The Chairman has already introduced my colleagues, so I will turn directly to the subject matter at hand.
The investor programme was introduced by the Government in April 2012 to encourage inward investment for the creation of business and employment opportunities in the State. It provides non-EEA nationals with a number of options to invest in Ireland. Key to the programme is that the investments are beneficial for Ireland, generate or sustain employment and are generally in the public interest. A successful applicant gains an immigration permission, but it must be stressed that such a permission contains no inherent right to citizenship outside the normal statutory procedures for citizenship and naturalisation that are applicable to any other non-EEA national with an immigration permission to reside in the State.
The immigrant investor must make an investment of €1 million in projects for a minimum of three years. On confirmation of receipt of the investment, he or she receives a stamp 4 residency permission for an initial period of two years. This can be renewed thereafter for a further three years following a review. Any investor who withdraws his or her investment from an approved investment or fails to comply with the terms and conditions is subject to the loss of any immigration permission granted under the programme.
As of this June, a total of 836 applications had been submitted since the launch of the programme in April 2012. There was a major increase in applications in 2016. This growth, albeit at a much slower pace, continued in 2017, with a 5% increase in applications, bringing the total to 334. As of March 2018, 708 applicants had had their investments approved, providing for a total approved investment of €507 million. In the region of 1,750 persons, including spouses and minor children of investors, have received immigration permissions or been offered appointments to register their permissions following approval of their investments. No immigration permission is granted or registered until documentary evidence has been received by INIS that the investment has been made to an Irish enterprise or fund.
The investor programme is not unique to Ireland. Similar programmes operate in many EU member states as well as other developed economies.
All applications under the programme are evaluated by an independent expert evaluation committee, which is cross-departmental and cross-agency, with representatives from the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, the Departments of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Business, Enterprise and Innovation, and INIS, which provides secretarial support to the committee.
Over the duration of the programme, its scope and focus have adjusted to take account of the experience gained from its operation and the changing economic environment. The evaluation committee has considered and recommended a number of changes. For example, the minimum investment amount was initially set at €1 million, but this was reduced to €500,000 when there was little uptake of the scheme. It was readjusted back up to €1 million when there was a major increase in applications in 2016. The number of options under the scheme has been streamlined from six to four based on the experience of the operation of the scheme. The targeting and prioritisation of the types of investment made have shifted towards specific benefits to the State, in particular social housing, primary healthcare centres and nursing homes. Full details of the scheme are published on the INIS website and updated there as changes occur.
The Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, has planned a detailed external review of the scheme in the second half of this year. It will cover a number of factors, including the changing economic environment and the learning by all participant stakeholders to date and will also consult more broadly by way of public consultation and it is intended to publish the outcome of this review in due course.
I now turn to processing times of applications in the International Protection Office, IPO. In December 2016, we commenced the International Protection Act 2015, which received broad cross-party support during its passage through the Oireachtas. The Act is the most significant reforming legislation to our international protection system in the past 20 years. It introduced a single application procedure in the protection process with the key aim of identifying those eligible for protection at a much earlier stage and ensuring that those found not to have a protection need can be returned to their country of origin in a timely and humane manner. This has replaced the sequential processing of applications, which involved multiple appeals and inherent processing delays both in timescales for processing and consequently the time spent by applicants in accommodation centres. The old process was also significantly out of line with EU procedures.
The Act has addressed the structural causes of delays in the system. Our challenge now is to clear the inherited caseload from the old system to allow the single procedure to function effectively and efficiently. When the Act was commenced, the IPO was required under the transition provisions in the Act, to take responsibility for the processing of approximately 3,500 cases that had not been finalised by the former Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, ORAC, or the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, RAT.
In addition, establishing the new single procedure processes required considerable efforts by the International Protection Office in the first part of 2017, which resulted in a shorter processing year. Notwithstanding this, the IPO has scheduled almost 4,300 single procedure interviews from the Act's commencement up to the end of June 2018. A further 660 interviews have been scheduled to mid-September. Based on current predictions, the IPO is in line to make some 3,500 recommendations and decisions this year.
In addition to the substantial number of cases carried over from the previous system, the number of applications for international protection during 2017 rose by 30%, placing an additional processing burden on the system, including the relocation of over 500 asylum seekers from Greece alone in that year. More than 1,000 in total have come from Greece under the programme, which has added to the processing requirements for the office.
While the single procedure has resulted in a more streamlined system, caseworkers in the IPO are now required to investigate applications on the basis of three comprehensive elements, namely, determination of refugee status, subsidiary protection and whether there are grounds to grant a person humanitarian permission to remain in the State. The level of investigation required is therefore more comprehensive and complex and consequently more time consuming. The IPO is also conscious that it does not sacrifice quality of decision making for increasing outputs and must balance these in the best interest of fair decision making.
It is important to outline how cases are dealt with in the IPO. An approach to prioritisation has been agreed with the UNHCR, whose staff are co-located in the IPO. Priority is given to applicants from refugee generating countries like Syria, Eritrea and Iraq and vulnerable applicants such as unaccompanied minors. Generally, other applications are processed based on oldest cases first.
Interviews can only be scheduled when an applicant returns their international protection questionnaire. Applicants who do not return their questionnaire are reminded to do so as part of their statutory duty to co-operate with the protection process. When these cases that are not ready for interview are taken into account, prioritised applications being made today should be scheduled for interview within four months of application and non-prioritised cases should be scheduled within ten to 12 months of application.
Processing challenges are being addressed by deploying increased resources and a continual assessment of procedures to maximise quality outputs. The IPO currently has 138 Civil Service staff members, an increase of nearly 30 since the commencement of the 2015 Act. Further staff members will be appointed in the coming period. There are also 55 contracted members of the IPO case processing panel with legal qualifications, most of whom work on a part-time basis. Additional panel members are currently being recruited by way of open competition and are expected to be in place in the autumn.
In conjunction with the enhanced processing capacity in the IPO, the appeals authority has also been significantly reformed and I am happy to provide further information to the committee on this if required.
There has been a radical overhaul of our protection system in the past two years. This has created challenges through the implementation and transition phases. As outlined, these are being addressed and the IPO is now producing more decisions than new cases entering the system. That is an important milestone for us because it means we are now eating into the cases in hand.
Both the Minister and Department have acknowledged that at present, many applicants for international protection are waiting too long to have their case decided. Through the series of measures outlined, the aim is to continue to reduce the regular caseload on hands as quickly as possible to produce first instance decisions for those co-operating with the system within nine months. Due to factors, such as the demand-led nature of applications and the volatile nature of migration in Europe, it is not possible to put a definitive timeline on this but all other things being equal, our target is to reach this position by the end of next year. However, I emphasise to members that priority cases continued to be processed in a matter of months. For instance, the relocation cases from Greece take about six to seven weeks to process. Every effort is being made and will continue to be made to get to the position of processing cases within nine months as quickly as possible.
I am happy to take any questions from members.