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Committee on Public Petitions debate -
Thursday, 25 Nov 2021

Direct Provision Policy and Related Matters: Discussion (Resumed)

This is our sixth public meeting about direct provision policy and related matters. We have already met the Ombudsman, the Ombudsman for Children, the Irish Refugee Council, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Law Society of Ireland and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. I am delighted to extend a warm welcome to our witnesses today from the Department of Justice, Ms Oonagh Buckley, deputy secretary general, and Mr. David Delaney, chief international protection officer.

Before we hear from our witnesses, I propose we publish their opening statement and submissions on the committee's website. Is that agreed? Agreed. I suggest the witnesses should make their opening statement for around ten minutes. We will then have a question and answer session. We will give each member around five minutes, which should allow members to come back in for a second round of questions if they wish. I invite Ms Oonagh Buckley, deputy secretary general at the Department of Justice, to make her opening statement.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I thank the Chair and the committee for inviting the Department to update it on the measures we are taking to implement the Government’s White Paper and, in particular, to speed up the processing of international protection applications.

Let me start by saying that both the Minister and the Department are fully committed to our objective of having decisions made on international protection applications as soon as possible. This ensures that those who are found to be in need of our protection can receive it quickly and begin rebuilding their lives here with a sense of safety and security. We are also fully committed to implementing the key recommendations in the expert advisory group report to reduce average processing times of both first instance decisions and appeals to six months, respectively, as outlined in the White Paper to end direct provision and establish a new international protection support service.

The White Paper proposes that the new system should be phased in and operational by 2024 and that the intervening period should provide an opportunity to progress improvements in the overall processing times for international protection. That work is well under way and I would like to give the committee a brief overview today of how we intend to reach that target.

In the first instance, the Department is prioritising the processing of all cases using improved processes and involving ICT investment in the system. A number of initiatives have already been introduced, including the relocation of the ministerial decisions unit to the International Protection Office, IPO, premises to improve work processes, the designation of the International Protection Appeals Tribunal, IPAT, as a body authorised to hold remote hearings and the holding of virtual interviews with some applicants living outside of Dublin. An end-to-end review of processes in both the IPAT and the IPO, as recommended by the expert advisory group, has been completed by a multidisciplinary team from within the Department. The review included engagement with past and present applicants and with staff working in the IPO and in the tribunal.

The Minister published the results of the review last month and its findings and recommendations for reform are now helping us to improve efficiencies within those processes and support our goal of reducing average processing times for international protection. The development of paperless processes will be an important part of this reform as well.

It is also important to acknowledge that the dedication and professionalism of staff in the IPO and in the tribunal, who participated wholeheartedly with the review and very much on board for these changes, is specifically called out in the report. In case members have not seen it, there was some very interesting work done with applicants and there are some very telling conclusions from that report, which are very much guiding how we are approaching the process of reform within the IPO and the IPAT.

I am joined today by the chief international protection officer, Mr. David Delaney, who was recently appointed to this role but is going at it with great enthusiasm. The IPO is examining and implementing measures with a view to speeding up average processing times and reducing the overall number of applicants in the protection process. These measures include training more staff to conduct interviews and complete reports, while also streamlining processes to assist in expediting applications in the medium to long term.

The Department works closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, of Ireland, and there is an ongoing quality assessment process in place with that organisation. This provides valuable feedback to staff on the quality of decision-making and ensures that any lessons learned are reflected in amended procedures, if required. The approach to the prioritisation of cases is also agreed with UNHCR and was most recently updated in June. A shorter and more user-friendly questionnaire for applicants was also introduced in June and has recently been made available online for the first time.

Following the successful piloting of a virtual chatbot for citizenship applications on our new Irish immigration website, plans are also under way to expand this service to international protection applicants. I know that when the committee met with our colleagues from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth recently, it was interested in how the programme boards were operating. I chair the programme board in our Department, which meets every month and has done so since the advisory group’s report was published in September 2020. We effectively started straight away, in terms of implementation. A senior representative from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth participates on that board, which oversees the work of an implementation working group established within the Department to take forward those recommendations under our remit. My colleague, Mr. Delaney, is our Department’s representative on the programme board more recently established by the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman’s Department in relation to accommodation and other elements related to direct provision. Therefore, there is a strong overlap and strong co-ordination between the two programme boards.

It must be acknowledged that efforts to improve processing times have been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. A decision was also made to stop issuing negative decisions by the ministerial decisions unit during this time. As a result, the output of decisions was reduced considerably in the last year and a half. Attendance in the office has been strictly limited in line with public health guidance and substantive protection interviews were suspended for the periods under level 5 restrictions.

Despite this, the International Protection Office remained open throughout this period to offer applicants a service in line with our international obligations to allow those who wish to claim international protection the opportunity to do so. The provision of the facility to allow people to claim international protection is considered an essential service at all times, including during the Covid-19 crisis. IPO staff have worked both on-site and remotely throughout the pandemic to ensure the protection process continues to operate. We are very grateful to them for that and it has allowed us to continue to provide this very critical service at this time.

Applications for protection have continued to be made at all times in the pandemic, albeit in lower numbers. With the opening up of international travel again, those numbers are starting to rise quite steeply. This makes the implementation of the recommendations of the Catherine Day report all the more important.

The measures we are taking and will take will have a demonstrably positive impact on waiting times for applications, both in the short to medium term and over the longer term as we move towards the 2024 timeframe. Early results from this work can already be seen. However, if this does not allow us to fully realise our ambitions, by next October at the latest, the Department will commence a review of progress made in reducing and improving processing times. Based on the outcome of that review, we will decide by the end of 2022 whether additional measures are required to ensure the new system can come into operation without the overhang of any significant number of legacy cases.

I thank the committee for its attention. My colleague and I will be happy to answer any questions members may have.

I again welcome Ms Buckley and Mr. Delaney for attending today's meeting and briefing members on the measures the Department of Justice is planning to take to implement the White Paper on ending direct provision.

As we begin, it is only right to recall yesterday's horrific news that 27 people, including a young girl, died off the northern French coast as they tried to reach England. It indicates the level of desperation that too many people in this world are experiencing due to conflict, human rights abuses and, of course, the impacts of climate change in their countries. We also have to be aware that the tragedy we saw yesterday is a reminder that, despite the onset of winter and cold weather, desperate attempts such as yesterday's are continuing all the time. There are people who need protection. This makes it even more fitting that today we will discuss improvements to the way in which we, as a country, play our part in doing this. I thought it was important to mention that and I am sure other members may also refer to it as we discuss the establishment of the new international protection service.

