Commencement Matters

Work Permits Applications

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank her very much for taking this Commencement matter. This is an issue she might be familiar with both in the context of her current brief and a previous portfolio. I have raised this issue and the delays in processing work permits on a number of occasions. However, I would specifically like to refer to the stamp 3 system. This week it was announced that our unemployment rate has dropped to 5.3%, which is a phenomenal achievement, and we are on course to achieve full employment in 2019.

However, the unemployment rate for those seeking stamp 3 visa holders is a whopping 93%. Many of the stamp 3 visa holders work in industries that are currently trying to recruit and where their skills are badly needed, such as information technology, finance, health, education and hospitality. I have just come from a meeting with a very large-scale technology company which is unable to fill more than 1,000 positions it announced last year simply because it cannot recruit people in Ireland or in the EU and it needs stamp 3 visa holders to fill these jobs.

With the threat of Brexit looming and many companies looking to Ireland to expand, companies need to be aware that they can find the skilled workers they require in Ireland. If these workers are stuck in limbo and unable to contribute to our economy, this will be a serious issue for Ireland post-Brexit and into the future. We must be pro-active and address the situation before it escalates to new levels. Ireland is a global economy and this must be clear to those looking to live, work and grow their businesses here.

Moreover, an estimated 80% of stamp 3 visa holders are women. This is a clear loss to our economy. We are not only losing out on the skills and talents of these stamp 3 visa holders, of which more than 90% hold a bachelors' degree and almost 50% hold a masters degree, we are also losing out on their tax contributions. Stamp 3 visa holders are also exempt from our social welfare system and must pay non-EU fees for our higher education institutions. This is not a suitable environment for those who are residing legally in our country. This is seriously affecting the well-being of those we allow into Ireland with more than 90% of those surveyed experiencing low self-esteem due to their lack of access to education and personal development.

Stamp 3 visa holders are not allowed to work in Ireland but are allowed to look for work. Currently, applicants for work permits are forced to wait eight to 12 weeks for their applications to be processed. Additionally, the application for a work permit must be received 12 weeks prior to the start of the employment period. This leads to job offers being withdrawn and the applicants feeling as if they are tourists in a place where they are legally residing. Many employers are not aware of the fact that stamp 3 visa holders are permitted to work. This fact is not made clear on the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, website and can further hinder stamp 3 visa holders chances of finding work if they are even considered for roles in the first place.

This is not a tenable situation for Ireland. It is not fair nor is it to our benefit. In other EU countries, this is not an issue and it should not be one here. The stamp 3 visa system clearly need to be reformed as well as the waiting time for work permit applications, which I have raised before. This will allow Ireland and our economy to live up to its potential for employees and employers alike. For every business that chooses not to open in Ireland and where a stamp 3 visa holder cannot access a work permit, we are losing out on valuable skills and contributions to our economy. When we allow people to reside legally in Ireland, they should feel welcomed, not ostracised. Forcing these people to live in limbo or untenable situations is not fair and is not the Ireland we should want to portray to the world. This cannot and should not continue for all of our benefit.

I thank Senator Richmond. I am aware of all the very good work he is doing with businesses. He has put forward a very good argument on the stamp 3 visa process. I have been in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, but I am taking this Commencement matter for the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

Immediate family members, that is, dependants, partners and spouses, of critical skills employment permit holders have very broad access to the Irish labour market through the dependant-partner-spouse employment permit. The dependant-partner-spouse employment permit is uniquely available to the families of critical skills employment permit holders as part of the Government’s policy to promote Ireland’s attractiveness as a location for highly skilled workers.

The criteria attaching to this permit type is substantially less demanding than for other employment permit types, that is, the application process is free of charge; all jobs are eligible, except for domestic occupations; remuneration must be at or above the national minimum wage; and their prospective employer is not required to undertake a labour market needs test.

However, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, appreciates that the process is not as streamlined as it should be for family members of critical skilled employment permit holders who are stamp 3 holders accessing the labour market. Officials in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Justice and Equality have met with representatives of stamp 3 permission holders to hear their concerns. The resolution of this matter falls within the remits of both the Minister's Department and the Department of Justice and Equality.

The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has asked her officials, in co-operation with the Department of Justice and Equality, to examine the issues that have been reported, including improving the information available for these prospective employment permit holders and their employers. In the short term these measures include: the introduction of a letter of support for stamp 3 permission holders to issue to successful critical skills employment permit applicants setting out the options regarding the employment permits process; the provision of up-to-date and clear information on both Departments' websites about this permit type; a revision of the frequently asked questions, FAQs, document on the Department’s website; and a leaflet on this issue is being drafted for representative bodies, NGOs and other stakeholders.

In addition, officials of both Departments are consulting on possibilities for streamlining the process for granting permission to work for this cohort of people as recommended in the Review of Economic Migration Policy 2018.

Proposals are currently being prepared for consideration by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and her colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality.

