Dáil debates

Thursday, 18 October 2007

12:00 pm

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Minister of State with special responsibility for Overseas Development, Department of Foreign Affairs; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The purpose of the Passports Bill is to provide a comprehensive legislative basis for the regulation and issuance of passports. Over recent years, we have seen a rapid growth in international travel and a corresponding increase in demand for passports. More than 630,000 Irish passports were issued last year, compared with 468,000 in 2003 and 388,000 in 2000. Irish people made 7 million visits overseas in 2006.

The growth in demand, advances in technology and changes in international security requirements have necessitated substantial reform and modernisation of the passport system. Major innovations completed in recent years have included the introduction of machine readable passports, the development of an automated production facility and, in 2006, the introduction of biometric passports. As a result of these improvements, the Irish passport is widely seen as a high quality document, which is at the leading edge of passport technology internationally.

Over a relatively short period of time, we have moved a long way. Improvements in quality have been accompanied by a strong record on customer service. For many years, the Department of Foreign Affairs has successfully delivered a ten working day service for applications made through the express postal services, both north and south of the Border. Where applicants are required to travel within a shorter timeframe, it is possible to secure a passport more quickly; a limited same-day or next-day service is also available in the most urgent cases.

Whereas reform of the passport system has focused primarily on technology and the quality of service delivery, there is a need to reform the underlying regulatory framework. Passports are currently issued under general administrative provisions set out in the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924. Various administrative practices have been developed over the years and it is time to put in place specific legislation to bring greater clarity and certainty to the area.

We live in a country which is very different to that of the 1920s. Practices concerning the issuance of passports have evolved over time to reflect changes in society and these practices need to be set down clearly in legislation. The Bill therefore includes provisions that address the consent of parents who are living apart. It sets out in detail provisions for issuing passports in accordance with names on birth certificates, whether in Irish or English, and caters for the recognition of subsequent changes of names whether after marriage or through established usage. It also makes provision for issuance of passports to persons who are undergoing or have undergone changes of gender.

There is no desire on the part of the Minister to change social policy, which is rightly the prerogative of the relevant Ministers. There is, however, an onus on the Minister and the Department to provide the appropriate arrangements so that Irish citizens can travel abroad freely and with dignity.

The courts have established that there is a constitutional right to travel and, by implication, a right to obtain a passport. That right is not unqualified and there are certain circumstances in which a passport may validly be withheld, including cases where an individual is subject to a court order under the Bail Act 1997.

Particular care is also required in regard to the welfare of children. The Bill ensures that the welfare of the child is at the centre of our considerations and it includes detailed provisions on consent of parents and guardians. A second principal objective of the Bill is to combat fraud and misuse of passports. Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001, there has been increased international emphasis on improving identity and passport security. The investment in biometric passports has substantially improved the security of the Irish passport. This needs to be complemented, however, by strengthening measures to tackle fraudulent applications for, and misuse of, Irish passports.

As the law stands, criminal offences concerning the abuse of passports are general offences relating to property and range across several Acts. The case of the Colombia three highlighted the need for specific legislation to cover passport offences. Accordingly, the Bill provides for a detailed series of offences and penalties for the fraudulent acquisition, misuse and abuse of passports. The Bill will also enable prosecution of such offences where committed outside the State. This section was drafted in close co-operation with the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions,

Combating fraudulent use of Irish passports is important to ensure continued respect internationally for the integrity of the document. Organised criminals have developed increasingly sophisticated methods to carry out their activities. Moreover, crime does not respect borders and greater freedom of movement, particularly within the expanded European Union, means that all member states have a responsibility to strengthen systems which will detect and prevent misuse of national travel and identity documents.

To guard against fraud it is necessary to require applicants to produce adequate evidence of their identity and their entitlement to an Irish passport. This in turn means the Department acquires a considerable volume of personal data. The Department is subject to, and complies fully with the Data Protection Act 1988. Nevertheless, to ensure that individuals' personal rights in this regard are fully respected, officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs have consulted closely with the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner in drafting the Bill. I am grateful to them and to other bodies such as the Irish Human Rights Commission, for their advice and input.

In preparing the Bill, the Minister adopted an approach which is respectful of the rights of Irish citizens while bringing in the necessary sanctions against those who would endanger the integrity of our passport. Less secure travel documents would adversely affect our citizens as they travel.

Sections 1 to 4 under Part 1 are standard provisions relating respectively, to the short title and commencement date; definitions of terms; provision to make regulations under the legislation and expenses incurred in the administration of the legislation. The long title draws on the International Civil Aviation Organisation's, ICAO, definition of a passport as an international travel document which designates a person's citizenship.

Section 5 provides that the Minister's functions under the legislation are performed on the authority of the Government. Section 6 provides for the right of an Irish citizen to apply for a passport and outlines the application process. Subsections (3) and (4) deal respectively with applications regarding children and persons with a physical or mental incapacity. Section 14 contains more detailed provisions regarding consent of parents and or guardians.

Section 7 requires that before issuing a passport, the Minister shall be satisfied as to the Irish citizenship and identity of an applicant. Citizenship may be acquired in various ways: most commonly through birth, through a parent or grandparent, or through naturalisation. In some circumstances, it is also necessary to establish minimum periods of lawful residency in the State. This is a complex area and the nature of the documentation required will vary depending on individual circumstances.

The requirement to be satisfied as to a person's identity relates to the risk of identity theft. The introduction of biometric passports last year was designed as an additional safeguard and will over time reduce substantially the scope for fraud. We continually seek ways to tackle identity theft. Consultations will be held with the General Registrar's Office regarding the possible introduction of a link between birth and death certificates. Training has been provided regarding identification of forged documentation. Following a review of documentation submitted, if doubts remain as to an individual's identity, current practice is to request the applicant to submit additional documentation or, on occasion, attend for interview. Section 7 provides the legal basis for continuation of these practices. The Minister intends to strengthen this area of the passport service by establishing a specific unit dedicated solely to detecting and combating fraud. The provision under sections 19 through 24 of the Bill will further strengthen efforts to combat fraud.

Section 8 provides for the processing of personal data, including biometric data, in connection with passport applications. Biometric technology makes use of our unique biological features. Examples of biometric identifiers include facial measurements and characteristics, fingerprints and iris patterns. The Irish passport uses facial measurements and characteristics. This allows for the comparison of photographs when one renews one's passport. It also allows for comparisons at border control points to ensure that the person travelling is the real owner of the passport.

The Passport Office stores the photographs and the biometric information taken from them securely. The information will be used only for passport purposes and will not be shared with other agencies, except as may be required by law. The Passport Office can generate facial measurements from a photograph. Although there are no plans to include a second biometric identifier such as fingerprints or iris patterns, there is a possibility that this may become standard international practice at some point in the future and cannot be ruled out. Accordingly, subsection (2) provides for the possibility of contractual arrangements with a third party to collect this information from applicants at authorised centres around the country or at locations abroad. We have consulted closely with the office of the Data Protection Commissioner regarding relevant provisions in the Bill, including section 8.

Section 9 deals with periods of validity of passports. This is intended to underpin existing practice where the period of validity may vary according to age or other circumstances. Most passports issued are valid for ten years. Passports for children are valid for three or five years, depending on the age of the child because a child's appearance changes substantially over time.

The Department may issue emergency passports in circumstances where an applicant is required to travel at short notice and there is insufficient time to enable production of a full passport. Such passports are valid for one year. The period of validity for diplomatic or official passports also varies depending, for example, on the likely duration of an officer's assignment to an embassy or consulate overseas. Subsection (2) also provides for passports to be issued for reduced periods of validity in certain circumstances: for example, in the case of an applicant who has a history of persistent passport loss.

Section 10 sets out provisions regarding the name in which a passport is issued. This is designed to underpin existing practice. The general rule under subsection (1) is that the passport is issued in the name of an applicant as it appears in his or her birth certificate. Where citizenship is acquired other than by birth, for example, through naturalisation, the reference point is the name on the relevant supporting documentation.

Subsection (2) provides for a change of name after marriage. Subsections (3) through (5) deal with other changes of name. In line with current practice, an applicant must produce satisfactory evidence of usage over a minimum of a two-year period. As a safeguard against potential abuse of this provision, the Bill permits entry of the applicant's previous name in the passport.

The provisions are such that the Irish and English languages will be treated equally. If an applicant has a birth certificate in either language and wants to change to the other, he or she must provide evidence of usage over a two-year period.

Section 11 deals with gender re-assignment and outlines the circumstances in which a person who is undergoing treatment or procedures to alter his or her gender, may be issued with a passport in his or her new gender and or new name. Supporting evidence must be provided, including medical evidence from a registered medical practitioner. Inclusion of this provision is intended to reflect and underpin existing practice of the Passport Office and not, as is made clear in subsection (3), to confer any other rights or entitlements. The terms of section 11 were the subject of prior consultations with the Irish Human Rights Commission which has welcomed the inclusion of the provision in the Bill. They also reflect current international practice in western Europe and like-minded countries.

Section 12 outlines the circumstances in which a passport shall not be issued, as well as situations where the Minister has discretion in this regard. The constitutional right to travel is not an unqualified right. Section 12 seeks to reflect that position in legislation. A refusal is mandatory in circumstances where there is uncertainty regarding citizenship or identity, where applicants are subject to orders under the Bail Act 1997, in cases where false information is provided and in situations relating to problems with consent of parents or guardians.

