I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
B'fhéidir go bhfuil sé oiriúnach go bhfuil an Bille seo os comhair na Dála ar an lá ina bhfuilimid ag comóradh bunadh Óglaigh na hÉireann 90 bliain ó shin. The introduction of the Bill is appropriate given that the foundation of Óglaigh na hÉireann 90 years ago was celebrated earlier at the Garden of Remembrance. I thank Deputies McGinley and Sherlock for attending.
I am pleased to present the Bill to the House as it fulfils an important election manifesto commitment. The Bill will establish a new statutory office of Ombudsman for the Defence Forces, a major historical milestone in the modernisation of redress procedures. The Defence Forces ombudsman will generally replace the Minister for Defence as the final point of appeal in the statutory redress procedures of the 1954 Defence Act.
However, the Second Stage reading is tinged with sadness. Members will recall that the late John Lucey, the former general secretary of PDFORRA, was a most committed and articulate advocate of the Defence Forces ombudsman. He campaigned tirelessly for the establishment of a Defence Forces ombudsman for many years. However, early in 2002, John Lucey tragically lost his life in a mountaineering accident. Both Mr. Lucey and his family are very much in our thoughts. Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam dílis.
Since the Bill's publication, consultations have continued with the representative associations, PDFORRA and RACO. I have agreed to table a number of amendments on Committee Stage in the interest of promoting the widest consensus in support of the new ombudsman. I will refer to the more important amendments later.
The legislation provides for the establishment of the office of the Defence Forces ombudsman and for the appointment of an individual to that office by the President on the recommendation of Government. The Bill defines the functions of the ombudsman and sets out the general right of Defence Forces personnel to make a complaint to the ombudsman. The limited circumstances in which the ombudsman shall not investigate particular types of complaint are also outlined. Generally, an alternative route of appeal to the Minister for Defence is provided. Overall, the Bill provides the ombudsman with considerable independence and autonomy in the discharge of his statutory functions and in the conduct of investigations. Military personnel are assured of complete independence from the Minister, the Department of Defence and the military authorities in the investigation of complaints.
A system of complaints inquiry is available to all serving military personnel. Section 114 of the Defence Act provides for application for redress by military personnel who may think themselves to have been wronged by another member of the Defence Forces. This system was modified administratively in 1996 with the introduction of an external complaints inquiry officer appointed directly by the Minister to act in an advisory capacity. The advisory role of the CIO was introduced into the redress procedure on an agreed basis following extensive consultations with the representative associations at conciliation and arbitration. Individual complaints brought before the Minister could be referred to the CIO at the discretion of the Minister for independent review. The CIO then made recommendations to the Minister. It was agreed at the time that the question of a statutory Defence Forces ombudsman could be considered at a later date, in light of practical experience and in the context of a subsequent review of the operation of the informal CIO system.
That review commenced towards the end of 1999. The CIO was dealing with two dozen cases a year on average at the time. The review identified a continuing demand among enlisted personnel at private and junior NCO level for the introduction of a more transparently independent and statutorily rigorous procedure which would be clearly seen to be independent of the Defence Forces chain of command, the departmental secretariat and the Minister.
Other more recent developments have highlighted the importance of ensuring military personnel have faith in grievance procedures. The Doyle report into the incidence of unacceptable workplace behaviour in the Defence Forces found there was a serious lack of confidence in existing internal military complaint procedures. This lack of confidence was found to be widespread, particularly among enlisted personnel. I published the Doyle report in March 2002 and it received national media attention. The Bill providing for the new ombudsman had been published and circulated by then and the detailed research findings of the Doyle report were troubling. The report underlined the need for an independent statutory mechanism of investigation of complaints.
The findings and recommendations of the report were based upon extensive research undertaken by Dr. Eileen Doyle and her team. Her report highlighted widespread perceptions of harassment, sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination within the Defence Forces. Decisive remedial action had to be taken. I accepted Dr. Doyle's report and its recommendations in full and ensured that required actions were expedited.
An independent monitoring group, chaired by Dr. Doyle, is overseeing the implementation of fundamental reforms. This is a major collaborative enterprise involving senior military authorities, the Department and the representative associations. Arising from the work of the monitoring group, a number of important initiatives are now under way. An equality steering group is engaged in a major equality audit of Defence Forces regulations, administrative instructions, practices and procedures in the light of contemporary legislation and best working practices in general Irish employment.
