Thursday, 14 July 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla (Atógáil) - Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)
I wish to raise the issue of the passport service because of the sheer volume of queries my office has received from people on a daily basis who are anxious to have their passports returned to them in advance of their travel dates.
I acknowledge the tremendous work the staff have been doing. When I have spoken with them, they have been both professional and courteous on every occasion. They seem, however, to be snowed under with the sheer volume of passport applications they are receiving.
Citizens suffered two years of the Covid-19 pandemic because of the necessary but challenging restrictions that were imposed to suppress the spread of the virus. People were unable to travel abroad for two years. One does not need to be a weather person to know which way the wind is blowing and one certainly did not have to be an expert in aviation trends to anticipate that there would be a large number of people seeking to travel after a two-year moratorium.
Having spent 19 years myself in the travel industry, it was obvious that the industry would recover quickly and that people would travel for holidays, business, and, most important, to meet family members who are abroad. Why were we not prepared for this when we knew that was going to happen? Why were additional staff not sought during the pandemic? Not knowing whether they are going to receive their passport two days before their flight happens places a tremendous burden of stress on parents who are looking forward to for what is for many of them is their first family holiday abroad.
My office dealt with a lady earlier this summer who faced a challenging set of circumstances. A family member had died suddenly in the UK and she wanted to attend the funeral. As the Minister of State may know, such funerals do not happen quickly in the UK and, therefore, she had the time to get over there.
She applied for a passport renewal, albeit with a name change following a divorce, and was told that by the office that it would not be able to escalate the passport application as she had no flight booked. She could not book a flight as she was unsure whether she would get the passport or that it would be returned to in time. The advice she was offered was either to drive from Limerick to London and back again, which in fairness is crazy, or to travel with an airline provider whose prices were four times the price of the provider that had earlier demanded the production of a passport. Unfortunately, some airline providers demand the production of a passport to travel to England whereas others do not. Needless to say, she missed that flight.
Another family of five I spoke to submitted their application at the end of April with a flight date of 15 July. It was a first-time application for a child born in November 2019. The family were faced with the prospect of having to rebook flights or cancelling their plans. Thankfully, their flight is the late flight tomorrow and their passport was dispatched today. These types of turnaround times, however, are a little too close for comfort when people have spent money on flights and accommodation abroad.
Staffing seems to be a key issue and some gaps have been filled by those who had worked previously in Covid-19 track and trace roles but this seems to be too little and far too late. I ask that the Minister of State in his response states what extra steps the Department is taking to ensure that all citizens are issued with passports in advance and, ideally, further in advance of their travel dates and not so close to those dates as is the case at present. I appreciate that there are staff retention challenges but it must be asked why we have these. Why have one third of those persons who are offered temporary clerical roles declined the offer? What is the reason for that? Is it conditions or pay and why is there such a high attrition rate in that section?
Another issue of concern in respect of the applications for passports is the Passport Office website. Given there is such a backlog of passport applications and such a delay in the processing of passports, it would be expected that the home page of the office's website would display warnings about those delays but it does not. When looking at the home page, one would think that there was nothing going wrong or strange and that there were no problems. There is no easily visible warning about expected delays. Perhaps such a warning should be put on the website when people are accessing it. It might then deter them from submitting applications if the realistic times for processing the applications were readily visible. I look forward to the Minister of State's response on this issue, please.
I welcome the opportunity to provide an update on the passport service, particularly during the busy summer period. The service is already outperforming any previous year, despite the challenges that it has encountered over the past two years. Prior to the pandemic, the busiest year for passports was 2019, when in excess of 900,000 passports were issued. The passport service is currently outperforming 2019 by almost 20%. More than 720,000 passports have been issued to date in 2022, compared to 634,000 in the whole of last year.
As Deputies will appreciate, there has been a significant increase in passport demand after two years of pandemic-related travel restrictions. This level of demand is not unique to Ireland. In countries such as the UK and US, the turnaround time for all types of passports can be up to ten weeks. During this period of unprecedented demand, the passport service has, in fact, decreased the processing times for first-time online applications from 40 to 25 working days. This is a decrease of 40% for complex first-time applications since March of this year.
