531. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the reason the average wait time for first interview for asylum applications has increased from 11 weeks in 2015 to 18 to 20 months in 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25425/18]
Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan): As the Deputy will be aware, the International Protection Act 2015, which introduced a single application procedure, was commenced on 31 December 2016.
Under the single procedure, recommendations at first instance are made by the International Protection Office (IPO), which replaced the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC). Appeals in respect of negative first instance protection recommendations are considered by the statutorily independent International Protection Appeals Tribunal, which replaced the former Refugee Appeals Tribunal (RAT).
The fact that scheduling times have lengthened in the IPO can be attributed to a number of reasons.
Firstly, as part of the transition arrangements for the new single procedure process, the IPO was required to take responsibility for the processing of over 3,000 cases which were not finalised by the former ORAC or RAT. These applications reverted for processing under the transitional provisions of the 2015 Act and added significantly to the IPO caseload. All of these transitional cases had to be contacted individually by the IPO to inform them of the relevant provisions of the 2015 Act and how the transitional provisions would affect their applications. All applicants received comprehensive documentation including a new Application for International Protection Questionnaire (IPO 2) which, on return, had to be translated and associated with the relevant files. This process meant that the IPO was not fully up and running in terms of interviewing until the second quarter of 2017. The concentration on the elimination of the inherited backlog, in line with the system of prioritisation agreed with the UNHCR, has also reduced the ability of the IPO to address more current cases.
Secondly, there was a 30% increase in applications for international protection in 2017 (including EU relocation applicants) which has put additional pressure on the processing system. In addition, applications for international protection have also increased in 2018 (to end May) by over 30% as compared with the same period in 2017.
Thirdly, the 2015 Act substantially changed the processing arrangements for the consideration of applications for international protection and for permission to remain decisions by introducing a more comprehensive single procedure. On the one hand, this development has, of course, resulted in a more streamlined system enabling all the grounds for a person to remain in the State to be determined as part of one process in the IPO. However, compared with the jurisdiction at first instance of the former ORAC, which considered applications for refugee status alone, caseworkers in the IPO are required to investigate applications on the basis of three comprehensive elements namely; whether the applicant is a refugee or, if not; whether the applicant is eligible for subsidiary protection or, if not and thirdly, are there grounds to grant a person humanitarian permission to remain in the State. While considering all aspects together does, of course, create economies of scale in investigating applications as part of a more streamlined single procedure process, the level of investigation required is more comprehensive and consequently more time consuming.
In terms of progress to date, I can inform the Deputy that considerable work has been undertaken to get the new process up and running. For example, in terms of scheduling of interviews, the IPO scheduled over 2,400 single procedure interviews (including in respect of EU relocation cases) in 2017. In 2018 (to end May), some 1500 interviews have been scheduled.
In relation to recommendations/decisions, some 1,780 recommendations/decisions in respect of international protection and permission to remain were made by the IPO in 2017. This included some 750 recommendations in respect of the grant of international protection . In addition, some 1,634 recommendations/decisions have been made by the IPO in 2018 (to end May 2018). This includes international protection recommendations (including EU relocation cases), permission to remain decisions and permission to remain reviews. For 2018, there were some 572 international protection grants and over 100 grants of permission to remain made by the IPO. All 2018 figures are provisional.
Based on current predictions, the IPO is in line to make some 3,500 recommendations and decisions in 2018.
Considerable additional resources have and are being allocated to the IPO to assist it in undertaking its statutory functions with a view to processing the volume of cases on hands as soon as possible. As at the beginning of June 2018, the current staffing complement in the IPO is 135. In addition, there are some 55 serving members of the IPO Case Processing Panel. To enable the IPO to carry out their functions to optimum effect and to assist in the reduction of caseloads, the current Case Processing Panel is being further expanded at the present time on the basis of public advertisement.
The resources assigned to the IPO, as well as work processes in that organisation, are being kept under ongoing review and additional resources will be allocated as these become available so that the cases on hand, both those applications preceding the commencement of the 2015 Act and the increased volume of new applications, are dealt with as quickly as possible and waiting times for those applying for international protection are reduced to the greatest possible extent.
It is recognised that currently many applicants for international protection are waiting longer than they should for their first instance interviews in the IPO and to have their cases decided. While the structural causes of delays have been removed with the commencement of the International Protection Act, 2015, the main challenge now faced is the need to quickly eradicate the substantial number of cases carried over from the previous system. As I indicated, these challenges are being addressed by deploying increased resources and a continual assessment and reform of the use of those resources and, having due regard to the requirements of the International Protection Act 2015. Question No. 532 answered with Question No. 514.