Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Naval Service Operations

Jack Chambers

Question:

43. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on the fact that the LÉ Orla and LÉ Niamh could not set sail to conduct operations during the week 24 to 26 September 2018 as a consequence of inadequate trained manning levels. [40259/18]

I am seeking the Minister of State's views on the LÉ Orla and LÉ Niamh not being able to set sail to conduct operations during the week of 24 to 26 September as a consequence of inadequate trained manning levels.

First, the delay in the return home of Defence Forces personnel has nothing to do with the HR section of the Department of Defence.

The Naval Service is the State's principal seagoing agency tasked with a variety of defence and other roles. The current strength of the Naval Service is just over 1,000 personnel, or approximately 92% of its establishment of 1,094 personnel. There is ongoing recruitment to the Naval Service, with the most recent intake of general service recruits and cadets in September. There will be further recruitment in early 2019. The level of training and experience gained by members of the Defence Forces makes them attractive to private sector employers. The Defence Forces are not unique in that regard. This is experienced in other parts of the public service and by other military organisations internationally. At the request of the Government, the Public Service Pay Commission is considering specific recruitment and retention issues in the Defence Forces.

On the two ships referred to in the question, I am sure the Deputy will appreciate that for operational and security reasons it would not be appropriate to disclose details of the operational deployment of any vessel in the Naval Service. However, the Naval Service is meeting its security and defence tasks. It is also important to note that the Naval Service is intelligence-led and must, therefore, prioritise its work carefully. Whether it is the ongoing operation in the Mediterranean or the recent joint surveillance operation off the south coast which resulted in the detention of a 40-foot vessel carrying a significant quantity of cocaine on board, the Naval Service does great work.

Last Wednesday, when this issue came to my attention, I spoke to the Chief of Staff who later in the week visited the naval base to discuss ongoing challenges. The Chief of Staff provided me with a preliminary update by telephone on Friday evening and yesterday afternoon I received a further written briefing on the issue. I am expecting a more detailed explanation from military management in the coming days.

It is also important to note that ships do not sail from time to time for various reasons, including weather, mechanical reasons and personnel issues. The Naval Service maritime security and defence patrol schedule takes into account the requirement to maintain a patrol presence at sea and to schedule resupply, refitting and maintenance in harbour. Despite the challenges it is facing, I am assured by military management that the Naval Service continues to carry out its assigned security and defence tasks.

The Minister of State's response was similar to the comments he made on "Prime Time" last night. He is in complete and continuous denial. Who is he trying to fool here? The ships were docked because of the recruitment and retention crisis of recent months and years, yet the Minister of State cites operational and security reasons. How were operational and security tasks performed if the ships were docked? This week, for example, two ships were left in dock because of the retention crisis.

The Minister of State is in complete denial and dismisses the issue by referring to the Public Service Pay Commission. An emergency meeting of senior military management had to address this matter. I now understand that one of the ships set sail but had to draft in personnel who were undergoing training. This is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul to save the Minister of State's bacon in the Department of Defence. He needs to take control of this issue and stop referring to other reasons. On the "Prime Time" programme last night, he engaged in further denial when he referred to weather and technical difficulties and again tried to assure the public that security and defence tasks were not being compromised.

Under the Minister of State's management, the Department of Defence and the military are in complete crisis. There has been no assurance during his tenure. He is completely failing the people. These issues have caused a crisis in morale. Defence Forces personnel cannot sail because of the retention crisis, yet the Minister of State takes no action.

I will give the Deputy some advice because we could have avoided the situation we are in. I watched an interesting programme last night about the banking bailout. Deputy Chambers' party was involved in that. I would-----

The Minister of State is distracting from the point again. Will he address the issue of the military crisis we are having?

I advise the Deputy to watch that programme as he might learn a lot.

I received correspondence yesterday from the Chief of Staff who assured me that, despite the many challenges, the Naval Service is still able to carry out its assigned security and defence tasks and meet its commitments under the various service level agreements. I admitted last night that we have human resources challenges in the Naval Service. I did not shirk my responsibilities.

The Minister of State referred to weather and technical difficulties.

I advise the Deputy to watch the programme again. Maybe he did not see it.

