Topical Issue Debate

Occupational Therapy

Tá mé lán-sásta gur thug an Ceann Comhairle an deis dom an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a lua ar an Athló inniu. I am very grateful to the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue.

It is an issue that affects families in County Meath to an extraordinary degree. I have been contacted by parents who cannot get occupational therapy for their children because there is only one occupational therapist, OT, covering County Meath and the town of Kingscourt in County Cavan for children aged between 0 and 18. That person works 17.5 hours per week. As of last week there are 350 children waiting to be seen in County Meath and that one part-time OT has to deal with all of them. A child in County Meath has to wait four and a half years for an assessment. That is what the staff tell us. That is coming straight from the horse's mouth. There are other OTs who work in Enable Ireland and the child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, to address the needs of children with diagnosed disabilities, including physical disabilities and autism but primary care is the first point of contact for children so most people coming to the primary care OT have no diagnosis and wait four and a half years for that.

Some OTs left the service in County Meath this year and there has been no word of their replacement. There was a long period when there was no manager to advocate for the service within the Health Service Executive. The OT in County Meath organised meetings of parents because she was so concerned at the situation she and the parents were facing and asked the parents to contact their local politicians such was the gravity of the situation. I have never before seen a public servant gather people together and ask them to advocate for a service. That is the job of the Minister of State and of HSE management, not that of the OT on the ground. It is shameful that children must wait four and a half years for an assessment. It is extremely worrying for parents because they know and hear from others who have gone through the worry and trauma of requiring these services that the early years are when children are diagnosed and their needs are assessed. This needs to be addressed urgently. There are parts of Dublin where there is no problem whatsoever but children in my county have to wait almost five years to be assessed for occupational therapy.

I thank Deputy Byrne for raising this very important issue about Meath. The HSE has advised that the Meath occupational therapy service is delivered across three divisions: primary care consisting of adult services, including palliative care and children services; social care consisting of the adult disability team, a six to 18 school aged team and older persons and acute care services delivered at Our Lady's Hospital in Navan.

The paediatric service provides an assessment of and services to children up to age 18 years, for whom typical presenting needs relate to, amongst other things, developmental coordination disorder, also known as dyspraxia, sensory processing difficulties, chronic pain and orthopaedic conditions. There is an open referral system in that referrals are accepted from general practitioners, parents, schools and other multidisciplinary team colleagues. I am advised that there are two priority levels in children primary care services and the longest waiting time under priority one is three months and 61 weeks under priority two. The HSE has informed me that there are staffing related matters affecting the delivery of occupational therapy services in County Meath. The complement for Meath occupational therapy services, which include adult and paediatric services, is 8.1 whole-time equivalents. However, the complement delivering services is 6.1 whole-time equivalents; this is due to a number of factors including maternity leave, sick leave and recent resignations. I understand from the HSE that one of the current vacancies has been approved for backfill and the position is going through the recruitment process.

A business case for the backfill of the other vacancy as well as four new additional positions for paediatric services awaits approval. Notwithstanding the change in the staffing complement in County Meath, the HSE assures that the services continue to be prioritised based on clinical need. I am aware that assessment and treatment waiting times in all community healthcare organisation, CHO, areas are dependent on identified need and the capacity and demands on the occupational therapy service in the particular area. In many areas, treatment intervention is completed on assessment and therefore there is no time delay once a client is assessed. Following the screening of referrals, a client's needs are prioritised by a standard prioritisation system. I do appreciate the Deputy's concerns that accessing services can be very difficult for the families and children affected and the need for additional therapy posts is highlighted in A Programme for a Partnership Government. The HSE has established a national therapy service review group to address therapy waiting times, including those for access to occupational therapies. This joint primary care and social care project will include a detailed analysis of waiting times and resource deployment across the country. I will seek to make the services more responsive to people's needs and also seek to put in place a standardised approach to the delivery of occupational therapy services across the country.

