Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Fuel Poverty

This week the national fuel allowance scheme starts. It is a means-assessed payment. It will be paid for 28 weeks to an estimated 370,000 households across the country. Last winter a total of 16,284 households across Tipperary received fuel allowance through the scheme and they will automatically receive payments again this year, beginning yesterday. The scheme plays a vital role in ensuring families across my county of Tipperary have the security of knowing they will be able to pay their heating bills over the winter months. It will be especially important to people this year in the context of rising fuel costs globally. I encourage the Minister of State to factor this into account in the upcoming budget. In fairness the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, increased the weekly rate of payment by €3.50 in last year's budget. Over the last year, we have witnessed record increases in the prices of wholesale gas, coal, oil and carbon on European markets. Wholesale prices have rebounded since economies have started to recover from the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, energy markets have experienced declining UK and European natural gas production and a reduction in gas supplies from Russia and the US have also contributed to record price increases.

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, has said that the electricity supply to Ireland will be tight for the next three to four years and that the big data centres which use an enormous amount of energy could not expect to be exempt from the national requirement to conserve energy in order to meet climate change commitments. There are also concerns that Ireland's electricity generating capacity could deter multinationals from investing in infrastructure such as data centres in Ireland. A piece by John Mulligan in the Irish Independent warned of just that. According to one source: "For the data centre sector, for any multinational investing in Ireland, they look immediately in terms of sites, at the availability of power, the availability of water and the availability of very robust data connections." The article noted, "Ireland is home to major data centres for multinationals including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft... A number of amber alerts have occurred in recent weeks, where electricity generators have been warned that any unexpected event could result in a failure to meet demand." The sustained rise in demand from such centres, which are energy intensive buildings that house computer systems for storing Internet and business data, was the same as adding 140,000 new households to the network in each of the last four years. EirGrid, the semi-State company that manages Ireland's electricity grid, has acknowledged that maintaining the balance between supply and demand has become increasingly challenging.

The problem is not going to go away and clearly going to get progressively worse. There could be rolling blackouts if steps are not taken to curb new centres. Has the Minister of State or the Minister, Deputy Ryan, been assured that the two power plants which have been offline for the last number of months will be back online for the winter period? The expected new data centres will be required to install on their own emergency generation as a condition of gaining a connection to the grid. EirGrid and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, will publish capacity statements this week with their paths to manage demand. What does the Minister want to see in those statements to reassure him that we will not have power outages over the winter months?

Fuel allowance is means tested and there are some simple changes we could make in this year's budget to help the most vulnerable get through the winter months with the costs. The fuel allowance is based on age, income and social welfare payments. I give the example of a couple that contacted me recently. They were claiming a pension and she was on half-rate carer's allowance. Their income was €601 a week. Their cut-off was €575. They pay €140 on health insurance and the husband has dementia. If the means test was to rise for those claiming pensions, particularly those who also claim carer's allowance, it would dramatically help people of pensionable age. Fuel allowance is also a factor in eligibility for the warmer homes scheme. Many people of a pensionable age live in older homes with substandard insulation. Grants such as these would protect these homes.

I thank the Senator Ahearn for raising these important matters. Government fully accepts that recent electricity and gas price increases will not be welcomed in light of the current economic environment. Increases to wholesale energy prices following rises in international gas prices have been the principal driver of these increases which have been impacting across Europe and are not just an Irish phenomenon.

First, it is important to recognise that these are not Government decisions. Price regulation ended many years ago. Suppliers compete with each other on prices and set their own prices accordingly, as you would expect in a liberalised market. Second, the independent regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, has functions in relation to these matters, including consumer protection and monitoring the market more generally.

Third, I will set out the long-standing policy on promoting competition in respect of these markets, and what Government is doing in regard to providing significant supports for household energy costs, both in terms of energy efficiency and welfare supports.

