Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 March 2024

1:00 pm

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to take part in the adoption and application of the following proposed measure: Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council Establishing an EU Talent Pool, a copy of which was laid before Seanad Éireann on 14th December, 2023.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I am speaking today to seek Seanad Éireann approval to opt in to a proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and the Council establishing an EU talent pool. Ireland has the right to decide whether to opt in to this measure under Protocol No. 21 to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The three-month time period for an opt-in to the proposal expires tomorrow, 6 March. This proposal relates to the establishment of an EU talent pool, a web portal that will facilitate the matching of job vacancies of EU-based employers with the profiles of jobseekers from third countries. The proposal seeks to reduce barriers to international recruitment for EU employers and to promote legal pathways and opportunities for those jobseekers from third countries. Opting in to the EU talent pool regulation will support Ireland's efforts towards greater strategic alignment with the European Union on migration policy and help foster an ambitious and sustainable EU legal migration policy, attracting the talent we need to our labour markets. For example, the talent pool could potentially enable a skilled nurse from India to be matched with essential services in hospitals throughout Ireland. Along with other EU member states, Ireland faces demographic pressures with declining birth rates, aging populations and an ongoing decline in the working age population. Facilitating the recruitment of skilled workers will support us in addressing this demographic challenge and bolster our economy. Participation in the talent pool is voluntary and, by opting in, Ireland is not committing to such participation. This can be decided at a later date based on the merits and value for money of the talent pool once it is in operation. However, opting in at the outset would allow Ireland to vote on adoption of the measure and to fully participate in the negotiation and eventual implementation of the measure, if we decide to do so. The EU talent pool will enable employers to advertise vacancies to attract workers from third countries. Third-country jobseekers will be able to search for jobs that match their skills. Jobs may only be advertised on the EU talent pool if those roles cannot be filled from within the EEA. The EU talent pool includes an initial list of 42 occupations where there are shortages of skills within the EU, including specialist medical practitioners, software developers, chemical engineers, cooks, waiters and roofers. As outlined, the EU talent pool includes an initial list. This list of occupations will be regularly reviewed and Ireland will have the freedom to add or remove occupations based on our own labour market needs. If Ireland were to choose to use the talent pool, only occupations eligible for a critical skills or general employment permit would be able to be advertised on the platform, provided all other criteria, such as a labour market needs test, are met. The EU talent pool will primarily facilitate the offer of a job, which is an essential prerequisite in order to apply for an employment permit and immigration permission. All of the other criteria required for third-country nationals to access the Irish labour market would also need to be met, such as minimum salary thresholds and adherence to the 50:50 rule. This approach is additional to and will not supersede existing measures to reskill and upskill Irish and EU citizens. The European Commission has estimated that the talent pool initiative will have a positive impact on EU GDP, with up to €4.2 billion generated by additional wages with 20 member states participating until 2030. There is no legal or practical impediment to Ireland opting in to this proposal and no cost will be incurred unless Ireland decides to participate in the talent pool once it is operational in 2028. I commend to the House the proposal to exercise Ireland's opt-in to the measure. I thank all Senators for their consideration of this matter.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State is very welcome back to the House this afternoon. Fianna Fáil very much welcomes this motion on the opt-in to the proposal for a regulation establishing an EU talent pool. We are no different from other EU states in that we have many vacancies across many different occupations. I sometimes think the Government does not get enough credit for the prudent management of the economy, which has led to approximately 2.7 million people being in employment. We effectively have full employment.

The Government deserves great credit for that. The reality is that anybody in this country who wants a job can get one. Our problem now is that job creation has grown to such a level that we do not have a sufficient talent pool within the confines of this island to fill the number of vacancies we have. Such a measure, as outlined by the Minister of State, would appear on its face to be a very worthwhile exercise. Having a central database of particular professions that could be advertised with a view to managing those with relevant qualified individuals from outside of this jurisdiction is a good proposal.

The Minister of State mentioned a number of occupations in his contribution. Are any occupations prohibited from being advertised on the portal? Are all occupations and vacancies that may exist included or are there limitations? Some professions find it difficult to fill vacancies, in terms of professional capacity. In my county, Monaghan, there are vacancies in the agricultural sector. Despite employers advertising locally in local publications, portals and what have you, they find it difficult to find employees to come forward. I am thinking in particular of the poultry sector and the mushroom industry which are experiencing difficulties in getting workers. A mechanism such as this would seem to match those seeking employment with those who are looking for workers. It seems to be a good idea.