I will start with some questions before inviting other members to contribute. On average, how many applications are processed in a year? At present, how long must an applicant wait for a decision? In her opening statement, Ms Buckley stated the Department was fully committed to its objective of having decisions on international protection applications "as soon as possible". How long is "as soon as possible"? How will the new process be resourced? Are there plans to take on new staff to speed up the process?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I thank the Chair for his good questions. As I mentioned, there has been significant impact on processing because of the pandemic in the past two years. The Catherine Day report was predicated on us processing approximately 3,500 applications a year. We were getting quite close to that level of output towards the end of 2019. I have the figures in front of me and for this year, up to the end of October 2021, we have processed roughly 1,900 applications and granted permission in just over 1,000 applications. In 2020, we processed 2,141 applications, meaning those applicants got a ministerial decision, either a grant or a refusal. As I said, at a point in 2019 we were starting to manage the caseload in a very effective way, but that unfortunately came to a significant halt in 2020 and 2021.

The average case processing times for all cases at the moment is 23 months and for prioritised applications it is 14 months. A prioritised application would be an application from a country where we would be reasonably sure that persons will be granted international protection. An example at present would be persons applying from Afghanistan who, as one could imagine, would be very much in that space.

I mentioned that following the Catherine Day report and the White Paper, we will be seeking to move towards this new system and have it in place by 2024.

With regard to resources, we have been given sanction and the Estimate for next year involves funding for additional resources for the IPO, which is extremely helpful. As always, we could probably have asked for more. However, we certainly got something, which was very useful. We have also been resourced, most critically, for the ICT investment that will be needed to drive this change. The most important initial part of that will be to move to a paperless system. A business case will be made to move to that in the International Protection Appeals Tribunal first and then move backwards through the IPO.

Mr. Delaney may have something to add if I have not covered all the matters.

Mr. David Delaney

Ms Buckley covered everything very well. Just to give a bit of context, in 2018 the median processing time was hitting about 19 months. In 2019, that came down to about 17 months. In quarter 1 of 2020, we were hitting 14 months. There was real progress over those two and a half years, and it has been sort of a steady creep since then due to Covid and the restrictions and the ability to get applications processed effectively. The current median processing time of 23 months was actually at 26 months earlier in 2021, so we have already made some progress there. That is underpinned by going through some older cases due to Covid and restrictions in the office. This has involved a partial clear-out of older cases as well, which is giving a slightly misleading negative impression of the median processing times at the moment. However, we are starting to see a turn of the corner.

Another variable is that at the end of 2019, there were about 6,000 cases on hand in the International Protection Office. That figure reduced to close to 5,000 during the pandemic. An awful lot of work was done in the office to reduce the numbers on hand, notwithstanding restrictions and complexities that existed at the time. We have seen progress in that area. It would not be unusual to have a reduction in backlogs and also have an increase in the median processing time. As I said, the reason for that is many older cases were dealt with during the pandemic. We have had success in reducing the backlog by almost 1,000 cases over the past 12 to 18 months. That has been a success, notwithstanding the pressures. Other than that, Ms Buckley covered all the questions.

I thank Ms Buckley for her opening remarks. I echo the Chair's comments on the horrible tragedy over the weekend. It is ironic that we are discussing such terrible events.

Ms Buckley indicated that the Department "will commence a review of progress made in reducing and improving process times." She noted that, based on the outcome of the review, the Department will decide whether additional measures are required "to ensure the new system can come into operation without the overhang of any significant number of legacy cases." For people outside the meeting, will Ms Buckley give a brief overview or example of a legacy case and why such cases take so long?

I understand we have to be realistic about waiting times. There was a backlog and I can definitely see the improvements. It is great that there is collaboration with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Obviously, collaboration is necessary but sometimes it does not happen. In some activities, we do not see joined-up thinking for a long time, which means things get lost and everything becomes more complicated. I congratulate the Departments on that collaboration.

Ms Buckley mentioned Afghanistan, extreme cases and so on. Is there harmony in respect of many of these troubled countries at the moment? How much harmony exists between the Department here and equivalent departments in other countries? I am using Afghanistan as an example; we could easily use Syria as an example as well.

While we are talking about this subject, it is important to say that it is not all bad news. Where I come from in east Cork, we have been fortunate, except during the recent impact of Covid-19, to have a food festival. We bring in all the people who have been helped by these processes to come over to Ireland. It is a wonderful way for them to showcase their food and different facets of their cultures and that helps us to understand where they come from, how proud they are and how they have integrated into society. There are great stories like that. I have had the opportunity at that festival to taste many different treats from many different countries around the world. I meet lovely people there over the two days of the festival.

Regarding the review in 2022, are the witnesses hopeful about getting additional resources?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I thank the Deputy. I am sorry; I should have said in my previous contribution that the tragedy yesterday affected all of us deeply. The desperation of people who wish to move and apply for asylum cannot be underestimated. It was a tragic incident. In some respects, Ireland is relatively lucky in that we are just that bit further away and so we do not have people trying to cross to us using difficult means and approaches. In fact, most people who apply for asylum in Ireland either do so directly at Dublin Airport or present themselves at our offices in Dublin city centre. That is generally how people apply for asylum in Ireland.

On the legacy cases, the International Protection Office was established under the 2015 legislation. It was up and running in 2015-16, and replaced its predecessor office. Based on legal advice given at the time, any cases in the system in 2015 had to be redone by the IPO. Effectively, therefore, the IPO started out already dealing with thousands of cases that it had to redo. The people concerned were in the system for a long time. In fact, on foot of a recommendation made by Mr. Justice McMahon, who led a group to make recommendations concerning improvements in the direct provision system, a number of the people who had been waiting were effectively given permission to remain, based on the length of time they had already spent in the system.

We do not want that situation to arise again. From our perspective, we do not want to go into 2024 with a large backlog of legacy cases that we will still have to clear. We would have to do that in sequential order because that is the way the prioritisation we have agreed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, works. Mr. Delaney and his colleagues are working hard on changing the way in which we make decisions. As members will appreciate, it is difficult to change the direction of a large bureaucracy, but we are trying to do that as we move along. Some substantial changes have already been agreed with the staff and those are being implemented as we speak.

In the event that the effect of these changes is not as we might hope and people are not getting their decisions in reasonably smart order, we have committed to reviewing the situation by October of next year. The likely outcome is that we will give consideration to persons who have been in the system and, based on the assumption that they have passed security checks and so forth, they will be given permission to remain in those circumstances. The Minister intends to bring proposals to government shortly concerning undocumented persons in Ireland. These are a different group of people. They are not in the international protection system, but people who have come to Ireland and are here on an undocumented basis. Those proposals will also be dealt with by the Department and the immigration services system next year. Similarly, we will seek to give some structure, comfort and immigration consent to that group of people in our society who otherwise would be vulnerable.

