Thursday, 18 November 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
11. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the average length of time it is currently taking to process passport applications and issue passports; when he plans to increase the number of representations Oireachtas Members can make per week on behalf of persons; his views on requests for further information being issued to applicants in close proximity to the estimated date of issue on the passport tracker; his views on the level of demand the Passport Office will face over the coming year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56466/21]
17. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if his attention has been drawn to the delay in processing passport applications for first-time passports for children and new citizens; the steps his Department is taking to alleviate this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56351/21]
Given the inconvenience people have been experiencing in regard to passport applications, it would be remiss of me not to get clarity on the changing situation. I have four quick questions for the Minister in this regard.
Will the Minister tell us the average length of time it is now taking to process passport applications? Is he aware of requests for further information being issued to applicants near to the estimated time of issue? What is the expected level of demand the Passport Office will face in the coming 12 months? While I appreciate the Minister is increasing the number of representations a Deputy can make to 15, why was it previously limited to five? We all knew there would be a massive increase and that only included 800.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11, 14 and 17 together.
Passport service operations have been severely disrupted by Covid-19, as were many Government services. Notwithstanding this, the passport service has issued more than half a million passports to date in 2021 and 45% of simple adult renewals issue within one business week. Current passport processing times are ten working days for simple adult online renewals, 15 working days for complex or child online renewals, 40 working days for first-time applicants on passport online, and eight weeks for the an An Post mail-in service
The aforementioned passport processing times are based on current average application turnaround times and relate to passport applications submitted to the Passport Office with required supporting documentation. When passport applicants do not provided all of the requisite documentation to the passport service, it takes much longer to process the application and issue a passport. Currently, there are 108,000 passport applications on hand at the Passport Office. Of the online applications on hand, 34,000 or 35% of applications, are incomplete and the onus is on the applicant to submit the required documents to the service. The passport service contacts applicants who have not submitted the requisite documentation.
However, the passport service must wait in those 34,000 cases until the applicants submit the outstanding documentation that is required. While it makes every effort to contact applicants in such circumstances, its experience is that many applicants take weeks and sometimes months to send in the necessary documents. The passport service is attaching particular priority to the nearly 7% of online applications that have not been issued on or before the estimated issue date indicated to the applicant. Intensive work is under way to eliminate this problem and these delays are regretted very much by the service.
I will respond directly to all four of the Deputy's questions to make sure I get to them all. I have answered the question on the timelines. The requests for further information are predominantly about ensuring we combat against fraud, because fraudulent applications to the Passport Office happen all the time and we need to isolate and deal with them. That is why paperwork and its accuracy are important.
As many people did not travel and therefore did not look at their passports for 18 months, we anticipate there will be a much higher demand than normal for passports next year. It could be somewhere between 1.3 million and 1.7 million passport applications. That is why we are effectively doubling the numbers in the Passport Office and working with the Office of Public Works, OPW, to increase significantly the space within it.
Why did we start off with a cap on Oireachtas Members of no more than five per week? The reason is we wanted this to be a service specifically for emergency passports, not a general call line for Oireachtas Members for all passport applications. We wanted to make sure we could fast-track emergency passports quickly for Oireachtas Members and felt it was unlikely they would have to deal with more than five emergency passports per week. We got very negative feedback on that and have increased that number to 15. The whole point is we want normal passport applications to go through the normal processes. However, if there is an emergency, rather than having to look for the Minister or his office to solve it, we wanted to put what is in effect a call centre in place that could solve emergency cases quickly for Oireachtas Members. That was the thinking behind putting a cap on it.
I understand that, but people should be able to rely on the Passport Office to communicate effectively with them, answer their questions and give them confidence that they have a reasonable prospect of getting their passport either on time or at least by the target issue date. They have been told that right throughout the online tracking system.
Some people for whom I have been making representations have found themselves in a situation in which they submitted their application, received their estimated delivery date and went about making their travel plans, as they would be expected to do. Days before the issue date, however, and in one case the day before, they were contacted for a picture. I appreciate fraud is possibility and does go on, but it was brought up to that date. People had applied 40 days before only to be told the day before the passport was due to be issued that their picture was not right or some other stuff was done. It is unfair on people who submit their application on time.
