Dáil debates

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Passport Services

10:40 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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82. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the number of passport applications from Dublin that are currently outstanding; the planning that is being carried out to ensure that there is no repeat of the delays with applications experienced in 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22893/22]

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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83. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the number of first-time passport applications in the Passport Office; the steps being taken to reduce and maintain the current wait time for first-time passport applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22909/22]

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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85. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the number of applications for passports from counties Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Galway and Donegal, respectively, that are currently outstanding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22652/22]

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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My question concerns the number of outstanding passport applications from Dublin and the planning carried out to ensure that there is no repeat of the delays with applications experienced in 2021.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 82, 83 and 85 together.

There has been a lot about passports this evening, but I will keep talking about them if Members want me to. I will arrange to have the figures requested by the Deputies on passport applications from counties Dublin, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Galway and Donegal shared directly with them following this session.  Applications from various counties are distributed for processing across the three passport offices in Dublin and Cork on the basis of the type of application rather than county of residence of the applicant. Passport application turnaround times are the same for all citizens regardless of county or, indeed, country of residence.

The passport service recently reduced its turnaround time on first-time passports from 40 working days to 30. This is a significant reduction given the unprecedented volume of applications being received. The passport service is focused on reducing this processing time even further in the coming months.  The service is currently experiencing high demand for first time passports, particularly for children. There are currently 88,000 online first-time applications in the system. The service has issued over 400,000 passports to date in 2022. To put this number in context, 634,000 passports were issued in total in 2021. In four months, up to the end of April, the service has issued over 63% of the total number of passports issued last year. Demand for passports continues to be very high with unprecedented levels of applications continuing to be received.  Over 130,000 applications were received in April alone.

Passport service figures show that of the total number of passport applications in the system, 61% are fully complete and are being processed by the service. The other 39% of applications are incomplete, which means the service is waiting for the applicant to submit the necessary documentation required. While the service 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. Applications that are incomplete cannot be processed within the average turnaround times.

The Irish passport was recently ranked fifth in the Henley Global Passport Index because it provides our citizens with visa-free access to 187 countries. This is something we can all be proud of. However, in order to maintain this ranking and to protect the integrity of the Irish passport, the passport service must validate the true identity of the applicant and take measures to confirm the applicant's entitlement to Irish citizenship. This is particularly important in the case of first-time applicants.

The resourcing of the service to respond to current demand for passports is a priority for my Department, which has been working with the Public Appointments Service on a major recruitment drive. Since June 2021, more than 300 members of staff at all grades have been assigned to the passport service. In addition, the service is running its own recruitment competition for temporary clerical officers with a view to assigning additional staff. Interviews have concluded and candidates are currently undergoing Garda vetting. Following the clearance process, the service will appoint 150 temporary clerical officers and will see staffing numbers increase to more than 900. This represents a doubling of staff numbers since last summer.  These increased staffing levels will be maintained right throughout the year to ensure that demand for passports, particularly first-time applications, is met.

There is an ongoing process of reform within the passport service. This process has delivered a number of transformational improvements for citizens at home and abroad, in particular the roll-out of the Passport Online service. Over 90% of all passport applications, including first-time applications, are now being made through Passport Online. Passport Online is the priority channel for applications as there are many efficiencies built into the system for both the applicant and the passport service. All Irish citizens, including children, can use the online system to renew their passports from anywhere in the world.  Passport Online can be accessed by all first-time applicants, both children and adults, in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Great Britain, all EU member states and most other countries in Europe, as well as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. The Passport Online service recently expanded for first-time applicants in South Africa, Singapore, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mauritius, Lesotho, Colombia, Panama, Chile, Peru and Ecuador. The Passport Online service offers Irish citizens the ability to apply online for their passport 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a user-friendly, efficient service that consistently offers processing times up to four times faster than paper-based passport renewal applications.

The next major reform under way is the replacement of the core technology underpinning the passport service. The current system, which was launched in 2004, will be replaced by a more modern and integrated system. This complex project is currently at an early stage and officials from my Department are actively working with the vendor to outline the high-level design of the new system. Extensive detailed design, testing and phased implementation is to follow over the remainder of this year and much of 2023. It is intended that the new system will be substantially operational by the end of 2023. This will ensure the passport service benefits from a standard, scalable and resilient technical platform capable of handling increased application volumes while maintaining the high standards of security that constitute the hallmark of the Irish passport. I know this is a long reply but I am trying to give as much information as possible to the House regarding the complexity of the system. I am happy to take any further questions Deputies may have.

We have five supplementary questions, at a minute each, starting with Deputy Lahart.

10:50 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the Minister's reply and I want to acknowledge the sterling work being done by officials in the Department, under immense pressure, to deal with the conveyor belt of applications coming in. The Minister referred to 88,000 first-time applications this year, which is a pretty phenomenal figure. The fact that 400,000 passport applications have been made in the year to date when the total for the whole of last year was 650,000 is also highly significant.

