Immigrant Investor Programme and International Protection Applications: Discussion

The purpose of today's session is to meet officials from the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, to discuss two issues: first, the operation of the immigrant investor programme, a matter raised by Deputy Chambers at a previous meeting; and, second, continuing delays in the processing of asylum or international protection applications and the impact of this on the direct provision system.

I welcome from INIS Mr. Michael Kirrane, the director general, Mr. Brian Merriman, principal officer in the INIS policy division, Mr. Davis Costello, the chief international protection officer, Mr. Aonghus O'Connor, principal officer in the citizenship division, and Mr. Neil Ward, principal officer in the corporate affairs division. I also welcome their colleagues in the Public Gallery.

Before beginning, members should be aware that, under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I draw the attention of our witnesses to the situation with privilege. They should please note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I will once again raise the caution about mobile phones. Could everyone please ensure that they are switched off? They interfere with the recording equipment in committee rooms.

I invite Mr. Kirrane to make his opening statement.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

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.

I thank Mr. Kirrane. We will now proceed to members contributions, beginning with Deputy Jack Chambers, Senator Conway and Deputies Brophy, Ó Laoghaire, Clare Daly and O'Callaghan.

I thank the officials for their attendance. They will have read recent reports. Questions have been raised over the operation of the scheme and it is important that we get clarity on it.

I have tabled several parliamentary questions in recent months. There was a refusal to disclose who was on the evaluation committee that made the decision. Will Mr. Kirrane tell us who is on that committee?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

In my opening statement, I outlined the agencies and Departments that are on the committee. There are agents who operate and seek to represent their clients in obtaining investments. As a committee, it was decided early on that we would not engage and did not want individual members of the committee to engage with agents on this but that it would be done through the secretariat and administrative function in INIS. It was considered that by releasing the names of individual members of the committee, they would be put in a position of being contacted by agents who would invariably want to discuss individual cases that were of interest to them, which we thought was not appropriate. I am happy to say that I chair the committee but beyond that I do not wish to create a situation where individual members of the committee would be contacted about individual cases.

Mr. Kirrane said that agents make applications on behalf of potential investors. What is the protocol for the application process? Is it the case that there is no engagement between the committee and these agents? Is the application process purely a formal one?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

It is a formal application process although any agent who wishes to make an inquiry or to meet the secretariat of the committee in INIS may do so, to be advised on how best to go about making the application and what needs to be included. The website contains a checklist of what the application should contain.

Therefore, the agents would not meet with the committee itself.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

No.

I assume there is a protocol for that process within the Department?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The application process is clearly set out on the website.

How it operates is clearly set out on the website and it is updated on a periodic basis.

There has been a change in the criteria for investment. Will Mr. Kirrane give us more detail on this?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We must recall the economic climate in 2012 when the scheme was launched. Unemployment was at its highest level and the focus at the time was to gain inward investment for the purpose of employment. The focus on the enterprise scheme at that stage was very much on employment generation. As the economy improved over time and other pressures came upon the State, particularly with regard to social housing, healthcare, primary healthcare centres and nursing homes, the committee recommended to the Minister that we move the focus of the investor programme away from employment generation and towards addressing these needs because they were seen as more pressing and important in terms of the State's requirements at the time. The focus switched from enterprise. In the early stages quite a lot of investment was also made in hotel regeneration because at the time, the tourism industry was under serious pressure. The investments are scattered throughout the country. They are not concentrated in any particular area of the country. There is also a sense of looking at investments in areas where there may not be other opportunities for investment.

Is Mr. Kirrane stating it is important to have complete separation between the agent and the evaluation committee?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Yes.

What happens when someone makes an application? What does the evaluation committee do?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

When an application is received it is looked at by the staff in INIS, who make a summary of the case. They look through it and engage to make sure there is a complete application. All of this documentation is then made available to the individual members of the committee, who meet approximately four times a year. Each application is discussed and a decision is reached on whether it will be recommended to the Minister for approval. At the end of each meeting the cases are summarised and presented to the Minister for approval.

On average, how many cases, or what percentage, are not approved?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

A total of 708 out of 836 have been approved.

Of those that have been approved, how many have been revoked after the investment was made? How many have been discontinued?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I am aware of only a very small number that have been discontinued. We do a review after two years. There was an increase in the number of cases in the second half of 2016. Therefore, they are only now reaching the two-year review stage. The number of cases that have been in the system for the period of time required to be subject to review is only now beginning to increase. We are only getting to that point at this stage.

I ask Mr. Kirrane to bring some clarity with regard to the meeting with the Central Bank and on whether someone received a visa without the investment occurring. This is important.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I was not at the meeting. I am happy to clarify this with the Central Bank, and we are meeting it tomorrow as a follow-up on this. I had hoped that meeting would have taken place before this committee meeting. I am happy to update the committee after that meeting. Our understanding is that the Central Bank's concern was about its limited role in licensing funds. We are satisfied that we get confirmation from the agent or investor that the investment has been made before we grant an immigration permission. We are happy to talk to the Central Bank and go through this in more detail.

Mr. Kirrane disagrees with the Central Bank's view-----

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Until I meet it I do not want to say I will disagree or agree. I am happy to sit down and clarify it. Perhaps it knows something I do not. That meeting will take place tomorrow. I do not want to give an impression that I am in disagreement with the Central Bank until such time as I know more and understand where both of us are coming from.

Was Mr. Kirrane aware of the note it made before it was disclosed under freedom of information?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

As I understand, in the normal way it would has come through the Department for a question about release under freedom of information. I am not sure we looked at the note with a view to reading it in that manner. Our concern at the time was about the confidentiality of named investors. We were looking at it from a redaction process.

It was redacted.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Yes.

Mr. Kirrane is saying that as of now, he believes visa authorisation only occurs when the investment has been made and that no visa has been granted without the investment occurring. Is that his position?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

That has always been our position.

I know that, but that is what Mr. Kirrane believes to be the current position.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

That is what I believe the position to be. I am happy to clarify that with the Central Bank.

Obviously the amount of funds is significant. Is there a formalised link with the Central Bank on the type of funds being used for the investment purposes? What has the Department of Justice and Equality done to ensure these funds are proper and correct in terms of the licensing process?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We will not give authorisation for any scheme unless there is a licence in place with the Central Bank. It is a matter for the Central Bank to determine who it licenses and what funds it licenses. We do not give any immigration permission unless the Central Bank has granted a licence for a fund. Funds make up a small proportion of the overall investment. They make up approximately 10% of the overall investment of the €507 million we spoke about.

What raised the concern from the Central Bank's perspective with regard to a potential fund being used for an investment? There was obviously a mismatch between the visa and the fund, and Mr. Kirrane will clarify this. This seems to be the anomaly mentioned.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I cannot speak for the Central Bank but I am happy to talk to it tomorrow and clarify anything on this.

An internal review commenced last year. An interesting recommendation was that other recommendations could have been made about the scheme but they were outside the scope of the report. It stated that it is clearly important that the integrity of the immigration system is maintained and that this should be a priority regardless of economic impact. Is there anything that perhaps was not mentioned or included in the scope of the internal review? Who wrote this interim assessment of the scheme?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The review itself was carried out by the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES. It comprises people seconded from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to the Department to carry out economic evaluations. Perhaps that is where the reference comes from. It solely looks at economic perspectives rather than the wider picture of whether such a scheme should exist in the first place.

Why does Mr. Kirrane think it mentioned that?

Last year there was a refusal to publish the report. Who made that decision?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The report went to the evaluation committee which examined it. In terms of why we did not publish the report, which we have made available to the committee, as members will see, it is an interim report. It recommends that a further report and evaluation be undertaken and all of its recommendations indicate that it is too early in the process to make any judgments. For that reason, it was felt that it was premature to issue a report without having followed up and conducted the main review.

Why has the report been published now?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The committee asked for it and we have made it available to the committee. I have not published it.

The report should have been published, even if it calls for a further review. It recommends the following:

Review the definition of Enterprise for the purposes of the Enterprise Option. This option seems to be more related to infrastructure development rather than Enterprise support. This may have implications for the pricing and risk structure of the programme.

What has been done to address those concerns in the interim period?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

As I mentioned earlier, we have significantly moved the focus to social housing, primary healthcare centres and nursing facilities. While there is a certain amount of job creation in the construction phase, their primary focus is no longer on job creation but on fulfilling a need and requirement of the State. We consulted our colleagues in the Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government and Health on these matters before we moved in that direction.

The internal review recommended a further review. What are the terms of reference for the external review that is being commenced? Who will conduct the review?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We expect to go to the market to recruit appropriate professionals to do the work. We have not finalised the terms of reference but they will encompass all of the recommendations in the internal review. I expect the external review will seek to answer the broader question as to whether to have the scheme in the first instance.

Why does Mr. Kirrane believe that might be the case?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Is the Deputy asking why we want to include that aspect in the terms of reference?

No. Why would that question arise in the review?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

It depends on where we are on the economic cycle at any particular point in time. If there are funds available elsewhere without the need to give an immigration permission, we must ask whether we should continue such a scheme and give an immigration permission or whether there are other ways that infrastructure can be funded in the State. Regardless of the outcome of the review, we will seek to maintain certain parts of the scheme, for example, the endowment option, which has grown significantly in the past year. A total of €27 million has been donated to charitable organisations in the State under that option, which we will seek to maintain, regardless of the outcome. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the review. Ultimately, it will be a matter for the Government to decide how it wants to continue. Our job is to analyse and present options with the appropriate research.

Is Mr. Kirrane concerned about the concentration of investment? He indicated that 313 investments out of a total of 329 came from China. Is he concerned that there has not been a greater spread of investment from other countries?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

It is very difficult to determine precisely why China invests more than other countries but we have seen a similar pattern in a number of other countries anecdotally and from our discussions on the ground. The scheme was marketed heavily by our people and embassy in China. In addition, people are attracted to an English speaking country. This is linked with education because education for the children of investors is one of the big attractions. According to the most recent figures, there are 1.5 million high net worth individuals in China. We are talking about a tiny percentage of that figure.

The United States and Canada had to review similar schemes they provide in the context of the level of investment that comes from China. The OECD has produced a report that reflects similar concerns. Will the external review reflect the lessons that have been learned in other countries?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Absolutely. As an immigration service, we are experts in immigration. Therefore, we will consult and take on board advice and reports by the OECD on how the scheme should operate.

I have a couple of questions on the final part of Mr. Kirrane's statement. He mentioned the number of applications and the delay in processing them. I represent a constituency where many people have applied for various types of visas, citizenship and so on. Have efforts been made to beef up the number of staff working in the unit? I acknowledge Mr. Kirrane's comment that he is trying to increase staff numbers. People applying for family reunification and citizenship are extremely frustrated. I appreciate that due process applies. Will Mr. Kirrane outline how he aims to improve timelines over the next 12 months and give greater certainty to applicants? I appreciate the feedback he has given me and other public representatives, which is obviously limited to information supplied with applications. It would be good if we could give certainty to people by providing a timeline by which the Department will improve response times.

I am aware from replies to parliamentary questions that there has been a spike in the number of applications made at embassies, for example, in New Delhi in India. I ask Mr. Kirrane to comment on the difficulties being experienced. I know of people who are genuinely working here who have made bona fide applications to bring their spouses here. Obviously the unit will have received applications that might not be bona fide and I realise that the unit must try to strike a balance. I ask him to outline a plan to improve response times and give certainty to applicants. The same applicants keep contacting me to find out if there has been progress with applications. This is very difficult for them and us, as public representatives. It would be helpful to give them a timeline for the completion of the process.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The Deputy has asked a broad question.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We process approximately 250,000 applications per annum, stretching from visas at the front end of the process through to immigration permissions and citizenship applications at the other end of the process. We have seen an increase in volume across the board in the past year, particularly for visas and registration of immigration permissions. That is probably a function of the economic upturn as much as anything else.

We are deploying additional staff in our offices in Beijing and New Delhi to deal with visas. We are considering taking some of the applications from those locations to process them in Dublin where we believe centralising those functions will provide a more efficient and effective service.

My colleague, Mr. Ward, will outline more broadly some of the measures we are taking as part of our reform programme with a view to improving service. Our number of staff has increased significantly in the past two years. We intend to recruit further staff in the coming months to deal with the increase in numbers and process cases faster. Some cases take longer than others. Visit visas are processed in a matter of days.