Co-operation with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth was mentioned. We have the advantage that the people we are dealing with in that Department were officials of the Department of Justice until the summer of last year. We have worked closely with them. Having been responsible for the direct provision system for 20 years, we understand how difficult that task is and we are committed to assisting them. It is useful that we are able now to focus on those recommendations which arise under our remit, namely, those related to processing. As somebody who was responsible for the direct provision system until the summer of last year, that that is an all-consuming policy area and a difficult one to manage. Consequently, it was not possible for us to give our attention to improving our processing times in the way we might have wished. The full focus of our intention is now on improving the processing of applications and that will obviously be of assistance to our colleagues in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth as well because once we have given people permission to remain, they will be able to move on with their lives in Ireland.

I should point out that a substantial number of people with permission to remain are always in the direct provision system. Due to the difficulties encountered in securing housing, I understand that well over 1,000 people with permission to remain are residing in the direct provision system. That has been a persistent problem for the last few years because of the broader issue involved in getting housing.

Regarding what happens in other countries, I understand the Deputy's query as whether we keep abreast of developments in other countries. Certainly, we do so. Decisions are taken on the cases of people in the international protection process based on the circumstances in their countries of origin. Obviously, decisions are also taken in light of whether it would be feasible to return people to those countries of origin. Good examples of that include Syria and Afghanistan, given the situation there in recent times.

I acknowledge the Deputy's point that Ireland is now a multicultural society. Those people coming through the international protection system and who have been given permission to remain in Ireland, or refugee status, are certainly contributing significantly to modern Ireland. It is great that they are now a part of our society. We are strongly supportive of the efforts of our colleagues in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to promote their integration more generally.

I mentioned in the context of the review next year that by October 2022, we will have a firm idea as to whether our efforts to deal with the backlog of legacy cases have been sufficient or whether we need to take further steps.

Excellent. I thank Ms Buckley.

I welcome Ms Buckley and Mr. Delaney. I have no doubt about their personal sincerity in dealing with this challenging issue. I have no doubt about the Government in this regard either. I also pay tribute to the former Minister of State with special responsibility in this area, Deputy Stanton. I may be from a different political party, but we had to deal with big issues in Roscommon for a long time. It was an even more challenging situation then because there was, shall we say, a lack of understanding in some quarters for the plight of some of the poor people involved. The then Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, was remarkably cool in handling the issue and dealt well with what was a difficult situation. I just want to put that on the record.

We are all saddened by the terrible loss of life yesterday. We sometimes watch documentaries and world news and see what many of these people are going through and what they will do to escape their countries. In general, the vast majority of Irish people want to help these people. An element will challenge us as politicians.

It is important that as politicians we stand up for those people and we make sure that in coming out of those many tragic situations they are supported by this nation. Ireland has always had a good record of helping people in very difficult situations.

As I had to leave the meeting for a few minutes, I do not know whether the witnesses have already answered the following question. How many applications are processed annually and what is the waiting time for a decision? As I said, if that question has been already answered, that is fine; I will get the answer from the transcript of the meeting. In light of Covid, can the new system be fully operational by 2024? There is no doubt that is going to be a huge challenge. I am interested in hearing more about the chatbot system. The title tells one a certain amount, but how exactly does it work? The witnesses appear to be very positive about the results coming from it.

If the witnesses are not in a position to answer any of my questions today, they can come back to me directly.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I thank the Senator. I have previously answered that question, but I will give the figures again. There is no doubt they have been very sorely affected by Covid. The Catherine Day report suggests that per annum, on average, 3,500 people will apply for asylum or international protection. That is the target in respect of which we need to ensure the system is washing its face to keep abreast of applications. Last year, unfortunately because of Covid, we were not able to do that many decisions. Up to 31 October 2021, just over 1,800 applications had been processed and, I am sorry, I have lost my figures.

It is fine. I can get the information from my colleague, Deputy Devlin.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The Senator is correct that Covid is not making our lives any easier. That is largely due to the fact that the system is almost entirely paper based. If Members were to go into the IPO they would be shocked by how old-fashioned it looks. There are literally files everywhere. One of our priorities is to move to a paperless system, without which the social distancing and other measures we are required to implement because of Covid make our lives very difficult. There is a second aspect to the way in which the pandemic has impacted upon our work. We have to arrange to interview the applicants and they are commonly represented by a solicitor and often need interpretation services. It can be very challenging to organise for all of those people to be present. We have started to move to remote interviewing. That is challenging the staff to organise, but we are starting to get there and we are starting to schedule more remote hearings.

Mr. Delaney is more familiar with the chatbot than I am. It is certainly working for citizenship. I will hand over to Mr. Delaney to go through how we are using robots to help our client base.

Mr. David Delaney

First, on the Senator's question with regard to the system being fully operational by 2024, I will give some assurances in that regard. The Catherine Day recommendation of the 3,500 applications per annum in and, therefore, a similar number reaching decisions breaks down into approximately 290 cases per month. We cleared 390 cases last month. Significant work has been put in place to make that happen. To give an indication of some the innovation and work that is being done by the staff in the office and prior to my arrival, we are now up to 80 interviews per week, all conducted via videoconference facilities. Many of them have to facilitate an interviewer, the applicant, an interpreter and, quite often, a legal representative. There are a number of moving parts to all of those 80 individual interviews that are scheduled per week. From that perspective, I would not say we are already at our fully operational 2024 level because we have a lot of work to do to clear aspects of the backlog, but in terms of the Catherine Day recommendation on what we should be able to take in and reach a decision on we are currently at that level, even with the Covid restrictions. That is a credit to an awful of people in the office to be able to make that happen, throughout the past few months especially.

The chatbot system, which we hope to roll out very soon, is a little icon on our webpage which is programmed to identify key words that are typed into it as questions. When those key words are identified, they will generate an appropriate answer. Rather than people having to trawl through five, ten or 15 different links on webpages or having to send an email for fairly basic responses on aspects of the asylum process or their claim, the chatbot can given an instantaneous response. That is the chatbot function that we hope to roll out very soon. It is the same service that is being provided currently by our citizenship chatbot. We are confident it will be able to do this. We also hope to programme it with multiple language facilities such that it will be able to deal with multiple clients. We are familiar with the languages that, in the main, our clients present with so we will be prioritising those languages. We hope to then scale up the chatbot function to interact with our more modern systems. When someone asks the status a claim we will be able to respond that the claim is at X position and they should be hearing from us in a day, a week or a month. That is further down the road; it is a 2024-type measure. Getting in place the chatbot which I have just described is a high priority for us because it will give that sense of comfort to our clients on a daily basis that they can get information much more easily than is the case currently. I hope that covers the Senator's questions.

I call Deputy Devlin.

