The number of complaints about service at the passport office has risen from 71 pre-pandemic to 397 in the first half of 2022.
The Department of Foreign Affairs told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in a letter seen by the passports being issued.that the service had seen more complaints due to a major increase in volume of
"Over 790,000 passports have been issued to date in 2022. By way of comparison, 935,000 passports were issued in the whole of 2019.
"Due to the high level of demand for passports, particularly first time passports, as well as challenges experienced by the passport service in the wake of pandemic-related restrictions over the last two years, there has been an increase in the amount of complaints received in 2022."
Figures given to the PAC show that in 2019, 77 complaints were made, with just six being escalated to the ombudsman.
In 2020, when travel was effectively stopped due to the Covid-19 pandemic, that figure dropped to 40 complaints, with three escalations.
In 2021 — despite the country being in lockdown for many months — passport applications rebounded to 772,772, but a backlog built up during Level 5 restrictions and led to 371 complaints and 61 escalated to the ombudsman.
In the first six months of this year, there has been 397 complaints and 100 escalations.
The department told the PAC that the majority of complaints relate to processing times for first time and complex applications, as well as difficulties in contacting the passport service.
Current turnaround times for first-time applications are around 25 days — down from 40 days due to what the department called "significant investment" — with simple renewals running at 10. The Post Passport system, renamed from Passport Express, is currently at around eight weeks.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, complex cases take more time because of the need to verify identities.
"All first-time applications require the verification of identity and undergo processes by which entitlement to citizenship must be established.
In the case of children, witnessed identity and consent forms are required to ensure that guardians have consented to the issuance of a passport for the child.
"In order to protect the child and their guardians, this witnessed consent is verified by the passport service. Due to the complexity of such applications, they take a longer time to process than renewals."
To clear the backlog, the department has assigned over 600 staff to the passport service since June 2021, with 240 new staff assigned since May of this year. There are now 865 staff assigned to the passport service, it said.
Former contact tracing staff from the HSE have been assigned to work in the Passport Service Customer Service Hub, with the result that 44 additional staff started work in Department of Foreign Affairs offices in Limerick in June.
"As a result of additional staff assigned to the customer service hub, the number of calls handled by the customer service hub has risen substantially in recent weeks and a very high percentage of calls are being answered with very short wait times.
"The passport service has worked with An Garda Síochána to develop a process for verifying garda witnesses on passport applications in cases where the garda signature cannot be verified.
"This system assists in reducing the number of applications that are delayed due to a failure to verify witness details."