Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Hospital waiting lists have spiralled out of control. We have more than 900,000 people waiting for vital medical care as we speak. I want to focus on just one of the very alarming aspects of this crisis and that is the more than 100,000 children who today go without the treatment they need. I am talking about children in need of a disability diagnosis, an autism assessment or access to mental health services; I am talking about children who desperately need early intervention but yet face a two-year wait and cannot get access to therapies; and I am also talking about children with scoliosis, who lives their days and nights in agony, waiting for a life-changing procedure. There should not be one child or family left in such an awful situation, let alone thousands upon thousands.

Yesterday, we heard what the lack of capacity in our health service actually means for children. Speaking on radio, Dr. Gabrielle Colleran summed up just how dire things have become. She said: "I had another doctor write to me last week saying they have a child with neurological symptoms and the appointment they had been offered was for 2035." That is 14 years away, a wait so long that the child will no longer be a child when the appointment comes around. The human toll of all of this is devastating. I personally know of parents of children who miss school regularly because of chronic pain, children so traumatised by their wait that they are on anti-depressants, and children and parents who see no light at the end of the tunnel. At the root of this, of course, is decades of bad Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael policy - 40 years of pushing private interests, weakening public healthcare, slashing capacity in our hospitals and creating nightmarish working conditions for nurses and doctors. We see this failed agenda again in the problems that have arisen with the delivery of Sláintecare, in the Taoiseach's failure to fill on a permanent basis 720 vital consultant positions and in the fact that so many of our young nurses and midwives do not see their future here. The problem is that the Government is wedded to a two-tier system that has failed people time and again, and that is why we continue to have a system that does not work for everyone. It certainly is not working for those 100,000 children.

Teastaíonn athrú uainn. Tá Rialtas ag teastáil uainn a thógfaidh seirbhís sláinte a oibreoidh do gach duine. Tá gníomh práinneach ag teastáil chun dul i ngleic le líon ollmhór na bpáistí atá ar liostaí feithimh. This has to change. We need a Government that will build a health service that will work for everyone. Urgent action is needed to tackle the colossal number of children on waiting lists. There can be no plámásing or hiding behind alibis of complexity. The Taoiseach's job is to do right by these kids. There are things he could start today that would make a difference. I have two specific asks. Will he commit to filling those 720 consultant positions urgently and on a permanent basis? Will he target that investment to the areas that most affect children, such as orthopaedics, ear, nose and throat medicine, ENT, and neurology? Will he invest to increase dramatically diagnostic capacity to the level required to get children off these waiting lists and into care?

Ar dtús báire, tá athrú ar siúl. Tá sé ag teacht. Tá an tseirbhís sláinte ag éirí níos treise lá i ndiaidh lae. Tá 6,000 níos mó duine ag obair sa tseirbhís i mbliana ná mar a bhí ag an am céanna anuraidh. Is léir go bhfuil géarchéim ann. Tá a fhios ag cách go bhfuil géarchéim ann de bharr na paindéime, go bhfuil a lán dochar déanta do chúrsaí sláinte ag an gcoróinvíreas agus gur chuir an víreas a lán brú ar na cúrsaí sin. Is é sin an fáth go bhfuil na liostaí i bhfad níos faide anois ná mar a bhí siad roimh theacht an choróinvíris.

Change is happening and will continue to happen with regard to our health services. Fianna Fáil has not been in government for more than ten years. This Government, of which Fianna Fáil is a member, has dramatically increased health spending over the past 12 months. Notwithstanding the extraordinary pressure the pandemic has put on our health services and the fact that it has frustrated and impeded our attempts to get waiting lists down, bed capacity has increased, as have ICU capacity and diagnostic capacity. Up to €25 million in funding has been granted to improve GPs access to diagnostics, which has resulted in up to 70,000 additional scans taking place.

I take the Deputy's point regarding children. We do not want children to remain on any waiting list for too long. In previous eras, we had got waiting lists for children down to three months. It our objective to get waiting times for children right across the board, including those for mental health, disabilities, acute issues and the various specialties, reduced considerably. For example, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has allocated €4 million for the period, September and December 2021, to reduce primary care waiting lists for psychology services. This is a targeted approach that involves the utilisation of public and private capacity, locum professionals, Saturday clinics and so forth to get the waiting times for the thousands of children who had been waiting for access to primary care psychology prior to this initiative reduced significantly. Likewise, on the special needs front, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has moved very strongly and allocated substantial funding to get the waiting lists for childhood assessments reduced.