I welcome the witnesses and I thank them for the opening statement. I, too, join colleagues in paying tribute to those who have lost their lives in the tragedy in the English Channel. If ever we needed a reminder of the need for a robust and efficient asylum system that is it. We know of other European countries that have been dealing with this on a daily basis, unfortunately, and of the loss of life at sea of those who are trying to cross waters. I join with the comments of the Chairman and others in that regard.

I thank Ms Buckley for her opening remarks in respect of which I have a number of questions. There has been a significant improvement in the engagement of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, with Members of the Oireachtas from the appointments system to updates on queries. I have experienced this myself. It is important to put that on the record. Like me, new Members of the House since 2020 have been grappling with the pandemic since then. The engagement from the INIS has, as I said, improved over the past number of months.

Ms Buckley mentioned that the new system should be operational by 2024. Given everything that we have experienced, that people are remote working and that the INIS system is in the main paper based, is that still on track?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

As I mentioned in the opening statement, we have been working since September 2020 on implementation of the new system. A number of the recommendations have been already put into place. For example, the 12-month access to the labour market has been put in place such that the a permit is now valid for 12 months rather than six and it can be secured after six months and so forth. We have done the things that were low-hanging fruit, if I can use that phrase. We also had a lengthy but ultimately quite successful engagement with the banking industry to make sure that asylum seekers could open bank accounts. We are working hard with our colleagues in the Department of Transport to make sure that asylum seekers can lawfully access driver's licences, which would be great.

I cannot understate the fact that the pandemic has made our lives very difficult, largely because it overlaid a system that was more or less paper based and very poorly computerised. Our challenge is to make sure that over the course of next year in particular, we put in place the building blocks to move the system on to a less paper-based, or paperless, system. We will start with the tribunal and work that backwards into the IPO.

Then there is the second piece, which Mr. Delaney is working hard to implement. We have restructured the way decisions are taken by the staff. There was quite a complex procedure whereby we would hire a lawyer. The lawyer went in to do the interview. That would come back in and land on the desk of a civil servant for final recommendation. Those files would move between various levels of civil servant. We have removed several of those layers. That should significantly improve things. We are now asking our staff to do the job directly that we had farmed out to lawyers. They are working on some of our less challenging files although these are cases that are very challenging for the individuals involved. These would be cases where we would likely grant permission because of the country that the person comes from. Once they have gained confidence in that system, we will be able to use them on a broader range of decisions. That change alone has expanded our capacity and will do significantly over the next year.

Sometimes it can be hard to effect change in a Department among civil servants but the staff have embraced this change and it is really great that they are doing so.

Ms Buckley specifically referred to the staff and thanked them for their work and the way they did it during the pandemic. My experience showed they were very much engaged and were able to correspond with us and our queries. That was also true for members of the public who engaged with them. I know that there were pressures there. Given what Ms Buckley has said about the volume of paper they deal with ordinarily, it is only right that we acknowledge the way in which they worked. I want to put that on the record today.

ICT was one of the main recommendations in the review. Ms Buckley mentioned cases that were backlogged or had been hanging around for some time. Were any cases lost due to paper-based files? Is there an idea of the cost of the introduction of an ICT system? From what Ms Buckley said about the existing capabilities or lack thereof, it will have to be built from scratch.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

As this is one of the most litigious spaces we are in, if we lost a file we would expect a judicial review instantaneously. I am glad to say that even though it is paper based, we do track them and try to manage that system. The asylum list is one of the busiest in the High Court in an average year.

On ICT investment, the Department has been resourced in its estimate for this year and next to the tune of several millions, which is excellent. Because of the size of the demands by immigration services, it is likely that a large part of that will be spent on that area and into the International Protection Office. I cannot give a figure at the moment. A business case for bringing in those services will be considered shortly by the committee that does that.

It might be slightly unusual but we were part of the whole-of-government effort to introduce the mandatory hotel quarantine system. In the space of about ten days, we introduced an appeals system that was entirely electronically based. We will take some of the things that we learned from that for the work on the IPO and the International Protection Appeals Tribunal, IPAT.

No doubt we will discuss that in time. How am I for time?

I will give the Deputy a bit of leeway.

The end-to-end review process of the IPO and IPAT was mentioned. Apart from the finding on ICT, how many findings were there? How will they be introduced or is this already happening?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Mr. Delaney might take this as he is closer to the changes.

Mr. David Delaney

The end-to-end review went through a process of interacting with all the teams and units in the International Protection Office and the International Protection Appeals Tribunal. It is also looked to the Catherine Day report for guidance on the big picture. Very wisely, it set out key targeted recommendations. Ms Buckley referred to one, that was in respect of getting civil servants to do specific targeted work to instantly give us an opportunity to increase productivity. There are other recommendations may not have received the same headlines which we have moved to implementing. I mentioned the ability to upscale the videoconferencing facilities to a much greater degree. It also involved bringing in efficiencies in how applications were dealt with, to reduce the contact time for the customer and to process claims quicker in those early stages. There has been some feedback on putting the questionnaire online and how we could accept it back by email. All those little recommendations have been implemented along the way. Indeed, sometimes when an idea would come forth during discussions by the end-to-end team with staff, they would nearly implement it and then three months later the end-to-end review team would have it as part of the recommendation. There was that type of positive interaction and engagement.

On the broader IT question, it would be hard to put a number on the cost for a while. Probably because of Covid, we have already moved to trying to get as many documents and interactions digitally without having a wonderful new expensive computer system. The questionnaire being emailed in is a very simple recommendation, which stopped people filling it in by hand and posting it and then scanning it and putting it onto a file. That will form part of a digital file. We are now moving towards having as many things on a digital file as possible. Those are the types of practical recommendations from the end-to-end review at work. Does that answer the Deputy's questions?

It does give us a clearer picture.

I appreciate the witnesses' attendance. I am sorry that I was a little late and missed their presentation. There was an interesting article in The Irish Times yesterday relating to immigrants coming into this country, but not specifically relating to direct provision. The article's gist was that Ireland is a very welcome country for those arriving as either refugees or migrants - I have a difficulty with the word "refugee" always being used to describe migrants - but that after the initial welcome, we cease to be supportive. Slightly outside direct provision, but aligned to it, we tend to place migrants in geographical areas all together rather than trying to integrate them. Given the long periods that people spend in direct provision, is there more that we should do in the centres vis-à-vis integration in order that people become more involved in local communities, rather than being forced to live within their own community?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The role of integrating migrants etc. is now under the auspices of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. As part of the Government restructuring, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, took over those functions. I strongly agree that we need to do as much as possible to integrate newly arrived migrants. The Senator is correct. The numbers of people who come and apply for international protection in Ireland is a tiny fraction of the thousands of people who arrive every year, many to study and to work here. A very large proportion of the work done by immigration services is about managing visas etc. for those persons who want to come to Ireland.

