Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Housing Schemes

I welcome the Minister of State to the House to address what I feel is an important matter for many people in this country, especially those in my county, Kildare. I am sure that, like me, the Minister of State has assisted many people and families with what has always been a worthwhile grant. The grant has made such a difference to the day-to-day lives of so many older people and families with medical issues who needed assistance with the quality of life of their loved ones. Over the past year, many families have found themselves unable to afford the work which is recommended in the context of these grants and which can make people's lives so much better. Rising building costs have practically stopped many people from being able to access these grants. An urgent review of the grants must be carried out. In recent months, my office has received an increasing number of calls from people. Many are at their wits' end and are asking for help for their loved ones who, in some cases are still in hospital waiting for the promised work that can bring them back home, where they and their families want to be.

As I said recently in the House, in one case, the cheapest quote that the person dealing with my office received was more than 200% above the maximum grant payable, which is €30,000. The quote that person sought was for the works recommended by the local authority's occupational therapist. The person had engaged with five different contractors to try to get a cheaper quote but could not achieve that. There are many similar cases. Another issue is that more and more builders are demanding that the cost of the grant be paid up front because they cannot afford to wait on the council payment system. With so few builders now completing council work, families have no option but to borrow from where they can in order to secure these building services and get the work done. This puts added stress on families who need our help rather than finding themselves under more pressure.

Another issue relates to the means test for older people, where the private pensions that they worked hard for all their lives are reducing the amounts they are offered via the grant. They are turning to family members or credit unions to try to fund the difference. The type of works involved will allow members of our older population to remain in their homes where they want to be. Too many of our older population find themselves unable to access a grant which, at their time of life, is essential to their well-being and which, as I have said on countless occasions, is needed for all their work and contributions to the State over many years.

These issues are having a knock-on effect. In some cases that I am dealing with, the applicants have to remain in hospital because the family cannot afford the cost of the works to bring them home. In an ever-increasing number of cases, people can no longer continue to live in their own homes and this is causing an additional cost to the State through the nursing homes scheme. In many cases, I turn to another arm of the State and try to engage the community welfare officer service to see if it can come up with the difference to secure these payments and ensure that grants are paid. These issues are causing much stress, as the Minister of State can imagine.

I know that staff dealing with these grants are inundated with queries from worried applicants, fearing that they will not get work done on their homes. We need to provide additional resources to local authorities to cover the administration of these grants. The ever-increasing waiting times for some of these grants are a worry, both at the beginning of the process and when payment is due. I have raised the need to create permanent posts in our local authorities rather than the contracted positions that seem to be on offer at present. We need to offer staff security in these positions, which will have a knock-on benefit in the context of these grants.

Time is not the friend of many of these families. There is an urgent need for a revised grant. I know from previous discussions and replies to parliamentary questions from my Labour Party colleagues that a review will be carried out by the end of the year. I ask the Minister of State to speed up this review to change these life-changing grants now and allow those who need these grants the most the benefit of works that will change their lives for the better.

I thank Senator Wall for raising this issue and providing me with an opportunity to give an update on the matter on behalf of the Department. The Department provides funding to local authorities under the suite of housing adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability to assist people in private houses to make their accommodation more suitable for their needs and also to facilitate an early return from hospital stays. The grants include the housing adaptation grant for people with disability, the mobility aids grant and housing aid for older people, which are 80% funded by the Department with a 20% contribution from the resources of the local authority. The detailed administration of these schemes, including assessment, approval, prioritisation and appointment between the three schemes, is the responsibility of the local authorities.

Funding of €75 million is available nationally in 2021 from the housing adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability scheme. This funding has increased year on year since 2014. As part of the budgetary process, consideration will be given to increasing this funding in future years in line with the programme for Government commitments and the policy statement on housing options for our ageing population. The housing options for our ageing population policies statement emphasised the Department's commitment to streamlining the application process and ensuring the grounds were more accessible to applicants. In this regard, the Department met all 31 local authorities in 2019 to review the detailed administration of the grants in a series of workshops countrywide. The Department also met key stakeholders, including the National Disability Authority, Alone and Age Friendly Ireland, which helped to bring clarity and guidance to the issues raised at the workshop.

