Commencement Matters

School Transport

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor. Senator Tim Lombard is, in my view, somewhat trespassing into the territory of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, but I will let him off.

What can I say? If one gets the call, one has to do the work. I got the call from the community of Sherkin Island about what was happening there.

I welcome the Minister of State. Sherkin Island is a wonderful little island, the community of which is doing its best to survive. It has a population of 100. The school on it closed in 2016. The major issue since has been trying to find school transportation from the island to the mainland. It is a unique case. What is actually happening is that there is a ferry that takes the children to the mainland to go to school in Rath which is near Baltimore. However, the issue is one of timing. Let me give the Minister of State an example. If a parent has a child in junior or senior infants and he or she finishes at 2 p.m, the parent or guardian must catch the ferry at noon, land in Baltimore at 12.15 p.m., wait one hour and 45 minutes to pick up the child at 2 p.m. and catch the ferry at 3 p.m. to arrive back at the island at 3.15 p.m. One would drive to Dublin in the time it takes to get a child home from school. It is bizarre, to say the very least. In 2016, when the school on the island closed, commitments were given that something would be done to provide transportation for the children to the mainland. It would not be a major issue if the Minister of State were to sit down with the community and thrash it out.

There are 183 school days in the year. There is a need for a dedicated ferry service to match school pick up times between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Arranging transport for the children to school is becoming a major drain on the community. Obviously for child protection reasons, a parent or grandparent has to accompany a schoolchild on the boat as there is no chaperone on it. There is a need to have a dedicated chaperone it for the children. We know that having to make a round trip of three hours to collect a child from school is not sustainable. We all know what will happen. People will not send their child to school on the mainland from the island; rather, they will move to the mainland and the ethos that has been built on the island for generations, decades, if not millennia, will slowly drift away.

There is a need for a real conversation with the community. Departmental officials need to travel to Sherkin Island to sit down with the community association to put a proactive plan in place in order that the community will be able to ensure the children can be educated in a timely fashion and the way of life they have worked so hard to instill can continue. This is about communication. I agree that the case is unique and that the Department must work to resolve the issue. I know of no other school where a ferry is used as school transportation. Because the case is unique, we need to look for a unique solution. It will involve interaction between the Department of Education and Skills and the community. What I really want - I implore her do so - is for the Minister of State to have her officials travel to the island to engage with the community.

We do not need more letters or emails, of which we have seen enough since 2016. We need departmental officials in place in order that we can work towards a solution.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy John Halligan. I thank Senator Lombard who has made his case very strongly. I do not know either of another case in Ireland like the one he describes. I was a principal in a rural school and an urban one and attended a two-teacher school as a child. As such, I understand how important it is to have a school in a community.

Regarding supports for the transport of children from Sherkin Island to schools on the mainland, the ferry passenger service described by the Senator involves parents having to arrive at 12 noon and they must sit waiting for their children for an hour and a half and then two and a half hours. They are great and very patient parents. A ferry passenger service is provided under a subsidy from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht with several daily sailings. Once children are at the pier on the mainland, a number of services are available to provide transport to the primary school in Baltimore and post-primary schools in Rosscarbery, Clonakilty and Skibbereen. Regarding the Senator's question, a request has been received for the establishment of a dedicated school transport facility separate from the current service to transport children to Rath national school in Baltimore. Discussions are ongoing between officials in the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht on this request.

I will take what the Senator has said and his description of the hardship experienced by parents and children and ensure the Department of Education and Skills knows exactly what is happening. Discussions must speed up between the two relevant Departments.

Discussions between the Departments are very important, but the community must be involved. The community believes this has involved only a paper and email trail, whereas what is needed is a meeting on Sherkin Island. They have to see it and smell it to understand what is really happening. To think one could be in Dublin in the time it takes to collect one's child is an unbelievable scenario. Nowhere else in the State does that happen. There was a similar issue with the secondary schools 20 years ago and the Department came down at the time to put a service in place which has worked very well ever since. That connection and communication is required again. I implore the Minister of State to ensure a meeting takes place on Sherkin Island. We need to get all those people down to thrash out what is required.

