Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Ceisteanna (528)

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

528. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Justice further to Parliamentary Question No. 595 of 1 December 2020, the additional resources that will be provided to the naturalisation service to clear the backlog in cases arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and the High Court ruling of 2019; when her Department will consider the pandemic over given the advice not to submit applications during that time; and her views on whether it is acceptable that applicants are left in the dark regarding the length of time their passport will be held, given the high importance of the document in question. [42036/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Justice)

In general, the current target is that it should take around 12 months for a standard application for a certificate of naturalisation to be processed from the date it is received to the date a decision is made. However, for a broad range of reasons, some cases will take longer than others to process.  In some instances, completing the necessary checks, including security checks can take a considerable period of time with the result in some applications taking longer than the average timescale.

At the end of October there were 23,187 applications being processed at various stages within the system, ranging from those just received by the Citizenship Division to those where a decision has been made but it is not possible to issue an invitation to a ceremony.

It is very likely that a significant proportion of these applications would have progressed to completion during 2020 if it had been possible for citizenship ceremonies to go ahead.  It should be noted that the Citizenship Division did not suspend the receipt or processing of applications at any stage during COVID-19 restrictions, although processing rates have been negatively impacted by health and safety related restrictions.

The breakdown of applications by length of time open is as follows:

Length of time open

No. of applications

< 6 months

                   4,625

6 -12 months

                   5,304

12 - 18 months

                   4,677

18 - 24 months

                   3,202

> 24 months

                   5,379

Total

                 23,187

Processing timescales can be impacted by incomplete applications having to be returned; further documentation being required from the applicant; where the payment of the required certificate fee is awaited; or if the applicant has not been engaging with the Immigration Service of my Department. In some instances, the input of several government agencies, both within and outside the jurisdiction is needed and the request and receipt of information from these sources can result in delays in processing some applications. Issues can also arise at the final stage of the naturalisation process, for example, where additional information comes to light which is required to be considered before a final decision is taken.   

Additionally a number of issues have impacted on the processing of citizenship applications over the past 12 months.  A High Court case which was subsequently successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal resulted in significant delays last year. This has been compounded by the COVID-19 restrictions which have impacted the delivery of normal services to date this year. The combined impact of the Jones judgement and the COVID-19 disruption has resulted in the loss of over six months processing time.  As a result, the processing timeline for standard applications has increased to 12 months.

I recently announced that citizenship ceremonies will be temporarily replaced,  while COVID-19 restrictions are in place,  with a requirement for citizenship applicants to sign an affidavit declaring loyalty to the State. Work is at an advanced stage in my Department on the preparation of the necessary regulations under the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956 to make provision for this. It is intended that the regulations will be finalised very early in 2021 and information on the new requirements will be posted on the Immigration Service Delivery (ISD) website at that time.

In addition, work is well advanced on the following suite of measures designed to deal with the current unprecedented level of demand:

Additional staffing is being assigned to the Citizenship Division and is expected to be in place by year’s end. Attendant to this development, restructuring of the organisational structure of the Division is currently underway to ensure optimal customer service delivery. 

The Citizenship website has been significantly revisited with a view to increasing clarity and enhancing the customer . As part of this process, a new online chat conversation application, or “Chatbot” has just been introduced called Tara. This is providing users with an instant response to frequently asked questions and will mimic real-time text or message exchange with a member of staff. 

Plans for the digitalisation of the naturalisation process are well advanced, in line with my recent announcement to significantly modernise the Justice Sector through increased digital and ICT investment. As part of this process, on-line payments have been trialled for applications from minors and the process is currently being rolled out to adult applications on a phased basis.

Citizenship Division will also be moving from a paper based transaction model currently utilised with the Garda National Vetting Bureau to a digital platform. It is anticipated that this will substantially cut application processing times once it is fully operational.

The end result of the digitisation process will be to free up additional resources to focus on enhanced customer service delivery, ensuring the integrity of the process is protected and processing applications in a timely and efficient manner,  in order to improve service to our customers.