More complex cases can take time to process because there is a due process that has to be gone through, which often involves Garda checks and checks that we do with our UK colleagues, among others. Our aim is to reduce the processing time as much as possible and we intend to use more technology in delivering those services.

I am aware of cases involving people who wish to come here for family weddings, communions or other events and genuinely intend to return to their place of origin but despite documenting everything properly, they miss the event because of a delay. It is very difficult for families when that happens.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We try to deal with individual cases if they are brought to our attention.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

In the course of a year, we deal with hundreds of such cases. We do our very best to deal with genuine cases involving people who need to travel urgently for family or medical reasons. We deal with those regularly and we do our absolute best to ensure genuine cases are effectively prioritised. I will ask my colleague, Mr. Ward, to provide an update.

My question is specifically linked to the one asked by Deputy Jack Chambers. Rather than ask a series of almost identical questions, I was hoping I could follow up on the same point. There are other areas to which I will refer later.

I have questions on this area as well.

Deputy Brophy is one person away from his turn. He can revisit the issue.

He will speak next. As I told the Chairman before the meeting, I have to attend the Seanad at 10.30 a.m.

I did not realise it was at 10.30 a.m. I have put Senator Conway in the order in which I noted members indicating. Deputy Jack Chambers was the first to indicate.

For clarity, we will be able to include Senator Conway. I invite Mr. Ward to take up the opportunity offered to him by Mr. Kirrane.

Mr. Neil Ward

We are in the process of trying to finalise a service improvement plan for the next three years for all of the work that we do. The aim is to produce a coherent and complete response to all the challenges we face and to the range of Government and INIS policies that we are trying to pull together. We have set that out based around five pillars. I will not speak at great length on this. The first pillar concerns reassessing our mission and purpose and having a fundamental examination of what our role is and how we should be set up.

The second is protecting the safety and security of the system. That includes areas such as advance passenger information, an area in which developments are taking place; reviewing the mechanisms we use to verify identity; and improving our co-operation with other State bodies, including the Garda in areas such as Operation Vantage.

The third pillar is to try to ensure the system is as efficient and effective as it can be. Much of that involves focusing on eliminating the backlogs we have, which will obviously improve the customer experience, and integrating ICT developments into how we handle our work.

The fourth pillar is to redesign our services based on customers' needs rather than our needs. We have begun moving towards pre-clearance schemes that inform people of their residence permissions before they arrive in Ireland rather than afterwards. We have online forms and payments coming on stream towards the end of this year and these will be rolled out for all of our schemes by the end of 2019. We have moved towards plain language in all our communications. That started with our annual review and it is now used on all of our application forms. We are also trying to bring that through to our website. In general, we are trying to find new ways of measuring our customers' experiences and improving the processes around that.

The last pillar is targeting our resources at the change management processes. The director general referred to staffing increases. In the past two years, staff numbers across the INIS increased from approximately 650 to approximately 800. The expectation is that the figure will rise to approximately 880 by the end of this year and that will obviously have a significant impact. We are targeting these new staff at some of the areas where we have pressures such as in the international protection office.

I thank the witnesses for appearing before the committee today. I am not as in tune with the situation as Deputy Chambers. Are the names of the companies that have been successful in securing funding publicly available?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

No, we do not publish the names of investors.

I am not referring to investors, but to companies that have benefited from investment from China or wherever else through this scheme.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

No, we do not publish the names.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Part of the business plan submitted by the investor sets out commercially sensitive information related to its proposal. For this reason, it was never envisaged that we would publish the names of the beneficiaries.

Can they not be published in redacted form?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I do not know how we could redact the information.

The service does not have to publish the business plan. It could just publish the list of companies that have been successful in securing funding through this process.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

It would be extremely difficult to separate one from the other.

My impression is that there is considerable secrecy around the scheme. An interim report has been made available to us but has not been published. It has also been submitted to an evaluation committee. However, we do not know the names of the individuals on that committee who decided that the interim report would not be published. Will Mr. Kirrane give a commitment that this external report, which will be funded from taxpayers' money, will be published in full?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I can give a commitment that the outcome of the review will be published.

Will it published it in full?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I cannot speak for the committee but from my perspective I expect that it would be.

In theory, we could have a scenario where a full report carried out by consultants and funded by the taxpayer will go to an evaluation committee, the members of which we do not know, and it will decide in its wisdom not to publish it. Is that technically possible?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

My expectation is that the report will be published.

Will Mr. Kirrane give a commitment that it will be published?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I cannot speak for every member of the committee but as its chairman I can say I expect that it will be published.

It would be very bad practice if it was not published. Mr. Kirrane has given Deputy Chambers figures on the number of investments showing that approximately 700 of the approximately 800 applications have been successful. Are there examples of a company in which an overseas company invested through this programme going belly up after a short period and the investment going south? Are there cases where the evaluation committee got it wrong?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

It is not our job on the evaluation committee to determine the economic viability of individual investments and we do not underwrite them in any way. In fact, we make it very clear on the INIS website that we do not in any way pre-approve any project in advance of funding being made because that would put the State in a position where it was effectively underwriting and guaranteeing a fund. That is not what we are there to do.

Mr. Kirrane may have misunderstood my question. Over the lifetime of the scheme, has there been an example of somebody in China or elsewhere investing in a business in Ireland which, following receipt of the investment, went bust and entered into liquidation, examinership or receivership?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I am not aware of any such examples. It is still early days in terms of when the review will take place but I am aware of one or two investments in a fund that did not take off and were allowed to move to another investment because the investor was not at fault. For example, if a total of five investors were required to reach a particular limit for the amount of the investment and that did not materialise, we would allow the investors who had already submitted applications to move to another option.

I would love to develop the point but unfortunately I have to leave at this point. I will ask a number of questions on direct provision if I get an opportunity to do so when I come back.

Senator Conway is very welcome to come back in later. We are trying to accommodate everybody.

I will pick up from Deputy Lisa Chambers where she left off as I do not believe we received a very satisfactory answer to this question.

I totally accept that when a public representative such as myself is contacted, it is usually because there is an issue. There are plenty of cases where someone is not contacted and things work perfectly, but I do not think the general experience of a lot of people who are looking for a visa to come into Ireland for a short-stay holiday tallies with what the service is telling us. I regularly hear of people who experience inordinate delays and difficulties in obtaining a visa to come here for an event, to join a family member or for a short stay.

Was it a policy to say insufficient documentation or evidence had been provided with an application? Was this ever suggested as a way of giving a holding reply to applicants and delay applications owing to the overall volume of applications received? I know of people who had been granted a visa to visit the country multiple times in the past but who received such a reply to a visa application in the past 12 months. I do not understand how somebody could have applied in 2016 to come to Ireland and again, using the same process, in 2017 and who booked tickets with the expectation that the result could be told "No." Have the process been changed? I refer specifically to applications received from Thailand where people seem to be told, almost as a standard response, that they have provided insufficient documentation. It strikes me that the system is overburdened and one is reaching for a handy reply. I could cite specific cases in which people lost bookings and airline tickets and had to rebook at inordinate cost, but they were bona fide cases. The State and the agency decided on previous occasions that there was no problem with the people in question coming here; therefore, I am at a loss to understand how decisions are being made. There also seems to be a problem with applications from India which also seem to have been stalled.

I accept the principle that there is nothing inherently wrong with the State having a business evaluation scheme in place, like most western European countries. However, there is always something about such a scheme that attracts a certain type of investment and it often involves aspects of European Union residency rules, with Ireland being very valuable in that context, but it needs to be ultra transparent. The Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service has no defence for a lack of transparency. If there is a risk element to an investment scheme of this type, given the motives there might be to invest in it, the agency providing the service should be completely transparent.

Mr. Kirrane spoke about investment in the hotel industry in the early days. Before I was elected to Dáil Éireann, my business was tangentially involved in the hospitality sector. Anything that distorts a market and, for example, allows an influx of money to give one group a competitive advantage over another in buying up hotels around the country should be known about and transparent. There is anecdotal evidence of an influx of Chinese money to buy into hotel projects in Ireland, preventing Irish indigenous operators from purchasing or competing. Under a crazy tax scheme 15 years ago, hotels were being built in every second town that were never going to be economically sustainable. I do not care about the fact that they went out of business because they were never economically viable, but they wiped out a generation of Irish hotel and hospitality people and thousands of jobs in good, strong, family-run hotels because they could not compete with new ones which were never going to be viable. I would hate to think money came in under this scheme that might be involved in that type of investment, although there is some indication that it did. I ask the delegates to consider that aspect. As Senator Martin Conway said, no one is asking the service to publish a business scheme, but if money is coming in, we should know where it is going. We should know who is on a committee that is making decisions and we should know who are investing. If they do not like our terms and conditions, they should go and find another country.

I ask the delegates to note the sequence of questions. Deputy Colm Brophy is asking them in a block.

My third question concerns the changes in the regulation dealing with asylum applications. By how much has the number of asylum applications gone up, excluding the Greek applications? I think the figure given in the opening statement included the Greek applications. Will the delegates outline the main countries from which asylum seekers arrive at Irish ports or airports? Will they enlarge on the reforms and how we process applications? Are we processing them more efficiently? I accept the point about emergency applications and piling resources into the service, as necessary, but it seems strange that something can be done for one person in a couple of months, while another has to wait 18 months. Is it just a question of resources? Has something else changed? How can somebody who is deemed to be in one category of applicant have to wait so much longer than an applicant in another? That does not seem to be explicable in any other way than by reference to resources.

What is the position on access to the labour market under the new revised scheme and how does it compare with that in other EU countries? What has changed for asylum seekers in the context of the opt-in to the directive on reception conditions?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I will call on colleagues, as necessary, to give the details in answering some of the Deputy's questions.

There is no policy to issue a stalling letter, or an interim letter, to delay the processing of visas. That is not part of the system. I will explain how visa regimes are organised worldwide. A lot of the processing of more complex cases is carried out by the INIS in Dublin, but there are seven INIS-staffed offices located in various parts of the world which deal with bigger volumes of applications.

They are in New Delhi, Beijing, Moscow, Ankara, London, Abu Dhabi and Abuja, Nigeria. They are controlled by the INIS. Other visa applications are processed by local embassies under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which sometimes experience pressure in so doing. Visas applications from Thailand, to which Deputy Colm Brophy referred, are processed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The INIS is considering that system model as part of the reform package referred to by Mr. Ward. We have established a group with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to fundamentally consider our method of processing visa applications, whether it should be more centralised and what resources would be needed to cater for the anticipated increased demand. Such reforms would include streamlining processes, where possible, including increased automation of online applications and payments. Although the initial application is made online, we wish for as much of the process as possible to be completed online.

It is very difficult to address individual cases which involve a perceived difference between one year and another. It may sometimes happen for reasons outside our control. We carry out a series of checks with the Garda and our colleagues in the United Kingdom and occasionally encounter negative immigration histories or a delay in the processing of the request. Some stages of the process are not directly within our control and can cause delays or give the impression that there are different results for similar applications. It is impossible to ascertain the reasons for certain decisions without knowing the details of the individual cases, but I am happy to discuss further such cases with the Deputy.

I will be happy to discuss individual cases further outside this forum. I reiterate that many people, some of whom have travelled regularly to the United Kingdom, contact public representatives having experienced untold grief in applying for an Irish visa. The frequency of such complaints indicates a pattern of problematic processing of applications. It is difficult to reconcile this with Mr. Kirrane’s answer because many of the people concerned have no problem in going to the United Kingdom which I assume carries out the same terrorism, security and policing checks as in Ireland but do encounter a difficulty when applying for an Irish visa. Many were granted permission to come here but encounter difficulty when applying for a second or subsequent visa. I do not know what they did for the 12 months since their initial application for a visa, but as the subsequent application was made from their home country, it is obvious that they returned there. I am not referring to a single case involving such problems. If I were, I would raise it as such.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We are happy to consider the application process and are doing so, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The vast majority of visa applications are processed very quickly with positive outcomes. The overall recognition rate is over 90%. We expect to deal with approximately 125,000 visa applications this year. I accept the Deputy’s point that there are difficulties in individual cases. If such difficulties arise in a substantial number of cases, we will consider this, but it must be looked at in the context of the volume of cases we process within the recommended timeframe. The vast majority of our customers fit into that category. We are anxious to consider what could be done to further streamline our processes to ensure a quicker turnaround because it is not in our interests to delay processing. The quicker we deal with cases and move on, the better for us. I do not want staff to be tied up in dealing with drawn out applications.

