Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Bill 2002: Second Stage.

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.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Bhille seo atá curtha i láthair an Tí ag an Aire anseo tráthnóna. Tá mé ar aon intinn leis an Aire go bhfuil sé tráthúil go bhfuil an Bille á chur i láthair na Dála ar an lá áirithe seo nuair a bhí an céiliúradh stairiúil sin anseo i mBaile Átha Cliath mar chuimhneachán ar 90 bliain ó bunaíodh Óglaigh na hÉireann. Bhí sé ina phribhléid agus ina phléisiúr agam féin agus – tá mé cinnte – ag an Teachta Sherlock bheith i láthair ag an ócáid stairiúil sin nuair a rinne muid céiliúradh ar an lá stairiúil nuair a bunaíodh iad. Nuair a bhí an tAire ag caint ar an Bhille seo, thagair sé do dhuine a rinne obair mhór agus a rinne gach iarracht go dtabharfaí Bille mar seo isteach. Is é sin John Lucey, a bhí ina rúnaí ginearálta ar PDFORRA, agus is ceart go mbeadh cuimhne againn air agus go luaifí a ainm agus an Bille seo ag dul tríd an Dáil.

The Bill first published in January 2002 provides for the establishment of the Office of Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. I welcome its introduction. One criticism is that it has taken so long for it to be debated in the Dáil. Having listened to the Minister's contribution, I wonder was it deliberately held back until this particular date.

If that is the case, we will forgive him for some of the delay.

We cannot expect our enlisted personnel to serve under regulations, conditions and codes of discipline in the 21st century that rightly belong to the 19th century. Bearing in mind the present day emphasis on human rights and fair employment regulations, the employment conditions governing our Defence Forces must adapt to modern requirements and acceptable codes of practice.

Members of our Defence Forces operate under unique working conditions. It is only in recent years that they have been granted permission to have their own representative bodies, such as PDFORRA and RACO. While these bodies are recognised as having the right to negotiate remuneration, working conditions and such matters, they do not have the right to withdraw labour or strike. That is a vital, but probably an understandable, difference between themselves and regular trade unions.

Many Defence Forces personnel feel they can be treated unfairly, but they have nowhere to voice their concerns apart from the military. That is like the police investigating the police. An ombudsman would allow soldiers to make complaints about their grievances to someone independent of the military, removing bias and making the process more fair. PDFORRA has been campaigning for a military ombudsman for a decade to address grievances of the military in a way that is fair to all. It is generally accepted that there are problems that have not yet been satisfactorily solved.

The 2002 Doyle report examined harassment, discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment in the Defence Forces. Some 20% to 30% of soldiers surveyed experienced difficulty in each of these categories. They must be able to bring these concerns and grievances to an independent forum such as an ombudsman. The Doyle report also revealed that 75% of those surveyed believed that they could get away with bullying in the Defence Forces. PDFORRA accounts this to the culture the military creates and believes an ombudsman – someone outside of this culture – would be effective in dealing with this serious problem. If an ombudsman for the Defence Forces is not created, these trends may well continue and create further serious difficulties.

The ombudsman system has been proven to work effectively elsewhere. The Australian defence forces, for example, have an ombudsman who helps serving soldiers, former soldiers and their family members to bring their grievances to an independent forum. This system has dealt with more than 800 grievances when attempts to deal with them within the Australian defence forces had failed. Due to existing codes of discipline and chains of command, it is difficult to have a personal grievance objectively investigated. An enlisted person with a legitimate complaint may only have recourse to his commanding officer. It takes courage to go higher up the command chain, which results in many grievances and complaints being buried or overlooked.

The Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Bill is tailored to address these difficulties. The Bill will create an ombudsman to be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Government. The length of term for the ombudsman may not exceed seven years and is fixed in the instrument of appointment. The ombudsman, rightly, may not be a Member of the Oireachtas, a Member of the European Parliament, a civil servant, a member of the Defence Forces or a member of a local authority. The mandatory retirement age for the ombudsman would be established by regulations promulgated by the Minister for Defence. The Minister for Defence, with the approval of the Minister for Finance, sets the compensation for the ombudsman as well as pension benefits, if any. However, any regulation promulgated by the Minister for Defence that regulates the ombudsman and his office must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas for 21 sitting days, during which time either House may pass a resolution of disapproval voiding it.

