The demand for Irish passports has grown significantly in recent years. The Passport Service issued over 780,000 passports in 2017, over 822,000 passports in 2018 and so far this year, over 490,000 passports have been issued.
The increase in demand for Irish passports is driven by a number of factors including a general increase in the number of Irish residents travelling abroad and a growing population. There has also been a significant increase in passport applications from applicants in Northern Ireland and in Britain since the UK Referendum on EU membership in June 2016.
A number of measures have been taken by the Passport Service to manage increases in demand in recent years including the recruitment of additional staff, the continuous implementation of technological and service improvements and the re-organisation of production processes and administrative arrangements.
My Department continues to closely monitor the level of passport demand to ensure that all resources, including staffing, are effectively deployed to meet the ongoing anticipated strong demand for Irish passports.
At the end of 2018, the Passport Service employed 363 Full Time Equivalent staff. This is an increase of over 40 staff since the same point in 2017. Already this year, over 90 additional Full Time Equivalent staff have taken up roles in the Passport Service. Targeted overtime has been sanctioned for both permanent and temporary staff when required. The Passport Service has received approval to recruit over 230 Temporary Clerical Officers (TCOs) in 2019 to assist in processing passport applications and to deal with queries from the general public.
A new Customer Service Hub was established in January 2019 to ensure that the Passport Service is equipped to deal with the large volume of queries received through its phone and webchat services. The Passport Service is currently handling approximately 5000 calls and 3800 webchats per week. Thanks to this dedicated customer service team, we are able to quickly resolve most queries at the first point of contact.
The Passport Reform Programme continues to deliver major upgrades to the Passport Service technology platforms and business processes as well as significant customer service improvements. The award winning Online Passport Renewal Service was introduced in March 2017 and expanded in November 2018 to allow for the renewal of children's passports and to expand the cohort of adults eligible to renew online.
The online service brings significant benefits to citizens with faster turnaround times at a lower cost. 45% of all applications received in 2019 have been online applications and over 60% of those eligible to use the online application channel have done so. The online service has been instrumental in the efficient management of overall passport operations and in allowing the Passport Service to allocate staff resources more efficiently to cope with unprecedented demand.
To assist with forecasting future demand for Irish passports, my Department has commissioned research to better understand the potential demand for passports from Irish citizens in the United Kingdom who have not yet applied for a passport. Interim reports have been provided and in 2019 an additional forecasting report was commissioned which sought to update and revise projected demand estimates up to mid-2023. This research will assist the Passport Service in formulating plans on resource requirements for the future.