I will follow up on one or two randomly selected cases with Mr. Kirrane’s office in order that he can explain delays or difficulties.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I am happy to do so.

We should move on because I am under time constraints and wish to hear Mr. Kirrane’s replies to my other questions.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We have moved away almost entirely from the investment programme in enterprises such as hotels, etc. That type of investment was made with the goal of job creation or retention or where it might have made the difference between a hotel surviving. It was viewed as a capital injection to allow such enterprises to survive. Many were family businesses which were the focus at the time. The scheme in the early days was about job creation. We have not considered further investment in hotels, apart from one or two carried over from the very early days of the scheme. I do not remember any new such scheme being considered in the past 12 months.

My main question was about transparency.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We are happy to take on board the view of the committee in that regard and feed it into our review and back to the evaluation committee. A balance must be struck. I entirely accept what members have said about the need for transparency. I have no desire to operate a scheme which creates a difficulty for the immigration system or which calls its integrity in question. That is not our function.

Deputy Colm Brophy asked about asylum application numbers. I will ask my colleague, Mr. Costello, to provide more detail of increases in the numbers of asylum applications and the countries from which applicants come.

Mr. David Costello

Thus far in 2018, the main home countries of asylum applicants are Syria, Georgia, Albania, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. The largest number of applicants come from Syria. That was also the case in 2017, when a significant number of applications were also received from people from Georgia, Albania, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Some 1,647 applications were made this year to the end of June, of which approximately 266 were under the relocation programme. In the same period last year 1,278 were made, of which 226 were under the relocation programme. The 30% increase in the number of applications received is accounted for partly by an increased number of applications under the relocation programme.

On some cases being processed more rapidly than others, Syrians and some Iraqis who are being relocated from Greece are our main priority. Our staff travel to Greece with the co-operation of the European Asylum Support Office which is tasked with dealing with the relocation programme and the Greek asylum service to interview applicants before they come to Ireland. The applicants and their details are transferred to Ireland. Pre-screening, including a medical assessment, is carried out before applicants come to Ireland to ensure they will be able to access the support services they require when they arrive.

That is different from the other applicant who comes into my office from the street, for example, or who applies at a port of entry. The first time we encounter those applicants is when they come to our office. There is no pre-screening there.

In addition, we can process the relocated applicants more speedily because we do not carry out a full interview with them. We have gathered information about them in Greece and we also have comprehensive country of origin information on Syria provided to us by the UNHCR so we can determine those cases effectively on the papers. We can provide an expedited procedure based on the papers because the legislation provides for a well-founded application or claim. That is the reason we can do those in six to seven weeks.

As to other applicants, we have another stream which is the non-prioritised cases. We inherited a substantial backlog of those cases when the International Protection Act was commenced at the beginning of last year and we have had to concentrate on processing those cases before we can get to new cases. They all have to be fully interviewed in a more complex process than previously. That is the reason there are different timelines for the relocation and non-relocation cases.

I follow what Mr. Costello said about the timeline for the prioritised cases of people being relocated here. However, some asylum seekers end up in the system for years. Is he saying that is primarily due to the backlog in the old system and that when the new system is up and running fully and the backlog is cleared that will not happen? When does he envisage having the processing time down to the target he would like?

Mr. David Costello

Bearing everything in mind, such as resources and training, the plan is that by the end of next year we should be able to process nine months from the time somebody applies. We are moving to schedule interviews more quickly now for new cases. We can do a prioritised case in four months and a non-prioritised case in ten to 12 months for scheduling and thereafter produce the decision within approximately six weeks. However, reaching a stage where everything is being done within nine months will not happen for at least a year.

One of the reasons there are asylum seekers in the system for a long time is that when the transition provisions for the International Protection Act came into effect a block of 2,000 cases that were with the former Refugee Appeals Tribunal came back to the International Protection Office to have certain protection elements of their cases heard by us. Then they went back to the tribunal to have everything done there and finalised. We had to process the backlog cases first and some of those had been in the old system for a long time. They were brought into the new system and the legacy aspects of their claim had to be done by me, and then there was an opportunity for an appeal. Similarly, there are blocks of cases that have been in the judicial review process for years and as those cases are finalised by the courts, they come back into the process to be dealt with again.

We are committed to having all the transition, carryover and backlog cases which we brought over from the old legislation finished by the end of this year. Then we plan to get to a nine-month process by the end of next year. However, it is a complex and highly legally challenging process. While we recognise that we must give people a speedy hearing, we do not want to compromise our quality either. I have the UNHCR working with me as well and there is a strong emphasis on speed of process but that must be balanced with quality of process. For example, the number of judicial reviews against my office is minuscule currently compared with what it was years ago. There were three big challenges in the process years ago - the quality of the process, an issue with recognition rates and an issue with backlogs. The big issue I deal with now is the backlogs. The quality is sorted to the extent that the UNHCR tells me that we have improved our quality greatly. I have permanently based UN staff working with me. The recognition rates when one includes relocation cases are between 40% and 50%. The backlog is the biggest challenge for us. With the increased resources and more effective work processes, without compromising quality, our main aim is to get to a nine-month process by the end of next year.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The Deputy asked about the countries of origin of the asylum seekers. The top five countries for this year, excluding Syria which is under the EU relocation programme, are Georgia, Albania, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Nigeria. They account for more than 50% of the overall number of applications received in the first half of this year.

My final question was on the change with the opt-in to the reception conditions for asylum seekers.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

My colleague, Mr. Merriman, will address the two questions on access to the labour market and the wider issues of the opt-in.

Mr. Brian Merriman

Since 30 June we have opted in on time to the recast reception conditions directive, which has brought about a fundamental change in where we provide supports directly to people in the protection process. On the labour market side, we have open access to the labour market with minimum restrictions for anybody who has been waiting for a first instance decision for nine months or more. With regard to the first instance decision, previously it was just a refugee decision but now it is a refugee and subsidiary protection decision. If one has not had a determination on one's refugee or subsidiary protection application, one will have open and generous access to the labour market, including self-employment. We are one of the few countries in the EU to allow that. We have allowed for access to self-employment since 9 February last.

To make a comparison, there is a requirement in Sweden to prove one's identity. Many applicants have difficulties with that due to the countries they come from or they will not have arrived in the country with their identity documents. They cannot work in sectors that require certified skills so they can only work in low skill employment. That is the case in Sweden. In France, the person gets access to the labour market after nine months. However, the applications are generally processed within seven months, which means nobody accesses the labour market there. One must also have proof of a job offer. In Germany, one gets access after three months but one must stay in a reception centre - we have no such requirement - and the possibility of a 24-month obligation has been provided for and was applied recently in Bavaria. The applicants cannot access self-employment. In Denmark, applicants are housed in asylum centres. There is no such requirement here. They can only work in those centres for the first six months and they have no access to self-employment. In Britain, access is provided after 12 months but essentially they can only apply for vacancies in listed shortage occupations. The Irish access to the labour force is much broader than in those mainstream countries.

We are getting applications for the permission, which will last for six months and is renewable. It is renewable even if the applicant is under appeal. The Deputy spoke about people being in the process for many years. Most of those, if not all, will have failed at the first instance within the first three years. The reason they are there longer than that is that they are using either the appeals process or they are caught up in judicial reviews or the like. Anybody who does not get a first instance application decision within nine months, regardless of the time the appeals process or judicial review process takes, will still have that permission renewed every six months under our process.

Opting in to the recast reception conditions has fundamentally changed what we have known as direct provision in Ireland. Direct provision is not just accommodation centres but a range of services. We have a rights-based service so that when people apply for our protection they get a right to free education at primary and secondary level, for example, and the right to a medical card. That is not the case in some other countries, but it is part of the direct provision system. People went into the accommodation centres at the beginning of a process which could be quite lengthy, especially under the old system.

They will now have the means to get out of the centres if they get into employment and to provide for the kind of lifestyles that they want to provide for themselves. It is most important to also state that in the very modest area of charging people who want to remain in the accommodation centres while they are at work, there will be no charges for children at all and the children's DP allowance will still be paid to them. Our approach in not limited on the right to work. The Supreme Court case found that in the absence of a temporal limit, we should give a right to work. We could have set a temporal limit but we took the opportunity to opt in to the recast reception conditions directive, with the permission of the Oireachtas. That places the accommodation centres on a statutory basis and they are subject now to inspection under the EU. We have also brought in a further appeals system in order that people can appeal their reception conditions; if it is their view that their material reception conditions are being negatively affected, they can go to the International Protection Appeals Tribunal. Compared to the old system where people landed here and waited for many years without means to change their lives or provide for themselves, coupled with all the reforms we brought in under the McMahon recommendations, opting into the directive has fundamentally changed direct provision and there are now many more opportunities for people awaiting a final determination to take control and be more independent in the way they live in Ireland.

I have many questions to ask but will try to be as brief as possible. It is argued that the processes are now in place to deal with the backlog and that it may be possible next year to bring it down to six months. In my experience, current delays are still lengthy. I understand from the Immigrant Council of Ireland that a response to a recent parliamentary question stated that in some instances there is a delay of 19 months until first correspondence. There are still significant backlogs to first interview. The question is whether the resourcing is adequate.

GRETA, the Council of Europe organisation, and the US State Department have identified issues whereby international protection processes sometimes mitigate against victims of trafficking being properly identified as such. That criticism was made in respect of this State by GRETA. I want to understand the rationale for that. I appreciate that there has to be some level of evaluation when people are applying for international protection but it is important that we have a clear sense of the numbers of those who are being trafficked internationally.

I understand there was a significant recent decision by the European Court of Justice in the case of A and S, which concerned aged out minors and family reunification. It was found that where the application had been made prior to the minor ageing out, it could still be considered valid. Will INIS be considering an update or further guidance on re-evaluating international protection legislation off the back of that decision?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

On the timescale currently taken to process cases, there are three different types of categories. The prioritised cases are processed much more quickly, within six to seven weeks for relocation and a matter of a short number of months for others who are in priority countries. I outlined at the outset the countries that are currently at the top of our list in terms of numbers. Their recognition rates are low. It takes time to process them and our aim is to quickly move away from that 19-month period. The intention is shortly, as the chief international protection officer will confirm, to schedule interviews down to 12 months for those normal cases in the system. The intention is to move as quickly as possible from 19 months down to nine months and our estimate is that it will be reached by the end of next year.

We have allocated significant resources to the International Protection Office. It has a total of 138 staff and 55 panel members. The intention is to recruit more staff into that office and to update the numbers of people on the panel. That will be done in the autumn of this year. The intention is to get down as quickly as possible to the processing of first instance decisions within nine months.

In respect of victims of human trafficking, we work closely with the Garda on any case that is identified as involving a potential victim of human trafficking. That includes a period of reflection, and an immigration permission is automatically granted to people during that period. It is not the intention for anybody claiming asylum that it would in some way cut across their case being considered under human trafficking. That would not be the case under any circumstances and I am not aware of any incidents where that would be the case. The two processes run in parallel. I will ask my colleague, Mr. Merriman, to update the Deputy a little more on that as well as on family reunification and minors.

Mr. Brian Merriman

One of the benefits of opting into the recast reception conditions directive is that we finally have a mechanism to do more vulnerability testing at the point of arrival. This has been particularly challenging up to now but the framework provides us with the opportunity to bring it in. It will be spearheaded through the HSE. We have upscaled considerably our capacity to identify victims of human trafficking once they arrive. There is always a difficulty with people who have gone through a bad experience in trusting the State when they first encounter it. While part of the vulnerability testing will establish what we can identify, we will also seek to make sure it is an ongoing process during their time in the protection process, which is a welcome development.

On the particular case, we would honour the application made by an aged out minor while he or she was still a minor. If he or she put in the application while he or she was under 18, we would honour that. One of the-----

My understanding is that the court found that while many EU states honour an application for family reunification made before ageing out, in this case the application for international protection was made prior to the making of an application for family reunification, and because the person was a minor at the time of application for international protection, not family reunification, that would be honoured then.

Mr. Brian Merriman

Yes and one of the provisions brought in under the International Protection Act was that there would be a practice whereby the young person would be cared for by the social worker, who may feel that the young person should not go through the legal process until he or she ages out. Under that Act there is now a provision whereby the social worker is obliged to take legal advice. Our view is that minors should always proceed with their international protection applications while they are still minors.

