Vote 28 - Foreign Affairs and Trade

Apologies have been received from Deputies Crowe and Maureen O'Sullivan. All mobile telephones should be switched off as they cause interference, even if on silent mode, with the recording equipment in the committee rooms.

Today's meeting has been convened to consider the request for a Supplementary Estimate for Vote 28 - Foreign Affairs and Trade. It was referred to the select committee by Dáil Éireann on 19 November 2019. A briefing has been circulated to the members. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and his officials for attending and assisting our consideration of the Supplementary Estimate. I also thank the departmental officials for the briefing material that was circulated to members.

I remind members that, in accordance with Standing Orders, discussion should be confined to the items constituting the Supplementary Estimate. I invite the Minister of State to make his contribution.

Tá áthas orm a bheith i bhur gcomhluadar inniú chun Meastúcháin Breise teicniúla i gcóir Votáil 28 don Roinn Gnóthaí Eachtracha agus Trádála a phlé libh. I am pleased to be here this morning for the committee's consideration of a technical Supplementary Estimate for Vote 28 for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

As committee members will be aware, a technical or token Supplementary Estimate does not involve additional Exchequer funding for the Vote, other than a technical increase of €1,000. This is because corresponding additional passport fee income fully covers the additional expenditure required. The Department is seeking an increase of €14 million which is offset by additional passport fee income of €14 million. The increased expenditure is being sought for Ireland’s increased mandatory contributions to two international organisations under programme C.3, an additional €11 million to the UN and an extra €0.76 million which is required to the Council of Europe. An additional €2 million under programme E.3, information services, towards the cost of the Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign and towards passport service public information campaigns in respect of online applications is also sought. These increases are fully offset by increased passport fee income of €14 million.

The sum of €12 million is for contributions to international organisations. These are Ireland's contributions to these organisations from Departments across the Government which daily interact with, and benefit from, Ireland’s membership of these valuable global organisations. The mandatory contributions from Ireland and from all other member states of international organisations are based on scales of assessments, which can vary. The largest cause of increased expenditure relates to Ireland’s contributions to the UN, accounting for almost €11 million. The largest element of this consists of mandatory contributions to the UN regular budget, UN peacekeeping budget and UN tribunals. Ireland’s total UN contributions in 2019 will be €39 million. The original 2019 Estimates were finalised before draft UN budgets were presented at the UN in New York, which made it difficult to accurately estimate Ireland's mandatory contributions when our budget was set.

UN member states' contributions are based on a formula, called the scale of assessments, which is reviewed at three year intervals. In December 2018 a new scale of assessment was approved for the 2019-21 period, with Ireland's rate set at 0.371%. This is a 10% increase on its contributions for 2015-18 and reflects the growth in Irish gross national income. It is worth recording that the last time a Minister from my Department was before this committee seeking a similar technical Supplementary Estimate for Vote 28 was three years ago in 2016, which coincided with the start of the previous UN funding cycle and, as today, the largest element of the increased expenditure related to additional UN contributions.

The challenge in forecasting the UN peacekeeping budget, which is the largest part of our payments to the UN, is never an easy one. The period for UN peacekeeping budgets runs from 1 July to 30 June, which means the UN financial year for peacekeeping overlaps for just six months of our financial year. Estimating UN peacekeeping payments can be particularly challenging, as we have to wait for the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council to take decisions on each of the 14 peacekeeping operations under way. The level of the budget depends on the volume of UN peacekeeping activity around the world. This is influenced by both the number of conflicts and the size and complexity of the UN operations which the Security Council decides to put on the ground. It is difficult to estimate this in advance, as an existing peacekeeping operation might be increased or decreased depending on the circumstances or a new one might be established.

The increase relating to payments to the UN in 2019 has been caused by three major factors: an unanticipated increase in the UN's regular budget; a 10% increase in Ireland’s proportionate contribution to UN budgets; delays in invoicing for peacekeeping budgets in late 2018, which were not received until 2019. As I speak, 40 high level visitors from New York, including the President of the UN Assembly, the Under Secretary General for UN Peace Operations and UN permanent representatives from troop contributing and troop receiving countries are arriving at Dublin airport to attend a conference here on peacekeeping and peace building. I look forward to engaging with them during their visit.

