Thursday, 21 October 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
The Acting Chairman will know that one of the most bizarre aspects of Irish politics is the engagement that elected representatives often have with the passport service and it is not something that I am terribly comfortable with. I should make it clear that people should not have to contact their Deputies to get their passport on time. In my experience, those who do get in touch with me on passport inquiries generally do so out of desperation. Their stories in recent days and weeks have been disappointing, to put it mildly. They have recounted their engagement with a system that can only be described as dysfunctional over the past number of months.
In April, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, told the House that the then backlog of 89,000 applications would be cleared by the end of June. A fortnight after that deadline had passed the backlog had grown to 95,000. As of late September, the backlog had increased to 130,000. I hope that the Minister of State will be able to provide us with up-to-date figures this evening.
I am sure that the staff in the Passport Office have been working exceptionally hard through all of this but there is a serious systems failure that has led to this point. It seems incredible that the Department claims that more than one in five applications is incomplete or requires further information. I wan to put on the record the experience of one of my constituents. This gentleman and his wife were due to travel to Međugorje yesterday and were going on their own personal pilgrimage. They submitted their passport applications on 15 September.
In his wife's case, it was a simple renewal. She received an estimated issue date of 14 October. As his passport had expired 11 years ago, which shows how unique this trip was, his was treated as a new application and he was told his passport would not issue until 23 November.
He contacted me to plead that something be done. On 1 October, I sent an urgent passport query, attaching his flight details, and did not receive any response. Following numerous attempts to call the Passport Office phone line, I re-sent the urgent passport query on 13 October - again, no response. On 15 October, I contacted the Minister's office and a very helpful official undertook to contact the Passport Office on behalf of this man. Only then did I receive an acknowledgement by email, which just told the applicant to monitor his phone and emails. Both my constituency secretarial assistant and I again tried numerous times to contact the Passport Office in regard to this case.
On 19 October, the day before the couple's trip was due to begin, we once again contacted the Minister's office. On this occasion, we were referred back to the public phone line, which we had not been able to get through to up to that point. My secretarial assistant eventually got through to the public line, at 4.25 p.m. on the day before the scheduled flight, but the person who answered would not provide any information and, in fact, terminated the call. The man did not get his passport in time, while his wife, who had been provided with an estimated issue date of 14 October, did not receive hers either. They still have not received their passports. It is difficult to describe the upset this ordeal has caused the couple without detailing their very personal reasons for wanting to travel to Medjugorje. I can only say their upset and hurt is very real and will be long standing.
What is the Minister of State's proposal to ensure no other family will have to go through such an ordeal in the coming days and weeks?
I sympathise with the family's circumstances. It is a very difficult case. I offer the following response on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
As the Deputy will be aware, the operations of the passport service were severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, as were many other Government services. Emergency passport services were maintained during the pandemic, which required staff to be on site to process and issue passports. On that basis, and taking account of the Covid protocols in place at the time, 67,000 passport books and cards were issued between January and May of this year. Since May, more than 400,000 passports and passport cards have been issued, meaning that in total almost 500,000 passports and cards have been issued to date in 2021. Almost 45% of passports for simple online adult renewals issue within one business day, while more complex applications take a bit longer.
As regards turnaround times, the current passport processing times, provided that all required documentation has been provided and is in order, are ten working days for simple adult renewals, 15 working days for complex renewals, 40 working days for first-time applications on Passport Online and eight weeks for An Post's mail-in Passport Express service. The passport service is experiencing high demand for first-time passports. Of the 140,000 applications on hand, more than 65,000, or 45%, are first-time applications. These first-time applications take longer to process than a renewal application. To protect the integrity of the Irish passport, first-time applications require careful processing to validate the identity of the applicant and his or her entitlement to Irish citizenship for the first time. Additionally, in the case of children, the consent of guardians must be validated.
