I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of the Passports Bill is to provide a comprehensive legislative basis for the regulation and issuance of passports. Over recent years, we have seen a rapid growth in international travel and a corresponding increase in demand for passports. More than 630,000 Irish passports were issued last year, compared with 468,000 in 2003 and 388,000 in 2000. Irish people made 7 million visits overseas in 2006.
The growth in demand, advances in technology and changes in international security requirements have necessitated substantial reform and modernisation of the passport system. Major innovations completed in recent years have included the introduction of machine readable passports, the development of an automated production facility and, in 2006, the introduction of biometric passports. As a result of these improvements, the Irish passport is widely seen as a high quality document, which is at the leading edge of passport technology internationally.
Over a relatively short period of time, we have moved a long way. Improvements in quality have been accompanied by a strong record on customer service. For many years, the Department of Foreign Affairs has successfully delivered a ten working day service for applications made through the express postal services, both north and south of the Border. Where applicants are required to travel within a shorter timeframe, it is possible to secure a passport more quickly; a limited same-day or next-day service is also available in the most urgent cases.
Whereas reform of the passport system has focused primarily on technology and the quality of service delivery, there is a need to reform the underlying regulatory framework. Passports are currently issued under general administrative provisions set out in the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924. Various administrative practices have been developed over the years and it is time to put in place specific legislation to bring greater clarity and certainty to the area.
We live in a country which is very different to that of the 1920s. Practices concerning the issuance of passports have evolved over time to reflect changes in society and these practices need to be set down clearly in legislation. The Bill therefore includes provisions that address the consent of parents who are living apart. It sets out in detail provisions for issuing passports in accordance with names on birth certificates, whether in Irish or English, and caters for the recognition of subsequent changes of names whether after marriage or through established usage. It also makes provision for issuance of passports to persons who are undergoing or have undergone changes of gender.
There is no desire on the part of the Minister to change social policy, which is rightly the prerogative of the relevant Ministers. There is, however, an onus on the Minister and the Department to provide the appropriate arrangements so that Irish citizens can travel abroad freely and with dignity.
The courts have established that there is a constitutional right to travel and, by implication, a right to obtain a passport. That right is not unqualified and there are certain circumstances in which a passport may validly be withheld, including cases where an individual is subject to a court order under the Bail Act 1997.
Particular care is also required in regard to the welfare of children. The Bill ensures that the welfare of the child is at the centre of our considerations and it includes detailed provisions on consent of parents and guardians. A second principal objective of the Bill is to combat fraud and misuse of passports. Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001, there has been increased international emphasis on improving identity and passport security. The investment in biometric passports has substantially improved the security of the Irish passport. This needs to be complemented, however, by strengthening measures to tackle fraudulent applications for, and misuse of, Irish passports.
As the law stands, criminal offences concerning the abuse of passports are general offences relating to property and range across several Acts. The case of the Colombia three highlighted the need for specific legislation to cover passport offences. Accordingly, the Bill provides for a detailed series of offences and penalties for the fraudulent acquisition, misuse and abuse of passports. The Bill will also enable prosecution of such offences where committed outside the State. This section was drafted in close co-operation with the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions,
Combating fraudulent use of Irish passports is important to ensure continued respect internationally for the integrity of the document. Organised criminals have developed increasingly sophisticated methods to carry out their activities. Moreover, crime does not respect borders and greater freedom of movement, particularly within the expanded European Union, means that all member states have a responsibility to strengthen systems which will detect and prevent misuse of national travel and identity documents.
To guard against fraud it is necessary to require applicants to produce adequate evidence of their identity and their entitlement to an Irish passport. This in turn means the Department acquires a considerable volume of personal data. The Department is subject to, and complies fully with the Data Protection Act 1988. Nevertheless, to ensure that individuals' personal rights in this regard are fully respected, officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs have consulted closely with the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner in drafting the Bill. I am grateful to them and to other bodies such as the Irish Human Rights Commission, for their advice and input.
In preparing the Bill, the Minister adopted an approach which is respectful of the rights of Irish citizens while bringing in the necessary sanctions against those who would endanger the integrity of our passport. Less secure travel documents would adversely affect our citizens as they travel.
Sections 1 to 4 under Part 1 are standard provisions relating respectively, to the short title and commencement date; definitions of terms; provision to make regulations under the legislation and expenses incurred in the administration of the legislation. The long title draws on the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s, ICAO, definition of a passport as an international travel document which designates a person’s citizenship.
Section 5 provides that the Minister’s functions under the legislation are performed on the authority of the Government. Section 6 provides for the right of an Irish citizen to apply for a passport and outlines the application process. Subsections (3) and (4) deal respectively with applications regarding children and persons with a physical or mental incapacity. Section 14 contains more detailed provisions regarding consent of parents and or guardians.
