Tuesday, 10 May 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
We have a very serious situation in this country in regard to accessing passport services. I want to put forward a number of solutions and I hope the Minister will work with us to try to achieve them. The first must involve addressing the issue of staffing. I note that he said earlier that more staff have been taken on. In addition, passport offices must be fully reopened to the public. People could solve a lot of their issues at the desk. We also must look at post offices, where there is capacity to increase foot flow and where much more could be done in terms of passport services. This is very important at a time post offices such as that in Goleen are due to close in the next few weeks.
I thank the Deputy for his suggestions, which are very helpful. His question indicates he is primarily concerned with first-time passports, which is the process that is taking longer at the moment. Since March of this year, the passport service has reduced the processing time for first-time applications from 40 working days to 30. This 25% reduction in processing times is a direct result of the substantial level of investment my Department has made in the service. It is important to note that the reduction in turnaround times for first-time applications took effect from 19 April. Only fully complete applications submitted on or after that date can be processed within 30 days.
First-time passport applications take longer to process than renewal applications and there are a number of reasons for this. First-time applications are necessarily complex to process, since, in many cases, they are applications for Irish citizenship. The passport service must validate the true identity of the applicant and take measures to confirm his or her entitlement to Irish citizenship. It is the statutory responsibility of the passport service to protect the integrity of the Irish passport. Accordingly, a rigorous analysis process is in place to verify the identity and citizenship status of first-time applicants. In the case of first-time passport applications for children, the consent of guardians must also be thoroughly validated. Due to the intensive analysis and extra measures undertaken by highly trained and experienced staff, first-time applications take 30 working days to process.
There are currently 88,000 first-time online applications in the system. Of these, 57% are complete and being processed by the Passport Office. The other 43% require additional action by the applicant or his or her parent. This means applicants need to submit required documentation such as a witnessed guardian consent form to progress the application. I strongly urge anyone who is considering travelling overseas this year, particularly families with young children, to check the validity of their passports before booking travel and to apply for their passports in plenty of time.
My time is up but I will come back on the Deputy's suggestions.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as they say, and I must compliment his Department. The staff have been very helpful to me in dealing with very difficult times for families in the past number of years.
What is being done to ensure first-time passports are issued within a reasonable timeframe? There are families who are given an estimated issue date and who book a holiday, perhaps for a week later, only to be told after the estimated issue date that there is a problem with the application. Surely such notice can be given at an earlier stage rather than at the final stage? I dealt with a family of five who were supposed to go on holiday last week, with the baby's passport to be issued on 5 May. The parents found out there was an issue on 6 May, which meant they had to leave the baby at home. It was okay for that family because there was somebody to look after the child but it is not an ideal situation. The staff in my office are pulling the hair out of their heads because, like the staff of every other politician, they are inundated with calls and are spending 45 minutes on the telephone waiting for a reply. It is not good enough in this day and age and it is creating serious issues that are taking a lot of time to resolve.
My Department deals with tens of thousands of telephone calls. So far this year, the figure is some 90,000. I may stand corrected on this but, from memory, that is the approximate number. We have also set up an Oireachtas helpline for Members, which has dealt with thousands of calls. However, I take the Deputy's point. There is an issue with people applying for a first-time passport for a child, getting an estimated delivery date, booking holidays and then later finding there is a problem with the application. We are trying to address this by making sure the clock does not start again after applicants correct their paperwork or give the extra information needed. Instead, we now prioritise corrected applications for conclusion within 15 days, provided the new paperwork is correct. We made that change because of what Oireachtas Members have said to me in trying to improve the efficiency of the system. We are also trying to spot mistakes in applications a lot earlier to ensure that people do not find out about them weeks after they applied. This is an area in which we are improving turnaround times.
I appreciate that. As I said, it is very difficult to spend 45 minutes on the telephone. I would not like to be the member of staff doing it and pulling the hair out of his or her head. There is also an issue in that Members are only allowed five queries per day. That is a difficulty because we might have ten queries on a given day and we must pick which five to raise. There could be ten queries the day after and it always seems, at the end of the week, that there are a number of people whose issues cannot be dealt with. That is terribly unfair.
Will the Minister ensure the estimated issue time online tracker is set to close to the actual date? We have been told in replies to parliamentary questions that it is taking ten days for a simple renewal, 15 days for complex or child renewals and 30 days for first-time online applicants. That is just not factual. If it were, there is no way I would be here today talking about it.
I feel very strongly that passport offices should be open to the public. The banks and every other place are open and getting on with business.
However, we cannot go there and pick up passports for people, as we did before to help them out. We were able to keep the whole thing flowing freely. I know people who have not had a holiday for two years. There is a huge influx of people looking for passports. I do not want to be overly critical because I know a large volume of work is going on, but there surely must be a way to make it a little easier to get a passport.
So far this year the Department has issued 400,000 passports, approaching 500,000. We are trying to put the most efficient system in place. We have a system whereby 4,000 to 5,000 passports a day are going out to people. If half those people were to collect their passports at the desk in the Passport Office, it would slow the system down considerably. We have a system that works with An Post whereby we have a constant throughput of passports by the thousand every day. If a passport needs to be pulled out of the system because an intervention is needed for whatever urgent reason, of course that can be facilitated. The whole point of limiting the number of representations to five per week is to try to ensure that Deputies focus on the genuine and urgent cases as opposed to their constituency offices becoming effective passport offices, which was the case for some Oireachtas Members in the past, as everybody knows.