Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
39. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will consider installing passport printing facilities at the Cork passport office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53389/19]
I will try to keep to the allotted time. I am seeking to have the widest possible range of passport services made available to people in County Cork and the southern region such that, for example, they do not have to travel halfway across the country to Dublin to get a passport in an emergency, and then travel back to Cork. I understand the passport reform programme has been considering various efforts. Is it considering the provision of passport printing facilities in Cork?
Given that I am from County Cork, this is a particularly pointed question, which is fair enough.
The Passport Service of my Department is one unified service composed of three constituent offices located in Lower Mount Street and Balbriggan in Dublin and South Mall in Cork. It operates three passport printing machines, two of which are located in the main production facility in Balbriggan, County Dublin, with another in the Passport Office in Lower Mount Street, Dublin. Passport applications from citizens residing in Ireland or elsewhere in the world are distributed for processing across the three Passport Offices. All passport applications are processed through the centralised automated passport service system. All production facilities can print a passport, irrespective of the channel through which the application is processed. The printing system allows for flexibility between printing machines if any one machine has reached capacity. Each passport printer has a printing capacity of 250 passports per hour.
The purchase cost of a new passport printing machine is in excess of €1.7 million, excluding the cost of security, maintenance, technical fit-out, staffing or rental costs. Given the current capacity for printing and the costs involved, installing further passport printing facilities in the Passport Office in Cork is not required at this time. I am satisfied that the printing capacity of production equipment currently employed by the Passport Service is sufficient to meet the current and anticipated future demand for passports. There are no plans at this time to commission additional passport production equipment or sites.
The Passport Office in Cork can facilitate the issuance on the spot of an emergency passport where there is an urgent need to travel for medical reasons or due to a bereavement abroad. In the relatively small number of non-emergency cases where citizens require a rapid turnaround on their passport application, applicants can either book an appointment at the Passport Office in Dublin and have the application processed that day, or book an appointment for the Passport Office in Cork and have it processed within three working days.
The Tánaiste summed it up in his last few words: if one is dealing with the Passport Office in Dublin, one can get a passport on the day of the appointment, but if one is dealing with the office in Cork, one must wait three days to get a passport. In the interests of balanced regional development, I am seeking that a service be made available such that people would have access to the faster turnaround and be on an equal footing. It should not be all Dublin-based. We should explore the possibility of having services distributed throughout the country. Cork is the only Passport Office outside Dublin and it does not have a printing facility. The purchase of new machines is not necessary, although it is an option. Alternatively, the existing machines could be moved. There are several ways of dealing with this issue and I am not calling for one particular solution but, rather, that we ensure there is a faster turnaround in Cork. Has the passport reform programme looked at the possibility of having additional printing facilities in Cork?
One of the first questions I asked on my return to the Department after visiting the team at the Passport Office in Cork, who do a fantastic job, was whether we can extend printing facilities to Cork. I asked my officials to consider that possibility. We looked at cost, as well as the printing capacity in the existing locations. We have three printers across two locations in Dublin. As I outlined, the numbers in respect of providing printing facilities in Cork did not add up. People have lobbied me for a passport office in Northern Ireland, given the number of people seeking passports there. More than 80% of applications to renew or access a first passport are completed online and, as such, the system and its efficiency do not rely on the location of the printers. We need to keep the matter under review. I am not saying "No" indefinitely but, rather, that the current capacity that is sufficient and the Passport Service is running efficiently. If there is a genuine emergency, people can get an emergency passport at short notice in Cork.
I point out to the Tánaiste that Cork Airport has continued to grow and support the wider region. It has gone from 2.1 million passengers in 2015 to 2.4 million in the past year, with further connectivity to a hub in the Netherlands, as well as Paris. People want to use the south, including Cork Airport, as a gateway to travel around the world. Having a passport is crucial to such travel. In the event of an emergency or the fast turnaround, the Tánaiste stated that it takes three days to access a full passport in an emergency or fast turnaround situation-----
There are two different types of passport, the standard passport and the one-journey passport. If one needs an ordinary passport in a hurry, it will take three days to get it from Cork. One-journey passports are available in the case of a bereavement or other unfortunate incident. To have the fullest possible service in the regions instead of it all being Dublin-based, the Tánaiste should be making every effort to improve the service in Cork. I acknowledge he raised the issue with his officials, but the passport reform programme should give further serious consideration to this issue.
It is not all based in Dublin. If a person in Cork, Waterford or Kerry needs to travel in an emergency, he or she can get an emergency passport on the spot from the Passport Office in Cork. If a person wishes to go on travel for reasons other than an emergency, there is a turnaround time of three days for those who need a passport quickly. We have managed to achieve a situation whereby normal passport renewals completed online are returned within a week. We have put in place a very efficient system. I take the Deputy's point that sometimes people make a legitimate mistake by not checking their passport when due to go away and, as a result, need a fast turnaround time. Some people need to drive to Dublin to get a passport. It is not true to say that one cannot get a passport in Cork on the spot. One can do so if there is a genuine emergency. We are putting systems in place that are far more efficient than was previously the case. Turnaround times are far faster. That is the reform programme on which we have been focusing rather than trying to place printers in various parts of the country to try to service everybody locally, which would have a knock-on consequence in terms of efficiencies. I am not saying "No" forever regarding printing in Cork. The reform programme we have implemented in the past two years has focused on turnaround times for everybody.