The most immediate factor affecting electricity prices in Ireland is the upward trend in international gas prices. In Europe wholesale natural gas prices have been on an upward curve since the second half of 2020. This feeds directly through to retail electricity prices as the wholesale price of electricity correlates strongly with the price of gas. To protect the most vulnerable, Government provides extensive supports for household energy costs via welfare schemes. Overall the Government envisages expenditure in excess of €700 million in 2021 on a number of measures to support households in meeting their energy costs. There are, for example, specific schemes aimed at those at risk of energy poverty, including the household benefits package and the fuel allowance. In addition, all the funds raised by increases in the carbon tax will be ring-fenced to protect those most exposed to higher fuel and energy costs. The best long long-term approach for Ireland to insulate consumers from volatility on international wholesale energy markets is to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy and expand interconnection with European and neighbouring markets.

Turning to security of supply, the CRU also has statutory responsibility to monitor and take measures necessary to ensure the security of electricity supply in Ireland. It is assisted in its statutory role by EirGrid which is responsible for the day-to-day management of the electricity transmission system. The CRU has advised that it has identified specific challenges to ensuring electricity security of supply, which it is currently in the process of addressing. These challenges include lower than expected availability of some existing power stations; anticipated new power stations not being developed as planned; expected growth in demand for electricity, including due to the growth of data centres; and the expected closure of power stations that make up approximately 25% of conventional electricity generation capacity over the coming years.

A range of actions are being taken by the CRU and EirGrid to ensure security of electricity supply over the coming winter and the years ahead. The actions they are progressing include maximising the availability of future generation; developing new generation capacity, including temporary generation capacity in advance of winter 2022; making changes to the grid connection rules for data centres; and working with large energy consumers in order to, where possible, reduce their electricity demand during peak periods.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications continues to work closely with the CRU and EirGrid to ensure security of electricity supply and minimise the risk of power cuts.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Smyth, for his response. From the negotiations and conversations the Government has had with the CRU, is the CRU confident in the briefings it has given Government that the power outages will not happen during the winter months? Is the Government absolutely sure? The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has spoken a number of times on this and has been very cautious in what he said and very hopeful that there will not be power outages but have we confidence that there will not be power outages? It is hugely worrying for families and for homes, but particularly for businesses. There are many businesses which might not have back-up systems available. Does the Government have a back-up in place? If power outages happen, as is possible, what happens on the back of that?

With regard to costs for people, is there a way that we could look at the public service obligation, PSO, levy that is on the bill everyone gets every two months?

Some of that money goes into smart metering. Is there any way we could look at pausing that, potentially for the next number of months, because of the extreme rise in prices?

The Minister of State has one minute to respond.

Specifically on those questions, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, presented a list of risk factors, which I read them out. It also presented a prescription for a number of actions should be taken to mitigate this. It said that the risk of power outage is real but, with these mitigation measures, the cause for concern is far less. That is basically its option.

The public service obligation, PSO, levy is a compensating dampening factor. When gas prices or electricity prices rise, the PSO levy comes down, and vice versa. It should, therefore, have the effect of stabilising prices.

I thank the Senator for all of that and want to say that the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is supporting the CRU and EirGrid as they progress the actions necessary to ensure the continued secure supply of electricity. I understand this is a critical matter for the Government. Nobody wants to see power outages. All of the required mitigating measures will be taken. This is being treated with the utmost seriousness. There is a detailed plan and many actions are being taken to prevent this from happening.

Fuel Poverty

I encourage Senator Garvey to hang on, because I have some comments about the PSO levy as well as on something the Government could do to bring down the cost of energy. This is not my first time raising energy poverty in this House. I published a report earlier this year that detailed real lived experiences of people who are living in energy poverty. The latest figures suggest that 2,800 excess deaths a year are due to cold weather. Other people are sacrificing other essential items just to keep the lights on and their houses warm.

My first question for the Minister of State is on the energy poverty strategy, which lapsed in 2019. We have yet to see a new strategy, so there does not seem to be any urgency in this Government about addressing energy poverty. While the rising cost of energy this year is happening on a global scale, that does not mean that we can take a laissez-faire approach to how we address energy poverty. We must have a strategy that identifies which households are most in need of action, and on how we will address those households to ensure we can lift them out of energy poverty.

