Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Aviation Industry

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting my matter. The Minister of State is welcome to the House. As we emerge into a post-Covid-19 world, a traffic reinstatement support scheme for our airports is important, as is aviation recovery. Route development, reinstatement and retention is what I am referring to and, in particular, the need for financial supports to be given to our airports and to be used to attract new business.

I make no apology for being an advocate for not only Cork Airport, but all our airports. Prior to Covid, Cork was the second fastest growing airport in the country. It was growing faster than Dublin Airport, as the passenger data will show.

The Minister of State is from the west of and knows that connectivity is important. It is important for the external aviation sector. It is pivotal to our tourism industry and to balanced regional development. Our national broadband plan is being unfurled, which highlights the importance of connectivity to our regions.

As travel and transport return to normal, it is important that the Government sets out its stall to implement measures to restore confidence in air travel to encourage people to come into Ireland. Central to that is that we show we are open for business and that potential visitors can visit Ireland with confidence. Linked to that, we should, in the forthcoming budget and on an ongoing basis, offer financial assistance in the form of a rebate of airport charges. I acknowledge that airport relief in continuing at local level. We also need route incentivisation schemes and regional airport supports. In fairness, the industry will recognise the supports that the Government has given. All of us in this House and the Lower House should acknowledge that the Government has been quick to support our aviation sector through a multiplicity of schemes. I very much welcome that. The aviation sector supports what the Minister of State has been doing. It is important that the capital expenditure and operating expenses supports for the regional airports in Cork and Shannon continue.

The reinstatement support scheme for next year is important. Aer Lingus has yet to announce its winter schedule, which runs from October to April. Aer Lingus is our country's primary carrier. In the context of the plan for the future, it is important that we give certainty.

I also raise the issue of Emerald Airlines. The Minister of State has been involved in discussions with the company. It is important for that company to get off to a good start. I say that in the context of Cork Airport, from where Emerald Airlines has a regional franchise to parts of the provincial UK. I wish the company well.

We need to give them supports and put in place that financial truncated support to ensure reinstatement of routes and route retention, as we saw last week with Ryanair and Cork Airport and as we saw with Shannon Airport. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, is doing her level best but it is important in the context of what we are doing as a country around connectivity and route development, that Government continues to support our aviation sector. This is about Ireland being open for business. Our aviation sector is critical to tourism and jobs.

I look forward to the Minister of State's response and thank her for the work she has been doing so far in her tenure.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in this afternoon to answer this question.

I thank Senator Buttimer for giving me the opportunity to make a statement with regard to plans for an aviation recovery strategy and the commitment of the Government to support our airports. We are all well aware that the aviation sector plays a critical role in our economy, as Senator Buttimer said, as a direct employer, an indirect employer and a driving force for tourism and business, including foreign direct investment. Government policies have consistently recognised and supported this contribution. Our national aviation strategy over the years has sought to enhance Ireland's connectivity by ensuring safe, secure and competitive access that is responsive to the needs of business, tourism and consumers.

Ministers have engaged extensively with all aviation stakeholders, including the aviation recovery task force, the National Civil Aviation Development Forum and the aviation sub-group of the Labour Economic Employment Forum. It is clear from this engagement that the single most important factor for Irish aviation was the earliest and widest possible reopening of international travel, subject to public health considerations. The Government has agreed a range of measures and has allowed the resumption of non-essential international travel since 19 July. Central to this was the substantial work undertaken to introduce the enhanced passenger locator form and the EU digital Covid certificate. Under these arrangements we have seen a very welcome recovery in passenger numbers, up nearly 300% since 19 July at our State airports by mid-September.

While passenger numbers at the airports are still only running at between 50% and 70% of pre-pandemic levels, we are seeing positive trends. In that regard, I very much welcome the news that Ryanair will reopen its Cork Airport base from December, the return of Aer Lingus to Shannon Airport on the Heathrow route and restoration of its Knock airport service to London in December. The announcement of the relaxation of the US travel rules for European travellers from November is also welcome and we can look forward to an increase in transatlantic traffic over the coming months. The announced return of both American Airlines and United Airlines to Shannon Airport is a positive development, particularly as transatlantic connectivity is key to any commercial activities in the mid-west region, including tourism and the hospitality sector.

