Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Questions (51)

Michael Healy-Rae

Question:

51. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if airlines will be contacted to request the passport details of persons when they book flights (details supplied); and if a printing service will be provided in the Cork passport office. [17821/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

What I would call the passport season is upon us. Unfortunately, many people run into difficulties at this time because of a lack of preparedness in having their passports ready. There are very simple, straightforward measures that could be put in place to alert people to the need to check their passport expiry dates. If when booking flights they were prompted to furnish their passport numbers and expiry dates, it would certainly help. It would prompt people to check their passports. I am sure the Tánaiste could not argue about providing a service in Cork.

A number of us in this Chamber know a lot about passports.

My Department engages in advertising and public messaging where there is important information on passports that needs to be brought to the attention of citizens. Several passport service public information campaigns have been initiated in recent years, including promoting the online passport renewal service. There has also been engagement with airlines and other travel-related agencies on how they can encourage good passport practice among citizens. My Department shall be raising the matter of airlines encouraging good passport practice at the next meeting of the national facilitation committee, which is chaired by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and of which all Irish-based airlines are members.

Early this year, the Passport Office ran a three-week public information campaign targeting citizens planning their holidays abroad. It included adverts on social media, video and other digital platforms, print advertisements in national and regional news papers, radio advertisements and radio interviews with the director of passport services. Another campaign will commence early next month.

The passport service will continue to promote good practice among citizens and encourages Deputies to remind citizens to register their details on the passport e-reminder service online.

The passport service operates three passport-printing machines, two of which are located in our main production facility in Balbriggan, County Dublin, and one of which is located in the Passport Office on Mount Street. All production facilities can print a passport irrespective of the channel in which the application was processed. This printing system allows for flexibility between printing machines if any one machine has reached capacity.

The three printing machines meet the passport service printing demands and have additional capacity remaining. The printing requirements of the Passport Office in Cork are met by these machines. As a result, there are no plans to add a printing facility. If, however, an applicant needs to travel for emergency reasons, an emergency passport can be issued in the Cork office to facilitate travel. I will elaborate on that when I get another opportunity.

I ask the Tánaiste to relay, on behalf of all Members, our gratitude to the people who work in the passport offices. At times, they must deal with customers in a state of distress because of their having to travel in emergencies. Even a person going on holiday may be in a distressed state if he or she finds he or she does not have a passport with which to travel in a day or two. All I can say about everybody working in the service is that they are courteous, kind and understanding. They may be working in pressurised circumstances in many cases and dealing with people who are upset. Having said all that, I really believe our airlines could be more proactive. If when booking a holiday, the passenger were specifically asked to give a passport number and expiry date, it would help.

Enhancing the service in the Cork office would require further investment but it would create balance and take pressure off the office in Dublin. It would service the lower part of the country. One could get a passport and avail of a printing service in Cork.

I thank the Deputy for his comments on the staff of the Passport Office. They do an extraordinary job under very pressurised circumstances. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of applications for passports this year, on top of a big increase last year. We have made a significant amount of change in the office in terms of efficiency and extra staff. We strengthened the capacity of the passport service by recruiting over 80 permanent staff to respond to the general increase in passport applications. The passport service has obtained sanction for the recruitment of over 230 temporary clerical officers. The new staff will be spread across all offices, including in Cork.

The challenge over timelines is not just about printing the passports themselves, for which the printers are necessary, but the processing and associated security issues. This is very much a feature in the other passport offices, including in Cork. If I felt we needed another printing facility, we would consider it. It would be expensive but we would seek to achieve it. We have increased the capacity significantly.

We have seen a pretty good result from that so far this year compared with the challenges faced last year when many Members came to me or my office seeking assistance with significant numbers of passports. We have not had a repeat of that this year because we learned lessons and put better systems in place this year.

I welcome any additional resources for extra personnel. They certainly will not be idle because of the massive increase in applications over the last two to three years. More people are travelling, including people who may not have travelled in a decade, and that is most welcome. There are simple measures that we can take to alert people that they ought to check their passports. It is a simple error to make when people do not check their passports, but people do make it. When it is only in a day or two from travelling they look for their passport and find it is out of date. There is an emergency service for people who find themselves in that position and I know the staff always push out the boat and do everything that is humanly possible. We should recognise that they do brilliant work at the last minute to get people travelling if at all possible.

Can the Deputy ask a question, if there is one?

Is there any possibility of really looking at the value for money of a printing machine in Cork?

That is a question that I have asked in the Department. The assessment has been that the focus needed to be on more staff. Last year, many people who were waiting for the return of renewed passports were simply unable to get someone at the end of a phone to give them accurate information because there were too many calls and not enough people to answer them. Because we do have the capacity to print the volumes we need with the three printing machines we have, the focus this year has been on the staff who are focused on processing, process delivery and answering phones and queries, to keep people up to date. The result has been quite impressive. We now turn around both online and postal applications on time, and sometimes ahead of the recommended time.

We respond as best we can with emergency passports. Sometimes political intervention is needed and justified. We try to accommodate emergency cases when we can.