We know from a Department of Public Expenditure and Reform report in 2020 that we do not have adequate data about energy poverty. A report in 2015 that was commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications stated that energy poverty in Ireland could be anything from 25% of households, and up to 50% of households in the north west of the country because of one-off housing that relies on solid fuels. However, the report in 2020 - five years after the 2015 report - shows that we still do not have adequate data to identify those households in energy poverty. Yet, the Government is dead set on increasing the carbon tax. It is going to introduce a nationwide smoky fuel ban, which of course we need. However, if we do not know which households will be directly impacted by those rising costs and by that smoky fuel ban, then how are we going to help those households?

Of course, any increases in the budget in terms of social welfare transfers are to be welcomed. However, we also need direct State intervention to identify the households and to reduce the cost of energy. It is regrettable that the Government and the CRU have told people to shop around when they did not take account of how hard it is for people to do that. Some people do not have the capacity to shop around. They might not have a credit rating that allows them to do that. Those households that struggle to make ends meet are advised to go on pay-as-you-go metering, which has a higher tariff, so they are being punished for not having adequate income to cover their bills.

One of the things the Government should be looking at is increasing the doors and window fund to make it easier for local authorities to identity those households. That would be a short-term stopgap to make those homes warmer for people and it would reduce their energy costs.

The other aspect concerns the PSO levy. It exists to subsidise renewable energy but it is calculated on the basis of peak demand usage. That allows data centres off the hook when it comes to paying their fair share of the PSO levy. Data centres do not have high peak demands. Instead, they have a steady demand during the day. Households are therefore subsidising the PSO levy on behalf of data centres. The Government could do something to address this issue directly by adjusting the PSO levy and making it apply to demand usage and not peak demand usage. That could be done overnight. Those are two measures that could be taken. I also ask the Minister of State to advise me regarding when we are going to see indicators from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, to allow for the proper identification of those households most in need in respect of energy poverty.

I thank Senator Boylan. This is an important issue. Energy poverty is influenced by people's income, the energy efficiency of their home and the cost of the energy they use in their home. Government policy, therefore, focuses on supplementing lower-income households through the fuel allowance and other payments, as well as by providing free energy efficiency upgrades via the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, schemes and the social housing retrofitting programme.

The Government’s strategy to combat energy poverty was published in 2016 and it is being reviewed at present. Since the publication of the strategy, good progress has been made to alleviate the burden of energy poverty on the most vulnerable in society. I will detail some of the achievements in that regard. The share of households at risk of experiencing energy poverty has reduced from 28% in 2016 to 17.5% in 2020. The proportion of people reporting that they are unable to afford to keep their home adequately warm has fallen from 9% in 2015 to 4.9% in 2019. The funding provided for SEAI energy poverty retrofit schemes has increased dramatically from €15 million in 2015 to more than €109 million in 2021. The fuel allowance has also increased from €20 per week in 2014 to €28 per week in 2021, and it is paid to people receiving long-term social welfare payments, including pensioners, people with disabilities, those parenting alone and jobseekers. The allocation for the retrofitting of social housing has increased, with €65 million allocated for 2021. Free upgrades were carried out in more than 24,000 lower-income homes under the main SEAI energy poverty retrofit schemes. In addition, the Housing for All strategy has committed to introducing additional rent controls that will result in rental properties having a required minimum building energy rating, BER.

Energy efficiency measures are central to addressing one of the root causes of energy poverty. Since 2018, the level of retrofitting under the SEAI schemes has increased from an average value of €3,000 per home to €17,100 per home. This means that those households are more protected from changes in their income or energy costs. The fuel allowance is provided to an estimated 370,000 households across the State. A budget of €292 million has been set aside for the upcoming season. A household benefits package is also available to eligible households and can be used towards meeting the cost of electricity or gas bills. The Department of Social Protection also funds an exceptional needs payment, which can in some cases include support with fuel bills.

