Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has trenchantly defended the Passport Service against a barrage of criticism from TDs inundated with constituents' complaints about a severe backlog in the system and a lack of response to queries.
Mr Coveney said that of 130,000 applications currently in hand 60 per cent are first-time applicants whose identities and entitlement had to be carefully validated, while the consent of all guardians has also to be validated for children’s applications. And 40 per cent of applications were incomplete, he added.
He warned that the high demand currently being experienced would continue through next year as travel re-commences in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
And he called on TDs to “recognise the extraordinary delivery system” in place that provided 450,000 passport books and cards since the beginning of the year, including 67,000 between January and May at the height of the pandemic restrictions.
Mr Coveney said the passport system has been under an awful lot of pressure and “that’s exactly the time when criminals who want to commit fraud will try to use or abuse the passport system”.
They had a robust system to counteract that but it meant “there is an implication in terms of timelines to make sure we do that well”.
He was speaking during Dáil question time when a number of TDs highlighted constituent complaints about the service and a failure to respond to customer calls and queries.
The Minister said the customer service hub team has had contacts with more than 80,000 customers via webchat and phone, he added.
But Fianna Fáil TD Dara Calleary rejected the Minister's suggestion that there was regular contact with passport applicants.
“Applicants come to us because they cannot get the information on where their passport will be and they cannot get through to the passport office,” he said.
“We need extra customer services staff who can actually show people where their application is.”
Sinn Féin Foreign Affairs spokesman John Brady said there was a failure to plan for the expected demand in a post-Covid situation and a failure to put the required staff in place.
Fianna Fáil TD Jennifer Murnane O’Connor highlighted a case where a family got a child’s passport after 40 days but the Passport Service retained the mother’s passport when they are due to travel next week and could not make contact with the service.
Fianna Fáil TD Aindrias Moynihan said many people applied months in advance of a holiday but if often takes up to five weeks before an application is checked and if there is a problem "they get thrown back with several more weeks added before they even get to the starting line".
Fine Gael TD Michael Ring asked who made the decision that it was not an essential service.
The Minister said a decision was taken in May that it should be considered an essential service.
He acknowledged the disruption caused but said some extra staff had been taken on and if it was just about getting more staff “we would have solved it”.
“The nature of the passport operation is that staff need to be on site in the Passport Office to be able to deliver a safe service. We have a secure network within the Passport Office. We cannot simply take space in a warehouse somewhere else and issue passports separately.”
The Minister added that “it takes 15 days for complex renewals and 40 working days for first-time online applications and eight weeks for Passport Express”.
Online renewal officially takes 10 working days but in many cases applications “are being turned around often within 48 hours” and 45 per cent within one business day.