An integral part of our current aviation policy is international connectivity which is fundamentally about access to markets and regions and it plays a key role in creating economic value. The importance the Government places on regional accessibility, development and connectivity is evident in the supports provided to our regional airports, through the Exchequer funded regional airports programme which also supports our public service obligation, PSO, service between Donegal and Dublin.

It is important to acknowledge what Government has done in regard to supports. There has been a comprehensive suite of measures to support businesses, including the aviation sector, such as the employment wage subsidy scheme and the waiving of commercial rates, which are the cornerstone of the Government’s unprecedented intervention to assist business. It is estimated that our airports and airlines have received more than €300 million under these support measures in addition to the aviation specific support package of €80 million, which was announced last November. This package represented a fourfold increase in the level of support normally provided to our airports under the regional airports programme, in addition to the €21 million made available to our regional airports under the programme for 2021, and for the first time Cork and Shannon Airports also received funding.

Having taken into account the recommendations of the task force for aviation recovery and in light of the impact of Covid-19 on Cork and Shannon Airports, the regional state airports programme for 2021 provided capital and operational supports of €32 million for these airports.

As Members will be aware, the European Commission approved under EU state aid rules a €26 million Covid-19 supplementary supports scheme to compensate airport operators for the damage caused by Covid-19.

Of this funding, the State airports were provided with €20 million, with the remaining €6 million allocated to the smaller regional airports of Ireland West Airport Knock and Donegal and Kerry Airports. I can advise the House that my Department is currently assessing the possible need and considering options for further targeted supports for aviation with a view to aiding the restoration of lost air connectivity and competitiveness.

I thank the Minister of State for her response, and in particular, the last line of her response in which she stated that her Department is open and assessing options for further supports. At the launch in Cork of the Ryanair base and new flights, Mr. Eddie Wilson remarked that Dublin Airport could see a fall in Ryanair passenger numbers by 35% next summer, as the DAA traffic recovery scheme does not have the required funding from Government to incentivise air traffic recovery.

The important point is that we must all work towards air traffic recovery. I wish to compliment those in the DAA under Mr. Dalton Philips, the CEO of Cork Airport, Mr. Niall McCarthy, and all who work in our aviation sector. I also wish to compliment the Minister of State. This is an important piece of work that Government must continue to support. I appreciate the work that is being done, and has been done, by Government, the interventions made and the financial support provided. However, it is now critical. The Cathaoirleach is a fan of the USA. As we open up transatlantic travel, it is important that Ryanair, which has done its bit in Europe, is matched by Aer Lingus in transatlantic flights. I hope that we can see transatlantic flights departing from Cork. We have seen the paradigm shift with transatlantic flights departing from Cork with Norwegian Air. We must also ensure that Shannon gets its fair share. It is important for our island nation that our air traffic gets back to normal and to pre-Covid levels and that we support it. I know the Minister of State will do that. I thank her for being here today.

I thank the Senator for his comments. We acknowledge that aviation is a global industry. It has weathered a crisis and demonstrated great resilience. It is important to state that much of the recovery in the passenger numbers has been driven by our successful vaccination programme and those of our European neighbours. At this stage, approximately 90% of our incoming passengers completing the electronic passenger locator form are fully vaccinated. Ireland's reputation as a safe destination is also enhanced by our impressive vaccination figures and our position at the top of the Bloomberg Covid resilience ranking.

In relation to our national aviation policy, we started work on that but it was paused in 2020 as a result of Covid-19 so that we could deal with the crisis in aviation. I wish to inform Senators that work on a revised national aviation policy will begin again in the coming months. A key part of that policy will be the development of a comprehensive public consultation process, as well as close engagement with the aviation industry through the structures of the national civil aviation development forum. The programme for Government acknowledges the value of aviation in supporting economic development, international connectivity and tourism via our airports, while also acknowledging our commitment to support EU and international action to reduce aviation emissions. It is a priority for Government to continue to build on the recovery in the aviation sector. I do not want pre-empt or indeed, pre-announce, budgetary measures that may provide additional supports for the sector for 2022, but I can assure the House of the Government's continued support for the aviation sector and our airports as we recover from this unprecedented crisis in the sector.

