Tuesday, 24 January 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Before I call on Senator McGahon, as Cathaoirleach and on behalf of the Members, I welcome on his first visit as the newly appointed Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, our former colleague and friend, Deputy Neale Richmond, who was formerly Senator Richmond. He is very welcome to Seanad Éireann and I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him, on behalf of myself and Members of the House, every success in his new role. Go raibh maith agat.
It is great to have the Minister of State in the House. He served at the same time as Senators Boyhan, McDowell, Conway and Burke and indeed with the Cathaoirleach. It is great to see there is a pathway for all of us from this House to very high office. However, we should perhaps follow more in the spirit of Senator Hackett who was appointed directly from here to Cabinet. I am going off on a tangent.
I would like to pay tribute to Deputy Richmond's predecessor, the former Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English. He served this country with great distinction over a number of years in various Departments and ministries and I would like to pay tribute to all the work he has put in.
The reason I am talking about permits, and the Minister of State will know that this has been a somewhat political issue in the last couple of years, is that it has been difficult to get key workers in the critical sectors of the Irish economy because of the length of time it takes to process work permit applications. I know a lot of work has been done in the last couple of months to streamline them and I welcome that and think that is excellent. However, I am raising this matter in the House and with the Minister of State because I would like to know what his plans are, as a new Minister of State, and in his Department to try to streamline the process and make it more efficient. This will make sure that people who want to come to this country, to work in this country, and play a part in our economy and Irish society have the ability to do that as quickly as possible and are not left in limbo because of red tape and bureaucracy.
To bring the issue to a more localised level in my county, in Dundalk and wider County Louth there are many examples. These include foreign multinational companies, of which we have a substantial number, who are trying to bring workers in and are not able to do so because of the restrictive and long drawn-out nature of the process. When I looked at Amazon for example, it was responsible for 3.5% of all the work permit applications in 2022. That worked out at roughly 1,394 people. That was 1,394 people who came to this country to work for just one organisation. Equally when we look at agriculture, and I have discussed this quite a lot with people involved in the agricultural community in County Louth, it has become quite difficult to source staff from local economies. That is why people who come into Ireland will play such a vital role in our agricultural process.
When one looks at the wider aspect, for instance home carers and medical practitioners, the concept is that we want to keep people in their homes for as long as possible and home care assistants play a vital role in that. It is about making sure that people who want to come to this country are able to do so in a timely and efficient manner.
I am somewhat concerned about the speed of processing applications. Particularly for local economies and especially for Border economies like County Louth, it is very important. I have raised this matter and want to hear directly from the Minister of State what his plans are and how the process will be streamlined. I acknowledge a lot of work has happened in recent months to try to speed it up but there is a lot more to do. We have a concept that we have full employment in this country and we have people from right across the world who want to come to Ireland because we are an economic success story. We absolutely are and we have people coming here who want to work and contribute to Irish society and to the Irish economy. We should make that as easy as possible for people who want to come and work here and I would be very keen to hear the Minister of State's views on the matter.
I thank Senator McGahon. Before the Minister of State replies, I would like to be very much associated with the words of congratulations to him. We all knew his capabilities and abilities when he served in this House and he chaired the Brexit committee. His portfolio is very suited to his skill set and we wish him well.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh Gníomhach. I hope I receive that sort of welcome every time I come back to the House going forward, be it for Commencement matters or legislative debates. It is certainly an aspiration of mine in this new role to spend considerable time engaging with Senators on key issues, one of which is work permits, which falls within my remit in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I am grateful to Senator McGahon not only for raising this issue but also for his clear illustration of how it is impacting the people on the ground in Louth whom he serves every day as a Senator and whom he served previously as a county councillor.
As he will be aware, the employment permit system is not just an important part of our workforce but also crucial for many businesses looking to expand and to hire more staff. One of the great difficulties but also one of the great opportunities at the moment is that we are at effective full employment in our economy and, therefore, businesses, unfortunately, are faced with a position where they cannot find Irish or EEA nationals available to undertake certain roles. These shortages are genuine. The work permit system seeks to fill this gap and to help these businesses to find and hire the necessary talent they require. Any opportunity for businesses to expand, contribute to our economy and employ more staff simply has to be welcomed across the Houses.