I will ensure the message is given to the Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, that the Senator has requested a meeting on Sherkin Island.

Brexit Supports

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, is very welcome and I thank him for taking the time to address the issue. The purpose of the Commencement matter is self-explanatory. We have heard that for reasonable, logical and understandable reasons the State intends to get Brexit-ready by hosting a series of positive engagements nationally. It would be more positive again if they were to come North also. We have heard a great deal about the Brexit-proofing of this week's budget, which is, again, necessary, given the context. I have sought to find out whether as part of those plans and engagements consideration is being given by the Department and the Government more generally to investing in services to meet citizens' needs where they are, as is happening with investment in animals and businesses. I refer to this investment with a specific focus on the North of Ireland where citizens are very mobilised on this issue. They are concerned and engaged with the Government. If we are to affirm the statement about not leaving citizens behind, which is welcome, it is time to, at least, plan in our future work programmes, whether it is via the budget or in other ways, to provide the direct interface citizens will need in the live dynamic of Brexit and, in particular, post Brexit. People are uncertain and will need to engage with the Government and Departments not only on Irish rights and entitlements but also on their existing EU rights and entitlements.

I am not asking for an update on the state of play in the negotiations. I appreciate the juncture we are at and the fluidity of the live negotiations. An té nach gcuireann san earrach ní bhaineann sé san fhómhar. If we do not plan ahead, we will be in a worse position when trying to provide these services further down the line. I hope that is part of the consideration of Government and, in particular, the Department.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter of protecting services for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland post Brexit. As the Senator pointed out, we are at a critical phase of the Article 50 negotiations. As President Tusk stated in Salzburg in September, we must seek to maximise progress and results in the negotiations in the coming weeks in order that we can finalise and formalise a deal in November. Our preference remains for an overall EU-UK relationship which would resolve all issues, but it remains essential that a backstop is agreed which provides the certainty that there will be no hard border in any circumstance. We need that certainty now because uncertainty is already causing grave concern among communities, North and South.

At paragraph 52 of the joint report of December, the European Commission and the UK acknowledged that the Good Friday Agreement recognised the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to choose to be Irish or British or both and to be accepted as such. The joint report also confirms that the people of Northern Ireland who are Irish citizens will continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens, including where they reside in Northern Ireland. Both parties agreed that the withdrawal agreement should respect and be without prejudice to the rights, opportunities and identity that come with European Union citizenship for such people. It was further agreed that the next phase of negotiations would examine the arrangements required to give effect to the ongoing exercise of and access to their EU rights, opportunities and benefits. This position is recognised in the draft protocol. As the UK leaves the European Union, there is an onus on its government to ensure it provides as necessary for the recognition in the joint report that the people of Northern Ireland who choose to identify as Irish, and therefore as citizens of the EU, will continue to enjoy the rights, opportunities and benefits of EU citizenship, including where they reside in Northern Ireland.

In the context of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the Government is committed to ensuring the common travel area, or CTA, and the associated rights and entitlements of Irish and British citizens under this long-standing reciprocal arrangement which dates back to the 1920s will continue. This is also recognised in the text of the withdrawal agreement. The CTA allows Irish and British citizens to move and reside freely in either jurisdiction and enables access to a range of similar associated rights in the other country. Under the CTA, Irish citizens in the UK and British citizens in Ireland have the right to reside, work, study and access healthcare, social security and public services in the other country, as well as to vote in certain elections.

Since the UK referendum decision to leave the EU, we have seen a 20% rise in passport applications from Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland. Since 2016, a significant programme of reform to enhance passport services for citizens has been under way, including the introduction of online passport services. The distribution of tasks across the passport service has also been refined and improved. The Passport Office in Cork processes applications from Northern Ireland. An anticipated 230 temporary clerical officers will be recruited in 2019, over 40 of whom will be assigned to the Cork office, in addition to 11 permanent officers.

In summary, the Government is acutely conscious of the potential impact on Northern Ireland of the UK decision to leave the European Union. We are determined to ensure the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains and benefits of the peace process are protected for people on the island of Ireland, North and South, as the UK leaves the EU.