Health Services

The next Commencement matter concerns the very important issue of the BreastCheck cancer screening programme. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to the House and thank her for coming in today. I also thank Senator McGreehan for her great initiative. It takes a lot for me to change my green tie to a pink tie. I would only do so for a good cause like this. I thank her for raising this most important matter and for her initiative in relation to encouraging Members of House to wear pink during this month.

I thank the Cathaoirleach, the Minister of State, my other colleagues and the staff in Leinster House who are going pink for breast cancer awareness month. First, I must say that today is an emotional day, because this issue means a lot to me. I am thinking of everyone who is currently going through treatment for breast cancer or is in recovery. I also wish to say how sorry I am for those families who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

It is a terrible loss and one which is never understood. This mark of solidarity, wearing pink, is meant to say that we remember these people's loved ones and that we want to raise awareness of this disease so that perhaps someone will be encouraged to get checked and, rather than having to remember loved ones, we will have them with us. We just might save a life. I thank Councillor Teresa Costello, with whom I am working on this. She is a breast cancer survivor and has an incredible wealth of knowledge and a clear determination to raise awareness of breast health.

As the Cathaoirleach has said, my Commencement matter today is to ask the Minister for Health for an update on BreastCheck and to support an increased awareness campaign to support breast health. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed malignant tumour in Irish women. There were 2,883 such diagnoses in 2014 and this increased to 3,700 diagnoses in 2021. This represents one third of all the major malignancies diagnosed in women. Although survival rates for breast cancer are currently very high, with 82% of those diagnosed surviving for more than five years, it is still the second most common cause of death in women, after lung cancer. On average, 724 deaths per year were attributed to breast cancer in the period from 2015 to 2017. This number has significantly declined, by about 2% per year, since 1994.

It is devastating that we lose 724 people to breast cancer every year but it is also estimated that 60% of those diagnosed with breast cancer every year are outside the national screening programme, BreastCheck. I am an advocate for increased screening but this is a decision for the national screening advisory committee. As part of my campaign, I will be submitting a proposal recommending that the Department of Health lower the age at which screening begins to 40. The Department can act now to empower women and men to check themselves and to be breast aware. We know that early detection saves lives. A full population-wide awareness programme will change outcomes. I ask that the Department fund an increased awareness campaign including national advertisements on television and social media reminding people to check for changes in their breasts. It is also very important to show people how to check for changes in their breasts. I also ask that each hospital group take a supportive and proactive role in this campaign and that the Department and the HSE work with GPs to facilitate increased education to support the referral of patients to specialist breast clinics. Being breast aware, knowing the changes that could signify cancer in men and women, teaching people to check themselves and empowering people will save lives. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Cathaoirleach very much for embracing the pink today. It is great to see it on him and on all our colleagues here. I also thank Senator McGreehan for giving me the opportunity to update the House on this important matter. I understand how important it is.

This Government is fully committed to supporting our population screening programmes which are a valuable part of our health service. As the Senator will know, BreastCheck, along with other cancer screening programmes, was temporarily paused last year due to the impact of Covid-19. The capacity in BreastCheck was also impacted by the cyberattack on the HSE. It should also be noted that, even when screening was paused, the programme continued to operate follow-up clinics and the national screening service is working to maximise the screening invitation rate within the current environment. The programme has done a significant amount of work to support the safe resumption of breast screening. The focus of the resumption includes the management of capacity across the whole of the screening pathway, which includes follow-up assessment and treatments. I am happy to report that routine screening appointments are now returning to normal with approximately 59,000 women screened between January and July of this year. This exceeded the target of 49,000 and more than 10,000 participants were screened in August 2021.