Ireland’s increased contribution of almost €760,000 to the Council of Europe for 2019, which as in the case of the UN was only confirmed after the publication of the 2019 Revised Estimates, is mainly a result of the serious financial challenges which the Council of Europe faced from 2017 to June 2019. Ireland’s revised total contribution to the Council of Europe in 2019 will be almost €4 million, with almost €3.4 million coming from Vote 28 and the balance from other Government Departments. First, and most challenging, Russia withheld its budget contribution for some of 2017, all of 2018 and half of 2019 in response to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s, PACE, decision to suspend Russian voting rights after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Turkey also reverted from its status of major to standard contributor, in effect cutting its annual budget contribution by almost €20 million. Russia has now delivered most of the outstanding balance due from the 2017-19 budgets. Nonetheless, this issue put considerable strain on the Council of Europe's budgetary situation. In addition, the budget contributions of member states at the Council of Europe are calculated using a combination of population and GDP per capita. Ireland’s population and GDP per capita continue to rise, which has added to our increased contribution to the Council of Europe budget.

Regarding the Brexit preparedness campaign, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade bears responsibility for the total cost of the whole-of-Government public information campaign relating to Brexit preparedness. The Department works in partnership with the Department of the Taoiseach and other Departments and agencies on this whole-of-Government public information campaign which has been under way during most of this year, with a targeted increase as we approached the October deadline. The request for supplementary funding for 2019 relates to the significant expansion of the campaign in 2019, for which provision was not made in the 2019 Revised Estimates. This was necessitated by the real threat of a no-deal Brexit scenario following the failure by the UK Government to ratify the original withdrawal agreement. The campaign must continue due to the decision at the October European Council to extend the Article 50 period deadline to the end of January 2020. After ratification of the withdrawal agreement, negotiations would then follow on the nature of the future relationship. Given the ongoing uncertainty, it continues to be necessary to prepare for all scenarios.

The objective of the Government's Brexit preparedness public information campaign is to ensure that all the key audiences, especially small and medium sized businesses, are aware of the potential impact of Brexit and, in particular, of a no-deal Brexit. The communications campaign informs them of the mitigation measures they can take, the supports that are available from Government and directs them to the gov.ie/Brexit website for further information, including detailed analysis of all Brexit related issues. The cost of the Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign is approximately €1.5 million in 2019. The campaign will continue pending the outcome of the general election in the United Kingdom and subsequent political developments and decisions.

Some of the additional funding will go towards the cost of passport service information campaigns, which to a large degree are Brexit related and reflect a significant increase in passport applications from Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

This time last year, the Department expanded the Passport Online service to allow for online renewal of children’s passports, a wider cohort of adult passports and a passport card for children. This expanded service means that all Irish citizens can now renew their passports online 24-7 from anywhere in the world.

Throughout 2019, the Department ran several national public information campaigns, including through advertisements on social media platforms and via print and radio channels, to highlight Passport Online as a fast and secure way for adults and children to renew their passports. The success of these campaigns has led to a significant increase in online renewal applications and we expect that trend to continue. The Department plans to run a similar public information campaign in 2020 to highlight the expansion of Passport Online to first-time applicants, .

I am pleased to record that the hard-working and very innovative team in the Passport Service which has focused on improving customer experience through a dedicated customer care hub handling up to 10,000 queries per week recently won "Team of the Year" and “Impact in Digital” honours at the 2019 CX Impact Awards.

I trust I have adequately explained the purpose for which my Department is seeking this technical Supplementary Estimate. Of course, I will seek to answer any questions members may have. Go raibh míle maith agaibh as ucht teacht um mhaidin agus an deis a thabhairt domsa na ceisteanna seo a phlé libh.

I am happy to support the Supplementary Estimate. I agree with the Minister of State on the improvement in the Passport Service. The marked improvement should be publicly acknowledged. For a couple of years, members of the public seeking to renew their passport or avail of the passport application service experienced significant frustration. The online platform has brought the service forward to a great extent. There is an excellent facility whereby people can apply before midday for an appointment on the following day. I ask that more capacity be made available within that aspect of the service.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials. To follow on from the points made by Deputy Collins, I wish to compliment the staff of the Passport Office on the work that has been done in recent times. There has been a significant increase in demand for passports due to Brexit and other issues. The online service is a wonderful initiative. What percentage of business is done online rather than through the systems that were in place previously?

The Minister of State is seeking an increase €14 million. I note he stated it is is offset by additional passport fee income. Does that income result from increased demand or an increase in passport fees?

I thank Deputy Collins for sharing my sentiments in terms of complimenting the Passport Service and those who work there on the excellent service it is providing to the public. I have visited the staff at its office in Balbriggan. Every day, they face a significant administrative and technical challenge in terms of the numbers of applications with which they must deal. They do so under pressure at times. The online opportunity and the way the service has used technology to actively engage with and support the public in offering this service is an exemplar for all other Departments. The online passport service has received numerous awards.

It is also an exemplar internationally. I have spoken to colleagues around the world regarding their passport services. Many of them are seeking to emulate how Ireland has approached this issue. As Ireland continues to pitch itself internationally as a digital island at the cutting edge of the development and use of technology, it is important that we continue to innovate in terms of our interaction with and the excellent service we provide to the public.

