General Scheme of Employment Permits (Consolidation and Amendment) Bill: Discussion

Today the committee begins its pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of an employment permits (consolidation and amendment) Bill with officials from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. I welcome to today's engagement Ms Clare Dunne, assistant secretary, Ms Fiona Ward, principal officer, Mr. Rob Walsh, assistant principal officer, and Ms Roisin Collins, higher executive officer. I thank the members for attending.

I remind members, visitors and those in the Public Gallery to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off or in flight mode for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment even when on silent mode.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If, however, they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter to only qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Members have been furnished with the presentation and briefing documents submitted by today's attendees. I invite Ms Dunne to make her presentation to the committee.

Ms Clare Dunne

On 25 July this year, the Government granted approval for the drafting of a Bill along the lines of this general scheme of an employment permits (consolidation and amendment) Bill, which has been forwarded to the committee. The Government approval included a request that this committee undertake pre-legislative scrutiny, and we are grateful that the committee has agreed to devote time to this today.

On the background to the proposed Bill, a review of economic migration policy carried out at the request of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation last year indicated that the employment permits system, while robust, lacked flexibility and was in need of some updating, making it less effective than it might be. The review's recommendations included the drafting of a new Bill to adjust the legislative underpinning of the system to allow for swift responses to verified changes in labour supply and demand, or employment practices. The implementation of the review's recommendations was committed to by way of an action point in Future Jobs Ireland 2019.

This Bill incorporates both specific and general recommendations of the review while retaining the core focus and policy of a vacancy-led employment permits system oriented to meeting the skills and labour needs in the State. The conclusions of the review endorsed the robust fundamental structure of the existing system. The changes proposed are therefore concerned with increasing its agility and effectiveness, while retaining the key policy focus of supporting the economy and the labour market through evidence-based decision-making. The proposed Bill therefore does not represent a change in overall Government policy. The 2018 review involved widespread stakeholder consultation, and the key issues raised during that consultation are addressed in this general scheme.

Currently, there are two Employment Permit Acts and one amendment Act on the Statute Book, namely, the Employment Permit Acts 2003 and 2006 and the Employment Permits (Amendment) Act 2014. These Acts will be repealed following the enactment of the proposed Bill.

In addition to consolidating the existing legislation to make a more accessible statutory basis for our economic migration system, specific changes in this Bill include the introduction of a seasonal employment permit; extensive revision of the labour market needs test to make it more relevant and efficient; the introduction of a scheme to deal with occasional exceptional circumstances where an employment permit may be granted despite not meeting all of the criteria for the general employment permit; a number of housekeeping changes, including clarifications of particular provisions, the moving of operational criteria to regulations, and the streamlining of a number of requirements to make the grant process more efficient; and providing for additional conditions for granting an employment permit, such as training or accommodation support for migrant workers in some circumstances, or making innovation or upskilling a condition of a grant, where this may decrease future reliance on economic migration.

Ireland is an outlier both in the EU and among many developed nations outside the EU in not having made provision for granting seasonal employment permits. There is evidence that some employers are disadvantaged vis-à-vis competitors in other jurisdictions by not having this form of permission. Therefore, it is proposed to design a short-term employment permit to cater for short-stay and recurrent employment situations in sectors where this type of employment is common, such as horticulture.

Examination of systems of seasonal employment used by our international peers is under way so that an accurate sense of both risks and benefits of this kind of scheme will inform our structuring of the criteria for the permit type. We would welcome any views the committee might have in this regard.

Apart from those occupations on the critical skills list, or for intra-company transfers, employers must demonstrate that they have made a genuine effort to recruit from within the State and across the European Economic Area, EEA, before they apply for an employment permit. This is called the labour market needs test, LMNT. Currently, the way in which employers are obliged to advertise vacancies is prescribed in legislation and includes an obligation to use some outdated methods, an example being the need to take out advertisements in national newspapers for a set number of days.

The proposed Bill, while continuing to require an employer to carry out an LMNT before seeking to recruit from outside the EEA, will remove the detail of how this must be done, allowing for the setting out in regulations of the requirements needed to demonstrate real engagement with the jobs market in Ireland and across the EEA.

Specifically, the intention is to remove the operational requirements from primary legislation and instead allow the media for advertising of vacancies to be prescribed in regulations and varied where necessary. Some types of vacancies may be best advertised through social media, for example, while others may best be advertised in sector-specific journals or by a radio campaign. Allowing leeway to employers to advertise as best fits their industry will improve the coherence and utility of the LMNT. In tandem with this, it is intended to deepen the involvement of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in the LMNT process to maximise opportunities for resident and EEA jobseekers.

