Thursday, 24 March 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
I offer my condolences to our ambassador, Jim Kelly's wife and daughter, Orla and Ciara. I commend the Department of Foreign Affairs on the work it is doing in Ukraine. My question relates to fast-tracking problem passport applications. There are genuine circumstances in which non-standard applications are facing long delays, which are causing stress and anxiety.
I thank the Deputy for the question because it is useful to put this information on the record. There are a number of channels available to Deputies to flag issues that their constituents are having with passport applications. The main issue creating pressure at the moment is the sheer volume of applications. It is off the charts when compared with anything else we have experienced in recent years. There have been record numbers of applications for three months in a row now, that is to say, we have had the highest number of applications ever. There were 137,000 applications in January, over 150,000 in February and there will certainly be more than 100,000 in March. In no previous year did we receive more than 100,000 applications in a month. That is what is driving the pressure. For the most part, the service is actually working reasonably well. In most cases, people applying for straightforward adult passport renewals are getting their passports back within 48 hours. Obviously, it is different for more complicated cases.
We need to have a system that allows our Oireachtas Members to intervene when necessary. In response to the high volume of applications being submitted to the Passport Office, a temporary phone line was established in October of last year to respond to Members' queries on urgent passport cases. That was supposed to be in place temporarily until the end of the year but it is obviously still continuing. This phoneline responded to more than 2,700 queries in 2021 and has already handled more than 3,600 queries to date in 2022. In addition to this, the Passport Office responds to a high volume of written parliamentary questions from Deputies regarding specific applications.
In each case raised by a Deputy, the Passport Office reviews the application in question. However, applications can only be expedited in cases of genuine emergency such as a need for urgent medical treatment overseas or the death of a family member abroad. Such applications are expedited through the travel emergency service. In cases where the estimated issue date has passed and the application is fully complete, the passport service will prioritise the application to ensure that no further delay is experienced.
My office is dealing with a great many passport-related queries every week and is finding it more and more frustrating. I acknowledge that the online system works well for straightforward renewals. It is with the type of application I deal with that there are issues. The urgent passport number will only tell us what we already know. If you apply for a passport in an emergency, the passport cannot be intercepted. When we get to the point at which we can get a passport, we are given a number and told it will be out within two days.
The problem is that somebody may need an emergency passport and may need to collect it now. The difficulty we, as politicians, are having is that the phone lines to the Passport Office are constantly busy. I understand what the Minister has said about the number of applications. Can we fast-track this so that a politician can actually contact a certain number and get a response?
We are always open to suggestions to improve the experience. There have been very high volumes this week. I understand that the wait time on phones has been longer than normal. We will respond to that by increasing resources accordingly. That line is up and running; it was never there before. People effectively had to look online to see the status of their passport application. We put in place a specific Oireachtas service that only Oireachtas offices can call into, but it is busy.
Many of the applications are stuck in the system because there is a problem with the paperwork. We need to solve this because the communications between the Passport Office and applicants needs to improve so that we get a more consistent approach to passport applications. Of the applications that have been in the system for more than a month, 37%, or 38,000, require the applicants to provide further information. Those are often the applications that come to a Deputy's office and so on. We need to ensure the integrity of the system. We cannot just fast-track applications because that is what people want. We need to ensure we guard against fraud and ensure that we have the paperwork intact.
Passport express is very misleading because it takes two months. Why market it as an express service? When additional information is required, why does an applicant need to go back to day one? The express system takes two months. If further clarification is needed, the applicant must go back to day one and has another two months to wait. The time runs on. It is supposed to be an express system. If the express service is going to take two months, can the application be dealt with in the two months without starting the application all over again at day one. I understand about the massive number of passport applications going through. More resources may be needed to address these issues.
We now have more than 770 staff in the Passport Office compared with 450 last summer. Within the next six weeks or so that number should be up to 900. That effectively means a doubling of staff in the Passport Office over the past six or eight months.
I agree with the Deputy on the turnaround times. Passport express is a bit of a misnomer. It is not an express service. It is a much slower, paper-based service through the post. That is certainly an outdated marketing term now. We are looking to move away from the terminology of passport express and to replace it with something like passport in the post or whatever. Ultimately, we want to get to the point where everybody applies online. By the way, over 90% are already online. We need to get to 100%. It is a much cleaner, more transparent, safer and faster system.
Up until a few weeks ago it was taking 40 working days for first-time applications through passport online. It is now down to 35 and falling. The Deputy said that a mistake on an application can start the clock all over again. We have also corrected that issue. If someone's forms were not completed correctly and they need to send in new forms, they do not start an eight-week period at that point; they will get it turned around within three weeks of that correction. We are responding to the constructive criticism we are getting from Deputies.