A revised single application form to cover the three grants, which was tested for plain English, was issued to all local authorities in December 2019 together with revised guidelines for implementation by the end of January 2020. The Department is working to ensure full implementation of the new process, which will make the grant application process more user-friendly and accessible as well as standardising the individual local authority approach to administering the scheme.

The receipt and processing of housing grant applications has continued throughout the pandemic. Carrying out of such works was specifically exempted from the construction restrictions under the public health regulations which were in place. It is accepted, however, that the pace has been affected by the effects of wider restrictions and revised work methodologies necessary in response to the pandemic. Inevitably, this has led to a backlog of applications in some local authorities. Officials in the Department are engaging with local authorities and emphasising the importance of urgently reducing any existing backlog through the provision of additional resources and ensuring that all applications are dealt with in accordance with departmental guidelines.

As detailed in Housing for All, housing policy objectives Nos. 6 and 7 give a commitment to undertaking a review of the range of housing grants, which I understand is what the Senator is seeking, and specifically meeting housing needs for the ageing population and people with a disability. On the specific issues raised by the Senator, I also dealt with many of these schemes in my time as a local authority member. They are fantastic schemes but the issue of cost is now proving prohibitive to many people. The other issues the Senator raised, such as builders demanding that they be paid up-front and the additional resource burden on local authorities, suggest to me that we need to carry out a review of the current set of challenges with this scheme.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, the final few sentences of which addressed precisely the problems people have raised with me. It goes without saying that other Senators are dealing with similar matters. Building costs have risen exponentially over the past 24 months and the grant has not kept pace. I have had people cry on the other end of the telephone line as they told me that a loved one was in hospital and could not come home to them. Increasing the grant by a relatively small amount could make the difference and allow a loved one to be brought home. Unfortunately, local authorities are restricted to providing the prescribed amounts. An urgent review is needed because people cannot continue to have loved ones in hospital settings.

I raised previously the issue of permanent contracts. More and more contracts in local authorities are temporary. This does not allow them to recruit the staff they need to carry out works and inspections. That is having a knock-on effect on the grants.

I ask the Minister of State to examine those two issues and convey my views to the Minister. A review is urgently needed.

Following the stock response that we have given the Senator, as well as the specific issues the Senator has raised here, the Department needs to come back with a specific set of answers. The workshop that was held with local authorities was useful in teasing out these issues. A new set of challenges has come about as we emerge from the pandemic. Building costs are surging. There is another issue around contractors and their availability. Many of them are probably taking work that is easier to come by. Hence those issues that the Senator has raised. It is therefore important that our Department comes back with a specific response on that set of challenges, as well as on the permanent posts in local authorities. It is a worthwhile suggestion. We will get back to the Senator with a response from the Department.

Departmental Schemes

I thank the Cathaoirleach for affording me the opportunity to speak on the streetscape enhancement scheme in the Chamber. I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. I was pleased to see in September that Kildare County Council had been successful in securing funding from the Department of Rural and Community Development through the 2021 streetscape enhancement measure. I was especially pleased to see that four lovely villages in my own local area were accepted by the scheme, namely, Castledermot, Ballitore, Monasterevin and my own home village of Rathangan.

This is a good scheme. It offers many small rural villages, not just those in Kildare but all around the country, an opportunity to access Government funding and use it in a way that is community focused and will benefit the entire area. A scheme such as this is needed in rural areas. The Minister of State will have heard me saying before that the Government must support rural Ireland both to develop its own way and, of course, to attract new residents and businesses. A scheme such as this, when it is fit for purpose, will result in a more attractive environment that residents, visitors, shoppers and businesses alike can enjoy. However, the deadlines and the practicalities in accessing such schemes must be logical, user-friendly and accessible.

When we devise schemes that are intended to be accessed by the general public, the deadlines and requirements need to be achievable. The turnaround time that was required to apply for this scheme deterred many people in Castledermot, Ballitore, Monasterevin and Rathangan from availing of this funding. As a Member of the Oireachtas, I was first notified of the scheme on 25 August. The closing date for receipt of fully completed applications was 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 7 September 2021. The following is what was required for a complete application: photographs of existing buildings; photographs of an example of what the new building facade would look like; maps identifying the location; records of protected structures' numbers, where relevant; exact details of work proposed, including a copy of relevant, plans, designs and specifications; indications of material type and colour; two written quotations for proposed works from builder contractor; one written quote for materials if the grant applied for was under €5,000; and three written rotations required for contracts above €5,000. All of the above was to be completed in just two weeks.

