I am pleased to present to the committee the Revised Estimates for my Department for 2019. I will focus on Vote 28, which is the Vote for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, while the Minister of State will address the committee afterwards regarding Vote 27, which deals with international co-operation, which is the bulk of the expenditure for which my Department is responsible.
Last month, the Taoiseach, the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and I launched, A Better World, Ireland's new policy for international development, and reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to making progress on delivering the UN 0.7 % target by 2030. A Better World sets out our vision for Ireland's contribution to international development looking forward to 2030 and is a statement of Ireland's commitment to global citizenship. Expanding our development co-operation is an investment in a better, safer and more sustainable planet.
Members will have seen the advance briefing notes provided by my Department on the two Votes, which summarise the main activities and priorities under each expenditure programme corresponding with my Department's high-level goals.
For 2019, the overall gross Estimate for the foreign affairs and trade group of Votes, namely Votes 27 and 28, is €802 million compared with €754 million in 2018, This is an overall increase of €48 million, or 6.4%. The Vote 28 allocation sees an overall increase of €19 million, or 8%. The Vote 28 priorities for 2019 include, as one might expect Brexit, the passport reform programme and the operational side of a passport service dealing with a significant increase in the number of applications, Northern Ireland, the expansion of the overseas mission network under the Global Ireland 2025 initiative, provision for urgent capital building and security works at our missions abroad, continuing investment in the Department’s global ICT network and addressing increased operating cost pressures abroad across the mission network.
Understandably, budget 2019 had a particular focus on Brexit readiness measures and further initiatives and information have been rolled-out since then. I secured additional funding for my Department to increase staffing and capacity at headquarters and in key Irish embassies and for the Brexit preparedness communications team, which has been active. Under Global Ireland 2025, I am pleased that we have been able in recent months to open new embassies and consulates general in Vancouver, Wellington, Santiago, Bogota, Mumbai and Amman with openings to follow this year in Cardiff, Frankfurt and Los Angeles. The Government's overarching ambition under this initiative is to ensure that Ireland is well positioned to secure our national interests, particularly economic interests, globally. Our expanded network will enhance Ireland's visibility globally, extend our influence and position us for trade and investment growth in new and existing markets. It will also benefit our citizens travelling overseas and will involve reaching out to our diaspora and exploring new platforms for engagement.
The programme structure for Vote 28 corresponds with the Department's strategy statement 2017 to 2020 and mirrors the priorities as set out in our foreign policy document, The Global Island: Ireland's Foreign Policy for a Changing World, which sets out the Department’s work in five priority areas: supporting our people, engaging actively in the EU, promoting our values, advancing our prosperity and strengthening our influence. These correspond directly with expenditure programmes At to E in the 2019 Revised Estimates Volume, which the committee is considering.
As has been proposed, I will make some short introductory comments on programme A to open the discussion. Once we complete our discussion of this programme, I will then take each of the programmes in sequence. I ask for the committee's forbearance in speaking in a little greater detail on programme A as it covers so many key policy areas for my Department, including Northern Ireland, consular services and assistance, our emigrant support programme, ESP, and diaspora funding, for which the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon has primary responsibility, and the passport service, including the passport reform programme. I wish to quickly update the committee on developments in all these important areas in service of Our People, the aptly chosen title for the programme.
Work under programme A includes the effective delivery of passport and consular services for our citizens; supporting our emigrants and deepening engagement with our diaspora; sustaining peace and enhancing reconciliation and political progress in Northern Ireland, and increasing North-South and British-Irish co-operation, which is certainly needed these days. The amount allocated for current expenditure under this programme in 2019 is €77.7 million compared to €73.4 million in 2017, an increase of 5.8%. This programme is about Our People, namely Irish citizens at home and abroad and it covers a number of key priority areas for the Department. Together with the passport service, the provision of consular services and assistance lies at the heart of the Department's engagement with citizens. As Irish people continue to travel in greater numbers than ever before and to ever more remote and exotic locations, the demand for consular assistance has increased significantly. In 2018, my Department provided assistance to Irish citizens in more than 2,343 serious consular cases. Regrettably, this included assistance in over 292 cases where Irish citizens died abroad. A new consular strategy has been developed to address the growing and often complex demand for information and assistance. The strategy outlines how the Department will prioritise modernising and improving the service provided to Irish citizens in distress abroad. Our crisis planning and preparedness team continually reviews the Department's travel advice and works closely with our embassies abroad and external organisations to prepare for major events. For example, planning is currently underway for the rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019.