The Minister for Health is preparing an action plan for dealing with waiting lists more generally. He secured approximately €240 million this year but, because of Covid and the two lockdowns, we had reduced capacity to do the work on that waiting list initiative that we wanted to get done. The funding will be allocated again for 2022. The waiting list plan, which aims to tackle these large and unacceptable numbers, will be announced by the Minister shortly. Critically, it will set out the timelines. The Deputy should be under no illusion, however. Substantial change has occurred. There is no question but that targeting the significant waiting lists, which have also increased significantly because of the pandemic, will be a key priority over the coming weeks, now that we are emerging from the pandemic, and into the early part of 2022, to get those waiting lists and waiting times reduced for all involved.

Níl rudaí ag athrú. Tá an córas sláinte faoi bhrú agus tá 100,000 páiste ar liostaí feithimh. Is é seo an fhírinne. They are the facts. There are 100,000 children on these waiting lists. The Taoiseach speaks of the additional €1.2 billion that has been committed but one third of that money has not even been spent. I asked him specifically about those consultant posts that need to be filled on a permanent basis. I also asked him specifically about increasing diagnostic capacity. Saying "mar dhea" or that there is not a problem or that the Government has risen to the challenge simply does not tally with the facts. By the way, this is not a Covid overhang. The facts tell us that, in January 2020, long before we heard of Covid on our island, there were 824,000 people on waiting lists. This is a long-running problem and at the heart of it is capacity. It is about staffing, beds, theatre space and diagnostics. I challenge the Taoiseach again and ask him to give reassurance to those children and families that the resources will be invested and that, when the Government's plan is produced, it will not fall short again.

Getting children off waiting lists will not be a question of resources. Resources will be allocated to do that.

We will need the Deputy's support and that of the entire Oireachtas when it comes to public-sector-only consultant contracts.

It is interesting that 720 consultant vacancies have arisen in the last week. I do not think that is disconnected from the ongoing-----

They are waiting for years.

Some are waiting for years.

-----negotiations regarding public-sector-only contracts. There is no issue. We provided substantial funding last year to recruit and recruit. Some 6,000 more people work in the health service this July than last July, including 4,000 additional since January.

There were to be 15,000.

The point being there is no problem in resourcing this. I have some experience of recruitment and I think the HR side needs to improve dramatically. From the consultants' perspective, there is an issue on the table because it is a key part of Sláintecare.

Let us be clear that the Deputy's support will be required, rather than playing politics with it. There will be all sorts of smokescreens and diversions put up but there will be one fundamental issue to be dealt with, and that will be a contract that fully aligns with the Sláintecare principle and relates to appointing public-sector-only consultants.

I thank the Taoiseach. We are way over time.

That will be the key issue.

We are not problematic about this. This side of the House supports public medicine.

Regarding diagnostics, the money has been allocated for that and we will continue to improve that.

For decades we have been known as a low-tax economy. Our 12.5% corporate tax rate has been the most identifiable thing about our industrial policy, the one constant that multinationals could rely on and a rate that was retained when the country went bust and had to be bailed out. However, the OECD will turn our 12.5% north star into a supernova.

We all know change is coming with the global minimum corporate tax rate. There is an inevitability about this. The evolving language of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance on the issue suggests they accept change is coming. What will that change look like? What will our unique selling point be then? Some countries attract foreign direct investment, FDI, not only through a skilled workforce, but through excellent public services and an affordable cost of living. Ireland will not attract companies on that basis. Our dysfunctional housing market means housing costs are the most expensive in the EU. According to a EUROSTAT survey, housing costs in Ireland are a whopping 78% above the EU average. Are wages 78% above the EU average? They are not. We have the third highest proportion of low-paid workers in the EU.

When it comes to healthcare costs, Ireland is the only country in western Europe that does not have free universal coverage for primary care, which makes the Government failure to implement Sláintecare all the more deplorable. Our roads are clogged with traffic and our public transport is at capacity and will soon be oversubscribed, with vital infrastructural projects such as MetroLink and DART+ seemingly delayed to 2034.

Our energy costs are the fourth highest in the EU, and that was before the current explosion in prices, which will put huge strain on families and households this winter. The energy crisis goes deeper than this. The Business Post reported an €80 billion investment by Intel is in jeopardy because of antiquated energy and water infrastructure, while the IDA has warned serious reputational damage could be done if these issues are not addressed urgently.

