Seanad debates

Wednesday, 1 December 2004

7:00 pm

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I wish to be associated with your comments, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I was involved in a car crash some years ago and I know it is a traumatic experience. I am glad to see the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, back and about. I hope his secretary makes a speedy recovery.

I also wish the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, every success in his new portfolio. I welcome him to the Seanad. I believe this is his first time in the Chamber as Minister of State. I have no doubt he will be here many times in the future.

However, I disagree with his announcement not to fulfil the Government's promise to meet the UN target for the overseas development aid budget. The Government should honour its commitment in that regard. Last year, with a group led by the former Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, I visited Lesotho. It was wonderful to see the work being done by the Irish voluntary agencies in that country. Today, in discussing the budget we have used the word "poverty" but one must visit a country like Lesotho to understand the meaning of the word. I urge the Minister of State to honour that commitment as soon as possible. Ireland should lead the way in overseas aid. Our own chequered history should give us the impetus to do so.

If Senator O'Toole comes to the House I would like to share a minute of my time with him.

The other day I spoke to a friend who intends to visit Lanzarote on holiday over Christmas. When he booked his holiday his travel agent told him his passport must be valid for six months after the date of his return to Ireland. He queried this requirement because he felt a passport must be either valid or invalid. He went to his local Garda station in Carlow where he was told the gardaí have been besieged with similar requests for clarification. As far as the Garda is concerned, a passport is valid if it is valid for the period spent travelling.

Countries operate different systems but I would have expected EU member states to apply a standard system. A member of the staff of the House has told me that friends of hers were not allowed to disembark from a bus while passing through Kuala Lumpur last December because their passports were valid only until the following February. Irish citizens when travelling abroad should not be required to comply with this stupid rule.

This matter may be beyond the remit of the Department of Foreign Affairs. We are very lucky to be members of the European Union and the Minister should insist at Council of Ministers meetings that the rules which apply to Irish citizens when travelling abroad should be the same as pertain in our own jurisdiction. The requirement that a passport be valid for six months after the end of a foreign journey should not apply.

Ireland did not sign the Schengen Agreement because Great Britain did not sign it. It may be time to look at that issue again. I ask the Minister of State to address that point in his speech.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Browne for his kind comments. The 0.7% target is real and will be achieved. It is a matter of profound regret to me that it cannot be achieved within the timeframe set out, that is, by 2007. I have no doubt we will achieve it. It is a great sign of our country's progress that we are in a position to achieve the target. It is timely to hear Senator Browne say that the poverty we know in Ireland is as of nothing compared to what he saw on his journey in Africa. I hope to be travelling there as soon as next week.

The simple answer to the issue raised by Senator Browne is that there is a technical requirement to have a valid passport as one makes one's outward journey but there is no absolute requirement that it be valid for the return journey. Clearly, in all prudence and for practical purposes citizens are well advised to make sure their passports are valid for the full duration of their stay abroad so that they can come back to Ireland. That applies in particular to countries that are not members of the European Union.

It is also a requirement with some airlines for proof of identity. Clearly, a passport is not a valid travel document once it has expired and that also applies for travel within the EU. My speech, which is somewhat technical, will reaffirm that fact. If the House bears with me I will read it into the record.

My Department issues passports to Irish citizens at home and, through our embassies and consulates, to our citizens abroad. Passports are issued with a validity period of three years to children up to three years of age, and a validity period of five years for children up to 18 years of age. Thereafter, passports are issued for ten years.

Provided the passport is valid at the time of a person's departure from Ireland there is no formal requirement, as far as the Irish emigration authorities are concerned, that it should be valid for any minimum period beyond that. As far as our authorities are concerned, it is not essential for the passport to be valid for the full duration of the person's journey. If necessary, they can renew their passport at one of our embassies or missions abroad.

However, leaving aside the formal position, it is clearly desirable that the passport be valid for at least the duration of the journey. Simple prudence and common sense would dictate this. In the case of EU countries, all citizens of the Union have the right to enter and reside in the territory of any other member state for a period of up to three months, simply by presenting a valid passport or national identity card. No other formality is required. Member states cannot set additional conditions concerning the minimum validity or duration of an EU passport.

However, countries outside the European Union are of course entitled to set specific requirements for the entry of non-nationals into their territory. These may include a requirement that passports of visitors should be valid for a certain minimum period after the date of entry. Six months is the usual period in question.

