570. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice the current average processing time for applications for citizenship; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46189/21]
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): As the Deputy will appreciate, a number of unforeseen issues have negatively impacted the processing of citizenship applications in recent years. A High Court case, which was subsequently successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal, resulted in significant delays in 2019, and the loss of over six months processing time. Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on staff attendance in the office over the last 18 months and a significant backlog has built up regarding the granting of citizenships due to the inability to hold in person ceremonies during this time.
As a result, regrettably, the current average processing time for applications is 23 months and 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".
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, the combined impact of the 2019 Jones judgment and the necessary health and safety related restrictions imposed as a result of the Covid-19 disruption has resulted in the processing timeline for standard applications increasing.
Aside from these specific issues, for a broad range of reasons, some cases will take longer than others to process. Processing timescales can be impacted by incomplete applications having to be returned; further documentation being required from the applicant; where the payment of the required certificate fee is awaited; or if the applicant has not been engaging with my Department.
In some instances, the input of several government agencies, both within and outside the jurisdiction is needed and the request and receipt of information from these sources can result in delays in processing some applications. Issues can also arise at the final stage of the naturalisation process, for example, where additional information comes to light which is required to be considered before a final decision is taken.
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 further 1,000 people have paid the statutory fee and will receive their certificates in the coming weeks.
The Citizenship Division of my Department has prioritised bringing the oldest applications on hand to conclusion and a significant number of these applicants have received their certificates of naturalisation since the introduction of the temporary process.
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.