In the opinion of the Minister of State, what is the advantage of us going down this road rather than what we currently have? He might outline the main advantages of the proposal. On the face of it, it seems to make common sense. On behalf of our party, I would be delighted to support the motion and move it onto the next stage.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and agreeing to facilitate this discussion. This first came to our attention last week when there was a proposal on the Order of Business to approve this motion without debate, and I simply do not believe that is satisfactory. It is not the way we should conduct our business in Seanad Éireann. I thank Orla Murray in the Leader's office for taking on board the concerns about the motion expressed by our group. The timeframe is very tight. Tomorrow is the deadline to notify the EU about Ireland's commitment to opt in or opt out.

While I support the proposal, it is important that we have meaningful engagement in what is the revising Chamber of the Oireachtas for legislation. I thank the Minister of State's officials for proactively engaging with me over the past few days. I submitted a considerable number of questions to them and they came back to me in a very timely and professional manner with comprehensive responses. That has made my job today much easier and indicates to me that the Minister of State's Department and staff are totally on top of this issue.

I fully support the motion. We are either in the European club or we are not. This proposal is something that has been driven by the European Commission and its member states. There are exceptions within the European Union, but they are for national parliaments and I will not spend my time going into them today.

I take this opportunity to speak about Ukraine. Anyone who listened to "Morning Ireland" today heard a representative of the Ukrainian community speak about the temporary protection afforded to them by the European Union and Ireland. We now know that over 100,000 Ukrainian citizens have been granted temporary protection by our country via an agreement put in place by the European Union. I commend the European Union and Government on taking on and supporting that initiative. Since the beginning of 2024, the coalition Government has made significant changes to the benefits Ukrainian refugees are eligible for, and that is the reality.

There is a significant reduction in the benefits for those in State support, accommodation allowance moving from €220 to €38.80 per week is being put in place for new arrivals. That is a challenge and in itself will warrant people to look for jobs. These people are bright, highly intelligent and highly capable with huge sets of skills and experiences and can bring a great deal to our economy and to the European economy. The one thing that most people who represent the Ukrainian community in Ireland will tell you is the barrier of language. If the language barrier was to be overcome, these very bright, able, capable people would be able to travel across the member states of the European Union which are in agreement with this transitional arrangement, and that is also a good thing.

Refugees are often regarded as a burden and that European countries are urged to share by accepting their quota. Some EU member states are accused of waving through asylum seekers so that they become someone else's problem. That is the reality of it. That idea had been put forward by some who are hostile to refugees. Remember that refugees can often arrive destitute, in need of counselling and with little knowledge of the native language, of the English language or of another European language. That presents those refugees with problems.

Ukrainians here in Ireland want to find employment and want to learn to navigate an unfamiliar environment. They want to find accommodation and avail of integration services. They want to pay their way and we need to get that message out. Ukrainians want to use their skill sets and learn new ones. They want language lessons to improve their chances of work and to fully engage with community life that will enable them to support their children and build on their relationships within our community and across the European Union. That, again, goes back to this important measure.

Innovation, support, and employment opportunities here and across the Union have the potential to increase autonomy, dignity and economic benefits leading to better results for everyone. On that basis, I fully support this proposal.

It is also important to remember that during the temporary protection period which is ongoing and may be extended again - it is under review - that all EU member states "must"- this is from the European guidelines in this regulation - afford access to suitable accommodation, access to social welfare medical care, access to education for children under 18, and, finally, the legal right to access employment. This initiative will do that and will facilitate that happening. I commend the Minister of State on this motion and I fully support it. I again thank the Minister of State and his staff for facilitating this engagement in Seanad Éireann today.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Acting Chair. I am covering for Senator Ward today. The Minister of State and his officials are very welcome to the Chamber. I agree with the previous Senator in that we should have a debate on this topic. Even though this matter needs to be dealt with by tomorrow, it is important that we have a debate on it. From the Fine Gael perspective, we support what the Minister of State is bringing forward today. It makes perfect sense. Rather than all countries within the European Union individually having a plan together about how to manage a shortage in the workforce which is happening in many European countries, to actually work together and to have that talent pool to be worked upon is very important. That is what is being brought here today with a view to alleviating shortages we have in respect of staff, whether that is in the healthcare sector, in education, or in agriculture. It is about finding people with expertise outside of the European Union who are looking to come to Ireland to work.