Processing times for online adult renewals are among the fastest in the world, with almost half of these applicants receiving their passports within two working days. To achieve these results and to continue to improve the service, the Department of Foreign Affairs has made an unprecedented investment in the passport service. On staffing, more than 570 staff have been assigned to the service since June of last year, including 200 since May 2022. The addition of these staff members has allowed the service to achieve its current turnaround times in the face of enormous demand.
In addition to significantly more staff being assigned, the service has made important improvements that will help to ensure that passport applications can be processed within turnaround times, including assigning a large number of the new staff to the customer service hub, which has greatly increased the number of calls and webchats being answered and is assisting with customers getting access to the information they need. In recent weeks, the number of calls handled by the hub has increased to more than 2,000 per day. 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 member's signature cannot be verified. This system assists in reducing the number of applications that are delayed due to a failure to verify witness details. Intensive training of new staff and upskilling of existing staff has been underway for several months to increase the resources that can process complex applications, such as first-time child applications.
Passport Online is continuing to expand and is available to 97% of our citizens around the world. The availability of Passport Online worldwide will continue to enhance the customer experience and mean even more efficiencies in the Passport Service. The Passport Service is currently operating at its highest capacity ever, hitting an average of 6,000 passports per day, and considerable improvements are being seen across the system. The Passport Service is confident that the increased resources that have been allocated will continue to improve the service for all our citizens.
I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate his comments on the volume of passport applications being received but that is no succour to people stressing over being unable to travel aboard for holidays. Providing a passport is a basic function of the Department of Foreign Affairs and, unfortunately, it is often shambolic and a national embarrassment when people have put in applications on time and cannot travel for often very valid reasons. I appreciate one should ideally make sure to have an in-date passport before booking flights, but, unfortunately, it is not always the case. The Department has a responsibility to deliver for those seeking a passport and does not always succeed. This is evidenced in the dramatic increase in complaints about the Passport Service. I think there have been 359 so far this year. People should not have to contact their local Deputy to expedite their application. It is not what we should be doing but we are forced to do it. This demonstrates the system is broken in parts.
These long processing times are not specific to passport applications. We see those booking driver tests facing a 14-week wait for a test date. The Covid pandemic can be blamed for only so much. It is obvious there was no forward planning and no anticipation of the huge volume of people who would seek to travel after restrictions were lifted, especially in the summer. Coupling the problematic passport application process with the pre-boarding chaos witnessed at Dublin Airport in recent weeks has meant travelling from this State is more burdensome for some citizens than it should be. We need to see solutions to this crisis. We are in the peak period of summer travel. Unless this matter is addressed soon, we will witness more disappointed applications into August and beyond.
One effective thing the Minister of State can do to address the backlog would be to establish a passport office in the North. This year for the first time there were more applications for Irish passports than for British. Recently, at a polling station in south Belfast in what is considered to be a unionist area during Assembly elections, I was pleased to see so many people go in to vote with their Irish passports in their hands. A recent motion passed by the Seanad supported the establishment of such an office. Will the Minister of State pass on my comments and suggestions on behalf of my constituents? The current service cannot be described as efficient or effective; rather it is better described as exhausting and elongated.
The Passport Service is experiencing significant levels of demand but there are indications these are starting to decrease. Many countries have experienced that rise in demand after Covid restrictions eased. The Government and the Passport Service have responded. Demand for passports fell by 30% in June, when just over 100,000 new applications were received, compared to 146,000 in May. The Passport Service expects to see demand level off and return to more normal levels in the coming months and into next year. The number of passport applications currently in the system has also dropped by 30% in a few weeks, from close to 200,000 to just over 140,000 this week. This means the investment made in the Passport Service is paying off. The Passport Service will continue to work to deliver enhanced customer service and experience in service delivery to customers, which is a critical citizens' service.
There are two things citizens should know this summer. First, the urgent appointment service in Dublin and Cork is available to people who need to renew their passports urgently in time for travel. Second, Passport Online is up to four times faster than An Post passport for passport renewal applications and is the most efficient way to apply for a passport.
I encourage all citizens planning to travel overseas this year to check their passports before looking to travel and to apply online in plenty of time. I will take on board the points the Deputy has raised and bring them back to the Department.