I stated last night that we have human resources issues and challenges in the Defence Forces. We are in a process with the Public Service Pay Commission and various other processes. I assure the general public that the Naval Service is capable. The Chief of Staff has assured me that it is well able to carry out its security and defence tasks.

Again, the Minister of State distracts from the point by referring to events of ten years ago. We are in the present. The Minister of State needs to take control of defence policy for the future. He is failing those who are working and risking their lives daily. I understand that to allow the ship to sail, the crew was augmented by the cancellation of specialist weapons training. Two instructors and six students were affected. I also understand the ship sailed and is docked at Roche's Point because it has such a skeletal crew that it cannot sail into deep waters to carry out its operational and security tasks.

The Minister of State claimed he cannot discuss the issue because it would compromise military intelligence. That is nonsense. It is just a facade and a barrier to allow him to avoid being held properly accountable to the House on defence policy. Again, he is failing in his duty as Minister of State with special responsibility for defence. Will he stop referring to the Public Service Pay Commission and start doing something about this crisis? The Chief of Staff said he would make a direct plea to the Public Service Pay Commission. That gives rise to questions about the effectiveness of the joined-up approach between the Chief of Staff and the Department. I think the Chief of Staff is losing trust in the Department, the Minister of Sate and the management of this crisis. Our ships cannot even set sail. Members of the Defence Forces are receiving social welfare payments because of the complete failure of this Government to do anything about this recruitment and retention crisis.

The Deputy is asking me to shirk my responsibilities in respect of the Public Service Pay Commission, while applauding the Chief of Staff for engaging with the commission

The Chief of Staff does not trust the Minister of State.

The Deputy should make up his mind on which way he wants to go. It is my political responsibility. I have engaged with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Public Service Pay Commission, and a comprehensive joint submission has been made by the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. The Chief of Staff acknowledged that when he said-----

What involvement did he have in it?

If the Deputy listened, he would know it was a joint submission in which both parties were very much involved. It was submitted to the Public Service Pay Commission in early September. I am giving the commission the space and time to carry out its work on pay within the Defence Forces. Maybe the Deputy will read the commission's report of May 2017, which I have highlighted to him a number of times. Perhaps he has failed to read it. The report highlighted the Defence Forces as a case in point. The Defence Forces are being prioritised in the Public Service Pay Commission.

Public Service Pay Commission Reports

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

44. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the reason for the delay in submitting the joint submission from the military authorities and his Department to the Public Service Pay Commission in respect of Defence Forces pay and allowances. [40101/18]

I welcome the statement from the Minister of State about the departmental cock-up which has left 119 Defence Forces personnel stranded in Syria with families awaiting them. Personnel heading out to Syria at least have a new date. What are the reasons for the delay in submitting the joint submission from the Department and the military authorities to the Public Service Pay Commission? The submission could have helped - I hope it will help - to address some of the retention and recruitment challenges facing the Defence Forces.

The Public Service Pay Commission was established to provide objective advice to Government on public service remuneration policy. In 2017, under my direction, the Department of Defence brought issues of recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces to the attention of the commission. The commission produced its initial report in May 2017 and highlighted recruitment and retention issues, including in the health and defence sectors, that required further analysis. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for the Public Service Pay Commission to undertake this further analysis. In this context, the commission has initially focused on the health sector and recently produced its second report focusing on certain health grades.

Earlier in the year, the commission sought specific data from the Department of Defence. A civil-military team was tasked with sourcing these data and this work been ongoing. The material requested included detailed data and specific trends. These data were not readily to hand and every effort has been made to provide this material as speedily and comprehensively as possible. An initial tranche of material was forwarded to the commission through the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in early April. This focused on pilots and air traffic controllers. Further material was sent in early September and the remaining outstanding data will be forwarded this week following their recent receipt from the military authorities.

The Public Service Pay Commission's work on the defence sector is under way. As the commission’s work is ongoing, I will not make any comment or engage in speculation on possible findings. I look forward to reviewing the findings of the commission in due course.