Section 7 requires that before issuing a passport, the Minister shall be satisfied as to the Irish citizenship and identity of an applicant. Citizenship may be acquired in various ways: most commonly through birth, through a parent or grandparent, or through naturalisation. In some circumstances, it is also necessary to establish minimum periods of lawful residency in the State. This is a complex area and the nature of the documentation required will vary depending on individual circumstances.
The requirement to be satisfied as to a person's identity relates to the risk of identity theft. The introduction of biometric passports last year was designed as an additional safeguard and will over time reduce substantially the scope for fraud. We continually seek ways to tackle identity theft. Consultations will be held with the General Registrar's Office regarding the possible introduction of a link between birth and death certificates. Training has been provided regarding identification of forged documentation. Following a review of documentation submitted, if doubts remain as to an individual's identity, current practice is to request the applicant to submit additional documentation or, on occasion, attend for interview. Section 7 provides the legal basis for continuation of these practices. The Minister intends to strengthen this area of the passport service by establishing a specific unit dedicated solely to detecting and combating fraud. The provision under sections 19 through 24 of the Bill will further strengthen efforts to combat fraud.
Section 8 provides for the processing of personal data, including biometric data, in connection with passport applications. Biometric technology makes use of our unique biological features. Examples of biometric identifiers include facial measurements and characteristics, fingerprints and iris patterns. The Irish passport uses facial measurements and characteristics. This allows for the comparison of photographs when one renews one’s passport. It also allows for comparisons at border control points to ensure that the person travelling is the real owner of the passport.
The Passport Office stores the photographs and the biometric information taken from them securely. The information will be used only for passport purposes and will not be shared with other agencies, except as may be required by law. The Passport Office can generate facial measurements from a photograph. Although there are no plans to include a second biometric identifier such as fingerprints or iris patterns, there is a possibility that this may become standard international practice at some point in the future and cannot be ruled out. Accordingly, subsection (2) provides for the possibility of contractual arrangements with a third party to collect this information from applicants at authorised centres around the country or at locations abroad. We have consulted closely with the office of the Data Protection Commissioner regarding relevant provisions in the Bill, including section 8.
Section 9 deals with periods of validity of passports. This is intended to underpin existing practice where the period of validity may vary according to age or other circumstances. Most passports issued are valid for ten years. Passports for children are valid for three or five years, depending on the age of the child because a child’s appearance changes substantially over time.
The Department may issue emergency passports in circumstances where an applicant is required to travel at short notice and there is insufficient time to enable production of a full passport. Such passports are valid for one year. The period of validity for diplomatic or official passports also varies depending, for example, on the likely duration of an officer's assignment to an embassy or consulate overseas. Subsection (2) also provides for passports to be issued for reduced periods of validity in certain circumstances: for example, in the case of an applicant who has a history of persistent passport loss.
Section 10 sets out provisions regarding the name in which a passport is issued. This is designed to underpin existing practice. The general rule under subsection (1) is that the passport is issued in the name of an applicant as it appears in his or her birth certificate. Where citizenship is acquired other than by birth, for example, through naturalisation, the reference point is the name on the relevant supporting documentation.
Subsection (2) provides for a change of name after marriage. Subsections (3) through (5) deal with other changes of name. In line with current practice, an applicant must produce satisfactory evidence of usage over a minimum of a two-year period. As a safeguard against potential abuse of this provision, the Bill permits entry of the applicant's previous name in the passport.
The provisions are such that the Irish and English languages will be treated equally. If an applicant has a birth certificate in either language and wants to change to the other, he or she must provide evidence of usage over a two-year period.
Section 11 deals with gender re-assignment and outlines the circumstances in which a person who is undergoing treatment or procedures to alter his or her gender, may be issued with a passport in his or her new gender and or new name. Supporting evidence must be provided, including medical evidence from a registered medical practitioner. Inclusion of this provision is intended to reflect and underpin existing practice of the Passport Office and not, as is made clear in subsection (3), to confer any other rights or entitlements. The terms of section 11 were the subject of prior consultations with the Irish Human Rights Commission which has welcomed the inclusion of the provision in the Bill. They also reflect current international practice in western Europe and like-minded countries.
Section 12 outlines the circumstances in which a passport shall not be issued, as well as situations where the Minister has discretion in this regard. The constitutional right to travel is not an unqualified right. Section 12 seeks to reflect that position in legislation. A refusal is mandatory in circumstances where there is uncertainty regarding citizenship or identity, where applicants are subject to orders under the Bail Act 1997, in cases where false information is provided and in situations relating to problems with consent of parents or guardians.
Subsection (1)(c) provides for refusal where an applicant is likely to engage in certain forms of conduct, including conduct that might prejudice national security or the security of another state or that might endanger the applicant or other persons. In view of the constitutional position, a refusal under subsection (1)(c) could not be taken lightly and there is provision for consultation, where appropriate, with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and-or the Minister for Defence.