We have a highly educated workforce but when the corporate tax is changed and the global playing field is levelled, the cost-of-living crisis in this country will factor much higher in the calculations of companies considering setting up or investing here. Why would they go to a country where workers cannot afford a home and it is not guaranteed that the lights will stay on, when they can go elsewhere and not suffer a tax penalty for doing so?

What will our industrial policy look like when the 12.5% tax rate is gone? From this side of the House, it does not look like there is much of a plan or policy in place. Will the Government announce new measures in the national development plan, NDP, to address the serious infrastructural deficits in the context of that new industrial environment?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important question. I was not quite clear on her position on whether corporate tax should stay at 12.5% or increase.

There is an inevitability. It will not-----

I am questioning whether the Deputy agrees that the rate should stay at 12.5%. It would be interesting to get a clear statement.

It is Leaders' Questions.

It is Leaders' Questions.

I know that, but one can ask questions rhetorically in response as well, surely, and articulate a view.

It is Leaders' Questions. The Taoiseach could also answer.

I am just seeking clarity; that is all. The first point is that the corporation tax rate is not the unique selling point in attracting foreign direct investment into the country. One of the most important decisions made by modern Ireland was to join the EU. That has been critical to the continued economic transformation of our country. The party of which I am a member was the party that led that, with other parties that supported our entry into the Union. Others opposed it at the time. Some opposed it for approximately 30 years until they saw the light, but it was and is a very important policy in terms of our economic well-being and development and still represents that. Even earlier this week, when I was in New York talking to companies that are going to locate in Ireland, I made the point to them that if there are questions about our skills base and so on, our membership of the EU has been a huge buffer. We are the only English-speaking member state now, which is important.

Second, I point to the decision in the 1960s to bring in free second level education and to open outwards. The Lemass leadership of opening outwards was a key turning point in modern Ireland. Investment in third level education over successive generations is also a key selling point for Ireland. It is important because, repeatedly and consistently, companies that have located here, from the Intels to the Eli Lillys to companies all over the country, will say that the quality of the workforce here is second to none and very strong. That is a tribute to the education system right throughout. More latterly, our recent investment in research from the late 1990s onwards is paying dividends in the form of a higher quality of research and development investment that comes in, but we have to do more there into the future.

The tax system has been important; I do not understate that at all. That is why we have entered reservations in the OECD's position. We have not signed up to the OECD consensus, and the reason we have not done so is the lack of certainty in what has been proposed so far. The key issue for those who invest in Ireland is that they want certainty over the overall industrial policy framework, including tax. They do not want a situation in which the base rate will change every two to three years. There is also far more detail in this consensus on which companies will be covered and the threshold around turnover. Certain sectors such as financial services have been carved out. The negotiations are not complete at all, and we have made it clear that certainty and continuity, which have always been the hallmark-----

The Taoiseach's time is up.

-----of our taxation policy, must be maintained.

There is an inevitability about the OECD and a minimum rate, and I noted the Taoiseach's comments last week. I am very aware of Intel's investment in Ireland because I live in the town where Intel is located. That was in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the facility was up and running. There was not the housing crisis there is now.

It was far worse.

There were not some of the cost-of-living issues that there are now. It would be short-sighted not to look at a unique selling point that factors in some of the issues, for example, the deficit in energy. Data centres are an issue in that regard. We tend to have quite a short-sighted approach to crises. We are very good at crisis management when we get there, but planning to make sure we do not have those crises is where we are not good. I want to know what alternative industrial policy is being considered-----

Thank you, Deputy. Your time is up.

-----that would be a unique selling point other than the corporation tax rate.

The point I am making is that the tax rate on its own is no longer a unique selling point. It never was, actually.

It was very important, but the other two points I referenced, in terms of investment in education and our joining the European Union, were also key, fundamental pillars of the economic transformation of this country over 50 years, as well as our consistent industrial policy, which has been pro-enterprise. It is important to be pro-enterprise. Not everybody in this House has always been pro-enterprise but it is important, and it also important that people get that sense of the country when they arrive here.

The Deputy correctly referenced Intel, which is a very interesting example. We are now a centre of manufacturing excellence globally because of our experience over 30 or 40 years. We have benefited human capital-wise and in respect of processes in terms of how to manufacture. We are reliable partners in terms of being a country where manufacturing excellence is so evident. I was down at the Intel site recently and it is quite stunning, not least to see all the construction companies there.

