88. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Justice the steps her Department is taking to improve processing times for applications for asylum, leave to remain and associated permissions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37158/21]


Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. For people in the international protection process, the Government's objective is to have decisions made on their applications, including permission to remain, as soon as possible. This ensures that those who are found to be in need of our protection can receive it quickly and begin rebuilding their lives here in Ireland with a sense of safety and security.
I am conscious of the difficulties and trauma encountered by people who seek international protection and I am glad that, throughout the pandemic, my Department's international protection office, IPO, has remained open to allow people the opportunity to do so in line with our international obligations. The provision of the facility to allow people claim international protection is considered an essential service at all times, including during Covid-19. Staff have worked both on-site and remotely since the pandemic began to ensure the protection process continues to operate and I am grateful to them for their dedication throughout this period. I visited the IPO last week to see first-hand the work that is being done and had an opportunity to speak with some staff and customers.
Physical attendance in the office has been strictly limited in line with public health guidance. Ensuring the safety of applicants, legal representatives and staff has resulted in additional logistical challenges that have limited the processing of applications and efforts to improve processing times, including the target set to make first-instance decisions in the vast majority of cases within nine months. Despite these challenges, 2,276 applications for international protection were processed to completion last year, which was just under 67% of the total achieved in 2019.
My Department's main focus now is to get its processing system functioning as effectively and efficiently as possible, while adhering to all measures in place to combat the spread of Covid-19. My Department is committed to implementing the key recommendations in the expert advisory group report to reduce processing times of both first-instance decisions and appeals to six months, as outlined in the White Paper to end direct provision and establish a new international protection support service.