Thursday, 23 June 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
99. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will provide a printer for the Cork Passport Office to facilitate in-person one-day rapid renewals there and take pressure and demand off the Mount Street office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33167/22]
101. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the number of applications for passports from counties Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal to date in 2022, from each county; the number of passports issued; and the number of outstanding applications for passports currently awaiting processing in each county, in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32932/22]
107. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will ensure each passport application is checked for validity immediately on receipt to allow time for applicants to submit corrected information, if required, as anomalies are too frequently being discovered too late in the process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33168/22]
114. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the measures being considered to have initial checks on all passport applications on receipt to ensure applicants are notified on any issues regarding their application; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33204/22]
There has already been a discussion about the passport service this morning. The specific issue I raise is the possibility of a printer being installed in the Cork office to alleviate pressure on the Mount Street office and provide a quicker service to people in the south and south-west regions. In addition, I raise the issue of the stage in the process at which a passport application is checked. Could that check take place earlier in order that any fault or the need for additional information is detected at a point that is not too close to the date of travel for the applicant?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 99, 101, 104, 107 and 114 together.
As there are several questions grouped together, I hope the Acting Chairman will give me some extra time to answer. The passport service is continually working to deliver enhanced customer experience and service delivery to our citizens. As we all know, it has been under a lot of pressure this year. It is experiencing an unprecedented volume of demand for passports. This is as a direct result of pent-up demand for travel after two years of pandemic-related restrictions.
This level of demand is not unique to Ireland.
In countries such as the UK and the US, the turnaround time for all types of passports can be up to ten weeks and that is increasing, rather than decreasing. Our passport service has managed to decrease the processing time for first-time online applications from 40 working days to 25 working days in just four months. Additionally, almost half of adult online renewals, which are the vast majority of passport applications, are processed within two working days. Our passport service is performing at its highest capacity ever and is producing an average of 6,000 passports every day.
To achieve these types of results and to continue to improve the service, my Department has made a huge investment in the passport service. In terms of staffing, more than 400 staff have been assigned to the passport service since June 2021, including 120 in recent weeks. The addition of these staff has allowed the passport service to maintain its current turnaround times in the face of enormous levels of demand. In addition to significantly more staff being assigned, the passport service has made three important improvements that will assist our customers in ensuring their passport applications are correct and can be processed without delay.
Many of the new staff have been assigned to the customer service hub and this will greatly increase the number of calls and web chats being answered and will assist with customers getting access to the information they need. This is important because many members of the public contact the offices of Deputies when they are utterly frustrated that they cannot get through to the passport office by phone. We are acting to address this issue and to put a much bigger system in place, which will involve many more people answering calls, to provide a better service for the public in this regard. I referred to this aspect earlier.
Additionally, the passport service released two online video guides that provide tips to ensure that passport photos and witnessed consent forms for children are correctly submitted. We have had to improve communications in this area because there were many examples of incorrect applications. This is not about blaming the public. It is about asking ourselves how we can communicate better to ensure that these mistakes are not made, because they delay everything. Passport photos and witnessed consent forms are some of the main reasons that an application may be delayed, so it is important that customers have all the information they need to ensure that these are submitted correctly. It is our job to ensure that communications improve in this regard. These easy-to-follow video guides are available on my Department's website and social media channels and I encourage all applicants to watch them before they submit their applications.
My Department is also currently running a national radio and print public information campaign reminding our citizens to check their passports and to apply online. This campaign also offers tips to ensure that applications are correct and complete. The campaign is running in ten national newspapers and on national and local radio in Ireland, as well as in Northern Ireland, by the way.
The passport service is experiencing a significant level of demand. I am glad to say, however, that the indications are that demand is already starting to decrease. Initial forecasts for the end of this month show the number of applications received in June may decrease by up to one third from last month. We expect to see demand level off and to return to more normal levels in the coming months and into next year.