Thank you, Taoiseach.

I understand there were 4,500 workers on site engaged in construction alone, including those of Banagher Precast Concrete, which is first in the world at what it is doing in respect of that plant and Intel sites all over the world.

The time is up.

We can knock ourselves a lot. We need to recognise the challenges but, sometimes, we also need to acknowledge and appreciate the good stuff that is happening in the country.

My question relates to Intel and its shortlisting of Oranmore in Galway as a possible location for a multimillion euro manufacturing facility. I am envious of Leixlip in County Kildare when the Taoiseach talks about the number of construction workers alone operating there. The proposal for a facility in Oranmore would create 10,000 jobs in the region. It has also highlighted the potential and attractiveness we have in the west and north and how we can make sure we are prepared to take on this opportunity infrastructure-wise.

The EU recently categorised the north and west of this country as a region in transition, a lagging industrial region and a moderate innovator. This was done on the basis of measuring our performance in that area. There are eight counties involved, including Cavan, which is the county represented by the Minister sitting beside the Taoiseach, as well as Monaghan, Donegal and the five counties in Connacht. A project of the size proposed by Intel will demand that we have support coming into that site in Oranmore, if it comes, and, if it does not come, some other company will come and do it. We need to have the supports in place to deliver the services, construction and workforce to make sure this project, if it comes or there is another of the same scale, will be transformative for the west of Ireland.

With the national development plan being looked at currently - I understand the process is called Review to Renew - it is important we take into account where we are in that region and the infrastructure we need to make sure it can reach its full potential. It has the attractiveness but it needs a lot more than that. We need to provide the infrastructure and the wastewater facilities in the east of County Galway that are required and being promoted by Galway County Council. We need to provide the outer ring road in Galway city to make sure people can move around the city and get into it. We must ensure all the workers coming from the east of the county, where my constituency is, can get into work. More importantly, we also have to look at what other infrastructure is required. Phases 1 and 2 of the western rail corridor are waiting to be done. They would link in Castlebar, Ballina and Westport, as well as Limerick, to support a project such as the one that is proposed. I ask the Taoiseach to consider all of that.

The last point I raise is that we need to create that attractiveness for people to come, live, work and enjoy life in the region. We also must put in place a proper, structured cancer care centre for the region. We need to make sure it has a full research and innovation structure within it. It is important that Ireland be at the heart of the European Beating Cancer Plan.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue.

The first point I would like to make is the Government is very committed to regional development and to reorientating the economic development of the country, rebalancing it and making sure we get greater activity across the regions generally and particularly the west and north west. The Deputy referenced one plant. That is an ongoing issue the company itself will determine but it is interesting from an industrial policy point of view that we are saying to a lot of companies that are investing in Ireland to consider the regions and that we can help to assemble land banks to facilitate significant industrial development.

The Deputy referenced the Minister seated beside me, Deputy Humphreys. More than €42 million has been allocated from the Department of Rural and Community Development. Under the rural regeneration development fund, Portumna received approximately €2.5 million in funding for a project that will redevelop the historic courthouse building and courtyard in the town. In the context of the national development plan, we are very conscious of the issues that have been raised, especially relating to the western rail corridor. All of the Deputies in the House, cross-party, have been in touch in respect of this and, obviously, the Ministers from the region have also. I know the Minister, Deputy McGrath, is fully aware of the desire of all Oireachtas representatives to have that developed.

As the Deputy is aware, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, has launched a strategic rail review that will examine all aspects of interurban and interregional rail and will be conducted on an all-island basis in full co-operation with the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland. It will provide a strategic backdrop to investment in our rail network for the next 20 years and more, and it will consider the potential of currently lightly used lines like Limerick to Waterford, disused lines like the western rail corridor, and the potential for new alignments. The review has just commenced and will be completed within 12 months. As I say, there is considerable advocacy on behalf of this corridor from all of the Ministers and Deputies representing the western region and we will, obviously, continue to pursue that in the context of the national development plan.

