Thursday, 23 June 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
95. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on the efforts that have been made to address the delays in the issuing of passports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32922/22]
There is a crisis in the issuing of passports. Like many Deputies, I am contacted on a daily basis by dozens of people, on most days between 40 and 50 people, trying to get clarity and basic information about their passports, most of which have exceeded their estimated issue date. There is a serious crisis for many people who are missing out on holidays, losing out on many thousands of euro due to the failure of passports to be issued on time. Will the Minister provide an update on this serious issue?
The Passport Office continues to outperform its previously busiest year, 2019, by more than 20%. More than 623,000 passports have been issued to date in 2022. This is 105,000 more passports than were issued at this point of the last most busy year which was 2019. The processing time for first-time applications is now 25 working days, down from 40 working days in March. In the space of three months, processing time for first-time applications has been reduced by almost 40%. This is a substantial reduction in processing time, particularly in light of the significant increase in the number of applications we have seen this year.
My Department has been proactively planning for this increase in demand for many months and has made an unprecedented investment in staffing and resources to meet the demand. A major recruitment drive has been under way since last year. The Passport Office recently ran its own recruitment competition for temporary clerical officers. The Department has also been working with the HSE to provide opportunities to contact tracing staff to transfer to the Passport Office to man the telephones. This recruitment effort will bring staffing numbers at the Passport Office to more than 900. It was 460 this time last year.
Over the past number of weeks, the passport service has worked with An Garda Síochána to develop a system for verifying Garda witnesses on passport applications in cases where the Garda signature cannot be verified. This new system assists in reducing the number of applications that are delayed due to a failure to verify witness details. The urgent appointment service continues to operate successfully in Cork, Dublin and London. Additional staff have been added to the public-facing areas to deal with pressure during the summer months.
Intensive training of new staff and upskilling of existing staff has been under way for several months to increase the resources that can process complex applications, such as first-time child applications. Passport service staff are working overtime, with a focus on prioritising first-time applications. This strategy has seen real benefits with the processing time, as I have pointed out, reduced by about 40%. There is a huge level of demand but we are responding to it.
I have talked privately with Deputy Brady about a number of cases where we have tried to offer assistance.
There is a crisis. There has been a huge increase in demand but that was not unexpected. To hear that we are still trying to recruit staff to deal with this crisis is concerning. It shows a lack of proper planning. The fact that we are still training and recruiting staff is unacceptable.
It must be said that the staff working in the Passport Office are excellent. There is no criticism whatsoever of the staff. They are working exceptionally hard but there are major challenges for first-time and child passport applications. I am contacted daily by 40 to 50 people who are wondering where their passport is and who cannot get through to anyone in the Passport Office by phone or web chat. In many cases, their applications have exceeded the estimated issue date by weeks. It is totally unacceptable that people whose applications have been with Passport Office for eight to ten weeks are contacted by trackers only days before the estimated issue date to be told that there is a problem. That is a serious issue and is one of the major failings within the system. It creates an additional workload for staff and puts extra pressure on applicants and staff.
I am not saying that there are not cases every week and every day where interventions are needed in order to make sure that the public gets the service it expects. What I am saying is that over the past number of weeks we have issued an average of around 6,000 passports per day, which is in the region of 30% more than we have ever done. When I say that we are recruiting staff, we lose staff and gain staff like every large operation does, so we have to have ongoing recruitment. We have double the number of staff now than we had this time last year. That is a reflection of the planning that has happened.
We have seen a dramatic improvement in the call line for the public which has been under extraordinary pressure. We have taken on a lot of extra staff, some of whom have come from the HSE's contact tracing operations. Yesterday, the average waiting time for the public call line was six minutes. I asked the question of my Department and that is what I was told. That is a dramatic improvement on where we were a few weeks ago. We have an Oireachtas line that was set up specifically to help Members of the Oireachtas to deal with passport queries. We have reacted. Is the system perfect? No, it is not but we are dealing with huge numbers. By and large, the vast majority of passports are now delivered on time. Approximately half of adult renewals are delivered within 48 hours.
I acknowledge that the turnaround time for most passport renewal applications is extraordinary. I welcome that and praise the staff of the Passport Office for it. However, there are serious challenges. I would seriously question the assertion that people are only waiting six minutes to talk to someone in the Passport Office.
I spoke to a number of people this week who found it impossible to get through, despite many attempts. There is a serious problem with people submitting applications but after eight to ten weeks, and only a couple of days before the estimated issue date, they are contacted by a checker in the Passport Office and told there is an issue. The issue may relate to photographs or to documentation but that adds an additional workload for staff and increases the anxiety of applicants. People have booked their holidays in good faith. When issues are flagged, that can add an additional two or three weeks to the processing time. That needs to be addressed immediately.
When applicants have to send in extra information, which sometimes happens, that does delay the process. In those cases, we try to have a turnaround time of 15 working days after that. The clock does not go back to the start. We try to have a faster turnaround time. This is all about trying to deliver a better service to the public. We also have to get better at communicating with the public so that fewer errors are made on applications. It is our job to do that. I am not blaming the public; I am trying to get a better system in place in terms of communication. We are doing that at the moment with online videos and so on, to try to make sure that people clearly understand what they need to do.
It is important to put a number of things on the record. First, 80% of applications received by the Passport Office are for renewals for both adults and children and 99% of these are issued within the standard turnaround time. Almost half of all adults who renew their passport online will receive a new passport in the post within two working days. I ask Deputy Brady to point to any other country in the world that is delivering that kind of turnaround time. Admittedly, there can be problems with individual cases and we are continuing to try to respond to those but in general, we are delivering an extraordinary service.