Friday, 5 March 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, Teachta Brophy. As he will be aware, we are under strict limitations at present as a result of Covid. All of us who are present in the House are extremely aware of that and of all that has been done in that regard. This is, however, an important issue. As we are an island nation, passports are unfortunately required for people to leave this island to travel to college, to work or for medical or emergency reasons. Many people need passports to open bank accounts, to apply for driving licences, to rent houses and even for matters as simple as getting a television or phone supplier. The passport offices of most of our counterparts are still open and are providing a reasonable level of service. One only has to look across the water to Britain, which is also at the highest level of lockdown, to see quite a decent level of service being provided with regard to passports.
The number of staff involved in this particular service is quite small. I know the restrictions we are under and the challenges we face but it is not good enough that there is no one available to answer the phone or to do anything online. The number of people involved is very small. We are not talking about something like the construction industry going back to work or the large-scale movements involved in opening schools in full; we are looking at a small number of people who provide an important service. The excuse or reason that has been given before is that these employees have to be in the office and that their work is very concentrated. Security reasons have been cited as a reason that much of the work cannot be carried out from home. I understand that but it is not acceptable that there is no one to answer the phone and that passports cannot be renewed online after all the hard work has already been done in that regard. The buck stops with the Minister of State's Department.I urge him to, at least, consider a more conjoined way of thinking regarding the passport service. We have had more than a year to get some sort of a mechanism in place. It has not happened. We need to look to upgrade this.
I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address the essential work of the passport service, which has continued to deliver throughout the global pandemic.
At level 5, employers are asked to only undertake essential tasks to help stop the spread of Covid-19 in our community. I am satisfied that the passport service is continuing to provide an essential service while respecting the level 5 restrictions announced on 23 December. The passport service provides a same-day service for citizens who need to travel for urgent medical treatment abroad and for citizens who require lifesaving treatment. Travel in these circumstances is unforeseen and the passport service has gone above and beyond to assist families in very stressful and emotive situations.
Our travel emergency team continues to assess every request from citizens under these criteria. I ask that citizens bear in mind that the same-day service is only for those in the most urgent and unanticipated cases, typically when an applicant is in hospital and requires medical transfer. The passport service also offers an urgent service on a weekly basis for those who need to travel overseas for less urgent but essential medical treatment. Adult renewals are processed when a citizen needs to travel for work, study or other essential reasons. We also offer assistance when a passport is needed urgently as proof of identity, for example, to meet a legal obligation. All of these service are provided through the online channel and applicants are requested to provide documentation to support their application and validate their essential need for a passport. These documents will be verified before a passport is issued. Applicants should, in the first instance, contact the passport service through the web chat facility.
Citizens who live overseas are assisted through our network of Irish embassies and consulates. We continue to process renewals and first-time applications where a citizen is only entitled to Irish citizenship and when they are legally required to hold a passport for residency purposes. The applications that have been paused are adult renewals that are not required for essential purposes, applications which are complex or require supporting documentation, such as child renewals where the consent of all guardians must be obtained and verified, and first-time applications. When there is an essential reason to travel each case will be considered.
The processing of all online applications will resume at level 4. I will outline how the passport service will resume operations. Significant work has been done in recent years through the passport reform programme to deliver a more efficient and effective service. The passport service online application channel, which was introduced in 2017, has been key to the delivery of services during this time and will be key to their resumption. It allows adults renewing their passports to apply from the safety of their home. It allows us to keep applicants informed as to when operations are paused and again when service resumes. My staff have examined the current application patterns and the forecasted number of applications estimated to be received up to May 2021 and they are confident that any backlog will be cleared in approximately six to eight weeks.
The first applications to be approved will be the online applications for adult renewals, then child renewals and then first-time applications. Every effort will be made to return to reliable turnaround times as quickly as possible. I assure the Senator of our continued attention regarding this issue in the months ahead. I reassure everyone that every effort is made to facilitate anyone who requires a passport in an emergency situation or for essential services or travel. There is a commitment in place to do that.
I do not mean to contradict the Minister of State, and I appreciate him coming to the House today, but I have had experience dealing with people who feel this service is being provided on a piecemeal basis. The Minister of State mentioned towards the end of his contribution that information is taken into consideration. Parents who want to get their child a passport must send in their own passports and this is caught up in the system. All their certificates and everything that they supply is caught up in the system. There is no guarantee of return when they look for documentation back because, for example, they need their own passport returned. If I look for a passport for my child because he has something going on at the end of the year and I send in my passport but it gets tied up in the system, I would not be able to get my passport back, unfortunately.If one had to get one's passport in an emergency, one would be told that within 30 days of reopening, it would be fished out. That is not good enough. We are talking about a small number of staff. Level 5 will continue possibly until early April. As has been indicated, there will be some exceptions for some building projects and I would seek to have the Passport Office included at that point, if not before. I hope the Minister of State will push that strongly.
I will make some concluding remarks. When the service is paused, people are requested not to submit supporting documentation or documentation they may need because once it goes into the system, there is a problem returning it as staff are working remotely. Again, I thank Senator Davitt for raising the issue again today. The Department is willing to engage in a reform programme as it has been doing for delivery. We have undertaken substantial reform and expansion of the service. The online service will be expanded to various other countries once we resume, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States from April this year. It is important to note the work the staff in the Passport Office and everybody in the public sector has done and to acknowledge that some have worked in other departmental areas in helping to tackle Covid-19.
I appreciate Senator Davitt raising the point. I assure him the service is there in emergency situations. We will continue to improve and innovate the service as we can when we return to normal service.