178. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Justice if she will address missing targeted applications under the single application procedure for international protection applicants by 46.4% for 2020 (details supplied). [26825/21]


Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): While the International Protection Office (IPO) of my Department estimated that it would make in the region of 4,250 first instance recommendations in respect of international protection applications in 2020, the Deputy will appreciate that these figures were projected before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and before the IPO became aware of the impact the pandemic would have on its processing capabilities.
Throughout the pandemic, the IPO has remained open to offer applicants a service in line with our international obligations to allow those who wish to claim international protection the opportunity to do so. The provision of the facility to allow people claim international protection is considered an essential service at all times, including during the COVID-19 crisis. IPO staff have worked both on-site and remotely since the pandemic began to ensure the international protection process continued to operate.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 public health measures required to ensure the safety of applicants, legal representatives and staff have resulted in additional logistical challenges that has limited the processing of applications. Attendance in the office has been strictly limited in line with public health guidance. The IPO continues to explore new ways of working but it must operate within legal and logistical constraints, with the health and safety of all involved as an absolute priority. In-person contact and support, which remains an indispensable part of the process, also presents the greatest challenges during COVID-19.
Substantive protection interviews under section 35 of the 2015 Act were first suspended in line with public health requirements on 13 March 2020. They resumed, in lower numbers than before due to public health measures, on 20 July 2020, until 21 October 2020, when they were again suspended. Interviews resumed for the period 2 December until 18 December 2020, at which point they were once again suspended.
Interviews recommenced on 10 May 2020, in limited numbers by video conference in line with health and safety guidance. The IPO is now working to expand its video conferencing programme with a view to making interviews by video conference a significant element of IPO operations.
The processing of applications during the pandemic has therefore been seriously disrupted, which has led to a considerable reduction in the output of recommendations as well as impacting upon the target set by the IPO to make first instance decisions in the vast majority of cases within 9 months.
Despite the complex challenges presented by the pandemic, the IPO processed 2,276 applications for international protection to completion in 2020, just under 67% of the total in achieved in 2019 (3,408 applications).
In line with the recommendations of the Advisory Group on the Provision of Support including Accommodation to Persons in the International Protection Process, an end-to-end process review is currently under way. The review will inform resource considerations and actions on process improvements as appropriate.