Thursday, 18 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Foreign Birth Registration
What is the position on foreign birth registrations? Thankfully, the process reopened on Monday last. There are more than 31,000 applications in the system. How does the Minister plan to deal with the massive backlog that has built up over the past two years?
I thank the Deputy for giving me an opportunity to outline that foreign birth registration is open again. It has always been open for emergency cases but it has reopened again for mainstream applications. I am pleased to inform him that as of Monday, 15 November, the processing of foreign birth registration, FBR, has resumed and will be gradually scaled up in line with the recruitment of additional resources. Foreign birth registration applications are citizenship applications and, as in all jurisdictions, involves a complex and lengthy process.
My Department is fully committed to allocating additional resources over the coming period to assist with the processing of the high volume of new applications anticipated and the 32,000 applications currently on hand. This will be a major challenge, but one that we are committed to achieving. The FBR teams have worked since the pandemic began to consider all urgent requests to expedite applications on a case-by-case basis, for example applications from expectant parents, or stateless persons. More than 5,000 emergency applications have been processed in 2021.
My Department is determined to ensure that the Passport Service is sufficiently resourced to respond to current and anticipated unprecedented demand for passports and FBRs next year. My Department is actively working with the Public Appointments Service to recruit and assign additional permanent and temporary staff in the coming weeks. By the end of January 2022, I am advised that this recruitment drive will bring total staff numbers to 920, which is the highest staffing level ever and effectively double the number of staff in the Passport Service. The starting point was half that.
I want to express appreciation for the work of the FBR teams in assisting in the provision of urgent passport and contact tracing services during the pandemic. So far this year, they have operated both an urgent FBR service and assisted in the delivery of more than 500,000 passports as part of our expanded essential passport service operation.
I welcome again that FBR has reopened. Along with others, I have repeatedly asked for the process to reopen given the frustration experienced by many people who want to become Irish citizens.
It is their right to do that given they meet the correct criteria. There is massive frustration. Prior to the lockdown the waiting time was approximately 18 months. The Minister has not outlined how exactly he is going to deal with that. We are now being told it could take up to two years to process those applications. There are 30,000 of them within the system. Many of the people who put in their applications prior to the service being curtailed have not had any correspondence or communication from the office. Must they wait another two years on top of the two years that have been lost? The Minister might outline how exactly that is going to be dealt with.
I apologise to the Deputy, but I do not think I have given the two-year figure. It is new to me. Foreign birth registration applications are citizenship applications and, as in all jurisdictions, involve a complex and lengthy process. The passport service has a statutory responsibility to protect the integrity of this special citizenship process. Accordingly, it must assure very careful analysis takes place across its system to verify both the identity of the applicant and his or her entitlement to be an Irish citizen. Experienced staff of the passport service provide systematic, detailed and rigorous checks of all FBR applications.
What has effectively happened here is we redeployed staff to essential services during the pandemic. We continued to deliver an FBR system for urgent cases that needed to have decisions quickly. We are now putting those staff back into assessing the mainstream FBR system and we are effectively doubling the staffing of the Passport Office to get on top of that. That is essentially what is happening now.
I thank the Minister for that. I too acknowledge the work of the Passport Office and thank the staff who process the foreign birth registrations but there is significant frustration. Over the past number of months I have repeatedly asked him when the process was going to recommence.
Yes, but he has not given the rationale for why it has taken that long to reopen when the rest of society has reopened over the past number of months. Why has it taken it that long to reopen that essential service? It was reported on Monday from the Minister's office that it was going to take two years to process these applications. I welcome the commitment to increase staffing in the Passport Office to 920. That must be welcomed. However, he has not outlined how many of them are going to work on the FBR process specifically. He might touch on that.
To clarify, the essential service was never stopped. Foreign birth registration for essential cases was always maintained. Of course there is frustration for the 32,000 cases on hand and parents, primarily, will want Irish passports for their children who are entitled to them. However, we had to make a judgment to prioritise how we used staff for essential services during the pandemic and we did that. We now have a more normal system back up and running since Monday. We are going to need more human resources to get on top of the number of cases on hand and we are recruiting as we speak. We are effectively going to double the numbers in the Passport Office between now and the start of February. We will get on top of the cases on hand as well as the significant number of applications we expect next year. We think we could have between 1.3 million and 1.7 million passport applications next year, which is going to be a significant demand on the system.