Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) not satisfied with the State’s reliance on emergency accommodation for Direct Provision centres

The Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) has said it is not satisfied with the State’s reliance on emergency accommodation, including hotel settings, for Direct Provision centres.

In its report published today on the Examination of the 2019 Appropriation Account for Vote 24 – Justice and Equality; and Vote 21 – Prisons, the Committee makes recommendations on four issues which were discussed with the Department of Justice and the Irish Prison Service at meetings of PAC on 9 and 10 December 2020. They concern:

  1. Direct Provision;
  2. Detaining Individuals on Immigration Offences;
  3. Protected Disclosures in the Irish Prison Service; and
  4. Voluntary Mess Committees in Prisons.

The Committee noted that at the time of the meetings, there were 44 Direct Provision centres providing accommodation for international protection applicants. Seven are State-owned while the remainder are leased from private companies. An additional 27 emergency centres were also in use, mainly in hotel-type settings.

In 2019, Vote 24 recorded expenditure of €130 million on accommodation for asylum seekers. This represents a 66 per cent increase on this expenditure in 2018. Due to a lack of capacity in Direct Provision centres €35 million of this was spent on emergency accommodation, an increase of 25 per cent from 2018. The Department attributed this to an increase in the number of asylum seekers accommodated in 2019.

Deputy Brian Stanley, Cathaoirleach of PAC, said: “The Committee is unsatisfied with the State’s reliance on emergency accommodation, which is often provided in hotel settings. This type of accommodation does not provide adequate facilities for those living there.

“Given the costs associated with Direct Provision, which are linked to the time taken to process applications from asylum seekers, the Committee recommends that the Department of Justice ensures that all applications for international protection are processed within nine months, and that the Department provides PAC with an update on current timeframes and the steps it is taking to reduce them.”

The Committee was also informed that Ireland does not have a specific detention centre for individuals who are refused entry to the State, or for those arrested for immigration reasons. While awaiting deportation, they are housed within the prison system. The Committee recommends that the Department examines the practice of detaining individuals within the prison system who are refused entry into the State and reports back to the Committee within six months.

In 2019, Vote 21 – Prisons recorded gross expenditure of €358 million, of which €255 million related to pay. The C&AG issued a clear audit opinion in relation to Vote 21. Chapter Seven of the C&AG’s 2019 Report on the Accounts of the Public Services examined the management of catering and ancillary services in the prison system. Overall, the C&AG found that the systems for managing the control and operation of the provision of food within the prison system were weak and needed to be significantly strengthened.

Deputy Stanley said: “Voluntary Mess Committees (VMCs) operate in most prisons and act as canteen facilities for prison staff. Kitchen facilities are provided to VMCs free of charge and prisoners prepare food that is then sold to prison staff. VMCs purchase food from approved suppliers at prices agreed by the Irish Prison Service.

“The C&AG informed the Committee that the relationship between the Irish Prison Service and the VMCs is not underpinned by a written agreement and the report found that adequate processes were not in place to ensure there was no subsidisation of food costs for the staff committees.

The C&AG found a number of issues in respect of the operation of the prison shops, including weaknesses in controls over stock and cash purchases and delays in the submission of accounts and bank reconciliations.”

The Committee wrote to the Minister for Justice requesting an external investigation of the matters raised. In July 2021 the Minister informed the Committee that a review had been approved. The review was due to be completed by the end of 2021 and published in the first quarter of 2022.

Deputy Stanley said: “The Committee recommends that the independent review of the operation of Voluntary Mess Committees in prisons is published by the end of quarter one 2022 as stated by the Department of Justice, and that the Committee is furnished with a copy of the report upon its completion.”

On the issue of Protected Disclosures within the Irish Prison Service, the Committee recommends that the Department of Justice reviews the Protected Disclosure Policy currently applied in the IPS with a view to ensuring that the policy is working as intended and that staff members can have confidence in the system. The Committee recommends that this review is carried out within six months and that it is furnished with a copy of the findings.

The PAC is a standing committee of Dáil Éireann which focuses on ensuring public services are run efficiently and achieve value for money. Further information on the role and remit of the Committee can be found here.

The PAC Report Examination of the 2019 Appropriation Account for Vote 24 – Justice and Equality; and Vote 21 – Prisons is available on the Oireachtas website.

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