Subsection (1)(c) provides for refusal where an applicant is likely to engage in certain forms of conduct, including conduct that might prejudice national security or the security of another state or that might endanger the applicant or other persons. In view of the constitutional position, a refusal under subsection (1)(c) could not be taken lightly and there is provision for consultation, where appropriate, with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and-or the Minister for Defence.

Section 12(2) allows discretion to refuse where an application does not comply with one of the requirements of the application process as set out under section 6 of the Bill. It also permits refusal of a second passport. Second passports are currently issued to a small number of applicants, mostly frequently business travellers who are required to make substantial numbers of visa applications. The individual circumstances are examined on a case-by-case basis. Second passports are also provided to people who travel in the Middle East where an immigration stamp of one country can cause problems for our citizens visiting other countries.

Section 13 deals with the inclusion in a passport of information including biometric data, an issue about which I spoke already in connection with section 8. Section 14 deals with the complex area of issuing passports for children. In line with existing legislation and practice, section 14 gives precedence to the welfare of the child and at the same time safeguards the rights of his or her guardians to take decisions regarding such welfare. Accordingly, the priority requirement is that consent of parents or guardians must be obtained before a passport can be issued. Where a parent or guardian withholds consent, a passport cannot be issued unless the other parent or guardian obtains a court order dispensing with the need for such consent.

However, provision must be made for cases where there may be difficulties in obtaining court orders. Subsection (5) recognises that where a child is resident outside the State with a parent or guardian, practical difficulties may apply with regard to obtaining a court order. In such cases, it provides that the Minister, having regard to all the circumstances, including whether the other parent or guardian has notified an objection to the issuing of a passport, may issue where he or she is satisfied that this is required to secure the child's welfare. The flexibility is required to ensure that injustices do not occur.

Subsection (6) further outlines exceptional circumstances where a passport may be issued without the consent of one or more guardians of a child. This will apply only where a guardian or other person with an interest in a child's welfare applies to the Minister and where there is an immediate and serious risk of harm to the child's life, health or safety which requires the child to travel. Section 14(8) proposes that the consent of each guardian must be obtained for the issuance of the first passport and that this consent will continue unless a guardian notifies the Minister in writing that he or she is revoking consent. The application form and accompanying notes will ensure that parents and guardians are fully aware of the position on duration of consent.

Section 15 gives a legislative basis to the issuing of emergency travel documents. Emergency passports are generally valid for one year and may be issued when an applicant produces evidence of an intention to travel immediately and where there is insufficient time to arrange the issue of a normal passport. In some situations an applicant may need to travel urgently, but may not be able to produce sufficient documentation to establish beyond doubt his or her entitlement to a passport. The Bill provides that in such cases an emergency travel certificate may be issued where there is reasonable cause to believe that the applicant is an Irish citizen. An emergency travel certificate is valid only for a single journey and generally such cases relate to an individual travelling abroad whose passport has been lost or stolen and who wishes to return to Ireland.

Section 16 provides for the issuing of diplomatic and official passports. Diplomatic passports are issued to those who have diplomatic status or to those who belong to a group that has been designated by the Minister to be issued with diplomatic passports. Official passports are issued to Irish public servants who travel abroad on State business. The main group in this category are Irish soldiers serving abroad with the United Nations.

Section 17 requires that where a person believes that his or her passport has been lost or stolen, he or she shall notify the Minister and the Garda Síochána. The Minister is permitted to inquire into the circumstances of a case and to require the provision of such information as is considered necessary. Section 18 permits the Minister to cancel a passport in certain circumstances and provides for the surrender of a cancelled passport.

Section 19 provides for offences and penalties for the misuse or abuse of passport facilities. Under the law at present, offences concerning the abuse of passports are regarded as general offences relating to property and they are covered by several Acts. There is a need to strengthen safeguards in this area and to provide for specific legislation to cover passport offences. Accordingly, the Bill defines a series of offences and also provides for prosecution of such offences where committed outside the State. Offences under section 19 include making false applications, possession of a false passport, use or attempted use of a cancelled passport or a passport issued to another person and sale or attempted sale of a passport.

The growth in demand for passports in recent years is partly attributable to the increasing use of passports as evidence of identity and age. In recognition of this trend, section 19(2) provides for an offence where a person knowingly uses or attempts to use another person's passport for the purpose of admission to the bar of a licensed premises as defined under the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003.

Sections 20 to 24, inclusive, set out related provisions concerning definitions, summary trial in the District Court, proceedings outside the State, liability of bodies corporate and an amendment to the Bail Act 1997. Section 25 provides that a passport shall remain the property of the Minister at all times. This reflects the long-established practice to print a statement to this effect on all Irish passports.

Section 26 is a standard provision which provides for continued validity of passports issued before the commencement of the Act. The practice of including children on their parents' or guardians' passports has been discontinued with effect from 1 October 2004, with children subsequently required to be issued with their own passports. As set out in subsection (2), inclusions of children prior to that date remain valid for the lifetime of the relevant passport or until a child reaches the age of 16, or is issued with his or her own passport. However, I strongly recommend that parents ensure that children have their own passports as international practice is increasingly demanding that each citizen carries his or her own passport. Finally, section 27 is a standard provision authorising the levying of fees for passports and other consular services.

That completes my detailed statement on the purpose and main provisions of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

1:00 pm

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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This is quite a simple Bill that puts in place the administration of passports, as well as offences for the abuse and misuse of such passports. Having listened to the Minister of State and the reference to the births and deaths register, I believe that passports should be compulsory for everybody. It would save many problems for us. We had a big furore last year about the register not being kept up to date. There were questions about identification cards and difficulties with calculating the number of people in the State. A simple solution would be to require everybody to have a passport and to tie it in with the births and deaths register.

This also affords us an opportunity to look at the concept of including a small insert in the passport that can be taken out and used as identification locally. One of the reasons so many passports are lost is that young people carry them when going into a public house. It is a relatively big document in comparison to a laser card or a visa card. There would be merit in looking at the concept of replicating the passport on the equivalent of a visa card and inserting it in the passport. People can leave their passports at home and take out the insert, which is basically a replica of the biometric information in the passport.

Considering we have had such difficulties with false passports since the late 1970s, it is strange that it has taken us so long to bring forward such simple legislation. It is disturbing to think that the Colombia three have never been charged for an offence relating to the misuse of passports. That is a reflection on us all and I hope it does not reoccur. With a little bit of innovative thinking, we could solve many problems in that area.

When we talk about passports, we often think of the old scheme of passports for sale which caused a lot of controversy in Ireland. Some people who bought passports or Irish citizenship invested money in Ireland and did well during difficult times. When one reflects on a period from a contemporary perspective, it is often difficult to imagine the needs and requirements of the day. From today's perspective, it is difficult to imagine the concept of selling passports. It was a bad practice and I am glad it has been discontinued. I would not wish to see its re-introduction as passports and citizenship are valuable and should not be for sale.

I understand two offices issue passports, one in Cork and the other in Dublin, and I believe the Dublin office is earmarked for relocation to Balbriggan as part of the decentralisation programme. This may not be a good idea because, even at the best of times, it would be difficult for those travelling from Wexford or Galway to reach Balbriggan. Although it is a nice seaside town that has experienced decent growth in recent years, this decision is unwise as passport offices should be central and accessible. I recognise the passport office located on Molesworth Street is overcrowded. As Members can confirm every day as they walk past the office, there is enormous demand for the service it provides. Nevertheless, this is not a sufficient reason to relocate it to Balbriggan, which would cause difficulties. I ask the Department of Foreign Affairs to reappraise its position in this regard.

Irish citizens require passports to travel everywhere except Britain. As some airlines require identification when one travels there, the small insert in the passport might be useful. One could leave one's passport at home to act as one's template or hard drive while travelling with a small disk, which would make travel much easier for all. Moreover, those who lost their passports or encountered difficulties would have a backup document available.

I refer to children on passports. I have young children and the faces they present at passport control are hardly identifiable from their former appearance. The proposal to remove children from adult passports is worthwhile because this causes great difficulties when someone becomes ill or a mother is obliged to come home with a child. I encountered a case last year in which a mother who was abroad was obliged to return home for a certain reason. However, her child, who had travelled on the mother's passport, remained in Spain and the family was required to obtain an emergency or temporary passport.

While this Bill is not highly controversial, when the concept of using biometric data in passports was first raised in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, some civil rights groups thought it might constitute an intrusion. Any measure that can be taken to assist in the security of citizens is welcome and this is not a difficult measure to take.

The Minister issued a statement some time ago to the effect that the cost of introducing this measure was €6.1 million, having been estimated at €8.8 million at the outset. However, the legislation's introductory document mentions a cost of €34 million. I assume the latter cost includes the technology that must be put in place at airports. The Minister of State should clarify, perhaps on Committee Stage, what are the costs. While two different figures have been put forward, I am sure they are not directly comparable.

Will this technology be in place when the passports come into being? The Minister of State's contribution leads me to believe that one will still be able to use one's old passport. However, those travelling to the United States with their old passports will be obliged to obtain a visa while those with biometric passports will be able to travel there without a visa. Will it be possible for citizens to cash in, for want of a better word, their old passports before their dates of expiration and obtain biometric passports to avoid being obliged to secure a visa?

While I am not an expert in biometrics, I refer to the scenario in which a person playing hurling in Wexford receives a blow from a hurl that breaks his nose——

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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There are no hurls in County Wicklow.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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We do not have them in County Wicklow.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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Or if it was altered digitally.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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This might also happen at a Labour Party parliamentary party meeting. Could this have an impact? I would hate to think that an Irish person who had travelled to New York for a weekend to play hurling could, while returning, end up in Guantanamo Bay for carrying what was deemed to be a false passport, based on the biometric read-out.