From time to time, an employer will seek a permit for a position that does not fall neatly within all of the usual criteria for granting an employment permit, but where the granting of the permit would clearly benefit the company and, by extension, the social or economic development of the State. Up to the present time, when such a circumstance has arisen, we have generally had no option but to refuse the permit. The circumstances in which such a permit might be granted will be clearly prescribed in regulations. A limit to the number of such employment permits that might be granted in any calendar year will be considered. Anchoring the prescription securely in primary legislation and setting the criteria precisely in regulations, so that this permit type cannot be used routinely to waive the requirements of the system, will be a priority.

The broad criteria we propose to prescribe are: where one or more criteria for grant of a permit cannot be satisfied, but no training for the occupation is available in Ireland, and where it requires an unusual skill set; for niche employments that do not occur with sufficient frequency to attract individuals into training or for which no formal training exists where the expertise is highly specialised and where training may not be replicated in Ireland, and where it is evident that the employment of the specific foreign national would benefit the competitiveness or development of the employing organisation and the economy as a whole; where a reciprocal bilateral agreement with another country may be made to allow for the employment in the State of a specified group of people for a particular purpose or for a specified period of time; and where an enterprise development agency has supported the application despite its failure to meet some of the criteria on the basis that the appointment of that specific individual will bring a significant benefit in terms of employment or competitiveness

There has been a general welcome from interested parties for this consolidating and amending legislation. The development of this general scheme into a final draft Bill will be effected through further extensive consultation and in line with advice given by the Attorney General’s office. We readily acknowledge that a number of the suggested changes currently set out in a general indicative format will require considered further drafting to ensure their parameters are in line with current jurisprudence, especially in the context of ensuring that the prescription of variables in secondary legislation, necessary to give the system the agility to respond quickly to changing conditions in the economy, should remain securely anchored in primary legislation.

I would like to address the issue of access to the labour market for spouses and partners of employment permit holders, as I understand the committee has an interest in this. Generally speaking, the economic migration system focuses on the skills and labour needs of the State, and wider immigration questions, including that of family reunification, are matters for the Minister for Justice and Equality. Those workers coming into the country on a general employment permit do not have an automatic right to immediate family reunification. An exception is made, with the consent and support of the Minister for Justice and Equality, in the case of critical skills employment permit holders and researchers in the State on hosting agreements. These permissions are granted to attract highly skilled individuals to migrate permanently to the State. This exception is made to encourage these permit holders to settle here with their families.

While the spouse or partner of a critical skills permit holder was always permitted to seek work in Ireland, they had to first find an eligible job and then apply for an employment permit. The system was cumbersome, unclear and caused significant confusion, and it needed to be changed.

Since March 2019, following agreement between our two Departments, the Minister for Justice and Equality has been granting permission directly to a critical skills employment permit holder's spouse or partner to reside and work in the State, obviating the need for him or her to apply for a permit. This streamlining of the process benefits all concerned, as it brings absolute clarity to the matter and significantly reduces the administrative burden for all concerned. The move was universally welcomed by all interested parties and got considerable positive media coverage at the time.

We appreciate the committee’s attention, and would welcome any guidance prior to and during the drafting process which would support the policy objectives underlying the general scheme. My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions members might have on this general scheme.

I thank Ms Dunne. Before opening it to the floor, I have a question about spouses. She said that while the spouses or partners of a critical skills employment permit holders were always permitted to seek work in Ireland, they had to first find an eligible job and then apply for an employment permit. Did that mean they had to apply for that before entering the country?

Ms Clare Dunne

No, they could do that while they were in the country, but while in the country if they came over with their spouses or partners and decided subsequently they wanted to find a job, they would first have to find eligible employment. By that I mean they would not have been allowed to apply for any employment on the ineligible list of employments. Once they found the job, they would then be eligible to apply for a permit and then by extension to apply to the Department of Justice and Equality for a change in their visa, their immigration status.

Therefore, a person used to find a job, apply for it, be fairly certain of getting it and engage with the employer. However, the minute the prospective employer realised they did not have an automatic right to start work quickly, they were often reluctant to engage further with the spouse or partner. In this policy, clearly the Department was at cross-purposes. On the one hand we want to do everything possible to encourage these people to come to Ireland and settle here with their families and on the other hand we were making it very difficult for them to do so. While they could apply for a permit, get a permit and work in the State, it was very cumbersome. There was considerable misinformation going around. We wanted to bring clarity and streamline the process.