Due to the impact of Covid-19 and the pause in screening in 2020 and again earlier this year, BreastCheck appointments are delayed by up to one year. It will take approximately three years to get through this current screening round, which normally takes about two years. However, this is still within international norms as countries such as England only screen every three years. Women who have been waiting the longest will be invited first. The national screening service is now working hard to return to breast screening every two years in a safe manner.

BreastCheck provides lots of information for the public on its website breastcheck.ie. This includes educational materials to encourage women to be aware of general breast health and, crucially, the common symptoms they should seek medical advice for. It runs social and digital media campaigns and provides valuable information on their website, including regular updates relating to Covid-19.

As Senators might be aware, and as Senator McGreehan said, October is breast cancer awareness month. The national screening service and the HSE have planned an extensive media campaign to highlight key details about screening during Covid-19, breast cancer prevention and symptom awareness. Some €10 million additional funding was provided to the HSE for cancer screening in 2021. These important new developments will help increase capacity and enable screening of individuals who had to defer their appointments because of Covid-19. This includes two new mobile screening units for BreastCheck planned for Donegal and Dublin.

In line with commitments in the programme for Government, BreastCheck is currently implementing an age-extension project that will see all women aged between 50 and 69 being invited for routine breast screening. As with all our national screening programmes, BreastCheck delivers its services in line with international criteria for population-based screening programmes that are kept under constant review. Again, I take this opportunity to emphasise that screening is for healthy people who do not have symptoms. People who are between screening appointments, or who are waiting for rescheduled appointments, are asked to be aware of symptoms. If they have concerns or worries, they should contact their GP who will arrange appropriate follow-up care.

It is positive news that, as the Minister of State mentioned, the three-year extension of BreastCheck appointments will be back to normal within the year. When reflecting on all the challenges the health service and BreastCheck have had over the past 18 months to two years, it is good news that we will be back to normal and better than our neighbours in having a two-year turnaround for BreastCheck.

I also very much welcome that the national screening service and the HSE will carry out an extensive media campaign to highlight this. Early detection will save lives, improve outcomes and will make for far better outcomes for everybody. I appreciate that they are implementing the current age extension, which is great. I will look for those ages to be lowered, but that is another day's work. It is up to the national screening advisory committee to recommend that to the Department.

I very much thank the Minister of State. It is good news. There is a lot done and a little more to do.

The Senator is quite right. As I have outlined, the additional €10 million investment in cancer screening this year represents a commitment by the Government. The development and opening of new BreastCheck units and the recruitment of more staff will assist and enhance capacity across the service. The events around breast cancer awareness this month will, no doubt, raise awareness of the benefits of screening and support more women to be breast aware.

The most important point to get across, and all my female colleagues present will support me in this, is that it is important that women who are called for their appointments go along. I remember when I was called a couple of years ago - when a woman turns 50 she gets the call within a year - and it is so important to go. Sometimes people are a little apprehensive and embarrassed but it is the most important thing they can do. Sometimes they get good news and sometimes they get bad news, but early intervention is key. The message from the House today, during such an important month, is that everyone is encouraged to go for their BreastCheck appointment when they are called.

Special Educational Needs

As someone with many family members who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and successfully come through ttreatment, thankfully, it is great news. I thank the Senator and the Minister of State.

In the minds of parents who do not have a child with special or complex needs such that their child needs to attend a special school, there is a perception that special schools have the ability to cater for all of these complex needs.

There is the perception that these schools have staff who are fully trained and resourced to manage and respond to the complexities of the needs of the children, whatever matters arise. A parent who has a child with complex needs will probably have that same view. We come to it with a perception and the expectation that once the child commences education, he or she will be there throughout his or her education years, be fully catered for, that nothing that arises will be a surprise to anyone and that there will be professional and trained resource staff there to handle it. In the Joint Committee on Disability Matters last week we heard there is sometimes a preference among parents to have their child in a special school even though mainstreaming, a lack of othering and all of that is also important.

