Thursday, 9 February 2012
Immigrant Investor Programme and Start-Up Entrepreneur Scheme: Statements
I thank the Senators for their interest in these important immigration initiatives and I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the new programmes and their potential value to the Irish economy and to the Irish immigration system. These programmes have been under development for some time within the Department of Justice and Equality and have been the subject of wide consultation among Departments, State agencies and Ministers.
These new programmes are imaginative, build on the flexibility of our immigration system and have the capacity to deliver badly needed investment to our fragile economy. Nobody should be in any doubt whatsoever about the ultimate objective of these programmes. To put it simply, it is jobs. I mean by that both the protection of existing jobs and, equally, the development of new opportunities. I am glad to able to use our immigration system in a way that can contribute to achieving that overriding objective and to the objective outlined by an Taoiseach of making Ireland the best small country in which to do business.
Before I go into the details of the two new programmes, it would be appropriate to place them in the context of overall Irish immigration policy and the recent developments that have taken place. A look at some of the recent statistics is illuminating. Overall in 2011, approximately 164,000 new applications for visas, residence, protection and citizenship were received by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, the area of my Department with responsibility for immigration in Ireland. Decisions were issued by INIS in almost 178,000 cases, including a proportion of decisions relating to applications submitted in previous years. Over 111,000 new or renewed registrations of permission to remain in the State were issued by the Garda National Immigration Bureau. Provisional figures indicate that approximately 83,000 entry visa applications were processed in 2011, an increase of 8% on 2010. The approval rate for entry visa applications was 91%.
Tourism Ireland has also reported a significant increase in tourist numbers from the new target markets and the number of tourist groups from China more than doubled from July to August 2011 compared to the same period last year. Additionally, a number of Indian and Gulf tour operators have added Ireland to their European itineraries for the first time. The number of non-EEA national students registered to study in the State is approximately 32,500 or 25% of the total number of non-EEA nationals with permission to remain in the State. Broken down by education sector, 37% of students are pursuing higher education - degree programme - study, 29% are taking language courses, 23% further education - non-degree programme - courses and 11% are taking other courses, such as accountancy, or attending secondary school.
These statistics reveal an encouraging perception of Ireland as a desirable destination for tourism, study, residence or to do business. I believe there is considerable scope within the immigration field to contribute to our national recovery through targeted and well managed policies that capitalize on the potential benefits while minimising the possible downsides.
A key initiative already taken is the Irish short-stay visa waiver programme with the UK, which commenced on 1 July 2011, and will run as a pilot until 31 October 2012. Based on the success of the scheme I expect that it will be extended into the future. The programme is designed to boost tourism and business, especially from emerging markets. Extrapolated visa data from the regions in which the waiver programme operates indicate that visitor numbers from the countries concerned significantly increased.
At the other end of the immigration journey is the hugely successful citizenship ceremony which for the first time ever marks the grant of citizenship with an occasion befitting its importance to the recipient and to us as the host nation. I have argued for the instigation of such ceremonies for many years and I am particularly pleased that within weeks of my appointment as Minister I was in a position to host the first of these great ceremonies in Dublin Castle. Over the course of two days last week, in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, more than 2,250 candidates for citizenship from 110 countries across five continents were formally welcomed as citizens of Ireland. It was a proud and moving moment for everybody involved and these ceremonies are also in their own way helping to restore our sense of what is good about being Irish. The pride of those new citizens in their Irishness was clearly visible in their faces as they stood proudly facing the tricolour during the playing of our national anthem by the Army Band.
Citizenship has been always a particular priority of mine. On taking up office, I immediately initiated steps within my Department to deal with the huge backlog of citizenship applications. More than 16,000 applications were dealt with in 2011, more than double the number dealt with in 2010. Since the start of this year I have made determinations on almost 3,000 applications. It is expected that the current backlog will be substantially dealt with in the next couple of months, after which the objective is that, save in exceptional circumstances, persons applying for citizenship will be given a decision on their application within six months.
On 24 January I announced that the Government had approved two new proposals which I had brought to the Cabinet table and which are designed to stimulate investment and enterprise in Ireland by suitable qualified foreign nationals. Of course, as I said at the outset, the scheme is designed to protect and create employment as overriding objectives. I take this opportunity to emphatically refute any suggestions that these new programmes are a return of the discredited so-called passports-for-sale scheme in a different guise. Any suggestions to this effect are completely wide of the mark and anybody who takes the trouble to read about the programmes and the conditions attaching to them will establish that very quickly. It is straightforward. The programmes have been designed to facilitate legal residence in Ireland for persons who have the potential to contribute to our economy through appropriate investments and enterprise proposals. The objective will be to select only those proposals that will be of economic benefit to the State. Successful applicants will be able to apply for citizenship only under the terms of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Acts, in the same way and under the same terms as all other non-Irish nationals residing in the State.