The Minister of State said earlier that the submission was made in September. Will he confirm the date in September on which the Public Service Pay Commission received or was sent the submission? The commission is due to report in autumn. As this is the last month of autumn, meeting that deadline will be an onerous task. Can the Minister of State confirm that the report from the Public Service Pay Commission will not be delayed or does he expect it to be delayed as a result of the late receipt by the commission of the joint submission from the Defence Forces authorities and the Department? We have often been told we should await the outcome of the Public Service Pay Commission's deliberations before we consider issues of pay and allowances, which will help to deal with the chaos in the Defence Forces and the failure to retain highly skilled personnel who are leaving in droves each year. My question is not on the content of the commission's report.

Why was there a delay? It has been received but given how late the submission was received, will the Public Service Pay Commission seek additional time to tackle some of the matters or comment on the submission received? PDFORRA and RACO, two of the representative organisations, received notification in February that they had six weeks in which to prepare their submissions. They did so but have had to wait until last month before the State moved at all.

The joint submission from the Department of Defence and military management was submitted on 10 September to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This was a very comprehensive evidence-based submission and it was what the pay commission sought. The submission was supported by statistics and I know the commission is engaging with members of the Defence Forces now, as it has done for the past while.

Both representative associations were asked to send a submission, but this was a separate joint submission from both the Department and military management. A large amount of data was required, which had to be comprehensive and backed up with statistics and specific arguments, detailing the position of recruitment and retention. The Deputy mentioned specific posts. I assure him every effort has been made to give as much evidence-based data as possible from both the Department and military management.

The Minister of State has clearly had no correspondence from the commission indicating a delay. I accept the amount of data required but most of that had been well signalled in advance. We all knew last year or the year before what type of data would be required to make a case to deal with the pay rates in the Defence Forces and the need to tackle reinstatement of allowances.

Is there any conflict between the military authorities and the Department on the content of the submission? There seems to be at least some commentary out there that those within the military authorities, including the Chief of Staff, were disgruntled with the delay in preparing the joint submission and the lack of urgency from the Department and the Minister of State. There was frustration over not seeing anything done since they fulfilled their portion of the submission.

I instructed my Department that I did not want a wishy-washy submission from the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. I wanted a comprehensive evidence-based submission. It runs to well over 100 pages, with graphs of trends and everything like that. The Deputy asked when I expect the pay commission to report. In April this year a submission was sent regarding pilot retention, and we know it is a major issue because pilots are sought after in the private sector. We had been bleeding pilots, so to speak, over the past while as they went to the private sector. I wanted to ensure this matter would be prioritised. The pilot submission was made in early April and I expect we will shortly have a report on that. I am not sure when we can expect a report from the pay commission arising from the submission we made in September. At this time the commission is actively engaging with members of the military. They are having face-to-face discussions about the matters in the submission. I would like to get the commission's report as soon as possible but I am allowing it time and space to do its work.

Public Service Pay Commission Reports

Jack Chambers

Question:

45. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his plans to address the manning level issues in the event that the pay commission does not make credible and functional recommendations to address the recruitment and retention issues of the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40260/18]

What are the Minister of State's intentions to address manning level issues in the event that the pay commission does not make credible and functional recommendations to address the recruitment and retention matters in the Defence Forces? We know from the PDFORRA conference this week how a large number of soldiers, sailors and the Air Corps personnel are buying themselves out of the Defence Forces because they are unhappy with pay and conditions. Looking at their hours, many are working at rates below the national minimum wage and there are still breaches of the working time directive. The Chief of Staff will have made a plea to the Public Service Pay Commission and he clearly does not have the same hope that the Minister does in giving time and space to the commission. What will the Minister of State do if the commission does not progress solutions to the serious recruitment and retention issues we have?

As I have outlined, the Public Service Pay Commission was established to provide objective advice to the Government relating to public service remuneration policy. The Department of Defence has provided detailed data to enable the commission to undertake an evidence-based analysis of recruitment and retention issues. The commission's work is ongoing and I have no intention of speculating on possible outcomes of that work. I assure the Deputy, however, that the Government remains committed to reaching the authorised strength of 9,500 personnel for the Permanent Defence Force, PDF. There is ongoing recruitment to achieve that target and a range of alternative recruitment approaches are being developed. A working group is examining the scope for greater use of direct entry recruitment for certain specialist positions and steps are being progressed to enable former members of the Permanent Defence Force who have sought-after skills to re-enter the PDF. I will continue to work closely with the Chief of Staff in developing these approaches.