The Passport Service issued some 860,000 passports in 2018, which was the highest number ever issued in a single year. This represented an increase of more than 10% on the previous year. We expect the number of passport applications to continue increasing throughout 2019. I announced on 16 March that more than 230,000 applications had been received so far in the year, representing an extraordinary increase of 30% on the same period in 2018, which was a record in itself. Target turnaround times for applications depend on the category of application. Online applications, which now represent over 70% of all applications, are being processed in under than two weeks. In fact, over 50% are being processed in less than a week. First-time applications, of necessity, take longer because of required entitlement and identity checks. We have taken on board the lessons learned from recent peak seasons and are implementing enhanced measures to provide quality customer service processes and, in particular, to manage our overall demand and the seasonal application increases. This is being done by the recruitment of additional staff, the re-organisation of production processes and administrative arrangements and the continuous implementation of service improvements through the passport reform programme. We learned a lot of lessons last year from pressures in the passport system which arose partly because of a period of extremely bad weather when the system had to be shut down for a couple of days as well as on foot of the sheer volume of applications. We have anticipated those pressures again this year and responded pretty well so far.
My Department works closely with Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to seek to ensure the passport service is adequately resourced with sufficient permanent staff throughout the year. More than 80 new permanent staff have been assigned across all the offices since the end of 2018. In addition and in response to the general increase in applications during the busy peak season, sanction has been received to recruit 230 temporary clerical officers, TCOs, to assist in passport processing. In excess of 160 TCOs have already been assigned, with the remainder due to be in place in the coming weeks. A further response by the passport service has been the establishment of a new, dedicated customer service hub. The hub is resourced to deliver an effective service to members of the public who contact the office with queries by telephone or webchat. More than 70 staff are in place with a further 30 staff due to commence by early May. We have had a significant recruitment process under way for a number of months.
As part of the passport reform programme, the second phase of the online passport renewal service was rolled out in November 2018. This facility is now extended to the renewal of children's passports and has introduced a passport card for children. It has also expanded the cohort of adults eligible to renew online. The online service, which is available 24-7, 365 days a year to applicants renewing their passports anywhere in the world, brings significant benefits with faster turnaround times and greater customer satisfaction. The online service has been instrumental in the management of overall passport operations and in allowing the passport service to allocate staff resources more efficiently to cope with unprecedented demand. Further developments planned in the reform programme for 2019 include an automated mailing project, a business process automation project, additional work on the online renewal service and the ongoing improvement to customer systems.
Further developments planned in the reform programme for 2019 include an automated mailing project, a business process automation project, additional work on the online renewal service and the ongoing improvement to customer systems.
The 2019 allocation includes a capital allocation of €5.5 million in respect of the passport reform programme.
Regarding emigrant support and diaspora issues, through the ESP budget of €12.575 million - an increase of €1 million from last year - the Government provides funding to non-profit organisations and projects to support our most vulnerable emigrants abroad, strengthen global Irish communities, and facilitate the development of closer and more strategic links between Ireland and the global Irish. This important budget supports the Government’s vision of a vibrant, diverse global Irish community, connected to Ireland and to each other.
I am aware of increased concerns among some members of our Irish communities abroad given uncertainty arising from the British vote to exit the European Union and challenges facing the undocumented Irish in the United States. The ESP is an important tool for the Government as we continue to work with Irish community groups and immigration centres to address current needs and concerns, and to ensure appropriate support is offered to Irish citizens everywhere.
A separate diaspora affairs budget line of €600,000 is managed by the Irish abroad unit. This diaspora affairs expenditure will be targeted at strategic projects relating to the diaspora that support the work of the interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad and existing Government strategies, in particular Ireland Connected; the International Education Strategy for Ireland; Creative Ireland; and the national tourism strategy.
I commend the work of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, in this important area in his role as Minister for the diaspora. He will take any questions members have on that area.
This programme also deals with matters relating to Northern Ireland. In the context of the current political challenges within Northern Ireland and the potential impact of Brexit, it will be no surprise that this area of work is a particular focus of my Department. From the outset, protecting the peace process, and the Good Friday Agreement, has been a key priority. Throughout the negotiations on Brexit, as members know well, there has been a strong understanding from our EU partners of the need to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland.
In 2018, the reconciliation fund made grants to cover 100 projects, supporting organisations across the community and voluntary sector, mostly based in Northern Ireland. These groups are building meaningful links across communities, addressing the issues that are impacting on their lives, including sectarianism, and working to create better understanding between people and traditions on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain.
Clearly, there is still vital reconciliation work to be done and that work may yet take generations. I believe civil society has a very important role to play in this, including by shaping a more reconciled and cohesive society. The reconciliation fund is an important expression of our support for this work. In recognition of that, I announced in May last year that the fund's budget would increase by €1 million to more than €3.7 million for 2019. In percentage terms it is a significant increase even though it is only €1 million in the context of the overall budget.
I welcome any comments or questions from committee members on programme A. I suspect this particular Estimates session is probably less about the money and more about the policy, which is often the case in the Department, with the exception of the development aid side where there is a major increase in expenditure from last year compared to this year. It is hoped that will increase significantly as the years pass between now and 2030 when we want to try to reach the target of 0.7% of GNI.