563. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Justice if she has considered fast-tracking citizenship applications of those applicants who worked on the front lines during the Covid-19 crisis as has been done in France; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46011/21]


Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): I recognise and acknowledge the crucial role frontline workers are continuing to play in responding to the threat of COVID-19. They work in a challenging environment and deal with vulnerable people on a daily basis. Their exceptional commitment has been particularly clear throughout the pandemic, during which they have been playing a key role in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
However, all applications for a certificate of naturalisation are processed and assessed individually in accordance with the legislation. There are no provisions to apply different criteria depending on the category of employment of the applicant. All applicants are required to meet minimum periods of reckonable residence and standard checks are carried out as part of the overall process to maintain its integrity.
I am deeply conscious of how important the granting of naturalisation is to those who apply for it and my Department has continued to accept and process citizenship applications throughout the pandemic and at all levels of public health restrictions. However, processing rates have been negatively impacted by the necessary health and safety related restrictions imposed and it has not been possible to hold in-person citizenship ceremonies since March 2020.
Regrettably, there are just over 22,200 applications currently on hand. These applications are at various stages of processing, ranging from those just received to those where a decision has been made and are "ceremony ready".
For applicants that were in the final stages of processing, in January, my Department opened a temporary system to enable these applicants to complete their naturalisation process by signing a statutory declaration of loyalty. Since then, my Department has delivered on its commitment to communicate with 6,500 applicants by the end of June, inviting them to complete the final steps required prior to the granting of a certificate of naturalisation.
As of 15 September 2021, 6,167 certificates of naturalisation have been issued so far this year and a significant number of healthcare and other frontline workers have and benefitted from these new arrangements. A further 1,000 people have paid the statutory fee and will receive their certificates in the coming weeks.
Since 13 September, the staff of the Citizenship Division of my Department have returned to the office on a new attendance pattern that will see a gain of approximately 500 production hours per week due to increased footfall on-site. To further address the volume of applications on hand, additional staff are being assigned to the citizenship team; and a number of digitisation measures have been introduced to increase efficiency in the process, including eTax clearance, eVetting and online payments.
The end result of the digitisation process will be to free up more staff to focus on processing applications in a timely and efficient manner, to improve service to our customers and reduce waiting times. Based on this, my objective is to achieve an improved decision making timeframe of 6-9 months for a majority of applications during 2022.