The other issue that is probably worth thinking about is that people arrive with children. Their children are first and second-generation migrants. We need to make sure that the next generation is fully integrated into Irish society. The children of the first generation of migrants to Ireland are now reaching adulthood. It is really important that the necessary supports and activities are there for them.

We are very lucky in one respect, in that all children in this country attend school, regardless of whether they have the right papers. The children of undocumented migrants can go to school and there is no issue about that. There is a strong level of integration at classroom level, which certainly helps.

It can be very important for people to become citizens. Ireland has a very generous approach to citizenship. People can apply after they have been in the country for four years. There are relatively few restrictions on the persons we will give citizenship to, on the assumption that they pass the security clearance. For example, we do not require people to pass exams, language tests and so on. That is inclusionary in its own right because it would be difficult for certain groups, such as women, for example, to do the necessary classes and pass tests. It is a way of making sure that we give a stable structure around all sorts of people.

With regard to integrating people who are living in direct provision centres, the thrust of the White Paper is about moving from congregated settings based slightly to one side in a town or whatever to a more integrated space. When the Department of Justice was responsible for direct provision we were already starting to try to move to procure own door accommodation as best we could to try to improve standards. We very much struggled with that in the context of the pandemic. Senator Murphy mentioned some issues that we had in terms of trying to open various centres over the course of 2019. That has to be part of the process.

I do not want to cut across the work of my colleagues in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, but we found that there was always trouble before a centre opened. However, once it opened communities were incredibly welcoming. There are were always friends of the centre and people worked very hard to make sure that people within centres, who are often quite traumatised and come from very traumatic situations, were given as much support as they could from the community. We hope that would continue.

A new system of community sponsorship has been established. A community comes together and provides a house. A family from Syria or, in recent times, Afghanistan, is, in effect, taken from a plane and brought directly into a community. That comes from a Canadian model and is very much the strongest way to integrate any individual family into a community.

I thank Ms Buckley. That is a comprehensive answer. I would like to raise a couple of points. Many who arrive on these shores come from authoritarian-type countries, where women, in particular, have an extremely difficult upbringing and survival within the communities in which they live. I wonder about their willingness to look at the structures, supports and rights-based facilities available in Ireland.

An article in The Irish Times suggested that although all of these are place, many of these people come from societies where people did not have rights. Therefore, they did not have a way to look for rights and the assistance of the authorities. For such people, authorities, rather than being people to engage with, are people to avoid like the plague. The officials have done an amazing amount of work with the thousands of migrants that have come to this country over the past ten or more years, and they are to be complimented on that. Do we need to put in place more structures to assist them in the re-education of migrants who arrive in this country, in particular from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other such almost dictatorial countries?

I am concerned about young people and women. I went to see migrants land in Sicily and to engage with them. Some of the stories we heard, in particular from young women, were horrific. The price they paid to get this country, not in financial terms but with their bodies, for want of a better description, was horrific. Young men had equally horrific experiences. The major fear I had in Sicily was that we were told by one young woman that they were pushed out to sea in Tripoli and arrived in Sicily where they were brought into a migrant centre. They presented whatever they were asked for, but pimps and those who would exploit them were waiting for them outside the gates. While direct provision has many negative aspects, the one positive aspect is that it is, I hope, a safe place for young people to live while there being processed through the system.

Does the Department need more help? Should this committee make recommendations for more assistance for officials? I can see Ms Buckley is smiling. I assume if ask her a question like that she would fill a bucket with the number of requests. I will kick over to her now.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I thank the Senator. It might be worth saying, in particular in light of the incident yesterday in the English Channel, that Ireland has been relatively unusual in that we have consistently accepted people from search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea. We can only take small numbers because we are limited by the accommodation we can provide in the direct provision system. We consistently take small numbers. As the Senator pointed out, we are consistently one of the countries that seeks to help to relieve some of the burden from the front facing countries, including Italy, Spain, Malta, Cyprus and Greece, all of which take in large numbers of refugees. We try to help, although Ireland has consistently argued for the adoption of an EU-wide migration policy so that we can deal with these issues collectively as a European Union. We would be involved in the delicate negotiations around such an EU package of measures.

My colleagues in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth largely have responsibility for the direct provision system and its welcome reform. They also have responsibility for integration matters. I am smiling because while I am sure they could do with more money, I am not sure I would earn any credits in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for asking for that.

Substantial funding is available from the EU, and that is regularly tapped by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. That support assists us very greatly in integration efforts. Through that, a substantial number of NGOs and other groups are funded to help with the integration efforts. It is important for Ireland's future because Ireland's future is one of a multicultural society. Its present is a multicultural society and we have to make sure that people of all cultures are included as securely as possible.

Often the first interaction with an Irish Government agency that somebody coming from abroad will have will be with our services. We need to make them as good, decent and responsive as possible. In doing that, it is to be hoped that people's first experience with the Irish government system is a good one and will help them to start building trust.

One of the impacts of distrust in government in the context of the Covid pandemic has been people from migrant communities being more reluctant to get vaccinated. That has an impact.

We have worked closely with our colleagues in the HSE to try to use our systems so the HSE can access those migrants who might not otherwise be reached through the standard processes used by Irish nationals who listen to the media and so forth. We have worked closely with it to try to help improve the take-up of vaccines among migrant communities. We have done so by consistently stating that undocumented migrants need have no fear that by coming forward to be vaccinated they will in any way expose themselves to action by the immigration authorities. We have consistently stated that we want people to come forward for their vaccinations and they do not need to worry that their details will be reported onto us.

I am delighted that Ms Buckley said that because the Department does a phenomenal job in immigration and it cannot be easy. I have been critical of some of it and the way in which it is done. My colleague, Senator Murphy, referred to the purchase of centres or hotels to house migrants. I remember the situation in Oughterard in Galway well. Although I am from Galway I do not live there now and I remember other situations in Roscommon and Wicklow. Those communities felt that some cute so-and-so arrived down from Dublin and did a deal behind their backs and that the Department was going to land in 550,000 migrants on them. Have lessons been learned from that? Ms Buckley made the point that once a community comes together we are extremely welcoming and helpful. If one goes back to rural housing I remember people moving from Dublin to Leitrim, Clare and all sorts of places. They were not migrants but Dubs, although I suppose that Dubs going west of the Shannon were migrants. Communities are welcoming and they like to see people coming in. Have we learned the lessons so that we will not do that again? Will we engage with the communities before we buy the hotel, guesthouse or whatever?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The underlying purpose behind the Government’s White Paper on how we accommodate persons in the international protection system in the future is predicated on moving away from that model. We would argue that we tried to communicate and consult with people as best we could and even where there was controversy in places like Roscommon, as was mentioned, ultimately those centres opened. There are people in those centres and they are becoming part of the local communities. The advantage to doing that is that one has migrants living all over Ireland and one does not have them gathering in cities. I was about to mention ghettoes but I have been controversial enough in the last while so I do not want to go there.

