International Protection Bill 2015
First Stage: 3 Dec 2015
Oireachtas Link: http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/seanad2015120300002?opendocument#G00100
Committee and Remaining Stages: 07/12/2015
Monday, 7 December 2015
International Protection Bill 2015: Committee Stage (Resumed) and Remaining Stages
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome this opportunity to resume our debate on the Bill and to discuss Committee Stage amendments. I hope it will be possible to consider including more references in the text to the best interests of the child as a primary consideration. I am conscious that this is provided for in a number of sections. It is clearly set out in section 24 dealing with the examination to determine the age of unaccompanied minors, section 35 dealing with applicants who are unaccompanied minors, and section 57 dealing with the vulnerable persons. I am conscious that this important phrase is already specifically spelled out in some provisions of the Bill. All Senators will also be aware of the constitutional provision on the rights of the child to which all legislation is subject. That must be said.
Notwithstanding this, I support, in principle, Senator van Turnhout's attempt to ensure that this consideration is adhered to or emphasised throughout the Bill. We should try to find some way to achieve this objective. I am conscious that the Bill must go through all Stages in the Dáil, which means there may be time to consider whether it would be useful or effective to place further specific reference to that consideration in other provisions of the Bill. As I stated, it is specifically outlined in the three sections that make what may be the three most relevant provisions.
Senator van Turnhout and the other Senators who tabled amendments are engaging constructively to ensure the Bill is improved upon, which is welcome. Last week, I was one of the Senators who stated the Bill had been broadly welcomed in principle by non-government organisations. I stand over that statement. I am looking at the comment made by the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, Nasc, last week: "Nasc welcomes the introduction of the International Protection Bill 2015, and we welcome the fact that the Bill relates solely to protection". In its note on the Bill, dated 30 November, the Irish Refugee Council states: "The Irish Refugee Council supports the introduction of new legislation in this field given previous attempts to legislate dating back almost ten years and agrees that a new application procedure is needed as soon as possible".
Let us not have posturing on this issue. This is the first attempt in ten years to raise the baseline in a flawed and problematic process. Clearly, there is a great deal more to be done, even just in terms of the working group's recommendations on direct provision. However, direct provision is only one part of our immigration and legal framework which, as I said, needs a great deal more reform. Let us recall that in the four or five years of the previous Government it made tortuous attempts to bring forward an overarching immigration, residence and protection Bill but failed to do so. This Bill only deals with a small part of the issue - international protection. It will greatly improve matters for those who will seek asylum in the future by providing for a single unified procedure and for those in the direct provision system by ensuring people will not be left languishing for long periods of time.
All of us, across parties, have spoken about the need to reform the direct provision system and to end it in its current form, in which delay is the biggest problem. The recommendation of the working group was early enactment and implementation of a single procedure, by way of the International Protection Bill. That deals with one of the biggest issues in the direct provision system - the long period of time spent in it, with children growing up knowing of no other life but living in direct provision accommodation. Let us agree on that much. I cannot understand how any NGO can suggest the Bill does not represent an improvement on the current procedure. There is a lot more to be done, but let us engage constructively to improve the provisions of the Bill.
I have spoken openly about the speed with which we are getting through the Bill and the fact that there are so many Government amendments so soon after publication, albeit most of them are not substantive and are relatively technical, relating to a change of name. Clearly, the Bill is not ideal, yet it represents a significant improvement and is long overdue. It is most unfortunate, therefore, that we are now hearing people calling for it to be withdrawn or seeing them protest outside Leinster House, saying "Kill the Bill." If that happens, when will we see it back in the House? Let us be honest about it. We know that we have limited time left in the lifetime of the Government. Let us try to get the Bill through, improve it as it goes through, engage constructively on it with the Government to seek to bring about the other recommendations of the working group as they relate to direct provision and work towards the future overarching immigration law reform we so badly need. This is the first step which is welcome and long overdue.
International Protection Bill 2015: Committee Stage
Thursday, 3 December 2015
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend him on his great and well-documented commitment to the reform of the direct provision system, which I think is accepted by everyone. When we all spoke about this on Second Stage last night, I was one of the many Senators who highlighted the need to reform the direct provision procedure and deal with the implementation of all the working group's recommendations. I accept that they cannot all be implemented. I think most Senators will agree it is reasonable to say that they cannot all be addressed in a single Bill. As everyone knows, this is a specific piece of what was originally a much bigger Bill. This legislation is designed to address the length of time applicants have been spending in the direct provision system. This issue is the subject of perhaps the most significant recommendation of the working group and is the most significant issue we all have with direct provision. As I said this morning, it is unfortunate that we are getting so much legislation from the Department of Justice and Equality so late in the day. As the Labour Party's justice spokesperson in this House, I am conscious, as are all the other justice spokespersons, that a great deal of work will have to be done within a very short space of time. The principle of this important Bill has been welcomed by all the non-governmental organisations. They are all pleased that for the first time, a reformed single procedure will be put in place to replace the unwieldy, cumbersome and deeply flawed process that is currently in place under the Refugee Act 1996, as amended. I think all of us should recognise that while we address the flaws in the Bill. This is a Committee Stage debate. I do not think it is appropriate to be having Second Stage speeches on direct provision more generally now. This Bill is designed to address the particular issue of the enormous delays that are currently being experienced by applicants for refugee status because of the length of time our flawed process takes.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: I am about to rephrase what I said.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Okay.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: I would agree with much of what Senator Bacik has said. I am certainly not making a Second Stage speech.