I point out the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, is spearheading the development of a new west regional enterprise plan. It is a bottom-up plan that was developed by regional stakeholders, including the local authorities, enterprise agencies, local enterprise offices, regional skills forums and education and training institutes in each region. Under the regional enterprise development fund and the Border enterprise development fund, about €16.7 million has now been allocated to approximately nine enterprise-focused projects for the region. We will continue, in the context of all the various initiatives under different Departments, to advance the economic development of the west and we fully take on board the points raised in respect of the necessity to do that and the importance of the western rail corridor in that context.

I thank the Taoiseach. We need a bit more in the west than just a desire to do something. We need a commitment on it. It is very important that a commitment is made. As the Taoiseach stated, politically, everybody wants to do the rail network. It is actually part of our climate action plan to make sure transportation and production within plants are all done in a way that saves on CO2 emissions. The most important and pertinent point, however, is that when a global company such as Intel puts out a finger and states that, out of ten places worldwide, it is looking at Galway and the west of Ireland, we should consider what it would mean if it did come to the region. We must consider what needs to be done to make sure that if it does come, we are ready to support it and make sure it is viable. If it does not come, we have to make sure that we are ready for the next global organisation to look at the region. We have already had the case of Apple, which was attracted to Athenry and still is. There are a significant number of medical technology companies in Galway, but what is happening is that every one of those workers coming in from the east of the county has to travel to work by road. We are talking about taking cars and lorries off the roads. We have an ideal opportunity with the western rail corridor to make sure we deliver the goods and services to Intel in a way that meets our climate action plan as well. It is ready to be done. No planning permission or anything else is needed. It would be a good stamp for this Government to put desire into action and to get it going.

First of all, as I said earlier, it is not by accident that they are looking at the west. There is a strong proactive Government approach to encouraging investment into the regions where that is possible and where we can facilitate it. That is a very important point. I take the Deputy's point in terms of railways more generally. In the context of climate action, the climate change agenda and the necessity to decarbonise, railways will have a much more important role now and into the future. In that context, the Minister has commissioned the all-island strategic rail review, which will set out the map, as it were, and the plans, followed by the allocation of resources to get such projects under way.

As the Deputy is aware, the Department of Rural and Community Development is funding the Western Development Commission in respect of regional remote working hubs, which are important in building up the human capital skills base to facilitate smaller enterprises as well as creating the overall capacity so that the requisite skill sets are there when bigger players come into the region. For us now, it is about getting these projects delivered. The resources are being allocated to do so.

I wish to focus on the issue of delays to craft apprenticeships, such as plumbing and electrical apprenticeships, throughout the country. The Government recently announced an ambitious Housing for All plan, but its success is predicated, among other things, on being able to attract new construction workers. Around 27,000 are required, according to some estimates. On top of that, the Taoiseach's colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, has stated that we need 27,000 new construction workers to carry out retrofitting across the State. Where are they all going to come from?

At the moment, 3,500 apprenticeships are delayed because of backlogs caused by Covid. I do not doubt the difficulties Covid caused for the vocational side of the training they do in education and training boards, ETBs, and colleges across the State. However, I do not believe that difficulties are a sufficient excuse. We need these workers to be trained and to enter the workforce. We also need to ensure they realise how valued they are, because 5,500 trainees left apprenticeships over the past five years. I do not know why this happened. I am not saying all of it was because of delays or even any of it was necessarily because of delays. However, I know many of my young constituents in County Clare are very frustrated by the delays because they cannot move on to the next level, which has repercussions for how much they can earn, when they are going to earn properly and, they hope, get a house and support a family.

SOLAS announced funding recently and stated that the backlog would be cleared. What does it mean that the backlog will be cleared? Does it mean the backlog of getting new apprentices into the system will be cleared? Currently, there are apprentices who started a four-year apprenticeship and are now being told it will take them six years to complete it. Medical, dental or other students across the State are not being told that instead of their degrees taking four years, they will now take six years, nor should they be. Apprentices should not be treated any differently. The State should do whatever it takes to ensure these apprentices get the training they signed up for in full and on time so that they can enter the workforce. That is, of course, if the Housing for All plan is to actually take off. There are many other problems. Construction materials are costing a lot of money and very little is being done in terms of granting felling licences to get timber in. However, I wish to focus on apprenticeships today. What is the Government going to do on apprenticeships? Will it provide a guarantee to existing apprentices and those who are hoping to start apprenticeships that they will finish their apprenticeships on time and the ETBs and colleges will be providing the training that is an essential part of their apprenticeship to enable them to finish on time?