Senators will appreciate that my Department is not in a position to know all the precise requirements of each individual country world-wide. It is up to every person to check with the embassy or consulate of the country to which they are travelling before they depart. Common sense applies, both in regard to passport validity and visa requirements.

The Passport Office provides general advice, which is available on the website, to the effect that some countries now insist that passports should be valid for at least six months after the start of a visit. It therefore advises citizens to check the validity of their passports well in advance of travelling to ensure that requirement is met, thus avoiding subsequent difficulties.

I appreciate it is frustrating for people to be told when they arrive, either at the airport of departure or at their destination abroad, that they do not have sufficient validity on their passport to enter the country concerned. However, the reality is that the Passport Office cannot always know the precise requirements of all other countries. These can and, indeed, do change from time to time. The responsibility must, therefore, rest with the individuals concerned to check that they satisfy the relevant entry requirements before they travel.

The Passport Office provides a responsive and helpful service to Irish citizens. The staff there are always willing to go to great lengths to facilitate people who have lost their passports or have forgotten to renew them, in order to ensure they do not have to change their travel plans. We are currently implementing a major project to modernise the passport issuing system, which will see the introduction of a much more secure passport booklet and an improved service to the public. Details of this will be announced shortly.

I pay tribute to the arrangements in place in the Department of Foreign Affairs. In a European and global context, it is unusual for someone to be able to renew his or her passport on the date of departure but that is possible here nowadays. While a comprehensive service is offered in that regard, we cannot be expected to check the requirements of every country. That is a matter for the individual concerned. If it is in order, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, I would be glad to take questions should Senator Browne wish to pose them.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I will allow Senator Browne just one question.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I can understand that far away countries may have drawn up their own local rules and, therefore, people travelling to such destinations would have to check the details. However, such rules should not be applied to Irish citizens travelling within the EU. It is outrageous to apply that rule to, for example, my friend who is going to Lanzarote for a week's break at Christmas. The difficulty is that travel agents are saying that is the rule, yet when people check with the Garda Síochána they are told it is not the rule. That is where the confusion arises. I understand the point the Minister of State is making — that the onus is on the passenger to clarify regulations when they are travelling — but anyone travelling from one EU state to another should not have to go through that nonsense. Once their passport is valid for the return date that should be the end of the matter.

We should examine the Schengen agreement as part of the wider picture. Ireland opted out of that agreement purely because Great Britain was not going into it. At this stage, however, we are well able to think for ourselves. We joined the euro without waiting for Britain to go in, so perhaps it is time to re-examine the agreement. The Minister of State could discuss the matter with his British counterpart to see if the issue could be re-examined to ensure that Irish citizens will not encounter such nonsense in future. This confusion should be removed.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I do not know if I can offer too much satisfaction to the Senator in that regard. He used the phrase "once a passport is valid", which is the problem even within the EU. In other words, if one does not have a valid passport and one is asked to produce it, whether by an airline or whoever within the EU, if the passport is not up to date for the return journey it is difficult for the carriers involved.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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Does the rule refer to the passport being valid for six months after a person is meant to return?

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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It must be valid for six months beyond the arrival date in a country.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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Okay.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Some countries apply that rule but it can only be applied outside the EU, not within Union. I think I made that point clear. One can only apply that kind of validity beyond the journey date outside the EU but within the EU it cannot be applied. I am not clear about Lanzarote. I understand that while Lanzarote is technically part of the EU, it may have some protocols arising from Spanish accession, making its visa and migration matters somewhat different. I am not au fait with what those might be. The requirement that a passport must be valid for six months after entry cannot be applied within the EU. In other words — unfortunately or fortunately, depending on which way one looks at it — the garda in County Carlow was correct in proffering that advice to the citizen who inquired. All one requires to leave this country is a valid passport on the date of departure and there is no requirement for it to be valid after that. Clearly, however, if one wants to get on a plane or boat in the other country to return here, those authorities may seek the production of a valid passport. Within the EU, some airlines ask for valid passports. Outside the EU it is an absolute requirement. For example, if one is waiting in JFK airport hoping to get on a plane home, one must produce a valid passport. A valid passport is one that is in date, not out of date. Therefore, merely carrying a passport that declares the holder to be an Irish citizen does not carry much weight once it is out of date.

I will attempt to take up the Schengen issue. Although I am not quite clear about the matter the Senator raised, if he communicates with me directly on it, I will take it up.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State.