I appreciate the update and fully understand the restrictions on the Minister of State. He acknowledges and reaffirms a number of important positions of the Government, which is welcome and encouraging. If raising this seems somewhat unfair of me, I am not trying to dupe the Minister of State or get him to reveal his hand. I am trying to encourage and sustain the pressure because citizens in the North would expect me to do as much. As well as the macro-political negotiations, people also want to see physical, visible manifestations of Irish Government support and continued endorsement. This is perfectly in line with the word and letter of the Good Friday Agreement when one considers that there is existing Irish government infrastructure in the Six Counties. The issue is one of determining how best we utilise that to support the needs of citizens who are crying out for greater Irish Government investment. When they look across the water and see what is happening there, they do not have much faith in or support for what the British Government is doing.

With regard to the Passport Office, it is no wonder that we need to employ an additional 230 staff, given that the Secretary General of the Department has acknowledged that the passport service is under immense pressure. Last year more than 82,000 passport applications came from the Six Counties and that figure is anticipated to rise again this year. Would it not make far more sense to locate some of those 230 people in the North rather than in Cork? The radically increasing number of passport applications is being processed at the farthest possible point from where they are originating. With regard to how we utilise the existing infrastructure and deal with people directly in service interface and delivery, it would make much more sense to invest for the future and direct some of those staff to where the growing demand is generated. I will raise the matter again, no doubt.

The Senator has referred before to the need to establish a passport office in Belfast.

Yes. In addition to the staff costs that might arise which are already subsumed into the service, very significant capital investment of more than €1.5 million would be required for the machine required to print the passports. A passport express service is available in Northern Ireland through more than 60 post offices dotted throughout the province. There is also an online service. A resident of Belmullet is much farther away from the Dublin Passport Office than a resident of Belfast.

That current service works exceptionally well, not just for citizens residing on the island of Ireland but also for citizens across the world too. In providing that service we need to ensure we have sufficient staff capacity to process all the applications that are arising. We expect further increases in passport applications in the future. We are recruiting staff and an excellent ongoing recruitment process is in place. The resources and capacity of the Passport Office are such now that we are confident that it will be capable of catering for additional demand in the future.

Work Permits Applications

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Pat Breen, and thank him for taking this Commencement matter. I also thank the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, for the reply to the letter I sent her in September about this issue.

I will address three key areas related to work permits, an issue that presents a growing problem in the State. Applicants for work permits are waiting on average for eight or 12 weeks for their applications to be processed. These people are living in limbo. They may come here under other arrangements or are waiting in third countries to see when they can move here or arrange the practical aspects of life. The long waiting time is having such a negative impact that we see many job offers withdrawn and many lives being put on hold owing to the delays in the processing system.

The work permits system also has a major impact on employers. This is one of the biggest challenges facing the State as we hurtle brilliantly towards full employment. Much of the credit for this is due to the Department and its hard work. There are a number of key sectors, especially in my area of south Dublin, which simply cannot recruit staff. These are good, high paying, highly skilled jobs, for which we need citizens from third countries, that is, countries outside the European Union, because people from the European Union either will not or cannot do them. These are in many areas, including IT, financial services and hospitality. Every day costs are being imposed on customers because businesses cannot maintain the requisite level of competitiveness. It stops businesses from expanding and trying to address the issue of Brexit. The high level financial services companies we are trying to attract need to know they will have enough bookkeepers, accountants and IT professionals to fill the gap. We are not quite able to provide them with that assurance.

Tied into that issue is the issue of companies that wish to invest in Ireland or locate here, whether financial services or technology companies. These are companies from outside the European Union that want to set up an office here. They view Dublin or Ireland as an excellent hub or base for the European market with obvious ties to the UK market. However, they cannot bring key personnel to this country to work in their Irish operations. They are waiting for at least 12 weeks, often much longer, before they can open their operations because they cannot secure a work permit for a chief financial officer, CFO. He or she may be from South Africa, the United States or Asia, but he or she has to wait. Every day that businesses cannot open here costs them money. It also costs employees their livelihoods and forces many of them to give up their rental accommodation or jeopardise their chance to apply for a mortgage.