Are the witnesses familiar with the GRETA criticisms? Do they have a specific response to them?

Mr. Brian Merriman

Since 30 June and opting into the directive, we have introduced vulnerability tests at the point of arrival. It is something for which there have been calls for quite some time. It has come in since 30 June. It will help to address that issue considerably.

I have a specific question on deportation. How many persons are deported by the State per annum? How many persons receive deportation orders?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I do not have the precise figures available for the Deputy. Normally in a year we issue about 1,000 deportation orders. From memory, about 40 or 50 are effected in a particular year. When a deportation order is issued, the obligation is on the person to remove himself or herself from the State. The number of people removed last year under deportation orders was 140. The obligation is on people to remove themselves from the State and many people do. It is not the case that every deportation order issued automatically comes to the point where it requires the removal of a person from the State. Many people voluntarily remove themselves. We cannot be precise about how many do because we do not have exit checks and we maintain the common travel area with our UK colleagues.

The question that leads me on to is are there any jurisdictions that refuse Irish deportees?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

There are difficulties with some countries, particularly in getting-----

Will Mr. Kirrane identify some of the jurisdictions?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

They are usually countries where there are unstable Governments such as war-torn countries. There are a number of countries we will not send people back to. We will not send people back to Syria, Iran, Iraq or South Sudan. There are other countries with which we have great difficulty when seeking co-operation on obtaining travel documents. We work closely with the embassies in Dublin and London because many countries do not have embassies here. We work with them to try to get travel documents for their nationals to enable them to return. It is a challenge.

I am thinking specifically of situations where states refuse to accept deportees from Ireland. For example, are there difficulties with China?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I am not aware of any difficulty with regard to China.

More generally, are there states that do not accept deportees?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The difficulty that occurs is that before we can return anybody, we need to get a travel document. The difficulty occurs in getting co-operation from a country. It is not a question of us having somebody on a plane and that plane landing and somebody refusing to accept the person on arrival. We make every effort to resolve the issue before anybody leaves the State by engaging with the relevant embassy to get a travel document and an acceptance the country will take the person back.

If a person has received a deportation order and it is not possible for him or her to return to the country he or she originally came from, what is his or her situation in Ireland? The person is obviously not entitled to social welfare. What is the person entitled to? The person is in a highly adverse situation.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The obligation is on the person to remove himself or herself from the State. People do not necessarily have to return to their country of origin. If Ireland has gone through a process where it has considered all aspects of the person's case and considered that there is no basis for the person to be in the State, the obligation is on the person to remove himself or herself.

I will put some points to the witnesses that were raised by the committee. It drafted a document on international protection and asylum. One of the criticisms was on family reunification. There was a view that the Refugee Act 1996 contained a stronger right to family reunification. While it has been addressed to some extent, the 2015 Act contained a more stringent and difficult test. There was also a feeling arising from the discussion that discretion, where it was used, was being exercised in a limited way. Obviously INIS has certain rules and views on certain jurisdictions and so on. One example was given of a decision where somebody who was well-established and had employment received a letter from INIS in 2015. The person's application for a visa for his or her parents was refused despite the father being in the later stages of Alzheimer's. INIS questioned the degree of destruction in Syria stating it was noted that central Damascus had been relatively unscathed by the war in Syria. I found it incredible when I read it. The witnesses will not necessarily be familiar with that case. It is possible it was appealed further. I was not dealing with it directly. It was evidence that was given to the committee. The report also found there was an almost adversarial approach to the people who make applications. The chief executive of Nasc said the International Protection Act 2015 means many refugees will have to move from the refugee family reunification process to the immigration framework. Under the framework, of every ten applications eight will be refused. It is not a specific question but I would like the witnesses to respond to it. There was a view that, procedure aside, the approach in the default position is more adversarial and more in favour of refusal than of approval.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The changes that were made in the 2015 Act brought us into line with the rest of Europe and are more favourable than many other European countries because since the Act was introduced some countries have tightened their procedures even further. We are no more than in line with the rest of Europe on family reunification. Having said that, the Minister recognised there were particular circumstances in war-torn countries. That is why in recent times he has introduced a new humanitarian family unification programme specifically aimed at those countries. That scheme opened recently. There will be a total of 530 approvals given under that scheme. It will be done in a series of applications over the next year. The first round of those applications has just closed now and we will be evaluating them. There is a recognition by the Minister that there are a particular set of circumstances in war-torn countries where there is a need to respond in a humanitarian way as distinct from the standard process that exists under the International Protection Act. That is how that has been responded to. It is something we welcome and our approach is not a default position of saying no. If it was, we would not have a scheme like this in operation.

Does Mr. Merriman want to add anything further to that?

Mr. Brian Merriman

It is important to note there is the non-EEA policy document. If one runs out of time to get one's family reunified, there are other means open. Everybody confines the discussion to the family reunification provisions of the Act, which are, as the director general has said, much more generous and facilitative than those of many of our European counterparts. One gets a year after the final decision to apply for family reunification. Beyond that, applicants can use the non-EEA policy document which will allow people to come to visit them.

That is underused. In respect of law, there has been a lot of discussion about prescribing things in law. That limits the discretion the Minister may have. We are all hearing of specific cases in respect of people coming from war-torn areas and areas of conflict that law would not address but which discretion would. Ireland is pretty unique at this stage in coming forward with the Irish humanitarian admissions programme, IHAP, under which the Minister may exercise his discretion in respect of people who are beyond that 12-month limit or who are not covered by the International Protection Act 2015 such as, for example, grandparents who have been left in war-torn areas or orphaned nieces or nephews who are not qualified under the International Protection Act. They are now qualified under IHAP and the Minister is in a position to use his discretion in that regard. That is a unique and welcome development in our approach to these serious humanitarian issues that are brought to our attention.

I take that on board. I am aware of the scheme but this decision was obviously taken before it came into effect. One would imagine that discretion would have been beneficial in the circumstances outlined, at that stage at least. As I have said, it may have been appealed but at that stage it was felt that the application for family reunification was not well founded. There is something that needs to be kept under review there. The criticism has been made by some of the NGOs that an adversarial approach exists. That is worth deliberating on and considering.

I have a final set of questions, which I will ask together. There is crossover with the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, in these questions but I would like the witnesses to answer as well as they can. Two specific points relating to direct provision were raised recently. By and large I welcome the decision to opt into the recast reception conditions directive but there are still issues in respect of direct provision. One relates to a reception centre - I believe it is in Newbridge but I am not totally sure - and the prohibition of the use of phones and electronic devices after a certain time. That seems very restrictive. This is not meant to be a location of detention or anything like that. People should have liberty and flexibility to do things like that.

There is a more serious issue. I grant this is not properly corroborated so if this is not the case, this is an opportunity to put the record right. There was some speculation that residents in direct provision centres may not have access to free drinking water at all times and they may have to purchase drinking water. I accept that some of the reports on Twitter were withdrawn or something similar. I am providing an opportunity to clarify the issue. If that is not the case, the witnesses should take the opportunity to put it right because it is important that they do so.

My final two questions are on a different area. I ask the witnesses to respond to them all together. They relate to the North and issues in respect of applications for visas there. I have two different examples. Sinn Féin's Members of the Legislative Assembly in the North are becoming aware of cases of non-EU citizens who are resident in the North and are seeking naturalisation as Irish citizens and who have children who are Irish citizens. Their children have Irish passports and were born on this island, but the parents were not. They are non-EU citizens. They are having significant difficulty in naturalising as Irish citizens despite the fact that their children are Irish citizens and are entitled to an Irish passport.

The second issue relates to an Irish citizen who was seeking a visa for their partner to live in the North. This person is an Irish citizen but I understand the person was asked to get a British passport in order to get a visa for their partner. That second case may cross over with British jurisdiction and so on but what ties the cases together and what seems to be unclear is the issue of Irish citizenship. People are entitled to it but how do they vindicate that right? Aside from the passport, how does somebody who was born in the North vindicate his or her right to Irish citizenship? That seems to be a theme tying the issues together. I can clarify that further if the witnesses need me to.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

To go back to the Deputy's first questions on the rules on phone use and so on in the centres, there is a set of house rules drawn up for each centre. The rules are not designed to be restrictive but to recognise that other residents exist in the centre and that they are entitled to their quietness and privacy after certain times of the day. Any complaints of that nature can be dealt with under the new directive. There is a basis for doing that. The other thing is that the Ombudsman can now investigate any complaints in respect of the operation of a centre. The Ombudsman for Children can also investigate any changes. I am not directly responsible for the direct provision system or for the Reception and Integration Agency, but I know from talking to my colleagues that they are balancing the rights of other residents to quiet and so on with everybody else's rights. That is what they are constantly trying to do. It is not about trying to prevent people from carrying on their normal lives in a normal manner. On the issue of access to water, I became aware of this some time last weekend. As far as I am aware, everybody is absolutely astounded by this. The idea that anybody does not have access to drinking water is a complete anathema to us.

I am glad to hear that. There were other questions.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

On the other questions, I am not sure whether the Deputy was talking about visas or applications for citizenship.

I am sorry. I kind of tied them together.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

On citizenship, the rules in respect of people who apply for citizenship are the same whether they are in this jurisdiction or the North. They have to fulfil the residency requirements in the exact same way as people living here are asked to produce evidence that they have been resident in the State for particular time. It is total of five years, the first four of which can be spread over an eight-year period and the final year of which has to be permanent residency. The way in which we ask people to verify that is through their immigration permission. In the North of Ireland that immigration permission comes from the UK immigration authorities. We seek that information from the applicant. In our case we would have that information from our own records but in the North we do not because applications for residency in Northern Ireland are dealt with by the UK Home Office. That is where we sometimes find delays in getting that information back. We do not treat anybody any differently regardless of whether they are in the South or in the North. In respect of visas for non-nationals, I am not quite sure I understand the difficulty. Any application for a visa from the North would normally be made through our London office and we do not have any backlogs of visa cases in that office.

My understanding is that the individual was asked to apply for a British passport. There are obvious reasons why somebody may not wish to do that.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I would need to get details of the specific case. I would be happy to take those details and investigate further.

I will pass those details onto Mr. Kirrane. I do not need a response on this but I do think further consideration is required. Mr. Kirrane is saying that the approach is not different. Some would say that perhaps it should be because even though these people are entitled to Irish citizenship, it is obviously a different jurisdiction and there will be further complications if, as we all expect, Britain and, consequently, the North leave the EU.

Perhaps there is a need for a different approach.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

That is set down in primary legislation. However, we are happy to look at it to see if there is anything that can be done. It springs from the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, subsequently modified under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

I welcome the witnesses. I have so many questions that I wish this meeting could continue for longer than proposed. I accept that it is not the witnesses' fault, but this is the second high-powered delegation we have met from the Department of Justice and Equality that is all male. As I said, it is not their fault. However, it is clearly a reflection of the position of women in terms of the upper echelons of the organisation. It is a matter that has to be raised and addressed.

My questions are a little bit eclectic but they relate to the areas we are discussing, many of which, I believe, are hugely problematic. I accept that a number of answers have already been given. However, some of my questions are new and others touch on points raised by previous speakers. In terms of asylum and direct provision and the points made about backlogs and so on, one could be led to believe that we are dealing with gigantic numbers. In reality, they are actually tiny. Between 2008 and 2016, Ireland had the second lowest rating in terms of granting asylum across the EU, well below the average. In a 12-year period, 87% of asylum applications were denied. During that time, under 2,000 people were given asylum in the first instance, which is incredible. We are talking about very low numbers. Why do we refuse so many? When I have previously asked that question the standard response has been that a lot of the applications received are from non-conflict areas such as Georgia. This is not true. Ireland rejected 69% of people from Somalia, 88% from the Congo, which has experienced two decades of war, 71% from Afghanistan, 63% from Palestine, 94% from Angola and 55% from Iraq. Will the witnesses provide an explanation for this? How confident are they in terms of the systems, attitudes and approaches of the Irish asylum system that we are safeguarding people's rights, or is there some cultural problem such that they feel they have to keep the numbers low? Those figures do not add up.

Linked to asylum is the single procedure to speed up the process. This has been in place for a year and a half. What proportion of people have been in direct provision for more than two years since the introduction of the single procedure?

Would the Deputy like a response at this point?