I will now outline the criteria for both programmes. The immigrant investor programme is designed to attract individuals with a proven record of success in business and enterprise, and offer an opportunity to invest in and relocate to the State. A range of investment options are provided for, with different thresholds applied depending on the nature of the investment as follows. There can be a once off endowment of a minimum of €500,000 to a project with a clear public benefit in areas such as arts, sports or education. The endowment will not provide any return for the investor nor will it be recoupable.
There can be minimum €2 million investment in the designated Irish Government immigrant investor bond. The investment is to be held for a minimum of five years. My officials are currently negotiating with the National Treasury Management Agency on the development of a suitable low-interest investment product.
There can be venture capital funding of a minimum of €1 million into an Irish business for a minimum of three years. An investment into an Irish publicly quoted company could be considered but the investment level in that context might need to be higher.
There can be a mixed investment of a minimum of €1 million with 50% in property and 50% in Government securities. Special consideration could be given to those purchasing properties in the State, which have been enforced by NAMA. In such cases a single €1 million investment in property might be sufficient. There is a clear public interest in NAMA being able to realise assets that have now been vested in it in circumstances in which persons who use those assets to secure loans are no longer capable of meeting their obligations.
As the second leg of the proposed programme, the start-up visa programme recognises the need to foster start-up enterprises in priority innovation sectors of the economy. The existing business permission scheme is insufficient to support such business proposals and a more flexible approach has been developed in consultation with Enterprise Ireland, which has extensive experience of such schemes in other jurisdictions. To qualify an applicant must have some form of financial backing of not less that €75,000 through business angels, venture capital providers or a financial institution regulated by the Financial Regulator - personal funding transferred to the State or a grant from a relevant State agency might be also acceptable; the applicant must not be a drain on public funds; and, most importantly, the business must have a strong innovation component. This will be assessed by the evaluation committee.
Applications for both programmes will be on a prescribed form and will be accompanied by a fee to offset the costs of administering the schemes and to deter frivolous applications. Candidates will be also required to submit a comprehensive business plan detailing their planned investments and to provide evidence of sufficient funds.
Both programmes will be subject to the approval of an evaluation committee composed of suitably qualified and experienced people from relevant Departments and State agencies. The evaluation committee will be the key to the assessment process and it demonstrates a joined-up Government approach to capitalise on the expertise that exists in the wider public service. As well as from my Department, the evaluation committee will consist of representation from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Finance, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland.
The committee will be also able to call on expertise from the wider public service should the need arise in evaluating proposals which, for example, relate to the educational, health or tourism areas. For example, if a proposal is made in the area of the provision of health-care facilities, an appropriate expert from the Department of Health would join the committee to assess the application and ensure it is fully and properly evaluated. The purpose of the committee will be to adjudicate on the legitimacy of the candidate and his or her investment as well as the viability of the business proposal. The first job of the committee will to adopt and publish a code of practice which will underpin the integrity of the process and ensure the schemes operate in an open and transparent manner.
Successful applicants ordinarily will be granted residence permission for five years, which will be reviewed after two years to ensure the original investment remains in place and that the general terms on which the permission was granted continue to be met. Family reunification will be permitted for spouses, partners and children provided that family needs are met from the resources of the entrepreneur or investor, or other private means. No access to State benefits will be permitted during this period.
The evaluation process goes well beyond just looking at the investment. International best practice will be followed. Normal security checks will be applied, including international police co-operation. The participants must be of good repute and must be also able to satisfy the immigration authorities as to the provenance or origins of their funds. The applicant will be required to swear an affidavit attesting to character and the source of his or her funds. It will be made clear that false statements will void any permission granted.
The initiatives we are implementing are not unique internationally. There is significant competition among migrant destination states to attract migrant investors and entrepreneurs. Many are motivated by the experience of Canada, where there was a significant influx of wealthy people of Chinese origin from Hong Kong in the early and mid-1990s before the hand-over of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China. Today, countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have sophisticated schemes in place to attract the interest of investors and entrepreneurs.