I thank the Minister of State for his response but it is not sufficient. His waiting list figures are wrong. The person who spoke to me pointed out that a part-time OT has a responsibility to see eight new cases per month. There are 350 children waiting to be seen. Simple mathematics shows that it takes four and a half years for a child on that list to be seen. The Minister of State says there is a recruitment process to fill one vacancy, which is welcome but I plead with him to speed it up. I find it deeply offensive that a business case must be made to fill another vacancy. These are not extra posts. It is not the case that there is an increase in population requiring extra posts. These are existing jobs that people have left recently. Someone must make a business case so that our children receive the therapies they need. It is scandalous if the HSE thinks a business case has to be made to replace OTs. If the Minister of State is standing over that I suggest he goes back to the HSE and tells it to fill that vacancy as soon as possible. There is a business case because the position was there until early this year. The idea that when someone leaves a job the case to keep that position has to be made while children have to wait four and a half years for occupational therapy services is scandalous, outrageous and unacceptable. I urge the Minister of State to rethink that and go back to the HSE and tell it to sort this out quickly.

I disagree with the Deputy because we have approved one position and the case has been made for four new additional positions. I will push the case, and so will the HSE, to get funding because it is very important.

The total staffing complement for adult and paediatric services is between 8.1 and 6.1, clinically available in situ, excluding maternity leave, sick leave and recent resignations. The two resignations took effect on 31 March 2017. That happens in life and that is a problem we have. It is a reality. The second reality, which is not mentioned in the response, and which I have many concerns about is that many OTs emigrated during the financial crash and went to other European countries and England.

We are trying to encourage them to come home. One resignation was in the social care area. As I mentioned, this position has been for the backfill and is going through the recruitment process.

It is also important to remind people that there are service locations and that the Meath occupational therapist services are delivered from five network bases. They are: network 1 - Navan and surrounding areas; network 2 - Kells and Kingscourt; network 3 - Trim and Summerhill; network 4 - Dunshaughlin, Ashbourne, Dunboyne and Ratoath; and network 5 - Laytown and Duleek.

In terms of investment in occupational therapy services, the last investment in primary care services was in 2013 when 52.5 posts were approved. In addition, under the progressing disabilities services for children and young people aged 0 to 18 years programme, 64.5 occupational therapy posts were approved in 2014. We have to rebuild and invest in services.

A service improvement initiative has been established for the national occupational therapy service to review the existing model of care and develop new models that will be standardised across CHOs to improve waiting times. I will, of course, make this a priority issue when talking to the HSE.

Bord na Móna

I find it incredible that a Minister of State at the Department of Health who is from inner city Dublin, although, in fairness, originally from Galway, as I found to my cost in a recent national league final, is dealing with this question.

He is multi-talented.

Surely one of the Ministers was available from the appropriate Department. I ask for the indulgence and support of the Government for the workers in the Littleton Bord na Móna factory.

A political charge was made against me on the floor of the House today by the leader of Fianna Fáil which was, frankly, childish. I know that he wants to run away from discussing the Garda Commissioner, but his remarks were childish. He was aided by his deputy leader, my colleague, Deputy Jackie Cahill. If he wants to take the stabilisers off the Deputy and let him come out and play, he should do so because it was one of the most childish things I had seen in my time in politics.

We met the workers in Littleton. Until today, the five Deputies involved were playing a very good game and trying to ensure we achieved the best outcome for the workers. We had worked together and met the Minister. I have spoken to the CEO of Bord na Móna. We have tried to work out the best way forward for the workers who have seen significant restructuring in the past few years which has affected 122 people, between full-time and part-time workers.

When we met the Minister last Friday week, it was quite an emotional meeting because some of the workers' grandparents had worked in the factory which goes back generations and it is not just about the work. It is also about minding the bog and ensuring production levels are maintained. It is a way of life. The decision of Bord na Móna, with which we disagree, has been made and e have been told it will not be changed under any circumstances. However, we need to fight to try to get the best deal for the workers.

There are four issues, the first of which is the peat which remains, how it can be used and whether there is capacity for it to be used for export purposes, in particular, in order to maintain and, it is to be hoped, generate some employment into the future. It is a distinct possibility with markets looking for peat.

Second and most important, we need to secure an extension of the closure date. April 2018 is far too soon. We need at least two more seasons in order to ensure the peat can be used and the workers will have a fair length of time to plan their exit and futures. We also believe there is a demand for their produce. There is a dividend payment of €10 million a year from Bord na Móna. Surely it could be used to facilitate the extension of time required for the workers.