Regarding Deputy Griffin's question concerning a passport printer being located in Cork, this is not currently under consideration, given that passport demand is now starting to decrease. There is a question concerning the financial cost of this, given the resourcing we must focus on other areas, such as customer service, efficiency, call centres, etc. I am not going to rule this possibility out, however, and if it makes sense to do it, then we will. My understanding, though, is that turnaround times are not being delayed predominantly because of printing times. We have high-capacity printers in Dublin delivering great numbers of passports by the hour. The delays in getting passports to people who need them on time result predominantly from processing times and the need to answer queries, correct applications that have documentation that must be added to or corrected, etc.
In answer to questions from Deputies Griffin and Aindrias Moynihan regarding the checking of applications as soon as they are received, this is simply a question of the volume of applications currently being submitted. When applications are received, they enter a queue and are checked in order of the date they are received. We do not know and cannot predict which ones will be problematic, if the Deputies understand what I mean. The applications come in and then each one is checked based on delivering a passport in time for the turnover times we have set. Therefore, when we get to a passport application and there is a problem with it in respect of witness consent documentation or a photograph that needs to change or be corrected, or whatever, then that of course, causes a delay. We have worked hard to ensure that the clock does not start again on turnaround times and that, instead, after a file has been corrected, we deliver a passport within 15 working days of that happening. We are actually trying to shorten this time further. People will know that I have intervened, and that the Oireachtas call line has also intervened, in urgent cases to try to ensure that people can get their passports in time for when they need them. This is, essentially, the position.
Passport Online is continuing to expand and is now available to 97% of our citizens around the world. Most recently, Passport Online has been rolled out to first-time applicants in the United Arab Emirates, UAE, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Qatar. The availability of Passport Online worldwide will continue to enhance customer experience and deliver even more efficiencies for the passport service. If there is one thing that I want the public to hear, it is that if people are applying for a passport or to renew a passport, then please do so online. That will enable us to try to get the passport back to people as quickly as we possibly can. Equally, if a mistake is made, then we can make the corrections much faster if an application is made online.
I acknowledge the huge efforts that have been made by the Minister and his Department to try to address the difficulties that people have been facing. To be honest, I have never seen anything like the volume of requests from people in my constituency who have been in contact with my office because of the risk of losing their holidays and flights. Unfortunately, some people did not get their passports in time. Most do, but it is last-minute stuff and it is terribly stressful for people who are, in many cases, looking for a little bit of rest and relaxation after several stressful years. Therefore, I urge the Minister to keep up the efforts to try to ensure that any existing backlogs are cleared fully.
I again ask the Minister to reconsider having a passport printer in Cork. For people in Dingle, Cahersiveen or Waterville, there is a big difference between going to Cork instead of Dublin to avail of the urgent rapid renewal one-day turnaround service. It would be great service to have for the entire southern region. I am sure it would be pertinent to other constituencies as well, but speaking on behalf of my constituents, having this service in Cork would be a massive boost. It is a very long journey up to and down from Dublin in one day to use the rapid renewal service. In this context, it would be advantageous to have this service in Cork.
Every time I fail to get a passport for somebody, I think of the unique and serious situations involved. People must travel sometimes for funerals and other times for holidays, but costs and disappointment are always involved in these cases. We should never lose sight of the human situations that arise when people do not get the service. I notice that the State often requires people to do things within 28 days or 14 days or the service will not be provided. Therefore, we owe it to the people to provide efficient services.
Was any systems analysis done to find out where the logjams were occurring in the system? I do not accept the idea that all the applications are left there and are not pre-validated. Planning offices, for example, pre-validate planning applications to ensure that all the paperwork is correct. Similarly, passport applications could then take a sequence after pre-validation. Additionally, has the issue regarding the signature by a member of An Garda Síochána as a witness been fully resolved? Has this eased a great deal of demand on the Minister’s office?
The Minister had many questions to deal with, but I was looking for more specific information for Cork. The figures I have show that nearly 2,600 passport applications were awaiting processing in January and that this figure rose to more than 9,000 in May. I would like to get an update regarding where we are now because my office has been inundated with people contacting me about passport applications. Regarding the issue of whether there should be the ability to print passports in Cork, it would be a big advantage to the whole Munster area.