I acknowledge that many Senators will have heard from businesses that have experienced delays in accessing their work permits, just like the employers in Senator McGahon's constituency. We previously found ourselves in a position where large demands for permits led to long delays. In 2021, alone 27,666 applications were received. That was a 69% increase on 2020 and a 47% increase on 2019, which, of course, was a non-Covid year. This was a high that had not been seen in more than a decade.
These delays had an impact on processing times, but I am glad that they have been significantly reduced. The current wait and processing time for a permit has been reduced from 21 weeks at the start of 2022 to one to two weeks at a maximum now. That is a significant change that has come through dedicated work, most importantly by my predecessor in this role, Deputy English, work to which the Senator referred, but also by a vast array of officials in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment working with key stakeholders, be it in the trade union movement or in the employer sectors or with industry.
This was done as at the start of 2022 an action plan was introduced to reduce the backlog. Resources were increased and more efficient methods of processing employment permit applications were applied. The processing time was trebled in size and daily output more than tripled compared with 2021 levels.
Work has also been under way on a sectoral level in respect of access to permits. From November 2021 my Department introduced a number of key operational improvements in the way in which doctors can access the employment permit system. These changes mean that doctors in public health settings no longer need to submit further employment permit applications but, instead, can simply advise my Department of their HSE location, thereby reducing the administrative burden on the Department, the HSE, hospitals and the doctors themselves. This has removed many hundreds of applications from the employment permits system.
The system is currently operating very well. The number of applications awaiting processing has fallen from approximately 11,000 in January 2022 to just under 900 as of this morning. That comes alongside a growth in demand for applications. The progress in the processing and wait time for these permits is a significant achievement and has been warmly welcomed by businesses across the country, but I know that many businesses may still have issues within the system and I am always willing to engage with them, to listen to the problems they may have and to see what can be done to improve their experience.
An awful lot more needs to be done in this area. An awful lot of work is under way, but the level of engagement from the likes of Senators, who are on the ground in their constituencies daily dealing with applicants and businesses alike, will ensure that this process is continuously improved.
The last point the Minister of State made was one of the most important, that is, that in his time in the Department his door will always be open for businesses still struggling with some aspects of this. That is welcome and it will be prudent of him in his role because it provides that direct line of access to businesses experiencing this.
I will address a couple of points in the Minister of State's response, which was quite impressive. In 2021 alone ,there were 27,000 applications, a 69% increase on 2020 and a 47% increase on 2019. That does not lend credence to what many people in the Opposition say, which is that this is some sort of a failed State. We are at full employment, we have people who are coming here to work and they are doing that because we have a society we can be proud of.
The other point I wish to note is that wait times have gone from 21 weeks down to one to two weeks. Again, that is down to a lot of the supports that were put in place and the fact, as the Minister of State said, that the output was trebled. That was welcome from the Minister of State's predecessor, but I am very keen to see the work he will do in this area throughout the rest of his time in the Department.
It is interesting to note two other statistics.Last year, we saw 80,000 Irish emigrants return to Ireland and we have net inward migration in this State. This fairy tale that some people want to tell, that people are fleeing Ireland and it is a failed state, is complete nonsense. People want to come here and they want to come home and they are welcome. We all recognise and acknowledge the societal challenges in bringing people back in and that there are difficulties in certain policies.
When it comes to work permits, two areas are extremely important going forward. The Department has recently appointed IT system specialists to undertake the design and implementation of a new employment permits system, which will benefit many. Also, in December the Government agreed to establish an interdepartmental working group to develop an implementation plan for a single application procedure for employment permits and, crucially, the immigration permissions that will accompany them. This is a good news story that is worth talking about. I hope to work more closely on it with Senator McGahon and other Senators going forward.