It is actually amazing when one thinks about it. I remember canvassing in the general election in 2011, I believe, and one of our canvassing leaflets when I was canvassing for the Minister, Deputy Coveney, stated that we would create 100,000 jobs in five years. No one believed that was possible, including probably ourselves who were canvassing at the time. It is great to think that since then, the State has created over 900,000 jobs. Last year alone, as a State we created 100,000 jobs. It is phenomenal where we have come from as a country to where we are today, to have 2.7 million people working and to have 40,000 people come last year into this country on work permits to create a life here. They pay taxes here and give back to the economy and that number will be similar if not exceeded again this year.What the Minister of State is introducing today makes that pathway easier for us to manage. The benefits that will bring to our economy - over €4 billion - shows the potential the country's enterprise sector has. Importantly we need to align ourselves with all European countries so that we can avail of a talent pool that is not available here in Ireland.

Fine Gael supports the motion. We expect it to go through and we wish the Minister of State well.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The Labour Party supports this proposal for Ireland to opt in and be involved in the EU talent pool. As the Minister of State said, we have been very fortunate that many hard-working people have decided to come to, and live and work in Ireland in recent years. They are not just from our EU neighbours but also from outside the EU. As the Minister of State said, go to any hospital or nursing home in this country and you will find excellent staff from far afield. We really would be lost without them. They have contributed massively to our economy and our well-being.

Especially given the recent political and social climate, it is important to remember that we need migrant workers. As colleagues said, we are also very fortunate to be going through a period of more or less full employment with a job available for anyone who wants it at the moment. In some ways that may be a bit of a double-edged sword, particularly for small businesses. We have heard a lot in recent months about the struggle small business owners are facing in certain sectors, particularly the likes of hospitality. There are serious concerns in those areas around staffing. Of course, there are other issues but staffing is a major one.

Enabling employers, particularly small business owners, to access a larger talent pool and promoting legal pathways and opportunities for job seekers from outside the EU are certainly very welcome steps. We also need to be conscious of and realistic about how our economy and labour markets are structured given what is coming down the pipeline. We are already seeing the effects of increasing digitalisation of jobs that would have traditionally been performed by workers and we are moving towards the creation of a greener, more sustainable economy. Both of these developments will require specific skill sets in certain sectors and they will force us to restructure our economy. That will inevitably lead to gaps in our labour market which ideally we could fill domestically but, of course, that will not always be possible.

We also need to be conscious that we have an ageing population. Our working-age population is shrinking which has the potential to put serious pressure on our social welfare and State-provision systems. The EU talent pool could be an invaluable resource to ensure the health and sustainability of our economy. However, this resource is unlikely to be operational until 2028. While I accept that, I want to focus my attention on the most pressing of the shortages we are facing in our labour market - the shortage of construction workers to build houses. We know from the Government's own figures that we need to be building between 50,000 and 60,000 houses per year to keep up with demand and bring the housing crisis under control. In 2006 when housing output hit its peak during the boom times, with over 93,000 homes built, we had around 270,000 workers directly employed in construction. As we are all too aware that workforce was decimated after the crash reaching a low of less than 100,000 in 2013. As that figure is now around 170,000, progress has been, and is being, made in terms of the recovery of the construction workforce but we are still nowhere near the levels we need.

Obviously labour shortages are not the only thing holding up house building, but they are placing a significant barrier to this capacity. We need to get this sorted and while we welcome the proposal for an EU talent pool, as I already said, we welcome that this will also provide a greater opportunity to bring workers from outside the EU into our construction workforce. Increasing our efforts to recruit from abroad cannot wait until 2028. We can and must do more now.