Third, we need to renegotiate the redundancy package because the one in place is awful. To be frank, if somebody has worked at the plant for 30 or 35 years, he or she is being penalised. The longer someone has worked there, the worse off he or she will be by comparison. Therefore, we need to get a better deal for the workers.

Fourth, we need to have hope for the infrastructure and plant in place. The connection to the grid is nearby and facilities are in place. What incubation or other services could we plan for if we were to secure an extension of the closure date to ensure there will be some employment on the site? I am not referring solely to harvesting and exporting the peat but to other renewable energy sources that could be developed in the area, given the infrastructure in place and scale of the facility.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue and supporting the rights of the workers in the Littleton Bord na Móna plant. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, who apologises that he cannot be present to take it.

Bord na Móna is a commercial State company operating in accordance with the Turf Development Acts 1946 to 1998. While operational matters such as this are the responsibility of the board and management team and not matters in which the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has any direct role or function, the Government is nonetheless conscious of the impact the recent decision has had on the employees of Bord na Móna. It is facing significant business challenges in the context of the deregulation of the electricity market and an increasingly competitive and challenging environment across all of its business areas, not least its fuels business. Its fuels business in general, including the briquette business, has been operating in recent years at a level significantly below existing capacity. The fall in sales is driven by a range of factors, including increased competition, consumer trends, carbon tax, mild weather and low oil prices.

Arising from the reduced demand and in line with the normal process of the ongoing review of each sector at Bord na Móna, the fuels business undertook a comprehensive review of current briquetting operations, with the intention of identifying a solution to sustain the business and jobs in the long term. The review concluded that in order to sustain the business into the future, the Derrinlough factory, employing 61 people, would be the optimum location for future investment to secure the future of the fuels business. The report also concluded that the company's facility at Littleton should continue production for the coming season and should permanently cease production in April 2018. There are 69 permanent employees at this facility.

I understand that, having received the review conclusions, the company has begun a process of engagement with the group of unions and employees. It has confirmed that no redundancies in this area are being contemplated in the current year. While the Minister has no direct role in the matter, he has held a series of meetings with affected stakeholders. He has called for engagement and imagination from all sides - I accept many of the points raised by Deputy Alan Kelly - in order to come up with a range of solutions for the employees. He has urged Bord na Móna to consider all opportunities for redeployment, a phased reduction in employment numbers and any other renewable technology opportunities which may arise in respect of its investments.

As part of Bord na Móna's general strategy to move towards sustainable businesses based on renewable energy sources, pilot trials for the production of a biomass briquette have been conducted. The development of the biomass briquette represents a significant investment by the company which has confirmed its intention to begin large-scale production of the product. This will be a critical step in future-proofing the fuels business as it offers the potential of sustainable and quality regional employment.

In addition, the Minister will bring a memo to the Government to establish a new entity, BioEnergy Ireland, focusing on the development of the biomass sector in Ireland. It will assist farmers in establishing a new source of income and secure existing regional employment levels by transitioning staff away from milling peat to harvesting biomass in a fair way.

I thank the Minister of State for his efforts in reading that out. As I said earlier, a political charge was made. In June 2015, the CEO of the company came and spoke very well to the workers. I regret, however, that a senior member of Bord na Móna did not come down to meet the workers to tell them they were losing their jobs. It is unacceptable that a senior representative of the company at board or management level was not there on the day of the closure of an industry which has been in place for multiple generations. When the CEO addressed the workers in June 2015, he outlined a potential investment plan to create projects in the plant. I very much welcomed the proposed heat and power plant, but there were a number of conditions which the CEO outlined to the workers. In the circumstances, the charge which was made this morning was childish. Not only was it childish, but I note that Deputy Micheál Martin is a former history teacher and that he must like engaging in revisionism. I would like him to correct what he said. The heat and power plant did not happen as I found out long after I left Government because management decided against it due to issues around connectivity to the grid, the cost associated with it and the changing commercial situation with the lowering of volumes of briquette production.