First of all, I thank the Deputy for raising the question. It is a very pertinent question that goes to heart of the challenges that face us in terms of Housing for All and having the requisite skill sets, but also across the broader economy. There is a waiting list for craft apprentice off-the-job training in electrical, plumbing, carpentry and joinery. The Deputy is correct on that. Covid and the measures that happened as a result in terms of lockdowns have been a factor in backlogs, but there has also been a doubling of the apprentice population over the past four years.

In addition to that, there was the closure of face-to-face training in 2020 and 2021 and reduced capacity due to Covid-19 distancing requirements. Programmes were running at a capacity of 40% to 50% to allow for appropriate distancing. SOLAS, as recently as last Thursday, announced the actions being taken to address this so apprentices whose training has been affected by the impact of Covid will be offered places for phases 2, 4 and 6 of their programmes, which consist of off-the-job training. More than 4,800 apprentices currently on a waiting list for off-the-job or workshop-based training are now on track to commence their training by the end of 2021. This represents 40% of those currently waiting. One hundred percent will be returned to workshop-based training in 2022. We fully accept the vital importance of getting these apprentices back into their programmes as quickly as possible. Those who are waiting the longest will be prioritised.

Twenty million euro in capital has been allocated to SOLAS and the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to provide up to an additional 4,000 off-the-job training places for craft apprentices to address the current backlogs. From September 2021, course provision returned to full capacity. Places created from the capital investment of €20 million are now beginning to come on stream. This expansion is planned to continue throughout 2022 as new facilities become available for learner use. A restructuring of phase 2 programmes in the three main apprenticeship areas — plumbing; electrical; and carpentry and joinery — will allow for blended learning over the coming period, reducing the time spent on site and providing for an additional intake off premises at phase 2.

The Deputy will know that the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme will continue to operate until the end of this year. We will review that. Employers approved by SOLAS to employ apprentices are eligible for a €3,000 grant for each new apprentice registered. Between March 2020 and August 2021, in excess of €10 million was sanctioned for payment under this initiative, supporting almost 2,000 employers to employ more than 3,500 apprentices. Phase 2 training continued throughout the summer, with 780 apprentices starting their training in July and August. Phase 2 is scheduled on an ongoing basis. Therefore, more classes are being scheduled at present.

At the end of August, there were about 18,733 registered craft apprentices, with 9,743 waiting for a period in respect phases 2, 4 or 6 of their seven-phase apprenticeships.

The time is up.

Basically, SOLAS and the HEA have been working with the training providers. The resources have been provided to get back up to speed, but also to increase and expand.

I do not doubt the difficulties caused by Covid, nor do I doubt any of the measures the Taoiseach has outlined. I greatly welcome them all. My question is simple: will these apprentices finish their apprenticeships when they are scheduled to do so? No doubt, they have made plans for their lives, including to buy a van and get working, and ultimately to buy a house as they are building houses. Will they be able to commence as fully qualified electricians, carpenters, plumbers etc. as scheduled?

To draw an analogy, the members of the Government have a slightly unusual relationship in that the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, was told he would be Taoiseach again in December 2022. If the Taoiseach turned around to the Tánaiste and said that since there have been a lot of difficulties over Covid, he was not going to be Taoiseach for another year at least-----

-----I am not sure how it would play out for the stability of the Government. The Taoiseach might reflect on that and how apprentices who have made life plans must feel. Will they be able to finish their apprenticeships on time?

The Deputy is tempting me. Obviously, on-the-job training, off-site training and so forth are important. The blended programme I referred to should make up time, and there is a desire to get people back on track in terms of the timeline so they can complete their apprenticeship programme within the timeline identified at the outset. I cannot give guarantees in respect of that but I would like to believe that SOLAS and the HEA will be flexible and sensible enough in terms of the design of the programmes and using that blended approach to facilitate the individuals concerned.

Overall, what is clear from this is that there has been a step change. The new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is leaving its mark in respect of further education and apprenticeship training, but it is also bringing together and co-ordinating much more effectively than heretofore SOLAS, the education and training boards, and the Higher Education Authority. This is extremely important if we are to achieve the best value for the resources that are allocated and more targeted approaches.

We need more skilled apprentices available to the economy right across the board. We have a retrofitting programme to do, and, again, we will require specific skill sets for that in addition to the housebuilding. There is a whole programme on direct provision. A whole programme will be required right across the board. It is going to be very challenging on the skills front.