If a skilled worker applies for a permit, is the spouse automatically entitled to come with that worker even if he or she does not have employment?

Ms Clare Dunne

Absolutely.

Are such persons entitled to any benefit from the State when they are here?

Ms Clare Dunne

No.

They are dependent on their spouse-----

Ms Clare Dunne

They are dependent on their spouse.

-----even in health issues, a matter that was raised in my constituency office. For clarity, unless they are working, they are dependent on their spouse, be it male or female.

Ms Clare Dunne

They are dependent on their spouse. Even though the minimum remuneration is about €30,000 with a degree and €60,000 without a degree, and we are moving that up from early next year, that is the minimum, and most of these jobs are reasonably well paid, with some of them extraordinarily well paid, particularly critical skills jobs. Medical insurance will be often part of the overall package to which the spouse will be entitled.

This was drawn into sharp focus during the summer when we had the disputes at the meat factories. This drew the committee's attention to it. Many lower-paid employees were very dependent on their wages and in some instances they were laid off because there was no work. They also had spouses with them. We wrote to the Department because we were very concerned about how they would survive because they did not have any entitlements.

Ms Clare Dunne

We have had significant engagement with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine on the issue, particularly from the perspective of anybody on an employment permit in the State. I am aware that there was engagement, including between my Department and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the employers and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine over that. State benefits were extended to those who were very much in need. I have it in my notes somewhere that an emergency payment was made payable to those people even though that would not have been anticipated when they came into the country. Nobody could have anticipated what happened in that case.

Most employers did all they could to restructure jobs and move people from one plant that was not operating to a sister plant the might have still been operating. They may have put them on other duties, such as maintenance or cleaning, for a while. Some of them sent employees on training courses on things like health and safety, and maintenance. I know the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection engaged and where appropriate it advanced payments to people.

Are any changes to the draft Bill we are discussing proposed for the spouse of the person with the critical skills permit or does it remain as it was?

Ms Clare Dunne

Because the dependent spouse or partner of the critical skills permit holder now has an automatic entitlement to apply for any job in the State, there is no need to address it in the legislation.

During the drafting of the legislation we will consider broader issues that we do not necessarily have to underpin in the legislation and that can be done by regulation. We will probably look at how we deal with spouses of workers coming in on a general employment permit. It is time for us to look at that. Even though we have received representations about that issue, it is something we might deal with by way of regulation.

I have a final question about the person who comes in to work, together with a spouse. If there was an unexpected death, would the Department look at each instance on a case-by-case basis?

Ms Clare Dunne

I presume so. Thankfully we do not deal with many of those cases. In what sense-----

The person who was holding the permit might have been here for some reason with his or her spouse and unfortunately there was a sudden death. I have a similar case at present where a person tragically died. Does the Department look at that case by case with regard to the spouse?

Ms Clare Dunne

That would become a general immigration matter and we would have to talk-----

It would pass to the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS?

Ms Clare Dunne

Yes, we would engage with INIS. We have a close working relationship with the Department of Justice and Equality over a range of issues. We would engage directly with it about that.

I know it is unusual.

Ms Clare Dunne

We would engage with the Department of Justice and Equality and it would be up to it then.

It has certain criteria, such that the person was working in the country within the last two years. Does it take a sympathetic view? I have made inquiries.

Ms Clare Dunne

Our experience is that it probably would. We have done research on this and many of these spouses or partners are well-qualified and well-educated people. Many would be doing work that could be covered by a critical skills permit. There is a range of possibilities but we would engage with the Department of Justice and Equality and be guided by it.

I thank Ms Dunne.

I thank the witnesses for their attendance. What criteria are the Department looking at with regard to the seasonal work permits? As for the labour market needs test, I note the Department is taking out the detail as to what is required to do that test but that employers still have to do the test. How do the witnesses envisage that will be carried out? How will the Department regulate that and ensure it is done to a certain standard? Do the witnesses have an idea of what might be required, even though it is not written down?

Ms Clare Dunne

We have known for some time that there is a need for a seasonal permit in certain sectors in Ireland. The obvious one that springs to mind is horticulture. The other thing that we are aware of, which became very apparent during the course of the review last year, is that Ireland is a clear outlier. We are one of very few countries that does not make any provision for a seasonal permit, including a recurrent permit where migrant workers could come and work in the country for six, seven or eight months and come back again the following year. The only other country that I am aware of that does not have a seasonal permit is Denmark. Every other country has one. Even when Greece was in the depths of its financial crisis, it still needed to bring in certain seasonal permits.