Another issue concerns a situation where a family came to me. They went to the Garda station to get two forms signed for a son and a daughter. The daughter got her passport, but the son never got his.
We were told by the Passport Service that it has to deal with each application individually. When the office rang the Garda station, a garda verified he had signed the daughter's application. By the time the Passport Service got to the son's application, it rang the Garda station and either could not get through or the garda on duty was not there. Due to the fact that the garda was not present in the station, the application went out of date and the family had to reapply. This is crazy stuff. If someone in the Passport Service telephones a Garda station, he or she should be able to inquire as to whatever applications the station has signed.
This is hugely stressful for people who are planning on travelling or need to travel for funerals or other reasons, including holidays and are waiting for documentation and a passport to be available in order to facilitate that travel. For a question to emerge at the last moment creates another scramble and means people are tighter on time. Why can applications not be validated once they arrive into the Passport Service? It would be an obvious action. People could queue afterwards if there is an issue, and they need to gather relevant documentation and have it ready for when the time comes to process the passport application.
It should not be possible to upload a photograph unless it is 100% correct. If the automated system accepts a photograph, that should be it. It makes no sense that people are asked for another photograph weeks later because there was an issue with the original one. The automated system should only accept correct photographs. That needs to be verified.
I ask the Minister to keep the possibility of a Cork printer under consideration because it would be a valuable asset to people based in the south west, especially those travelling out of Cork Airport. They would not have to travel all the way to Dublin to collect a passport and return home again to travel out of Cork or Shannon airports.
I thank the Minister for taking the question. I would like to get a better indication of the Department's understanding of the number of applications made per county. I want to get a greater understanding of how many applications there are on the island of Ireland, North and South. Thankfully, I got that information this morning. From an international perspective, I would like to separate that information. It is important we get a full understanding of the position. My concern relates to the number of mainland UK-based applications, in particular as a consequence of the knock-on effect of Brexit. People are taking advantage of the system to try to get access to an Irish passport because they have a potential entitlement to one, despite having no interest in the State. That is an issue.
I want to compliment the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and other Ministers of State in the Department who have worked hard to resolve these issues. I understand the reasons behind the backlog and it is good to hear there has been a drop in demand, and fingers crossed that will remove many of the issues in the next number of weeks.
I thank Deputies for their co-operation on passports. I know the issue has put a lot of pressure on the constituency offices of all parties. A lot of applications from Northern Ireland come through the offices of Sinn Féin Deputies, if there is a problem. Likewise, there is a perception among the public that if they contact the constituency office of a Government party member, perhaps they are likely to get to the Minister faster or whatever. There is a lot of pressure on political offices in regard to passports.
The cases are very stressful. When someone is crying on the phone and saying he or she will miss a holiday for which he or she has been waiting for two years and has taken out a loan from the credit union or whatever to fund a holiday, it is a big deal to try to solve the problem. Rarely, but sometimes, it is not possible to solve the issue on time. Most of the time, from the feedback I have received, the Oireachtas line provides a good service. Urgent cases often come to my office, and nine times out of ten we get a response that is appropriate and reasonable.
People have responded in a way that is helpful to me and have made suggestions in terms of how we can improve things. There are frustrations at times but, by and large, people have recognised that we have extraordinary demand this year and are trying to deal with it by putting a lot more people into the system. Staffing levels and infrastructure have expanded dramatically in the space of nine or ten months to try to deal with the demand. I am glad to say that we have now reached the peak and the number of applications is starting to fall quite dramatically. The second half of the year will be a lot easier, for obvious reasons, because a lot of people needed to get passports before the holiday season starts.
On Deputy Aindrias Moynihan's question on a Cork printer, one of the first questions I asked when I started visiting passport offices was why we did not have a printer in Cork as well as Dublin to try to have a geographical spread and so on. The answer I received is that the pace of printing we can deliver through the current printers we have is not the problem. The proof of that is that the current number of applications is between 20% and 30% higher than the previous highest year, and the printers have still delivered.
