I propose to take Questions Nos. 158 and 167 together.
I am deeply conscious of how important the granting of naturalisation is to those who apply for it and my Department continued to accept and process citizenship applications throughout the pandemic and during all levels of public health restrictions.
Regrettably, the current processing time has increased to an average of 23 months, due to the combined impact of the 2019 High Court judgment in the Jones case and the necessary health and safety related restrictions imposed as a result of the Covid-19 disruption.
However, my Department is taking a number of steps to speed up the processing of applications and a number of digitisation measures have also been introduced to increase efficiency in the process, including eTax clearance, eVetting 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 reduce waiting times to between 6-9 months for a majority of applications during 2022.
Last week, I also announced that from 1 January 2022, new applicants for citizenship will no longer have to submit their original passport with their application. Instead, they can provide a full colour copy of their entire passport, including the front and back covers.
I know that this change in practice will be very much welcomed by our customers. They may need their passport to travel to see family or friends abroad, something many of us have not have been able to do for a long time due to Covid-19. It will also free up valuable staff that up to now have been engaged in returning passports to applicants.
Unfortunately, for public health reasons, the in-person citizenship ceremony scheduled for 13 December in Killarney has been postponed. While this is disappointing for all of us, I know that the Deputy will agree that the safety and wellbeing of everyone is paramount. Instead, arrangements are underway in my Department to hold a virtual citizenship celebratory event next month.