Responsibility for the regulation of Irish electricity and gas markets is a matter for the CRU. Protections are in place for those falling into difficulties with their energy bills and suppliers will not disconnect customers who engage with them. The programme for Government and the climate action plan set ambitious targets to retrofit 500,000 homes to a BER rating of B2 and to install 400,000 heat pumps in existing buildings over the next decade. A new national retrofit plan will be published in quarter four of this year and the plan is designed to address barriers to energy efficiency investments in four key areas, namely, customer proposition, demand generation, financing and affordability, supplier capacity and governance.

The programme for Government has committed to ensuring that the retrofit programme is socially progressive, with a focus on lower-income households. This commitment will not only help in reducing our carbon emissions, but also, more importantly, benefit lower-income householders in many ways. Homes will be warmer, easier to heat and more comfortable and will also support improved occupant health and well-being, especially among vulnerable groups. The retrofit programme will also stimulate employment generation in what is a highly labour-intensive sector, with the potential to create high-quality sustainable jobs in local communities throughout the country.

I thank the Minister of State for that update. I question the figures, however, in respect of how we have identified reduced numbers of people experiencing energy poverty. I again draw the Minister of State's attention to the report from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform entitled, Spending Review 2020: Social Impact Assessment – SEAI Programmes Targeting Energy Poverty.

That report says we do not have the metrics to adequately assess how beneficial the retrofitting programme has been in lifting people out of energy poverty and that in order to do that we must collect the correct data to be able to assess whether or not our retrofitting programmes are working and whether they are actually identifying the households most in need. The CSO indicated to do that by quarter 4 of 2020 and we have not seen that data. Perhaps the Minister of State will update us on when we will see those CSO indicators. Then the data he is quoting can be backed up by credible statistics.

I appreciate the Senator's sincere concerns about the data and the sources. She is absolutely right to ask those questions. I am happy for my office to engage with hers if she wants to follow up and get references on where the data come from. On the specific point about when the CSO is going to publish its indicators, which I think is the Senator's question, I will come back to her with the details on that rather than give a response that is not accurate. It absolutely is important to track these things. One of the most important things any Government does is keep older people warm in their houses during the winter. If there is one thing we can do that we can feel emotionally attached to, it is that. It is measuring what proportion of people are cold in their homes from year to year, seeing if we are making progress with that and ensuring our policies are empathetic and take account of people's real lives. That is important. I am willing to communicate directly with the Senator on that if she wants to follow up.

Vaccination Programme

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. I welcome her back to our original Chamber. I tabled a similar Commencement matter last April and I will continue to table this one because of its importance. This is particularly so from a County Clare perspective given the late Laura Brennan was from Ennis. She did so much in her campaigning to encourage both parents and young people to take up the human papillomavirus, HPV, vaccine. At one stage take-up was in excess of 80%, which is remarkable, even from a European or worldwide perspective. As we move forward through the pandemic, we see vaccine hesitancy in the country is very low by international standards. We have take-up of well over 90% in the Covid-19 vaccination programme. I want to see us achieve 90% take-up in the HPV vaccination programme because it does save lives. As Laura Brennan said on a regular basis, this is the one vaccine that will save lives. It is proven, tried and tested. The research and the facts speak for themselves. Obviously the programme has suffered an interruption due to Covid-19 and schools being closed, as well as the difficulties and challenges associated with that. Nobody can blame anybody for that. That is just the way it was. There was a public health emergency and unfortunately, a lot of healthcare suffered, including the HPV vaccine roll-out.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister of State on the update I have sought. The first seeks a general update on where we are with the HPV vaccine now, including what the uptake levels are like, what the plans are and what the expected uptake level is. The second question is whether we are thinking outside the box with respect to rolling the vaccine out.

Obviously, schools are the easiest and most straightforward way of doing this but there are people who are not caught through that approach, such as those who are being homeschooled. We have a network of vaccination centres that have delivered the Covid-19 vaccine very effectively. We need to see if other vaccines can be delivered through that network, now that the centres are up and running. The flu vaccine is an obvious one, as is the HPV vaccine. I have raised this matter before. I would like to know if any of the vaccination centres have been used. If so, I ask for some detail on that. If not, are there plans to use the vaccination centres, especially in areas in which there is a lower take-up of the HPV vaccine than we would like? Clearly, we want 100% of people to take it up, but if there are parts of the country in which the take-up is lower than in others, maybe we need to look at other interventions, such as using the vaccination centres.

