When I first came into office just over a year ago one of my first objectives was to address the length of time taken to process applications for naturalisation and to significantly reduce the number of cases on hand. At that time there were over 22,000 applications on hand and applications were taking an average time of over two years to process, and many were waiting three to four years. I regarded this as unacceptable. In June 2011, I announced a series of measures to address this issue including improved application forms, which are currently available online with an associated online residence checker, re-engineering of processes that were a barrier to achieving maximum efficiency plus streamlined and accelerated procedures for certain types of application.
Through these and other measures enormous progress has been made, notwithstanding a substantial increase in the volume of valid applications received in 2011, during which a total of 18,500 valid applications were received compared to 12,500 in 2010. In the period 9 March 2011 to 8 March this year, a total of 17,500 valid applications were determined. By contrast, in the whole of 2010, decisions were reached in just under 7,800 cases. So far this year I have made decisions on some 9,200 applications and I expect to have made a decision on a further 3,500 applications by the end of May and on approximately 12,000 applications between June and the year end. Thus, this year will see approximately 24,000 applications for citizenship dealt with, which would represent a more than threefold increase in the number of applications dealt with over 2010 levels. I think the House would agree that by any standards of reasonable measurement this represents a major achievement.
I also undertook to get to the stage by the second quarter of this year that, in the generality of cases - that is, around 70% - persons applying for a certificate of naturalisation will be given a decision on their application within six months. In this regard, a major effort has and continues to be made in reducing the time taken to process applications. It is expected that the six month timeframe for the generality of new applications received from this month onwards will be achieved.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
Under the new JobBridge programme announced by the Government a total of 16 individuals have been engaged by the citizenship division of my Department to date. The primary purpose of the scheme is to provide work experience for those involved and to improve their prospects of getting back into the workforce. I am advised that the scheme is extremely successful and mutually beneficial in addressing the backlog and enabling the individuals in question to gain good experience in the workplace.
Last summer, I also decided to introduce citizenship ceremonies for the first time since the foundation of the State. This allows candidates for citizenship make their declaration of fidelity to the Irish nation and loyalty to the State and receive their certificate of naturalisation in a meaningful and dignified manner which befits the importance and solemnity of the occasion. To date, 47 such ceremonies have been held at which almost 11,000 candidates have become Irish citizens under the new procedures. These ceremonies are an unqualified success.
The nature of the naturalisation process is such that for a broad range of reasons some cases will take longer than others to process. It is a statutory requirement that,inter alia, applicants for naturalisation be of good character. In some instances that can be established relatively quickly and in other cases completing the necessary checks can take a considerable period of time. The primary aim over the past year has been to reduce the large volume of cases on hand as swiftly as possible and this has been achieved in the generality of cases. I am also confident that significant inroads will also be made with the remaining cases by year end. In such a fast moving environment where large volumes of cases are processed quickly, the calculation of averages for processing times has little meaning and the priority of the immigration service has been to deal with the cases on hand rather than divert resources to other activities.