The Government's careers in construction action plan estimates that almost 51,000 workers will need to be recruited in the construction sector by 2030. Why were only 1,300 work permits issued in the construction sector last year? I note that the number of apprentices has increased. That is a very welcome development, but not to the extent that we can rely solely on new entrants into the sector from the domestic labour market alone. We need more people coming from abroad and 1,300 permits will not cut it, especially if the Government intends to fulfil its commitment as contained in its construction action plan.

I will repeat a call the Labour Party has been making for some time now. We need to see construction and the craft trades added to the critical skills list. It was good that last year's list added some construction-related jobs, but these were mostly marginal in nature or were engineering jobs. We support this proposal. It is a good measure. It is important that we recognise and value those who come from third countries to live and contribute here. However, I ask that the Government give serious consideration to the Labour Party’s call to add more construction workers to our critical skills list in the interim.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators Gallagher, Boyhan, Ahearn and Wall for their contributions. I will address a couple of issues. No occupations are prohibited. Ireland has the discretion to add or remove vacancies that suit our particular economic needs, but it is important to point out that these occupations will be kept under review. While the EU talent pool will primarily facilitate the offer of a job, which is an essential prerequisite in order to apply for an employment permit and immigration permission, all of the other thresholds will still be there. Someone will still have to apply for a permit, get immigration permission and have background checks carried out. There is also the 50:50 rule in respect of jobs that cannot be filled from within the EEA. As such, there are many restrictions.

If other EU countries are a part of this, then skilled people from third countries will go there to access jobs. If we are not a part of it, then we could be left behind in terms of attracting very skilled people. For this reason, being a part of it is important. We face recruitment challenges, and this will help to attract the talent we need.

Regarding beneficiaries of temporary protection, Ukrainians are covered by the directive and, while it is in place, can access employment across the EU via European employment services and platforms. Ireland, through its national co-ordination office and network providers, is providing a recruitment service. We have many talented Ukrainians in our country. I know that, as many of them came to Rosslare. They include many highly educated women, but because their husbands were fighting in the war, they brought their older parents and children with them and are finding it difficult to access the workplace due to practical reasons, for example, the childcare needs that many parents face. We need to recognise the real talent that exists in this country in the form of the Ukrainian community. We also need to recognise the strengths and advantages they have brought us.

The proposal to establish an EU talent pool will support the recruitment of jobseekers from third countries by EU-based employers in occupations where there are shortages within the EU. The ultimate aim of the proposal is to reduce barriers to international recruitment for EU employers and to promote safe and legal pathways and opportunities for jobseekers from third countries who have the skills needed to address EU-wide skills shortages. Opting in to this proposal at the outset will enable Ireland to fully engage in the negotiations and vote on it. The EU talent pool is an important aspect of the EU’s new skills and talent mobility package, which aims to make the EU more attractive to workers from third countries. It will further support our economic needs.

Ireland has engaged in negotiations on the proposed recast of the single permit directive, which would unify the application process for employment permits. To work in Ireland currently, a person from outside the EEA must first make an application for an employment permit and then make a second application for an immigration permission. The single permit directive will bring together the issue in a single employment and residence permission, reducing the burden on applicants in processing applications. We have all encountered situations where employers believed they had the critical skill employee coming to Ireland only to hit a roadblock with the visa application. With the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, intends to bring a memo to the Government on this issue by the end of March.

Ireland is also engaged in discussions at EU level on the related and complementary EU talent partnership initiative, which is another part of the EU’s new skills and talent mobility package. Much of this has to do with providing people with legal pathways to come to the EU. Providing people with those pathways also forms part of how we tackle human trafficking into Europe.

Like the EU talent pool, the talent partnership initiative is voluntary, with agreements formulated bilaterally between member states and third countries and support provided by the Commission to maximise economies of scale. Unlike the EU talent pool, the talent partnership initiative does not have a legislative basis and, therefore, Ireland is not required to opt in. The Government is closely following the development of these partnerships by other member states.

The EU talent pool has great potential to support Ireland and other EU member states. Therefore, I hope the House can support the exercise of Ireland’s opt-in in respect of this measure. I note the Senators’ support for the proposal.

Question put and agreed to.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.45 p.m. and cuireadh tús leis arís ar 4.17 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 3.45 p.m. and resumed at 4.17 p.m.