I particularly welcome the fact that the Department is going to double the number of staff in the Passport Office. However, one figure stands out in that context. Staff numbers will be doubled in comparison to last year but based on the statistics the Minister has given, there will be three times the number of applications this year. I ask the Minister to deal with that.

The second issue I want to raise is the WebChat facility. I have a list, just from today-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am afraid the Deputy is nearly out of time.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I have a list, just from today, of criticisms, the main one being that the facility is simply unavailable. Again, I appreciate the pressure staff and officials are under but I ask the Minister to address that matter too.

Photo of Alan DillonAlan Dillon (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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It is reassuring to hear of the work that is under way to deliver efficiencies and to provide a more resilient passport service. I also want to acknowledge the staff in the Department and the Passport Office and thank them for their sterling work. I wish to raise an issue relating to the 39% of applications that are incomplete, namely the frustration of parents with the action that occurs with the estimated due date within the eight-week period. It is causing huge frustration when, at the eleventh hour, parents have to adapt or react to incomplete witness consent forms or additional photos. This is driving an increase in the waiting time of an additional three weeks, which is causing a lot of concern. The public needs to be properly advised by the Passport Office regarding the tracker not being accurate in that period. I would like that issue resolved.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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We are all dealing with the same issues here, the main one being the waiting times. The Minister spoke previously about streamlining the process, particularly for first-time applications for children, although I accept the necessary due diligence must be done. We all accept that there is a need for additional resources, including staff and technology, to make sure we can deal with the large numbers of applications going through the system.

There is a particular issue with consent forms. Sometimes they are signed by a member of An Garda Síochána and contact must be made by the Passport Office with gardaí to verify same. The Passport Office must make three attempts to make contact but sometimes gardaí cannot find the particular book, the form cannot be signed off and people have to go through the process again. That is a difficulty and we need to find a solution. I accept that the process should be improved by the gardaí themselves but we need to find a solution.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I also have huge concerns. At the moment, 438 applications from County Carlow on the system have been flagged for documents that the applicant has yet to submit. That is only Carlow itself and with that is the problem of the timescale. People can be waiting weeks to hear from the Passport Office that their documents are not fully complete and that is really unacceptable. I do not like to criticise the Passport Office but we knew this was going to happen. The staff are totally overworked and the waiting time to get an answer on the phone is just not acceptable. This week alone, I had one family who did not make their holiday because they did not get a passport. I have another case where some family members got away but others did not.

The big question I want to ask is about the plans to establish an online portal service in January 2022 that would allow queries for all application types to be submitted directly to the Passport Office by Oireachtas Members to provide additional assistance to citizens. I ask the Minister for an update on that.

Photo of Aindrias MoynihanAindrias Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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The time it takes to get a passport is causing a lot of stress for people who are planning to travel. There are particular issues with regard to first-time applications and the guardianship form that is signed in a Garda station. When the Passport Office is not able to verify the form, the application is sent back and this causes huge stress for families. I have raised this at joint policing committee meetings and also directly with An Garda Síochána. Gardaí are getting a large volume of calls from the Passport Office to verify these forms. One not particularly busy

Garda station was getting up to 13 calls per hour to verify a form that had been stamped and signed. There are huge difficulties if a particular Garda station is closed because the call is then forwarded to the district headquarters but the daybook will not be available there to verify the form, so more calls are needed as a result. Is there a way of streamlining this process? When I raised it at the joint policing committee meeting, it was suggested that an email with a list of the people verified in a station each day could be sent to avoid the repeated calls.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The Deputies have asked a lot of very fair questions and I will try to respond to them all. First, there was never a suggestion of a system for Oireachtas Members where they could apply for passports on behalf of the public.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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No, only for information-----

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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We cannot turn Deputies' offices into a passport service. What we do have is an Oireachtas phone line that handles queries. It is not perfect but so far this year more than 10,000 calls have been taken on that line and the customer service hub has handled 95,000 queries this year. It is really busy and sometimes there are interruptions in the system, as there have been over the past few days and when that happens and the public cannot get through on the lines, they contact their local Deputy, understandably, because they need to find out what is happening with their passport application. We are trying to keep those interruptions to a minimum, where possible.

There is an issue with improving the verification process between the Passport Office and Garda stations. It is a particular issue in rural communities where Garda stations are not open for many hours a day. That is an issue the Department discussed today because a number of people have raised it. That said, I must emphasise that we are not doing this for the sake of it. There is a fraud issue relating to passports and there are risks around child abduction. We have to make sure that when we issue a passport for a child, we know who the parents are and we have verification of that from An Garda Síochána. It is really important. When the passport system is under pressure, that is when there will be fraud and criminal activity, with people trying to get passports inappropriately. We have a really good anti-fraud system but it does take time and verification is necessary.

The final point relates to parents correcting applications when they have made a mistake. Approximately 43% of the first-time applications for children that are stuck in the system are stuck because we are awaiting documentation. We have given a commitment that when the documentation is corrected, we will fast-track those applications and get them finalised within 15 days. Previously, the frustration for parents was that the clock started all over again when they made the correction. We are trying to respond to people's genuine queries.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.