I am very grateful to the Minister of State for her remarks, which are welcome and provide a lot of information. I am hopeful in terms of the work that will be done between the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and their Departments. Much of this feeds into the Minister of State's current role, particularly in the higher education sector, when we consider the many people coming here and the fees they face.

On the proposals, there needs to be third discussion that is reactive and, crucially, swift. I received a petition last week signed by more than 6,000 people who are affected by this issue. I passed it on to the Taoiseach and I look forward to the follow-up meeting with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, but we need swift reform. I cannot state firmly enough that this is not just about realising the economic potential, which is so obvious to our country as we seek to be that island at the centre of the world. We have a responsibility on a human level. I mentioned in my earlier remarks that I met this morning with representatives of a very large technology company that is struggling to fill positions. It now finds itself opening up for coffee just that the spouses will have somewhere to go because they feel isolated, unable to work and unable to truly integrate in our society.

I will pass on the Senator's arguments to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. The view of the Minister and the Government is that having an efficient and responsive employment permit is a critical lever in addressing the economy's skills needs. We work hard, as the Senator has acknowledged, to attract and retain international talent. The Senator has come up with a very important proposal and I will follow it up with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

State Airports

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ross, back to the Chamber, his alma mater.

I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, for taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to accommodate me with this Commencement matter. As he is aware, I have raised previously the issue that Shannon Airport is the only international airport in the country without a European hub. I am framing this debate specifically in the context of Brexit. Shannon Airport's connectivity to the world is through Heathrow Airport, which is a great hub in terms of connectivity. In regard to worldwide connectivity, it is ranked 13th and first in terms of Europe connectivity. However, in the event of a hard Brexit, or whatever form Brexit takes, and we are now only four months away from it happening, third or fourth traffic rights for passengers coming through airports will be expected to be within any deal, but co-chairing may not be included. Currently, someone wishing to fly with, say, Aer Lingus, from Shannon Airport to Australia, for example, via Heathrow Airport, under current co-chairing arrangements they will be able to book that flight through Aer Lingus, get a connecting flight in Heathrow and travel on to Australia. However, under what is now being proposed by the European Commission, co-chairing may not be applicable. That means Heathrow Airport may not have the level of connectivity that Shannon Airport needs.

I met with the Shannon Group in recent weeks and relayed my discussion with them to it. I requested that it make a submission to him as the Minister responsible looking for a Brexit strategic route development fund to establish a European hub, thereby ensuring that Shannon Airport is Brexit ready. That could be in Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Paris-Charles de Gaulle. Effectively, it would be a major European hub. In terms of the last time Shannon Airport had a hub, CityJet was flying into Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport up to 2009 and Ryanair was flying to Paris Beauvais up to 2016.

However, we will be utterly exposed in the event of a hard Brexit in terms of connectivity through Shannon Airport if there is no European hub. As a result of the fallout from Brexit, it may become difficult to secure access through Heathrow as a European destination.

I wish to put a couple of statistics to the Minister. Of all traffic through Heathrow, 45% provides onward connection. Of all traffic going through Shannon Airport, 46% goes to Heathrow. The mid-west region has well over 120 foreign direct investment companies. Shannon Group alone supports 46,000 jobs in our region. Under the Project Ireland 2040 plan, we are looking for balanced regional development. In the event that we do not have proper European and worldwide connectivity following Brexit, the mid-west and west will be put at risk in the areas of jobs and tourism, which is hugely important for us. The airport is actively engaging with airlines now to establish a European hub and I ask the Minister to consider the proposal he received in that regard last Friday. I ask him to take it under serious advisement. The issue is not solely about the airport. It is about the mid-west and western regions, balanced regional development under Project Ireland 2040, the protection of jobs and investment and inward tourism.

Support will be needed by way of a strategic route development fund to help the airport to establish a European hub quickly to ensure we are Brexit ready should access through London Heathrow not continue in its current form. A key element is code-sharing, which means it will not be possible to book a flight through Shannon and onwards through Heathrow. That would not be facilitated any longer under code sharing. I hope the Minister will consider this matter in the spirit it is raised. This is about Ireland Inc., Shannon Airport and the Limerick, mid-west and western regions.

I thank the Senator for the very interesting and challenging proposal he has made. It is sometimes difficult to know where the fine lines should be drawn between being provident and prepared and being premature. Senator Kieran O'Donnell has got the balance right judging by his interest in the region. It is only proper that he should bring forward proposals of this nature. However, he will realise that the Brexit scenario is unwinding and we are preparing for all possible eventualities. The proposal the Senator sent to my Department last week will get due consideration. It will go into the mix in circumstances in which all constructive proposals should be examined properly. This one will be.