The passports that are stuck in the system are stuck not because the printers cannot print fast enough, but because there are other problems or delays, something has gone missing, someone has not been able to answer the phone to respond to a query or whatever. That is not to say we will never have a printer in Cork. We have given consideration to a move to a new passport office in Cork. The current office facilities are not big enough and are not at the standard they need to be in terms of the staff numbers. We are in the very early process of looking at a relocation and providing a bigger, and perhaps more modern, building for the Passport Service in Cork, something I want to continue to pursue. We will of course keep printing capacity and where those printers are located under review. I am not in a position to say that we will move ahead with a printer in Cork at this stage.
We are trying to focus on the pressure points, namely, turnaround times and facilitating a new software system that can make online applications more efficient and flexible than they are today, while obviously maintaining safety and security to make sure that we guard against fraud and a range of other things, in particular in respect of children. Sometimes people scoff when I say there are security issues, but there are. Every week or so, there are cases of people trying to get passports inappropriately, using fraudulent information and so on. We have robust systems to deal with that but it sometimes delays the process. Security is really important.
I will follow up on the question on why the system accepts a photograph that is not valid. That is a fair question and I will get a proper answer to it and try to come back to the Deputy. The system should be able to differentiate between what is and is not valid at the outset, which would save an awful lot of strife later on.
On the question raised by Deputy Gould and others on the relationship between An Garda Síochána and Garda stations when a verification check is required, it is an essential part of ensuring there is no fraud and so on in the system. We now have new memorandum of understanding between the Passport Service and An Garda Síochána. It was agreed over the past number of weeks to have a system that no longer relies on the right garda being in a station and able to pick up the phone to give an answer that is needed to the Passport Service. What had been happening was that the Passport Service would try to call a Garda station on three separate occasions. If, after three efforts to do so, it did not get through to the right person or the Garda station, the process had to start all over again. That was not a good system. The Garda and we have accepted that, and we have a new system in place, which means the issue will be addressed. We will not hear about cases of a brother, but not a sister, getting a passport or vice versabecause the Passport Service did not get through to the right garda in a Garda station at the time the call was made. That problem will be solved.
I acknowledge the efforts of my staff and of all parliamentary staff on all sides of the Houses. It has been very stressful for them and they have borne the brunt at the front line in hearing the stories and taking that stress on themselves to get the issues resolved. If the Minister is considering moving the Cork passport office, he is more than welcome to move it to Kerry, if he so wishes. There is plenty of space and there are plenty of buildings down there.
I do not know if he has any information as to what the costing of the printing facility is or what the full-year cost of installing such a facility is. Obviously, the facility has to be run as well, so it is not as simple as buying a machine. I do not know if the Minister has information on that. He referred earlier to the amount of printing going on in Dublin. That is great, but in emergency situations and for one-day renewals, not having to travel to Dublin and having an office in the southern region would be massively important and a great service for people in difficult circumstances. I emphasise that these are not just people going on holidays; they are also people who have unfortunate sudden bereavements or other emergencies. At such very stressful times, having a service locally would be very important.
Looking at systems, the vast majority of people, as the Minister rightly points out, do not have to come to us. When a system is operating like that, one always looks for the part of the system that is failing and where the logjams are occurring. I think most of us would say that an awful lot of the logjams relate to children. It seems to me basic, therefore, that if that is correct, a systems analysis be done and any passport for a juvenile should be pre-validated very early in the process. With computers nowadays, particularly with online applications, and most of the cases I deal with are online, all the data, including date of birth, are there. I cannot understand why such applications cannot be pulled out, pre-validated and sorted out. I imagine that the Minister's office would have saved an awful lot of time within his own office and in all the other query offices if we could have taken out all the problems that arose with children's applications forms. The problem is that parents cannot go on holidays without their own children.
