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
Notwithstanding that, I will bring the points raised and suggestions made by Deputy O'Mahony to the attention of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.