The national aviation policy recognises the important role Shannon Airport plays in the economic and social fabric of mid-west region. The airport enjoys the advantage of full US pre-clearance as well as the longest runway in Ireland and the ability to handle all aircraft types. These features underpin the airport's ambition to expand and to develop niche opportunities in aeronautical and aerospace engineering. This was integral to the aim of Government in the separation of Shannon Airport from the Dublin Airport Authority, the restructuring of Shannon Development and the establishment of Shannon Group in 2014. Shannon Group promotes and facilitates air transport and aviation services in and around Shannon Airport and optimises the return on its land, property and shareholdings in subsidiary companies. Its principal activities include the operation management and development of Shannon Airport, but also the promotion, management and development of the commercial property portfolio held by Shannon Commercial Properties, SCP, and the operation of the heritage and tourism sites managed by Shannon Heritage. A fourth business unit of the group is the International Aviation Services Centre, IASC, which is focused on further development of the aviation business cluster in Shannon. Under the National Development Plan 2018-2027, Shannon Group, through its subsidiaries Shannon Airport Authority, Shannon Commercial Enterprises and Shannon Heritage, plans to invest in excess of €150 million in its capital programme over the period to 2022. That is quite a short period in airport terms. Therefore, not only does Shannon Group manage the airport; it plays an important role in facilitating development and innovation in the mid-west region. As Minister, I support this role and I ensure that my Department does everything possible to facilitate it.

The Senator will appreciate that the establishment of air transport connections is a question of commercial agreement between airlines and airports. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have no function in these commercial decisions. The Government's regional airports' programme provides Exchequer support to some of Ireland's smallest airports, namely, Donegal, Ireland West Airport Knock, Kerry and Waterford, through a number of schemes and in compliance with EU guidelines on state aid. Passenger numbers at these airports are under 1 million per year and the capital supports under the programme are limited to grant-aiding investments in safety and security enhancements to help these small airports to comply with international regulatory obligations in these areas. A public service obligation, PSO, air services scheme also operates between Kerry and Dublin Airports and between Donegal and Dublin Airports and is justified under EU guidelines by reason of peripherality. I have no plans to introduce additional PSO air services domestically or internationally.

There are ongoing consultations between my Department, other Government Departments and agencies and public and private aviation stakeholders in order to continue to support Shannon Airport and Shannon Group in their strategic endeavours as well as to encourage the airport to plan for and mitigate the risks associated with Brexit. In that context, it is important that the entire aviation industry, including airports, takes steps to prepare and where possible to reduce exposure and to limit reliance on any one particular destination or service. The full implications of Brexit will only become clear once the future EU-UK relationship has been decided. However, the draft political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK, which was published recently, foresees a comprehensive partnership between the EU and the UK across a range of areas of importance to Ireland, including air transport. The European Commission's contingency plan, which was published on 13 November, outlines plans to propose measures to ensure that disruption to air travel between the UK and the EU will be minimised in the event of a disorderly UK exit from the EU, subject to reciprocity. My officials will continue to engage with Shannon Group to explore ways to minimise whatever negative effects might arise as a result of the UK's departure from the EU.

The Government also supports the development of air connectivity and the expansion of air services more generally through targeted funding for co-operative marketing activity. Co-operative campaigns with partners facilitate increased marketing effort and help promote destinations more widely. Funding of €1 million was made available to Tourism Ireland annually in 2016, 2017 and 2018 for co-operative marketing. This funding, supported by contributions from regional tourism stakeholders including airports and ports, was matched by air and sea carriers and resulted in total overseas marketing expenditure of €2.6 million in 2016 and €2.4 million in 2017. An increased budget allocation for 2019 will continue to support both seasonal and regional growth and will be underscored by a commitment to focus co-operative partnership activities on the January to April and October to December periods for Great Britain and the North American and European markets. I encourage all airports, including Shannon Airport, to avail of this funding to optimise air services with regard to alternative European hub connections.

I thank the Minister. I welcome his commitment to examine the proposal submitted to his Department last Friday by Shannon Group on the need for a strategic route development fund as a contingency plan in the context of Brexit. This is about contingency planning now but it may become a reality very soon. In that regard, it is about preparation. We cannot have a situation arising where the entire western seaboard of Ireland, including the mid-west where I live, has no European connectivity. Cork has such connectivity, as does Dublin. It is important. This could arise as a result of something completely outside the control of Shannon Airport. This is Shannon Airport's backstop. I welcome the fact that the Minister will shortly meet the airport group. The arrangements for that are being finalised.

Will the Minister reaffirm that he will give serious consideration to the proposal for a Brexit strategic route development fund for Shannon Airport in order to establish a European hub there and ensure that we are Brexit ready and not wholly reliant on the London Heathrow route, for which there may be implications when the UK withdraws from the EU?

I will certainly commit to examining this matter carefully. Preparation for what is still considered to be an unlikely event is wise, and raising the matter in the Seanad is useful and adds to the debate. I also very much look forward to meeting the airport group in an encounter arranged by the Senator, either later this month or early in the new year.