Yes. I do not mind if the answers are short.

Members have different preferences. Some like to group their questions and others like them to be dealt with individually. I invite Mr. Kirrane to respond.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

On recognition rates, there was some confusion regarding figures and comparative numbers with the rest of the EU while we were in the old process of single sequential processing of refugee status, subsidiarity protection and leave to remain. A lot of our statistics related to first instance decisions purely in regard to the first aspect, which, because we did not have a single procedure, was not comparable with what was happening in the rest of Europe. Earlier in the discussion, the chief international protection officer outlined the current recognition rates, which take into account the single procedure and the fact that we are looking at all three aspects at the same time. I will ask Mr. Costello to elaborate further because those numbers are comparable with the rest of our European colleagues.

Mr. David Costello

The Deputy is correct that in the past recognition rates have been very low but there has been considerable investment made in terms of quality and training. The UNHCR has a section in my office. The staff are there three or four days a week. We also have all sorts of standard templates for making decisions and guidance notes, which take on board all UNHCR best practice. The result of this has been a significant increase in recognition rates. The recognition rates are a factor of the nature of cases as well in that an applicant must satisfy the criteria and the legislation to be either a refugee or to be entitled to subsidiarity protection. The recognition rates for 2017, excluding relocation, was 21% and, excluding relocation, was 50%. Thus far in 2018, the recognition rate, excluding relocation, is 27% . Including relocation - these are the people coming from Greece - it is 43%. We are seeing a lot of applicants from Syria. There is a 100% recognition rate for Syria. Everyone who has come in under the relocation programme has been granted international protection. Approximately 1,000 plus grants have been given out in the last couple of years because the applicants satisfy the criteria. Similarly, applicants from other countries such as Eritrea, which have large refugee generating backgrounds, are granted refugee status as well.

The UNHCR sits on a quality committee with us, which meets every six weeks and reviews a proportion of the decisions made in the previous six weeks with a view to identifying problems and what lessons need to be learned. It also reviews the position regard decisions of ours overturned by the International Protection Appeals Tribunal from the point of view of whether we got it wrong and what we can do about feeding that back into the process; and what we can learn from court judgments. In respect of my office, there are not many court judgments because as our quality has improved we do not have a lot of judicial reviews. All of this work is fed to our case workers through training development. I think I can give a guarantee that we have improved the system substantially. The UNHCR works closely with us. All of the staff training is done by UNHCR international experts. We are doing our best to continue along the road to having a good system. European Union countries are coming to us seeking examples of our guidance and templates as international best practice, which did not happen before. Whereas years ago we used to go elsewhere to seek examples of how we could improve our system, countries are now coming to us. There are still many challenges to overcome but we are doing our best to continue to improve the quality of the system.

Does Mr. Costello have to hand information on the proportion of people in direct provision for more than two years since the new system came into effect?

Mr. David Costello

I have statistics on people in direct provision-----

For more than two years.

Mr. David Costello

-----for one year or more. There are 2,705 people in the process, with a 50-50 split in terms of direct provision and non-direct provision. There are 2705 people in the system for one year or more, 50% of whom are in direct provision and 50% not.

I appreciate that Mr. Costello acknowledged the problems that existed previously, which were frightening for the people who were not accepted and sent back to their home countries. I am happy to analyse Mr. Costello's answers as progress is made going forward.

The issue of delays in processing applications was raise by other members. I accept that there are many reasons for the delays in different categories. Citizenship applications can take six months to one year to process. Will the witnesses talk us through the processing of an application for citizenship from a person who has lived in this country for years and is married to an Irish person? Why do such applications take so long? What causes such an application to take six to 12 months to process? I will give an example of a specific case. This person has lived in Ireland for 15 years and was informed in May 2016 that he was being granted citizenship and was invited to attend the ceremony.

A couple of days before the ceremony, he received a letter which stated that it had been withdrawn because people must be of good character and that inquiries were being made. So, obviously, he was a bit shocked by that. Some 18 months later, there is still nothing more on that. This person has three children and has not seen his parents since 2003. None of his children have met their grandparents. Until he gets a decision, he has no travel document. Why is this good character aspect not sorted out before somebody is invited to a citizenship ceremony? When these cases are messed up - I assume that is what happened here - is there any accountability in respect of staff in that situation? Mr. Kirrane will probably state that new information came to light because I have submitted some parliamentary questions on this matter. I could accept that to a point. How in God's name does it take 18 months to review the new information? Is the applicant entitled to that information because, if so, he has not received it? He does not know what it is. There is no accountability, which seems hugely problematic, so I would like some information regarding that type of scenario.

A case that really annoyed me involved what I would describe as the efforts of the Department to prevent a young Syrian woman from being reunited with her sick mother and siblings. The behaviour of the staff handling that application over 14 months resulted in the family having to remain in limbo in Greece for a period way beyond what was necessary. The types of issues the person was refused on included the fact that the authorities in Greece, for whom English is not their first language, had put on the form that the woman was a recognised refugee. She was legally resident in Ireland but on a different basis. It was just a language thing that could have been corrected easily. The application was delayed for months because of that. In these scenarios, is there a culture of resistance to facilitating refugees? How are staff trained to deal with cases of that nature? The case in question concerned somebody being obtuse and ludicrous in the sense that the woman was legally resident here and it was a mistake that could have been easily corrected by a letter. Was the staff member corrected? What sort of training are staff being given?

I am curious about some of the language in Mr. Kirrane's opening statement. He indicated that INIS works with people to produce decisions for those co-operating with the system. "Co-operating" is an unusual word. Sometimes people cannot furnish documents through no fault of their own. What does co-operating mean in that sense? To me, a term like "non-complex cases" is better phraseology. When used in a particular way, the term "co-operating" has a certain connotation. When Mr. Kirrane deals with that, could he also tell me how many of the 800 staff are located in offices outside Ireland or is that a different staff complement?

In respect of the eight-week short stay tourist, the website says someone has to wait eight weeks to get their documents, which, presumably, is somebody's passport. Eight weeks is an incredibly long period for somebody to be without a passport. I visited Africa this year. It took seven days to turn around this stuff. It takes eight weeks to do so here. That seems crazy, particularly in the context of a tourist or holiday visa. Could Mr. Kirrane deal with those questions together?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

In respect of citizenship applications, our aim - and what we achieve in most instances - is that straightforward cases are processed within six months. That is our target. Obviously, we have resource constraints and I have to balance those resources across the entire immigration system. It is not a matter of simply stating that I can put resources towards increasing the processing of one type of application over another. I have to balance that across the entire system.

In respect of individual cases, I am aware of a small number of cases, to which the Deputy has alluded, where the answer to the parliamentary question was that additional information came to light on the individual case. That can happen. In those circumstances, it can take a long time to follow up and investigate those type of circumstances. I cannot get into detail on individual cases and I am sure the Chairman will appreciate that. Sometimes those checks are not dependent on this jurisdiction. It may not be directly within our control in the context of what INIS does; it may be dependent on additional information from other jurisdictions.

That is fine, but where is the discretion? We talked about discretion. This is somebody who, up to that point, had lived in Ireland for 15 years, who had no problems here because he had been granted citizenship and who has no access to that new information. For 18 months, this person has been told that INIS has some new information but that it will not tell him what it is, that it is off investigating the new information with somebody else and that it might get back to him in a couple of years when his children are graduating. That does not make sense. Should the person not have a right to access that information?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I do not believe a laissez-faire approach is taken to applications. This is certainly not something that is engendered in any staff of the immigration service. Our aim is to process cases as quickly as possible.

Does Mr. Kirrane think this 18-month period was reasonable?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I do not know the circumstances of the case and it is not possible for me to respond. I am sure the Chairman will appreciate that I cannot comment on an individual case.

Does this seem strange to Mr. Kirrane because it seems incredibly strange to me, and I am not talking about the details at all?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Without knowing the individual circumstances of the case, it not possible for me to say whether it is strange.

Based on what I told Mr. Kirrane and accepting the bona fides of that person who had already lived in Ireland for 15 years with nothing - INIS would have had proof of the position because it scrutinises and analyses cases and nothing showed up during its investigations - he was invited to the citizenship ceremony. Additional information is fine but it has been 18 months, which is probably a two-year period, since the additional information was sought and that person still does not know what it is. Does Mr. Kirrane not think the person should have a right to that information in order that he can help INIS in its inquiries?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I think that degree of delay and amount of time is unusual but without knowing the circumstances of the case, it is impossible for me to say whether it is beyond that.

To me, that and even Mr. Kirrane's answer reflect a certain problem.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I am not trying to be evasive but I cannot comment on an individual case without knowing the facts. I do not think it would be appropriate to start a discussion at this meeting about an individual case even if I knew the detail of it.

We are not doing that.

We would not do that.

No identifying points were made. When Mr. Kirrane stated that resources have to cover a broad range of issues and cannot just deal with citizenship, I presume he meant that the application is just sitting there for a number of months and nobody is doing anything about it.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

No, a process is gone through. We work very closely on that process in terms of moving cases along as quickly as we can. Some of that time is not spent by our own staff with regard to this. Quite often, we find that cases require some discussion back and forth with the applicant about providing additional details, etc. Then certain checks are made with other immigration authorities, An Garda Síochána, etc., regarding character. All of that takes time so it is not a question of cases sitting waiting because staff are not available to actually process them.

The reason I did not intervene earlier because, when it comes to my opportunity, I will reference my own knowledge and experience of cases similar to those to which Deputy Clare Daly referred. The Deputy is not instancing something that is completely unique as an individual experience.

There are no identifying features either.

I have also been exposed to similar cases. Would the Deputy like to take up the opportunity to discuss the individual case subsequently with Mr. Kirrane in terms of getting a detailed response?

I would be happy enough to know what is the position. I do not want us standing over a system whereby somebody is not entitled to that information. If a person is entitled to the information, what is the problem? He or she should be given it. I would even be happy with an answer in that regard and I do not need to be given it how.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I cannot comment without knowing what the information is. It is impossible for me to say whether information could or could not be-----

Mr. Kirrane will understand how impossible matters are for that individual, who has lived in Ireland for 15 years and who does not know the nature of the information either. He is the one who is being victimised by it, which is my point. We will take that matter up later.

The point is made.

Could Mr. Kirrane answer the other points on this section?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The Deputy was asking about our distribution of 800 staff and how many were abroad. Approximately five or six staff are located in each of the seven visa offices I mentioned.

Do they come out of the 800?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

They are part of our cohort. They are INIS staff seconded to embassies under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In terms of training and accountability, is there a monitoring of attitude problems or things like that if they emerge?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We work very closely with the staff who are abroad.

I do not mean them. I am referring to any INIS employee no matter where he or she is based who is deemed to be obstructive to applicants or where there is a sense that he or she is overly zealous in his or her refusals. What about instances where officers are obtuse in their dealings, which causes severe and unnecessary hardship for a family? How are they monitored?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

That is part of the day to day management of staff in the INIS and part of the quality control system in place. We ensure as much as we possibly can that there is fairness in the system. We spend a lot of time training staff that they are dealing with human beings, not a number. We also train them to apply a standard process in everything they do. We have induction courses for new staff, refresher courses and individual courses. We are constantly looking at how we can improve our service in that regard.

I will try to be quick in going through my questions as I have a lot of them. Mr. Kirrane does not have to provide lengthy answers.

I am a little worried about the family reunification process and the after effects. I will use one case to illustrate the point. A person is given one year to get here. He or she comes from a war-torn area. In the case of an unaccompanied minor whose mother and junior sibling have been given permission to come to Ireland, everyone is delighted, but how will she get here? Where will she live and where are the supports available? I am aware of one case in which the clock is ticking. The decision was made in January and the permission will soon run out, but no one has any idea where this woman is going to live. The Red Cross or some other organisation is trying to organise her travel, but there is no accommodation available. Does one just transplant a family from the Middle East and place them in County Donegal? The woman in question has not seen her son for years, but we expect them to rejoin family life and that everything will be fine. Who joins the dots? If accommodation has not been found, should there not be something in place like the arrangements which have been made for Syrians? I refer to the accommodation provided in Monasterevin where they get to know Ireland, learn English and meet people. It is an integration centre, rather than direct provision accommodation. Should we not make the same provision for family reunification? It seems bizarre that we do not. What happens when the 12-month period runs out, as it appears it might in this case? The young teenager in question is waiting for his mother to come and the delay is not their fault. What will happen in that case?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The intention is not to put obstacles in the way of those who are entitled to family reunification. I am not quite sure I understand where the one year issue comes in. Once an application has been decided on, there is no time limit as to when the transfer of the family takes place. It is not a question of the permission being withdrawn or anything at the end of the year. There is permission once the decision is made.