I understand the EU legislation will require the inclusion on the document of fingerprint data from 28 February 2008. I do not know whether this is one of the measures from which Ireland will be excluded and perhaps we have an opt-out in this regard. However, this issue should be considered. This will be a requirement across the EU in those members states that have signed up to it. It appears that Ireland has decided to store facial biometric data only and has decided not to proceed with fingerprint data, although the Minister of State alluded to the fact that this may be a requirement in future. I understand it will be a requirement from 28 February 2008 and this matter should also be considered.

I am disappointed that Ireland has chosen to exercise an opt-out at today's intergovernmental meeting at Lisbon from the justice and home affairs section of the reform treaty. Any measure to which we can sign up that will assist the safety of citizens and help deal with criminality is welcome. I do not believe the claim that Ireland has concerns regarding the potential impact on common law is justified. Many statutes have been passed since 1922 that have had an impact on common law and we have managed to survive.

Another welcome measure concerns gender reassignment. While I do not imagine it will be required frequently, this issue has caused much difficulty for some people and it is important to recognise this aspect. I welcome its inclusion in the Bill.

I note the Minister has the power to refuse to issue a passport. In recent weeks, some controversy has arisen regarding the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform's refusal to issue a visa to a gentleman who wished to come to Ireland to participate in a lecture. It is important that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is able to refuse to issue a visa if he so wishes or that he can refuse to issue a passport to someone on the grounds of security. Such grounds must be solid and this facility only should be used sparingly. However, it is important to reserve the right to so do.

In his response, the Minister of State should be more specific as to the circumstances in which the Minister might refuse to issue a passport to an Irish citizen. I refer to a person who may be on early release for an offence such as paedophilia, if any such person exists or is on the child sex register. Will people such as those, who apply for passports, acquire them or not? I seek more specific details in this regard as the legislation is not as prescriptive as it might be. Perhaps this issue can be considered on Committee Stage if the Minister of State does not have the requisite information to hand. In recent years, have many applications from Irish citizens been turned down? I am aware that under the Constitution and based on a legal judgment, people are entitled to a passport. How many people have been denied passports in recent years?

The issue of emergency travel is one of the nightmares associated with being a politician. I refer to getting a telephone call on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning to the effect that someone has lost a passport.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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Or on Christmas morning.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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It happened to Deputy Kathleen Lynch this morning. I must admit this happened to me one Sunday evening when I discovered my passport had expired. Moreover, I have five young children and one Saturday afternoon a couple of years ago, when in a queue for a flight, we discovered my wife's passport had expired. Naturally she missed the flight but was able to travel later on. I thank the officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs, who I have always found to be most kind, courteous and facilitating, both to me at that time and to all members of the public who encounter similar difficulties. There is nothing worse than opening one's passport, seeing one's face and realising the date of eligibility has expired. It has happened to everyone. While it is bad enough to find out one's laser card is out of date, expired passports are a somewhat more difficult matter. I do not know how common this is, although it happens to us all occasionally. I wonder whether there would be some merit in having passport information offices at the main airports. I am not necessarily saying the Department of Foreign Affairs should have a kiosk there, with one of its hard-working staff present on a Saturday and Sunday — I would not go that far — but it may be useful to have an information centre of some sort. Perhaps these are already there and I am not aware of them but in my own case, I was lucky in that I had the telephone number I needed to call. If we had information centres, people could go there to obtain this information and be told what they should do. I was facilitated — I was thankful for it — but it was only because I had certain numbers in my telephone that I was able to do this. I would not have been able to obtain this information at the airport if I did not already have it. Alternatively, the required information could be given to the airport manager in order that if a person realises that he or she does not have a valid passport, the airport manager could tell him or her what must be done.

I tabled a parliamentary question a few years ago about lost passports and, if memory serves, it was very difficult to establish how many had been lost or found. There seemed to be no method to it. There may have been a breakdown in communication between the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Foreign Affairs. If we were to introduce a new system under which there was an electronic record of every passport, we would be able to deal more satisfactorily with this issue. In many cases passports are lost or stolen through no fault of the holder, but I am concerned that on occasion, a person abroad who is strapped for cash may willingly sell his or her passport and then report it stolen. I am sure this is a relatively common occurrence, although I do not know whether anyone has been charged with such an offence. I would appreciate if such information was made available at some stage before this legislation is passed.

In court cases, when a person is granted bail, the judge may make a court order under which he or she must surrender his or her passport. Are there any other circumstances under which a person must surrender his or her passport? Who has the power to order this? Is it the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform or the Minister for Foreign Affairs? I would appreciate clarification of this issue.

I have covered most of the issues with this legislation, which I welcome. However, I ask the Minister to consider one other item. My understanding is that third generation Irish people in other countries can obtain an Irish passport, but from the fourth generation onwards they cannot. There are many people of Irish descent in South America, particularly Argentina, where Irish people went in the mid-19th century. There may be a fear that people will try to obtain Irish passports in order to gain access to other EU countries, but we should not be afraid to consider bilateral agreements on Irish passports with the United States or Argentina. We often hear about the need to attract people with certain labour skills to Ireland. If there are people of Irish descent who would like to return to Ireland, our door should be open to them. The Department might consider this. I think I am correct in saying third generation Irish people can obtain passports, while fourth generation descendents cannot. We should consider whether there would be merit in setting up a scheme such as I mentioned, particularly with Argentina. My party leader recently met an Argentinian of Irish descent who raised this issue. Many people, particularly from the Longford-Westmeath area, went to Argentina in the 19th century.

I welcome this legislation. A passport is a valuable document which should not be debased. A correctly administered passport scheme could give us the key to obtaining much information and could also solve many other problems. It would be great if, in a couple of years — in fact, it would probably be longer than that, but sometime in the future — we did not have to worry about who was on the electoral register or similar issues because everybody would have a passport which could also be used as a form of identification. The issue of carrying ID is a sensitive one, but it may become standard to issue passports with an insert which could be used as an ID card while the passport was safely in a drawer at home. I welcome this legislation and thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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It is obvious from the debate that this is a tidying-up Bill. It seems incredible that during the years the issuing of passports has never been put on a statutory footing, but that is what we are doing today. To me and those of my generation, a passport is a significant and important document which should be treated with care. If one comes from a country with a passport system that is widely recognised and held in high esteem, one should take great care of one's passport.

Deputy Timmins spoke about Argentina. I cannot let the opportunity pass without mentioning that it is not just Argentina in which Irish people have made a significant impact. One man from Cork, Daniel Florence O'Leary, emigrated to South America because he was a second son and hence would not inherit the family business. He joined the Hussars and eventually became Simón Bolívar's biographer and second-in-command, accompanying him on all his campaigns in South America, including the liberation of Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and many other areas. For this he is highly regarded in Venezuela. We have not done enough to exploit this Irish connection. O'Leary has two direct descendents, a great-grandson and a great-grandnephew who have the good sense to live in Cork.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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North Cork.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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We have a direct connection with South America of which we have not made the most. We should do so. If that means offering a limited passport or some other manner of recognising Irish heritage, so be it.

This legislation reminds me of another Bill on which I spoke, not the last time I was elected to the Dáil but the time before that. It was introduced by former Deputy Mervyn Taylor and, similarly to this Bill, was considered lightweight but it had a significant impact on how we gather information. The Bill was one page long and proposed to extend the amount of information included in birth certificates. Therefore, it has a connection with this Bill. Up to that time, only the profession of the baby's father was listed on the birth certificate, but after the Bill was enacted, the mother's profession — home-maker or seamstress etc — was also listed. This gave us an insight into social history which was not previously available to us. A small Bill such as the one we are considering often has a far more significant impact on the State than is perceived at the time.

As I mentioned, the notion that we are only now putting the issuing of passports on a statutory basis is staggering. Passports are now being used far more internally than for international passage. In the matter of using passports as a form of identification, I differ from the previous speaker. In particular, young people must often use identification when entering nightclubs and bars, but in these places there is a significant risk that a passport will be either mislaid or stolen. I agree we should consider introducing a national identification scheme, but this identification should not be in the form of a passport because a passport is too valuable a document. The value of the Irish passport can be seen from the fact that Oliver North travelled with one during the Iran-Contra affair. He knew that an American passport would not get him safely into certain countries but an Irish passport which was widely respected would.

The idea that someone would apply for a passport because he or she needs identification for all sorts of purposes is outrageous and should not be allowed. Young people have no choice other than to use the passport because every other document is considered suspect and inadequate.

We need to introduce a national identification scheme, where people want to apply for it. I admit I would not go along with it being compulsory but if people need to apply for a card as a means of identification, it should be available to them. We should ensure our passports are kept as safely as possible rather than having people use them as a means of identification when they go out at night. Thankfully, I no longer need such identification, but one would not know. Passports are sought in opening bank accounts and in opening utility accounts and here again a national identification scheme would be a far better way of doing so rather than having to take out the passport.

There are pros and cons to children having their own passports. A mother is always nervous that someone will decide to take a shine to her child and take him or her off. Mothers find that having their children attached to their passport gives them a degree of control and safety, but I understand perfectly why it is a better idea to have a child's individual passport. We must be very careful about these matters. We are not living in the type of world in which we all grew up. It is a much more dangerous world and there are people who are much more deceitful and cunning than it appears people were in the past.