We will need to work closely with stakeholders and look at what is happening outside Ireland as we develop that permit. The permit would apply to non-EEA nationals. That non-EEA national would retain a legal domicile in his or her own country but would reside temporarily in Ireland for the purposes of employment. We would have to look at the duration of the permit. It could be five or six months, depending on the sector. The permit holder will not have immediate access to State benefits. Minimum remuneration thresholds will be applied. As happens in other countries, we will look to employers to ensure that they support the employee with matters such as flights, access to reasonable accommodation and sometimes language courses or classes. We would limit the permit to certain sectors and occupations. We would look at potential risks because we are aware that potential risks attach to such a permit, such as overstaying the duration of the permit. Those are the main criteria. We have plenty of examples such as the scheme in the UK and we are looking at many countries, including New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the United States, South Korea and Japan.

The Deputy asked about the labour market needs test. Currently, an employer is required to satisfy the Department that it has made every effort to get somebody. We make no bones about it. The Government policy is to give preferential treatment to local jobseekers and jobseekers across the EEA. We need some assurance that some effort has been made to recruit somebody locally or from the EEA. Employers are currently required to demonstrate to us that they have advertised for two weeks in Ireland and across the EEA. Quite often, a criterion in Ireland is that an employer must take out an advertisement in a national newspaper for three days. Quite frankly, how that ever ended up in primary legislation-----

Ms Clare Dunne

-----is a bit of a mystery to us but it did, so that is a point of rigidity. Nowadays, people advertise on social media, across the web, in journals etc. That is why we want to take the detail out. We are moving to change the duration of the labour market needs test, for which we do not need to change legislation. Two weeks is a very short time after which an employer can come back to us and tell us that it has tried its best to recruit across the EEA and in Ireland. The regulations have been signed by the Minister and an extension to four weeks will come into effect on 1 January next year.

I thank the officials for presenting. The proposed measures and changes seem very sensible. I have a specific question which I think comes in under the 50:50 rule and labour market needs test. It is a scenario that I encountered when meeting businesses, some of which were considering repatriating or moving significant numbers of staff to Ireland, some in a Brexit scenario and some that would have been looking at Ireland as a destination anyway. One employer approached me to say it had a number of staff working in the UK, with a possibility post Brexit that it might bring them to Ireland. It was a technology business and many staff were non-EEA and non-EU nationals. The company came across an issue with the 50:50 rule where, if it tried to bring in all of those people in one go, it would fall foul of that rule and not be able to bring them in.

It said to me that this is an opportunity for Ireland to receive foreign direct investment by having a company come in en masse from another jurisdiction. It would not be able to satisfy the 50:50 requirement immediately upon arrival but perhaps a scenario could be envisaged where it was given five years to ramp up. In other words, if it moved the workforce into Ireland and brought 100 or 120 people into Ireland, many of whom are non-EEA nationals, it might give a commitment that within five years of operation, it would have a number of Irish or EEA employees to match. That seemed to be something reasonable and positive that we should encourage. I know there is a provision for certain start-ups but this is not really a start-up scenario, but one with a company that is new to Ireland but is not a start-up. It is actually an established, successful business. I do not know if that is something that could be considered in the Bill. Perhaps it could be looked at in an amendment or in the early drafting stages. I am interested in opinions on that. It seems like a legitimate scenario and difficulty that should be tackled.

Ms Clare Dunne

As the Deputy probably understands, the 50:50 rule is there as a protection for migrant workers so that we do not end up with sectors or employers that overuse employment permits, with too much of a concentration of third country employees. Migrant workers are often vulnerable, especially at the lower-paid end. We already have a provision whereby for new companies coming into Ireland, not just start-ups, we operate a waiver system, especially if they are coming in with the assistance of Enterprise Ireland or IDA Ireland, which would know the company. There is already a waiver of two years where we would allow companies to go beyond the 50:50 rule.

It is one reason we would allow them to go beyond the 50:50 rule. We would look at that. One reason we want to amend the legislation is that we do not want to build such an inflexibility into primary legislation. We want to make sure that if there is a valid and verifiable reason to waive such a provision, it is given due consideration and, if possible, a favourable consideration.