An overseas investor who acquires an Irish centre of interest can make an economic contribution far above and beyond his or her initial investment. If such persons move to Ireland, transfer their wealth and relocate business interests, the potential benefit is considerable. It also brings intellectual capital and business acumen. In addition where a number of investors come from the same country this in itself can create an investment and business community with links to their country of origin.
Work is under way in my Department on the implementation of the two programmes. I intend to launch the programme formally in mid-March at which time appropriate guidelines and application forms will be available. I expect that applications will be accepted shortly thereafter. It is not possible at present to gauge the possible interest in both programmes and I will offer no hostages to fortune in this regard but I remain optimistic for their potential. Since the initial announcement made with regard to the programmes, inquiries have already been made to my Department about the exact start up date and seeking details of them. We will continue to meet and engage in dialogue with individuals who may have the resources to locate in Ireland in the context of the programme being proposed to the benefit of people who reside here in the context of the possibility of providing jobs or engaging in innovative business programmes.
In putting together these programmes I have made reference to the extensive discussions that took place. At the early stages we engaged in discussions with Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, the National Treasury Management Agency and NAMA. All of these bodies envisage substantial benefits to the State by these programmes being put in place and up and running. I am very optimistic about the impact they will have in the coming 12 months or two years.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I welcome the Minister to the House. In my long association with the Minister, Deputy Shatter, I have come to know his style and this initiative has the stamp of his inventive thinking all over it. I applaud the Minister for hitting the ground running in this regard. As the Minister suggested, our recent history has been littered with similar attempts to attract entrepreneurs to the country. For a variety of reasons, these have tended to end up being not quite what was originally suggested or not quite in line with the original ambitions. The Minister has focused well on two areas which will be very helpful to this country.
I was taken by the Minister's recent remarks around Holocaust Day. He took the opportunity to give the context in which this country's record for encouraging immigrants to the country left a good deal to be desired, especially in respect of the Jewish population pre-war who sought to get out of Nazi Germany at the time. I do not suggest the record was shameful but many moral questions arise about the attitude of Irish bureaucracy and the Irish State at the time. The Minister will agree that this was not helped by the anti-Semitic Irish ambassador to Nazi Germany at the time who fed back a good deal of negative information. Perhaps, taking account of the long view, the decisions taken at that time had some validity but I find it difficult to see that and I believe the Minister holds the same view. I have often thought that if the unfortunate Jewish people who were fleeing Nazi Germany had come to this country or had been allowed to come to this country it would have helped to build a strong entrepreneurial base here, such as happened in other countries. The Minister made reference to the reintegration of Hong Kong into China. We failed to take advantage of that initiative at the time while others countries did so and, in a sense, we are playing catch-up now.
I applaud the Minister on his initiative in respect of the visa waiver programme as it applies to those coming from the Far East. At a recent meeting of the economic committee of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in London we received a presentation from the equivalent of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, ISME, in the North. It raised the issue of those who were visiting Ireland on Chinese visas but who could not access Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is putting forward some extraordinary tourist attractions this year. Titanic Belfast is one major event and Derry as the UK city of culture is another. I appreciate the Minister has addressed this to a large degree and that those coming from the 15 designated countries who receive a UK visa will be allowed to travel on to Ireland. I assume these people also have access to the North. However, the speaker raised the issue of people who were given specific visas for Ireland. I realise the Minister is aware of this and perhaps he may be able to address it. We are promoting Irish tourism on an all-island basis and if people come to this part of the island, I see no reason some accommodation cannot be made for them to visit the northern part. I have no wish to take up too much more of the time allocated to me other than to make that point.
Prior to his elevation to ministerial office, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, and I held several meetings with IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland to try to encourage the State agencies to encourage more venture capitalists, especially those from the Jewish diaspora, to come here. The Minister may correct me if I am wrong but I understand that the most successful venture capitalists in the world are among the Jewish diaspora and are based primarily in the United States. There is a good deal of merit in what the Minister was attempting to do. I fully supported him on that initiative. I wonder whether this initiative stems from that thinking because the Minister is engaging with the various State agencies including Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland in a similar way. Is there some sub-text here? Will there be an opportunity for those potential venture capitalists to be encouraged to come here and establish businesses to provide much-needed jobs.
