Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Questions Nos. 64 and 65 replied to with Written Answers.

Defence Forces Personnel

James Browne

Question:

66. Deputy James Browne asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if an investigation will be carried out into the physical and psychological effects prolonged working hours are having on soldiers, sailors and aircrews; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48207/18]

Jack Chambers

Question:

81. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the status of the application of Directive 2003/88/EC, the working time directive, to the Defence Forces in compliance with the ruling of the European Court of Justice; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48383/18]

Will an investigation be carried out into the physical and psychological effects of prolonged working hours on soldiers, sailors and aircrew? Will the Minister of State make a statement on the matter?

Are we skipping Questions Nos. 64 and 65?

We are taking Questions Nos. 66 and 81.

We are skipping Questions Nos. 64 and 65.

The Deputy is not present.

The Minister of State should stop wasting time.

I never waste time. I propose to take Questions Nos. 66 and 81 together.

The limitations on working time set out in the working time directive are for the purpose of preserving the health and safety of personnel. The Department of Defence and military management are aware of the provisions of the working time directive and have been working closely to progress its implementation. As I have previously informed the House, a Government decision, dated 18 November 2016, approved the drafting of the heads of a Bill to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. It will remove the blanket exclusions contained in section 3 of the Act. Work is under way in the Department of Defence and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection towards the progression of this decision.

The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces have undertaken significant work in examining the nature of the duties of the Defence Forces and how the working time directive can be applied to the members of the Defence Forces. A review of Defence Forces activities found that a high percentage of the normal everyday work of the Defence Forces appeared to be already in compliance with the directive. Certain activities were identified which might require a derogation, as provided for, from its terms. Other activities, owing to their nature, are unique and will require further consideration and broader consultation. However, I am confident that such measures can be progressed without compromising the health and safety of members of the Defence Forces.

Litigation taken by a member of the Permanent Defence Force in respect of the applicability of certain elements of the working time directive to the Defence Forces was settled in June this year in the High Court having regard to the specific circumstances of that case. Further litigation on the working time directive as it relates to the Defence Forces is pending and it is not appropriate to comment further on it at this point. The Department of Defence is engaging through the conciliation and arbitration process with the Defence Forces representative associations to discuss the application of the working time directive to the Defence Forces.

As we understand it now, some members of the Defence Forces are working three 24 hour duties in a week and can even be called back into work after those shifts are finished. Such situations are becoming commonplace, and at the recent PDFORRA conference, it was stated that all the military services are overstretched due to ever decreasing manpower level. PDFORRA is calling on the Department of Defence to carry out an investigation into the physical and psychological effects such prolonged working hours are having on soldiers, sailors and air crews. This must be a worthwhile call and surely such an investigation could well bolster Defence Forces' cases with the Public Service Pay Commission. Delegates attending the association's annual conference in Castlebar, County Mayo, heard many of those doing 24 hour shifts also face commutes to and from work to start and carry out those long working hours. Speakers expressed concern that many military personnel suffer from sleep deprivation and enormous stress levels. They called it a serious health and safety issue. Will the Minister investigate this situation?

The health and safety of members of the Defence Forces is a priority for me and the military authorities. Many of the activities of the Defence Forces comply with the provisions of the working time directive. As the Deputy will appreciate, implementation of the directive will amount to a fundamental change in working conditions that have been in place for many years. The implementation of the working time directive in the Defence Forces is a complex arrangement that requires considerable thought to ensure that, on the one hand, employers' rights are recognised and, on the other hand, the Defence Forces continue to play the varied roles assigned by Government. Department officials are engaging with military management and are working and engaging with the Defence Forces' representative associations through the conciliation and arbitration process. I do not accept that members are doing three 24 hour duties per week. Members are tasked with doing 24 hour duties. That is the nature of the Defence Forces' organisation, and when members join up, they accept they have to do 24 hour duties. I do not accept that members are doing three 24 hour duties per week.

There are serious issues around health and safety. The Minister of State has a White Paper target of 9,500 recruits despite massive non-compliance with the working time directive and numbers that fall below 9,000. What is the pathway of recruitment? If the Minister of State strives to achieve the White Paper target of 9,500 and compliance with the working time directive, there is a mismatch in respect of the work that can be done. Does the Minister of State need to review the White Paper recruitment target? Should the number be much higher as the Minister of State strives to achieve compliance beyond the working time directive? The Minister of State and maybe everyone involved in this process are not being genuine with people who want to implement the working time directive. The headline number of 9,500 as a target, despite non-compliance, will be a mismatch even if the Minister does achieve compliance. What is the Minister of State doing about the White Paper and achieving compliance?

When the numbers drop, of course there will be more challenges within any organisation. The Defence Forces' organisation is no different. Then we have to prioritise the work. What are the most important pieces of work? Is it sending people overseas, aiding the civil power, aiding the civil authority, or the daily ongoing duties that members of the Defence Forces carry out? I have tasked the military management with doing a gap analysis. I have brought forward a White Paper initiative to examine the gaps within the organisation. We are working on that. I want to get that back as soon as possible. It is important work that has to be carried out. That will help us make decisions on what we can prioritise and what the most important pieces of work are that the Defence Forces have to carry out. That is all about prioritising work that the Defence Forces do daily, weekly and monthly and which comprises sending people overseas. Will we be able to continue to send the numbers overseas that we are sending at the moment?

We know, since the report on the workplace climate in the Defence Forces was published last year, the level of stress that Defence Forces personnel are under. Since then, as the numbers in the Defence Forces have declined, those stress levels can only have increased, especially as the Defence Forces have to work exceptionally long hours on top of that. I understand that there is still no psychiatrist in the Defence Forces. Perhaps the Minister of State can enlighten us on that.

