Tuesday, 18 May 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.
Official documents that are produced by the authorities of one country, and which are intended to be submitted to the authorities of another, would ordinarily need to be certified as authentic by the Government of the originating country in order to be accepted abroad, and further inquiries then taking place after authenticity in the receiving country. This has been simplified in a number of ways. For example, by the Hague Convention abolishing the requirement of legalisation for foreign public documents of 1961 or the Apostille Convention, which put procedures in place for an apostille stamp to be affixed to documents. That means in instances where both countries are party to that convention, the second country will accept the document as being authentic without any further inquiries being made. This is an international certification of sorts that is comparable with notarisation in domestic law. A notary certifies that a document is authentic or that the signatories on it are authentic, and this is accepted by anyone receiving it. The apostille operates the same principle but on an international level. Matters were simplified further in 2019 by the EU regulation on public documents. That has meant certain public documents that are produced by the authority of a member state and being presented to another member state will no longer require any legalisation or an apostille.
Both Irish citizens and companies still require this for some public documents for use within the EU as well as a range of documents used outside the EU. Authentication is most often required for foreign adoptions where significant amounts of documentation are required to be sent abroad but also for immigration and citizenship matters, for certain business transactions, share sales and so on. Covid-19 has meant that instead of being processed very quickly by the Department of Foreign Affairs, documents are now taking a month or more to be processed. We are talking here about the consularisation of documents by the authentication and apostille public offices of the Department of Foreign Affairs. These offices in Dublin and Cork have been closed to the public since last December and they have accepted documents by post only. This has led, as I have said, to delays of four weeks or more in the processing of documents. Ordinarily, the public offices process documents on the same day that they are submitted. The lawyers in the House will be painfully familiar with this area.These documents are usually processed by law clerks in solicitors' offices, who are diligent and competent people who know their stuff. During the summer holidays, however, it has often been delegated to apprentice solicitors, many of whom will have spent quite a few summer afternoons queuing in the Department of Foreign Affairs' public office waiting for documents to be authenticated. I hope by raising this matter, those who may be aware of this are not caused an outbreak of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.
It is a matter which affects businesses and, therefore, affects people. My question to the Minister of State, therefore, is why this delay is happening. How can a month-long backlog have built up? How can a same-day turnaround in person turn into a four-week turnaround when this is being operated by post? Have some of the staff operating the back office of the consularisation section been redeployed during Covid-19? If not, surely the process should not take longer than a few days when postage is taken into account. It is a simple question for the Minister of State. I also ask when the public office will reopen.
I thank Senator Mullen for raising this matter. The Department's authentication and apostille unit is responsible for the authentication of documents to be used abroad, as the Senator stated in his contribution. The unit provides the essential consular services to Irish citizens and businesses by verifying a document's origin and by confirming a signature and seal or stamp appearing on it are genuine.
The services, similar to many, has faced significant challenges in its operation during the Covid-19 pandemic. In line with public health restrictions, public-facing offices were closed in Dublin and Cork in March 2020. Despite this, the authentication and apostille service was quickly identified as essential and I can confirm the Department has continued providing this service throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Staff in both Dublin and Cork have continued to attend and work in the office, throughout all restriction levels, to access the applications and operate specialist printing equipment.
The Covid-19 restrictions have, of course, presented significant challenges to the functioning and delivery of the service. The closure of public offices due to public health restrictions necessitated operational changes to the service by moving it from a public-facing same-day turnaround service to a registered postal-only service. This has lead to an inevitable increase in waiting times and a disruption to well-established work practices.
Furthermore, the duration of level 5 restrictions has required the rotation and division of staff to separate locations in order to respect public health and safety requirements, protect staff and ensure the continuity of the business. The level of applications has also remained extremely high throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and there is currently a backlog.
The Department is aware of the longer than usual turnaround times and strenuous efforts have been invested in managing and minimising these. These efforts have included the setting up of a postal and registry system in conjunction with An Post, the purchasing of new specialist equipment and the sourcing of additional office space to accommodate staff. Further measures have also been taken to address turnaround times and additional staffing has been assigned.
Despite the numerous challenges, the unit processed more than 46,000 applications last year and, to date, has processed 18,477 applications this year. Staff have also been as responsive as possible in accommodating the many urgent requests. I wish to acknowledge the professionalism of the staff in Dublin and Cork in particular, who have continued to operate the service throughout all the levels of the pandemic with great patience and dedication.
I also wish to acknowledge the continuing dialogue and good working relationship with the stakeholders and the public on this matter. We really do appreciate their patience. I assure the Senator that work is ongoing to address the issue and to reduce waiting times as quickly as possible.
I thank the Minister of State for coming in but, unfortunately, the response which has been prepared for him is rather lame. Why is it inevitable that a switchover from an in-person, public-facing system to a registered postal-only service would cause any delay at all? One could argue it may speed up the process in certain circumstances. I have been given no good reason for the delay, apart from the claim the necessary spacing out of people may contribute to a delay. Surely something such as that could have been overcome relatively quickly.
Certainly, an argument has not been made that staff have been redeployed to deal with other aspects of the Covid-19 emergency. Why do the changes consequent on Covid-19 always seem to lead to delays? The delays in this case have not been justified.
On another matter which relates to the Department of Foreign Affairs, I do not understand why such an enormous backlog has built up in terms of passports. There is a backlog of 92,000 applications at present. That is approximately 9% of the number issued in a normal year. By any yardstick, that is enormous. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, stated it could be cleared in eight to ten weeks but that is difficult to believe, given the passport application system has been under immense pressure for many years now.
I thank the Minister of State for coming in but I am not satisfied with the answer. I understand staff have to socially distance but in the case of passports, it takes just one person to man the machines which produce passports. Surely, in the case of the apostille system, it would have been possible to get over the initial adjustments which needed to be made for safety purposes and to get the system working fast.
A situation in which one has gone from an in-person service to a delay of four weeks is not acceptable. It needs to change quickly.
Unfortunately, Senator Mullen expresses an alarming lack of knowledge on what it takes to produce a passport. There is not just a single machine, as I hope the Senator is well aware. In a number of instances, there is a process of authentication of documents and all the necessary things. These are essential protections to ensure our passports, which are highly valued-----
The functioning of the Passport Office has significantly improved, as Senator Mullen might have been aware if he had attended the other times I talked about it, and we are clearing that backlog.
As for the matter the Senator did raise today, the staff are working diligently to carry out their work. There is a delay because the service required a certain amount of space and way of delivering the service, pre-Covid-19. I am sure Senator Mullen would not want to put staff's health and safety at risk by continuing in the manner which we were doing pre-Covid-19.
We had to reallocate the work practices, as to how we deliver the service during Covid-19, but we will clear the backlog.
By the way, we process more than 290,000 passports in a normal year and we are well within our capacity limits to deliver the passports.