The Minister makes reference to the fact that he will be calling on a great deal of expertise. However, I note that this expertise appears to be confined to the public service. I have the highest regard for those in IDA Ireland and others in the public service. One need only examine the evidence of the past year. They created 13,500 new jobs. Admittedly, there was a reduction of 6,000 jobs but there was a net gain of 7,500 jobs at a time of severe economic disadvantage. I applaud the ongoing efforts of the State agencies in attracting foreign direct investment to the country. They will play a central role as per the Minister's presentation. However, will the Minister consider taking in outside business expertise in the evaluation committee? I have in mind successful entrepreneurs in this country. I have no wish to name names but we all know who they are. These people have established, created and expanded multinational companies which compete with the very best in the world. There are several Irish-based business people who are patriotic, who pay their taxes in the country, who live in the country and who could provide considerable expertise on a pro bono basis. The Minister stated he would employ further expertise available to him, presumably from with the public service. I put on record names such as Denis O'Brien, Michael O'Leary and Sir Anthony O'Reilly. These are three possible names who come to mind off the top of my head. Overall this is a wonderful scheme. I have no doubt we will have an opportunity to debate the matter further. It is vital that the House has had the opportunity to hear the Minister outline his initial comments and to elaborate a little on the schemes. I presume the Minister has built in a monitoring and evaluation system to ensure the initiative is successful. I commend the Minister on the proposal and I wish him well in this regard.
I welcome the Minister and I thank him for his interesting presentation. I thank the previous speaker, Senator Mooney, for his generous response to the Minister's proposal. It is good that in the case of such an important matter all sides of the House can sing from the one hymn sheet. In recent years and in the course of recent months since the new Government took over I have commented that every Department and Government proposal should be job-proofed, irrespective of which legislation we are attempting to introduce. Every measure should contribute in some way to the urgent need for job creation and this measure is a great plus in that sense.
Normally, we would not expect the Minister for Justice and Equality to come before us with measures designed to put people back to work and to get the economy up and running. The Minister's initiative is most welcome. Clearly, he has put a good deal of thought and serious intellectual capital into his presentation.
I agree with the Minister's comments on the previous passports for sale scheme. The Minister described it as discredited and it is fair to say as much. However, perhaps at the instigation of that scheme there were good ideas and proposals. It was not a complete disaster. Nevertheless, we needed a new variation on the scheme and the Minister is presenting an exciting twin-track approach.
I look forward to the final details and the application forms being available. I expect there will be significant international interest in what the Minister proposes.
The previous speaker mentioned what should have happened in the past in the context of a particular international community. Looking at the State of Israel today, we can see how the people of Israel have benefited from their constant communication with the Jewish community worldwide. Significant investment into the State of Israel comes on a daily basis from the broader Jewish diaspora and the state probably could not survive without it. We can learn a lot from that in the context of the tens of millions of people throughout the world who, while they may not be Irish and whose parents and grandparents may not be Irish, have historical links with Ireland. That market is there to be tapped and, hopefully, many of those people will be interested in this programme.
The Chinese angle has been mentioned by the Minister and the previous speaker. We must recognise that over the next number of decades the balance of the world's economic development will relate in some way to China. We must try to take advantage of that and seek investment from that state. In that regard, one of my colleagues, Senator Healy Eames, who cannot be here for this debate because she has to attend a conference, wanted to record her strong support for this proposal and her concern that we need to work harder and faster on the processing of visas for business visitors to Ireland. She mentioned that she has organised a conference in Galway on 23 March with Chinese business people coming to Galway and Ireland to examine trade and industry links with Ireland and asked me to stress here the difficulty that exists with regard to processing visas for this type of visit quickly enough. She is concerned there is significant delay and feels this needs to be addressed where bilateral investment opportunities are available. I support her in the effort to ensure the visa processing system is improved.
The Minister has made tremendous progress on the issue of citizenship applications and in removing the backlog. However, it can still take some time in some of our Irish embassies worldwide to process entry visas for Ireland. One of my colleagues told me that if someone, for example, wanted to go to Australia in a week's time, that person could go to a travel agency, book a flight and have a visa application processed there and then, all within ten or 15 minutes. However, where an Australian person wants to come to Ireland for a business visit or whatever, it can sometimes take days or weeks to have the visa processed. We need to make progress in that regard.
I believe there will be significant interest in the immigrant investor programme and the Minister has outlined some of the areas into which he would he would expect to see benefits flow. We should try to make a particular effort to attract interest in natural industries we want to promote, such as alternative energy, wind farms, forestry etc. We would be in a win-win situation if we could get outside investment into those areas as they require urgent investment. The minimum limits set by the Minister are realistic because we need to send out the message that we are talking about serious investment and investors rather than fly-by-night operators. The limits and targets set are helpful in that regard.