The previous speaker dealt with the issue of change of gender. It is a good idea, if one is to deal with passports and other documents of a life-long nature — even though one must change it every ten or maybe five years, nevertheless it does define one for life — and one's life changes dramatically through choice, then one should have the ability to change that detail in such an important document. It is important that such a provision would be inserted. I am sure that in the future there will be other changes as well but at least we will have the legislation to amend.

The passport office in Cork is second to none. My experience is like that of others who spoke here. For instance, one Christmas morning people who were flying out the day after St. Stephen's Day came and the passport office staff were available to do their very best. The amount of people who do not check their passport expiry date is astonishing. The passport office responds and the response is the same to everyone, and that is important. There are no judgment calls. The staff simply do their job to an efficient standard and I really could not praise them enough. It seems incredible that they can respond in such a fashion and give the information necessary to people who sometimes are quite distraught about the notion of it because they think back to the good old days when one had to wait up to a month to get a passport. Now the passport office responds immediately and the staff are very good in gathering the necessary information.

The passport system in Ireland and the issuing of passports has not always been as clearcut and defined as it is nowadays. I still have a vision of a former Minister for Justice going to the Shelbourne Hotel with a bunch of passports to foreign businessmen. No matter what was the investment potential, people who come here to invest their money for the long haul and put down roots should have to apply for a passport the same as the rest of us and their application should be treated favourably. I am staggered by the notion that it could happen that one would issue a passport to people because they were investing money and had no intention of living here or had no commitment to the country, and that those passports would be delivered by a senior Minister, and it did happen. I am glad that we have a framework in place whereby that type of event would never happen. I hope we will never see its like again because that devalues the passport for all of us.

When I go abroad and use my passport I know it does not entitle me to entry to the country I am approaching but simply defines me as an Irish citizen and if something goes wrong, then the Irish Government has an interest in me. The fact that the passport is a document which is not only valuable, but is respected and issued in a particular way and is not open to being purchased, gives it a value to me that is beyond anything for which I could ask. It is about the Government having an interest in me as a citizen and if anything should go wrong, then it will state that interest clearly. That is the purpose of one's passport. That is why we should not allow it be devalued by being used as a method of identification for the most spurious of reasons and we should ensure that does not happen again.

I am glad to see provision in the legislation for penalties for people who abuse it, by using it falsely, by using a false passport, by stealing it etc. I assume the reason the Columbia three were never charged was because there was no provision in legislation at the time. That matter should be clarified because most people ask why they were not charged. It was obviously because there was no offence. It is handy to have that provision in place for all of us, not just people who have offended in the past but anyone who would find himself or herself in that position. I am glad that provision is included. I am glad we are at long last putting the issuing of passports on a statutory footing. I am also glad it is down to a particular Minister whether or not a passport can be issued and the reasons it cannot be issued must be made clear as well. There will be cases where a passport will be refused and we must put in place a clear passage of appeal. That must happen because mistakes will be made — it is the nature of things. We need to put a clear appeals system in place for no other reason than that people will get the exact reason they were refused and if it is wrong in any of its detail, they will be able to appeal the decision.

Just like the legislation that Mervyn Taylor, the former Minister for Equality and Law Reform, introduced in respect of stating what was the occupation of a mother, this legislation will be far more significant in years to come than it appears to be. It is good legislation. I am sure there will be bits and pieces to discuss on Committee Stage but, nevertheless it is welcome legislation which I hope will make us all sit up, take notice and appreciate the value of our passport.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Tá sé go hiontach go bhfuil an deis agam labhairt ar an mBille seo. Don chuid is mó, tá sé ceart go bhfuil an Bille seo curtha os comhair na Dála ach tá roinnt rudaí ann a bhfuil muid buartha fúthu — an ceart taistil lasmuigh den Stát agus an ceart go mbeidh pas ag duine atá luaite in Airteagal 40.3 sa Bhunreacht. De réir sin, tá sé ceart go bhfuil reachtaíocht ann a thugann le fios an córas atá i gceist agus conas a déileálaimid le pasanna, conas mar a eisítear iad agus cad ba chóir bheith sa phas féin. Faoi láthair tá seo faoi smacht reachtaíochta ó 1925.

The Bill introduces the concept of the child's best interests into the decision-making process. I welcome this change, as there are occasions when we need to have this approach to the fore. Section 14 provides for the issue of passports to children and outlines the conditions governing this area, including the circumstances in which the consent of a parent or guardian is not required. In these changed times, that is to be welcomed. The change is consistent with the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I also welcome the introduction of the right for transgender persons to change their gender on their passports. This is a recognition of the world in which we live and the circumstances in which people find themselves. This is the first time express recognition has been given to the rights of transgender persons in law. This is a positive development which I hope is the start of the process of similar recognition in future legislation. It is important for people to be treated on an equal footing.

I have a number of key problems in regard to what is proposed. Thankfully, between the first and final drafts of the Bill, the Minister addressed some of the problems that were highlighted. However, I have a major concern about section 12 which provides for a refusal to issue passports. This section gives the Minister dangerously extensive powers of discretion with no transparency. The Minister of the day may make a decision on the basis of his or her opinion, or that of a colleague in Government, to deny a citizen a passport and, by extension, deny him or her the right to leave the State. Those rights are outlined in Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution. Thus the Minister can deprive individuals of this fundamental liberty if it is his or her view that they "might endanger public safety", "be contrary to the common good" or, in the often abused term, prejudice State security.

This is a dangerous mechanism. I recognise that at times there may be a need for that power to exist, however, the problem is there is no guarantee that in the case of a refusal to grant a passport or the withdrawal of one, the Minister would have to issue a clear and detailed statement of the reasons for the decision. It is outrageous to vest such powers in one political personality. The Government is essentially proposing that even where no convictions exist, and perhaps even where no charges have been preferred against an individual, the Minister alone, and in the absence of any independent or judicial oversight, can sentence an individual to a lifetime of severely restricted travel or State arrest. In effect, this would result in the person having to remain within the State, given that travelling abroad in this day and age requires a passport.

An individual who considered he or she was being wrongly denied his or her constitutional right could initiate judicial review proceedings but, as anybody who has gone down that road understands, to do so is a lengthy and expensive process which would clog up the courts. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us as to how many people have been refused passports in recent years.

At a minimum, this Bill should provide that the Minister must issue to the individual a clear and detailed statement of the reasons for his or her decision to refuse the application for a passport. Otherwise, the Bill should contain an appeal mechanism against a refusal to an independent body or individual, such as the Irish Human Rights Commission. Some organisation should be available to review the reasons for an individual to be refused a passport. I will table an amendment to this effect on Committee Stage.

For once we are producing legislation to regulate how passports are issued. The Bill introduces the use of biometric data to the process. This automatically raises human rights concerns, especially regarding the right to privacy. We have a data protection commissioner and the Irish Human Rights Commission. In the main, I welcome the Bill. I do not have a difficulty with the inclusion of biometric data on the passport per se, my concern relates to how the data is collated, stored and the other uses to which it can be put.

From the Department's briefing note, it appears the Bill is a response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. It should be noted that at no time has any evidence-based case been made to justify the introduction and retention of biometric and personal information belonging to passport holders. I accept there has been a demand for this from the United States and it is also part of the "fortress Europe" agenda, for a tightening up of identification for security purposes. That is the basis on which the Bill before us, and similar legislation in other countries, is predicated.

I have yet to be convinced that such a change will prevent a similar attack to that which occurred on 11 September 2001. We must take care to ensure we do not continuously undermine our basic rights in the pursuit of this agenda by forgetting the concept of human security. If we address poverty, deprivation and other such problems throughout the world, we would have a more secure and stable international community and we would not be as open to the attack that took place on 11 September 2001 or the subsequent attacks in Madrid, London and other parts of the world.

Let us consider the number of people who have been brought to this country, or other parts of the European Union, by human traffickers. These people prove that it is possible to travel without passports to any country. Interfering with the rights of law-abiding citizens will not change the situation, it will merely make travel more difficult and more expensive for us all. I accept technology is developing but just because the United States has insisted upon it, does not make it right to introduce this highly expensive system which could potentially compromise human rights. We have already jumped through the hoops with regard to passenger record numbers, PRNs, because the United States demanded them. The whole European Union capitulated under the threat that no European citizen who was not compliant would gain entry to the United States. At some stage somebody will have to call a halt. In the past five years we have repeatedly passed European legislation with regard to fortress Europe. This is part of the same agenda.

One of the key principles of privacy in data protection is that any interference with rights must be justified and proportionate. This is not proportionate or, at the least, it has not been demonstrated to me that it is. In July last year the Swiss Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner held, in regard to the Swiss biometric passport system, that the storage of biometric data on a central database was disproportionate to the objective of identity verification of passport holders. I urge the Minister and his officials to consider this finding and ascertain whether we are moving beyond where we should be positioned at this time.

For the purposes of the Bill, biometric data are defined as information relating to distinctive physical characteristics and may include measurements of the same. Currently, the only biometric data in use for passports are facial images stored in a central database by the Department of Foreign Affairs — in other words, the photographs sent in are scanned and produced digitally on computer to make them easier to read. There is a logic to this, particularly in this day and age, as it makes proceeding through passport control quicker because a computer can read the passport. However, under the definition included in the Bill, at any time and without consultation the Minister could extend the biometrics required from passport applicants to include iris images, fingerprints and, potentially, even DNA profiles. At a minimum, the Bill should be amended to limit biometric provisions to facial images, thereby requiring any further extension to be preceded by full Oireachtas debate and scrutiny. Essentially, I ask that we proceed with the existing system of using the facial image only. If the Minister wishes to include fingerprints, iris scans or other biometric data, the Bill should be brought back to the House to enable us to debate the measures to find whether they are proportionate and properly justified.