I appreciate that the closing date for applications was pushed out to 17 September, but that extension was not announced until 3 September. This meant that anyone who had not applied due to time pressures had lost another week. In addition to this, in order for an applicant to draw down the funding, works needed to be completed by Sunday, 31 October 2021, just three weeks after the cut-off for applications. It is practically impossible to get anybody to do any work for the smallest thing within a home. This is just ridiculous. I put it to the Minister of State that we are discouraging applications to good schemes by putting incredible pressure on business and property owners to provide a plethora of information and to complete works in a short time.

It is simply not achievable. Only seven applications were received from the four towns I mentioned, and those applicants were not certain that it would be possible to get the works required completed in time. Is the Department planning another streetscape enhancement scheme? If so, will the Department learn from the haphazard approach adopted this year and support applicants in a way that will enable them to avail of the scheme?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am here on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Heather Humphreys. I am glad the Senator supports the revitalisation of towns and villages and helping people to work from home. It is Government policy to do that. We agreed it last summer. The Senator is raising the practicalities of the short time permitted for the submission of applications, the great amount of detail required, including quotations, and the need to complete the works quickly. Those aspects provided practical problems. I can see that and I will relay the Senator's observations to the Minister.

The streetscape enhancement measure fulfils a commitment in Our Rural Future to provide funding to support the upgrading and enhancement of shopfronts and street facades in rural towns and villages. Many actions and commitments across all of Government are contained in Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025 and those aim to make rural Ireland a more attractive place to live and work. The streetscape enhancement measure was introduced this year by the Minister. It is designed to make around 120 rural towns and villages more vibrant and welcoming places for locals and visitors alike. Property owners across the country are being part funded to undertake a range of eligible projects. The types of projects eligible include the commissioning of murals; the painting of buildings and shopfronts in vibrant colours; the upgrading or restoration of historic shopfronts; the provision of street planting, shrubbery, trees, flower boxes and the installation of street canopies and street furniture; and the decluttering of streetscapes through the removal of unnecessary signs or wires. The wide range of possible projects that could be funded was designed to ensure that the available funding would have the widest possible impact across our rural towns and villages. Measures are being delivered by the local authorities on behalf of the Department of Rural and Community Development, with considerable discretion being provided to each local authority to design the scheme to meet the needs of their area.

Given the concerns raised by some property owners regarding the timelines for delivering these projects, the Minister recently announced an extension of the original deadline for the completion of works until the end of the year. I understand that the local authorities were consulted regarding this extension and that they were informed of this change at the end of last week. I am confident that this extension will alleviate much of the pressure on property owners and facilitate the full delivery of the works planned under the measure. In addition to this extended deadline, I understand that local authorities were also provided with further flexibility regarding how they manage the scheme locally and in respect of subsequent reports on the outcomes to the Department of Rural and Community Development next year.

We have all seen the huge success of those towns around the country that have invested in recent years in improving their streetscapes by painting buildings in vibrant colours, upgrading and restoring traditional shopfronts and removing unnecessary clutter from the main streets. The funding available under this measure will help to replicate this kind of success in rural towns and villages across Ireland. It provides a real opportunity for local authorities, businesses and property owners to work together in adding colour and vibrancy to our rural towns and villages. There has been a very positive response to this new initiative and I have no doubt that this funding will impact greatly on the appearance of our towns and villages. I understand also that a decision regarding a further round of funding in this regard will be considered alongside other town and village investment priorities next year and will also draw on the experience derived from this year's scheme.

I look forward to seeing the impact of this year's initiative on our towns and villages in the coming months and I am confident that this will be a highly visible example of how Our Rural Future is delivering real benefits for rural Ireland.

I welcome the extension. I noticed a press release an hour before I came in here announcing its granting. It is welcome, but the constant changing of the goalposts is not acceptable. My concern is that there were seven applicants from four vibrant areas. There should have been many more, and several people to whom I spoke did not submit an application because they knew that they would not have been able to get the works completed by the original date. To a certain extent, therefore, those people are being discriminated against now. If they had realised that there was going to be an extension, then they would certainly have applied.

We must address that.

