836. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Justice the estimated impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the waiting times for international protection related interviews. [22323/21]


Minister for Justice (Deputy Heather Humphreys): 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 the necessary 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 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 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.
Efforts to improve processing times have been seriously impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has reduced the output of decisions considerably and has impacted on the target set by the IPO to make first instance decisions in the vast majority of cases within 9 months. 
The median processing times for determinations made by the 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. 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.
At the end of March 2021, there were 5,130 cases pending at the IPO and 596 cases pending in the Ministerial Decisions Unit.
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.
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 6 months respectively, as outlined in the White Paper to End Direct Provision and Establish a New International Protection Support Service.
Work is under way in my Department towards identifying mechanisms which will assist with working towards improved processing times, including an end-to-end review of processes to guide enhanced processing times.