I ask the Minister of State to relay a number of things back to the Minister. We need an extension of time. This has been a bolt from the blue for the workers and an extension will give them time to format their lives and plan. We need a plan for the resource and plant that is left in place. The peat that is left there needs to be exported which would save some jobs and create others. As somebody who supports workers, I note finally that the redundancy package is unfair. I do not know how it was negotiated in the first place. The workers with the longest time served will, on average, do worse, which is incredible. I know the Minister will have to talk to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform about that and I ask the Minister of State to ask him to do so.

I would not like to get into a scrap between Deputies Alan Kelly and Micheál Martin, so I will stay out of that aspect of the debate. Deputy Kelly is right to come here to defend and fight for the rights of workers. That is the duty of all of us. The issues he raises are very important. He referred, for example, to the remaining plant there and the capacity for export. There is an issue I will bring back to the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten. There is also the whole issue of the extension of the closing date and demand for the produce internationally, including in European countries. I do not know what can be done about the €10 million dividend, but these are issues at which we must all look. We all have a duty to try to ensure that people are employed. A very important issue and one which I would find unacceptable would be any injustice in the redundancy package. Deputy Kelly said people with 35 years service were not getting justice and that is something I will also bring back to the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten.

School Enrolments

It is hardly necessary for me to rehearse all of the issues again. We have had this discussion several times already. On 1 March, the Minister advised me that one of the primary schools in Swords was undersubscribed, if not to the extent that it would be able to absorb the excess capacity, although he failed to mention that it was a boys-only school and, therefore, not in a position to deal with the full waiting list. The Minister said he would monitor the situation as the schools completed their enrolment process in the coming weeks. That was ten weeks ago. While I hate to say it given the fact that the children have not even had their summer holidays, we are quickly approaching September. Some two or three weeks ago, I spoke with a number of parents with children in the Holy Family national school at the moment whose siblings are waiting to attend. They have been in touch with me since to say they still have no clarity. It appears that the Minister is waiting for this situation to somehow magically resolve itself, but it is not going to. There is a need for action on the part of the Minister and the Department to deal with this on a proactive basis. It is not a case that will sort itself out once the waiting lists are cleared because there are children who are going to be left without places. The last time we discussed this, I asked the Minister if he would consider emergency or temporary measures. I also asked him to consider doing everything possible. I want to hear from him this evening what will be done because these people will be back on to my office as well as to those of the other Members representing the area.

This is a very serious issue in particular for those people whose children are already in the school with siblings waiting to attend. It is also very serious for those children born in November and December. They are not eligible for an additional year of the ECCE scheme and, as such, cannot go back to crèche. Their parents face having to return them to and pay for crèche facilities. At least one mother maintains it will probably not be worth her while to work given that she will have to pay over so much money. It is unfair to leave families waiting in limbo.

The Minister will not dispute that we have a growing population as evidenced by the census. While it is clear we need something done in the short term, there is a real need in Swords to increase school capacity in the long term. This is not a case of parents saying they only want their children to go to the local school. If the Minister has ever been in Swords in the morning, he will know that it is not possible for these parents to drop one sibling to the Holy Family and to then make it in any reasonable time to another part of Swords to drop another child off at a different school. It is also not reasonable to expect siblings to go to separate schools. All these parents want is to be able to educate sibling children in the school that is closest to their homes and rooted in the community where their children play sports and are growing up among their friends. While it is a long time since I had to think about these issues, that is all I wanted as a parent myself. It is what most parents want.

I thank Deputy Louise O'Reilly for raising this issue again and I understand the concern. There are 11 schools in the Swords area which enrol junior infants and they run across the spectrum from Catholic schools, one Gaelscoil, Educate Together and a Church of Ireland school. The basic problem here is that the Holy Family junior national school is maxed out and cannot take in additional junior infants at this point. It is already full and its senior school, which would also have to take any increased enrolment, is on a very constrained site. As such, expanding capacity at the Holy Family junior national school is not an option.