An independent body has been engaged to provide an entirely independent 24 hour confidential help line and counselling service. Another independent body has been engaged to carry out confidential "exit interview" questionnaires for a selection of personnel leaving the Defence Forces. The findings of these interviews will be fed back to the monitoring group.
A new administrative instruction A7, "Interpersonal Relationships in the Defence Forces", was launched in early April. This instruction clearly sets out policy and procedures on personal relationships within the Defence Forces. A user-friendly guidance booklet and pocket reference card are being provided to every member of the Defence Forces. The new instruction provides procedures for the making of either a formal or informal complaint about unacceptable behaviour and provides significant protections for complainants and third party witnesses. The appointment of an independent ombudsman will mark a further milestone in developing a positive working environment for members of the Defence Forces.
I now come to the main provisions of the Bill. The new Defence Forces Ombudsman will investigate complaints with a view to ascertaining whether an action complained of may have been unreasonable, arbitrary, improperly discriminatory or otherwise inconsistent with sound and fair administrative practice. The ombudsman will be statutorily independent in the course of his investigations and in the performance of his duties.
At present, a complaint may be finally brought before the Minister for Defence where an applicant so wishes. The present right of referral to the Minister for Defence will be replaced, in nearly all cases, with a right of referral to the Defence Forces Ombudsman. However, it is proposed to amend the Bill on Committee Stage, so that the right of referral to the Minister will be retained in clearly defined circumstances in which the ombudsman is specifically excluded from access under the Bill, but where there would be access to the Minister under current arrangements. These circumstances relate to security or military operations, as defined in the Bill; matters relating to the organisation, structure and deployment of the Defence Forces; and matters relating to the administration of military prisons.
It is also proposed that any complaints concerning actions predating the commencement of the legislation will continue to be dealt with by the Minister on a transitional basis. Generally, the ombudsman will become involved first, where a complainant has had full recourse to the internal military redress system, up to and including the level of the Chief of Staff; second, where those procedures have been exhausted, and third, where the ombudsman forms an opinion that the complainant has an apparently bona fide and justified cause of complaint or grievance, which, in the opinion of the ombudsman, has not been satisfactorily redressed or resolved.
The ombudsman will also be accessible to former members of the Defence Forces, subject to specified time limits. The present redress procedures are confined to serving members and to persons serving at the time of initiation of their complaint. Conversely, it will be entirely for the ombudsman, at his own discretion, to refuse any trivial, vexatious or manifestly unreasonable or foolish complaints, or to refuse complaints where the internal military redress system has not been properly utilised.
The military environment poses specific challenges to the ombudsman concept. There is a delicate balance to be drawn between on the one hand, the need to provide appropriate rights of access to the ombudsman and, on the other hand, the need to safeguard military lines of authority. I emphasise to the House that, in this regard, I have been at great pains to confine the level of restriction on the remit of the new ombudsman to the very minimum. Some exclusions are self-evident. For instance, the ombudsman will not be able to investigate a complaint where a legal action has been initiated and he or she will not become involved in matters within the remit of the Defence Forces conciliation and arbitration scheme and the representative associations.
Matters relating to the organisation, structure and deployment of the Defence Forces and the administration of military prisons will also be excluded from the remit of the ombudsman. Security matters will also be outside his or her remit and the Minister will retain the right to request the ombudsman to desist from an investigation in such an area. The ombudsman may, however, apply to the High Court and seek a direction from the court if such a situation should ever arise.
Military operations will be excluded from the ambit of the ombudsman. However, I have decided to revisit the definition of "military operation" in the Bill, in direct response to concerns expressed by PDFORRA. An amendment will be proposed on Committee Stage in order to add further precision to the definition of the term. The term should only encompass operations in the field and the amendment will reflect this so as to widen the remit of the ombudsman to the greatest practical extent. I am glad to have been able to respond positively to PDFORRA in this regard. All things considered, I envisage that the number of complaints falling outside the remit of the ombudsman will be very small.
