I thank Deputy Carroll MacNeill for raising this very important matter. I propose to take questions Nos. 121, 123 and 133 together.
As the Deputy will be aware, my Department has continued to accept and process citizenship applications throughout the pandemic and at all levels of public health restrictions. Unfortunately, processing rates have been impacted by the necessary health and safety related restrictions imposed and we have been unable to hold in-person citizenship ceremonies since March 2020.
In addition to the Covid-19 disruption, a High Court case in 2019, which was subsequently successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal, also resulted in significant delays and the loss of over six months of processing time.
There are just over 24,600 applications on hand, almost 22,200 from adults and 2,400 from children. These applications are at various stages within the system, ranging from those who have just received citizenship to those where a decision has been made but it is not yet possible to issue an invitation to a ceremony. On 18 January 2021, my Department opened a temporary system that enables applicants to complete their naturalisation process by signing a statutory declaration of loyalty. Approximately 2,500 people have received their Irish citizenship since then by way of this process. A further 1,853 people have returned their signed statutory declarations and will receive their certificates of naturalisation in the coming weeks. By the end of this month, we will have communicated with 6,500 applicants, offering them the opportunity to complete their citizenship through the statutory declaration process.
To further address the volume of applications on hand, we are assigning additional staff to the citizenship team. A number of measures have been introduced to increase the digitisation of the process, including the introduction of eTax clearance and eVetting; rolling out online payments; revising the Department's website to make it more user-friendly for customers; and launching the first immigration chatbot, Tara, which has answered more than 12,000 customer queries in a user-friendly way since last November.
The end result of the digitisation process will be to free up staff resources to focus on processing applications in a timely and efficient manner, to improve services to our customers and to reduce waiting times. At the end of April, my Department hosted the first virtual citizenship celebration. We plan to hold another event next month to celebrate everyone who has received their citizenship since then. The next in-person ceremonies are provisionally scheduled to take place at the beginning of December, subject to the safety of all involved being assured.
What we are attempting to do here is not only resolve the current backlog that has arisen as the result of a court case and Covid-19 but also to put in place digitisation reform to ensure that the processes are more streamlined, easier and more effectively used for the future. We are taking this opportunity to ensure long-term reform for this area.