This is the fourth ombudsman office to be established in the State. The Ombudsman Act 1980 established the first such office. In 2002, the Pensions Ombudsman was appointed under Part 3 of the Pensions (Amendment) Act 2002. The appointment of the office of the Ombudsman for Children has been covered in the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. It is interesting to compare the powers, responsibilities and limitations of each office. Unlike the proposed ombudsman for the Defence Forces, the Cabinet has less power over the State Ombudsman. The President appoints the State Ombudsman on the recommendation of a concurrent resolution between the Dáil and Seanad, not on the recommendation of the Government, as is the case in this Bill. It is the Ombudsman Act 1980, not a Minister, that fixes the retirement age and compensation of the Ombudsman. He or she, apart from resigning on reaching retirement age, may be removed from office by the President in case of misbehaviour, incapacity or bankruptcy, if the Dáil and Seanad so recommend. The ombudsman for the Defence Forces can be removed in a similar manner, except in cases of misbehaviour, incapacity or bankruptcy, if the decision is made by the Government and both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The vital difference between the two offices is that the President is omitted from consultation in the case of the Defence Forces ombudsman. Except for the aforementioned differences and their respective different fields of authority, the Ombudsman is similar to the Defence Forces ombudsman in the manner in which he or she carries out investigations. However, the Ombudsman Act 1980 does not contain the various accountability provisions, including requirements and provisions for appearing before committees of the Oireachtas found in this Bill.

The Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 established the position of Ombudsman for Children. The President appoints the Ombudsman for Children on the nomination of the Dáil and Seanad. The term of office is set at six years and the retirement age is fixed at 67 years. The President can remove the Ombudsman for Children for due cause, provided it is among those laid out in the statute, with the prior approval of the Dáil and Seanad. Similar to the proposed Defence Forces ombudsman and the Pensions Ombudsman, the Minister for Health and Children, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, determines the compensation for the Ombudsman for Children. The major difference between the provisions of this Bill and those establishing the previous three ombudsmen offices lies in the age of retirement. In the previous three Bills, the age of retirement is set at 67 years, whereas in this Bill it may be set by the Minister for Defence. Why is this Bill different in this respect?

We must compare the proposed Defence Forces ombudsman to those established in other western democracies, such as Canada, the United States, France, Portugal and Spain. The mandate and powers of the ombudsman for the Canadian defence forces are laid out in departmental and administrative orders and directives. Its mandate is to be a neutral sounding board and mediator of Canada's Department of National Defence and the Canadian defence forces, provide information and referral for existing methods of redress within the Canadian defence forces and assist in making long-term improvement in the welfare of employees and members of the Canadian national defence and defence forces community.

There are numerous differences in how the Canadian ombudsman and the proposed Defence Forces ombudsman are able to investigate complaints. Whereas the latter may investigate specific cases when the normal means of dispute resolution fail to satisfy the complainant, the former investigates complaints to review the existing process for handling complaints to ensure that the process is fair. However, the Canadian defence forces ombudsman can hear complaints from a much larger range of people than the Irish Defence Forces ombudsman. In matters relating to the Canadian forces, those eligible to file complaints with the Canadian ombudsman include current and former cadets, members of the Canadian forces, employees, applicants to the Canadian forces and family members of any of the preceding.

Although a wide array of assistance is offered to its troops, the United States has no centralised ombudsman dedicated to its armed forces. The closest the US has to a defence forces ombudsman is in the Department of Veterans' Affairs, which has an ombudsman to handle complaints concerning he customer service system for the Board of Veterans' Affairs. The limited scope of this ombudsman and the fact that his work only involves former members of the armed forces make this position too unlike the proposed Defence Forces ombudsman to warrant any further comparison.

The United Kingdom, although it has no ombudsman dedicated to the armed forces, has a central ombudsman entitled the parliamentary ombudsman. The parliamentary ombudsman, with whom the UK Ministry of Defence has agreed to co-operate, is charged with investigating maladministration in the British Government, including the Ministry of Defence. France, Spain and Portugal all have ombudsmen, of various titles and powers, whose scope covers most, if not all, of central government activity. They are generally able to receive and investigate complaints from people and have the powers necessary to investigate these complaints and make recommendations to remedy them.

Considering these other Government ombudsmen, both inside and outside Ireland, several improvements to the Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Bill may be advisable. The Bill as it stands gives the Government considerable sway over the Defence Forces ombudsman, including nominating the ombudsman, setting his or her compensation, setting the length of his or her term and setting the mandatory retirement age. It would be prudent to grant the ombudsman more independence from the Government. This can be achieved by making the Defence Forces ombudsman more like the 1980 Ombudsman by fixing in the Bill one or more of the following: compensation, term length or retirement age.

The Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Bill can gain from the example of the Canadian ombudsman by expanding the range of those eligible to file complaints. Currently, the Bill places strict limits on who can file complaints. Expanding this right to other people related to the Defence Forces, whether cadets, families or members of the Defence Forces, would help guarantee that the rights of these groups are protected. Apart from these shortcomings, I welcome the introduction of the Bill. When enacted it must address such grievances as harassment, bullying and any others that need to be resolved. At present there are difficulties in the Air Corps, as we do not have crewed search and rescue services in the north-west. Such grievances could be handled by the ombudsman when the Bill is enacted.

I agree with the Minister that we have been well served by our defence personnel since the foundation of the State. We can be proud of their achievements at home and abroad. We know they have acquitted themselves very well on the many peacekeeping missions they have carried out in different parts of the world. The Minister said he hopes that those departing for Liberia have a safe passage there. We all hope they will also have a safe passage home.

My party will give the Minister every assistance in processing the Bill through the House as soon as possible because it is long overdue. It will improve the working climate and conditions in the Defence Forces. It is vital to have good relations between all the ranks and sections in the Defence Forces.

Aontaím lena dúirt an tAire faoi John Lucey, nach maireann, agus an meas a bhí againn go léir air. The Labour Party welcomes the Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Bill 2002. The Bill, when enacted, will provide a formal framework to deal with the issues of bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment in the Defence Forces. These are issues that can arise in any workplace whether it is a business, commercial or voluntary organisation. These issues are not confined to the Defence Forces, but clearly there are procedures and structures within the military which can lend themselves to a culture of harassment.

The Bill is good, but the delay in bringing it to this stage raises many questions. The Government's procrastination in bringing the Bill to the Chamber has also been raised by PDFORRA, whose general secretary Gerry Rooney said at its annual delegate conference in Waterford:

We believe it is imperative to appoint an Ombudsman as part of the overall process of dealing with the issues raised by Dr. Doyle. We are somewhat concerned about the present delay.

It is vital that the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces is created as soon as possible. However, in the Estimates, not one red cent was allocated to establish the ombudsman's office. The Labour Party does not believe the office will be up and running during 2004.

Yes, it will.

This is an inexcusable delay and the Minister needs to explain to the House how he proposes to fund this very necessary post and when he expects the office to be functioning.

Dr. Eileen Doyle, in the Dignity at Work – the Challenge of Workplace Bullying report, revealed the startling levels of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the Defence Forces. This damning report was presented in March 2002 and yet, at the end of 2003, only some of the recommendations have been implemented, including the establishment of an independent monitoring group to oversee the implementation of the reforms. An equality steering group has been established and a confidential help-line has been made available to the Defence Forces since April 2002. However, where is the ombudsman? Where is the funding in the Estimates to establish this very necessary post?

Dr. Doyle's report found that 34.7% of women and 26.6% of men in the forces have suffered harassment. Of these, 39.4% of women and 39.3% of men thought about leaving the military following their ordeals. Each day that passes without the appointment of an ombudsman is another day that those men and women are neglected.

Those of us who have read that report are aware of and have been horrified by the examples of abuse that have been allowed to continue and have been tolerated, particularly when that abuse is targeted at those who, in one well-publicised example, were trying to raise legitimate concerns about safety equipment. There is also the case of the former "star" of a navy recruitment campaign, who was dismissed from the Naval Service after she was diagnosed as a coeliac. Ms Maria Fitzgerald, who successfully completed 158 days of tough training, was the face of the naval campaign before she embarked on a legal case against her dismissal, which was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. While the Naval Service may have been justified legally in discharging Ms Fitzgerald, was it morally justified in its decision? This is particularly hard to justify if reports of other navy personnel suffering the same condition being allowed to continue serving are correct. This would have been a case for the military ombudsman; instead, Ms Fitzgerald was obliged to take her case through the courts. What message does this case send out to those with health problems, many of whom are doing fine jobs in all walks of life in our society?

The participation of women in the Defence Forces is another issue that needs to be investigated. Women currently make up a paltry 4.6% of military personnel. In the 12 years since women were recruited into the military, the highest rank attained by a woman is that of lieutenant colonel. Are there particular barriers preventing women from participating more fully in the Defence Forces? Is there a macho mentality in our forces which is discriminating against female recruits? The enforcement of an anti-sexual harassment policy in the military is as imperative as the enforcement of the same policies for the civilian population.

While speaking about barriers, it is important to highlight the failure of the military to promote soldiers from within the military rank and file to the officer corps. In other countries ordinary soldiers have far better promotional opportunities open to them. The demarcation and glass ceiling that exists between enlisted and commissioned personnel in the Defence Forces is an injustice that should not be tolerated.

