Dáil Éireann - Volume 499 - 04 February, 1999

Ceisteanna–Questions. Priority Questions. - Human Rights Issues.

2. Ms O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he will address the issue of the right to work for asylum seekers in the context of his proposal to introduce legislation as a result of the court decision concerning the Aliens Act, 1935; if he will also address the need for public education with regard to race relations and allow for the delegation of powers by the Refugee Commissioner which would facilitate the full implementation of the Refugee Act, 1996; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3073/99]

Mr. O'Donoghue: The primary purpose of the legislation, which I intend to introduce arising from the High Court decision to which the Deputy refers, will be to restore the power to deport, a power which is a necessary part of the sovereignty of the State. The legislation will not deal with permission to work for asylum seekers.

[1447] Regarding race relations, the Deputy may recall that, in 1997, my Department established a national committee to co-ordinate the European Year Against Racism. Through this committee, the Department progressed a programme throughout 1997 which focused on several racism themes and which involved initiatives at national and local level. In July 1998 I established a National Consultative Committee on Racism and lnterculturalism. The committee is a partnership of Government Departments, agencies and non-governmental organisations. The objective of the committee is to provide an ongoing structure to develop programmes and actions aimed at developing an integrated approach against racism and to advise the Government on matters relating to racism. The committee will also endeavour to promote a more participative and intercultural society which is inclusive of minority groups, including asylum seekers. As part of its programme the committee will encourage and support initiatives from organisations and groups at local and regional level involved in activities including the promotion of public awareness and education in the area of race relations.

Regarding the Refugee Act, I have indicated to the House on several occasions that I am of the view that the Refugee Act in its current form is unworkable for a number of reasons. The Act and its procedures were designed to process approximately 300 to 400 applications per year. However, we have experienced an enormous growth in the number of asylum seekers with more than 4,600 applications recorded last year. The Act only provided for the appointment of one Refugee Applications Commissioner and one Appeal Board with no powers of delegation.

I am now reviewing the 1996 Refugee Act in the light of other EU member states' refugee legislation and having regard to the considerable experience subsequently gained in my Department in the operation of the refugee determination procedures over recent years. The review of the Refugee Act will include a review of the nature of the Determination Authority, with a view to establishing the most appropriate arrangement for determining asylum applications given the volume of applications for refugee status being received in this country. I cannot give the Deputy a precise timescale for completion of my review, but she can be assured that there will be no undue delay in the matter.

Ms O'Sullivan: On the question of the right to work, the Tánaiste has announced the intention of the Government to introduce some right to work for asylum seekers. We have not received any detailed information about that nor a response from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the matter. What are the Government's plans regarding the granting of a right to work to asylum seekers? The suggestion is that it is centred purely on employers rather than on asylum seekers. Perhaps the Minister [1448] would say if this permission to work is likely to be sufficiently extensive to make a difference to the lives of the many asylum seekers who have been in Ireland for more than six months and who have been seeking a right to work, something they would have in Britain.

Regarding the legislation which I understand we will debate next week, we have all received letters from Amnesty International expressing concern that many people who have been deported or are awaiting deportation have not had access either to legal aid or interpretation. Is it the Minister's intention to take on board this point in the legislation? Perhaps he could give me the up to date position regarding legal aid for asylum seekers.

On the question of the Refugee Act, the Minister says it is unworkable but it was enacted by the House, so there is an onus on him to at least attempt to make it workable. Amending it in terms of the delegation of the powers of the commissioner is a relatively simple operation.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy should confine herself to questions.

Ms O'Sullivan: Has the Minister considered the Bill put forward by my colleague, Deputy Upton, which is simple legislation regarding the delegation of powers? Regarding the Refugee Act and the court case which has been taken, has the Government entered a defence?

Has the comparative Ireland-EU study, which the Minister indicated on 26 November would be ready by the end of 1998, been published, and is it available to the Minister?

Mr. O'Donoghue: The answer to the fifth and last question is that it has not been published. The right to work is an issue the Deputy raised at the outset. The Government has not made a decision that asylum seekers should be allowed to work. However, there is nothing to prevent a person making an application from abroad to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment for a work permit. Approximately 17,000 applications have been approved over the past two to two and a half years. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has operated to a large extent as a rubber stamp in approving such applications.

I am very concerned about legal representation for asylum seekers and I have made arrangements for it to be provided to them from this month. Until now, they were entitled to employ a solicitor. I originally became involved in a tendering process to see if the private sector could be involved, but I was strongly advised, having received a number of tenders, that it would be best to proceed through the Legal Aid Board, and I am now doing that.

While the Refugee Act was passed by the House, the previous Government chose not to implement it because of a court challenge to a portion of it. That was not the only reason. Another reason is that it would not be possible [1449] at this stage to operate the provisions of the Act because only one commissioner and one appeals commissioner is provided for. In 1995 there was a small number of applications for asylum. In 1998 there were approximately 4,600. No one could suggest that one commissioner and one appeals commissioner would be in a position to deal with that level of applications.

It is clear the Refugee Act, 1996, is inoperable in so far as it relates to the processing of asylum applications and must be amended. I am now actively considering amending the Act and I intend to bring forward proposals to the House to make appropriate amendments so that the legislation can be implemented. In this context, I stress that the Dublin Convention provisions of the Refugee Act, 1996, have been signed by me into law. A considerable amount of criticism has been levelled at me and the Government by the Opposition regarding the asylum issue over a protracted period. I have yet to hear the policy of Fine Gael or the old Labour Party—

Ms O'Sullivan: The new Labour Party.

Mr. O'Donoghue: —on asylum seekers. I know what they are against but I do not know what they are for.

Mr. Higgins (Mayo): It is for allowing them to work.

Mr. O'Donoghue: I would very much like to hear an articulated, reasoned response from Opposition spokespersons rather than—

Mr. Higgins (Mayo): The Minister was here on two occasions when we told him.

Mr. O'Donoghue: —the carping criticism which has been hurled in from the sideline at every opportunity, often without the benefit of reasonable research.

Mr. Higgins (Mayo): There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Ms O'Sullivan: We produced the Refugee Act and if some minor amendments are necessary, that need not take a year and a half. The Tánaiste has made public statements on the right to work of asylum seekers. I assume these statements have been discussed at Government level. What is the background to these statements? Has the Minister had discussions with her on this matter? Is there a proposal to allow asylum seekers who are here for six months or more to work?

Mr. O'Donoghue: There has been a considerable amount of public debate on whether asylum seekers should have the right to work. I have heard few, if any, politicians from any side suggest that an asylum seeker should have the right to work if the application is processed within a period of six months. When I became Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform I inherited [1450] utter chaos in this area. There were thousands of applications which had not been dealt with for years. In some cases people had applied four or five years ago and had got no response from the Department. Some 20 officials were trying to deal with thousands of applications. Today 150 officials are dealing with these applications. There are two appeals authorities and I will appoint two further appeals authorities in the not too distant future. I am reaching a stage where I will deal with all applications within a period of six months. I hope to have the backlog, which built up under the rainbow coalition, cleared by the middle of 2000. On the question of the right to work, is Deputy O'Sullivan saying that applicants for asylum, having arrived in the State, should immediately be given the right to work or should a period elapse?

Ms O'Sullivan: I said after a period of six months.

An Ceann Comhairle: That concludes Priority Questions. Question No. 3 cannot be taken and Questions Nos. 4 and 5 are transferred to Ordinary Questions.