In line with the continued scaling-up of services, the Passport Office, in Mount Street, Dublin 2, opened its urgent appointment service for the renewal of passports on 27 September 2021. This service is available to people who require passport renewal at short notice and opt for this fee-based service to do so. To avail of this service, members of the public can visit the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The urgent appointment service ensures that for those who unexpectedly require an urgent turnaround or a passport renewal, an option is available that is transparent, predictable and clear. It means applicants can book their appointment, safe in the knowledge they will have their passport within a day or a few days.
Turning to staffing, the Department of Foreign Affairs has assigned 126 officers to the passport service to date in 2021. In addition, 50 officers were internally reassigned to the passport service during the period of peak demand in the summer. The requirement for social distancing in the workplace continues to have a significant impact on the capacity of the service to operate at normal levels. The Department is currently focused on recruiting additional staffing to meet expected demand for passports in 2022 and ensuring adequate staffing levels in the passport service. This work takes account of evolving requirements related to Covid restrictions and includes engagement with the Public Appointments Service and a number of internal HR processes. Budget 2022 included an investment of an additional €10 million in passport services in response to the increasing demand for passports both at home and abroad.
I urge citizens to check their passport well in advance of any planned travel to ensure they can apply for a passport in plenty of time. The Passport Online service continues to be the fastest and most efficient channel for passport applications.
I am disappointed the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is not here. I thank the Minister of State for his response, although it was not even up to date. I am dealing with a family who are due to travel on Thursday next. They have been told their baby's passport will not issue in time, even though it will have been in the system for eight weeks. My office was told earlier by the special helpline that has been set up at the Department that the current timeframe is actually ten weeks.
I have been listening to the excuses relating to Covid since April, when the Minister gave that commitment in respect of the then backlog. This is not happening anywhere else in the western world that I am aware of and I have checked with former colleagues in the European Parliament. No other European state is dealing with such a backlog. It is unfathomable to most of the colleagues I spoke to that people would have to contact their elected representative to find out when their passport will issue.
In respect of the information the Minister sent us earlier about a Department helpline, that helpline will be pointless if cases such as these cannot be addressed. If the responses to queries are simply a rehashing of information on the website, it will be a waste of resources and will only add to the frustration people are going through. The purpose of such a line must be to assist the Department in receiving details of urgent cases and then being able to act accordingly.
The Minister of State, on behalf of the Minister, stated additional staff were assigned to the Department during the summer. Will he tell the Minister to reassign them to the Passport Office to clear this backlog? These are tragic human stories. It might sound mundane, given we are, in some cases, talking about holidays, but there are reasons behind all this and people should be able to expect a reasonable service, which they pay for in terms of their passport delivery. Will the Minister of State bring that message as forcefully as he can to the Minister?
The Passport Office continually examines how to improve processing times, including by examining the process for the verification of supporting documentation for first-time applicants and addressing delays that have been experienced by customers as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the high demand seen in recent months as international travel has resumed. There has also been an ongoing process of reform within the Passport Office since 2016. Enhancements over recent years mean that Passport Online can now be accessed by first-time applicants, both children and adults, in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Great Britain, Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. All Irish citizens, including children, can use the online system to renew passports from anywhere in the world.
The Irish passport is one of the most secure in the world and one of the most effective in granting our citizens visa-free access to most countries. Recent reforms have improved our fraud detection capacity following the introduction of new facial recognition technology, which improves the efficiency and integrity of the passport system. In addition, the passport card has recently been upgraded with a SealCrypt barcode strip on the back. The next major element of reform in the programme is to replace the core technology underpinning the passport service. The current system was launched in 2004 and will be replaced by a more modern integrated system. Detailed design-----
I ask the Deputy to allow me to conclude. I know the response I am giving in my concluding remarks does not give him the answer he requires. Certainly, I will take these matters back to the Minister and the Department. The Deputy made his case very well on behalf of the applicants. It is deeply upsetting for families when they are making plans and travel arrangements. I said in my opening remarks that it is very important that people make their plans early and ensure their passports are in date.
With regard to the specific case, the backlogs are there and it is vital that they are cleared. The staffing issue is one I will refer back as well. It is vital that all resources are put in place to ensure that members of the public have access to their passports in the time that has been directed and set out in the recommendations. However, I take the point the Deputy is making about this specific case.