The Permanent Defence Force continues to offer excellent career opportunities for serving personnel and for new entrants. Ensuring that the terms and conditions of serving members of the Permanent Defence Force are fair and balanced is also a key consideration. There are a range of actions outlined in the White Paper on Defence from 2015 that are aimed at advancing this goal. A commissioning from the ranks programme has been initiated and is under way. The criteria for extending service beyond 12 years have been revised and an examination of retirement ages for enlisted personnel has been prioritised. A gap analysis of skill sets in the Permanent Defence Force has also been brought forward. In addition, the military authorities have introduced further initiatives to enhance work-life balance, and this is also to be welcomed.

Last year I initiated a review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme for the Permanent Defence Force and I have recently received the report from the independent chair, Mr. Gerard Barry. I thank him for that work. I am reviewing the recommendations contained therein and I look forward to engaging fully with all parties in progressing reforms to the existing scheme. The current challenges being faced by the Defence Forces are not unique and are being experienced by other military organisations internationally. I will continue to work closely with the Secretary General and the Chief of Staff to develop appropriate management responses.

What recommendations did the Minister of State make to the pay commission? In a response to me in May, the Minister of State said he was not sure if I had read the recent headline in the national newspapers. Here are a few headlines the Minister of State might have read this week: "Crew shortage prevents Naval Service vessels setting sail"; "Taoiseach 'cannot confirm' naval vessels did not sail due to staff shortages"; "Defence Forces staff 'buying themselves out of service'"; "PDFORRA: Hundreds of Defence Forces personnel have paid to get to get out of service over pay rates"; "Irish Defence Forces troops left stranded in Syria after flights 'delayed'"; "Revealed: Members of Defence Forces being paid less than the minimum wage ... unless they work additional hours". This is the reality of the recruitment and retention issue we have. My fear is the Minister of State keeps kicking the pay commission's report to touch and we will not see measured recommendations from it. The Minister of State is leading an area of the public service with a unique difference from other areas that he keeps referencing.

Recruitment is up but the numbers keep going down. When will the Minister of State plug the gap so we can see a levelling of numbers and meet the White Paper targets? These are the headlines that the Minister of State must defend and reference rather than trying to put a positive spin on this, as he did in May.

The minimum payment for a Defence Forces member is €27,000 and it has increased with the public service stability agreement payment. I am giving the Public Service Pay Commission the time and space to carry out its work. We gave it a very comprehensive joint submission from the Department of Defence and military management, which worked very hard on this evidence-based document. It is exactly what the pay commission sought. I will not predetermine the outcome of the pay commission's work and I will allow it do its work. It is a fully independent body away from the political sphere.

These are people who will look at this in a very independent way. Allowing them to look at the challenges we face is the proper way to go about this. We have given them evidence-based data. It is not for me to recommend-----

(Interruptions).

No, it is not. This is a pay commission. The Deputy might want to go back and look at the terms of reference of the pay commission. He spoke about people buying themselves out. There are reasons people have to do so and the Deputy should check them out.

If the Minister of State has made no recommendations, what is he doing as Minister of State with responsibility for defence? An element of contagion has crept in. We have seen issues in the Naval Service in recent days. Has the Minister of State received military advice about how the air ambulance service might be reduced or reassessed because of current difficulties in that section of the Defence Forces? Clearly, an element of contagion is growing across the different sectors of the Defence Forces that is not being addressed.

The Minister of State has admitted that he has made no recommendations to the pay commission. He is sitting back, is waiting to see what it comes up with and will defend whatever his Department officials hand him in a script. What we need is political control. The Minister of State needs to set officialdom aside and start dealing with issues and driving morale up in the Defence Forces because there is a recruitment and retention crisis that does not match that of any other sector in the public service. The Defence Forces led by the Minister of State were the last in line when it came to public pay and conditions and he needs to recognise that, make positive recommendations and have a strong input into the pay commission. It is very worrying that he has made no recommendations. It is hard to know what the role of the Department or the Minister of State is if they have made no recommendations.