It is a fair comment though.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

It is better that people are spread throughout the country and get to experience the whole country. That allows for the impact of migrants arriving in Ireland to be absorbed by the entire country. A classic example would be if we were to try to find accommodation for all of the children of migrants in Cork or Dublin alone, for example, but when it is spread out widely across the community the arrival of three or four migrant or asylum seeker children can be welcome in a school because it can mean keeping an extra teacher there, as the Senator will appreciate. The Minister’s White Paper on international protection is about changing that entire model and moving away from the congregated settings we used to date towards a system where people are given their own doors to go in behind so that they will have that comfort.

I spent 25 years of my life teaching in Dún Laoghaire and a fair number of sub-Saharan Africans in particular would have come through our college in my time. Would Ms Buckley see any benefit in educating the indigenous Irish, for the want of a better description, on the ethos and standards that some of our migrant communities have? I am particularly mindful of the Nigerians and the work ethic and standards they demanded of their children to aspire to be the best they could. That was something to see. The common cry one hears from some of the lunatic brigade is that these people are coming to take our social welfare and housing and that we should house the Irish before we house anybody else but we forget that so many of us were migrants. I was one myself back in the 1960s and we forget what it was like to arrive in London and see signs stating, “No Irish, no dogs” and things like that. Could we do an advertising campaign or something like that to show the human side of the people the Department is dealing with every day. The Department works at the coal face, its staff meets these people in the most horrendous circumstances and they bring them in and give them everything the State can offer. The one thing we cannot give them in an official setting is the love and attention they probably require. I am particularly mindful of the young people who have arrived on their own and who have been trafficked all over the world. I think of that horrendous case in the UK with 39 people in the back of a truck and I think of the drowning migrants, including that little boy lying on the beach in Turkey. People have to realise the desperation these people come to our shores in. The way the world is going there will an awful lot more of it over the coming years as people move away from famine, drought and whatever else. I will not take any more of the Department’s time. It does a fantastic job and I could not criticise anything it does. The staff in the Department have worked in the most extremely difficult circumstances so I congratulate them and thank them for their efforts.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I thank the Senator.

Before I let Deputy Devlin in I want to agree with what Senators Murphy and Craughwell have said. These people are fleeing horrendous circumstances in their countries and people should open their eyes and look at where they are coming from and the situation in those countries. As Senator Craughwell said, the narrative is being put out there that they are coming over for our social welfare and all of that. As public representatives we need to challenge that and knock it on the head. I have a family and we all have families and it does not bear thinking of that I would put my family in a rubber dinghy, shove them out into an ocean and think there is €204 per week going in that small country over there when there is less than a 50% chance that the family would even reach these shores. I know the trend is small but it is getting traction in different places. As public representatives and members of committees like this we need to knock that kind of rubbish on the head and support these refugees.

I will start with the prioritisation of cases that are agreed with the UNHCR. The witnesses said this was updated last June. How does that process work and how often does that co-ordination happen?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I will ask Mr. Delaney to come in on this. He knows the detail on this better than I would.

Mr. David Delaney

It is an ongoing matter. In the first instance we try to deal with claims in normal date order and then there are common sense prioritisations that rarely change, which would be vulnerable individuals, elderly individuals and unaccompanied minors. That standard remains normal. Then there would be a categorisation of about seven countries. We are talking about the likes of Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and that category of countries. That will change a little bit on an ongoing basis. In some countries the situation on the ground will have improved to a certain extent such that one country will come off that list and another country will go onto it. There are other small prioritisations in the mix depending on whether someone raises personal medical concerns that may give rise to a need to have the case heard a little bit quicker; we always give priority to matters like that. There are the strategic prioritisations that I have just outlined and then there are humanitarian situations that may arise at a given point in time. That gives a high level overview of how that operates in a practical sense.

I refer to the website. The new immigration website is online and it looks wonderful but there is still the question of the old website.

My suggestion is that we would be greeted by a portal combining the old information and a current application, because while the banner runs along all the pages saying that there is a new website, as of July of this year, I suggest that just in case that was missed, perhaps the Department would look at a front portal that would give the old and new websites, or some way of doing that. However, that is neither here nor there.

In terms of the new application and the chatbots to which Senator Murphy referred, how many languages are available on the new website for people to engage with?

Mr. David Delaney

The chatbot function is not up and running just yet from our end, so I will not commit to how many languages will be provided. We are about to go live on the Irish immigration website. We do not know if it will be a couple of weeks or months but we have much of the hard work done to go with the five most common languages across the immigration service. That has been an interesting exercise in its own right because of the different areas of immigration. There is citizenship at one end versus asylum at the other end and they have five different types of priority languages, as the Deputy can imagine.

Yes, of course.

Mr. David Delaney

We try to do a fair distribution of the languages that would best serve a good portion of the volume of customers and the customers who are in need. We are hopeful that those five will go live soon.

I could not see any when I went onto the site. That is a barrier in itself that we want to try to eradicate. A couple of weeks or a couple of months is a big timeline. Does Mr. Delaney have an estimated time of when the site will go live?

Mr. David Delaney

We are very positive it will go live before the end of the year, but we know that with technical matters such as this there can be a little bit of delay or a service provider might have a problem at a certain time of the year so we are being pragmatic about that. I will put it this way: it is not something that is in its infancy right now or something that is being scoped out; it is something that has very much evolved at this point. It has gone through a few business processes and now it is a case of implementing it.

I thank Mr. Delaney. He might correspond with the committee when that is done as it is a matter of interest to us. We have raised it before in one of our engagements with the Ombudsman.

I thank Ms Buckley for raising the programme boards. She was obviously aware that we were asking questions about it. I had a few questions to raise about the two programme boards. I was worried about duplication, but Ms Buckley has clarified that in her opening statement.

In her opening statement, she also referred to the ministerial decisions unit and that negative decisions were suspended for a period. I presume the unit is up and running again. How many cases were impacted during the suspension?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

It is not up and running yet. I will explain why. We are issuing positive decisions that give permission to remain or refugee status. Negative decisions however, trigger an automatic process under the 2015 Act. A letter must issue inviting a person to declare whether he or she will remove himself or herself from the State within five days. There was a recommendation by Catherine Day that the process would be moved out to 30 days and take account of children being in school and issues such as school terms. That work is in hand in the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is currently before the Joint Committee on Justice for pre-legislative scrutiny. The other thing that is automatically triggered is that a person with a negative decision would be served with a deportation order if he or she does not remove himself or herself from the State within five days. Given the restrictions on international travel that were such a feature, in particular at the beginning of this year, the Minister took a decision that the issuance of deportation orders would cease, save in certain very limited circumstances where, for example, there was a case of significant criminality. As a consequence, we have not resumed the issuance of negative letters yet because of those trigger points. People need to be able to consult with their lawyers and do other such things and that became so difficult during the pandemic that it was not fair on people to get such letters. We have some hundreds of those decisions made but we have not started to issue them yet.

