- Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the supports he is providing to the Passport Office to assist in the speedy processing of the increasing numbers of passport applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18002/17]
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: The Minister recently told me that the Passport Office processed almost 750,000 applications for renewals and new passports in 2016 and that he expected a rise of approximately 9% this year. Of course there was the Brexit spike, to which the Minister has referred in some replies. His own Department has been very efficient and kind in response to queries I have raised, and I am sure, in response to other Deputies as well. There is growing concern that, as the website of the Passport Office states, processing times are a guideline only and not a guarantee. We have case after case of families being very distressed as their time for departure for a holiday fast approaches and no passport is delivered.
Deputy Charles Flanagan: There have been very significant increases in passport applications in recent years. A total of almost 750,000 applications was received in 2016. This was an increase of more than 9% over 2015. Between 1 January and 31 March this year, over 250,000 applications were received, which represented an increase of 26% over the same period last year. There are a number of factors behind these increases. The decision by the UK to leave the European Union has undoubtedly had an impact but so too has an expanding population and an increase in outbound travel in recent years. The passport service’s stated aim is to process passport renewal applications within 15 working days of receipt, provided that the documentation is in order. Applicants are advised that the turnaround time will vary depending on factors such as seasonal demand. Turnaround times for each category of applicant are updated every week on the passport service website. Despite the high volumes, the target turnaround time of 15 working days was met in almost 90% of cases last year and it is just over the target – by one day – in recent weeks. First-time applications are subject to longer turnaround times due to the extra verifications involved to protect the integrity of this important document. The current turnaround time for first-time applications is 24 working days. In all cases, as a matter of best practice, applicants are advised to allow at least six weeks for the processing of a passport and to use the passport express service only if they have no immediate travel plans. The exceptional level of demand is likely be sustained into the summer months and we have worked hard to put in place a number of measures, including additional staffing resources, to mitigate the impact. A total of 230 temporary clerical officers has been assigned to the Passport Office to assist with the processing of passport applications and to respond to customer queries. The great majority of these officers are already in place. I launched a new online passport application service for adults renewing their passports on 30 March last. This new service will greatly assist in managing increased volumes of applications in the months and years ahead and in meeting target turnaround times. It allows citizens to renew their passport books and cards online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from wherever they are in the world. The service removes the requirement to have a form witnessed and is a fast, secure and convenient way to renew a passport. Additional information not given on the floor of the House The target turnaround time is ten working days plus postage time. I urge all Deputies to encourage all eligible applicants to use this channel. I also ask Deputies to continue to help promote good practice in communications with constituents. As I mentioned, as a matter of best practice and to avoid unnecessary stress, applicants should allow six weeks for a passport application. Applicants should always check the validity of their passport before booking travel. If travel is already booked, it is very important that applicants carefully consult the passport service website and use the correct channel. The website has a free renewal reminder service for passport holders and I also strongly encourage people to avail of this service which is available through my Department’s website. I fully appreciate the pressures the current exceptionally high levels of demand are putting on travel plans. I assure the Deputy that I will continue to closely monitor the situation to ensure the effective deployment of staff and other resources in order that the impact on turnaround times for applicants and on customer service is minimised.
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: When I review the files from my own office of people who I have represented, time after time one sees that while a passport should have been issued on a particular date according to the tracker on the website, somebody’s departure date is coming up within a few days and there is still no sign of the passport. As I have said, I am grateful for the fact that the Department has been able to help out in such cases.
On additional resources, are all 230 staff members now in place? The Minister said that some of them are still being recruited. The Minister has said that there is going to be a passport reform programme – which includes the online application which was launched just a few days ago – but it includes a ten-working day turnaround when even the 15-working day turnaround does not seem to be working. There are also complaints from constituents saying that access to the Passport Office itself also needs reform. Our constituents often turn to us as Deputies because they are simply unable to reach the office by telephone or e-mail. The lack of contact obviously adds to the stress. I note that in the UK it seems to take just about three weeks to get a passport in a country of 65 million people. In Germany it takes four to six weeks. We need further reforms.
Deputy Charles Flanagan: The introduction of the new online service is part of the ongoing programme of reform in the Passport Office. I acknowledge what the Deputy has said in respect of those working there. I too wish to acknowledge the efficiency and dedication of everybody associated with, and working in, the Passport Office. There are challenges, however, because we are dealing with unprecedented numbers.
I appeal to Deputies to continue to help promote good practice in their communications with constituents in order to avoid unnecessary stress. My advice continues to be that applicants should allow six weeks for a passport application. Applicants should also check the validity of their passport before booking travel. If travel is already booked, it is very important that applicants carefully consult the passport service website and use the correct channel. The website has a free renewal reminder service for passport holders and I strongly encourage people to avail of this service, which is available through our own website. I fully appreciate the pressure that the current exceptionally high levels of demand are putting on people’s travel plans. I assure Deputy Broughan and other Deputies that I will continue to closely monitor the situation to ensure the effective deployment of staff and other resources in order to ensure that we give the best possible service to our citizens in the matter of their applications.
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Many of us have put a notice to the effect of what the Minister has said on our websites, Facebook pages and so on.
I notice a huge increase in demand for passports from countries like South Africa, Australia, the UAE, Canada and so on. Many thousands of applications were made in 2015 and 2016. Does the Department have any idea how many people worldwide have an Irish passport? What are the eligibility levels? I remember asking the former Deputy Gilmore, when he was Minister, the very same question and he could not give me an answer. Does the Department actually know?
Deputy Charles Flanagan: There are millions of Irish passport holders worldwide. I again acknowledge the challenges for the Passport Office in dealing with unprecedented numbers of applications. Over 733,000 passports were issued last year for Irish citizens. I encourage Irish citizens to check the expiry dates on their passports and to bear in mind that many countries require incoming visitors to hold passports which are valid for at least six months. That can be a challenge. While acknowledging the challenges and pressures in this area, I assure the House that the programme of passport reform will ensure that we will have one of the finest and most efficient online passport services in the world. I am anxious to ensure that the impact on turnaround times for applicants and would-be travellers will be minimized.