I propose to take Questions Nos. 119 and 122 together.
Employment permits such as the working visas and working authorisations granted to highly skilled personnel such as nurses, doctors, physiotherapists and other health professionals, to IT professionals and to construction professionals such as architects, engineers and town planners are granted to the individual employee and permit them to change employer within the given sector to which their qualifications relate.
At present the work permit facility grants the permit to an employer to recruit a specific employee to fill a specific vacancy, where the employer has been unable to find a suitable employee within Ireland or the wider European Economic Area. This arrangement does have the safeguard that the non-EEA employee in question is coming to fill a specific vacancy, an important factor when most of the personnel in question are at the lower end of the skills spectrum.
Despite assertions to the contrary, in recent years, work permit personnel have being readily facilitated in changing employers and in such circumstances a new work permit is issued to a new, eligible, employer. This flexibility has being possible and warranted by the relatively high number of vacancies arising in recent years. I should mention that in 2002 some 3,888 employees changed employer, while in 2003 this number was 3,512, or an average of 68 per week.
If we were to move to a situation where a work permit was given to the individual employee, we would in effect be giving on authorisation to come to Ireland in search of an employer. Such a system is not impossible, but it does give rise to a number of serious policy questions and does raise very significant resource issues. Any informed decision to move to a new system should take these into account.
With regard to spouses, the Employment Permits Act 2003 provides that an employer may not employ a non-EEA national unless the employer has been granted an employment permit. There is no prohibition on the issue of work permits in respect of spouses of non-EEA nationals already working in the State. However, they are in the same position as other non-EEA nationals and require an employer to obtain an employment permit in order to employ them.
At present, when my Department receives an otherwise valid work permit application from an eligible employer, in respect of somebody who happens to be a spouse, the Department has no problem in granting a permit and regularly does so.
Some spouses resident here appear to have encountered difficulties in persuading prospective employers to apply for a permit to employ them and I have been examining just how such difficulties might best be addressed. It is intended to complete this examination shortly.