There are 760 children who are due to be taken into junior infants across the 11 schools in Swords. I am told that two schools currently have junior infant places available. St. Cronin's, which has the largest number of available places, is a mixed school, not an all-boys school. The schools have also expressed a willingness to offer further junior infant places for September 2017 if necessary. As such, there is capacity available to meet the need. The Department is very much aware of the position in the Holy Family school, which has 26 mainstream teachers and an enrolment of 680 pupils. We have been liaising across the various schools to check their waiting lists. As the Deputy knows, there is multiple enrolment on waiting lists, which makes it difficult to identify exactly what is the need.

The underlying difficulty outlined by Deputy O'Reilly is that parents want their children to go to the nearest school and I can understand entirely why this is the case, but the Department has to operate on the basis not just of the local school but groups of schools. We have to plan across planning areas and in this case we are doing so.

The Department remains of the belief there is sufficient capacity there, but has recognised schools that could expand to meet that need in September should that be necessary. That is the current position. I fully recognise this is a very rapidly growing area and there is no doubt that based on demographics we will be looking at the need for additional schools in Swords and in fairly short order. I am sure that is the case. For this coming September, the Department remains of the view that between the existing schools, which either have existing capacity to provide or can do so without constraining a site, which is the difficulty in Holy Family junior national school, they can take on extra junior infant children on a sustainable basis and are able to see them right through the school. There are schools available to do that. I can understand the difficulty when a parent wants a child to go to a particular school, or a child has a sibling in a particular school. That is the position as of now and the Department is very closely monitoring the situation. Expanding the capacity in Holy Family junior national school is just not an option available of to us, as I am informed.

I do not think the Minister has looked at the capacity in Holy Family junior national school in any meaningful way. I ask that he speak to his officials and advise them to liaise directly with the board of management of the school and engage with the parents. I would not ask the Minister to take my word for it. There are 27 children on the waiting list out of 107 who have siblings in the school already. It is not possible for these children to be dropped in the morning and for their parents then to head out into the traffic in Swords, which is really problematic first thing in the morning. It is not possible for these parents to get to the other school on time without leaving the sibling in Holy Family junior national school too early. This is further complicated for parents who are trying to get to work, again trying to make their way through the traffic. There is a problem. The Minister has told me he will monitor it, but I have not heard anything from him with regard to the solution. I ask that the Minister and his officials meet the board of management to discuss with it every and any option that might be available, and meet directly with the parents so they can explain their concerns. I have met these people. They are very ordinary people. They are not people who would seek something outrageous from the Department of Education and Skills. They are telling me, and I am telling the Minister, it is not possible for them to be able to drop their children in the morning and then make it to another school. If a child has a sibling in a school already it creates its own problems. They do not want anything other than the capacity to be able to have their children educated in their community, where they play sports and live, where their friends are and where their siblings go to school.

I asked directly this question of my officials, in other words whether Holy Family junior national school can be expanded, and they answered directly it is maxed out in terms of the existing accommodation, permanent and temporary, and the current devolved grant development is to replace existing prefab accommodation. That will leave the site constricted. Also, any development of the junior national school has implications for the senior national school. All pupils from the junior national school progress to the senior national school. The site of the senior national school has no capacity for further development, hence the need to control the junior infant intake. In other words, it is not sustainable, as the Deputy is suggesting, to expand the school. That is not a sustainable solution. This is the advice of the Department. I understand the patron has advised the junior national school can accommodate the pupils on the waiting list in September 2018. As I said, other schools in the catchment have the capacity to meet the demand and can expand this capacity if necessary. This is the position. Obviously when a site such as this is maxed out and there is a growing need we need to look at the need for an additional school. I have no doubt that will be on the agenda very shortly in the Swords area. The advice to me is very clear that the capacity is not there to expand the school the Deputy wants to have expanded. We have to have other offerings made to accommodate those families. That is what the Department is doing. If I had a solution to this I would offer it. We are not trying to be obtuse. I will certainly convey the concerns, which I know other Deputies have raised in the House. I know it is a genuine concern the Deputy is raising.

Passport Applications

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this Topical Issue. I also thank the Minister and I am pleased to see him in attendance. I compliment his Department and officials in terms of my dealings with them on many matters.

We may have express buses and express trains but we certainly do not have an express passport application process in the Department. It is a huge concern not only to my constituents but to all throughout the country who are represented in the House, so much so that since the Topical Issue was tabled today four Deputies have asked me to raise specific issues, which I will do later.