Senator Ivana Bacik: No.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: The report is absolutely relevant, however.
Senator Ivana Bacik: We have spoken about the report.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Of course it is relevant.
Senator Ivana Bacik: These amendments are mostly very much technical in terms of replacing references to authorised officer with international protection officer, which seems sensible, but the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, and I have raised as an issue the practice of so many technical amendments being inserted on Committee Stage to a Bill published a week previously. It is unfortunate we must do so and that it was not published with references to the international protection officer. Most colleagues would agree that international protection officer appears to be a better term. I have no difficulty with the substance of the amendments, it is just the timing.
Senator Thomas Byrne: I accept the Minister's response on amendment No. 231 and I will not press it. I agree with Senator Bacik. Ministers and their civil servants should take note that this is an appalling way to deal with legislation which is only a few weeks old. It is very difficult to follow. I was not expecting amendment No. 231 to be grouped here because it is not on the list of groupings. The page is different to the screen. Can we rely on the sheet we have been given on the grouping of amendments? It is nice to be prepared as amendments come up. Someone at senior Government level should address this issue. They may be called technical amendments, but many of them are substantial and it seems like a crazy way to do things. It is all being rushed now because the Houses of the Oireachtas, and certainly the Dáil, will probably not sit after Christmas and Ministers are keen for their legacies.
Senator Thomas Byrne: It is fine if it is not to be discussed.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I propose that we leave amendment No. 231 until we reach it, in accordance with the list we all received.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I wish to raise a point a number of us raised on Second Stage, namely, children's rights under the Bill and to ensure that the rights of children, particularly children who come into Ireland as unaccompanied minors, are adequately protected. I was very heartened to hear the Minister speak about this last night in her speech and in her response where she pointed out how much the practice has improved and how much better it is now.
As colleagues will recall, at one point unaccompanied minors were housed in hostels where they were extremely vulnerable to being trafficked or exploited. There were real concerns about child protection issues. As colleagues are aware and as the Minister reminded us last night, much better practice is now in place through ensuring that unaccompanied minors are now accommodated in foster homes, which is very welcome.
I appreciate the sentiment behind the amendments. As the Minister said, all of us seek to ensure we have adequate humanitarian protections in place, particularly for children and child applicants. I am very encouraged by the explicit wording in section 35 which provides that the authorised officer, to be renamed the international protection officer after Committee Stage, shall take the best interests of the child as a primary consideration. By having those words right at the start of the section it is clear that all the other provisions of the section must be read in light of that consideration. That is the primary consideration and it is fairly clear that the Child and Family Agency will appoint a person who will then be given the opportunity to inform the child about the meaning and consequences of the interview and so on. A number of practical points are set out as to what will be done, but they all must be done in light of the best interests of the child as the primary consideration. That covers a great deal of the child protection issues we are all very concerned about.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Is amendment No. 6 being pressed?
There is a concern that these amendments are necessary which is why we tabled them.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I do not want to labour the point, but section 35 should not be read in isolation. Clearly, it must be read in the context of the other relevant provisions. Section 34 applies to the personal interview and section 34(7) refers to an applicant who has not attained the age of 18. Section 14 refers to unaccompanied minors seeking international protection. In section 14(2) it is very important that after it appears that a person has not reached the age of 18 and is not accompanied by an adult who is taking responsibility for him or her, it shall be presumed that the person is a child, meaning that all the necessary protections are then put in place. Under section 15 it is clear that the Child and Family Agency will then assume responsibility.
While all of us absolutely agree with Senator Ó Clochartaigh's concern about the need to ensure adequate training and that the person appointed is an appropriate person, I believe that is provided for already because clearly a person could not be appointed by the Child and Family Agency who does not fulfil those criteria. I do not believe it is necessary to insert the extra detail the Senator is looking for.
Senator James Heffernan: I do not question the Minister of State's bona fides in this area. I am aware of all the work he has done on migrants' rights issues since he became Minister of State with responsibility for equality. Senator Bacik has also a very proud record in this area. I have spoken to representatives of some of the migrants' rights bodies, including the one operating in Limerick, Doras Luimní. They are concerned that the Bill represents a missed opportunity to bring Ireland in line with a common European asylum system.
When the Minister of State says that it is all in the best interests of the child, when it comes to matters of family reunification, the family model referred to according-----
Senator Ivana Bacik: That is not in this amendment.
Senator James Heffernan: It can still be relevant to this section and the interpretation. Are we not debating section 2?
Senator Ivana Bacik: It is unaccompanied minors.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: We are dealing with a group including amendments Nos. 6 to 8, inclusive, 19, 20 and 26.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The briefing paper from which I was working seems to have disappeared, which is disconcerting. It is difficult for me to proceed without the notes I had made.
Senator Ivana Bacik: We dealt with amendment No. 6 just before we adjourned.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Amendment No. 6 has been decided on, so we will move on to amendment No.