I want to go back to the issue of seasonal employment permits. Ms Dunne went some distance in assuring me when she spoke about an indicative wage, which I assume would be above the minimum wage, and that the Department would look at transport, accommodation and so on. That is encouraging. I assume the Department will engage with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in this regard. I accept there are sectors - and outliers in those sectors - that would need this, and horticulture was referred to. I am concerned that we would facilitate industries or employers who do not want to pay a fair wage and who would not want to give people their rights, and language is a consideration. In fairness, Ms Dunne said a lot of things - without being asked - that were reassuring, but I would like to have more on that. Ms Dunne referred to six to nine months' duration. Nine months seems to be a long time for a seasonal permit, given that it may be getting renewed annually. I would like some further clarity on that. Perhaps I could get answers to these first and then pose another question later if that is okay.

Ms Clare Dunne

We will be exercising extreme vigilance in the development of the seasonal permit. We recognise that we are disadvantaging certain sectors and certain companies at the moment. They are finding workarounds. Many of them are working very hard to bring in seasonal workers from across the EEA, but this is becoming increasingly difficult, for example, with some of the Baltic states or the eastern European states. We want to do something for them but we are very much aware that there is the potential for risks. The Senator mentioned the nine-month permit. I tend to agree that nine months is at the very outer limit of a seasonal permit. We are engaging with the sector on an individual basis, such as with companies that are big employers in the sector. From the meetings we have had thus far, I am reassured that most of the issues about which we have concerns already are being addressed. They make the point to us that they invest a lot in these people, they train them when they come in and they invest in skills development. The companies want those people to come back year in and year out. Employers do not want the seasonal workers simply for four months and then be obliged to go back to the trough again next year. The areas we are concerned about include access to suitable accommodation and the employer not being allowed to make any deductions directly from the salary. Moreover, any remuneration package would have to be above the minimum wage. We want to see provisions for these built into the scheme. There will be extensive consultation with ICTU and the employers' side as we move to develop the scheme. We will leave no stone unturned. Initially, we might do something on a pilot basis. I would not exclude that. At the least, we need in the legislation the provision to allow us to be flexible. At the moment we simply cannot, and our hands are tied in that regard. This is just an example of the inflexibility of the system. I accept all of the points the Senator has made. We will be looking at all of those aspects.

Would that be renewable yearly?

Ms Clare Dunne

In an ideal situation. One employer, for example, has told us that many of the people who come in on the seasonal employment permits come for a period of four or five months. Generally, they are older workers, not students, and while they want to go home and spend part of the year at home they want to come back here the following year. In that way a good employer will try to build up a good working relationship and a good rapport with the seasonal workers to get them back again.

With regard to the labour market needs test, the review recommended that the duration of the test would be extended to four weeks and that it would be amended to reflect modern advertising methods. I absolutely accept the rationale for these changes. I believe this would apply to the more highly skilled end of things. The Department has laid out some criteria already in that regard. Ms Dunne will appreciate the concern that the employer has made every effort to attempt to give a job to someone who is in the country, and maybe even a person who is on the unemployment register. The Department is considering a four-week period, using modern recruitment practices and working with the Department Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

Ms Clare Dunne

Absolutely.

That is fine. I am reassured with what the Department is doing there, and I am happy with that.

I welcome our guests here this evening. Previous speakers have referred to the need for seasonal work permits. Ms Dunne said that there is quite clearly an obvious need. Will Ms Dunne explain why she believes there is that need? What are the underlying conditions that warrant us going outside Ireland and the EU to get people to work in seasonal jobs?

Ms Clare Dunne

There are a variety of reasons and I can only list some of them. Some of this work is difficult work. Fruit picking, for example, is not easy. Employers here and in the UK are finding that many of the people living locally do not want to do these jobs. The positions are not at the higher end of the pay scale and would be lower wage-type jobs. As we have seen a pick-up in economic circumstances across the EU, many people do not want to travel from what would have been the traditional sources of migrant labour such as Bulgaria, for example. Some of the horticulture companies still attract significant numbers of workers from Bulgaria every year but are finding it increasingly difficult to do so. Having spoken with the sector and having engaged with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, there is sufficient evidence for us on that.

That is okay. To be fair, I pre-empted the answer Ms Dunne was going to give, and I agree, but it is not just restricted to seasonal work permits. Many other workforce sectors face the exact same challenges. The hospitality sector is finding it next to impossible to get cleaning and housekeeping staff and in restaurants, it is front of house and waiting staff. These are all necessary jobs to ensure our hospitality sector continues to grow and develop but, while I am open to correction, I understand those concerned are prevented from being able to recruit people to such positions because of the minimum wage threshold being implemented.

