA/RIAFeb(A4)2013.pdf/Files/RIAFeb(A4)2013.pdf

 

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The Lancet

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