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Passport Services

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 23 June 2022

Thursday, 23 June 2022

Ceisteanna (96)

Seán Canney

Ceist:

96. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if, with the surge in the number of applications for passports and the delays in getting those applications processed, he will consider opening a passport office in the west of Ireland to serve the needs of the population there; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33475/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Foreign)

I compliment the staff of the Passport Office and of the Minister's office, but I would argue that it is high time we located a public-facing passport service office in the west of Ireland in order to serve the people of that region. There is a communications issue. People have difficulties with speaking to someone in the Passport Office, with submitting documents and with finding out what is going on with their applications when they are under pressure. I ask the Minister to consider opening an office in the west of Ireland to serve the needs of people there.

Passport applications from all citizens across the island of Ireland or abroad are distributed for processing at the three Passport Office locations on the basis of the type of application rather than the place of residence of the applicant. More than 90% of all passport applications, including first-time applications, are now being made through Passport Online.

The passport service is committed to continuing to offer a range of application channels, including an off-line service for citizens who are not eligible or do not wish to use the Passport Online service. Passport Online is the priority channel for applications, as there are many efficiencies built into the system for both the applicant and the passport service. Passport Online consistently offers processing times up to four times faster than paper-based passport renewal applications. A paper-based, mail-in service is available to citizens at more than 1,000 post office locations across the island. The availability of both Passport Online and the postal application channel means that very few applicants are required to travel a significant distance in order to apply for passports. Passport service figures show that less than 1% of all applicants use the in-person urgent appointment service available at the Passport Office in Dublin and Cork. Given the high percentage of applicants using Passport Online, I am confident that the range of service options available meets the current needs of passport applicants. Furthermore, recent service improvements allow the passport service to provide this essential citizen service in an efficient and effective manner.

At the moment, the priority is the turnaround time and getting passports to people on time. I am not ruling out extending our footprint to other parts of the island of Ireland, either Northern Ireland, the west or the north west. I recognise that it is a long drive to from somewhere like Donegal or Sligo to either Dublin or Cork to get an urgent appointment. To be honest, we are trying to move the whole system online in order that no matter where people apply from, they can get an efficient service. That needs to be the focus for now.

The Minister said he is not ruling out increasing the footprint across the country, but let us take the example of somebody living in Clifden who needs an emergency passport.

He or she travels through the county and arrives in Ballinasloe, halfway to Dublin but not having left the county. If a child needs an emergency passport, both parents have to take time off work to get it. Their options are to go to Dublin or to Cork. People are asking me why we cannot have a passport office in the west of Ireland to serve areas from Limerick to Donegal. We are not looking for something major. It is about having that service locally, which would help people who are under severe pressure when problems arise.

For the past month, phone calls to the Passport Office have been going unanswered. I accept that the situation in that regard is improving but there is frustration. The people phoning the Passport Office need to speak to a member of its staff. Many of my constituents have travelled to Dublin just to go into the Passport Office to try to find out what is going on.

I take the Deputy's point. We are trying to move the entire system online so that people can interact with the Passport Office from their homes, either through the webchat function or by contacting an efficiently run call centre that answers their calls. That call centre has been under extraordinary pressure in recent months. We have had to add significantly to its size, and that is happening. We have done that efficiently. Rather than going through a long recruitment process, which takes time, we have instead linked in with the HSE to get large numbers of contact tracers to come onto the passport call line system. That is the most efficient way of doing it within the Civil Service and the public sector. That only started this week. The public will see a significant improvement in service this week. Even if one goes to the Cork office, the passports are not printed there, so the urgent appointments system in Cork gives a four-day turnaround rather than a one-day turnaround. We cannot have passport offices all over the country. We need to have an efficient system, but we will keep an open mind on whether it is appropriate to add to the footprint. For now, we are focusing on turnaround times.

I accept that. I reiterate my admiration for the staff of the Passport Office and those of the Minister's office. The phone line for Oireachtas Members is fantastic, but it is creating 160 little passport offices around the country. People are contacting several Deputies on particular issues to try to get traction. We are there to help. The Minister has said he will explore the matter. I understand he is trying to move the service online. He stated that people can communicate with the Passport Office from their homes but many in my area do not have the Internet connection to do so. There are many people who are still working offline. There is a need for a passport office in the west. I welcome that the Minister said he will explore it and I look forward to working with him to try to deliver it for the west of Ireland.

We are changing our software system. It will not be concluded until next year but, when we do that, we will have more options, such as potentially working with networks such as the An Post network or social welfare offices, for example. That would broaden the service geographically in terms of where people can apply for passports and so on. The fact is that passports are printed in Dublin. When I was Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, people told me that if we moved the whole farm payments online, many farmers would be unable to deal with that because they do not have broadband connections and all the rest of it. For many years now, all farmers have successfully been applying for their payments online. It is the only way in which one can do so. We need to get to a point where everybody applying for a passport does so online, but we have to make sure there are facilities available for those who do not have connections in their homes to be able to do that in the locality and so on. The online system is so much more efficient. It is much easier for me to intervene or for the Oireachtas call centre to do so in important cases if there is an online file on which one can intervene. Paper-based applications are much more complex to deal with because they involve physical piles of paper through which one has to search for a certain application. That is difficult when one is dealing with thousands of applications every day. This is a system that is evolving and changing. It has experienced extraordinary demand this year and, by and large, we have dealt with that, with some obvious exceptions where things have gone wrong. It is improving by the week. To give people a bit of good news, the demand for passports will be down by approximately one third in June, which will give the system a chance to catch its breath.

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