At a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee.
The Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy spoke about the procurement and management of contracts for direct provision centres.
In his opening statement, he explained that €57million was spent on accommodation for asylum seekers in 2015. He then went on to criticise how direct provision management contracts were procured for the 28 commercially run centres across Ireland.
He also stated: “Contracts did not set performance measures and there was limited provision for penalties for under-performance by suppliers.”
The General Secretary of the Department of Justice Noel Waters was also present at PAC and, in his opening statement, said if direct provision had not been established in 2000, there “simply would not have been even the most basic shelter available” for people seeking asylum in Ireland.
He also said “there are no cheaper alternatives to direct provision”.
From Mr McCarthy’s opening statement:
“At December 2015, there was a total of 35 direct provision centres in operation — seven State-owned centres, and 28 centres provided by 22 commercial suppliers. Almost 4,700 individuals were being accommodated in the centres at the year end. The Department also operates two emergency reception and orientation centres to cater for persons who already have refugee status.
“The total cost to the Department in 2015 of providing accommodation and related services to asylum seekers and refugees was €57 million. The level of accommodation required is demand-led and difficult to predict. It is influenced by the number of asylum seekers, their length of stay in direct provision and, because there is no obligation to avail of direct provision, the number who opt to do so.
“The report notes that in mid-2016, the average length of stay was 38 months with 450 residents, or 10% of the total, living in direct provision for more than seven years. 23% of residents or 950 people, continued to reside in direct provision even though their cases had been finalised. This included 667 people or 16% who had been granted a status permitting them to remain in Ireland; and 283 or 7% who were subject to deportation orders.
“Two commercial companies were contracted to provide services such as catering, cleaning and maintenance at the seven State-owned centres. We found that competitive processes had been used to procure those services.
“In contrast, the Department had not used competitive processes as set out in public procurement procedures to procure the 28 commercially-owned and run centres. Instead, it seeks ‘expressions of interest’, evaluates the responses and then agrees contract terms with selected providers.
“The Department’s view is that this equates to the ‘negotiated procedure’ provided for in EU procurement rules. However, use of that procedure is only permitted in certain limited circumstances that we could not see existed in relation to direct provision. The Department stated that it discussed the matter with the Office of Government Procurement but hadn’t identified a procurement method to replace the current procedure.
“The examination also found that effective management of contracts was made more difficult because not all contract deliverables had been expressed in a way that could be quantified or measured. This increased the risk that standards of accommodation and services would not meet asylum seekers’ needs or would be inconsistent between centres.
“In addition, contracts did not set performance measures and there was limited provision for penalties for under-performance by suppliers. The Department agreed to the report’s recommendation to review the standard contract, and the Accounting Officer will be able to update the Committee in that regard. Service delivery in the centres is monitored by physical inspections of premises, information clinics for residents of centres and review of complaints by residents.
“However, the findings from this monitoring are not collated and used to assess service delivery performance. The Department committed to introduce procedures to formally record such inspection findings and complaints, which should inform discussions with centre managers and owners. Even though there was a low level of complaints by residents, information from other sources suggests that there is a significant level of dissatisfaction among residents about the quality of the accommodation and/or services provided.
“A revised complaints procedure introduced in 2015 provided for an appeal to an independent appeals officer where a person was not satisfied with how their complaint was dealt with. However, at the time of the examination, an independent appeals officer had yet to be appointed.
“The report recommended that the Department review the complaints process to identify reasons why residents may not be raising issues. The Department noted that the revised complaints procedure largely addressed this issue but undertook to examine ways to make the complaints process more open and transparent.
“Members may also be aware that, from early April this year, residents of direct provision can now bring a complaint to the Ombudsman, or to the Ombudsman for Children, if they are unhappy with how their original complaint was dealt with.”
From the Secretary General at the Department of Justice Noel Waters’ opening statement:
“From 2000 to date some 60,000 people have been accommodated in direct provision. Equally they have been provided with full access to the State’s medical and education services. The system is not perfect by any means and we are continually seeking to improve it.”
“The reality is that had the State not adopted the direct provision system, there simply would not have been even the most basic shelter available for this group of people who arrived and continue to arrive to our country.”
“At the start of this year there were 4,465 persons living in this accommodation. However, I am glad to say – and this is a significant change – that, of those, 72% have been there for three years or less since the date of their application. This compares to 36% who were there for 3 years or less when the data was compiled for the Working Group on Direct Provision and related matters in 2015.”
“To put it another way, there has been a complete reversal in the length of stay figures since the Working Group examined the matter.”
“Full board accommodation in keeping with the policy of nationwide dispersal is offered to
residents while their application for protection is being processed. It is important to note that not every person who seeks international protection in Ireland choses to accept the offer of full board accommodation and many choose to live with family or friends in communities across the country, as they are entitled to do.”
“But if this system was not in place, already vulnerable people who have sought protection in the State would join the lengthy waiting lists for social housing or enter the private rental market with little hope of finding affordable and secure accommodation.”
“That is the very situation that obtained which gave rise to the direct provision system being put in place in the first place. The offer of State-provided accommodation is a guarantee that every person who walks into the International Protection Office today will, tonight, have a bed, full board and access to medical care.”
“Moreover, their children will have access to our first and second level education system on
the same basis as anyone else.”
“Of course no system is without room for improvement and our challenge is to continually
enhance and develop the entire system so that the best possible set of facilities and services can be provided to those in our care.”
“…There are no cheaper alternatives to direct provision – we have explored the options in this respect; in fact they are much more expensive – and in any event given the critical shortage of housing in the State they are not realistic.”
The PAC meeting can be watched back here
Previously: 17 Years Ago Today