Tuesday, 28 September 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I will not delay the Minister of State, Deputy English, as he is very busy. In fairness to him, he made it to the House by the skin of his teeth.
Businesses have been in contact with me about an issue that the Minister and I briefly discussed previously. One such business is a bus company that has not been able to employ drivers in Ireland, either north or south of the Border.It is looking to employ some people from Malta. It can take 14 drivers from Malta, who are originally from the Philippines and who have the required experience and whatever else, but the work permits are an issue. I have also been talking to lorry drivers and a couple of quite large businesses in the midlands that are finding it hard to get the relevant drivers through the usual EU channels and equivalent businesses that do not need the permits. We see the chaos faced by our neighbours in the UK at present, particularly as regards drivers with these specialised skills. We should not go down the same route.
Now is an ideal time to deal with this matter. It should be done before Christmas. The transport industry is going to be ramping up between now and then so this is the time to deal with it. I ask the Minister of State to look favourably on this and to take my points on board. I would appreciate a relevant and positive answer.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am glad I have been able to make it to the House because it is an important topic. We were caught in traffic in Drogheda but we made it in time. It is good to be here.
We had a discussion on this last week as well. It is certainly a very relevant issue that has been raised by many colleagues across the board. I have engaged with the various sectors and businesses over the summer and the availability of talent and skills is an issue that has come up quite a lot in the last three or four weeks. The Senator mentioned bus drivers and lorry drivers. That is a very common issue that is coming through a lot in recent weeks and months.
Yesterday, I also met with a number of retailers that are under serious pressure. One of the groups involved had 50 or 60 jobs available on that day across four or five shops. There are a lot of vacancies in many sectors, including in agrifood and agriculture. We met the IFA last week, and this is a big issue for it too. It is something we are trying to find ways to address across a number of Departments.
The Senator raised the issue of visas and permits so I will focus on that but we are trying to look at this issue through Pathways to Work with the Minister for Social Protection and through my own Department, where the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, are working on it together. We are also doing work in higher education with the Minister for of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. Across those three Departments, we intend to work with the various sectors this year and in the years ahead to try to address some of that skills gap through on-the-job training, higher education, further education and training, FET, apprenticeships and so on. There are a lot of opportunities there. Many of these sectors might not have had to avail of opportunities in the past so we will try to focus resources to make that happen as best we possibly can, in order to close the skills gap in the long term and future-proof this country. In the short term, the Senator is right that there is a major issue in many sectors heading into Christmas. That is something we are investigating under the permit structure to see how we can address that as well.
The issue of visas is dealt with by the Minister for Justice. The employment permits system is designed to facilitate the entry of appropriately skilled non-EEA nationals to fill skills and-or labour shortages in the short to medium term, in circumstances where there are no suitably qualified Irish or EEA nationals available to undertake the work and that the shortage is a genuine one. The system is managed through the operation of the critical skills occupations list and the ineligible occupations list, which determine employments that are either in high demand or are ineligible for consideration for an employment permit. In order to ensure that the employment permit system continues to meet the needs of the labour market and the economy, the lists are subject to twice-yearly evidence-based reviews. Once one review is completed, the next review begins with the opening of a public consultation phase.
In conducting the reviews, my Department works with other Departments to promote an integrated approach to address labour and skills shortages in the longer term. Where shortages are clearly evidenced, the employment permit system is flexible enough to address them in real time. The system is, by design, vacancy-led and driven by the changing needs of the labour market. A review of the occupation lists is currently nearing completion, and all submissions are being actively considered in consultation with sectoral representatives, the relevant policy Departments and the economic migration interdepartmental group. If it is an agriculture issue, we will engage with that Department, if it is to do with transport we will deal with the Department of Transport and so on. It is envisaged that the review will be finalised in the coming weeks and any changes necessary to deal with verified skills or labour shortages will be taken at that time. In regard to where we are today, applications for employment permits have seen a significant increase over the course of the year. To the end of the last month, some 14,624 applications were received, representing a 35% increase over the same period in 2020 and a 19% increase on 2019, which itself represented an 11-year high. To date, my Department has issued some 10,849 employment permits since the beginning of the year, which represents a significant volume of activity.
Recently, processing times have been impacted by this significant increase in demand and also by the HSE cyberattack. These factors resulted in a significant additional administrative burden in dealing with applications associated with the July doctors rotation which were submitted either manually or by other non-standard methods. It is important to point out that when set against other international employment permit regimes, Ireland continues to compare extremely favourably. However, my Department, which constantly strives to improve the situation, is conscious of the recent lengthening of timeframes for processing applications and is taking a range of measures to clear the current backlog as quickly as possible and deal with priority areas. My Department advises employers to take current timelines into account as part of their recruitment plans but we are, of course, allocating more resources to help tackle the backlog as quickly as possible.
I thank the Minister of State. It is good that the figures he outlined are significant. However, there will be a heavy squeeze coming in the next couple of weeks, probably more than his office is seeing at present. We should anticipate and deal with it head-on, instead of waiting until it comes to a bottleneck. I again thank the Minister of State because I know he is working hard on this.
I thank the Senator. He is right that we are trying to deal with this early and that is why, twice a year, we have this review, which is under way at this time. Usually, decisions would be made in November but we will try to get them made in October this year so we can give some clear indications.
Part of this is to gather the evidence and to prove we can source this labour locally. As the Senator will appreciate, it is very difficult to explain that we need to issue permits when there are over 100,000 people on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and another 100,000-plus on the live register. Much of the work we are trying to do, in conjunction with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys, through Pathways to Work, is to assist those people who are out of work today to maybe take up one of those job vacancies that are available. That is not always possible because of geography or training, but in many cases it is possible. Through Pathways to Work, we are allowing for extra money to be allocated to support businesses to take people off the live register and off PUP, but also to help those people back into training, to upskill and to get them back to a job. We will come at it from a number of angles, including Pathways to Work, job supports and incentives for industry, which will help to close some of the gap and bring people closer to a job. There are 10,000 job placements available. I urge employers to have a look at that and to maybe give people an opportunity to take on a new job.
We are reviewing the permits. If we have to intervene with the permits system and if the evidence is there, such as the evidence the Senator is bringing forward for certain sectors, we will deal with that as best as we possibly can.
The Minister of State referred to 100,000 people in unemployment and 100,000 people on PUP. As he knows, the people driving lorries and buses during the pandemic were some of the busiest people in the country, and we have seen with our neighbours next door that there is a demand for them at present. I would be very sceptical that too many people on PUP or on the unemployment list at present are going to be of any help in this regard, unfortunately.
To clarify, I certainly was not saying that everybody on PUP could drive a bus or a lorry. What I meant was that, in general, there are a lot of vacancies across many sectors and we have to work with those who are currently unemployed to try to help them into those jobs. The long-term solution with regard to logistics and lorry drivers and bus drivers is training and qualifications. Efforts were made a couple of years ago to try to make that happen and, for different reasons, it does not seem to have delivered as we thought it could. The Department of Transport and the Road Safety Authority are reviewing the qualifications for people from different countries driving in this country. We are working with them to see how we can help to close the gap in this regard. We will certainly deal proactively with that.