In July 2019, the Government, granted approval for the drafting of a Bill along the lines of the general scheme of an employment permits (consolidation and amendment) Bill, which has been forwarded to the committee. The Government approval included a request that this committee undertake pre-legislative scrutiny. Officials attended the joint committee on business, enterprise and innovation for detailed pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme on 13 November 2019. However, as the committee’s report was not finalised before the dissolution of the Oireachtas in January 2020, pre-legislative scrutiny needs to be revisited. We are grateful that the committee has agreed to give its time to do so.
In terms of the background to the proposed Bill, a review of economic migration policy conducted at the request of the then Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation in 2018 indicated that the employment permits system, while robust, lacked flexibility and was in need of some updating in order to make it more effective and responsive to changing labour market needs. The review's recommendations included the drafting of a new Bill to adjust the legislative underpinning of the system, as well as to allow for swift responses to verified changes in labour supply and demand or employment practices.
This Bill incorporates both specific and general recommendations made in the review, while retaining the core focus of a vacancy led employment permits system oriented to meeting of the skills and labour needs in the State. The conclusions of the review endorsed the robust fundamental structure of the existing system. The changes proposed are concerned with increasing its agility and effectiveness, while retaining the key policy focus of supporting the economy and the labour market through evidence-based decision-making. The proposed Bill, therefore, does not represent a change in the Government's overall policy.
The 2018 review involved widespread stakeholder consultation and the key issues raised during that consultation are addressed in the general scheme. There are two Acts and one amendment Act on the Statute Book, namely, the Employment Permit Acts 2003 and 2006, and the Employment Permits (Amendment) Act 2014. These Acts will be repealed following the enactment of the proposed Bill.
In addition to consolidating the existing legislation to make a more accessible statutory basis for our economic migration system, specific changes in this Bill include: the introduction of a seasonal employment permit; extensive revision of the labour market needs test to make it more relevant and efficient; the introduction of a scheme to deal with occasional exceptional circumstances where an employment permit may be granted despite not meeting all of the criteria for the general employment permit; a number of housekeeping changes such as clarifications of particular provisions, moving of operational criteria to regulations and the streamlining of a number of requirements to make the grant process more efficient; and providing for additional conditions for granting employment permits, such as training or accommodation support for migrant workers in some circumstances or making innovation or upskilling a condition of a grant where this may reduce future reliance on economic migration.
Ireland is an outlier, both in the EU and among many developed nations outside of the Union, in not having provision for granting seasonal employment permits. There is evidence that some employers are disadvantaged vis-à-vis competitors in other jurisdictions in not having this form of permission. Accordingly, it is proposed to design a short-term employment permit to cater for short-stay and recurrent employment situations in sectors, such as horticulture, where this type of employment is common.
Examination of systems of seasonal employment used by our international peers has been undertaken to ensure an accurate sense of both risks and benefits of this kind of scheme informs our structuring of the criteria for the permit type. We would welcome any views that the committee might have in this regard.
Apart from those occupations on the critical skills list, or for intra-company transfers, employers must demonstrate that they have made a genuine effort to recruit from within the State and across the European Economic Area, EEA, before they apply for an employment permit. This is called the labour market needs test, LMNT. The way in which employers are obliged to advertise vacancies is prescribed in primary legislation and includes an obligation to use some outdated methods, for example, the need to take out advertisements in national newspapers for a set number of days, etc. The proposed Bill, while continuing to require an employer to carry out an LMNT before seeking to recruit from outside the EEA, will remove the detail of how this must be done, allowing for the setting out in regulations of the requirements needed to demonstrate real engagement with the jobs market in Ireland and across the EEA.
The specific intention is to remove the operational requirements from primary legislation, instead allowing the media for advertising of vacancies to be prescribed in regulations and varied where necessary. For example, some types of vacancies may be best advertised through social media, others in sector specific journals, or by a radio campaign. Allowing leeway to employers to advertise as best fits their industry will improve the coherence and utility of the LMNT. In tandem with this, it is intended to deepen the involvement of the Department of Social Protection in the LMNT process to maximise opportunities for resident and EEA jobseekers.
On the special circumstances employment permit, from time to time an employer will seek a permit for a position that does not neatly fall within all the usual criteria for granting an employment permit but where the granting of the permit would clearly benefit the company and, by extension, the social or economic development of the State. Up to the present, when such a circumstance arises, we generally have no option but to refuse the permit. The circumstances in which such a permit might be granted will be clearly prescribed in regulations, and a limited number of such employment permits might be granted in any calendar year. Anchoring the prescription securely in primary legislation and setting the criteria precisely in regulations, so that this permit type cannot be used routinely to waive the requirements of the system, will be a priority.
The broad criteria we propose to prescribe are as follows: where one or more of the criteria for the granting of a permit cannot be satisfied but no training for the occupation is available in Ireland, and where it requires an unusual skill set; and for niche employments that do not occur with sufficient frequency to attract individuals into training or for which no formal training exists where the expertise is highly specialised and where training may not be replicated in Ireland, and where it is evident that the employment of the specific foreign national would benefit the competitiveness or development of the employing organisation and economy as a whole.
Overall, there has been a general welcome from interested parties for this consolidating and amending legislation. The development of this general scheme into a final draft Bill will evolve through further consultation and in line with advice given by the Attorney General's office. We readily acknowledge that a number of the suggested changes currently set out in a general indicative format will require considered further drafting to ensure that their parameters are in line with current jurisprudence, especially in the context of ensuring that the prescription of variables in secondary legislation, necessary to give the system the agility to respond quickly to changing conditions in the economy, should nonetheless remain securely anchored in primary legislation.
While the ongoing Covid pandemic has severely impacted the labour market and economy as a whole, Ireland will continue to need skilled migrant labour in certain sectors of the economy, including the medical sector. This draft Bill is designed to enable us to ensure that it is capable of adapting to rapid changes in the needs of the labour market of the future and to fluctuations in demand contingent on the economic cycle.
Once again, we appreciate the committee's attention, and would welcome any guidance during the drafting process that would support the policy objectives underlying the general scheme. We are happy to answer any questions the committee might have on this general scheme. I thank the committee.