The HPV vaccine catch-up programme has come to my attention on a number of occasions. People throughout the country have heard me raising the issue and have contacted me. If parents decide not to go ahead with the vaccine because they are hesitant, concerned or fearful and then change their minds after six or 12 months, they have to pay a €600 fee to get the vaccine from their GP. We should not be punishing people who decide, albeit late, that they want to do what is right in the interest of their children's health. Can the Minister of State give a commitment that we will waive that €600 fee? If we got that out of this debate, it would be a major achievement and would certainly help in increasing the uptake of the HPV vaccine.

I thank Senator Conway for raising this matter. We have spoken about it previously and I fully agree with everything he has said.

I will address the Senator's concerns under the three categories he raised, namely, the plan, the vaccination centres and the costings. In 2009, the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, recommended the HPV vaccination for all 12 and 13-year-old girls to reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer when they are adults. In September 2010, the HPV vaccination programme was introduced for all girls in the first year of secondary school.

In 2013, NIAC recommended that the HPV vaccine should be given to boys. On foot of NIAC's recommendation, my Department asked HIQA to undertake a health technology assessment, HTA, to establish the clinical and cost effectiveness of extending the current immunisation programme to include boys in their first year of secondary school. HIQA completed the HTA in December 2018, which recommended the HPV immunisation programme be extended to include boys in their first year of secondary school.

A policy decision was made to expand the HPV immunisation programme to include boys, starting in September 2019, with the introduction of the 9-valent HPV vaccine. The ages at which vaccines are recommended in immunisation schedules are chosen by NIAC in order to give each child the best possible protection against the vaccine. It is important to note that for the 2019-20 academic year, the uptake for the HPV vaccine was recorded at 82% for the first dose of the vaccine and 77% for the second dose. This was the highest uptake of the HPV vaccination programme since 2015-16 and is especially encouraging because it was the first year in which boys were included in the programme. It also shows that the provision of the vaccine in community clinics did not adversely affect the uptake.

The programme for the academic year 2020-21 was paused during the first few months of this year due to school closures and redeployment of the staff. The inputting of the uptake information for the schools-based programme was also delayed due to the redeployment of the administrative staff. However, community healthcare organisations, CHOs, have reported that the vast majority of second level schools had their first dose of HPV vaccine delivered between October and December of last year. The current record uptake rate for the HPV vaccine in the 2020-21 academic year is over 73% and the figure is probably higher because the administrative staff have not updated it.

All CHOs have plans to recommence their school programme this month, which will see the continued roll-out of the HPV vaccine.

At the request of the Department, HIQA is conducting a HTA on a school-based HPV mop-up vaccination programme for those who were previously eligible and missed out on the vaccine. HIQA has confirmed that the HTA has been added to its work programme for 2021-22. I am told today that it is hoped that this work will be completed in the coming months. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has requested that officials give consideration to the outcome of this work.

Senator Conway inquired about the use of vaccination centres and if HIQA would consider redeploying the centres where we have a low turnout for a once-off mopping up programme. In the context of mopping up, we are talking about children within school and college settings, but it also includes those aged under 24 who have moved on into workforce settings. The mop-up programme is not set in a particular area. We have a very broad lens when we are looking at it. I am out of time so I will answer the Senator's third question when I speak next.

It is very encouraging to hear the statistics the Minister of State has put on the record. I very much welcome the mop-up programme and the broad lens approach that is being adopted by the Department and the HSE because that is what we need to do. We must think outside the box and the Department is doing that.

I wish to inquire about the cost of vaccination for people who decided latterly to take up the vaccine, having not done so when the opportunity was initially available in schools. Unfortunately, if parents see the obvious health benefits of vaccination and decide to bring a young person who was offered the vaccine six or 12 months previously for the vaccine, the cost is approximately €600. It is punitive and does not encourage people to take up the vaccine. I hope the Minister of State will look at eliminating the cost because it would make vaccination far more attractive for people who were initially hesitant.