I know where the Minister is coming from with the five passport query limit, but no one comes to us unless there is an emergency.
We know, because of the number of people who contact me in this House from all parties, that many people have had difficulty in getting their passports in the timelines they need or want. Approximately 7% of passport applications that have been given a delivery date can go beyond such a date. We are working intensively to correct that to make sure that if a date is given on the system, the Passport Office delivers before or on that date in order that people can get more certainty on their travel arrangements and so on. By the start of February, we will have gone from approximately 460 people working in the Passport Office to approximately 920 people. That is effectively a doubling of the staffing throughout the Passport Office. Some of those staff are temporary and some are permanent. We are trying to get on top of many of the issues the Deputy has raised.
The case of first-time passports has been a particular problem. I am aware of a case in which a mother had applied for her child's passport, only to be told more than nine weeks later there was no guarantee the child's passport would be issued. That warning came three days before they were supposed to go on holidays. Three other children were involved and there was much crying. This is way outside an acceptable turnaround time. I am not asking for miracles from the Department, but can we at least expect to see the eight-week maximum guideline adhered to now the additional staff are coming on board? Will the Minister let us know the number and timescale of the backlog in the system? When are the backlogs likely to be dealt with?
I apologise; I am coming directly from the Committee of Public Accounts. This an important issue. I do not, for one second, underestimate the challenges that have faced the Department of Foreign Affairs and the passport unit. Between Brexit and Covid, it has not been nice and we need to acknowledge that in the House. An important issue is there will be enormous growth in the number of passports which will be issued next year - just shy of 2 million. That is approximately double what we have issued this year. With the benefit of knowing that, we have to try to find a more efficient manner of allocating passports, if possible, whether that be a public information campaign, promoting people or getting it renewed on time, which will be crucial as well. The last thing any of us want to be doing is chasing up Ministers and officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs trying to get emergency passports sorted. We should try to pre-empt that by having a more efficient system, if possible, and perhaps a public advertising campaign, if that is okay.
Yes, it was on this issue of the numbers. I appreciate the difficulty the Passport Office is in and that it and the Minister are doing their best. I also appreciate that having to answer calls from constituency offices distracts people from work they would otherwise be doing and it is a vicious cycle. However, the ability of parliamentarians to ask questions on behalf of their constituents is being limited, especially when it is for people who have been told their passport will be available by a particular date and make plans on that basis. It is then not available and an emergency arises when they have booked a family holiday or trip has been booked for a certain date and were told the passport would be available two days ago. It still says the passport was available two days ago, but it is not and then we cannot contact the office.
When we contact the Passport Office, or our offices contact the Passport Office, we are told by the officials that they will make their best efforts. I appreciate that they are making their best efforts. If one follows up again because the passport has not arrived two days before the travel date, one is told that it constitutes a second inquiry even though it is an inquiry about the same passport. I would worry about limiting this. The permanent government has to be held to account. The only way that it can be done in certain instances is via Deputies.
I take the point. It is important to make a distinction between the facility that we have set up for Oireachtas Members, which is for emergency passports, and the general call centre in the Passport Office that can be contacted by the general public and by Members’ offices. This service did not exist at all until we set it up. Many people had been coming directly to me and my office to say that a family has to travel on Friday, but it does not look like the passport will have arrived until Monday or Tuesday. They asked us to intervene in an emergency way. We set up a special service on a temporary basis to deal with the fact that many emergency cases need addressing. I want to make sure everybody knows that every time an emergency passport is taken out of the system, it slows the system down for everybody else. The staff have to stop the machine and pull a passport out. Hundreds of other passports are slowed down every time that happens. We are trying to keep that facility to genuine emergencies, as much as possible. That is not to say that the other information, whether it is on the online portal or on the phone, is not still there and available, as it always would be. We are not trying to limit Oireachtas Members. We are trying to put an efficient system in place for emergency cases that can effectively bypass all other cases and get dealt with quickly.