It is a shock to everyone to hear children with complex needs can be expelled from a special school. While I will not home in on any case, this is not something we would expect to happen. Expulsion, in the general understanding, comes with a stigma for the child that he or she has exhibited some allegedly deviant behaviour such that the school authorities cannot countenance having the child in the school anymore. It is a seriously reputationally damaging allegation to make against a child who is starting out in life, has little life experience and may be liable to make mistakes and stray into the wrong company, giving rise to the matters for which he or she is expelled. That is the stereotype we have in our heads about an expelled child but that cannot be applied to a child with special needs, who, by his or her very nature, may exhibit behaviour that is difficult or challenging as an expression of frustration, an emotion or a method of communication which professionally trained staff are trained and equipped to deal with.

Parents of a child with special needs who has been expelled from a special school find themselves having to find alternative schooling. Meanwhile, the child is cared for by a parent who may not be trained, has other responsibilities and has no respite care. It is not hard to see why it is draining and those parents may feel a sense of abandonment.

I acknowledge all that has been done by the Minister of State's Department and by that of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. The response from the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, has been really good when I have brought these cases to her. However, we need reassurances, given that these cases come up not infrequently, regarding the provision of education for children with acute needs, in light of the context of expulsions from special schools, where the behaviour that led to the expulsion is a manifestation of those complex needs. Are the resources sufficient? Is there sufficient planning? Is there enough training in the special school setting? If there are deficits, what plan do we have to campaign and combat that?

I offer apologies from the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I thank the Senator for raising this matter. Enabling students with special educational needs to receive an education is a priority for this Government.

The policy of the Department of Education is that students with special needs should be included, where possible and appropriate, in mainstream placements with additional supports provided. Where students require more specialised interventions, a continuum of education provision extends to include access to special school or special class places. This continuum is consistent with the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act. There are extensive supports in place in terms of additional teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, to support students across the continuum of provision.

The level of investment in special education, at almost €2 billion, is at an all-time high. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, SNAs, special classes and special school places are at unprecedented levels.

An additional 269 additional special classes opened this school year, bringing the total number of special classes nationally to 2,118. The new classes provide 1,600 additional places, spread throughout the country.

Some 124 special schools provide specialist education for approximately 8,000 students annually. The Department has also established two new special schools in Cork and Dublin which are now open for the 2021-2022 school year, which I know will be welcomed by everyone. These schools provide specialist educational services for students who have the most severe or complex levels of disabilities or special educational needs.

The Senator may also be aware that the Minister, Deputy Foley and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan recently launched guidelines on the use of reduced school days. These guidelines aim to ensure the use of reduced school days is limited solely to those circumstances where it is absolutely necessary. They have been developed following consultation with the relevant education partners and give direction to school authorities on the process to be followed where the use of reduced school days is under consideration for a pupil.

I should also state that section 29 of the Education Act 1998 allows for appeals against the decision of a board of management of a school to suspend or exclude a student permanently, which speaks to the point made by the Senator. This is a necessary provision to safeguard the rights of all children in a school.

In accordance with section 24(4) of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, "A student shall not be expelled from a school before the passing of 20 school days following the receipt of a notification under this section by an educational welfare officer." This section of the Act provides for the educational welfare officer to convene a meeting with the school and the parents and any other persons, as agreed, to attend to make reasonable efforts to ensure provision is made for the continued education of the student to whom the notification relates.

Where a student is expelled, section 29 of the Education Act 1998 provides for an appeal where a board of management, or a person acting on behalf of the board of management, normally the school principal, expels a student. To make an appeal, a parent, guardian or the pupil, if over 18 years, must complete the section 29 appeal form for expulsion or suspension. The Department does not hold the details on the number of children expelled from school and only has details on the number of appeals taken under section 29 in respect of expulsions. Since November 2020, there have been 32 appeals received in respect of expulsions from schools.

Through the work of the educational welfare officers and the special educational needs organisers, support is available for both the school and the parents at a local level. I thank Senator Seery Kearney for giving me the opportunity to address this issue.

I thank the Minister of State very much and I appreciate that expenditure is at an all-time high. The creation of the Minister of State position dedicated to special education and inclusion is a flag-bearer that this is a very big priority for us as a Government.