Will the Minister confirm that the use of this database and its contents will be limited to that of processing the issuing or cancellation of passports, as this is not clear in the Bill? If there are exceptions to this use, will he outline them? If he addresses this question, the public will be content the database may only be used for passports and cannot be used for any other purpose.

I questioned the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform last year on the situation in the National Gallery which had introduced a security system which required staff to place a finger in a fingerprint reading device. The staff were concerned by this. The Minister stated in reply that the device identified two points of recognition rather than the standard used as evidence in a court, that is, ten points of recognition. To recognise two rather than ten points of recognition might be sufficient for a passport. I was further informed that when staff were scanned, the information was scrambled in order that it could only be used by the computer and not to tell when staff arrived or left. If this type of biometric data is involved, we need to know. There is not enough detail in the Bill for us to tell what level of biometric data is being or will be sought. We need a commitment from the Minister to debate this matter further. The way the world is, it is probable that extra criteria for passports will be added bit by bit. The House should be able to determine whether such change should happen.

Will the Minister demonstrate that the new passport system will not amount to the introduction by stealth of a massive biometric database which could be used by domestic agents such as the Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners or the Department of Social and Family Affairs and which cannot be used, sold on or exchanged with foreign security agencies? Will he detail the safeguards he is putting in place to prevent the abuse of this huge amount of data, which could happen? We do not want a repeat of the situation which arose last week, where a staff member in the Department of Social and Family Affairs leaked confidential information to a brother who used it to target a person to extort money. Guarding against the security agenda is not the only issue. We need a proper data protection system in place. While all such activity is covered by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, owing to the nature of the data and the size of the database, we must include any extra elements required as the Bill moves through Committee and Remaining Stages.

Section 8 states: "The Minister may, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, make such arrangements, including contractual arrangements, as he or she considers appropriate with such persons as he or she thinks fit for the processing of biometric data in respect of applicants for passports". Is the Minister seriously considering privatisation or outsourcing? One of the elements of the passport system is that it is operated by civil servants who have signed up to the Official Secrets Act and other requirements. If we are considering outsourcing or privatising the processing of something as sensitive as biometric data, or even if there is such an option, we need to know.

Section 3 provides for the making of regulations by the Minister, while section 5 provides for the performance of relevant functions by the Minister on the authority of the Government. It would be preferable, as the Human Rights Commission has stated, if an explicit reference was included in the text of the Bill concerning the obligation of the Minister to take human rights standards into consideration.

Tá a lán eile agam le rá agus labhróidh mé ar Chéim an Choiste faoi costais, an Ghaeilge agus gardaí ag síniú foirmeacha. Ní cóir go mbeadh gardaí ag cur amú ama ag saighneáil foirmeacha do dhaoine nach bhfuil aithne acu orthu. Tá súil agam go n-éireoidh leis an mBille dul tríd an Chéim seo agus go mbeidh muid in ann Bille níos foirfe a dhéanamh de ar Chéim an Choiste. Tá gá le sin.

Photo of Michael KennedyMichael Kennedy (Dublin North, Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a gabháil as ucht an deis labhartha seo a fháil. I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Michael Kitt, and departmental officials for introducing this Bill which, when enacted, will provide relief to those, like me, who are concerned about national security. Unfortunately, events in the past decade have forced the Government and citizens to concentrate our minds on the effectiveness of our passport legislation and directly address the fear created by a resurgence in global terrorism. We need to face up to the inadequacies of our passport and identity security systems. This legislation to tighten regulation of the issuance and control of passports has been forced on us. While I am sure many of my colleagues also wish that tighter controls, including some of the provisions in the Bill, were not necessary, I am reassured by the action being taken to enhance passport security for citizens.

The Bill underpins many of the restrictions and controls that have evolved since the enactment of the original legislation in 1924. I welcome the fact that the Bill consolidates a raft of disparate legislation and will, among other things, set in stone offences relating to passports. It provides for the biometric processing of personal data and the general issuance of passports in a range of circumstances. We are informed that many of its provisions are already in place and form part of routine procedures for issuing passports.

The definition of a citizen's right to obtain a passport is set down in the Constitution. The Bill, for the first time, sets down in law the rights of children in respect of the issuance of passports and makes many changes regarding parental and guardian consent in respect of the issuance of a passport to a child. This is a welcome and necessary development.

While these elements appear simple and obvious, when combined they create comprehensive legislation which will protect passport security. A passport is one of the most important possessions a person can own. Not only does it define our identity, it gives us power beyond what we could have envisaged 20 or 30 years ago. In an enlarged Europe, to hold an Irish passport is of considerable benefit.

My colleagues will have received large numbers of queries relating to citizenship and passports over the years. With increasing demand for Irish passports, as reflected in the black market, comes a requirement to tighten security. I have the honour of representing Dublin North, a constituency which includes Dublin Airport where the highest priority attaches to passport security. Millions of people come through our airports every year, as is their right, and, while this has benefits for the country, in the modern climate measures are needed to ensure all persons travelling through airports hold secure, valid passports. In October 2006, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, introduced a biometric or e-passport, a microchip document containing digital information that cannot be tampered with or altered. I am pleased to note these passports are printed in Balbriggan in my constituency. The introduction of e-passports, part of an overall European commitment to passport security, is warmly welcome. Customs officials in Dublin Airport see the benefits of this new type of passport every day.

Earlier this year, the Minister informed the House that 6,000 passports were stolen in 2006 and that his Department has an ongoing programme which urges members of the public to exercise vigilance in respect of their passports. In time, as biometric passports become the norm, the loss or theft of passports will present less of a problem. While I do not wish to underestimate the seriousness of the loss and theft of passports, details of lost or stolen passports are reported weekly across Europe and the world through the Garda and Interpol. It is my hope that as biometric passports become more common, the number of passports lost and stolen annually will decline.

I fundamentally disagree with Deputy Ó Snodaigh's comments. The case of the Columbia three embarrassed this country and biometric passports could have resolved many of the issues involved.

This morning, we heard details of a study conducted by NUI Galway and Trinity College Dublin, which indicated that more than 70 women had been trafficked into Ireland in the past six years. A separate report in The Irish Times covered the case of a man currently detained in Cloverhill Prison on foot of an extradition request from the Continent to face charges of child trafficking. Had biometric passports been the norm several years ago, trafficking in persons would be much less common. In this regard, I welcome the fact that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, will introduce a criminal law (human trafficking) Bill in the House next week.

Passports form the basis of our national and personal security. Air fares aside, passports are the real ticket into other countries and, as such, are of considerable value. I welcome the fact that this is reflected in the Bill.

2:00 pm

Photo of Terence FlanaganTerence Flanagan (Dublin North East, Fine Gael)
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I propose to share time with Deputy Alan Shatter.

I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Michael Kitt, on his appointment. The Passports Bill 2007 is important and badly needed. The failure to introduce updated legislation in this area has been a long-standing omission given that the Ministers and Secretaries Act, the most recent legislation to deal with passports, was placed on the Statute Book in 1924.

New legislation on passports is required primarily due to heightened awareness about passport security. We do not want organised criminals to get their hands on passports to be used for fraudulent purposes. Many Hollywood films show the results of identity and passport theft and it is important we address the problem.

Biometric chips are capable of holding different types of personal information, including fingerprints, facial dimensions and iris scans. The use of this type of technology to reduce fraudulent use of passports is welcome. The computers and offices in which the information is stored should be secure to ensure the wrong people cannot access it for their own benefit. The world has not faced as many threats as it has since the attack on the World Trade Centre. Identity and passport fraud has been increasing, but this legislation will ensure the incidence of passport theft will fall.

Will the estimated cost of €34 million to improve the passport service and introduce biometric passports have a direct effect on consumers through a rise in passport prices? I have received complaints from constituents about the price being on the steep side. For example, a ten-year 34-page passport costs €75 and a 66-page passport costs €100.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I am loth to interrupt what may be the Deputy's maiden contribution, but he has 20 minutes. Deputy Shatter advises me that he will use a later slot.

Photo of Terence FlanaganTerence Flanagan (Dublin North East, Fine Gael)
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The Bill contains many welcome provisions, but are the penalties and offences sufficient when it comes to criminal gangs? We are discussing fines of up to €10,000 and imprisonment not exceeding five years for certain offences or not exceeding ten years for other offences, but is the fine sufficient to concentrate the minds of criminal gangs? As passports have been abused, the law should be tightened and I welcome the new provisions.

I thank the staff of the passport office, who should be commended for their good work in providing passports, sometimes on short notice. They step up to the plate and never leave anyone short of a passport in an emergency. When people discuss passports, their first thought is of the passports for sale scandal in the 1980s. We do not want a repeat because it affected our country's international reputation. We must ensure that passports are not provided to people or businesses for big money. Would it be possible to make provision for a passport for life?

Deputy Kennedy referred to immigration services at Dublin Airport. Is there sufficient staff to ensure regular checks of passports are conducted? In recent years, there may not be sufficient staff at immigration points, in particular late in the evening. This issue has also been raised in terms of ports. Will the Minister of State examine the matter further? There are many Irish people throughout the world, particularly in South America. Are there plans to provide passports to third generation Irish?