What then is the 12-month issue? They were told that they had to be here within 12 months.

Mr. Brian Merriman

Unaccompanied minors are in the care of Tusla which has been doing extremely good work, for example, with the children who came here from Calais to trace families, make arrangements and provide support services to enable those families to get here. I have not yet come across a situation where someone has timed out, particularly where it involves an unaccompanied minor. We would look at it if such a situation arose.

However, a 12-month time limit applies. They have 12 months to get here. That is what the letter states.

Mr. Brian Merriman

They do, but if unaccompanied minors are under the care of Tusla, a very good family reunification system has been operated to contact their families. We have had families who came to Ireland under it. There is a care system in place.

As such, Mr. Merriman is saying it is up to Tusla to find accommodation and that, to date, it has.

Mr. Brian Merriman

We work with Tusla which also works with local authorities. It has been a very successful system for unaccompanied minors.

I do not think that is their understanding, but it is very informative for a meeting I am due to have later. I will move on.

There were huge concerns about the quality of IPO 2 forms released in January 2017. A number of nationalities said someone had put them together using Google Translate and that they were completely wrong from a language point of view. The Minister told me in reply to parliamentary questions that the company involved had not been paid at the time and that any payment would reflect the poor quality of service in a number of languages in which the form had been published. Was the money withheld from the service provider by the IPO as a consequence of the problems with the forms it had translated? What proportion of the money was withheld? I presume the Department will not use the company again.

Immigration consultants have made an appearance in this area. We are told that a number of former GNIB officers have set themselves up as immigration consultants to advise undocumented person on how to have their status regularised. Some of them charge well above the odds and promote themselves as special insiders who can get someone in. That is a matter of concern. I have submitted parliamentary questions on it and the INIS has stated it is not its problem, that it is a private matter. It does not seem right that former immigration officers, gardaí, would make money in this way. Would it be prudent for the INIS to place a restriction on staff who have left from working as immigration consultants, at least until there is some regulation in the area? Is it something at which the INIS would look? Is our source correct in saying the INIS is not accepting applications from so-called "consultants"? Is the service aware of this general problem?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I am not aware of any former INIS staff member operating as an immigration consultant. I am aware of a number of retired gardaí who may have worked in the immigration area who are established in that field. We operate a policy that we do not deal directly with immigration consultants. We will take an application received but correspond directly with the applicant. We do not engage with immigration consultants. The vast majority of cases involve legal representatives and we deal with the solicitor assigned to a particular case, whether by the Legal Aid Board or privately by applicants. We do not engage directly with immigration consultants and have no plans to do so. Whether people working in this field should be regulated and who should regulate them are complex issues. Certainly, we have not looked at the issue from an immigration perspective. It is complex to consider whether one should deprive someone of his or her livelihood or how controls could be put around it.

I will move to a couple of policy issues which may be lumped together. The first involves statistics for immigration enforcement.

In its concluding observations on the second periodic review of Ireland the UN Committee Against Torture requested the State to provide it with data in the next periodic review for the countries of origin of persons denied leave to land and the point of embarkation for the state party to which they were returned. The Minister told us in February that Ireland would be in a position to respond well in advance of the next periodic review. From work done by others, some of the information has been obtained. We know that the number of non-EU citizens refused entry to Ireland doubled between 2013 and 2016, to 3,950.

Between January and September of 2017, 2,600 people were denied entry. Between 2008 and 2016, 2,135 citizens from areas of conflict or humanitarian concern, for example, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Libya, were refused entry. Perhaps some of the issues I raised in my first question have been corrected. If so, confirmation will do.

When will the UN Convention against Torture, UNCAT, recommendation regarding data publication be implemented? Are there plans to produce written guidance on refusing people entry at ports and airports, particularly people from conflict zones? What assurance can Mr. Kirrane provide that such people are given every opportunity to try to assert whatever asylum claims they might have before being deported, for example, translators, liaison officers and so on? Of those refused leave to land, how many are subsequently given the opportunity, if necessary, to claim asylum or a right to appeal? I refer to a right to appeal in such a scenario.

Regarding immigrants' rights, section 60 of the Data Protection Act allows the Minister to devise regulations restricting the rights accruing to individuals under Article 12. The British Government's proposal in this regard has caused major upheaval in the UK. One MP has made the point that such a restriction would render it impossible for individuals involved in immigration disputes to get access to their personal information from the Home Office, making it difficult for them to resolve their problems. In the Irish context, which of the rights under Articles 12 to 22 will be restricted for the purpose of ensuring the effective operation of the immigration system? Presumably, INIS is being consulted on this matter. If not, I will take that answer and address it with the Minister. What is the thinking on the Data Protection Act in this regard and has INIS been consulted?

I am probably pronouncing it incorrectly but my final major question is on the Luximon judgment, which related to the rights of people who came to Ireland before 2011 on student visas and stayed after their visas had expired. The Government changed the rules in 2011 in order that people who now come to Ireland on student visas can only stay for seven years. Obviously, some people have been timed out. The courts decided that the Minister should have considered the right to a private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights when considering applications for a change of status - for example, from student to stamp 4 - and leave to remain, and that people could not be booted out unceremoniously. The State seemed to fight the case every step of the way. The implications of the three court judgments is that we must introduce a new scheme. These are hard-working people who have been in Ireland for ten years or longer but they have been kept in limbo.

We had been told that INIS was going to introduce a scheme to deal with applicants in this category until the Minister changed the scheme in late 2017 and that that work had since been put on hold. Was that the case and, if so, why? Why was the High Court's judgment in 2015 ignored? By rights, INIS should have been processing the hundreds of cases affected but intransigence in this regard meant the appeals process was slowed down and complicated further.

Given that INIS lost in the High Court and the Court of Appeal, why was a scheme not ready to go in April when the Supreme Court judgment was handed down? Surely it knew that it would lose? Why was the decision even challenged at that stage? Three years had passed since the High Court judgment and people were still waiting. Is that acceptable? Will Mr. Kirrane provide a solid date for when a scheme to process these applicants will be introduced, putting an end to their misery? I am concerned that it reflects badly on an attitude that seems to exist, one that is not welcoming or facilitative of applicants. It is blatantly obstructionist, putting people down rabbit holes and sending them around in circles. The inordinate delays in every facet of this process may stem from this attitude rather than anything else. I do not know. I do not have an answer to it but I would be keen to hear Mr. Kirrane's thoughts on the matter.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The Deputy raised a number of points. In terms of leave to land, the numbers have increased but so has the annual throughput of passengers into and out of the country. The projections for Dublin Airport are for 32 million passenger movements this year. It was only a few short years ago when that figure was 19 million. When one maps the increased throughput of passengers with the increase in the number of refusals, they are pretty much in line. It is not the case that there has suddenly been a change in policy in INIS or among immigration officers at airports to refuse more people. Before staff get to the front line, they spend approximately six weeks training in how to determine precisely which cases do and do not qualify for leave to land. There are a myriad of reasons for people being refused leave to land, for example, people not having visas or documentation but somehow managing to board aircraft at the other end or significant evidence that their purpose is not to come to Ireland but to use the common travel area to get to the UK etc.

If someone who is seeking international protection claims asylum, he or she is immediately sent to the accommodation centre in Balseskin, his or her preliminary details are taken and his or her application is processed. That has always been the case; there is no change in how that system operates.

Mr. Kirrane is saying that the people from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Libya who were sent back did not want asylum, but how sure is he that they were given every opportunity to assert their asylum claims and explain their points? Are translators and so on provided? Mr. Kirrane referred to six weeks of training. How do officers deal with the person to ensure that he or she knows that asylum can be claimed?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Since there are no direct flights from the countries the Deputy mentioned, anyone who is returned is returned to the point of departure. If someone boarded a flight in the UK or elsewhere in Europe, that is to where he or she is returned. He or she is not returned to Syria or other war-torn areas. It is a question of being refused leave to land in the State. If the person does not satisfy the criteria for entry into the State, then-----

Mr. Kirrane is saying that, because someone registered in or went to Germany first, that person will be sent back there.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

No.

Is that done under this clause?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I am not saying that, since the immigration officer will not know whether the person has claimed asylum in another country. There is a process for determining that.

That is what I am asking about. What is the process? Is the officer trained to make the offer? Is it on the checklist for an officer to tell someone that, if he or she is claiming asylum, the officer will deal with that and send the person somewhere? Does Mr. Kirrane know what I mean?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

It is up to the applicant to claim asylum, it is not a matter for the immigration officer to suggest how he or she might or might not enter the State.

That is helpful. Is an applicant provided with the services of a liaison officer and a translator?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Telephone translation is available for anybody who is refused leave to land.

It would be made clear to the applicant they would be entitled to have a translator and if they require one, a call would be made to bring one in.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Yes. That is dealt with by telephone.

When will the UN Convention against Torture recommendation regarding data publication be implemented?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I cannot give the Deputy a precise date but we have no difficulty in publishing the information of countries. We draw a line when we get down to very small numbers associated with individual countries because, by definition, there is a risk we would be identifying an individual in those circumstances. We would disaggregate the information, say, for five or more and not provide details of one person who is refused from country X or country Y.

This is not a question, it is a requirement. It is an UNCAT recommendation to which Ireland is required to conform. Are plans under way to ensure that we can be compliant with that recommendation----

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Yes.

INIS will meet the target but Mr. Kirrane does not know when that will be.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I cannot give the Deputy a precise date but I can come back to the committee on that if that would be helpful.

That would be great.

That would great. Thank you.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Regarding data protection, if the Chairman would like me to continue-----

Please do.

I want that. The Chairman had forgotten my other questions but I had not.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Neither had I.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Regarding the Deputy's question on data protection, we are considering how we can implement that but we have not made any decisions around it yet. It is quite complex and everyone is trying to get to grips with the new general data protection regulation, GDPR. The concerns we have are that access to data during the application process can be problematic but once an application has reached a certain stage, we would not have any difficulty in terms of the normal data protections rules that currently exist. The vast majority of cases have legal representation and we already make available all the documentation, particularly for asylum cases, to the legal representative. A lot of information is already made available.

We succeeded in having an amendment to the legislation accepted, which provides that if the Minister makes a regulation to restrict this, the Houses of the Oireachtas will have the power to review that; we will have the power to correct that if we do not like it. Is it INIS's intention to restrict in that respect?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Our intention is to bring forward regulations but the precise content of them has yet to be worked out.

There will be some restriction. We know the upheaval this has caused in the UK.

Mr. Neil Ward

To briefly add to what the director general said, our primary intention is that we do not want the new Data Protection Act to become a means by which our processes can be frustrated. We are not trying, in some way, to get around people's rights here, we are just trying to ensure data protection is not used to abuse the system. To be clear, we are receiving subject access requests under the GDPR at present, we are processing them and we will continue to do that as normal until the regulations are presented and hopefully approved by the Oireachtas.

That is helpful.

Mr. Neil Ward

I do not anticipate it will be a hugely difficult issue once it reaches the Oireachtas.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The Luximon judgment is quite a complex case and the Deputy raised two different aspects of it. One is in regard to Article 8 rights. We are complying with the judgment and our intention is to consider Article 8 rights in those circumstances where there has been a change of status from one point to the other. We are considering that in terms of refining our processes and how best we can do that. Our argument to the court was that we always did an Article 8 rights consideration before a decision was taken on whether somebody was allowed to remain in the State or a deportation order was issued. The courts found that we should do an Article 8 rights consideration in other circumstances where there is a change of status and we will be complying with that.

Regarding the individual cases, I cannot give a date as to when we will do this. We are seeking legal advice regarding the judgment and how we will deal with these cases. I do not want to pre-empt what that decision will be because it is up to the Minister and the Government to make that call. I cannot give the Deputy a definitive deadline at this point in time but we are actively looking at it and it is something that is very much high on our agenda.