The current delay is unacceptable in the turnaround times for the issuing of passports applied for through the passport express system operated by An Post. Until last month, people were still being told by their local post offices that the turnaround time was ten working days. I have seen cases where the turnaround time extended to up to four weeks, double what people were told. I will give the example of a mother of a child with special needs, who spent more than €1,500 on a holiday for herself and the child. Her passport was out of date so she applied on 11 April through passport express. She thought she was doing the right thing because she read the small print, which stated the renewal of the passport would be expedited within ten working days. Instead, she received her passport on 9 May and missed her holiday, which was due to commence on 7 May. The travel agency would not even cover the loss because of the passport not issuing. This week, I heard of another case of a four week wait for a passport express application.

I also want to bring to the attention of the Minister a big problem with passport express applications, whereby people who experience delays and have imminent travel arrangements cannot get any joy when they apply for an urgent appointment as they are told that because they applied through passport express the application cannot be retrieved and, therefore, expedited in any way. This is something that needs to be looked at and changed. Today the Department's website states the turnaround time for a passport express application is 16 working days. For the new online application system the turnaround time is ten working days. This is another issue with which I have problem. There should not be any priority given to online applications over passport express. Most of my constituents, particularly those in rural areas, do not have adequate broadband to access the online system, but this is a Topical Issue for another day.

I am aware the Passport Office has hired more staff to deal with the influx of applications due to Brexit. Anyone who has a parent or grandparent born in Ireland is entitled to a passport. Surely people applying for an Irish passport for citizenship reasons should be on a different track, especially where there is no urgent need. Latest figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade show applications from the UK increased by 74% in January compared with the same time last year, and that in January this year more than 7,000 people from Northern Ireland applied for an Irish passport, which is an increase of 3,973 from the number in the same month last year. With these types of figures and the inordinate delays being experienced, the Minister has obviously not hired enough staff and he needs to look at this.

I have also brought to the attention of the Minister the need for a satellite passport office in Dundalk or another Border town to deal with the increase in applications from Northern Ireland and the UK. Exactly one year ago this week, I raised this issue with the Minister in a Topical Issue debate in the context of the European football finals.

That was pre-Brexit. It is a system that cannot cope. It is unacceptable and in my view it is not fit for purpose.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I very much regret the difficulties being encountered by his constituents. It is not the first time Deputy Breathnach has raised this issue with me and I am anxious to ensure that the matters are resolved, notwithstanding current challenges.

Different turnaround times apply to applications, depending on whether the applications are to renew a passport, replace a passport that has been lost, damaged or stolen or to apply for a passport for the first time. The Deputy will be aware of the security considerations that pertain to passports and the need to implement robust anti-fraud measures, particularly in the current security environment. First-time applications, therefore, take much longer due to the security checks and issues involved.

The passport service aims to process passport express renewal applications within 15 working days. This target is in place for over a year and is communicated very clearly in all An Post promotional materials and on my Department’s website. It is also regularly communicated by me in responses to parliamentary questions and through written correspondence with Members who may have queries from time to time. The current turnaround time for renewals is 16 working days, one working day over our target turnaround time. Currently, first-time applications and applications concerning passports that have been lost, stolen or damaged take 22 working days, two working days over the target time.

Meanwhile, online renewals are being processed in ten working days plus postage time. Turnaround times are updated weekly on the passport service website. My Department also keeps An Post apprised of the situation. It is not the case that applicants are being advised of a ten-day turnaround by my Department. My understanding is that this advice is not being given either by An Post. I want to be very clear that the target for renewals is 15 working days - in other words, three weeks. If there are instances of a ten-day turnaround being advised I am interested to have the details. I very much regret the difficulties as expressed by Deputy Breathnach and if he would provide me with the information as to where the advice was given on the matter of ten days I would be happy to have it examined.

While we are falling marginally behind our projected turnaround times for passport express applications, I believe the Passport Office is doing an impressive job considering the exceptionally high volumes of applications received in recent months. To date this year, over 350,000 applications have been processed compared to 500,000 in all of 2016.

