Thursday, 21 October 2021

Questions (88)

Peter Fitzpatrick


88. Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick asked the Minister for Justice the number of citizenship applications outstanding for longer than 12 months; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51504/21]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Justice)

How many applicants for citizenship are currently waiting more than 12 months for a decision on their application? How many are currently waiting more than 24 months? My constituency office is overflowing with queries from such applicants. Applications are currently taking at least 23 months to be processed and there are more than 22,000 applicants awaiting a decision.

I thank the Deputy for raising the important matter of the number of citizenship applications outstanding for longer than 12 months. I am deeply conscious of how important the granting of naturalisation is to those who apply for it. My Department has continued to accept and process citizenship applications throughout the pandemic and during all levels of public health restrictions.

However, the combined impact of the 2019 High Court judgment in the Jones case and the necessary health restrictions arising from the pandemic has resulted in the processing time for standard applications increasing. As a result, regrettably, there are just over 22,200 applications currently on hand, reduced from a high of more than 25,000 applications. This includes 14,800 applicants who have been in the system for more than 12 months. These applications are at various stages of processing, ranging from those that have just been received to those on which a decision has been made and that are ceremony-ready.

My Department is taking a number of steps to speed up the processing of applications. In January, it opened a temporary system to enable applicants to complete their naturalisation process by signing a statutory declaration of loyalty. Almost 6,200 certificates have been issued so far and a further 1,000 people will receive their certificates in the coming weeks. My Department has prioritised the oldest applications on hand and a significant number of these applicants have received their certificates since the start of the year. Several digitisation measures have been introduced to increase efficiency in the process, including e-tax clearance, e-vetting and online payments. The end result of the digitisation process will be to free up more staff to focus on processing applications in a timely and efficient manner, to improve service to our customers and to reduce waiting times.

This year, we are on track to deliver approximately 11,000 decisions, significantly exceeding the levels achieved in the past two years. Additional staff have been assigned to the citizenship team. Based on these measures, my Department's objective is to achieve an improved timeframe of six to nine months for decisions in a majority of applications by 2022. I am pleased to confirm that, subject to public health guidelines, my Department intends to host an in-person citizenship ceremony on 13 December in Killarney, the first such ceremony since the pandemic began in March 2020.

I thank the Minister for what was, in fairness, a good reply. However, the problem at the moment is that there seems to be a communication breakdown. When my staff contact the Department for an update on the situation, it is nearly impossible to get one.

In fairness, it is the same people coming in every time. All they need is an update. To me, the only people making any kind of money out of it are the solicitors, because the applicants are going to solicitors and every time they do so, they are being charged fees. They are looking for updates and they are told to come back in three months, six months, nine months and 12 months. Every time they go, they are getting a bill from the solicitor. People just cannot afford it.

I am asking for better communication from the Department of Justice in relation to updates. Whether it is good or bad news, people are entitled to know the status of their application.

A number of these citizenship applications are probably from members of the Defence Forces who are foreign nationals. Would the Minister of State and the Department examine the possibility of reducing the fees in cases like that because these people are serving the State?

The Department is bringing in a number of reforms to try to speed up the process and make the application process simpler. Certainly, since I came into the Department I have pushed for all of the applications to be as simple and straightforward as possible and to minimise the need for any kind of legal advice. Many applicants are involved in the system at different stages. I favour the introduction of a system that is a one-stop shop that is quickly accessible to people, wherever they are in the system.

I understand people's frustration; I have seen it in my own constituency office. We are putting measures in place to try to reform the entire system. That is going to take time. It is unfortunate that as a result of a number of court cases and the pandemic, we have slipped substantially behind.

In relation to the fees, they are set out in law and applied accordingly. Therefore, the Department has little or no role in that matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. As I said, communication seems to be the biggest problem. I accept that if a one-stop shop was introduced, it would help everybody. Many of the applicants have been in the country for a long time and have children of their own. They are looking for clarity. The last thing they want is to hear a knock on the door and to be told to go to a station from where they could be deported. They have concerns.

The Department must communicate with people and let them know exactly where they are in the system. I appreciate that many staff in the Department have been working from home during the pandemic. However, the applicants are people who want to become Irish citizens. I feel that many of them would be a great asset to our country, particularly the way things are currently in the hospitality sector in respect of the shortage of workers. I would welcome the introduction of a one-stop shop.

Our aim is to get the timeframe for processing applications down to six to nine months. Provision has been made in the budget for additional staff in the immigration services to get those numbers down. We are working through ICT and other processes to make the system move more quickly and to streamline the entire system.

I understand that the length of time it is taking to process applications is deeply frustrating but at least if people knew the status of their application, it would provide them with a certain amount of clarity and comfort. I hear the Deputy's message in relation to the communications piece. I will certainly bring it back to my Department and will endeavour to make it a lot easier for people who have applied.