I propose to take Questions Nos. 165 and 166 together.
I would like to firstly assure inform the Deputy that an EU citizen can work in Ireland without requiring an employment permit to do so. This is also the case for citizens of the European Economic Area (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein), and Switzerland.
The employment permits system in Ireland is designed to facilitate the entry of appropriately skilled non-EEA nationals to fill skills and/or labour shortages, in circumstances where there are no suitably qualified Irish/EEA nationals available to undertake the work and that the shortage is a genuine one. The system is managed through the use of lists designating highly skilled and ineligible occupations.
Since March 2020, the Department has implemented Covid-19 contingency arrangements moving employment permit operations seamlessly to a totally remote working environment. Indeed, Ireland was one of the few countries which managed to keep their employment permit system fully operational throughout the crisis.
From the outset of the crisis, in order to assist the HSE and all other medical providers in the State to respond to, and to assist with, the public health response to the threat of Covid-19, all medical employment permits are expedited with immediate effect.
The Department has experienced a significant increase in applications for employment permits in the past year, impacting on processing times. From the start of January to the end of December 2021, some 27,666 applications were received, representing a 69% increase over the same period in 2020 (16,293) and a 47% increase on 2019 (18,811), which itself represented an 11 year high in applications.
My Department issued 16,275 employment permits in 2021, and processed a total of 17,968 applications which represents a significant volume of activity. The impact of this has resulted in a significant backlog, which has increased from 1,000 in April 2021 to approximately c. 10,500 at the end of January 2022.
In addition, the extension of categories of employment permits, following the latest Review of the Occupational Lists, that I announced at the end of October has increased applications for employment permits for these roles. Processing times have been impacted by this increase in demand but also because of the HSE cyber-attack, when employment permit applications associated with the July Doctors rotation (which occurs twice yearly in January and July) had to be submitted either manually or through other non-standard methods.
I and my Department recognises the impact of current delays on the processing times for work permits has for businesses and their workers and have developed a plan of action to bring down the processing backlog built up over the pandemic. The plan includes both additional staffing and systemic changes. Staffing actions include recruitment of additional permanent and temporary staff. In late November 2021 approval was granted to increase our permanent processing capacity by 69% and to increase overall capacity to 125% when temporary staff are included. On 2 February 2022 further additional approval was granted to increase permanent processing capacity by 125% and increase overall capacity by 225% from the original early base in early November.
When all recruitment is completed, the team will be three and a quarter times the size it was in early November. There has also been an increase in overtime and the temporary reassignment of staff from other areas of the Department with relevant skills.
These measures have already delivered a considerable increase in processing capacity. As the plan of action is fully implemented it is expected that there will be positive progress achieved in reducing the backlog by the end of Q1 with it substantially reduced by the end of Q2 2022. This should see a return to more normal processing timeframes.
In addition, further systemic changes have also been introduced. The Department has worked with the Department of Health, the Health Service Executive and the Department of Justice to streamline and extend the time period for General Employment Permits (GEP) issued to doctors. A new two-year multi-site GEP for Medical Doctors in Public hospitals and Public health facilities was introduced in respect of the January 2022 Doctors rotation. This will result in significant benefits for applicants, as well as major efficiencies for the Employment Permits Section, by eliminating the necessity to apply for additional employment permits when moving to a different Public hospital or Public health facility within this two year period.
Finally, my Department provides regular updates on its website in relation to processing times and engages directly with key stakeholders including the IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, AmCham, IBEC, representative groups and individual companies.