The Deputy should go back and look at the confidence and supply agreement because his party signed up to the pay commission and agreed to its terms of reference. I would ask the Deputy to look at the terms of reference. His party signed up to them under the confidence and supply agreement. It is not up to me to make recommendations. It is up to the pay commission to do that. We were asked by the pay commission to provide evidence-based data and we did so with a very comprehensive submission. I worked on that with the Department and military management in a joint submission. I am happy that we have given the kind of data required by the pay commission. I am not hiding behind anyone. I will not shirk from my responsibilities. I have stated clearly that we have challenges across the Defence Forces, and I have outlined those in the joint submission to the pay commission. I am content that we have provided evidence-based data and everything that was required.

Defence Forces Personnel

Noel Grealish

Question:

46. Deputy Noel Grealish asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the status of the actions taken by his Department to address concerns raised by the University of Limerick study, entitled Workplace Climate in the Defence Forces, specifically those related to pay and conditions and the retention of personnel in the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service, and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40265/18]

Three years ago, the Minister of State received the University of Limerick climate survey of the Defence Forces. Both the qualitative and quantitative surveys showed an organisation heading towards a crisis. A total of 55% of respondents felt their pay did not reflect the work they did, 38% felt the pay was inadequate, and 23% wanted to look elsewhere for employment. I understand that while the Defence Forces has an establishment of 9,500 members, this has fallen to 8,800. This indicates a serious crisis in retention across all services. Given the serious nature of this crisis, what steps have the Minister of State and his Department taken to address these concerns, particularly the retention of personnel in the army, Air Corps and Naval Service?

The Defence Forces climate survey was commissioned on foot of a recommendation contained in the third report of the independent monitoring group which was established to oversee the implementation of recommendations relating to harassment, bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment within the Defence Forces. Follow-up work to the initial findings in the survey was conducted by University of Limerick researchers via use of focus groups. The resulting report, which was published in July 2017, further explored the issues raised in the original survey. The comments quoted therein cover a wide range of issues relating to human resources management. These include pay and conditions, vacancies, recruitment and retention, promotion systems, performance management, leadership, culture, morale, stress and work-life balance. The report pre-dated the significant improvements in pay that have taken place in the intervening period.

Members of the Permanent Defence Force have received the pay increases due under the Lansdowne Road agreement. In addition, in 2017, following negotiations with PDFORRA, improved pay scales for general service recruits and privates who joined the Permanent Defence Force post 1 January 2013 were implemented. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018 to 2020 provides for further increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement. The first increase, due from 1 January 2018, has been paid to Permanent Defence Force personnel and a second increase is due to be applied from 1 October 2018. Further increases in pay are scheduled for 2019 and 2020. New entrants to the Defence Forces will also benefit from the measures that were recently announced relating to amendments to the pay scales for new entrant public servants recruited since January 2011. By the end of the current public service pay agreement, the pay of all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces, earning under €70,000 per annum will be restored to pre-financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, levels. The restoration of the 5% reduction to allowances cut under FEMPI is also scheduled in the agreement.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As well as pay, other issues highlighted in the survey are being addressed. Many of these are provided for in the White Paper on defence and are being progressed accordingly. A number of initiatives, including a review of the criteria governing contracts of enlisted personnel and a comprehensive skills gap analysis across the Defence Forces, are being given an increased priority. I also commissioned a review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme and I have received the report from Gerard Barry who undertook the review. I am considering the findings and recommendations.

There is ongoing recruitment to the Defence Forces and a range of initiatives are being developed, including commissioning from the ranks, criteria for the re-entry of former Permanent Defence Force personnel with specific skills, and consideration of increased use of direct entry for specialist posts. The Public Service Pay Commission is also examining recruitment and retention issues as part of its work.

With regard to other issues relating to human resource management highlighted in the climate survey, there are extensive support systems in place for members of the Defence Forces. The personnel support service is available to provide information, assistance and counselling on a range of matters, including interpersonal problems and stress. I am satisfied that the measures outlined are serving to address the issues raised in the Defence Forces climate survey.

I believe the fundamental problem is that the Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, is not the Accounting Officer for the Defence Forces. He does not oversee the budget for the recruitment and, especially, retention of critical specialised members of the Defence Forces. The Accounting Officer responsible for the budget and expenditure of the Defence Forces, including recruitment and retention, is the Secretary General of the Department of Defence, Maurice Quinn, along with his assistant secretary, Robert Mooney. Mr. Mooney has day-to-day responsibility for strategic HR in the Defence Forces, a newly authorised appointment. He was promoted in 2017. Mr. Quinn and Mr. Mooney have not delivered for the Defence Forces.