What are the circumstances required for the Minister to refuse to issue a passport as provided for in section 12? Will the decisions be transparent and can they be appealed if people are refused passports? Are there plans to introduce a passport for life as referred to by the Fine Gael spokesman, Deputy Timmins, when he suggested that passports should be compulsory from birth onwards? This would be tied into the birth and death registers to ensure passports are rescinded when their holders die.

The passport office is centrally located on Molesworth Street, but plans to move the head office to Balbriggan where there is related activity are of concern. Located in the city centre, the office is accessible and amenable for many people, but a move to Balbriggan will make getting emergency or renewed passports more difficult for people from outside Dublin. Will the Minister of State ensure that a presence will be kept on Molesworth Street? Will the Government re-examine passport costs, which seem excessive?

Regarding the holders of Irish passports in America, the 50,000 plus undocumented Irish comprise a significant issue. It is disgraceful that some of them are unable to attend weddings or funerals at home due to their natural fear of not being allowed re-entry into the United States of America. Will the Minister of State make it a priority to take care of the Irish abroad by ensuring the US Senate passes new immigration legislation? It is disappointing that the US Senate refused to vote in favour of reforming legislation. Having been active in that respect, will the Minister of State sustain pressure on Americans to take care of the Irish? It would be appreciated.

Will providing emergency passports become more difficult due to the use of biometric data or will the current process obtain? Will the information be kept at a secure location to prevent the wrong people breaking in and getting their hands on sensitive information, such as private details, fingerprints, facial descriptions and iris scans?

I wish the Minister of State well with the Bill, which is welcome and necessary in light of 11 September 2001. We must increase security at airports and ports to ensure only the right people — those with valid passports — are getting through. The main thrust of the Bill is progressive and I welcome its publication.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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While I may be the only Deputy who has issued passports, including emergency passports, I am not the only person in the Chamber to have done so. I am looking to the bullpen. It was a slow process in the pre-electronic age, but it was a task I enjoyed in Germany.

I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment, which was well-deserved given his interest in the developing world. I had the honour to be his colleague in the Seanad over the past five years, so I wish him the very best in his new job.

It is more of a query than a criticism when I say the legislation before us is written in the spirit of the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924. The word "Minister" occurs throughout the Bill. For example, section 17(1) states:

If a person to whom a passport is issued believes that the passport has been lost or stolen, he or she shall notify the Minister and an Garda Síochána of the loss or theft as soon as practicable.

This is clearly a polite administrative fiction because it is highly unlikely that a matter concerning an individual's passport will go anywhere near the Minister for Foreign Affairs except perhaps in one or two high profile or extreme cases. The Passport Office will deal with these matters. While I approve of issuing passports in the name of the Minister, do we need to maintain this fiction rather than identify the office which will actually issue and administer them? The Bill's form of expression seems extremely old-fashioned.

With regard to the passport for life suggested on the benches opposite, what photograph would one propose to attach to it? Likenesses tend not to be particularly good even if the photograph was only taken the previous day, so what would they be like 40 years later? I do not consider the suggestion a practicable one.

I warmly commend the Passport Office, the head of which was a colleague of mine at the time of the Good Friday negotiations, on the exemplary efficiency shown by its colleagues in every dealing I have had with it as a private individual or public representative. When I accidentally left my mobile telephone turned on while I was on holiday in Scotland this year, I received a call from a constituent in Carrick-on-Suir concerning a major passport difficulty. The constituent was travelling later that day, so there was nothing for it but to contact the Passport Office, which resolved the problem in time. I do not mean to encourage anyone to leave it to the last moment before travelling to check whether a passport has expired but the Passport Office did very well in the aforementioned emergency. When my own passport was either lost or stolen in New York last year, the consulate there was very efficient in providing a temporary replacement.

One of the outcomes of the Good Friday Agreement was the extension of passport facilities to Northern Ireland through the post office network. It was a sensitive issue because it had to be addressed in a way that would not raise ideological resistance while at the same time fulfilling the spirit of the Good Friday commitment that, in the context of Northern Ireland, one could be British, Irish or both. For practical as much as sentimental reasons, an Irish passport is a much valued badge of identity for one community and an attractive proposition for the other. It may encourage people who would see themselves as British to also identify as Irish in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

In the old days, foreign travel was a rare event. Passports were stored safely and seldom used, so I imagine the danger of loss or theft was much lower. Unfortunately, from a security perspective, the uses for which a passport is demanded have proliferated. I do not approve of Ryanair's demand for passengers to carry passports or driving licences on flights within the common travel area between Britain and Ireland. The airline is almost setting itself up as a quasi-legislator in that respect. People in their late teens and early 20s use their passports in nightclubs as a proof of age. Most of us instinctively oppose identity cards but there are limited options in terms of photo identities. I accept, however, that provision has been made for special identity cards for pubs and clubs. My point is that passports are used more often than in the past and sometimes in less than secure environments. It is not surprising, therefore, that the incidence of loss and theft has increased. Consideration should be given to solutions to that problem, such as restricting the use of passports to their primary purpose.

Significant levels of data have been collected on each of us. Presumably the addresses on the unsolicited material which comes thudding through our front doors came from somewhere. Passports do not make use of confidential information beyond the bare bones of place and date of birth, so they are different in that respect from one's social welfare or employment files.

I do not share the civil libertarian concerns expressed here. My philosophy is that provided one tries not to break the law little else matters in this regard. Society is overseen in many ways and there are many ways to access information on people so perhaps we should accept this fact but take action in clear cases of information being misused.

I am glad that the passports for sale scheme was terminated. It seemed like a good idea at the time and members of all parties solicited passports for wealthy individuals who could contribute money to worthwhile projects in their constituencies. Similar schemes were practised in other reputable democracies but nonetheless it was right to bring the practice cleanly to an end because it gave rise to scandal, suspicions and so on.

There have been cases in which passports were misused. I remember 20 years ago it emerged Irish passports were used on an American intelligence mission in the Middle East. We duly complained without obvious consequences but sought to ensure it would not happen again. Reference has been made in this debate to a celebrated incident some years ago which involved three individuals travelling to Colombia possibly on false passports. Not everything has been clarified in that regard. The brother of one of those men is a well-known journalist. I do not mean to apply this to that person only but it is a pity that the media demands a degree of accountability of politicians which it does not apply to itself when an awkward situation arises. I recall an incident last autumn where various documents leaked to a leading national newspaper were destroyed and court proceedings ensued.

I am being careful not to name individuals outside the House but one of the people I referred to appears to have a very close relationship with a leading witness in a tribunal. There appears to be a concerted effort to throw any type of allegation at the Taoiseach to try to bring him down. Given that the lead witness is domiciled outside the country and could not possibly have knowledge of the background to the allegations being made, it is clear there must be a person or people guiding his hand.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is straying somewhat beyond the subject of passports at this stage.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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This is related to the false use of passports but I have finished my point in that regard.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is discussing tribunals.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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Those who administer and issue passports must be very careful of situations that involve a serious threat of international terrorism. I am not referring to Irish jurisdiction, but the attacks of 11 September 2001, for example, involved people who used passports and travel documents. Given the vast number of people travelling, it is very difficult to check the identities of people quickly, but the biometric passport is intended to help in that regard. When I was a passport officer 30 years ago there was a large black book in which various names were manually recorded but I am sure those days are long gone.

Reference was made to the relocation of the passport office to Balbriggan and I share the view that a front office is needed in the city centre. However, a great deal of passport processing is done by post so there is no reason that function must be carried out in Dublin city rather than another town.

I welcome this legislation because, while there have been many Irish nationality and citizenship Bills, they are slightly separate, though connected, to this issue. I am surprised to learn that there has been no recent passport legislation. Where administrative practices exist, and given the close monitoring of administrative acts carried out by the Judiciary, it is important to ensure the law is clear.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the publication of this legislation. It is an anomaly that no detailed passport legislation has been enacted in the history of the State. The issuing of passports has, essentially, been a discretionary exercise carried out by the Minister of the day on behalf of the Government.

Many of the provisions in this Bill are worthwhile but substantial amendments are required if great difficulties are to be avoided in a number of areas to which I will refer. In one respect this Bill is seriously, if not fatally, flawed and will require very detailed amendment to ensure it works in a manner that protects people's constitutional rights.

I will first consider the fatal flaw in the Bill that must be addressed. It is important that the Bill sets out the backdrop to the issuing of passports and details the circumstances in which the Minister may decline to issue a passport and the circumstances in which passports already issued may be revoked. It seems that the manner in which some of these issues are being dealt with loses sight of a fact detailed in the explanatory memorandum and referred to in the Minister's speech.

Arising under the Constitution, in a law case in which I must make a declaration of interest — 20 years ago I represented the applicants in the particular proceedings — the courts held that people have a constitutional right to travel. The Minister referred to that right to travel. Based on the decision delivered in that case, every citizen has a constitutional right to travel. In order to travel they require a passport, except within the common travel area, although Ryanair and some other airlines have their own perspective and impose passport requirements. However, if we take it that people generally require a passport to travel, we start from a position, with the enactment of this legislation, that every citizen has a right to a passport. Rights in the Constitution are delineated by the common good. Therefore, this right is not an absolute right, but can be curtailed in circumstances that accord with the common good. This is a summary of the court decisions in this area.