I am thinking of care assistants in the health sector. There are many private and indeed public nursing homes that are having to employ nurses in the role of care assistant because care assistants do not meet the threshold in terms of qualification and remuneration. If it is okay for one sector, why are we bringing in restrictions for other sectors where there is a clear, demonstrable need for people from outside the EU and Ireland?

Ms Clare Dunne

Just to be clear, there is a difference between the seasonal permit and coming in on a general work permit. The seasonal permit is going to be of short duration.

It will up to nine months.

Ms Clare Dunne

I am saying nine months. We will consider everything but I agree with the previous speaker that nine months is probably the outer limit. We engage on an ongoing basis very closely with all of these sectors. In terms of care assistants, we are keenly aware of the demands of the nursing home association - I cannot remember the organisation's name - and we are also engaging with the Department of Health. We sit on top of the system, as it were, in terms of the policy around the granting of employment permits, but we are not experts in each of these individual sectors. We rely closely on the knowledge of the lead Department in a particular sector. In the case of horticulture or meat processing, that is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine as well as the sector itself. In the case of care assistants for nursing homes, it is the Department of Health. We are engaging with them on an ongoing basis and the Department of Health officials are telling us they are not convinced at this point that there is a case made to open up the employment permits system to bringing in care assistants. They in turn are engaging with the sector. What they are saying is that the sector needs to do a bit more work here. They believe the evidence points to issues around retention and that the sector is not paying these workers sufficiently to employ them locally. Remuneration, hours of work and the possibility of career progression are all issues within that sector that need to be addressed to some extent. That was a condition, for example, when we opened up the system to certain areas in agriculture. We made sure that they looked at retention issues. Rather than simply agreeing with a sector that it can continue to pay low wages and have long hours and poor working conditions, the sector itself needs an incentive to change to make it more attractive, as it were. No sector can rely forevermore on bringing in cheap labour. That is not a sustainable proposition.

Just to be very clear, because I want to put it on the record, I am not advocating cheap labour. We all want local Irish citizens to be employed and to spread employment to the EEA if there are people available in those countries to be employed. We are acknowledging they are not available to be employed in the horticultural sector. One of the reasons, as Ms Dunne said, is that it is a difficult job. Another is the remuneration that is being paid which quite often is all that can be paid because of the margin that the employers are working off.

Ms Clare Dunne

Sure.

That is acknowledged in one sector. I am merely stating that it is not a level playing pitch and that there are other sectors. I referred to care assistants in nursing homes and also to the hospitality sector. I understand 100 permits are being given to the haulage sector to employ people from South Africa and it is having difficulties meeting the numbers that are coming. I am not for one minute advocating cheap labour but I am advocating for sectors of our economy. The hospitality sector is most important and is our largest indigenous sector. Employers in the sector are finding it extremely difficult to get staff in critical areas and the work permit system is prohibiting them from employing people from a wider field. That needs to be re-examined. This is an ideal opportunity to make that point. Ms Dunne referred to the minimum wage moving upwards. To what level does the Department intend it to move towards? I think it is €30,000 currently with a degree qualification and €60,000 without a degree qualification.

We are talking about increasing the labour market needs test. Will the new legislation impose a time limit on processing applications? Private employers must, correctly, meet a threshold and certain criteria in terms of documentation and justification when making a submission to the Department to obtain a permit. However, there is no time limit on the Department to reply in a timely fashion. I know from replies to parliamentary questions that the time it takes to have permits issued is increasing. This is creating a major difficulty, especially in respect of chefs. Restaurants are closing down because they cannot get staff and employment permits. I have no problem with refusals where insufficient information is provided with the application and so on. That is the applicant's fault. However, the process is taking to long, even where the applicant is used to making applications, does so correctly and provides supporting documentation. Does the Department have plans to reduce the processing time?

On the trusted partnerships, is there any scope for having other sectors become trusted partnerships? I am thinking of chefs or the hospitality sector, which has representative bodies. Could the representative body become a trusted partner? It would process the application initially, send it on to the Department with the bulk of the work done and hopefully it would be turned around in a fortnight or so.

As regards the hospitality sector, is the Deputy thinking of the Restaurants Association of Ireland? Is that the organisation he is referring to?

I am thinking of the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Irish Hotels Federation.

A recognised body.

