86. Deputy Terence Flanagan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality her plans to address the asylum backlog of 4,309 cases (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15892/15]
Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): At the outset I should say that the figure stated by the Deputy refers to the number of persons availing of Direct Provision accommodation in the State in October 2014. The Deputy is advised that those in the Direct Provision system, whilst including applicants awaiting decisions for extended durations at various stages of the protection process, also includes recent applicants who have spent relatively short periods in the process, those who have taken judicial reviews in the courts against negative decisions on their applications, those subject to deportation orders following negative decisions, and an increasing number of persons who have elected to remain in the Direct Provision system following the granting of refugee status or leave to remain due to difficulties in sourcing suitable accommodation elsewhere.
I have no plans to introduce a one-off scheme to clear all protection applications currently on hand. The Deputy may be aware that there is a political commitment among EU Member States against any form of process that would grant residence status to persons present in the State without first examining the merits of their individual cases. Broad regularisation programmes are problematic, in particular as they could give rise to unpredictable and very costly impacts across the full range of public and social services.
I have previously acknowledged however that the length of time that many applicants spend in the protection process is a matter that needs to be addressed particularly in light of the sharp increase in asylum application volumes in 2014 and so far in 2015. The Deputy may be aware that an independent Working Group was set up by Government in October 2014 to recommend to the Government what improvements should be made to the protection process, including direct provision and supports to asylum seekers. One of the tasks of the Working Group is to identify improvements to existing arrangements for the processing of protection applications taking account of the Government's intention to legislate for a single application procedure.
The Group began its work in November last under the Chairmanship of retired High Court Judge, Bryan McMahon and its membership is drawn from a range of interests in the international protection area including UNHCR, non-governmental organisations, protection applicants, academia, and relevant Government Departments and Offices. The Working Group is due to report to Government with its recommendations by May 2015.
I have also committed to introducing legislative change in the Protection area to provide for a single application procedure with a view to reducing the length of time applicants spend in the protection process. On 25 March 2015 I published the General Scheme of the International Protection Bill, which has been approved by Government. This is the first step in delivering the Government's undertaking in the Statement of Priorities 2014-2016 to legislate to reduce the length of time protection applicants spend in the system. My objective is to reform the current multi-layered and sequential system which can result in applicants being accommodated in the State's system of direct provision for indeterminate periods of time. The single procedure will identify at a much earlier stage those who are in need of international protection and should be granted status and those with no entitlement to stay in the State and who can safely return to their country of origin.
In accordance with the Government decision I have forwarded the General Scheme of the Bill to the Attorney General for the detailed drafting of the legislation which, subject to the approval of the Government at a future time, will be presented to the Oireachtas for enactment into law. My aim is for the legislation to be enacted by the end of this year.
Notwithstanding the deliberations of the Working Group on the Protection process and the future publication of the International Protection Bill, a number of measures have already been taken to address the number of cases on hand in the protection system which are yielding significant results. Various strategies are being utilised to deal with cases on hand including the scheduling of interviews of applicants on Saturdays. The transfer of subsidiary protection application processing to the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner in late 2013 has resulted in the production of decisions in some 1,000 cases at first instance. In addition, a further 1,300 subsidiary protection applications have either been withdrawn or deemed withdrawn. The processing of these cases has been greatly aided by the establishment of a legal panel set up to assist the Commissioner with this work. Based on the success of the use of the panel it is now planned to expand it and extend its remit to include the processing of asylum applications.
To assist with processing at the appeals stage of the process I have recently appointed nine additional members to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. These members have been selected from those who were considered suitable for appointment following a competitive process involving the Public Appointments Service. My Department is also actively considering what other measures can be taken to reduce the number of cases on hand at the leave to remain stage of the process in advance of the introduction of a single application procedure. Questions Nos. 87 and 88 answered with Question No. 85.