On the possibility of whether many of these people will move from five-year residency to longer-term citizenship, I hope that transpires to be the case. We must accept that the majority of people who would like to invest in our country would, at some stage, wish to become long-term residents, if not citizens. That route will be available after the normal five-year period and I welcome that. I will leave it at that as I have nothing further novel to say. This is a welcome and worthwhile measure and shows thinking outside the normal political box. I welcome that. If the country needs anything, it needs jobs, job creation and enterprise and this initiative will be a help in that regard. I wish the Minister well with the project.
I compliment the Minister on this initiative and would like him to outline whether legislation or regulation is required for it. It is an excellent initiative and an interesting programme. Members may be aware that in the past we had a "passports for sale" initiative and while that was a much maligned scheme, it created a significant number of jobs for this country. One need only look at Kerry Airport, Millstreet and the significant afforestation projects to see some of the benefits from that scheme. The scheme was much maligned by people who were in good jobs who did not have to worry about getting employment. However, based on my knowledge of the scheme, I could supply a list of companies here that would not be operating now and providing employment but for it.
This scheme as envisaged is in a sense a further innovation of that one and will, probably, be easier to sell. I see it as a move in the right direction. Some countries have a scheme whereby if a person buys a property or one of the surplus houses available and thereby takes a stake in the community and if the person has adequate means, this will qualify the person for naturalisation. This would be an attraction for some people and perhaps some of the houses on housing estates around the country that have not been sold could be a possible investment and the first step for people who have not got naturalisation. Investment in Government bonds or in the national reconstruction bond scheme would also be an excellent idea. All in all, this is the type of initiative that must be taken in times of difficulty in order to create jobs.
Canada has a scheme which is even more blunt than that proposed by the Minister. Its passport scheme allows that where a person can make the necessary investment in the country, he or she will be given the option to apply for a passport on the basis that the person is creating jobs and making a long-term investment and intends to reside in the country. The Minister is aware from his Department's files of the interesting schemes and applications that have come to his Department prior to his becoming Minister, going back to the time of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn and others. The file on those applications is fascinating and when the Minister has time, he should read it. It should be very illuminating to discover the number of projects that have been funded in this regard. The "passport for sale" scheme got great support and there are thousands of acres of afforestation owned under the scheme.
I hope the Minister moves on this initiative as quickly as possible. The start-up entrepreneur programme is imaginative and progressive and it is interesting that it is being promoted by this Minister's Department. It is important that every Department looks at how it can help to create jobs. This Minister is not the Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, but he is using his Department to open up a way to create jobs. Well done, I wish the initiative well.
I welcome the Minister to the House and welcome this programme. It is great that Members on both sides of the House welcome this initiative which we all recognise as a good idea. As Senator Bradford said, it will be good for job creation and is an example of Ministers thinking outside the box and thinking laterally about how a Department where job creation proposals are not usually forthcoming can take an initiative that will, hopefully, have a beneficial impact.
It is important to recognise the immensely positive contribution that inward migration has already had in Ireland and to celebrate that positive impact. I have previously put on the record of this House my family experience, as my grandfather came to Ireland in 1946 as a refugee from communism in Czechoslovakia, having previously been imprisoned by the Nazis. He had been in the Czech resistance and the communists were also very against those fighters. He set up Waterford Glass after the war in Ireland, thereby bringing about a great deal of jobs, investment and trade in Ireland. It is a good example of the sort of contribution that migrants have made to this country.
Around the South Circular Road in Dublin where I live there are thriving local businesses, many run by some of the new communities in our very multicultural area. It is important to note that the Minister has sent out very positive signals about immigration and I commend him on those wonderful citizenship ceremonies he initiated. All of us found those photographs in the newspapers depicting families and children very proud of their new Irish citizenship last weekend extremely uplifting; it made us all feel better about this country in a difficult economic time.
With regard to immigration policy, the visa waiver programme is very important and I hope there will be a beneficial impact from people visiting London this summer for the Olympics and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Cultural tourism in Ireland is also important, as we can bring people here on short-term visas for cultural and literary heritage reasons rather than pure tourism. Senator Mooney noted how Belfast has used anniversaries effectively, such as the sailing of the Titanic. We must encourage people to come here to celebrate heritage as well as other reasons.
