Thursday, 30 June 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy John O’Mahony: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important matter. This is the third year in a row that there are thousands of people waiting for passports at this time of the year. They are unsure whether they will be able to travel. These are people who applied in time and were thorough and organised in making their application but they either get their passports at the last minute or cannot contact the Passport Office. If they try to contact the Passport Office by telephone they are left hanging on for hours or, in some cases, cut off. They have no method of following up their applications.
I do not speak on behalf of people who are disorganised or apply for a passport a few hours before they are due to travel. Until three years ago, Members of the Oireachtas could make applications on behalf of their constituents and have their passports in a few days. I am not asking to have that facility restored. It would not be needed if the service was as efficient as it should be. This is not the case.
Citizens travel for business and family reasons, for holidays and, all too often, for work. They travel at all times of the year but particularly at this time. In the last few hours two queries came to my office. Two young people have got jobs abroad and applied for their passports at the beginning of June. One expects to fly to Singapore this weekend to take up a job there. Although he applied for his passport at the beginning of June he is unable to get in contact with the Passport Office or to find out if his passport will be available in time. They are both in trepidation. They fear they may have to cancel their flights and lose their job opportunities.
There are two passport offices in the country, one in Dublin and one in Cork. The people of the western seaboard are especially disadvantaged in this regard. They apply in plenty of time but then do not hear from the Passport Office, cannot contact anyone and are left wondering if they will have their passport in time. They have to come to Dublin, join a queue in the Passport Office and often even wait overnight because they are told to collect the passport the following day. This is not good enough. Could there not be a facility somewhere in the west?
I wrote to the Tánaiste on this issue a number of weeks ago. He replied that the current demand for passports is unprecedented and that the commentary on some of the delays is inaccurate or overstated. Like every Deputy in the House, I know the accounts of delays are neither overstated nor inaccurate. I plead with the Minister to address this issue urgently.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Willie Penrose): On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I thank Deputy O’Mahony for raising this important issue. I know he has a sustained interest in the issue. He has raised it a number of times. The matter is of interest to many rural Deputies.
There are currently 52,712 passport applications in the system being processed across the passport offices in Molesworth Street, Balbriggan, Cork and London. This figure has been reduced by approximately 4,000 over the past week. The number of applications received so far this year shows an increase in demand of 10% in comparison to this time in 2009. The figures for 2010 are not a reliable comparison due to the impact of last year’s industrial action. Whereas the exact reason for this increase in demand is unclear, it is noticeable that passport applications for children and passports for the over 65s are running at higher than the same period in the last few years. Discussions with customers have also suggested that much of the demand relates to last minute travel plans made for holiday reasons.
The Passport Service received an average of 3,600 explications per day last week which is down from the recent previous average of over 4,000 applications per day. This reduction provides some evidence that passport demand is beginning to level off, in which case it is expected that the number of applications in the system will decrease over the coming weeks. However, this reduction is still not reflected in the unprecedented demand for passports at short notice.
The Passport Service is currently receiving 350 people per day on average coming to the public office seeking passports within a period of less than ten days. On 27 June, over 400 people submitted applications for a short notice service at the public office in Molesworth Street alone. In the context of these very large numbers of customers using the public counter service, it is not always possible, despite the best efforts of the Passport Office staff to be of assistance and to accommodate all requests for a short notice service. Citizens are advised that the public counter services should only be used in cases of genuine emergency. Priority at the public counters will be given to those who have a necessity to travel for reasons of family emergency, that is, necessitated by the death, illness or welfare of a family member.
It should also be stressed that to protect the integrity of the system and the quality of the passport, the Passport Service cannot provide standard passports within a single day. The shortest turnaround time available is three working days for applications received over the public counter, accompanied by proof of travel, other than in cases of genuine emergency.
There has been some media commentary on the scale of the delays and some of this has been inaccurate, notwithstanding what Deputy O’Mahony says. Whereas it is very much regretted that it is currently taking up to 15 working days to process applications submitted through Passport Express, this represents a delay of five working days and not the many weeks suggested by some media commentators. Equally, over 70% of applications submitted on the island come through the express services and, accordingly, the number of citizens experiencing weeks of delay has also been overstated in places. On the basis of current processing I am confident that this turnaround time will be reduced over the coming weeks and will return to normal levels.
Priority will continue to be given to applications made through the Passport Express service and Irish-based customers are strongly encouraged to use that service. It is regrettable that, due to the overwhelming number of applications, those submitted through other channels, that is, through the ordinary post system or from Ireland’s overseas missions, etc., are currently taking over six weeks to be processed. During the peak summer period, application processing times for these services can lengthen.
Notice of the current extended turnaround time and its likely duration has been published on the Passport Service website, www.passport.ie. The Passport Office has also informed An Post so that customers can be advised of the situation at the point of application.
In January, a series of changes to passport application procedures for first time adult applicants and those reporting passports lost or stolen was introduced. The changes, which were introduced to combat increasing number of fraudulently obtained passports, required that applicants in these categories submit additional documentary evidence to establish identity and entitlement to an Irish passport. The additional documents sought include forms of photo-identification, proof of use of the name of the applicant and proof of residence at the applicant’s address. Particularly in the light of recent high profile international incidents relating to passport fraud, the measures were introduced to protect the integrity and international reputation of the Irish passport. Whereas these new measures have had some impact on the time to process applications, the impact primarily relates to only a small subset of the overall application demand. Additionally, I should stress that they have been implemented with a degree of common sense balanced with the overall need to protect against identity theft and passport fraud.
From the beginning of April the Department took on additional temporary staff to work in the Passport Service. There are now 85 additional temporary staff in place, and they have been trained in passport processing. In conjunction with seasonal overtime, I expect the Passport Service to be in a position to bring return times back to normal levels over the coming weeks.
I again express my regret at the delays being experienced by customers of the Passport Service and would strongly appeal to the public to assist the Passport Service by checking the validity of their passports before making bookings to travel abroad. A valid passport should be the first item on any check-list when considering foreign travel
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