Is what Ms Buckley is telling is us that, in theory, there is a tsunami of negative decisions due to be released?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

More of a surfing wave than a tsunami, but there is-----

There are some hundreds.

Ms Oonagh Buckley


When did the decision take place to suspend the issuance of negative decisions?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

At the beginning of this year, because a decision was taken by the Minister, which was strongly supported by the Government, that in the context of all the difficulties arising with travel in the pandemic that Ireland would in effect suspend issuance of deportation orders. We have been relatively unusual in that. Other European countries have continued to issue deportation orders and to deport people throughout the pandemic but Ireland just pulled back from that.

I am just thinking about the recipients. If I were an applicant who was being refused, no news normally means good news. Ms Buckley can see where I am going with this. She also mentioned timing in respect of schooling. We sometimes get cases where a student is in a local school and people want the individual to remain in the State. If all of these letters are to go out, presumably at once-----

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We will not do it all at once. I do not think that is fair. We will not press a button and have hundreds of people suddenly get such news. Relatively speaking, in recent times, a higher proportion of people in the decision-making process than would be the norm have secured permission to remain. That is partly because we have given priority to certain countries, in particular Afghanistan, as the idea of issuing a deportation order for somebody to go back to Afghanistan at this point is not viable.

Without going into it, for the system to have integrity, if a person does not meet the standard of international protection in this country, even after all the various iterations, a decision can be taken to the IPO and appealed to IPAT and then it goes back to the ministerial decision unit. For a system to have some integrity, there will always be some people who do not fall on the right side of the line.

I know. I appreciate that.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

That being said, we are quite pragmatic about these things. It came up in the Catherine Day report that there is a point when even though we say a person cannot have international protection, we do not deport him or her and we never have any intention of doing so because it is not a country to which we can deport somebody or for whatever other reason, and in those circumstances we commonly take a pragmatic approach to the situation. There are opportunities under the Act for people to come back in and say their circumstances have changed, their children are in school, they are integrating-----

I saw that facility on the website. I will ask one more question and make a comment. Ms Buckley mentioned the undocumented. My understanding is that a process was due to begin in mid to late December but she referred to 2022. Which is it? Is it starting at the end of this year?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

No, I can explain that. The next meeting I am going to after this committee meeting is a Cabinet sub-committee meeting on the undocumented scheme. We are at the point now of bringing our proposals to the Government. Once the Government approves them it will have to go as a memorandum to the Government but we have a draft memorandum ready. We hope that will be in a few days, assuming the discussions with the Cabinet sub-committee go well. We will then announce the terms of the scheme, but once the terms of the scheme are settled, which will only be once the Government has decided them, we need approximately one month to have the IT system ready to start accepting applications. All going well, the Minister will be in a position to announce the terms of the scheme in the next two weeks, with a view to the scheme opening for applications approximately a month later. Realistically, that is January.

Yes. I thank Ms Buckley for that. In her opening remarks, she mentioned the outcome of the review.

There will be another review of all the changes that have been made and a decision will be made around the end of 2022 on that, on whether additional resources and measures are needed, and on any significant issues around legacy cases. I hope we will engage before then, but if not, I suggest that, once the review has concluded and there is a report, we have an engagement on the review process. I am interested in the iteration of the website, the improvement and the functionality of it and the internal information and communications technology, ICT, processes the witnesses spoke about, as well as other improvements and measures taken in the witnesses' office, which I commend. It would be good for the committee to keep on this issue and engage with the witnesses on it in late 2022 or just after that. I thank the witnesses for their attendance.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I thank the Deputy. We would be happy to come back in and report on progress. There is a significant amount of political interest in this matter. We are committed to making sure we advance on this.

I agree with Deputy Devlin that we need to keep in contact with Ms Buckley and the other witnesses that when that review is done in mid to late next year or whenever, we should call them back in.

Tá dhá cheist bheag agam. I will not hold the witnesses long. This engagement has been helpful and I thank the witnesses for their straight answers. I have been doing some other work here and might have missed something. They may have answered this, and if they have, that is fine. They can just say they have answered it already. First, how many staff have the witnesses working with them? Second, the world is a troubled place at the moment and I often think that, despite our drawbacks, we are lucky in this country. Are there a growing number of countries whose residents are seeking help and support in coming to Ireland? Going back a few years, it was a small list. Has that list grown significantly?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Roughly 800 staff work in immigration services generally. Specifically on the International Protection Office, IPO, I ask Mr. Delaney to contribute.

Mr. David Delaney

There are just over 160 staff and probably about 50 external lawyers, they being panel members who give ad hoc services. That is the full-time equivalent. Those are the ballpark figures in the International Protection Office.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

There is a further group - just short of 50 - working in the appeals tribunal, plus they use a panel of about 30 lawyers to help them with their report. That is the extent of the resources that go into the decision-making process.

With regard to the countries Ireland's migrants come from, it is an interesting question. They come from all over the world. We very occasionally get applications for international protection from places like the United States and Canada. As countries develop crises, there are spikes in numbers. We saw a spike in numbers from Afghanistan this year. We consistently have a number of people applying from Syria. There are countries like Venezuela, for example, where there have been difficulties.

All countries develop patterns of where their applications come from. Ireland more regularly has applications from English-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, while a country like Spain might get a lot of people from Venezuela. It is to do with language, family connections and things like that. We had a period in 2018 and 2019 in which we received substantial numbers of applications from Albania and Georgia, but those have trailed off in recent times. It varies widely. Any day, you could end up with somebody applying from any one of 190 countries, pretty much. Though the numbers are relatively small in comparison with some of our fellow EU member states, they are incredibly varied, and the circumstances people come from are similarly varied.

I thank the witnesses for their answers.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Not at all.

Does Deputy Buckley want to come in for a second round?

No, I am happy and attentively listening.

I have a couple of questions. The Department's aims are to reduce the processing times of first instance decisions and appeals related to direct provision to six months each, as outlined in the White Paper, and to establish a new international protection support service. How exactly will those aims be achieved?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

As we explained, the work Mr. Delaney and his team are doing is intended consistently to shave time off all aspects of the process. The end-to-end process review we did, which included the International Protection Office and the appeals tribunal, looked at all aspects of the decision-making chain and identified places where delays could be reduced. For example, one delay is often between people arriving and claiming international protection but not returning their questionnaire for some months. We need to try to reduce that timeframe. The work Mr. Delaney and his team have done concerns putting the questionnaire online and making it easier for people to do that.