In her foreword to the report, Challenge of a Workplace, Dr. Doyle said that the creation and development of a friendly workplace environment must be the aspiration of any manager. She said a hostile environment disables human endeavour and contributes nothing but pain and suffering. According to her, the human response is sometimes expressed in low morale, absenteeism, distrust, unwillingness to name the suffering, unresolved anger and a determination for vengeance of some kind, whether on individuals or on the organisation. There is a sense of urgency in her foreword, yet despite the Bill being presented by the Minister for Defence in January 2002, it is only coming before the House in November 2003. If the political will had existed, the legislation could have been enacted sooner.

Members will agree that it is laudable of the monitoring group to develop confidential help lines, a counselling service and to engage in training and an equality audit of various Defence Forces regulations and instructions. We do not have the full implementation of legislation, regulations and administrative instructions, practices and procedures to ensure bullying is dealt with and eradicated.

PDFORRA welcomes the introduction of a new Defence Forces instruction, A7, which sets out both formal and informal procedures for dealing with complaints of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. We must deal with the issues highlighted by the Doyle report as part of the development of a better and more effective Defence Forces. It is our duty to uphold principles of best practice and ensure those who serve our country – those who are currently on peacekeeping duty in Liberia and elsewhere – feel proud to serve the Irish nation. Instead, it may appear to these brave men and women that their interests are not shared and prioritised by the Government.

The delay in bringing the Bill to this Stage and the fact that no money was provided in the Estimates sends a clear message to the Defence Forces that they do not rate high on the Government's list of priorities. The prompt processing of this legislation will show members of the Defence Forces that the Oireachtas takes these issues seriously.

While we broadly welcome the Bill, it is important to stress that serious deficiencies can no longer be ignored and must be addressed. These include the fact that no funds were earmarked for the ombudsman in the Estimates. When will the Government tackle the glaring inconsistencies that exist within the Defence Forces?

As citizens, we are afforded rights and privileges, rights fought for us by our forefathers. The members of the Defence Forces should not lose their basic rights when they put on a uniform. While legislative systems to deal with disputes have been developed, important issues still have to be addressed in the area of industrial relations, particularly in regard to the Defence Forces. When will the Government realise that such benefits would be for the good of all? Until the Government recognises the need for a strong trade union movement, sections of our society, in this case members of our Defence Forces, will continue to lose out.

Deputy Rabbitte raised this issue recently at a PDFORRA conference. He highlighted the importance of the organisation being represented at the ICTU. He said he had never understood this prejudice against the existence of representative bodies and, since that has been conceded, against there being any form of association with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

By not allowing PDFORRA to sit in on partnership talks, the organisation has no say on pay negotiations and other issues which are negotiated at national level. What message is being sent to the young men and women who are keen to join up and serve their country? Would we expect those embarking on any other career to enter into the workplace without any effective policies and procedures to protect them? The Labour Party does not. We should not expect or tolerate it for those who are assigned to protect and defend our nation. What is there to fear from reform? The Labour Party demands equitable treatment for all.

There has been a radical change in attitude to the Defence Forces in recent years. Critics of the establishment of PDFORRA claimed its formation in 1990 would be a threat to good order and discipline among the Defence Forces rank and file. This did not happen. The Bill would be more relevant if it included granting our citizens in uniform the right to join a trade union, to have membership of congress and the right to take industrial action in certain circumstances.

Concerns have also been raised by PDFORRA about the use of military law in some parts of the country. The organisation questioned the military authorities' use of the disciplinary code to deny its members their civil rights. Mr. Rooney from PDFORRA said recently that it is concerned about the use of military disciplinary procedures to essentially deny soldiers their civil rights. In a recent case, a PDFORRA member was charged under military law for submitting a subsistence claim, which was disputed in technical terms. Was this not a mere administrative disagreement which did not warrant the rigours of military law? This issue was raised, not because PDFORRA does not support military law, but because the organisation felt it was being used as a bullying tactic. An issue such as this would ideally be dealt with by a military ombudsman.

There is widespread concern about the future of the Air Corps amid fears of downsizing. How can one downsize an organisation which is already operating at minimum capacity? Any further reductions would be a false economy. As soon as the general election was out of the way, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, advised the Minister for Defence, Deputy Smith, to make cuts in Defence Forces expenditure. The long-awaited order for five medium-lift helicopters was cancelled.

More decommissioning.

The Defence Forces need to be well equipped and properly financed so they can continue to carry out their important international peacekeeping work.

Will the Minister explain the long delay in finalising the sale of Clancy Barracks in Islandbridge, the funds from which were to be utilised to redevelop military installations as well as purchasing new equipment? Despite the announcement in June 2002 that the site was being sold to a property developer based in Jersey, we await the completion of the sale. Can the Minister provide us with a date by which he expects the sale to have gone through?

Debate adjourned.