It is a surprise that the number is as high as 32, which is beyond what I thought it was, which was a figure in the early 20s. I acknowledge the creation of a school in my own home constituency of Dublin South-Central, which I appreciate.

We have clearly set out guidelines and our dedication to these children and it is important now we oversee and enforce it to ensure the children are at the centre of every decision made.

I thank the Senator very much for her comments. The Department is very aware of the educational needs of all children and of the need to ensure appropriate supports are available to each school where concerns about individual students are identified. The level of investment now in place ensures these supports are available. I will bring the Senator's concerns back to the senior Minister, and the Senator may be able to talk to her in person on this issue.

Work Permits

I am here today to speak for the owners of many small and medium sized businesses, particularly in Kildare. We all acknowledge that they have faced great adversity over the last 18 months and many of them are fighting for the survival of their businesses at present. I must acknowledge that government subsidies have been forthcoming and have stopped the financial bleeding for many businesses, and the business owners I speak to are very complimentary about the suite of financial supports that has been made available. However, the Government must now reposition its focus and support businesses to get back to financial independence.

I wish to highlight the significant staffing shortages being experienced by many businesses as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and why it is imperative that visas are issued in a far swifter manner for workers to step into the breach, particularly those who have skills in the hospitality sector and in food production. I refer to one food production company that contacted me. The company needs 100 skilled workers at the very minimum. It cannot source them in Ireland and has tried to source them throughout Europe. It needs 100 people. It is turning away business at present and is finding it extremely difficult to meet the orders it has accepted. It submitted visa applications and has been told that it is three to four months behind. The Department is currently only dealing with applications that were made in late June and early July. This is detrimental to the company. Another business I wish to mention is a four-star hotel, a fine hotel at the heart of my constituency. Again, it has been advertising for chefs and for others who are experienced in hospitality, but the quality and volume of staff required are simply not available.

It is not an isolated issue, as I am hearing this from many businesses. They were lucky to employ skilled and capable employees who happen not to be Irish citizens and who had been residing in Ireland solely for the employment opportunities it has to offer. However, when the pandemic started many of them chose to return to their home countries. Now there is a dearth of people who are able to take up specific employment positions. The Tánaiste and the Minister of State's Department have ultimate responsibility for ensuring that we have a robust workforce that is fit for purpose. The Tánaiste and the Minister of State must do more to support businesses to stand on their own two feet. If businesses cannot access the skilled labour they need to run their businesses effectively, they will never be able to return to the level of their pre-Covid operations. They are also very concerned about the staff who are working in their businesses at present and who are taking on extra shifts and so forth, because they want to ensure that everybody is working in a good employment situation.

Visas are a particular issue, with many potential workers struggling to gain access to the employment market. The Department must fulfil its brief and there must be a very strategic intervention. Obviously, the Department must have additional staff to accelerate the permit process. This is a major issue not just for the people I represent in Kildare but throughout the country. I hope the Minister of State will take on board the message I am strongly giving to him and intervene in an appropriate way.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this issue, which is something we have discussed quite a lot in recent weeks, mainly in this House. It has been raised with me quite regularly by the business community and the representative bodies we engage with in the various sectors. We have spent a great deal of time over the last couple of months engaging with various sectors and businesses that have highlighted this shortage of staff as a major issue and which are finding it very difficult to access the skilled staff they need, and in some cases the unskilled staff they need, in many sectors. The Senator highlighted two today, hospitality and food production. That matches up with the data coming through to us as well.

We have engaged with the various sectors. Part of the difficulty is that this year there have been more than 17,000 applications for permits since the start of the year.

Over 11,000 applications have been granted so we are clear that we are moving through a lot of applications. A backlog has developed in recent months, mainly due to the demand for medical permits, which had to be prioritised. The process involving medical permits became a lot more difficult after the HSE cyberattack so we have had to process a lot of them manually and some were applied for manually as well. We have increased staff resources and made changes in our Department to try to cater for the demand for permits and make decisions on applications a lot more speedily. We are not in charge of the visas; we just have responsibility for the work permits. The Department understands how important these work permits are for many sectors and we will try to engage with them on that.

