I thank Deputy Naughten for raising the question in respect of work permits. I agree with him on the issue of access to skills. Every company we talk to across the country raises the issue with us. The regional enterprise plans will be of major assistance in helping us focus our minds on this. I also refer to the regional skills fora and various national skills strategies working across the Department of Education as well. The solutions to this and the skills shortage are right across the system in developing skills, apprenticeships, further education and training and a blend of higher education across nine Departments, including Social Protection; Enterprise, Trade and Employment; and the Department of Education. All have a role in this, in conjunction with employers and agencies locally as well.
The Deputy referred to the permits as a part of a temporary solution. They should never be seen as a long-term solution. I am happy to focus on that because it is what the question is about. Our 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, 27,666 applications were received, representing a 70% increase, showing there is a significant demand for permits as a solution to a labour shortage. From the point of view of my Department, it should not always be seen as a solution. It can be of temporary assistance in an area of shortage of critical skills and that is fair enough but it should not be a long-term solution.
The legislation we are bringing forward this year will bring changes to the permit system to make it more flexible and reflect the nature of employment at any given time and will also introduce the option of a seasonal permit which will be of assistance in certain sectors. On the overall terms and conditions of the permits system, during the review that happens twice a year we work with all the parent Departments and various sectors in respect of the terms and conditions. We would generally agree that there is an opportunity, because of the high employment rate at the moment, to work on those terms and conditions and improve them. There is a mechanism whereby we set them in conjunction with the various Departments.
On the specific matter the Deputy raised, I am happy to tease it through with him.