On emergency appointments, I will revert to the people at the helm of that service to see whether additional capacity can be put in. They always endeavour to facilitate people as best they can, particularly those in particularly challenging circumstances whose passport may have been mislaid or gone out of date and who urgently need to travel.

I thank Deputy McLoughlin for sharing his sentiments and complimenting the Passport Service. The share of applications made online is moving towards 60%. We hope online applications will ultimately encompass the remaining 40% as far as possible.

As I made clear in my opening statement, a significant part of the challenge is making people aware that the opportunity exists to renew one's passport from anywhere in the world within a few minutes, whether one is sitting on one's sofa in Singapore or in Shannon, using one's smartphone, laptop or tablet. It is an example of what can be done when people are innovative and ambitious in providing the best possible service to the public.

The additional €14 million in income accrued solely from additional applications.

Like Deputies Niall Collins and McLoughlin, I compliment the officials in the Passport Office. Throughout the year, Deputies and their offices persecute the Passport Service regarding various passport applications. I also compliment the officials in the office of an Tánaiste on the ongoing help they provide to Deputies in dealing with such cases. I get many representations regarding passports from within and outside my constituency. I represent the two southern Ulster counties and many of my constituents seem to have relations in Northern Ireland. I receive many calls from people in Fermanagh or Tyrone who claim their cousin is a supporter of mine.

I know the feeling.

I wonder whether those votes will add up. Of course, I am glad to help all those who contact me. I have received a remarkable number of queries in recent years regarding passport applications by constituents' relatives in Northern Ireland as, I am sure, has Deputy McLoughlin.

The Minister of State referred to additional public information campaigns. I ask that the Passport Office and the Department consider using local broadcast media and provincial newspapers-----

We have done so.

-----in the advertising process because they are still a big part of the medium, particularly in rural Ireland. They should be used in the advertising campaigns. That campaign should be under way from early January because people are careless about checking whether their passport is in date.

The committee previously raised the question of whether the Passport Office could devise a system whereby a text message could be issued six months in advance of a passport being due for renewal, for example. Reminders are issued by motor tax offices and other statutory agencies. I acknowledge it is a person's own responsibility to keep his or her passport up to date, but many people do not regard it as a priority. A reminder system would be very helpful and eliminate some of the necessary work that arises when people apply at the last minute.

The additional funding for the Brexit-ready campaign is very important. Since the British general election campaign got under way, Brexit has featured far less frequently in our vocabulary than was previously the case. It was previously mentioned every hour of the day. We want businesses and communities to remain alert and aware that the issues have not gone away. Even if Britain leaves at the end of January, there will be a transition phase and negotiation of the trade agreement, future relationships and so on.

Regarding that public campaign and asking businesses to prepare for all eventualities, it is important that that message is kept out there and that every support is still given to businesses and enterprises, particularly in the Border region, to prepare for the worst-case scenario as well. Of course, we hope the worst-case scenario will not arise and that Britain will negotiate a good deal with the European Union in the best interests of the remaining 27 member states and Britain. It is particularly important for all our island. I therefore ask that the Brexit campaign to which the Minister of State referred be continued with the best momentum possible until the whole issue is off the agenda and finalised.

I could not agree more with the Chairman's suggestion that we need to actively use local media for two purposes he outlined - to make people aware of the online opportunity in the passport service and, again, as part of the Getting Ireland Brexit Ready campaign. In my constituency, for example, Galway Bay FM is the second most listened to radio station after RTÉ Radio 1 in the whole of County Galway so it is an exceptionally effective tool for communicating with people. I heard an interview with the director of the passport service on Galway Bay FM. I think this is part of a sustained campaign. The director has been undertaking interviews across the entire local radio network for the last couple of months and will continue into early in the new year. There is an acknowledgement that this is an exceptionally important part of the communication options available to the Department and in the context of the Getting Ireland Brexit Ready campaign and the online passport option.

The passport printing and recording system is due to be upgraded over the next 18 to 24 months. A very important suggestion was made that people receive a reminder text as the expiry date of their passport approaches. It is hoped that that will now be incorporated into the new system. It is not possible to do that with the current system but it will be completely redesigned over the next 18 to 24 months. The Getting Ireland Brexit Ready campaign "hasn't gone away, you know". There is ongoing engagement through Enterprise Ireland and the local enterprise offices, LEOs, across the country. I know from speaking to one SME owner in my constituency that they are exceptionally happy with the support they are receiving. It is a matter of making the public, particularly the SME community and the farming community, aware of that kind of support and what exactly they need to do to survive, as well as the challenges that will no doubt arise during and after Brexit. We will continue to engage actively with those communities in every way possible.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials for their co-operation.