I thank the Ceann Comhairle for this, my first opportunity to speak on the Adjournment and, indeed, to ask questions of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I wish the Minister well in his reappointment to his post and look forward to working with him and his departmental officials during the lifetime of this Dáil.
I pay tribute to and thank all those who work in the Passport Office with whom my office has almost daily dealings. It can be a place of frayed nerves and anxiety for the public, usually due to time constraints, deadlines and a fear that a holiday, business trip or sometimes unforeseen need to travel will not happen. That said, the integrity and security of passports should never be compromised to expedite a person's needs. I was informed, prior to becoming a Member of this House, to expect a spike in passport requests. As a newbie, as it were, I certainly can testify to that.
The holiday season may be upon us, but my issue relates to recently announced changes in the passport service by the Department effective from 29 March 2016. These changes relate to the requirement for first-time applicants for passports aged 18 and over and who are resident in Ireland to have public service cards, PSCs, for identification purposes and also the requirement to have PSCs for applications from adults whose passports were issued prior to 2005 and which have since been reported lost, stolen or damaged.
In the past two weeks, my office has been inundated with calls from regular and late or delayed requests for urgent passports, but I am beginning to experience the new PSC requirement as posing an even more difficult problem. I believe the problem will be further exacerbated unless the Passport Office takes a number of proactive steps to highlight further the need for the PSCs in the categories I mentioned.
I will give an example of the anxiety experienced during the past week by an 18 year old schoolgirl looking forward to a school trip abroad. She had applied to the Passport Office in good time and answered all the questions on the official passport application. However, her application was returned to her unprocessed six days before her departure date and she was informed by the Department of Social Welfare that the processing of the public services card would take an average of seven working days. While I understand the delay in processing the public services card due to the photo matching process, this schoolgirl may not be able to travel with her friends on the school trip.
While I am aware of the uniqueness of every passport application form, in that it has a bar code system, what steps has the Minister taken to withdraw all the old application forms from Garda stations, post offices, libraries and the Passport Office? Are the updated forms that highlight the new requirements and change it available in these locations? Citizens are still completing the old forms, unaware of the changes, unless they happen to consult the Passport Office website, and their bona fide applications are being returned with insufficient time to secure the valid passport due to the need for the public service card.
Is there a new passport application form with the new rules on it? Will the Minister consider relaxing the two rules for a specified period in order to enable the public to be better informed about the process? Will he ensure all places where passport application forms are available will conduct proactive advertising campaigns in conjunction with the Passport Office on the needs of the public services card when applying under the two categories I have mentioned? Finally, bearing in mind that 50% of our population have public services cards, equating to 2 million people, and that projections from the Department of Social Protection estimate that an additional 1 million people will apply for the card in the near future, surely there is a job of work for both Departments to give more attention to the need for the card and alleviate all additional stress on those needing passports or other services into the future.