The number of passport applications coming in from the North just goes to show the need for a passport office in the Six Counties. I ask the Minister, the Department and the Government to look at that need.
As for the Minister's comments about a new passport office in Cork, I suggest that if it is not to be in the city centre, it be on the northside. The reason for that is that a study we did a number of years ago with a Labour Party council at the time, under Michael Ahern, in Cork, showed that there were over 30 Government agencies on the southside of the city and only six or seven on the northside. If there is to be further investment, it should be balanced.
Lastly, we are in the middle of the holiday season now. Everything should be done not to allow any more people to miss their flights or their holidays. Once again, I thank the Minister and the staff at the Passport Service because I recognise the tremendous pressure they are under and that they are doing their best. We just need to give them all the support they need.
I thank the Minister for checking out the question about the photograph. It will be interesting to see what the situation is and to make sure that that problem can be corrected. I also acknowledge the huge effort that has been made in improving the Garda form, because that had been a major problem for people. The validation of an application, once it arrives, also needs to be corrected such that, as soon as an application comes in, it is checked to make sure that if there are any issues, people have the opportunity at that stage to rectify them instead of letting time run on it.
Finally, regarding the Cork printer, I hear the advice the Minister is getting and I accept that there is capacity in the printer in Dublin. It is hugely important, however, to see this from a Cork and a southern perspective, that is, that if people are travelling out of Cork and time is tight and there is pressure for passports, going up to Dublin only to turn around to come back down again has to be taken into consideration. If there is a printer in Cork, it would be much more practical to be able to get passports printed in Cork and for people to collect them on the way to the airport if time is tight, instead of having to go to Dublin for them.
I understand those arguments. Every city, town and county would like to have the convenience of being able to go to pick up emergency passports at short notice locally. My job, however, is to try to deliver 130,000, 150,000 or 160,000 passports a month and to do so in an efficient way whereby I can stand over the delivery times within which we say we will deliver and to get more than 90% of our passports delivered within those timelines. For the other 10%, 5%, 2% or 3%, whatever the figure is, where there are issues, we need to turn around those passports and to fix the issues as quickly as we possibly can.
We are doing the systems analysis to which Deputy Ó Cuív referred. He is right. This is about systems. If you are trying to deliver 6,000 passports a day to the public, you cannot have the system we used to have whereby you drop a passport in a box and a Deputy can take a dozen passports home to constituents. I can understand the attraction of that in the past, but we now have much higher numbers of applications and an expectation on the part of the public that they can apply from their homes - online, on an iPad or a computer at home - and get their passports in two or three working days in the case of a normal, straightforward renewal. For children, the turnaround time is within 25 working days now. If you speak to people in other countries about children's passport applications being turned around in 25 working days, most of them think that this is an extraordinary delivery time, given the security checks that are required and so on. It is not a perfect system but it is not a bad system either. We will have a lot more flexibility with the new software platform we will have in place this time next year, I hope, or certainly close to that. We will be testing this time next year, at least. I am told that the security considerations as to how the Passport Service has to function today will give us a lot more flexibilities to be able to work potentially through a network of social welfare offices, Intreo offices or post offices to provide more passport services to different parts of the country.
A higher percentage of the passport applications from the North are paper applications than in the South. We need to change that, and I need Members' help in getting the message out to applicants in Northern Ireland that when getting their Irish passports, they should apply online because it is a much more straightforward process. We are looking at whether we can put some kind of specific web chat function in place for applicants in Northern Ireland to be able to get information for urgent cases and so on. I have been asked whether or not I could open the Oireachtas line to MLAs in Northern Ireland. I think that would be a very difficult thing to do and that it would be unfair in some ways on Oireachtas Members if the lines were to be clogged up as a result of that. We are looking for solutions to improve communications and to get better information flow back and forth-----
At the moment we are not. I have not ruled it out, as I have said, but at the moment we are trying to prioritise turnaround times and a response to the public demand where the pressure points are most acute. I am not ruling out a passport office in the North but it is not first on the priority list for now.