I accept that the Department cannot be abreast of the difficulties and challenges across every sector of the economy. I also accept that it is engaging with the parent Departments of the various sectors. I do not believe that there is full appreciation of the serious challenges that exist within the hospitality, haulage and private health sectors. We know the challenges around retaining nurses in our public hospitals.

The challenges are twice as great in many private sector facilities. The problem is compounded by the issue of less qualified staff working in these sectors.

Ms Clare Dunne

I will kick off and then I may ask colleagues to come in. As I understand it, the Deputy raised four broad areas. The first related to other sectors such as hospitality and care assistants. We review the ineligible list and the critical skills list under the employment permit system twice a year. We do that in a very systematic and evidence-based way. We engage in widespread consultation with all of the key stakeholders, including all of the representative bodies, individual employers and the relevant Departments. We engage with the major data sources compiled by the likes of SOLAS and make use of the national skills bulletin and the national vacancy overview. Wherever there is a clear demonstrable need to take an occupation off the ineligible list or add one to the critical skills list, we will act on that need but we need the evidence. As I said, with regard to care assistants we are engaging very closely with the Department of Health and the other key stakeholders. They are telling us that, as of yet, they do not believe there is sufficient evidence to take care assistants off the list. We are guided by the lead Department, which is very close to the sector. That is the case at present. I am not saying it will not change in the future but that is what we are told now. The Department of Health is engaging with the nursing home sector. That is just an example.

With regard to the hospitality sector, again we engage very closely with the industry. We are coming to the end of our second review of the list system this year and we will meet representatives of the hospitality sector shortly. We engage with them on an ongoing basis. If they have clear evidence that demonstrates that they cannot find cleaning staff or bar staff, and that is verified in the skills bulletin or the national vacancy overview, we will listen to that. Our job is to listen to the needs of the economy. We are not the work permits police, nor do we want to be. We take a very measured approach based on evidence and engagement with the sector and the lead Department. We engage regularly with the hospitality sector and the health sector.

We have an interdepartmental group that was initially set up to oversee the conduct of the review. That interdepartmental group, which I chair on behalf of the Department, meets at a senior level across all relevant Departments, including the Departments of Education and Skills, Health, Public Expenditure and Reform, Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Transport, Tourism and Sport, and Housing, Planning and Local Government. All of the key Departments are represented on that interdepartmental group. We meet regularly. SOLAS is also part of the group. Decisions of this nature are taken collectively. Where a sector can produce evidence, we will respond. I want to make that clear. With regard to seasonal permits, we have been provided with clear evidence over time and we have been persuaded that this is the way to go.

The second question the Deputy asked was about the minimum annual remuneration. When legislation on work permits was introduced in the 2006 Act, it was decided to link the minimum annual remuneration to what was then the average industrial wage or average annual earnings as a benchmark. We were mindful of the fact that we were trying to attract people with critical skills or skills that were in short supply in Ireland. The wage levels have not been revisited since that time and are now way out of kilter with average annual earnings. We are trying to gradually move the minimum annual earnings back up-----

The figure will be increased.

Ms Clare Dunne

Yes. It will be increased to bring it into line with the average industrial wage, which is about €40,000, but we are going to do this in incremental steps. From January of next year, the lower threshold of €30,000 will rise to €32,000 for those with critical skills. The €60,000 threshold will rise to €64,000. That is the explanation. It is just a matter of keeping pace with the average industrial wage.

I am sorry to interject. With regard to the sectors which I outlined, Ms Dunne mentioned the construction sector. I also should have made reference to it because it faces many challenges. If a need to widen the permit with respect to jobs within these sectors can be demonstrated, would these skills be regarded as critical? What did Ms Dunne call the list?

Ms Clare Dunne

I referred to the critical skills list. We operate two lists.

There are two lists, the critical skills list and-----

Ms Clare Dunne

There is the ineligible list and the critical skills list. Everything in between, which includes the vast majority of jobs, is eligible for a general employment permit as long as the employer can demonstrate through the labour market needs test that a person cannot be sourced locally or within the European Economic Area. The vast bulk of employments within the State are eligible for an employment permit through a general permit or a critical skills permit. We are moving to take occupations off the ineligible list. Those that are on it are generally lower-skilled occupations where there are clearly people available within the domestic market or the EEA to fill positions. Is that okay as an explanation of the minimum annual remuneration?

