84. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to introduce measures to reduce the waiting times for the result of a first interview for refugee and international protection applicants; and his views on the waiting times for all aspects of the process. [27296/19]


Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan): I can inform the Deputy that measures are being taken to improve waiting times for the result of a first interview with the International Protection Office (IPO).
As part of legislative reform arising from the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015, the introduction of the single procedure process where all elements of a person's claim (refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permission to remain) are now considered together rather than sequentially, will significantly help reduce waiting times.
In addition, a number of other measures have and are being taken including increases in staffing levels at the International Protection Office with 149 civil servants and 70 panel members currently serving in the IPO. A new streamlined system for processing Safe Country of Origin (SCO) cases has been implemented and various process improvements have been made in the IPO and in the International Protection Appeals Tribunal (IPAT). In addition, further changes have been made by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) to reduce the time taken for the issue of final decision letters.
Reviews of processes in the IPO have been undertaken in consultation with the UNHCR to streamline processes as much as possible.
These measures being carried out by the IPO are reflected in the increases in productivity in processing cases. For example 3,091 recommendations were made by the IPO in 2018, an increase of 59% over the 2017 output of 1,938 recommendations. It is my Department’s aim to reduce waiting times for recommendations at the first instance stage with the IPO to 9 months by the end of 2019 subject to the levels of new applications, etc. The current waiting time for first instance recommendations to issue by the IPO since the International Protection Act 2015 was commenced is 15 months and for priority cases 10 months.
At the appeals stage, in 2018 1,714 appeals were scheduled for hearing, an increase of 181% when compared to the number of hearings scheduled in the previous year. The average processing time for appeals to the IPAT in 2019 is 23 weeks. The IPAT have a target median waiting time of 14 weeks for appeals by the end of 2019.
Notwithstanding these measures being taken by my Department it should be noted that there are factors outside of the control of the processing areas that can add significantly to processing time. These include the time taken by applicants to complete their application questionnaire and the need to strike a balance between fairness to the applicant and a recognition that it must be returned within a reasonable period. In addition, protection applicants have the right to seek redress in the courts. Finally, future demand cannot be predicted with often very large variations in numbers of applicants from one year to another. The need for specialised training of staff means a significant lead time before new staff can be fully operational which presents significant challenges to reducing waiting times.