Why are the Defence Forces different from An Garda Síochána where the Garda Commissioner is the Accounting Officer? The Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Mark Mellett, cannot spend without referring back to the Department and seeking approval. Surely the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces is best placed to understand the needs of his force. We cannot have a two-tier security service where the gardaí have better pay and conditions. It was reported in The Irish Times yesterday that retired Brigadier General Ger Aherne described the relationship between the Defence Forces and the Department as "toxic, broken, dysfunctional and dangerous". This is the reality and any of the Minister of State's words today cannot hide this fact. What is the Government doing to rectify this?

The Defence Forces have full control over recruitment. No civilian is involved in this. It is solely the responsibility of the Defence Forces headed by military management and the Chief of Staff who has his own people in that recruitment office. The Deputy raised a wide range of issues. I have outlined the process we are using under the public service stability programme between now and 2020. It involves pay restoration. Anyone earning under €70,000 will have their full pay restored by 2020. There has been a joint civilian and military submission to the independent pay commission. I will provide the commission with the space to do its work. I look forward to the outcome of that. I have written to PDFORRA this week asking it to come in and negotiate outstanding adjudications.

I acknowledge what the Minister of State said, which is that the Chief of Staff has full control over recruitment, but I am sure his hands are tied by officials within the Department who set out the terms and conditions under which he can recruit officers. I marched with the retired soldiers and their wives and families. I listened to "Morning Ireland" yesterday and heard the young wife of a soldier say that he comes home with €400 per week. This man has three young children.

Every time there are questions to the Minister of State with responsibility for defence matters they are about the conditions of soldiers. Why is that? We are all proud of them and the duties they perform at home and abroad. Every year we discuss the pay and conditions of military personnel, but we never do so in the case of members of An Garda Síochána, for which the Garda Commissioner is now the Accounting Officer. They both practically do the same work in providing security for the State. It is time the pay and conditions of members of the Defence Forces were brought up to those of members of An Garda Síochána. Will the Minister of State give a commitment that he will try to achieve this sooner rather than later?

The Garda Commissioner does not set pay levels for members of An Garda Síochána.

He has control of its budget.

That does not matter because he still does not set pay levels for members of An Garda Síochána. The minimum wage level of a member of the Defence Forces is €27,000. That trained young private could be 22 or 23 years old and have one child, two children or none at all. That is the way it is, but there is support available in the form of the working family payment, if required.

They do require it.

The Deputy knows how the working family payment scheme works. I do not have to explain it to him.

He has to accept this. The payment is made in certain circumstances and supports families, if needed and required. That is why it is available. I am doing my best in advocating on behalf of the Defence Forces and have stated I live up to my responsibilities. I listen to the representative associations, be it the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, or the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and soldiers. Recruitment is a matter for the Defence Forces, not the Secretary General of the Department. It is the full responsibility of the Defence Forces.

Naval Service Vessels

Seamus Healy

Question:

47. Deputy Seamus Healy asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if the construction of the multi-role naval vessel at an estimated cost of €200 million has been put out to tender; if so, if a tender has been accepted; if the purchase price or part thereof or other procurement costs of the vessel will be included in his Department's allocation in budget 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40343/18]

Will the Minister of State give the Dáil up-to-date details of the planned purchase of a multi-role naval vessel at a cost of €200 million? I ask this question in view of the totally inadequate pay, allowances and conditions of employment of Defence Forces personnel and the retention and recruitment crisis affecting all areas of the Defence Forces - the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service.

My priority as Minister of State with responsibility for defence matters is to ensure the operational capability of the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service is maintained to the greatest extent possible so as to enable the Defence Forces to carry out their roles as assigned by the Government, both at home and overseas.

As the State’s principal sea-going agency and in accordance with international and domestic law, the Naval Service, through its patrols, undertakes a variety of functions in the maritime domain in accordance with its role in contributing to maritime security. It encompasses the provision of support for other Departments and agencies such the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. The Defence Forces will continue to provide a range of supports for these bodies in accordance with its roles in aid to the civil power and the civil authority and as set out in the applicable memoranda of understanding and service level agreements. In addition, the Naval Service has undertaken a role in meeting additional operational requirements in the Mediterranean Sea.