These are issues the Minister has in mind in the content of this legislation. I wish to refer specifically to section 12, which deals with the refusal to issue passports and to a later section which deals with revocation of passports. Section 12, as phrased, confers a very wide discretion on the Minister. It states that the Minister shall refuse to issue a passport to a person in a number of circumstances — first, if the Minister is not satisfied that the person is an Irish citizen. This is reasonable and understandable. Presumably, if someone is an Irish citizen, he or she will be able to establish that fact. The second circumstance is if the Minister is not satisfied as to the identity of the person. This should not give rise to too much controversy. However, the area that gives rise to substantial difficulty is sub-paragraph 12(1)(c). It provides that the Minister can refuse to issue a passport to a person if:

(c) the person would be likely in the opinion of the Minister, after consultation, where appropriate, with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform or the Minister for Defence or both, to engage in conduct that—

(i) might prejudice national security or the security of another state,

(ii) might endanger public safety or order,

(iii) would be contrary to the common good, or

(iv) might endanger that person [That is the passport applicant] or others.

In a nutshell, this provision is designed to ensure that if we have our own domestic-grown citizen suicide bombers who want to use a passport to leave the country and perpetrate mayhem elsewhere, we can refuse to issue a passport for them, or we can refuse a passport to persons seeking a passport who have knowledge of matters relating to State security that could give rise to difficulties and place the State in danger. I have no difficulty with provisions (c)(i) or (c)(ii), the prejudice to national security or the security of another state or the danger to public safety or order. The State has a role to play in this area. It also has a role to play where people might endanger themselves or others.

People have a constitutional right to a passport. However, based on the way this legislation is drafted, a person can be deprived of his or her passport and his or her constitutional right to travel as a result of a secret discussion that takes place, between the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Defence or the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in which a conclusion is reached that if given a passport the person might prejudice national security or endanger public safety or order, or endanger himself or herself. That secret discussion takes place, but no information is furnished to the person concerned and he or she is deprived of his or her passport.

I have no doubt that if an individual citizen is deprived of a passport under this section, he or she could take the issue to the courts. This section is open to serious constitutional challenge. It is particularly open to challenge in circumstances where people are not given any information as to the basis on which they may be deprived of a passport and even more so in circumstances where there is no right of appeal. The legislation does not prescribe any statutory appeals mechanism for people for whom it is concluded a passport should not be provided.

I am not being naive about this area. I understand the Garda special branch may have information or the State may have received information from Interpol which would indicate the significant security risk attached to providing an individual with a passport. It may also be contrary to national security to make that information available in full to the person to afford him or her the opportunity to contradict it. Equally, it could be the result of tittle tattle, reports in the tabloid press or malicious information provided to the Government about an individual that leads to someone being deprived of the right to travel.

Earlier, Deputy Mansergh strayed into the area of tribunals and false allegations allegedly made against the Taoiseach. I will not comment on that matter. If it is true that people could give false information to tribunals to generate hearings that cost the State millions of euro, who can say some malicious individual who dislikes someone — perhaps a neighbour or someone who has done them down in business — may not furnish information seeking to prevent a person from obtaining a passport. There are major difficulties with the provisions of this section and significant constitutional problems attaching to it. If this legislation was referred by the President, under Article 26, for consideration by the Supreme Court, there is a serious possibility the provisions could be held to be repugnant to the Constitution and the legislation may never be enacted and signed into law.

There are also serious difficulties attached to section 12(1)(iii). This allows the Minister for Foreign Affairs, with or without a discussion with the Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Defence, to deny someone a passport because he concludes it would be contrary to the common good. What does that mean? I was interested to note this was not spelt out in the Minister's speech. On what basis will it be concluded it is contrary to the common good that someone be given a passport?

Let us give an example. What, for instance, will happen if the Government is engaged in some controversial decisions and a meeting is to take place somewhere in one of the member states of the European Union at which Ireland is to sign up to some arrangement that is a cause of controversy at home? Perhaps it may be learned that a group of people plan to leave Ireland to demonstrate in the foreign country against the actions of the Government or Minister. If we had a particularly authoritarian Government — to put it at its most extreme a Chinese or Zimbabwean style government — or a Government that did not take too well to criticism on the international stage, would it not be hugely convenient to refuse, or at least delay, the issuing of a passport to prevent a person travelling, particularly if the person was known to be a member of an organisation going to demonstrate abroad, on the basis that it would be contrary to the common good or contrary to the good of Ireland in the context that it might, perhaps, affect our tourist industry or the image of the country?

Let us assume that in ten or 15 years we have a Government of a different political complexion. Perhaps Sinn Féin is the majority party in Government and it has a particular ideological view of the world and the rightness of its cause and wants to control those who criticise it on the international stage. This section could be invoked in those circumstances to deny people passports. In circumstances in which in a constitutional democracy people have a constitutional right to travel, articulated by the courts arising under Article 40.3 of the Constitution, to extend the discretion to Government to deny someone a right to travel on the very broad ground that it would be contrary to the common good — whatever that means — is far too wide and dangerous a provision and requires serious and further consideration.

The powers to revoke passports mirror these grounds. On any of these grounds, someone who has already been granted a passport can have their passport revoked and the first they may discover of it is when they are notified by letter to the effect that the Department of Foreign Affairs has revoked their passport. What do they do next? Are they given a reason? Are they entitled to a reason? There is no provision for that in the legislation. Is there anyone to whom they can appeal? There is no provision for that in the legislation. Is there any appellate system composed of independent individuals who can give further consideration to this matter? That is not in the system. Are they to telephone their Deputy? Are they to go to the High Court? Are we to create a whole new set of High Court proceedings?

If I have a passport and a constitutional right to travel, I do not believe the Government can arbitrarily revoke my passport without some form of procedure that gives me an opportunity to address any allegations made against me, in so far as that is possible within the context of protecting national security, and allows me to make my case as to the reason I should keep my passport. I urge the Minister of State to give detailed, serious additional consideration to the section that deals with the revocation of passports and the provision that deals with the refusal to issue passports.

A number of provisions in this legislation impact or impinge on what I would describe as the family law area. I know they are well intended but they are also in some respects a cause of substantial difficulty. Section 14(2) has an odd provision. It states: "If a parent of a child is not a guardian of the child, the Minister shall, in determining whether to issue a passport to the child without the consent to such issue of that parent of the child, have regard to the circumstances of the case in so far as they are known to the Minister." The purpose of that section, in a nutshell, is that if a child is born outside marriage, automatically the child's mother is a guardian of the child and the father is not a guardian. The father can apply for guardianship to the courts or become a guardian by the consent of the mother.

This section is clearly designed to facilitate some form of consultative process with the non-guardian parent, that is, the father of a child, in circumstances in which the mother seeks a passport but the way in which this operates is a mystery. The father of a child born outside marriage could contact the Minister or the Minister's office, knowing that a mother is seeking to have a passport issued, and tell the Minister something about the background circumstance and, without further ado, the Minister can deny the mother the right to a passport for her child. The child has a constitutional right to travel as well.

Let us take that a little further. There are circumstances in which children are born outside marriage in which the fathers refuse to support those children and mothers are forced to take court cases to get basic maintenance support and other financial help. There are occasions when those mothers are threatened by the fathers that they will make their life difficult if they take such action or if they progress the proceedings to hearing. A malicious father using this section, with regard to a mother of a child born outside marriage, could prevent a passport being issued if that mother wants to go on a holiday with her young child and needs to obtain the passport for the child, without the mother having any right of hearing, knowing the reason or being forewarned. That is a very odd way to deal with those matters. That subsection should be removed from the legislation. If the mother is the guardian, she has the right to seek the passport for the child. If the father has an objection, there are court procedures that should be available.

The father can make applications to the courts to be named guardian and to prevent a passport being issued if issues exist relating to the child's welfare. That should not be a function of the Passport Office in that way and it will cause difficulty and disadvantage to individuals who are caught in difficult family circumstances. Unless the provision can be amended to address that problem, it should be removed from the section.

Other similar difficulties arise. Subsection (8) of the same section provides that the Minister may, for the purpose of subsection (1), regard a consent given in writing by a guardian of a child to the issue of a passport to the child as being the consent of that guardian, essentially until the child attains full age. To take the example of a married couple, both have consented to the issue of a passport to the child, a passport is issued and the wife, for example, holds the passport, the marriage breaks down and the parent who does not hold the passport — in this instance, the husband, although equally it could be the wife — decides to leave the jurisdiction and abduct the child but they cannot get their hands on the passport. They then go to the Passport Office secretly, without the other parent knowing it, and apply for a passport. The Passport Office, under this section, examine their files — I presume some records will be maintained — and sees that there is already on file a consent from the other parent as guardian to the issue of a passport and a passport is issued. That section is misconceived also.

If there is a consent from a guardian to the issue of a passport, the consent should apply to the issue of that passport and should not continue to apply for the 18 years of a child's minority. That provision is a hostage to fortune and in this sad and tragic area where we have cases of child abduction by both mothers and fathers in circumstances where marriages break down, that provision is an invitation to threat. It provides a mechanism to facilitate the issue of passports without the other parent who is a guardian having any knowledge of any nature whatsoever.

In the context of this legislation, there are other difficulties to which I want to make reference. I am sorry if much of what I am saying is critical. It is good that this legislation is before us and it is important that we engage in a true legislative process and seek to have it made better legislation when it is passed by the House.