I was struck by a comment from Senator Quinn yesterday, which is relevant to this debate. He spoke of the US model in which members of the diaspora are invited to invest in small start-up companies, and it struck me that as part of the immigrant investor programme we should make available opportunities to Irish-Americans and people resident in the US who may be interested in this sort of investment. We could provide a list of Irish start-ups which could benefit particularly from inward investment. In other words we could try to link technology companies such as those producing computer games - young firms that need investment - to members of the diaspora who would be interested in investing under this programme.
I am glad this programme will be launched very shortly, in mid March, and it will be operational soon thereafter. It is a twin track approach to ensure we facilitate residency both for those making inward investment and those we described as start-up entrepreneurs, or people with an entrepreneurial imagination. The threshold is lower for them at €75,000. The current business permission scheme for migrant investors has been seen as inadequate. Is that because the set criteria are too onerous, with the requirement that people create at least two full-time jobs for EEA nationals and a minimum €300,000 to invest? Have we learned from that, and is that the reason the different criteria have been set out for this twin track new scheme of immigrant investors and start-up entrepreneurs? My supposition is that the start-up entrepreneur scheme would prove the more popular.
Could we see some move made in that programme to allow persons living here already to apply but whose residency status may not be sufficiently secure for them to feel they can really grow a business? I am thinking about the many businesses I mentioned around my area, and many of the people running them may not have very secure residency status. Will they be eligible to apply in mid March as start-up entrepreneurs or is it designed purely to attract people who are not already resident in Ireland? It might be useful for people to be able to convert student visas or short-stay visas in order to take advantage of the programme and thereby grow the business in Ireland.
The Minister has helpfully set out the residency requirement and will allow family reunification, which is extremely welcome. For my grandfather coming here in 1946, it was an important consideration that family reunification would be permitted. Could it be more flexible and not relate just to spouse, partner or partner and children? Perhaps it could also apply to grandparents. All of us have had representations from people in a position where they need a grandparent to free them up by providing child or home care. People can then continue to run a business or start an entrepreneurial scheme.
The Minister has been, correctly, reticent in predicting the numbers of people who will take up the programme. Has he any indications from any trade missions abroad? He spoke about already having queries into the Department. Is there any sign of where we will see particular interest and in what areas that interest will be? I welcome the scheme and thank the Minister for coming here to introduce it.
I warmly welcome this creative thinking and it is certainly the way forward. This is exactly the type of thought process we need. There was another proposal included in the Finance Bill which will be of great benefit to the country, the new tax regime for foreign investors. They will pay tax on between €75,000 and €500,000 at a rate of 30%. I heard a colleague in the Opposition criticise this last night, which shows the inertia between the two ears of some of these people.
If we are to get more people on this island to create jobs in order to collect tax from them, the only way of doing so is to make it attractive financially. What plans are there to communicate this scheme and get it to the world market? I have already circulated details to friends in the UK and I have no doubt they have been passed on to people in the US. The Shannon Chamber, which deals with much foreign direct investment in the Shannon region, will communicate details to associates, mainly in the United States. We must circulate this idea far and wide.
I could not welcome this more as it is the way forward for the country. There is no question or doubt in my mind that this is the way we must think. I have no doubt it will be of benefit to us. As Senators Bradford and Bacik noted, it is great to see an initiative like this come from the Minister for Justice and Equality, and I hope the other Ministers consider their briefs and do some creative thinking. It is a welcome idea.
As has been noted, this is an innovative scheme. In my area in Donegal I work with members of the Indian community who are involved in the software business with a large international company. Many of those people have contacts within India and I am sure some of those people would love to come to live in Ireland. The education system, particularly relating to computers and software, is ten or 15 years ahead of our system, and we could have people from that setting up businesses in Ireland. Many Indian people living in Ireland come from the Kerala region, which is noted for its health care professionals.
I am currently dealing with a local company in Donegal that wants to develop a medical product, and its only avenue is through India. It needs Indian investment to bring the product to the next level, and we have spoken to Enterprise Ireland and the Minister. This will open up an opportunity for these people to go to India with their package and ask for investment in a product that could be manufactured in Ireland and sold worldwide. The finance aspect is important, and I look forward to bringing this news so they can have the potential to develop their product, which could bring jobs to Donegal.
The Minister indicated that sporting endowments might be considered. Does that mean Finn Harps could get a millionaire from India to invest in it?
That is great. I know Minister of State, Deputy Ring, is in Donegal today visiting the new site proposed for Finn Harps. We might get an Indian or Chinese investor in Finn Harps to bring them to the Champions' League. Watch out Barcelona, Finn Harps are coming after them.