Just before I came to the House today, I met the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, because I was taking this Commencement matter and the issue raised is a serious one. I have two girls and I have inquired about the cost of getting the vaccine. Senator Conway is correct; it is between €400 and €600. I want my daughters vaccinated but like many other parents, I would like to bridge the gap and bring the current vaccination rate of 73% or 80% up to 100%. We must ensure we make the vaccine available free of charge to all young people under 24 years in order that we have 100% take-up. By doing that, we will bring everybody with us. In addition, as Senator Conway correctly said, we have, in the vaccination centres, a system in place that means we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We can use these centres to help in the mop-up exercise. I was heartened to hear that the Minister is putting a package together, perhaps as part of his budgetary proposals, and HPV is part of it.

Will the €600 charge be eliminated?

Yes. That is the hope.

That is great news.

Work Permits

I will not delay the Minister of State, Deputy English, as he is very busy. In fairness to him, he made it to the House by the skin of his teeth.

Businesses have been in contact with me about an issue that the Minister and I briefly discussed previously. One such business is a bus company that has not been able to employ drivers in Ireland, either north or south of the Border.

It is looking to employ some people from Malta. It can take 14 drivers from Malta, who are originally from the Philippines and who have the required experience and whatever else, but the work permits are an issue. I have also been talking to lorry drivers and a couple of quite large businesses in the midlands that are finding it hard to get the relevant drivers through the usual EU channels and equivalent businesses that do not need the permits. We see the chaos faced by our neighbours in the UK at present, particularly as regards drivers with these specialised skills. We should not go down the same route.

Now is an ideal time to deal with this matter. It should be done before Christmas. The transport industry is going to be ramping up between now and then so this is the time to deal with it. I ask the Minister of State to look favourably on this and to take my points on board. I would appreciate a relevant and positive answer.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am glad I have been able to make it to the House because it is an important topic. We were caught in traffic in Drogheda but we made it in time. It is good to be here.

We had a discussion on this last week as well. It is certainly a very relevant issue that has been raised by many colleagues across the board. I have engaged with the various sectors and businesses over the summer and the availability of talent and skills is an issue that has come up quite a lot in the last three or four weeks. The Senator mentioned bus drivers and lorry drivers. That is a very common issue that is coming through a lot in recent weeks and months.

Yesterday, I also met with a number of retailers that are under serious pressure. One of the groups involved had 50 or 60 jobs available on that day across four or five shops. There are a lot of vacancies in many sectors, including in agrifood and agriculture. We met the IFA last week, and this is a big issue for it too. It is something we are trying to find ways to address across a number of Departments.

The Senator raised the issue of visas and permits so I will focus on that but we are trying to look at this issue through Pathways to Work with the Minister for Social Protection and through my own Department, where the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, are working on it together. We are also doing work in higher education with the Minister for of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. Across those three Departments, we intend to work with the various sectors this year and in the years ahead to try to address some of that skills gap through on-the-job training, higher education, further education and training, FET, apprenticeships and so on. There are a lot of opportunities there. Many of these sectors might not have had to avail of opportunities in the past so we will try to focus resources to make that happen as best we possibly can, in order to close the skills gap in the long term and future-proof this country. In the short term, the Senator is right that there is a major issue in many sectors heading into Christmas. That is something we are investigating under the permit structure to see how we can address that as well.

The issue of visas is dealt with by the Minister for Justice. The employment permits system is designed to facilitate the entry of appropriately skilled non-EEA nationals to fill skills and-or labour shortages in the short to medium term, in circumstances where there are no suitably qualified Irish or EEA nationals available to undertake the work and that the shortage is a genuine one. The system is managed through the operation of the critical skills occupations list and the ineligible occupations list, which determine employments that are either in high demand or are ineligible for consideration for an employment permit. In order to ensure that the employment permit system continues to meet the needs of the labour market and the economy, the lists are subject to twice-yearly evidence-based reviews. Once one review is completed, the next review begins with the opening of a public consultation phase.

