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222. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Justice the average waiting time for applications for citizenship; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9058/21]

223. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Justice the levels of investment made by her Department in each of the years 2015 to 2019 in information technology systems and services with the specific objective to improve the efficiency of processing applications for citizenship; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9059/21]

224. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Justice the levels of investment made by her Department in each of the years 2015 to 2019 in resources and services to support applicants for citizenship in their application process, for example, translation services, tutorials and easy-to-access information on the application process; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9060/21]

Answer

Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): I propose to take Questions Nos. 222 to 224, inclusive, together.
The average processing time for applications decided in 2020 was 13.5 months.
A number of issues have impacted on the processing of citizenship applications over the past 15 months. A High Court case which was subsequently successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal resulted in significant delays in 2019. As well as this, a significant backlog has built up regarding the granting of citizenships due to the inability to hold in person ceremonies during the pandemic, which has prevented the holding of such ceremonies. These are usually attended by hundreds of new citizens and have become a welcome addition to our public and civic life.
The combined impact of the Jones judgment 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.
Quite aside from those specific issues, for a broad range of reasons, some cases will take longer than others to process. 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.
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.
With regard to improvements to address these issues, last month, I announced that a temporary system is now in place that will help to significantly clear the backlog over the course of this year. The temporary system enables applicants to complete their naturalisation process by signing a statutory declaration of loyalty. This signed statutory declaration replaces the requirement for citizenship applicants to attend citizenship ceremonies, which have been temporarily suspended during Covid-19. The new system is in place from 18 January 2021, and my Department will communicate with applicants regarding the requirements, on a phased basis over the next few months until in-person citizenship ceremonies are able to recommence. It is expected that the 4,000 applicants currently waiting on naturalisation will have been provided with an opportunity to gain citizenship by the end of March and I am pleased to say that more than 500 certificates have recently issued.
In addition to the provision of an alternative platform to large-scale citizenship ceremonies, a number of resources and services have been provided in recent years to support applicants for citizenship in their application process:
- The Citizenship website has been significantly revisited with a view to increasing clarity and enhancing the end user experience. The primary focus has been using simple and easy to understand language and expanding and simplifying guidelines. For instance, following analysis of customer feedback, the section on the provision of residency proofs has been expanded and clarified. In addition, guidance for those applying under Section 16 of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956 as amended has been expanded, in direct response to customer feedback.
- Citizenship Division also engages with immigration NGOs in order to tailor information according to the needs of the client base.
- As part of this process, a new online chat conversation application, or “Chatbot” has recently been introduced. This provides users with an instant response to frequently asked questions and is called Tara. The application mimics real-time text or message exchange with a member of staff and has answered more than 10,000 queries since it was launched in December.
Further plans for the digitalisation of the naturalisation process are well advanced, in line with my plan to significantly modernise the Justice Sector through increased digital and ICT investment. As part of this process:
- Online payments have been trialled for Minor applications and the process is currently being rolled out to Adult applications on a phased basis.
- In addition, the Division is moving from a paper based transaction model currently utilised with the National Vetting Bureau to a digital platform. It is anticipated this will substantially cut application processing times once it is fully operational.
- From 23 November 2020, all adult applicants are required to have an up to date Tax Clearance certificate which is available electronically from the revenue commissioners.
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.