I congratulate Senator Mark Daly on his election as Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann. I wish him the very best in the role. I am sure he will be up for the job and well able for it. I also congratulate all Senators elected to the Seanad. I look forward to working with them.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to present the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2020 to the House.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to establish the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The establishment of the Department is a major initiative of the new Government. It underscores our strong belief that the interface of knowledge, skills, innovation and access to educational opportunity at further and higher level is critical to our future prosperity and fairness as a society.
The new Department will place a strong focus on ensuring the supply of skills and supporting innovation which can drive economic development at national, regional and local levels, ensuring social progress and inclusion in our society and transforming people's life chances by widening access to educational opportunity. The Department will also help to position Ireland as a leading international location of world-class research and innovation which can address the novel challenges of a rapidly changing world. The priorities of the new Department, which the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I will set out, will reflect the focus of the programme for Government on dealing with the implications of Covid-19, building a more resilient future, rebuilding our economy, driving regional development and delivering a better life for all of our people.
We recognise that investment in further and higher education and research is an investment in our future. Our work in this area has already begun with the priority of stabilising the system which has been affected by the Covid-19 crisis and placing an emphasis on the difficulties experienced by learners, particularly those who are vulnerable.
The Minister and I yesterday launched a €168 million package of supports for further and higher education institutions and students. This package will cover the costs associated with the Covid-19 pandemic and will allow students to return to college this September. The higher and further education and training system will also play a critical role in our economic recovery. This will mean equipping people at all stages of life with the skills to secure employment in the short term and preparing our workforce for the massive changes that will take place in the world of work in the coming years. This will include moving to a low-carbon future and preparing for disruptive technologies. It is also important to stress that, as a Department, we will have a strong contribution to make to equitable regional development by driving innovation and skills supply in all regions of Ireland.
We have already set out an ambitious vision for how further education and training will build skills, foster inclusion and create pathways with the new five-year further education and training strategy, which the Minister and I launched earlier this week. This strategy outlines an impressive and exciting future for further education and training which the Department will deliver over the coming years. We will make sure that further education and training is seen as an option for everyone and that it is relevant to our changing world.
The social inclusion dimension of the new Department's work is absolutely critical and will be at the heart of everything we do as a Department. Access to education and training is as close as anything we have to a silver bullet to drive social mobility in society. We will have a relentless focus on improving access to educational opportunities for disadvantaged groups and supporting inclusive initiatives for learners with intellectual disabilities.
Research and innovation will also be at the heart of the new Department's agenda. As the Taoiseach told the Dáil on the formation of the new Government, "we need to do more to acknowledge and build on the incredible base of scientific research which has developed in the past two decades and has played a central role in our economy and ability to respond to the pandemic." The level of ambition of the programme for Government on this agenda is clear. The programme states: "We will ensure that Ireland is a global leader in research and innovation across the arts, humanities, social sciences and STEM."
Turning to the details of the legislation, the Bill is short and technical in nature. As Senators will be aware, in most cases where there has been a reordering of ministerial and departmental functions, the changes can be put into effect by way of secondary legislation. That is not possible in the current situation because what is proposed is an entirely new Department which will take its place alongside the other 17 Departments of State. A similar situation arose in respect of the establishment of the Department of Rural and Community Development in 2017, which necessitated similar short technical legislation.
The main provisions of the Bill are therefore quite technical in nature. They essentially provide for the body of law which relates to ministerial powers and Government Departments to apply to the new Department. The Bill will also allow for certain orders to be made in respect of the new Department and Minister. These orders will include transfer of functions and alteration of name orders.
The Government will also move an amendment which will provide an annual allowance of not more than three specified holders of the office of Minister of State who regularly attends meetings of the Government. Current legislation provides for two specified holders of these particular offices to receive an annual allowance for attendance at Government meetings.
Once the Department is legally established, the actual transfer of legislative functions will take place by way of secondary legislation in transfer of functions orders. This will cover the range of responsibilities which will be transferred from the existing Departments of Education and Skills and Business, Enterprise and Innovation. The establishment of this new Department represents perhaps the most significant change in further and higher education and research in decades, as these areas will now be dealt with at Government level.
I know that issues of education are very close to the hearts of many Members of this House. I very much look forward to hearing their views. I again thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to present this legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.