A number of the doctors working in the health service who came from abroad several years ago are now applying for citizenship. Some of the nurses we recruited from the Philippines five or six years ago are also applying for citizenship. I acknowledge the efforts made to expedite their applications but I have been contacted by several individuals who are thinking about going to Canada because they have been waiting too long for their applications to be processed. Can the processing of citizenship applications be expedited for those who work in key areas such as nursing and medicine? I recognise it may not be possible to do so given the volume of applications that must be processed but the health service is facing staff shortages.
I welcome the Minister's initiative in regard to the investor programme and wish him every success with it.
The time allotted for this debate seemed to pass very quickly. I thank all the Senators who contributed and thank all sides of the House for the substantial support shown for the scheme. I was interested and amused by what I would put in tabloid terms as the shock and horror that the Department of Justice and Equality has an idea to create jobs. The truth is that there is a great deal of innovative thinking in my Department. It is not all by me and I thank my officials for the substantial work they have done in bringing together this scheme and for the consultative process in which they engaged.
I thank Senator Mooney for his contribution. I will not go back to the 1930s issue which I discussed previously but I thank him for the comments he made on that. We have much to learn from the manner in which we have in the past treated individuals in genuine personal difficulties who were trying to come to this country. I hope the mistakes made in the past will not be repeated in the future.
In the context of the issue before us, we missed out on substantial opportunities. This scheme is not aimed at any particular national or religious grouping but if one looks at the areas of venture capital and innovation across the world and the individuals who have contributed substantially to economic development, there is a disproportionate number of people whose Jewish families emerged out of the ashes of the Second World War or who managed to escape from the European continent before 1939 and founded major businesses in the United States. If one looks at, for example, the Israeli State, there are more patents registered annually in respect of innovations in the State of Israel than in any other country in the world, save the United States, which is extraordinary having regard to the population there.
These schemes are designed to attract people who are innovators, such as young people coming out of college who may have a good idea and can get financial backing but are resident outside the European Union and would like to come here. The €75,000 financial back-up entrepreneur scheme gives people an opportunity to innovate in Ireland and to locate here.
Senator Bacik raised the question of what happens if somebody already here on a student visa which is about to expire has an innovative idea. Such an individual can be accommodated within the scheme provided he or she has the financial backing required. There is no reason that should not be the case.
We substantially lost out prior to the Chinese republic assuming sovereignty over Hong Kong. A significant number of innovative people left Hong Kong and many went to Australia, New Zealand or the United States. I visited Hong Kong one year before the Chinese republic took over. I had views about what we might have done in this country to attract people who were clearly intent on leaving but, unfortunately, not much happened on the issue at that time. It was one of the issues I had in the back of my mind upon becoming Minister.
The evaluation committee, as Senator Mooney rightly noted, essentially involves the public sector but it will have a capacity to call for assistance from identifiable individuals to evaluate a project where the expertise does not exist within the public sector. I expect that will happen. There will be a degree of flexibility and if an unusual projected is presented which the committee is unable to properly evaluate we will have to be flexible in that regard.
Obviously the scheme will develop based on the experience we have. The great benefit of the scheme is that it is essentially non-statutory. If we identify difficulties in its administration or an area that has job creation potential but does not neatly fit into the terms of the scheme we will be able to review it. Obviously the scheme will have to be in place for a reasonable period before we undertake a review but I expect that we will review it at a relatively early stage and ensure any corrections required are made.
I respond to Senator Bradford's comments about the Department of Justice and Equality by saying that we are a very enterprising Department. In fairness to my colleagues across Departments not traditionally identified as having a job creation potential, we are all looking at initiatives that may be taken in our own areas to attract investors and individuals with original ideas to stimulate job creation, not only people already resident here but also people living abroad. In that context we must do what we can to assist people already living in Ireland who have good ideas but are experiencing difficulties in getting financial backing. That is an issue to which we will return on another day.
In regard to the issue raised by Senator Healy Eames, a substantial number of visas are being granted for Chinese nationals to visit Ireland. There is no reason difficulties should be experienced regarding the conference to which she referred. As Senator Bradford noted on her behalf, if difficulties arise my door is open and I will have them resolved.
In regard to the visa issue generally, 91% of visa applications are accepted and a small number are not. Some people run into difficulties with their visa applications because they do not fill out the forms correctly or provide the necessary back-up documentation. I saw this in my constituency prior to becoming Minister, when people would tell me they had difficulties getting visas but the copies they showed me of the documentation sent into the Department clearly displayed deficiencies. That is why they run into problems. There is the odd occasion where the incorrect decision is made in the context of complex background circumstances and when that occurs there is always the possibility of reviewing the decision.