Ms Clare Dunne

Deputy Troy also mentioned processing times and asked whether they would be covered by the legislation. That level of detail will not be included in the legislation. We are, however, acutely aware that processing times are not what we would like them to be and that they do not align with our own customer service commitments. They are, however, decreasing because of the additional resources we are getting and the changes we are making to how we do things. People are on overtime. Trusted partner permits are currently being processed within three weeks, which is good. The general employment permits are being processed within nine weeks, which is quicker than it has been for some time. The difficulties exist because the demand for permits has increased exponentially in recent years. The answer is not to keep throwing resources at processors. Over the medium term, we are looking at developing an IT solution that will provide a digital end-to-end system. We are trying to take people out of the day-to-day processing and to reduce the number just keying in details. We want to move towards a digitised system. That should speed up the process. We are coming to the end of the first phase of that process, which started with a business process re-engineering exercise. That is almost finished. Already, without introducing any IT system, that process has shown us improvements that can be made to the current system which will help us to process applications more quickly. As I have said, the processing times are currently at three weeks and nine weeks. We are constantly working to reduce those times.

Does Ms Dunne have a target date by which the system the Department hopes to develop will be up and running?

Ms Clare Dunne

We want it up and running next year. We will go to tender for a new IT system early in the new year and it will then take whatever length of time is required. It is very difficult for me to give the Deputy an accurate timeline but I hope it will be ready by the middle of next year.

Will Ms Dunne comment on the suggestion that representative bodies such as the Irish Hotels Federation become trusted partners?

Ms Clare Dunne

Any employer who is a regular user of the system can become a trusted partner. There is really no mystery to becoming a trusted partner.

I am talking about small restaurants with one or two employees. They are not going to jump through the hoops of becoming a trusted partner in the hope of getting the right chef or staff member. The Irish Hotels Federation, on the other hand, represents many businesses.

Ms Clare Dunne

No. Our system is vacancy-led and employer-led. To become a trusted partner, one must be an employer because it is job related and related to a specific contract. We only deal with employers. We do not deal with federations or bodies of that nature. It is not difficult to become a trusted partner and there is no cost involved. If anything, it will save an employer a lot of time because he or she will do once for two years what currently must be done each time a permit is applied for. I accept that if somebody is just applying for one permit every five years they will not qualify as a trusted partner. If the employer is applying for two or three permits over a period, then we are not terribly stringent about that and would look favourably on that. It means that one would fill out all the employer details once and we keep them in our system. Any permits the employer needs over the following two years will be easier to apply for. It is quite a simple process.

Ms Fiona Ward

It is not about the volume of trusted partners it is about regularity of use. If one uses the system regularly, even if it is only for one or two applications, then the employer can qualify and apply for trusted partner status. People think it is about volume of use but it is not.

I was struck by the special circumstances employment permit, which allows for an employment permit to be granted in unusual circumstances. Can our guests provide give examples of where this provision has been used or where it may be used in the future? I was just struck by that line.

Ms Clare Dunne

We have several examples, another one of which Ms Collins just pointed out to me earlier. She is key to developing the legislation and she knows that this is a very good example.

Ms Roisin Collins

Last year, there was an application for a heart strings butcher. Butchers are on the ineligible list but with this particular skill set who has even heard of a heart strings butcher? They remove sinews from hearts and use them to make musical instruments-----

I was just going to ask what it was.

Ms Roisin Collins

It is a small company somewhere in the midlands that wanted to hire this person. The position was on the ineligible list. We could not do anything for the company in that regard even though it obviously needed this person. One also could not find training for this skill. It is one person, and we had never heard of the particular skill set. The company is small so it would not need 15 heart strings butchers, they were just going to have one. It is for that kind of circumstance where we know the job is not going to be a constant vacancy and the skill set is almost completely unique but for some reason it falls foul of our system because it is ineligible or due to the remuneration level. It is about being able to have a system that is flexible enough to recognise that there are circumstances which are unusual and which we should be able to deal with.

Would I be right in saying that the Department would grant a permit on a case by case basis and that it would look at something unique and unusual such as that?

Ms Roisin Collins

Yes, absolutely..

Ms Clare Dunne

We have criteria set out to guide the process so it would not simply be at the whim of whoever is processing on the day. We have very clear criteria and we are guided by the Office of the Attorney General in how we draft this Bill. We want to keep it fairly tight and focused.

I am sure that would have been one of the more unusual requests.

Ms Clare Dunne

That is just one example. We have a few of them.

I thank our guests for coming to engage with the committee. That concludes our business for today. We will adjourn until Tuesday, 26 November, when we will continue our pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill.

The joint committee adjourned at 6.45 p.m. until Tuesday, 26 November 2019.