We will also look at the legal aid side of things in due course to see whether additional supports are needed to give people help on that. Mr. Delaney is talking to a non-governmental organisation, NGO, about giving more supports around that which are not strictly speaking legal but are about people addressing that process. People can be reluctant to complete that form and nothing can happen until the questionnaire is returned. That is part of the process.

A second bad pinch point was identified by Mr. Delaney, namely, that we were getting lawyers to do the interviews and write up a report and that was coming back in and landing on the desk of a civil servant to make a recommendation and moving around various levels of the Civil Service. We have taken out one of those layers and reapplied one of the layers in the Civil Service to do the interviews directly. That expanded our capacity enormously in that pinch point in the system.

We can only do this by being quite radical about how we go about it. A third point will be when we move from a paper-based system to a fully online system. We need to be quite radical in some decisions we are taking and we are. Second, we need to shave a week off here and there. Ultimately that will bring the time back to that six months and six months.

With regard to processing applications virtually, has the Department encountered problems where applicants do not have the technological equipment or know-how to take part in virtual meetings? If so, how are those issues addressed?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

In some circumstances, people struggle with the technology. In circumstances where somebody genuinely cannot do the interview remotely or does not want to and it would be unfair to make him or her, we can provide an in-person service but it is more challenging. We co-operate closely with our colleagues in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth who run the International Protection Accommodation Services. They can put in facilities on site to assist people living in their accommodation, though not all international protection applicants do. That helps them to engage with the system. There tends to be Wi-Fi and all that sort of stuff in international protection services.

Migrants to Ireland tend to be quite young and tech savvy. No more than Irish people going abroad, they have a lot of get-up-and-go, are tech savvy and of a certain age. Generally, people are more than capable of engaging with the system in terms of remote hearings and so on. Can Mr. Delaney add anything to that? He would be familiar with it.

Mr. David Delaney

To give the Chair some assurances on the tech savvy piece or the ability of some applicants to engage with technology, all of the video link interviews are actually conducted in the IPO and fully supported by staff in the IPO. It is the case that no customer is expected or asked to provide their own device or be able to engage with technology. It is all supported for them. That is a significant overhead for us but it means that we have built the system to cater for the most vulnerable and the most in need in terms of that. Also, any enhancement that we have brought in, like the questionnaire and a few other digital improvements, are there in tandem with the paper application or the paper questionnaire. From our perspective, when we see banking go online then it is online or pretty much nothing. We always think when a service goes digital that that will be the case and people will have to be able to interface with that digital service. I was going to say unfortunately but, quite frankly, positively we do not do that. We will always push digital and modernisation but we maintain paper-based systems and supports around any digital solutions.

As Ms Buckley mentioned, we have identified, and this goes back to a comment that one of the members made much earlier, the discomfort and concern some people have when they arrive in the State, especially if they came from an authoritarian society. We have identified the need for that sort of non-legalistic wraparound support when people apply to explain to them what the system is and that the system is here to help them, that it is here to help reach fair and balanced decisions and that the State can provide these services for them. We are very much in that head space in supporting people and using technology to help that; it is not a case of technology or nothing else. I hope that I have assuaged some fears.

Recently we have been told that 4,430 applicants await an interview. Has the shortage of legal representation contributed to the backlog? If so, how can the situation be overcome?

Mr. David Delaney

We do not have that many people awaiting an interview. Yes, there are approximately that many in the system but a good proportion of them would not yet have a questionnaire submitted or we await other details in order for them to get an interview. The number would not be that extreme.

We are not finding any difficulties in terms of interviews being cancelled or being unable to schedule an interview due to the lack of a legal representative. It is not a barrier that we have seen. I will not say that there has not been the odd occasion that a solicitor has had to rush down to The Four Courts for something and it makes an interview a bit more difficult or challenging. That may occur but it occurs in any walk of life. I would not say that we have a systemic problem around legal representation for clients in the business. I think that it is okay at the moment.

The undocumented have been mentioned a couple of times during this session. Does Ms Buckley know how many undocumented people are in the country?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

It is the big unknown, Chair. By their very nature these people are undocumented so it is very hard to given an estimate. The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, MRCI, is an NGO that led the charge in putting in place a structure for the undocumented. The MRCI has estimated that the number is about 17,000. Similarly, we have looked at studies done in other European countries so one can do a crude estimate of those studies. Let us say there are 450,000 undocumented people living in the UK, which has a population 13 times our size so one could divide 450,000 by 13. However, all of these figures are estimates and the exact number is a big unknown for us.

In terms of the discussion that we are having with other Departments, we have drawn up cost-based estimates that are based on 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000 people because we genuinely do not know in that space where the ultimate number will land. We are trying to design a system that can accommodate tens of thousand of people but, unfortunately, the number is a big unknown for us.

The one thing that we consistently say to people is that the undocumented are already in this country. It is not that 10,000 will come into the country. These people are already here, they are living in houses and their children are already going to school. So this is not a huge additional burden that the State will have to take on. That is not the case because these people are already here.

Do members have more questions before we finish? No.

No and I thank the Chairman. I really appreciate the time and answers given, and the work of the Department. I wish the witnesses the best going forward.

I invite Ms Buckley, the deputy Secretary General, to make any final comments.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I do not have any final comments other than to thank the members of the committee and the Chairman for their compliments about the service. The team in the Department is working very hard to improve our customer service rating, which I think we would all acknowledge is at a low enough base. It is great to hear that the supports we are putting in for Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas are working. Let us know if there is anything further we can do to help them answer questions and when they make representations on behalf of people and so forth. We are always willing to listen to what we can do to improve on that.

This is an incredibly important part of the job of the Department of Justice. The immigration services are our most public facing activity and obviously it is a public that is from all over the world. As I have said, often times the interaction with the Irish immigration service is the first interaction somebody coming to this country will have with the Irish State so it is important and incumbent upon us to make that as smooth, easy and responsive as possible. We are working very hard to deliver on that. I thank the committee for allowing us to come here today and explain the work that we do.

I thank both Ms Buckley and Mr. Delaney. I think that I can speak for us all when I say that this has been one of the most beneficial and informative discussions that we have had with Departments. On behalf of the committee, I thank the delegation for coming here today. As Deputy Devlin said earlier, we will keep communication channels open and when the review is done we will come back together again at whatever stage to continue this discussion. In the meantime and on behalf of the committee, I wish the deputy Secretary General and Mr. Delaney a happy Christmas and a safe journey.