I appreciate what the Minister of State said about vibrancy, etc. I invite him to visit south County Kildare to see the results of these four applications. However, we should not be in the position of looking for and welcoming an extension. When these plans are put in place they must be realistic. They must have smart goals. Local authorities should have more flexibility. I appreciate the Minister of State's comment that they will have that. That is good news as well.

I take the Senator's point about changing timelines and how they may have dissuaded applicants and I will take those back to the Minister. I thank her for her invitation to visit south Kildare. I recently bought a renovated electric car from a company called Range Therapy in Narraghmore, outside Kilcullen. It took a very old electric car and upgraded it by adding extra batteries. It is a business that is involved in the circular economy and I compliment those involved on that. I would be very happy to visit south Kildare. I am responsible for the national broadband scheme, for example, and am keen to go to areas that Oireachtas Members may wish me to visit.

I thank the Minister of State. I would say the invitations are in the post at this stage.

Energy Infrastructure

I tabled this Commencement matter in response to recent reports of a potential energy shortage in the next 24 months. This is very worrying for many house owners and businesses. We also had discussions on whether we should grant permissions to develop data centres which, in general, do not provide jobs, although many of the companies developing those centres employ thousands of people here. The large amount of energy these centres use has been discussed. We have also seen significant increases in energy costs. Only in the last two weeks, we have had another one from Electric Ireland.

A large number of employers in County Longford are reviewing their energy use. They include Panelto Foods, which recently doubled the size of its operation and opened a research and development centre in what was our enterprise office in Longford, and Birds Eye, which is owned by Nomad Foods and supplies pizzas to virtually the entire UK market. A number of businesses in the county are expanding, including Abbott which employs almost 1,000 people. In response to the need to address climate action, Longford County Council, in conjunction with Gas Networks Ireland, having consulted local businesses, submitted an expression of interest some years ago under the climate action fund seeking an extension of the gas network from Ballymahon to Edgeworthstown and Longford. I have a copy of the submission with me. In this regard, I recognise the work of the former Minister, Eoghan Murphy, the former Minister of State, Senator Kyne, and the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, in supporting the proposal to have the pipeline brought from Athlone to the Center Parcs site in Ballymahon, rather than from Mullingar. The reason it came from Athlone was to allow the potential expansion of existing capacity to do this.

The application made provision for the development of anaerobic digestion and associated biogas to be deployed into the gas network via an injection facility as part of the proposal. It did not seek only the extension of the pipeline. It proposes an extension from Ballymahon to Longford and Edgeworthstown of almost 60 km to facilitate connections to high energy users, allowing them to reduce their energy emissions, utilise energy efficiencies and apply renewable technologies while exploring expansion potential. The injection of renewable gas to this network would be carried out in tandem with the development of anaerobic digestion facilities at the Lanesborough-Mount Dillon area as part of the just transition process, following the closure of Lough Ree power station and the Bord na Móna works. The core aim is to deliver renewable energy back to the grid, driven and supported by the local communities most affected by the process of climate action. The holistic package will provide employment opportunities and economic development and enhance biodiversity and environmental quality by promoting community-based initiatives to decarbonise the difficult areas of agriculture and transport.

Since this application was made, Lough Ree power station has closed.

Bord na Móna works have also ceased. The just transition fund was initiated and Longford County Council is progressing a study, funded by the just transition, on anaerobic digestion, AD, in this area and engaging with the national stakeholders and the local communities. This study will support the original expression of interest, which I have here, lodged under the climate action fund to develop and extend that pipeline into Longford. I have asked that this project be supported and our county town get infrastructure of which it was deprived in the early 2000s, while all other towns in the midlands received natural gas. It is the most efficient energy for running businesses. We have found it difficult to attract some businesses due to the fact we do not have that infrastructure. I ask that this application be looked at in a positive light.

I thank Senator Carrigy for referencing the climate action plan which, as he probably knows, is being updated. The newly revised climate action plan will be issued in the coming weeks, but I will take into account what the Senator has being saying. The routing of gas pipelines or the connection of towns to the gas pipeline network are matters for Gas Networks Ireland, a commercial State-sponsored body under the control of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, the statutory independent energy regulator, which conducts consultations on its regulatory decisions.