In conducting the reviews, my Department works with other Departments to promote an integrated approach to address labour and skills shortages in the longer term. Where shortages are clearly evidenced, the employment permit system is flexible enough to address them in real time. The system is, by design, vacancy-led and driven by the changing needs of the labour market. A review of the occupation lists is currently nearing completion, and all submissions are being actively considered in consultation with sectoral representatives, the relevant policy Departments and the economic migration interdepartmental group. If it is an agriculture issue, we will engage with that Department, if it is to do with transport we will deal with the Department of Transport and so on. It is envisaged that the review will be finalised in the coming weeks and any changes necessary to deal with verified skills or labour shortages will be taken at that time.

In regard to where we are today, applications for employment permits have seen a significant increase over the course of the year. To the end of the last month, some 14,624 applications were received, representing a 35% increase over the same period in 2020 and a 19% increase on 2019, which itself represented an 11-year high. To date, my Department has issued some 10,849 employment permits since the beginning of the year, which represents a significant volume of activity.

Recently, processing times have been impacted by this significant increase in demand and also by the HSE cyberattack. These factors resulted in a significant additional administrative burden in dealing with applications associated with the July doctors rotation which were submitted either manually or by other non-standard methods. It is important to point out that when set against other international employment permit regimes, Ireland continues to compare extremely favourably. However, my Department, which constantly strives to improve the situation, is conscious of the recent lengthening of timeframes for processing applications and is taking a range of measures to clear the current backlog as quickly as possible and deal with priority areas. My Department advises employers to take current timelines into account as part of their recruitment plans but we are, of course, allocating more resources to help tackle the backlog as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister of State. It is good that the figures he outlined are significant. However, there will be a heavy squeeze coming in the next couple of weeks, probably more than his office is seeing at present. We should anticipate and deal with it head-on, instead of waiting until it comes to a bottleneck. I again thank the Minister of State because I know he is working hard on this.

I thank the Senator. He is right that we are trying to deal with this early and that is why, twice a year, we have this review, which is under way at this time. Usually, decisions would be made in November but we will try to get them made in October this year so we can give some clear indications.

Part of this is to gather the evidence and to prove we can source this labour locally. As the Senator will appreciate, it is very difficult to explain that we need to issue permits when there are over 100,000 people on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and another 100,000-plus on the live register. Much of the work we are trying to do, in conjunction with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys, through Pathways to Work, is to assist those people who are out of work today to maybe take up one of those job vacancies that are available. That is not always possible because of geography or training, but in many cases it is possible. Through Pathways to Work, we are allowing for extra money to be allocated to support businesses to take people off the live register and off PUP, but also to help those people back into training, to upskill and to get them back to a job. We will come at it from a number of angles, including Pathways to Work, job supports and incentives for industry, which will help to close some of the gap and bring people closer to a job. There are 10,000 job placements available. I urge employers to have a look at that and to maybe give people an opportunity to take on a new job.

We are reviewing the permits. If we have to intervene with the permits system and if the evidence is there, such as the evidence the Senator is bringing forward for certain sectors, we will deal with that as best as we possibly can.

The Minister of State referred to 100,000 people in unemployment and 100,000 people on PUP. As he knows, the people driving lorries and buses during the pandemic were some of the busiest people in the country, and we have seen with our neighbours next door that there is a demand for them at present. I would be very sceptical that too many people on PUP or on the unemployment list at present are going to be of any help in this regard, unfortunately.

To clarify, I certainly was not saying that everybody on PUP could drive a bus or a lorry. What I meant was that, in general, there are a lot of vacancies across many sectors and we have to work with those who are currently unemployed to try to help them into those jobs. The long-term solution with regard to logistics and lorry drivers and bus drivers is training and qualifications. Efforts were made a couple of years ago to try to make that happen and, for different reasons, it does not seem to have delivered as we thought it could. The Department of Transport and the Road Safety Authority are reviewing the qualifications for people from different countries driving in this country. We are working with them to see how we can help to close the gap in this regard. We will certainly deal proactively with that.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.