My Department has taken a number of measures to handle the exceptional volumes of applications, including targeted overtime. Almost 230 temporary clerical officers have been recruited and a number of additional permanent staff have been assigned to the Passport Office. Workloads are continually reallocated between the three Passport Offices to optimise an efficient service. We will continue to keep these measures under careful review to ensure that the impact of any further increase in demand is minimised.

In general terms, it is considered best practice to apply for a new passport in plenty of time and to allow at least six weeks for a passport to be processed in case any issues arise, for example, incomplete documentation, which often arises. I strongly advise checking the remaining validity on passports before booking travel, paying particular attention to the validity of children's passports, which are shorter. My Department provides a free e-mail renewal reminder service to all passports holders and I urge Deputies to join me in promoting that service.

The Deputy raised the matter of retrieving passports mid-process which have been submitted through Passport Express. As the Deputy can imagine, asking staff to locate individual passport applications among the 70,000 or more that are being processed at any one time is time consuming and disruptive, with possible knock-on consequences for other applicants. Therefore, we only do this in limited circumstances such as illness or death of an immediate family member abroad.

I thank the Minister for his response. We can deal with the semantics of whether the turnaround time is ten, 15 or 16 days but, unfortunately, the reality is that it is not working for those who are in the situation I outlined. I am not criticising staff in that regard. Nobody, including the Department, should not be allowed push any of the days outward and if there are delays beyond 15 or 16 days, people should be entitled to a refund of the passport express charge. Equally, for every day subsequent to that, the Department should be penalised by a certain amount of money based on the deadline set.

People are losing out on flights to go on holiday, to which I alluded earlier. It is not the Department's fault. It can be their own fault because of delays in making the application and it is appropriate that we highlight them at this stage.

I want to make some comments I was asked to make on the issue. As of today, the appointment for first-time applications in Mount Street is taking four weeks to process. In other words, it will take until 13 June for somebody who makes an application today. We are getting into the holiday time and that needs to be highlighted again, as the Minister said.

Representations to the Minister's office are receiving, by and large, generic responses. Should there not be a contact line for the public and even for public representatives in terms of getting greater access to deal with the issue? Why are alerts only sent out when the three weeks expire, for example, if the photograph is unsuitable? Surely those could be checked separately at an early stage.

The new online service for renewals or lost passports is accepting applications and then after one or two days, a request is made for new photographs.

It is very important that we highlight what the Minister said on the issue of messaging people when their passports are close to being out of date, which is something I did not know until now. Also, modern technology should be able to highlight the expiry date on the passport. It is very visual when one opens it and it would be a strong reminder to the person that it is time to have the passport renewed.

I again acknowledge the points made by the Deputy. I undertake to have a look at the individual questions he asked and to reply to him at the earliest opportunity.

It is most important that at the outset applicants choose the most appropriate channel, and I am grateful for the assistance of Deputies in the matter of advising constituents. I ask Deputies to join me in promoting the use of the online service. The response from applicants has been extremely positive. A promotional campaign is under way which should lift the numbers further. As more applicants avail of the service, the efficiency gains will help improve the turnaround time more broadly.

The decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has had an impact, as has the ongoing economic recovery, which has led to more people travelling abroad. I repeat that it is considered best practice to allow six weeks for an application in case any issue arises. Issues arise in the matter of incomplete documentation or whatever and it is vital that applicants choose the correct channel when applying.

I ask for the assistance of Deputies in this regard. The passport service clearly sets out the current turnaround times in public communications. I urge Deputies to promote the use of the free e-mail renewal reminder service provided by the Department through the website,

I wish to pay tribute to the hard work and professionalism of the staff in the Passport Offices in Dublin, in Balbriggan and in Cork who as always have risen to the challenges. I am not saying there are not further challenges to be dealt with and I thank the Deputy for raising some issues that I will undertake to pursue.

The online passport renewal service is a major innovation and it will considerably enhance passport processing capacity. We have already seen over 21,000 online applications in the six weeks since the launch and the service looks set to handle one third of all renewals this year, well ahead of target. Given the benefits to applicants of a faster turnaround time and convenience, as well as the efficiency gains, the service should be the default for everyone eligible. I strongly urge Deputies to encourage its use.