Gas Networks Ireland is mandated under section 8 of the Gas Act 1976 to develop and maintain a system for the supply of natural gas that is both economical and efficient. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities has, since 2002, been charged with all aspects of the assessment and licensing of prospective operators who wish to develop and-or operate a gas distribution system in the State, under the Gas (Interim) (Regulation) Act 2002. Therefore, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications has no direct statutory function on the connection of towns to the gas network. I understand Gas Networks Ireland continues to engage with Longford County Council and relevant stakeholders that seek to build an economically-viable business case to extend the network further to the town, as per the requirements set out in the Commission for Regulation of Utilities' approved connection policy.

Despite the formal regulatory process, it is difficult to see how extending the gas network to new towns would be in keeping with the Government's overall climate and energy targets. With regard to the Government's upcoming climate action plan, I confirm it is not intended to include extensions of the gas network to new towns as a means of decarbonisation. The connections policy there allows for the appraisal of a new town, either on its own, or as part of a regional group of towns, and appraises both domestic and industrial commercial demand. Proximity to a major pipeline or a large industrial or commercial gas load tend to be the most significant factors in town appraisals.

Gas Networks Ireland is mandated, under section 8 of the Gas Act 1976, to develop and maintain a system for the supply of natural gas that is both economical and efficient. In terms of the engagement between Gas Networks Ireland and Longford County Council, there was a recent assessment under the connections policy, in 2017, which found connecting Longford to the gas network remained, at that time, unviable in the absence of significant new demand. That is the honest situation in which we find ourselves.

At the same time, every town in Ireland has to find a way to decarbonise. If it is moving people away from solid fuel and oil and will not be to natural gas, it has to be to something else. As the Senator said, biogas is certainly one option. Heat pumps are another option. Retrofitting is a part of the answer as well, but it is not the case there is no answer. What comes out in the climate action plan will be important to that.

I do not know what to say, to be honest. I am disappointed. The application is cognisant of the fact of developments in anaerobic digestion and injecting biogas.

It is not a case of just looking for a pipeline in a business case scenario because the reality is that the business case is not strong. It is strong, however, when other things are taken into account, such as providing that AD and injecting biogas into the system. It ticks the boxes as regards climate action, in my opinion. I ask that this be taken into account rather than being ruled out. We are based in the midlands. Lough Ree power station has closed, as has the Bord na Móna plant. We have an entire site there as part of the just transition. It was a priority from Government that alternative infrastructure, and maybe an energy park, be put there. I ask that this be looked at in tandem with that if possible.

The Senator agrees that it is unlikely that, under a strict cost-benefit analysis, extending the gas network will be found to be viable. He has also said that there is a project of investigation to see whether biogas can be injected and whether we can make progress on that. I support that. The midlands have been targeted for just transition funding. We need to find ways forward and biogas has not been developed in Ireland in the past in the way it has been in other countries like Germany. That will certainly be an important part of the climate action plan. I am happy to engage with the Senator further and put him in contact with the Minister if that helps, although, as pointed out, Gas Networks Ireland technically comes under the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. However, it is obviously an energy matter and a matter of heating homes. The key thing is that we need to help towns in places like Longford and the midlands to find a way to transition to something different and that certainly could be AD or biogas. I would be keen to do anything I can to help in that regard.

Work Permits

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. The reality is that the economy is starting to recover, probably at a more rapid rate than was expected. That is very welcome but one of the biggest challenges we face, if not the biggest, is the shortage of skilled labour. We are hearing that from employers right across the sector. We are very familiar with the shortage of skilled labour in the tourism and hospitality sector, which we debated in this House. We are hearing about it in haulage, from companies in the agrifood sector, in manufacturing, medical employment, and in the technology spaces where a lot of high-end jobs remain unfilled because we do not have skilled workers. We are certainly hearing about it in construction, where we need significant numbers of additional skilled workers if we are going to achieve the plans we have laid out in Housing for All.

While it is very welcome that the Government is investing heavily in our higher and further education and training programmes, and we have seen all the new apprenticeship models, it is going to take a period before we have enough skilled personnel here in Ireland. It is absolutely essential that non-EEA workers are able to come here to work, that that process be as smooth as possible and that the delays will be minimal. The problem, as the Minister of State knows, is that there are very long delays, even for trusted partners or IDA Ireland companies. My understanding is that, as of today, the Department is only now processing applications from trusted partners that were made on 15 July and standard applications that were made on 29 June. If a company makes an application in order to get a work permit for somebody to come here to fill a vacant post, it is waiting three months.