A review is under way which is looking at the various sectors that might need changes to the permit system. We have had 29 submissions to that review, including from the sectors the Senator has referenced, such as food production and hospitality, and many others. We are working through those submissions and hopefully we can make any changes that are needed in the month of October. That usually happens in November but we are going to try to do it in October of this year if possible to try to cater for that.

The Senator is right that some sectors have gone to great lengths to source staff in Ireland and in Europe and I have met some of the representatives of those sectors. We grant permits outside of the EU and we would ask any sector or company that is making applications for permits or looking for changes to the permit lists to make every effort they can to source labour locally if they can and to engage with Pathways to Work and our Intreo offices, which provide great supports to take people off the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and social welfare. Both businesses and people are supported as they go back to work so I ask businesses to engage with that service. In the short and long term, businesses need to engage with our education system, including the higher education sector and the further education and training sector, to develop these skills locally if it all possible, rather than having to go down the route of work permits. It is difficult to explain that there are 100,000 people on the PUP and another 100,000 plus on social welfare and yet thousands of these jobs are also available. It is hard to address the need for work permits in certain sectors that do not have a need for high-skilled labour in that context. We will try to accommodate it as best we possibly can.

The Senator mentioned the food sector and although I was not in the Department at the time, in 2018 it made changes to the scheme to try to cater for that. A pilot quota-based scheme was introduced which issued 2,500 general employment permits for the meat processing industry, 500 permits for horticulture and 150 permits for the dairy sector. That quota has been used up so the ask is that it would be increased, as well as making other changes to the list. We are doing all that work at present and hopefully we will be able to provide an update before the end of October.

I thank the Minister of State. I have confidence that he recognises the extent of the problem and I recognise that some measures have been put in place. Any of the companies that I had contact with tried Pathways to Work, but it just did not work for various reasons. They took on people and those people left. We have to recognise the reality of what is there. Maybe we can have a separate debate on Pathways to Work on another day.

We need to have the quota system opened again and the Minister of State has indicated that this could be done. On the 3,000 permits that have not yet been processed and that the Minister of State mentioned, that is where the crisis and the crux of the matter is. The Department must do whatever it can and I acknowledge that there is a difference between the work permits and the visa applications but the Minister of State was sent to deal with this matter and one goes hand in hand with the other. We must think about what these businesses have gone through over the last 18 months, particularly the hospitality industry, which cannot get chefs for love nor money. That industry wants to have a successful number of months in the rest of 2021 and into 2022 and it will not be able to do so if this is not solved.

I thank the Senator again for raising the issue. I totally understand the difficulties that are out there because I have engaged with the sectors quite a lot. When I said we were prioritising medical staff I meant to point out that we prioritised permits for chefs as well because we understood that the sector was under an awful lot of pressure and that it was an essential service providing food during the Covid emergency. We tried to fast-track and expedite permits for chefs wherever we could.

Likewise, other sectors have come forward recently making strong cases to have their applications dealt with in a timely manner. Regular users of the permit system have a much quicker timeline for processing. As I said, 1,784 applications were made this year, which is a 41% increase compared to last year. The Senator will appreciate that meant there would be some delays. We tried to address that through overtime and staffing. On top of that, we had to deal with medical permit applications, which are generally submitted in May, June and July. Many of those permits had to be processed manually, which caused great difficulty.

However, our teams have been responding both in dealing with the permits in the system and in reviewing the lists under which people are allowed to apply for permits. The hospitality sector and many other sectors, including the transport sector which is a significant one, are included on the lists. We will deal with those in the coming weeks. I will continue to engage with all those companies and sectors. We have to address the skills shortage in many other ways in the long term, rather than simply a reliance on the employment permits system. I am committed to doing that. The various Departments will join forces to address that, if this can be done, in the long term. The employment permits system is often a way to solve the problem in the short term as well as bringing in some new talent to the country.

Sitting suspended at 3.22 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.