The citizenship ceremonies have been an enormous success. A number of the people accompanying those being granted citizenship, whose own experience involved attending criminal sittings of the District Court while waiting to be fitted in for a couple of minutes to swear fidelity to the State in the witness box, have asked me if they could have a second ceremony because their first ceremony was not really a ceremony at all and the experience was dreadful. It has given a clear message that we truly value those who have chosen to come and live in this country, are contributing to their communities and are either job creators or in employment here. We have changed the atmosphere in this area. Many of the people I have talked to at citizenship ceremonies are innovators, employers or job creators.
To return to something Senator Bacik said, an important element of the scheme is that an individual can come with his wife and children. The difficulty we have is deciding to what extent one agrees to extended family members coming here. There have been circumstances where people are lawfully here and need a grandparent to come to visit for a period or help them where a baby is born and there are other young children in the family. At present, my Department tries to accommodate people in those circumstances.
I am conscious that I am running out of time. To respond to Senator Harte, the innovative nature of this scheme is that there are a broad range of areas in which one can either invest or in respect of which, to use the terminology, one can make an endowment which is credible. We included the sporting area and if the Senator can find someone who is willing to provide €500,000 to Finn Harps by way of an ex gratia payment, I wish him well in that regard. Provided the origins of the funding are readily identifiable and legitimate and the individual in question does not have a criminal record, we will very happily give him or her a right of residence in the State and he or she may choose to live adjacent to the Senator if he can provide the appropriate accommodation.
If the Senator gets someone to provide €4 million or €5 million, the former England manager might take on the job for Finn Harps.
Senator Burke asked an important question. We are still getting through the backlog of citizenship applications which built up and I believe we will have substantially dealt with it in the next two or three months. There is an exceptional group of applications where particular security issues arise and have to be addressed because of the countries of origin of the individuals concerned. In the context of that group, which we have been examining, it may take us until the end of the year to get through it. I expect that anyone who makes a citizenship application by May or June and no exceptional issues of security arise because of his or her country of origin will be in the space I predicted some time ago, namely, the application will be determined within a six month period.
As I have stated to Members of both Houses, if there are some people who are stuck in the system, have been here for a long time, are in important jobs and whose circumstances are being made very difficult because of the unfortunate delays that have occurred in the manner in which the scheme was previously administered, we will try to address their individual circumstances if they are brought to my attention. We cannot do this for 6,000 or 7,000 individuals but we have done so where it has been necessary.
We have processed an enormous number of applications. I became Minister on 9 March 2011 and when we reach 9 March of this year I expect that we will have processed between 23,000 and 25,000 applications in the previous 12 month period. In 2010, just under 8,000 applications were processed. We are coming to terms with this issue.
I place on record my thanks to officials in my Department who have done so much work in this area. They have been put under much pressure by me to process applications and have done an outstanding job in officiating at and doing all the administrative work necessary on the days of each of the citizenship ceremonies that have been held.
The arrangement in the visa system at present is that when a short-term visa is granted to enter the United Kingdom, the person may enter the Republic of Ireland and from here travel to the North of Ireland. The ideal would be to have a reciprocal arrangement in place, that is, where a person who received a visa to enter the Republic of Ireland would be able to gain access to the United Kingdom and travel to Northern Ireland without requiring a separate visa. We are working our way towards that. Our systems of checking are not as sophisticated as they are in the United Kingdom and we need to bring them up to speed in certain areas to satisfy the UK authorities that there are no security issues that could arise as a result of a reciprocal arrangement. Work is being done in that area. I am not saying this in a party political context but there is work that should have been done in that area. Updated technical systems should have been put in place perhaps two or three years ago but was not done. This work has to be resourced and identifying the resources is a particular issue. I very much hope that we will get to that place in the not too distant future. I have spoken to the Ministers concerned and the United Kingdom does not have any difficulty in this regard, provided we have in place exactly the same protective mechanisms as it has. I hope if I am standing here in about 12 months' time, the problem will have been resolved.
As the House is about to discuss matters on the Adjournment, I wish to advise that I have a commitment arising from a Garda event. I am aware that an issue in my brief has been raised on the Adjournment. The Minister of Stateat the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Sean Sherlock, has been fully briefed and will deal with the issue. I apologise for that.