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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Order of Business, 23 April 2013

Tuesday, 23rd April 2013

At the weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Scouting Ireland delegate conference, which brought together 800 delegates representing 40,000 members. Two motions which were voted on will be of interest to the House. One was on Scouting Ireland’s fears the proposed sale of Coillte will threaten its open access policy. Unbeknownst to me until I arrived, another motion had been tabled calling on the Minister for Justice and Equality to enact legislation requiring ISPs operating in Ireland to block access to all child abuse material, as has been done in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Malta, Italy and Britain. I have raised this issue in the House and we have had a good discussion on it. Scouting Ireland voted unanimously on the motion. The Minister, Deputy Shatter, has committed that blocking will be fully considered in the context of the development of the planned sexual offences Bill. I am very concerned this Bill is scheduled for 2014. This is an urgent matter. It is about protecting real children from real abuse in the real world. I call on the Leader to convey to the Minister a request to bring forward a separate Bill to deal with this distinctly.

Today is the national day of action and raising public awareness on direct provision. I am disappointed and confused the Adjournment matter I addressed to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has been ruled out of order. Since the introduction of the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Act 2009, asylum seekers cannot ever be considered habitually resident in the State. Since access to most welfare payments, including supplementary welfare allowance, is now restricted to those habitually resident in the State, and since asylum seekers cannot be considered habitually resident, I asked what is the legislative basis for the continued accommodation and payments made to asylum seekers.

This is a question for the Minister for Social Protection. For example, the payment slips to asylum seekers refer to the Department of Social Protection. However, I take the Leader on his word that the Minister has no responsibility for this matter, even though the payment slips clearly state “Department of Social Protection”. I am now being directed back to the Department of Justice and Equality where I did not get an answer to this question last week, so I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on direct provision. I have been moved from one Department to another on this issue, yet nobody is willing to take responsibility for it. I believe that we are operating outside a legislative basis with the payments. We need an answer to this question, rather than being shuttled between Departments.

Order of Business, 27 March 2013

Wednesday, 27th March 2013

On behalf of the Independent group of Senators, I pay tribute to and thank Jimmy Walsh. As I will have only been a Member for two years in May next, my memories of Jimmy do not go back as far as those of other speakers. However, I used to read Jimmy’s accounts of Seanad proceedings before I entered the Oireachtas and had the opportunity to meet the legend. I thank him most sincerely for his advice and the insights he gave me in the corridors of Leinster House. His journalistic skills are clear. He is able to get to the heart of an issue and understand what speakers are driving at. He has given me great encouragement in my work as a Senator, including, on occasion, to press a little harder on certain issues as perhaps I seek consensus a little too much. We will, however, leave that issue for another discussion. Even in the relatively short time I have known Jimmy, I feel I have made a real friend, someone who will give critical advice but also explain in his newspaper articles what takes place in the House. I echo the tributes paid to him.

The issues of insolvency and early childhood education and care must be decoupled. The latter is about the child, not the status of his or her parents or whether they are working. We need to decouple these issues and discuss them separately.

On the issue of direct provision, last Saturday The Irish Times featured an excellent article by Breda O’Brien under the title “Inhumane asylum seeker system needs radical reform”. A letter by Dr. Joan Giller in today’s edition of the same newspaper is a must-read for all of us as it provides a marvellously accurate account of the harrowing system of direct provision offered in this country. Given that Dr. Giller has worked in direct provision accommodation since 2007, her comments are not hearsay. I have raised the issue of direct provision several times, primarily on the Adjournment, and recently took it upon myself to visit the direct provision accommodation in Hatch Hall as well as a site in Athlone located behind a Department of Education and Skills building which houses 100 mobile homes for asylum seekers. I was accompanied by Senators Fiach Mac Conghail and Katherine Zappone.

I refer to the work done on this issue by a group of committed Senators from all parties and none. As such, this not a party political issue. I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on the system of direct provision, in particular, to address the appropriateness of direct provision for the welfare and development of the 1,725 children who have been in the system not for one or two months, but several years. When we speak of institutionalising people, we should not forget this is being done now. I call for the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism and inspection system for direct provision centres. The Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection called for such a system to be introduced one year ago. Let us debate and face up to this issue as it can no longer be tolerated. Will we wait for another 20 years to have another Ryan report published, this time on direct provision?