Section 12(2) allows discretion to refuse where an application does not comply with one of the requirements of the application process as set out under section 6 of the Bill. It also permits refusal of a second passport. Second passports are currently issued to a small number of applicants, mostly frequently business travellers who are required to make substantial numbers of visa applications. The individual circumstances are examined on a case-by-case basis. Second passports are also provided to people who travel in the Middle East where an immigration stamp of one country can cause problems for our citizens visiting other countries.
Section 13 deals with the inclusion in a passport of information including biometric data, an issue about which I spoke already in connection with section 8. Section 14 deals with the complex area of issuing passports for children. In line with existing legislation and practice, section 14 gives precedence to the welfare of the child and at the same time safeguards the rights of his or her guardians to take decisions regarding such welfare. Accordingly, the priority requirement is that consent of parents or guardians must be obtained before a passport can be issued. Where a parent or guardian withholds consent, a passport cannot be issued unless the other parent or guardian obtains a court order dispensing with the need for such consent.
However, provision must be made for cases where there may be difficulties in obtaining court orders. Subsection (5) recognises that where a child is resident outside the State with a parent or guardian, practical difficulties may apply with regard to obtaining a court order. In such cases, it provides that the Minister, having regard to all the circumstances, including whether the other parent or guardian has notified an objection to the issuing of a passport, may issue where he or she is satisfied that this is required to secure the child's welfare. The flexibility is required to ensure that injustices do not occur.
Subsection (6) further outlines exceptional circumstances where a passport may be issued without the consent of one or more guardians of a child. This will apply only where a guardian or other person with an interest in a child's welfare applies to the Minister and where there is an immediate and serious risk of harm to the child's life, health or safety which requires the child to travel. Section 14(8) proposes that the consent of each guardian must be obtained for the issuance of the first passport and that this consent will continue unless a guardian notifies the Minister in writing that he or she is revoking consent. The application form and accompanying notes will ensure that parents and guardians are fully aware of the position on duration of consent.
Section 15 gives a legislative basis to the issuing of emergency travel documents. Emergency passports are generally valid for one year and may be issued when an applicant produces evidence of an intention to travel immediately and where there is insufficient time to arrange the issue of a normal passport. In some situations an applicant may need to travel urgently, but may not be able to produce sufficient documentation to establish beyond doubt his or her entitlement to a passport. The Bill provides that in such cases an emergency travel certificate may be issued where there is reasonable cause to believe that the applicant is an Irish citizen. An emergency travel certificate is valid only for a single journey and generally such cases relate to an individual travelling abroad whose passport has been lost or stolen and who wishes to return to Ireland.
Section 16 provides for the issuing of diplomatic and official passports. Diplomatic passports are issued to those who have diplomatic status or to those who belong to a group that has been designated by the Minister to be issued with diplomatic passports. Official passports are issued to Irish public servants who travel abroad on State business. The main group in this category are Irish soldiers serving abroad with the United Nations.
Section 17 requires that where a person believes that his or her passport has been lost or stolen, he or she shall notify the Minister and the Garda Síochána. The Minister is permitted to inquire into the circumstances of a case and to require the provision of such information as is considered necessary. Section 18 permits the Minister to cancel a passport in certain circumstances and provides for the surrender of a cancelled passport.
Section 19 provides for offences and penalties for the misuse or abuse of passport facilities. Under the law at present, offences concerning the abuse of passports are regarded as general offences relating to property and they are covered by several Acts. There is a need to strengthen safeguards in this area and to provide for specific legislation to cover passport offences. Accordingly, the Bill defines a series of offences and also provides for prosecution of such offences where committed outside the State. Offences under section 19 include making false applications, possession of a false passport, use or attempted use of a cancelled passport or a passport issued to another person and sale or attempted sale of a passport.
The growth in demand for passports in recent years is partly attributable to the increasing use of passports as evidence of identity and age. In recognition of this trend, section 19(2) provides for an offence where a person knowingly uses or attempts to use another person's passport for the purpose of admission to the bar of a licensed premises as defined under the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003.
Sections 20 to 24, inclusive, set out related provisions concerning definitions, summary trial in the District Court, proceedings outside the State, liability of bodies corporate and an amendment to the Bail Act 1997. Section 25 provides that a passport shall remain the property of the Minister at all times. This reflects the long-established practice to print a statement to this effect on all Irish passports.
Section 26 is a standard provision which provides for continued validity of passports issued before the commencement of the Act. The practice of including children on their parents' or guardians' passports has been discontinued with effect from 1 October 2004, with children subsequently required to be issued with their own passports. As set out in subsection (2), inclusions of children prior to that date remain valid for the lifetime of the relevant passport or until a child reaches the age of 16, or is issued with his or her own passport. However, I strongly recommend that parents ensure that children have their own passports as international practice is increasingly demanding that each citizen carries his or her own passport. Finally, section 27 is a standard provision authorising the levying of fees for passports and other consular services.
That completes my detailed statement on the purpose and main provisions of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.