The Defence Forces have demonstrated a real, active and genuine commitment to this entire process. I fully realise that securing the necessary fundamental and irreversible changes in workplace culture and attitudes will not be simple or easy. However, I have every confidence that appropriate leadership can establish and maintain the proper environment throughout the Defence Forces.
I am pleased to submit this Bill for the consideration of the House. The provision of a statutory Defence Forces Ombudsman will mark a development of major significance for the Defence Forces. This important legislative measure will serve to assist in the cultivation and maintenance of a modern working environment which will benefit all ranks within the Defence Forces. The Bill is based upon the philosophy which gave rise to the original ombudsman legislation in 1980.
I wish to touch on a few other areas before concluding. With regard to staffing, it is envisaged, initially, that one civil servant, probably at executive officer or higher executive officer level, will be assigned to the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. The level of staffing and the number of staff which may need to be assigned subsequently is unknown at this stage, being subject to the number of complaints submitted to the ombudsman in due course. The combined strength of the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force is approximately 24,480. Only a small proportion of those are likely to initiate complaints, many of which may be satisfactorily resolved within the military chain of command. It is not foreseen at this stage that the ombudsman will require a large number of staff. It will probably be necessary for him or her to rent office accommodation.
The ombudsman appointed pursuant to this Bill will not be a member of the Defence Forces or a serving civil servant. He or she will hold office for a period not exceeding seven years but may be eligible for re-appointment for a second or subsequent term. The retirement age will be as prescribed in the regulations made by the Minister for Defence under the Act.
Appointment to the Office of Ombudsman for the Defence Forces will be made by the President on the recommendation of the Government and not upon a resolution passed by the Dáil and Seanad as in the case of the Ombudsman appointed under the 1980 Act and in the case of the Information Commissioner. It will be recalled that the President also appoints the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces on the recommendation of the Government.
While the nature of the appointment of Ombudsman for the Defence Forces, in practice, may be consistent with a part-time commitment, it has been decided not to reflect this specifically in the Bill for the reason that at present the level of complaints that may be addressed to him or her is as yet unknown. The only precedent guideline available is the work pattern of the part-time complaints inquiry officer who processed only a few applications for redress per month.
The Bill represents a sensible, practical model for the operation of the Defence Forces ombudsman. This is a real response to the desire for further modernisation and reform of the redress procedures among military personnel. I look forward with anticipation to hearing the views and contributions of Deputies on all sides of the House as the debate on the Bill progresses. Even though the odds could be a little against us, I look forward very much to being able to complete Second Stage before the Dáil rises at Christmas. That would be a matter on which I would seek the agreement of Members on all sides of the House, although I am aware there are constraints in that regard.
It would be remiss of me not to say a word about the soldiers some of whom have left and others who are about to leave for the mission in Liberia. I was grateful to my colleagues in the House last week for their unanimous support and the good will towards each and every one of those soldiers on this mission, which is not without risk. We have tried by every means at our disposal to cover the risks in terms of the preparatory work put in place before these soldiers leave, the equipment and facilities provided but above all in the provision of medical and other facilities about which many Members have spoken publicly and privately. In respect of every recommendation we received from the Chief of Staff and every facility sought, we have gone to every possible length to make sure they are met. I wish each and every one of those soldiers a safe trip and I pray that they will all return safely to their families.
The proposed legislation fulfils a commitment made some years ago. I hope the intervening period and the delay in getting it to the House have been worthwhile in the sense that Dr. Doyle's report has given us a deeper understanding of some of the problems and the kinds of solutions necessary to redress them. I believe the House has gained from that experience as opposed to the way in which we viewed this initially when we were disappointed about not seeing everything through. I am open to taking account of contributions and, in respect of any amendment proposed which I deem appropriate and sensible, I will be pleased to consider how I can accommodate such views.
As Minister for Defence, I have introduced legislation and a raft of new missions on a number of occasions and I have had extraordinary support and virtually unanimity on all occasions, something of which the Chief of Staff, members of the Defence Forces of all ranks and officials in my Department and myself have been most appreciative. I thank the officials in my Department who have been working on the preparation of this Bill, on the amendments that will be brought forward and on the consultative process which took place with PDFORRA and RACO. I hope the Bill is such that we almost cannot make it any better than it is and that it will work effectively in the interests of all for whom it is intended.