I do not mean to be rude but I find that completely unacceptable, given the years of litigation around this matter. For Mr. Kirrane to say it is something he is looking at is no consolation to the people concerned. We are not going to get agreement on this and I would simply make that point. This is bizarre. It seems some of the reasons there are problems in the area is that we are being obstructionist on issues. Everybody else is looking on and saying INIS has to address this but rather than addressing it, it spent ages fighting the need to address it, which delayed its chances of implementing something that probably could have been implemented far easier if it had come up with what it will have to come up with in any event. Now that it has come to practically the end of the line on that, I am shocked that Mr. Kirrane still is saying we are looking at that or it is not so straightforward but it actually is, in respect of what the courts have told INIS. There needs to be a scheme to deal with this.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Our job is to uphold what the courts tell us. I am not going to get into a discussion about-----

If it was, INIS would not have challenged their views in three separate courts, it would have just gone along with it. What did it keep challenging what they were saying?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I am not going to get into the detail of the legal case and the wider ramifications it may have had for the system. There was good reason for challenging those cases in court. It has not necessarily got to do with an individual case but there are times when the State has to hold its position regarding certain matters. If the courts rule against us, we take those judgments, accept them and modify our systems accordingly.

This involves hundreds of people, it is not an individual case in this category where they were timed out.

I do not want a response to this point but I am making a plea to the service. I tabled a parliamentary question on this matter but it was not accepted. The service's website is diabolical. I have never in my life seen a website as bad. I had to deal with a visa application for someone I know. English is my first language and not only myself but everybody in my office probably spent three days trying to negotiate our way around the application form. The form required us to look for information and numbers that are outdated and no longer used.. The website is appalling and it needs urgent revamping and to be made people friendly. It is a minefield. I have never seen the like of it.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Mr. Neil Ward will give the Deputy some information on it. We are working on it. We accept there are improvements that can be made. Part of it involves the use of plain English and trying to convert what is effectively a legal process to-----

There is no indication that Mr. Kirrane is responsible for this.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Mr. Neil Ward is working on this.

Mr. Kirrane seems to be nodding his head in agreement with me. That is a step forward, which is great.

Mr. Neil Ward

I am in agreement with the Deputy.

I thank Mr. Ward. That is an improvement on the response I got to a parliamentary question.

Mr. Neil Ward

There is a lot of work to be done with the website. Our intention is that a new website will go live in the first quarter of next year. In the meantime, we are taking some steps to address it. We have considered our printed forms first. Each division within INIS is going through those and has been given plain language guidance on how to restructure all the forms. They are all being made to look the same in order that people who have applied previously under one scheme will be familiar with the forms when they reach them again. That has almost being dealt with. We have about four forms left to do and we will have those completed over the summer. We will then turn to the content on the website. We can redesign the website and that is fine but the content is the critical element. We have put together a communications network within INIS that has representatives from every business area within INIS. The National Adult Literacy Agency has been brought in to do plain language training with that whole cohort. That training has gone very well. I heard there is huge appetite among the staff for this. They acknowledge we are getting more queries because our website is not clearer. The intention is that from the autumn on, we will start getting new content ready and when the new website goes live in the first quarter, it will go live with up-to-date and accessible information for all our customers.

The last piece, which goes alongside that, is a shift from paper forms, which leads to other processing difficulties. We are a very paper-heavy organisation so we are shifting our forms online. We have a project live at present. The first two forms will go online, we hope, in late September, possibly early October. Then the intention is that between that point and the end of 2019, every single one of our forms will transition online and be accompanied by clear, accessible guidance as to how they should be completed.

Am I right that I have not forgotten any other question Deputy Daly had?

I am being worn down at this stage.

Before I bring in Deputy Callaghan, I am conscious of the fact that our guests have been in here for a considerable period and we have not offered a toilet break. Would that be welcome at this point or are we fit to go on?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I am happy to go on.

I will not be that long.

Very good. I ask in order that I am not told afterwards that I did not offer.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I thank the Chairman.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. I am conscious they have been here for three hours now and have answered many questions so I will not ask them questions which have already been asked. However, I share some of the concerns of other questioners. I wish to ask the witnesses questions about the immigrant investor programme. In light of the current growth of the Irish economy, does Mr. Kirrane think the programme is still needed?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I think I touched on this in my comments earlier. One of the reasons for our review, which will take place in the second half of this year, is to look at that precise question. We have moved the focus of it away from enterprise and job creation in recent years to social housing, primary healthcare centres and nursing homes because there is a perceived shortage of those types of facilities in the State at present. That is where the focus is now. There is also an endowment part of the programme, which, regardless of the outcome of the review, I would see continuing because it is effectively a donation of money for charitable purposes to the State, and it would be hard to argue against the benefit of that directly to the State on that basis.

How does Mr. Kirrane respond to the allegation that the immigrant investor programme is really an immigration scheme for the wealthy and the well-connected?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

By definition, if one does not have a net worth valued at €2 million, one does not qualify for the scheme, but it must provide benefits to the State. The scheme is not there for the benefit of the applicant; it is there to provide benefits to the State. We have moved where we have targeted those benefits over the period, so if a point is reached at which those benefits do not outweigh the value of the immigration permission, one would have to question its continuance.

I would have thought that back in 2012 and 2013, one of the big dangers facing the Irish economy was the absence of access to capital and investment. That problem seems to have been resolved, and the biggest threat facing the economy now, I would have thought, is gaining access to skilled labour for the construction, hospitality and services sectors. I am conscious the witnesses are policy advisers, not policy-makers, but does Mr. Kirrane not think the State should concentrate its schemes more on trying to attract skilled labour than trying to attract capital?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

There are other schemes in the State, run by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, that seek to attract skilled labour, and we do not want to cut across those schemes in any way. The investor programme is always looked on as a bit of a niche offering to address particular areas where it is seen that there would be benefits to the State arising from them. I am not sure how attracting skilled workers would dovetail with an immigrant investor scheme. We would need to think about that.

I am conscious that other schemes are available, but the whole purpose of this scheme, from the point of view of the economy, is to attract investment in capital, and I would have thought that at present that is not the pressing issue facing the Irish economy.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

As I said, it is targeted at particular areas where there is perceived to be a shortage - for example, social housing, nursing homes and primary healthcare centres. We are in consultation with the parent Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government and Health, which tell us there is a shortage of and a need for investment in those areas.

I see from the graph in the management summary that the amount devoted to social housing was approximately 10% for the years 2012 to 2016, I think. What is the current percentage and what is the objective? What percentage does INIS want to get it to?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I do not know if I can immediately-----

I beg Mr. Kirrane's pardon. I refer to Roman numeral iii of the management summary.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The total, between nursing homes and social housing, is approximately 25%, but that is for 2016. The data was for 2016. The current breakdown has increased significantly over the past year. I can get those figures for the committee. Grouping together nursing homes, primary care centres and social housing, of the total of 708 applications since the start of the scheme, 326 have amounted to €244 million, and there has been €507 million of investment. In terms of investment and the number of applications, roughly half are now in those areas. That is representative of the total since the scheme started. More recently, that percentage has been higher.

I am conscious that in INIS's paper, it is stated that the investment is €1 million over three years. Has INIS got to a stage yet at which it can identify whether there is roll-over of applications or people investing €1 million for three years and then doing it again for a subsequent three years?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

No. The review takes place after two years, and an immigration permission is granted for a further three years. Therefore, the vast majority of applications are only coming up for review at this stage because, looking at the profile, the numbers from 2012 to 2016 were very small. It is only in the latter half of 2016 that the numbers expanded. Therefore, we are only at the point of reviewing those immigration permissions at this point.

I would have thought that very many of the investors borrow the money for the purpose of investment. Would Mr. Kirrane say that is correct?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The rules are that none of this money comes from borrowing. It is not a mechanism for borrowing to get an immigration permission. It must be capital already in the hands of the applicant.

How does INIS verify that?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We seek confirmation and get details of bank accounts, etc., as part of the application process.

I will take my opportunity now and come back to Deputy Chambers for a supplementary question afterwards if that is okay. I wish to raise a number of matters. I will avoid repetition as best I can.

The citizenship section has recently decided that periods of absence from the State - and we are talking about periods in excess of six weeks per year - will be deducted from people's reckonable residence. This means that if they have lived here for five years but have spent, say, seven weeks in one of those years visiting family or a dying relative or for some other purpose or reason - all verifiable, I am sure - INIS will nevertheless consider that they have lived here for four years and 45 weeks only. I find it difficult to understand the purpose behind this decision. It may reduce the number of naturalisation certificates granted at any given time but certainly slows up the process because they do not qualify in terms of the period for assessment and acceptance.

Could Mr. Kirrane offer a reason INIS has adopted this position on that relatively new ruling?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

First, this is not a change of policy. The Act is fairly clear in terms of what it sets out. It looks for a permanent residency for all of the previous year and the exception is given on an administrative basis by the Minister that he will allow for a period of six weeks to be excluded from that in considering the decision. That has always been the case. That was to cater for people going back on holidays over the period of time. It is not the case that the rule is that we are introducing a six weeks period that is excluded. It is that we are allowing, beyond what is in the Act, a period of six weeks for people to cater for removal, if they want to go back on holidays, etc.

We do look at individual cases. Where, for example, particularly with the mobility of the workforce in more recent times, people may have need to go abroad to do some work for a period of time in that last year, we take that into account. Ultimately, we are not there to stop people from getting citizenship but, equally, we must apply the law. That is part of what we do. We try to be reasonable about that, and that is where the six week period came in. That is not something new. This has always been the case.

Is it not the case that it is a period greater than six weeks?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Greater than six weeks, yes. We allow a period of up to six weeks absence without impacting on qualifying for citizenship.

Is that only in relation to the final year or in any of the five years?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The rules for the previous four years are any four-year period over a previous eight-year period. There can be significant gaps in residency in the first four years but the Act is clear in relation to the final year. The Act states there must be permanent residency. We allow a period of six weeks to recognise that people need to go home on holidays, etc.

In that particular case, the seven-week instance that I cited, is it the case that six of those are not taken into account and only one week is, or is it the case, as I have suggested, that there is a seven-week deduction in the measure of the person's presence here among us?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

If one is not qualifying by virtue of being more than six weeks absent in the final year then one would not meet the qualifying criteria.

Would the full seven weeks in the case I cited be deducted in terms of the measure of the person's presence here?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I am not quite sure I follow. One can be absent for up to six weeks in the final year. If one is absent beyond that period of time, whether that is seven weeks or anything more than that, it is regarded as a non-qualifying application.

What would that mean in real terms for that person? Would he or she have to complete a further-----

Mr. Michael Kirrane

He or she can reapply.

-----unbroken year with an absence of less than six weeks, if it were to happen?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

It depends on where in that final year the gap had occurred as to when he or she would qualify.

The person might have to complete an extension or part of a year to make up a 12-month unbroken period.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

The person may have to. That is set down in law.

Could Mr. Kirrane explain how INIS defines a household member for the purposes of EU treaty rights? It appears that INIS has adopted a policy of not approving any such applications. Is that so?

Some of my colleagues were very much involved in assisting people on access here and rights. They have a difficulty in understanding INIS's definition of household member. Could Mr. Kirrane offer clarification on this?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I can. First, it is set down in EU law. It is not determined under Irish law. There are two different types of category. There are what are known as qualifying family members and there are permitted family members. Qualifying family members are immediate spouse and children and permitted family members are wider relations, whether they be nieces, cousins, uncles, grandparents, etc. They are dealt with separately under EU treaty rights and the extent of rights under each of those categories is set down in EU law.

There is a significant backlog in renewal applications for permission to remain. I emphasise I am talking about renewing applications for permission to remain as the spouse of an Irish national. I know of one case where the applicant has been waiting nine months for a decision. I emphasise this is a renewal application where there has already been permission given. Why would there be such an inordinate delay in determining the application in that instance?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

This is one of the areas on which we are under particular pressure at present because there has been an increase in applications. Earlier we were talking about increases in our staff levels. That particular area is one that is being targeted for new staff and additional staff to be assigned for processing.

As I stated earlier, without the individual case it is difficult to know why it might take that long but our aim is to get that processing time down very quickly. Indeed, we are reorganising our structure to dedicate processing headed by a separate principal officer to deal with national-type immigration schemes, which would include spouse of an Irish national and a whole lot of others, separate from EU treaty rights cases because of the volume of increase that has occurred across those two areas in the past while.

