Published on 11 May 2021
Thank you and the Committee for the invitation to talk to you today. I welcome the opportunity to tell you about the work of my Office in the sector and to discuss any particular interests or concerns as the Committee may like to raise with me.
As you will know, each year since my remit over the Direct Provision sector was confirmed in April 2017 I have published a Commentary on the work of my Office in the sector. I discussed my Commentaries for 2017 and 2018 at my appearance on 25 September 2019 before the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality.
You will recall from that previous appearance that I agreed to that Committee’s suggestion for me to include unannounced visits in the scope of my Office’s Outreach Programme of visits to centres where we felt such an approach was appropriate. My Outreach team undertook a small number of such visits in the latter part of 2019, two of which I discussed in my Commentary for that year. The team found the unannounced visits were a very valuable mechanism for following up on cases where our normal post-visit engagement with stakeholders had not led to resolution of complaints. We also found unannounced visits were the best way to see for ourselves in real time situations highlighted in complaints where facts on the ground were disputed and therefore not suitable for our normal desktop examination.
In light of this experience, we intended to include a number of unannounced visits as appropriate in our Outreach programme for 2020. However, as we are all too well aware, the Covid-19 pandemic emerged over the course of 2020. The pandemic has had as severe an impact on our Outreach work as it has had every other walk of life. I referred briefly to the then emerging Covid-19 situation in my Commentary for 2019, but as with most other people did not anticipate at that time just now severe its impact would be on all our lives.
The pandemic featured as one of the main themes in my Commentary for 2020 published on 25 March last. In it, I commented that the pandemic resulted in complaints to my Office about Covid-related curtailed movement within and between accommodation centres. I also mentioned that the national travel restrictions we have all been subject to also directly impacted on the ability of my staff to physically visit centres under our Outreach programme. As a result, we unfortunately had to significantly curtail the scale of our visits for 2020 compared to previous years. This in turn negatively impacted on our complaint numbers from Direct Provisions residents, which at 61 for 2020 is a reduction of more than 60% over the 168 complaints we got from residents in 2019.
With the recently announced easing of travel restrictions, I am confident we will be able to recommence our Outreach work later in the Summer and reconnect residents to what has proven to be by far the most effective mechanism for them to connect with my Office. We have engaged with HIQA and the HSE, following which we modified the logistics of our visits to centres to ensure our contacts with residents and staff are consistent with the appropriate public health guidelines.
During the one Outreach visit the team managed to undertake before Covid travel restrictions were re-imposed in October, residents raised issues about refusal of applications for driving licences and of difficulties in opening back accounts. I was pleased to report that the Department of Transport has committed to deal with the driving licence issue in general road safety legislation it plans to introduce during the current Dáil term. The issue with bank accounts was that banks were refusing to accept correspondence sent to residents in their centres as proof of address for the purpose of opening an account. I am also pleased to note that, since publication of my Commentary for 2020, the banking sector is moving to address this issue by indicating willingness to reconsider this previous refusal.
Despite the curtailment of our regular Outreach engagement with the sector, we continue to accept complaints from residents and third parties via our website and through email, telephone calls and the post. We also offer residents the facility to engage with us remotely directly from their centres. We continue to engage with the various public body stakeholders to examine issues raised by residents, most commonly relating to transfers, accommodation issues and access to health and welfare services.
During 2020 the International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS), which is the agency responsible for accommodating applicants for international protection under the Direct Provision system, was moved from the Department of Justice to the new Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Some non-accommodation elements of the State’s interaction with protection applicants remain with the Department of Justice, in particular the Labour Market Access Unit. That Unit regulates access by protection applicants to paid employment while they await a decision on their application for international protection.
This transfer of functions means a new Department is now responsible for implementing the changes to the Direct Provision system set out in the Government’s White Paper on International Protection Accommodation and Supports which was published on 26 February 2021. We will continue to liaise with the new Department on its implementation of the commitments in the White Paper. This will include progress made by IPAS in undertaking full vulnerability assessment of all protection applicants (currently in a pilot scheme) and in developing policies for managing inter resident conflict in communal centres while such centres remain in operation.
Publication of the White Paper is in my view the most significant development in the sector since Direct Provision was initiated in 1999. As I said at the time in response to that publication, I welcome the commitments in the White Paper and look forward to the engagement my Office will have with IPAS on implementation of those commitments. I welcome in particular the commitment to provide all applicants for international protection with own-door accommodation, following an introductory period in one of the six initial reception centres committed to in the White Paper. If implemented, this will end the previous practice of accommodating people in congregated setting where services, including meals, were provided on a communal basis. It will also see the end of single people being housed with total strangers in multi-occupancy rooms, more recently with a maximum of two others but for many years with sometimes several more than that.
I and other stakeholders were consulted by IPAS over the course of its preparation of White Paper and I would like to put on record my appreciation to IPAS for doing so. I am gratified to see that the thrust of my comments, and those of others, on the unsuitability of the previous model of accommodating people in communal centres has been incorporated through the commitment to implement a model of own-door accommodation with appropriate on-site support services.
The intention is that protection applicants will have such own-door accommodation and that relevant on-site support services will include a residents’ shop. For the last few years, IPAS has been rolling out these shops across its portfolio of accommodation centres along with self-cooking facilities for residents. Instead of providing three cooked meals a day canteen style, centres operate on-site shops stocked with produce which is agreed following consultation with residents. The produce is priced on a points system with residents provided with cards containing a pre-set number of points based on family size and composition. This enhances independent living by giving residents the choice of what produce to buy and the facilities to prepare meals of their own choosing. The fact that the points on the resident cards are limited also helps in preparation for the reality of community living by encouraging budgeting when buying food and other essential household items.
In my Commentaries for previous years I talked about residents repeatedly telling my Outreach staff about the transformative effect the introduction of the shops and provision of self-cooking facilities, combined with protection applicants being given the right to work, has had on their morale. In my view this clearly demonstrates the success of the State providing opportunities for protection applicants to live independently while they await decisions on their protection applications. It is most pleasing to see the provision of such opportunities being further developed in the White Paper through the explicit commitment to own-door accommodation with appropriate on-site support services. It is also pleasing to see that the two most recently opened Direct Provision developments, the Dominick Street apartments in Galway and the Port Road apartments in Letterkenny, follow the White Paper model of own-door accommodation with on-site services, including a residents’ shop.
The White Paper also commits the Government to the phasing out of placement of people in emergency accommodation, most commonly rooms in current or former hotels and bed and breakfast houses. I and many other people have repeatedly commented on just how unsuitable that type of accommodation is for anything other than short periods. While I welcome the commitment to phase it out, if all the commitments in the White Paper are fully implemented on time it will take at least three years before placement of people in emergency accommodation is a thing of the past. As I speak (statistics as of 2 May 2021), there are still 1,187 people living in these completely inappropriate settings, including 174 children. I intend to keep a close watch on progress in implementing the commitments on this point in particular. To that end, we intend to ensure that whatever Outreach work we can undertake in the rest of 2021 will include a focus on meeting residents in emergency settings.
I also welcome the agreement of Government to consider extension of my remit to include the administrative aspects of the international protection process. While I agree the actual decision to grant or not to grant protection to applicants should remain with the Minister, extension of my remit would address the current gap in independent oversight over a process through which life-changing decisions are made.
That concludes a summary of the main developments that have happened, and some of the challenges that remain, in the Direct Provision sector since my previous Oirechtas appearance. I welcome this opportunity to engage with this Committee on these and on any other issues as Members may wish to raise with me.
Thank you for your attention,