I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is that we have this matter resolved as soon as possible. Can resources be reallocated to speed up the applications process? Much has been done by the Department to change the eligibility criteria for work permits, which is excellent. However, those who need work permits are waiting for too long, as are employers who need employees. I fear this is having a detrimental effect on a booming economy.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. Many of us as public representatives, whether Senators or Deputies, confront this problem every day with employers in a similar predicament to what the Senator has raised. Ireland's overarching economic migration policy is to source skills and labour needs from within the workforce of Ireland and the European economic area, EEA. Ireland operates a managed employment permits system which maximises the benefits of economic migration, while minimising the risk of disrupting Ireland's labour market. That market is very important to us, as the Senator rightly pointed out, particularly as we approach full employment.

To work in Ireland, a non-EEA national must, unless exempted, hold a valid employment permit. The employment permits section of the Department administers the employment permits system. All applications for employment permits are processed in line with the employment permits Acts and associated regulations.

As the economy improves and we approach full employment, my Department has experienced a high volume of employment permit applications in recent months. This has led to some delays in processing applications. I have seen this at first-hand among employers who are in a similar position. At the end of September 2018, the total number of employment permit applications accepted was 12,530, which represents a 29% increase on the figure for the same period in 2017. During this period, 9,284 employment permits were issued in total, which represents a 10% increase on the figure for the same period in 2017. The employment permits section is working to reduce the current waiting times of six weeks for applications from trusted partners who are regular users of the service and 16 weeks for standard applications.

It is much too long. I even had a case this morning of a permit required for someone for next week. It is unacceptable and we are dealing with it.

My officials are engaging proactively with customers by notifying them of current delays through email, meetings and regular updates on the employment permits section of my Department’s website. To reduce processing times, the employment permits section has introduced several operational changes, streamlined processes and implemented ICT solutions. Additional staffing resources have also been assigned to the section and a fast-track training programme has been devised. All available resources are being deployed, with the aim of reducing processing times. In one way, the number of applications is a sign of the success of the economy.

Overall, the number of applications awaiting processing is starting to reduce as a result of the changes implemented. I expect this to continue. A reduction in processing times is anticipated in the coming weeks as the changes being implemented start to bear fruit. The Department is getting on top of the issue.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply and the heartening statistics he outlined. I acknowledge the efforts of his Department and appreciate its ongoing engagement in this area. It is open and recognises there is an issue which needs to be addressed.

However, as we face into a chaotic global economic scene with Brexit approaching and the regressive trade policies of President Trump and certain other colleagues on the Continent, Ireland must seize every opportunity and ensure everyone knows that it is open for business. We must ensure corporations know that not only can they move here but also that the labour from abroad needed to staff these organisations can look to Ireland as an open, welcoming and efficient place in which to move and work. We need that talent to come into the country. While a slowdown might be forecasted, if we want to fulfil the aim of being an island at the centre of the world, we need to address this issue now and maintain that level of proactivity to ensure we can ride out what will be a difficult economic period.

The Department is conscious of this matter. We believe having an efficient and responsive employment permit system is critical in addressing the economy's skills needs and in ensuring talent is attracted to Ireland. There are people from all over the globe working in multinational companies here. Recently, I was at Google’s headquarters in Barrow Street where there are 65 nationalities.

It is important we attract these people into the country and monitor the skills shortages. With the changes we have made in the employment permits section, with the provision of additional resources and efficiencies in skills training and computers, we can get on top of the issue. To be fair to the staff, they are working hard and doing overtime to deal with it.

I am conscious that our reputation is at stake. The flow of talent is crucial. At this time of the year, there is a large volume of permit applications as we are coming towards the end of the year. We are also reviewing the type of employment shortages to be able to deal with them. It is crucial as the economy grows. The Senator referred to trade wars. We want this to be seen as a country that is leading when it comes to attracting multinationals to locate here.