INIS is taking steps to ensure that. It is an actual case that I reference. These are people just like all of us here and it is having a most deleterious impact on their lives. In my view, it is without justification. All of the assessment, analysis and examination has been done previously. This is a renewal yet nine months later it cannot be approved, at least at this point. It beggars belief.

Mr. Kirrane brought up the issue of staffing. I note, from Mr. Kirrane's opening statement, he gives an outline of the staffing numbers. He stated that there are 55 contracted members of the IPO case processing panel all of whom work on a part-time basis. Why would that be the case? Is that part of the difficulty? I presume these contracted members are not part of INIS's full-time core staff. What steps is Mr. Kirrane taking to address this? I beg Mr. Kirrane's pardon; he stated, in that regard, that further staff will be appointed in the coming period. As for the 55 contracted members of the IPO case processing panel, why is INIS outsourcing instead of recruiting directly when it has a particular problem? Even as an interim measure, should these particular employees be taken on board on more than a part-time basis?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

I will ask the chief international protection officer, Mr. Costello, to come in on this shortly but, first, it is a question of qualifications and expertise. The panel members recruited are generally solicitors or barristers who have particular expertise in this area. They do not particularly want to work full-time on this and they may continue their practice in other areas. The model considered best to deal with this, therefore, was by engaging the panel on a case-by-case basis, and they are paid on a case-by-case basis. That is considered to be the best way of dealing with it. The individual cases are signed off by a permanent civil servant in accordance with the Act. The intention is to recruit further members of the panel. It is not a question of the panel members being constrained in terms of processing times, but Mr. Costello will outline further detail on that.

Mr. David Costello

The director general is correct that there is a mix. Most of the 130 people working in the office are civil servants. Many people on the panel work in the Four Courts doing other work. They could be involved in planning law or human rights law and the only way we could encourage people to apply for a panel was to offer them flexibility. Some members of the panel work in the office all day, every day but the vast majority leave and come back. However, they commit to doing at least three interviews a week, which is what we want them to do, and to provide the relevant follow-up reports. It was just a matter of flexibility.

Similarly, we are running a competition to recruit more people. There has been a fair amount of interest in that but if I was to say I wanted full-time people with legal qualifications to come in under this contract for service, I would not get them because some of them are doing other jobs and want to continue to do them and then come to work for us on a fee per case basis. There are strict rules within the contract about conflicts of interest and so on. They must declare them, but we felt this was the most flexible way to use people to ensure we met our scheduling and interviewing requirements.

It was indicated that there has been an increase of 30 in staffing since the advent of the 2015 Act. What number of additional staff is INIS hoping to recruit and what is the timeframe for that, given the seriousness of the backlog that has been acknowledged by the delegation?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Currently, we are looking to take people from the past panels for use across the INIS. Mr. Ward might have the total. I think he mentioned earlier-----

Mr. Neil Ward

We are planning to recruit 76.5 additional staff from an April 2018 position.

They are full-time equivalents.

Mr. Neil Ward

Yes, of which 32 will be assigned to Mr. Costello's work. Others will be assigned to other areas mentioned such as EU treaty rights and other areas where we are experiencing particular pressures.

What about the timeframe?

Mr. Neil Ward

They have begun coming on-stream. We have recruited one assistant principal officer and approximately five higher executive officers. Four executive officers are being assigned this week. We have a small number of clerical officers. In terms of the delay, we are waiting for names to be sent to us by the Public Appointments Service. We are ready and have the budget available to put those people in place once we get them.

Mr. David Costello

There is also a lead-in time when we get new staff, particularly at case processor level. We cannot just let them loose on files immediately. The UNHCR, along with my trainers, provides a week-long training course on international refugee law protection. They then have to be mentored by another case worker over a number of months. The work is so complex it can take two to three months before someone is capable of being let loose on their own, although some people get to that point quicker than others. It is about recruitment and quality training but also recognising that output will not increase overnight when we get new people because there is a lead-in time for them to become familiar with the job.

In the 18 months since the commencement of the provisions of the International Protection Act, can the officials point to real improvements in processing times and time spent on direct provision? At this point in time, 18 months after the commencement of the provisions of the Act, is there any comparable reference they can provide that demonstrates that we are looking at a speedier throughput and that we are dealing with cases in a much more efficient and, hopefully, effective way?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Since the Act came into place, the average length of stay for those in State-provided accommodation has decreased. In 2015, it was 38 months; at the end of 2017, it was 23 months. Our intention is to continue to reduce that. A tiny percentage of applicants who are in direct provision more than three years have not had a first instance decision. The intention is to reduce that number to ensure the same percentage applies for those who are two years in direct provision and, eventually, get to the point where, at the end of next year, a first instance decision is given within nine months.

The other indicator I would give the Chairman is that despite taking on board the 3,500 cases we mentioned during the transition arrangements under the Act, we have reached a point where we are processing more cases than there are new cases entering the system. That, by definition, will reduce the time it takes for cases to be processed.

The statistic is welcome in terms of a reduction but we know there are people in situ for more than three years in some instances. I continue to engage, with colleagues in my own office, with our local support group. We have a direct provision centre in my home town and I am conscious of the circumstances they have to face each day.

In his preamble, referencing the Act, Mr. Kirrane stated: "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." I would have liked to have seen a sentence that referenced those who were not being returned in a timely and humane manner and that people were being looked after, processed and provided for in a timely and humane manner. It would be remiss of me if I did not tell the officials that those involved in the voluntary community action and support for people in direct provision in my home town, which is a host community, find the slowness of the system unacceptable. Some would use other language such as dilatory et al. I have heard it all and engage with it regularly. There is great vexation and frustration about that and we would fail in our duty if we did not properly reflect that to the officials. We are talking about people here.

While there are some voices I strongly disagree with or totally disapprove of, the overwhelming majority in my community are supportive, welcoming and anxious to see people treated as they would wish for themselves or their families in any comparable situation globally. That, sadly, is not the experience in the service. This, as was said, is related to recruitment and everything else. We need to reach a point where the targets set are met within the timeframe set. There can be no drift on that. This committee will certainly take a keen interest in it.

Let me finish before letting Deputy Chambers back in. Deputy Daly referred to a case concerning cancellation after notification to present for a ceremony of naturalisation involving the presentation of certificates. I do not know who present is aware of an individual I have been representing whose case I brought to the Minister's attention in writing only some time ago. His ceremony was cancelled not only once but twice. It is incredible that somebody could be invited to a ceremony in the full understanding that he would be gifted with naturalisation, only to have the invitation withdrawn and be told not to present. Some time later, the individual received a new invitation to a second ceremony, but this was followed by yet another cancellation. What does that say to the person and the community to which he belongs? Those concerned are all part of little communities in which they fraternise, engage with one another and take strength from one another. On behalf of the person in the case in question, I am so vexed. It is deplorable to do to anybody what was done.

I engaged with the Minister for Justice and Equality, to whom the immigration service is responsible, and provided to him the full details, facts and evidence in this particular case. He advised me — I am saying this on public record — that an apology will have to be issued in this instance. I do even have an acknowledgment of that representation as I sit here facing the officials today. I know the Minister has engaged with them or their staff, yet the gentleman I have represented and I, as an elected public representative and Chairman of this committee, have not even been extended the courtesy of an acknowledgement, never mind an explanation, despite the Minister saying an apology was required in this case. When will this case be addressed substantively and resolved? I hope that the gentleman in question will be lucky on the third occasion and that there will be no more messing about in this instance.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We processed approximately 115,000 citizenship applications successfully since 2011. It is not that we are trying to put obstacles in the way of any individual applicant. The figures speak for themselves. It is not taken likely that somebody would issue a withdrawal of an offer for citizenship. It is because some further investigation is needed. I undertake to the Chairman that I will follow up on the case in question and revert to him directly.

But the further investigation must have followed and then a new invitation was issued. Is it that further information becomes available or is it that the investigation is not carried out diligently enough the first time? How can it happen to a person twice?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

It is certainly not our intention to do anything to an applicant except consider his or her case in as fair a manner as possible within the law. As I said, I will undertake to revert to the Deputy directly on the case concerned. I am not familiar with it. There are 250,000 cases processed by the immigration service each year. I will, however, undertake to find out precisely the circumstances in respect of the case.

I wish to clarify a question I asked earlier. I understand from the anomaly in the interpretations of the immigration service and the Central Bank that money might have been invested in a fund created for the visa but that the subsequent investment might not have occurred or have been progressed. Is it Mr. Kirrane's understanding that this did occur? Does he check that the investment has occurred or that the investment fund was created?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We do not check that the fund is created because that is licensed by the Central Bank. We seek to obtain confirmation from the applicant that the money has been invested in the fund.

The service gets confirmation about the onward investment before any visa is granted. Is that correct?

Mr. Michael Kirrane

That the money has been invested into the fund.

Discharged from the fund.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Into the fund?

After investment in the fund, is the fund invested for the reason for which the visa is granted? Surely that is part of the scheme.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

Does Mr. O'Connor want to clarify that?

Mr. Aonghus O'Connor

In that particular case, where the fund has been set up and the person is opting out it in favour of another enterprise, we accept that as a bona fide.

I do not mean that. I refer to where the investment fund is in place for a particular person, and where it may be licensed and the visa may be granted. Does the service ensure that the onward investment from the fund has occurred or is occurring before granting the visa?

Mr. Aonghus O'Connor

Is the Deputy talking about the onward distribution of what has entered a fund?

Mr. Aonghus O'Connor

That is a matter for the fund. We get documentation from the fund regularly telling us how it has updated its operations. That is an internal management matter.

It could be the case that a visa has been granted where a fund was created on a proper basis but there is a question mark over whether the onward investment is occurring and over the checks to confirm this. That is the difference.

Mr. Aonghus O'Connor

The Deputy is asking about where the fund has been set up and the money has landed in-----

And the visa may have been granted.

Mr. Aonghus O'Connor

The visa may have been granted. It is a matter of the management of the fund thereafter.

But the onward investment from the fund into the particular-----

Mr. Aonghus O'Connor

We get updates from the fund regarding how the fund is being managed and what the money is being invested in.

Are there assurances and protocols in place to ensure the follow-through from the fund?

Mr. Aonghus O'Connor

There is a two-yearly review and a three-yearly review. We do not look for updates every month.

It is a question of ensuring a fund has not been created without the investment occurring. That was the concern from the Central Bank side, judging from its note.

Mr. Aonghus O'Connor

As the director general has said, we are meeting the Central Bank tomorrow to clarify its position on that.

On a point Deputy Brophy made, a reason was given regarding the names but, for the purpose of transparency, perhaps rules should be introduced so that if anyone, on the changing of the policy, sought to contact or engage in lobbying in any way, he or she would be automatically excluded from applying. That would be a better way of ensuring transparency and protection for the people on the executive board rather than having question marks over who is on it or not, or over the personnel requirements. The PAS and other public service bodies name people on individual boards and if people seek to influence them, they may be automatically excluded. That would be a way to stop anyone from trying to exert inappropriate influence. It would also address any questions that might arise over transparency. That is just a suggestion.

There could be a strong protocol around that. The public knows that Mr. Kirrane is a member but does not know who else is. It would be worth considering what is done in the Public Appointment Service and other agencies of the State, if there is-----

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We are certainly prepared to consider that.

That would be better from the Department's point of view, in the interests of transparency, in terms of protocol, in case anyone sought to influence the board. As of now some people might know that there are people on the board but the public does not know, whereas if there is a protocol in place whereby it is public, known and there are rules around making any contact with individual members for that reason, and to exclude them from potential applications, they would understand the process clearly. That is just a suggestion.

On behalf of the committee, I thank Mr. Kirrane and his colleagues for their opening address and frank responses to all the questions put to them. They reserved the opportunity to come back on a few points. My suggestion is that they come back through the clerk and each of the members will be copied into that information.

I thank my committee colleagues for their participation throughout. It has been a lengthy engagement but it is a first, certainly for the current committee and I expect for the witnesses. I hope we will have another meeting after all the improvements Mr. Costello has promised. We will hold him faithfully to that promise.

The next one will be harder.

It always gets harder the second time. I extend sincere thanks to each of the witnesses for their contributions. We are down to small numbers but a summer recess is about to happen. Tomorrow night at 10.48 p.m. we are signalled to have the bell ring to leave. It will be like children leaving school. It gives me great pleasure to say the joint committee will adjourn sine die but it is likely to meet again on 19 September, 2018.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.05 p.m. sine die.