Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit arís. Bhí sé linn aréir don phlé ar an tairiscint Comhaltaí Príobháideacha. Tá sé go maith go bhfuil sé linn arís. I will preface my remarks by stressing the obvious. I understand we are in exceptional times with regard to international travel. While we are all positive about and encouraged by the easing of restrictions North and South, there persists clear and coherent guidance with regard to safety and international travel. In no way do I seek to take away from or compete with that guidance with my Commencement matter. Now that the Government has taken the very welcome decision to deem the Passport Office an essential service, which was a belated decision but nonetheless welcome, it is important that people have an understanding of the process for the resumption of services. In addition to being a document needed for travel, a passport is also a very important document for people personally. It is also an important form of identification. It is the right time to hear from Government as to the mechanics of the resumption of services.
We will also potentially be facing a backlog. I heard the Minister, Deputy Coveney, make reference to this on the radio. He was quite confident the Passport Office would be able to clear this backlog with reasonable speed. I hope that is the case because I and, I am sure, colleagues here in the Seanad and across the elected political spectrum have been contacted by people who are still awaiting the passports they need for a whole range of reasons.
I will raise a final issue which I raise consistently with Government, so I am sure it came as no surprise to officials to see it in my Commencement matter. The trajectory of passport applications has been consistently upwards. The staff of the Passport Office do a first-class job. They are very effective in what they do but they deserve more investment and support to lift the burden on them, which must be very great. I reflect on the remarks of the Secretary General of the Department who said the staff are under huge pressure as a result of the volume of passport applications being made. It makes real practical sense for the Government to invest in additional infrastructure and in additional service provision. This would allow for the processing of this tremendous volume of applications for passport renewals and first-time online applications in a much less stressful way.
One of the very obvious ways in which to do this would be to open a new office in the North of Ireland. There is a clear, demonstrable and identifiable need in that geographical area of our country. In an emergency situation in which people have to travel, it is not always an easy process for people living in the north east, the north west or the west, whether in Ballycastle or Bundoran. It can be quite arduous. We need to put in the infrastructure and to provide services in those areas where they are needed and where people can most easily interface with our efficient first-class Passport Office. When this service is so successful and so good, we should build on it and share that resource right across the island for the benefit of everyone.
I thank the Senator for the opportunity to update the House on the current operational status of the Passport Service, which has significantly scaled up operations since 4 May 2021. As an essential service, attendance levels are now increasing and I am sure the Seanad will support me in commending the staff of the Passport Service on the emergency services they operated throughout the pandemic and for their commitment to returning to the Passport Office issuing sites as restrictions have eased.
At the end of April, there were approximately 89,000 online passport applications in the system. Taking into account measures to ensure a safe workplace, I am confident these applications can be processed in six to eight weeks. We are working to process all applications and to return to more reliable turnaround times for our customers by the end of June.
Since we began to increase service levels on 4 May 2021, the Passport Service has issued more than 12,200 passports. There are currently approximately 4,000 more at the final stages of processing. The Passport Service's goal is to process all passport applications on hand by the end of June 2021 and to ensure we would have the capacity for high levels of anticipated demand for passport applications were current travel restrictions to ease.
The Senator correctly notes the Passport Service has seen an annual increase in the number of passports applied for, peaking in 2019 when approximately 935,000 passports were issued. Our investment in the passport reform programme has focused on ensuring the system is robust enough to support that continuously growing global demand for passports. It is not intended to open a dedicated passport office in Northern Ireland as we are satisfied we currently have the capacity to meet that demand. I and my colleagues in Government very much look forward to a return to normal levels of service and to there being shorter turnaround times for our citizens applying from Northern Ireland.
I underline that no matter where in the world our citizens are living and applying from, all applications receive the same priority. We achieve this by processing based on date of receipt and type of application. For example, the passport online system operates from a central pool of applications which can be processed by staff in any of our three locations.This allows us to react quickly to daily demand, by distributing the work to where we have capacity and also to match the skill set of our resources to the work that needs to be done. This has dramatically improved the processing times for adult renewals, where the information is the same as the customer's previous passport. During the highest level of restrictions, Passport Office staff processed approximately 40,000 of these applications. Where a customer is required to submit supporting documentation, such as when changing his or her name, applying on behalf of a child or as a first-time applicant, the supporting documents are sent to a dedicated location where highly skilled staff verify the documents and prepare them for processing for all three offices.
I know that for some customers the use of online services is challenging, but it is important to highlight that the online service is extremely easy to use. Passport Online has won awards for its user-friendly process, including a National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, award for the use of plain English. Many customers find that it is very quick, taking only ten minutes to complete, and I would encourage everyone to try it. Where a customer does not wish to use the passport online system, they will be able to use the paper based Passport Express, or Northern Ireland Passport Express, system later in the year, but the turnaround times for this service will continue to be much longer than Passport Online because of the differences in the efficiencies in processing applications. It is important to point out that in the event that an applicant has urgent or emergency reasons for requiring a passport, he or she should contact the Passport Office, customer service hub by webchat to make it aware of the situation.
I thank the Minister of State for the update on the safe return of the passport service. I wish staff well and every success in getting back to work safely and clearing the backlog.
He referenced the three offices. There are three offices in specific locations on this island, but there is a large geographical deficit and infrastructural void in terms of this important and much utilised service. I do not question the bona fides of the Passport Office staff and their dedication, but there are competing narratives here. We are told of a first-class service, but we are also hearing from the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs that staff are under huge stress. If this first-class service is being delivered because workers are under significant stress, we can do much better than that. There is a clear, coherent and justifiable case for an expansion of the Passport Office. I again thank the Minister of State for coming here today to address the matter, but it is not one I will be letting go.
It is important to note that the passport reform programme continues to deliver major upgrades for the passport services technology platform and business process as well as for the customer service experience. It is also worth noting that the development of the online service is the future direction of improvements within the passport system. The appropriate way to speed up delivery and the provision of a better service to people wishing to obtain passports is through that process. It also has tremendous benefits for people working within the system because it enables them to process more passports for people in a better and quicker way.
The passport online system was expanded in April 2021 to include first-time applicants in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. This means that 98% of Irish citizens worldwide can avail of this service. This improved delivery and resilience in 2022 will continue when we expect a substantial increase in applications. As indicated, there was a drop in the overall number of applications this year as a result of the pandemic. Over the next month, improvements, including the integration of passport online with MyGovID, and further enhancements will continue, particularly to assist parents of young children to use passport online.