Future Naval Service capabilities are being planned as part of the White Paper project planning process which will determine the defence organisation's maritime capabilities. The White Paper provides for the replacement of the current Naval Service flagship, the LÉ Eithne, with a multi-role vessel, MRV. It is the Government’s intention that the new vessel will provide flexible and adaptive capability to perform a wide range of maritime tasks, both at home and overseas. The acquisition of a modern vessel will ensure the operational capabilities of the Naval Service, as the State’s principal sea-going agency, will be maintained to the greatest extent and takes account of the overall policy approach in the White Paper on defence. Planning has commenced on the project and it is intended to hold a public tender competition in due course to cover the supply of the MRV. The design and configuration of the vessel are being considered as part of the planning process. The Deputy has speculated that the new MRV will cost €200 million. However, it is the case that the cost will only be known once the tender competition is concluded. The procurement is, of course, subject to the availability of funding within the overall defence capital funding envelope. As the budgetary position for 2019 has not yet been finalised, it would be premature of me to discuss the defence allocation in that regard. However, I remain very committed, as Minister of State with responsibility for defence matters, to continuing to work to ensure financial resources will be made available to the defence organisation to ensure the required equipment and infrastructural projects will proceed in a diligent manner so as to enable the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service to carry out their various roles, both at home and overseas.

I thank the Minister of State but, again, we have received very little detail on the current position of the tender process, etc. Today and also last year in reply to a parliamentary question the Minister of State informed me that the vessel would take part in missions at home and abroad. He also said it would have the capability to carry a full infantry company, with military equipment and landing craft, and have a flight deck capable of catering for military-style helicopters, all at a cost somewhere in the region of €200 million. In what circumstances will members of the Defence Forces be put ashore abroad from this vessel? Could it, for instance, be as part of an aggressive military operation in the Mediterranean? In a recent statement President Macron of France said a new invasion of Libya should be considered. One wonders if it might be something in which the vessel might be involved? In view of the current position on pay and conditions of employment in the Defence Forces, the purchase of the ship should be cancelled. We should fully restore the pay, pensions, allowances and conditions of employment of Defence Forces personnel to be able to retain and recruit personnel in order that the seas around Ireland can be protected, rescue missions undertaken and drug trafficking stopped.

I have firmly believed since my appointment that members of the Defence Forces should be equipped to the very best standard. That is exactly what the Government has been doing in the past few years. There has been significant investment in the Naval Service. I do not see the Defence Forces being involved in any aggressive military operation. The Deputy is fully aware of our policy of neutrality. As I said in my initial reply, we are only in the very early stages of planning and have a long way to go before we get to the tendering process. That will be the stage at which we will look at the financial envelope available. The White Paper provides for the replacement of the Naval Service flagship, the LE Eithne, with a multi-role vessel. The LE Eithne has been in service for nearly 35 years, having been commissioned in 1984. We need and require up-to-date equipment and infrastructure for the Defence Forces.

The Minister of State has said the tendering process is in the early stages. I suggest now is the time to scrap it. He also referred to operations in the Mediterranean where Médecins Sans Frontières had been operating a ship, the MV Aquarius. It has since been stopped since it was deregistered Panama following pressure exerted by the Italian Government. Médecins Sans Frontières has asked the Government to accede to a request to have the ship registered under the Irish flag. Will the Minister of State agree to do so? It would prevent further drownings in the Mediterranean and not cost the Government a penny. It would simply be a humanitarian exercise. I hope the Minister of State will agree to do so.

We are and have been involved in Operation Sophia for some time. I am proud of the great work members of the Naval Service are doing in the Mediterranean. Migrants picked up by it are brought to a safe European port. That has always been and will continue to be the case.

On the matter of the multi-role vessel to which the Deputy referred, we are in the preliminary stages of planning.

The decision on this will not be made next week or next month. I can absolutely assure the Deputy of that.

It is easier to scrap it now at this early stage.

I do not believe we should scrap the project. This is a commitment from the Government. We will continue until tendering stage. When we get to that stage we will look at the resource envelope available to the Defence Forces. I make no apologies for equipping members of the Defence Forces with the very best equipment.