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1379. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Justice the way in which a person with limited or no decision making capacity can be represented by a person with power of attorney and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18249/21]

1380. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Justice the waiting times for first decisions and appeal decisions for applicants for international protection; the number of letters regarding decisions issued each month; the current backlog of numbers as a result of Covid-19 restrictions; the projected time it will take to clear the backlog; the number of interviews taking place each month; the number of first interviews conducted in 2020; the number that were conducted outside of Dublin; the specific measures taken to speed up the process; the number of staff working on this process; her plans to hire additional staff; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18255/21]

Answer

Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): The International Protection Office (IPO) of the Immigration Service of my Department is absolutely committed to ensuring that all applicants have an equal opportunity to present their case, while adhering to measures to ensure the safety of all participants. Staff in the IPO have worked both onsite and remotely throughout the pandemic to ensure the protection process continues to operate.
In general, the scheduling of interviews by the IPO is done in accordance with the prioritisation policy agreed with the UNHCR and published on the IPO website www.ipo.gov.ie. This prioritisation, provided for under section 73 of the International Protection Act 2015, is subject to the need for fairness and efficiency in dealing with applications for international protection. Scheduling of cases will primarily be done on the basis of the date of application (oldest cases first).
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 can slow down the scheduling process. 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.The IPO continues to work to ensure that those who had their interviews postponed are rescheduled as soon as possible.
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 and continued until 21 October when they were again suspended in line with public health measures. Interviews resumed for the period 2 December until 18 December 2020, at which point they were once again suspended. There have been no interviews to date in 2021.
The IPO continues to maintain an interview schedule, to enable as rapid a resumption as possible once public health measures allow this to happen. Currently there are in the region of 500 applicants on that draft schedule. There will, inevitably, be a period between the date that the IPO is informed that interviews can resume and the first interviews taking place in the interests of fairness to allow applicants and their legal representatives to prepare for the interview.
According to IPO records, just under 2,700 section 35 interviews were scheduled during 2020 of which just over 1,100 proceeded. Just over 1,000 interviews were postponed due to Covid-19. This figure includes applicants who, unfortunately, had interviews postponed more than once as the situation evolved over the course of the year. The comparable figure for 2019 is approximately 4,500 interviews scheduled of which 3,200 proceeded.
The table below provides the breakdown by month of interviews that took place in 2020:

Jan Feb Mar Apr May June July Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec Total
259 296 118 0 0 0 42 92 116 63 0 130 1116

The number of interviews held outside Dublin broken down by month and location is provided in the table below:
Month Cork Sligo Galway
Jan 16 8 0
Feb 16 0 0
Mar 0 7 0
Apr 0 0 0
May 0 0 0
June 0 0 0
July 0 0 0
Aug 0 0 0
Sept 8 0 0
Oct 16 0 0
Nov 0 0 0
Dec 17 0 2
Totals 73 15 2

The IPO successfully piloted interviews by video conference in 2019 and is now working to expand that programme with a view to making interviews by video conference a significant element of IPO operations. The IPO has also been working on a revised IPO 2 international protection questionnaire, which will be shorter and more user friendly. It is planned to commence use of this questionnaire shortly. In light of the current public health restrictions, the IPO is accepting current IPO 2 Questionnaires which have been electronically completed by the applicant or their legal representative provided they have been signed by the applicant.
The median processing times for determinations made by the International Protection Office (IPO) in 2020 for all cases was 17.6 months and for prioritised cases was 12.7 months.
The median processing time for all cases processed to completion in the IPO in Q1 2021 was 22.2 months, and 16.1 months for prioritised cases processed in Q1.
The following table sets out the median Processing Time for Decisions in 2020 from Appeal Accepted Date to Appeal Decision Date:
Appeal Type Median Processing Time (Weeks)
Accelerated IP Appeal 35
Substantive IP Appeal 34
Substantive IP Appeal (Asylum only) 26

The median processing time for decisions made by the Ministerial Decisions Unit in 2020 was 1.6 months. The median processing time for cases completed in the Ministerial Decisions Unit in Q1, 2021 was 0.2 months.
While the International Protection Office makes a first instance recommendation, decisions in respect of international protection are made by the Ministerial Decisions Unit.
The table below provides the number of decision letters issued by the Ministerial Decisions Unit in 2020 and to end March in 2021.
2020 by month Decisions Issued 2021 by month Decisions Issued
January 311 January 135
February 210 February 144
March 163 March 103
April 4 Total 382
May 4
June 3
July 195
August 242
September 315
October 424
November 158
December 128
Total 2,157

At the end of March 2021, there were 5,130 cases pending at the IPO and 596 cases pending in the Ministerial Decisions Unit.
There were 141.46 staff (full time equivalent figure) working in the IPO at the end of March 2021. The Advisory Group on the Provision of Support including Accommodation to Persons in the International Protection Process, recommended that the IPO should have a total staffing of 220 civil servants to enable it to deal with an annual caseload of 3,500 applications within the recommended processing timeline of 6 months. In line with the recommendations of the Advisory Group, an end-to-end process review is currently under way. The review will inform resource considerations and actions on process improvements as appropriate.
In October 2020, I announced that an additional €1.75m had been allocated for asylum processing in 2021 for the efficient functioning of the international protection system, which will help us to further improve processing times for applications.