If we are to come out of this very difficult period we continue to experience, we need a strong and robust economy. This is a country whose economy is very much based on skilled labour, and we recognises the importance of such labour. Quite frankly, however, the work permit and visa system is not fit for purpose.

It is neither fit for those seeking employment in all the sectors we have talked about nor for employers. It is probably the biggest barrier to our economy growing as quickly as we need it to over the next period.

I know other colleagues in this House have asked about this and it is something that is regularly raised by employer representative organisations but we need to streamline the visa and work permit system and we also need to ensure we are not seeing three or four-month waiting lists before processing even starts on any of these. Government Ministers will be coming into this House next year telling us that houses are not being built because we do not have the necessary construction workers. We will still see the problems in tourism and hospitality and the jobs in the tech sector and our hospitals cannot be filled. The primary reason that is so is because of an inadequate work permit and visa system.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, who sends his apologies. I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which is pertinent and timely. Policy responsibility for the granting of visa permissions is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Justice. The employment permits system is designed to facilitate the entry of appropriately skilled non-EEA nationals to fill skills and labour shortages, or both, in the short to medium term, in circumstances where there are no suitably qualified Irish or EEA nationals available to undertake the work and where the shortage is a genuine one.

The system is managed through the operation of the critical skills occupations list and the ineligible occupations list. These are subject to twice-yearly evidence-based reviews in consultation with other Departments, sectoral representatives and the economic migration interdepartmental group. Where shortages are clearly evidenced, the employment permit system is flexible enough to address them in real time. The current review will close by the end of October with a final report setting out recommendations for approval.

The employment permits (consolidation and amendment) Bill consolidates the existing legislation to provide a more accessible statutory basis for our economic migration system. Specific changes include the introduction of a seasonal employment permit, modernising the labour market needs test, moving operational criteria to regulations to increase responsiveness, and streamlining requirements to make the grant process more efficient. The draft Bill is almost finalised and we await the report of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment before bringing a memorandum to Government to seek approval to publish.

Recently, as the Senator has alluded to, processing times have been impacted by a significant increase in demand and 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 also worth noting that there was a 41% increase in the number of permits issued to the end of September when compared with the same period last year. It is important to point out that when set against other international employment permit regimes, Ireland continues to compare extremely favourably. However, my Department is conscious of the recent lengthening of timeframes for processing applications and is taking a range of measures to clear the backlog as quickly as possible. This includes the redevelopment of the current employment permits IT system, which should drive further efficiencies in processing and result in increased productivity. My Department advises employers to take current timelines into account as part of their recruitment plans.

I smile when the Minister of State mentions that the number of applications for work permits in September 2021 represented a 41% increase on September 2020, given that people were not allowed to travel and that we were in the middle of some of the big Covid challenges. I am disappointed, although I appreciate that the Minister of State is answering on behalf of his colleague.

The name of the Minister of State's Department is the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. If we want to support enterprise then where job vacancies exist we must ensure they are filled. It is not good enough that we have not seen as much progress as we should have. While I would be grateful to get a timeline on the employment permits Bill, I also seek an assurance that in six months' time, we will not be experiencing these difficulties because if we continue to do so, I predict that sectors of the economy will grind to a halt.

I, too, share the Senator's frustrations. My constituency office is just as much contacted, maybe more so given that I am a Minister of State in the Department, by industries that seek to have permits processed as a matter of urgency.

As I have said, measures have been undertaken by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, to improve efficiency in the processing time of permits through the Department. It would be wrong of me not to acknowledge that there has been a delay and I encourage people to take account of the delay when advertising positions. I urge people to link in with the almost 10% of people who are unemployed, because they are ready, willing and able to take on job opportunities. In my own constituency, the Department of Social Protection has been linked with local companies and has matched good quality staff with the demands and needs of companies. I encourage other people to do likewise.

The new Bill in this area is currently with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment. When the committee finalises its report it intends to bring a memorandum to Government for approval and then to enact the Bill thereafter. I can assure the Senator that there is no desire on the part of my Department to delay that and once the Oireachtas committee publishes its report, we will move at pace to have the Bill enacted.

Sitting suspended at 12.47 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.