I have already dealt with what I referred to as the security provisions in the legislation. Section 18(1)(d) allows for the revoking of a child's passport when the Minister becomes aware of a fact or circumstances which satisfy him that, for the purpose of securing the welfare of the child, the passport be cancelled. That is open to abuse not just in circumstances where a child is born outside marriage, but in the case of a warring couple who are estranged, whose marriage has broken down and the mother resents the father taking children away for vacation periods or the father resents the mother doing so. Under this provision one of them could give information to the Passport Office which generates concern that something may be wrong although that is not the case. The mother or the father might end up in Dublin Airport trying to check in for a flight only to discover, unknown to them, their passports have been revoked. That should not be part of this legislation. It should be dealt with by way of court order.

In the context of those issues I want to ask a question of the Minister. I would have liked to address other issues but we will have an opportunity to do so on Committee Stage. What record system will be in place not just in his Department, but at points of departure from the State to indicate to airlines and others if someone presents a passport that has been cancelled or revoked? How will that be known? Will there be some central registry to which those who are licensed to do so can gain access? How will this information be known by those to whom it is relevant in the context of security issues in this State and travel arrangements? There are no provisions that I can see in this legislation that allow for that in a detailed way and that is something that must be further clarified.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Minister of State with special responsibility for Overseas Development, Department of Foreign Affairs; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate on the Passports Bill. Like many Members, this is an important Bill. The tone and content of the debate was constructive. There is a great deal of consensus in this area. We all share a desire to ensure that our citizens obtain the highest level of service and security.

It has been remarked to me that the Bill is very accessible. In so far as it is possible to do so with complex legislation, efforts have been made to use straightforward and plain language. Enactment of the legislation should, in turn, help to streamline the operation of our passport service and should result, ultimately, in a more effective and efficient service for the public. The legislative foundation should ensure that we can now take forward the passport service.

The Passport Office has the largest client base of any State service, with an estimated 4.2 million valid Irish passports in use. This covers Irish citizens throughout the world. Ireland is unusual in having such a high proportion of its adult population with passports, with an estimated nine out of every ten holding a current passport.

I referred in my opening remarks to the major innovations introduced in recent years and, in particular, to the development of the e-passport. Not alone has the inclusion of biometric data greatly enhanced the integrity and security of the Irish passport, it has also meant that Irish citizens can continue to avail of the visa waiver scheme for entry to the United States of America. This means a reduction in inconvenience and cost. The application fee for a standard non-immigrant visa is €80.

In reply to Deputy Timmins, we must maintain our visa waiver status. Last year, almost 500,000 trips to the United States were made by Irish citizens. Ireland is now in the top ten countries for visits to the United States. More people visit the United States from Ireland than from the continent of Africa or China. This is astonishing for a country with a relatively modest population. If we were to lose our visa free status there could be a sudden halt to visits to the United States of America. The US Embassy in Dublin has indicated that in such an eventuality, it could not service the local demand for visas. In no time there would be long queues in Ballsbridge and a wait of several weeks for an interview to obtain a visa. Our visa free status demands that we maintain the high technological standard of our passport and ensure the integrity of our overall passport system.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I did not say we should forgo our visa free status in the United States. I hope the Minister of State did not misinterpret my remarks.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Minister of State with special responsibility for Overseas Development, Department of Foreign Affairs; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Timmins raised the issue of the biometric passport.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I mentioned that holders of a biometric passport do not need to sign documentation at an airport. Must holders of the old style passport sign documents at airports?

3:00 pm

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Minister of State with special responsibility for Overseas Development, Department of Foreign Affairs; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I will deal with the Deputy's query later.

The Passport Office is the only State service which operates on the ground in all 32 counties. There are 70 post offices throughout Northern Ireland which are part of the overall network for processing passport applications. The level of applications made through Northern post offices has been rising steadily in the past two years. This trend is likely to continue. This year, we will issue 60,000 Irish passports in Northern Ireland. I am delighted to learn that applications are arriving from all parts of the community. This is a testament to the quality of the service provided by the Passport Office.

At the opening of this debate, I outlined the sanctions available under the legislation against those who would seek to undermine our system. The Government is also anxious to ensure that citizens' rights are not unfairly impinged. The Passports Bill 2007 was the first occasion when a Minister, other than the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, formally referred draft legislation to the Irish Human Rights Commission under the terms of the Human Rights Commission Act 2000. This referral was warmly welcomed by the commission, which is hopeful that other Ministers will follow the lead of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. In its observations, the commission considered that this legislation brought to an end what it described as a notable omission from the Irish Statute Book. The Government fully agrees and believes the Bill is an important legislative initiative. I also welcome the commission's view that the legislation is progressive and is an important step towards the clear and consistent protection of human rights in the area of the right to travel. Irish citizens will have the right to a passport enshrined in law with a small limited number of exceptions.

We live in a very different Ireland from that of our parents. Our laws and administrative practice must reflect those changes, as well as our international obligations. The need for enhanced security is a major feature of international travel, as is the need to guard against identity theft. In all walks of life we must strike a balance between conflicting pressures. I believe the Passport Bill achieves the correct balance between the need to secure the rights of our citizens and legitimate security concerns.

Deputies made some very interesting comments during the debate. Deputy Timmins raised the issue of lost and stolen passports. Prior to 2005, when the automatic passport system was introduced, the figures for lost, mislaid or stolen passports are only available for Ireland. Since the introduction of centralised production in 2005, we can give worldwide figures. The introduction of the biometric passport, or e-passport, on 16 October 2006 has greatly enhanced the security features of the Irish passport. The presence of a microchip containing a digital image of the holder has meant, for instance, that any photo substitution can now be more readily and easily detected. In 2003, 21,800 passports were lost, stolen or mislaid. In 2006, the figure was 38,713. One must bear in mind that the figures since 2005 are worldwide. The percentage figures for lost, stolen or mislaid passports were 4.6% in 2003 and 6.15% in 2006.

Deputy Timmins also raised the issue of the validity of existing passports. Machine readable passports have been issued since 1993. Handwritten passports issued at embassies abroad will require a visa for the United States only. All other countries accept handwritten passports.

Given that Ireland is not part of the Schengen agreement we have no legal requirement to put fingerprints on the e-passport. Ireland, with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, has decided not to move to fingerprinting of citizens for passports at this stage. We have not ruled it out for the future, depending on international developments. For the present we will use facial imaging.

Applicants may apply for a passport by post through their local post office or in person at public offices in Dublin and Cork. There is also a production facility in Balbriggan which handles postal applications. There are no current plans to move the public office from Molesworth Street to Balbriggan. The question of additional local offices will be kept under review.

Deputy Kathleen Lynch welcomed the Bill and spoke about the citizenship requirement set out by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Like her, I am aware of the huge contribution of our diaspora to societies throughout the world. The Irish passport is widely respected and I agree that it is a valuable document. The question of a national identity card is a matter for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and I will not comment on it.

Deputy Lynch mentioned the more frequent use of passports and referred to young people using passports as identification at places of entertainment such as discos. This may be a reason more passports are mislaid or stolen. She referred to passports being used fraudulently for identification purposes, for example, in opening bank accounts. It is crucial to protect the integrity of the passport. I welcome Deputy Lynch's support on the transgender issue and her kind words for the Cork Passport Office. I will pass on her comments. Deputies have also praised the service in the Dublin Passport Office in Molesworth Street and Balbriggan.

Deputy Lynch referred to the sale of passports. I do not agree with that practice, which is now a matter for history. There is no question of such a practice taking place today.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh asked the reasons a passport may be refused. Refusals generally occur where an applicant has not established his or her identity or right to citizenship. They also arise in respect of problems with parental consent or in respect of an order under the Bail Act. It would be rare for a passport to be refused for other reasons given the constitutional right to travel. However, I wish to inform Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Shatter that it is intended that an appeals will be introduced to complement the existing provision of judicial review.

Section 19 deals with offences and penalties. There exists already several Acts to deal with general offences in respect of property. There is a need to strengthen safeguards in this area and to provide specific legislation to deal with passport offences. Deputy Terence Flanagan asked about the cost of a passport. There is no price increase envisaged. The fee for a standard ten year Irish passport is €75. It was increased from €57 in March 2004, the first increase since 1993. This fee ranks mid-range in terms of passport fees among EU member states. The UK passport is much more expensive.

Some €34 million has been spent on the new system, including €6.6 million on biometrics. I assure Deputy Flanagan that the undocumented Irish in the United States will remain a priority. On the issue of the passport for life, which was partly answered by Deputy Mansergh, the Irish Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, states that ten years is the maximum period for which a person may obtain a passport.

Deputy Mansergh asked why the Bill contains such a large number of references to the Minister. The Passport Office is an integral part of the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is not a separate agency or quango. References to the Minister are necessary as he or she is answerable to the Dáil in this regard. I welcome and agree with Deputy Michael Kennedy's remarks on the value of the electronic passport which greatly enhances international security. As pointed out by him, the inclusion of the biometric chip greatly reduces the risk of theft and misuse of stolen passports.

While Deputy Shatter welcomed the Bill, he again raised the issue of refusal of a passport. The Attorney General was closely involved in the drafting of this Bill. The Government would not put forward a measure which it believed to be unconstitutional. No citizen will be refused a passport for political reasons. The courts would not permit this. Deputy Shatter also raised issues relating to family passports. Section 14(2) prevents the taking outside of the country of a child where a custody case is being taken. This provision would only be used in exceptional circumstances.

I thank all Members who contributed to the debate. I am pleased the Bill has received such a warm welcome. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Minister of State with special responsibility for Overseas Development, Department of Foreign Affairs; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Next Tuesday, subject to agreement with the Whips.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 24 October 2007.