Many of the staff are not only working long hours but are caught in poverty traps. For example, a Defence Forces worker, whose pay is so low that they have to take the family income supplement, cannot get a mortgage. When such a person goes to the county council for a county council mortgage, they are told the family income supplement is not an income but a social welfare support and the council cannot give them a mortgage. When they ask if they can go on the housing list, they are told the family income supplement is an income and they are over the threshold go on the housing list. Some of these soldiers and other Defence Forces personnel are being caught in poverty traps. Will the Minister of State address these matters?

Less than 1% of the personnel in the organisation is on the working family payment. People talk about 70%, 60% and 40% but it is actually less than 1% of the Defence Forces organisation personnel. That includes the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. I have not come across people who have not been able to get on the housing list. I do not know about people's personal circumstances. The working family payment is there for a reason. It depends on the size of the family and other reasons.

We are trying to recruit a psychiatrist and that is proving difficult. I understand that a proposal is coming to me shortly around that. The Deputy knows, given that he is a spokesperson in this area, that recruitment of psychiatrists is an issue not just for the Defence Forces but for the HSE as well. Members of the Defence Forces and the Chief of Staff reiterated this at a committee meeting last Thursday, and any enlisted personnel or officer personnel receive all the medical mental care and attention from the private market when it is required.

Defence Forces Deployment

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

67. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the reason the LÉ James Joyce returned from the Mediterranean without saving a single life; and the terms of the mission to the Mediterranean. [48345/18]

Clare Daly

Question:

73. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if there have been discussions in relation to the involvement of the Naval Service in Operation Sophia following the return of the LÉ James Joyce; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47820/18]

Mick Wallace

Question:

74. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the number of persons rescued and brought to the EU by Naval Service vessels to date in 2018 as part of Operation Sophia; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48214/18]

This question relates to the LÉ James Joyce returning from duties of 16 weeks in the Mediterranean without saving a single life and the terms of the mission in the Mediterranean under Operation Sophia, compared with the original mission, Operation Pontus, which was a humanitarian mission. The fact that no life was saved shows the shift away from the humanitarian mission that was originally intended.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 67, 73 and 74 together.

The EU Common Security and Defence Policy operation, EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia, was launched in June 2015. It is part of the EU's broader action to provide a comprehensive response to the global migration and refugee crisis and to encourage a democratic, stable and prosperous Libya. It specifically seeks to counter human trafficking and smuggling in the southern central Mediterranean by taking action against the criminal networks and disrupting the smugglers' business model. The mission is also providing capacity building and training to the Libyan coastguard and navy and contributing to the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 2240 and 2292. These resolutions also authorise the interception of vessels suspected of being used for illicit activities and impose an arms embargo on Libya in an effort to prevent the flow of illicit arms and related material into that country.

In July 2017, Government and Dáil approval was secured for the deployment of an Irish Naval Service vessel as part of Operation Sophia. The participation by LÉ Niamh in Operation Sophia represented the first involvement by the Naval Service in a multilateral security operation under a UN mandate.

In the course of an 11 week deployment in the Mediterranean in 2017, the LÉ Niamh rescued 613 migrants, assisting with a further 107 migrant rescues.

In February 2018, the Government approved a further Naval Service contribution to Operation Sophia for a period of approximately eight months. LÉ Samuel Beckett deployed from mid-April to mid-July and was replaced in the area of operations by LÉ James Joyce. LÉ James Joyce returned to Ireland on 27 October 2018. During 2018 LÉ Samuel Beckett rescued 106 migrants in total. LÉ James Joyce was not tasked by the Operation Sophia Force Commander or by the Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre with search and rescue activities during its period of deployment.

The type of tasks assigned to Irish naval vessels depends on the Operation Sophia Force Commander and mission requirements at any point in time. In addition to search and rescue operations, Irish naval vessels undertake activities in support of the core task of the mission including gathering information on oil smuggling, patrols focusing on countering illegal arms trafficking, operations to intercept smugglers and people traffickers and monitoring the effectiveness of the Libyan navy and coastguard activity from a stand-off distance.

Operation Sophia has played a decisive role in improving the overall maritime security in the central Mediterranean. The latest information from the United Nation's migration agency, International Organisation for Migration, IOM, reports that as of 14 November 2018, the number of migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea was 103,347. This figure is considerably lower than those at this time in 2017, 156,708, and 2016, 343,258. In addition, the operation has so far contributed to the apprehension of 151 suspected smugglers and traffickers, removed approximately 550 boats from criminal organisations availability, contributed to over 300 safety of life at sea events and rescued almost 45,000 migrants. While there is currently no Irish ship deployed to the operation, Defence Forces personnel continue to occupy two posts in the operational headquarters in Rome and two in the force headquarters at sea.

Ireland's participation in Operation Sophia in 2019 is currently being considered and a decision will be taken on the matter following a full review of 2018 deployments. Other factors to be taken into account include the ongoing situation in the Mediterranean and the overall EU response thereto, the demands on the Defence Forces both at home and abroad and available resources.

When the change from Operation Pontus to Operation Sophia took place, I and other Deputies warned the Minister of State that it was shifting away from a humanitarian mission to one of policing and imposing the EU's fortress Europe attitude in the Mediterranean. This has been borne out by the figures provided by the Minister of State, that the LÉ James Joyce returned after 100 days at sea, not having saved a single life, which was the intended purpose and why this House and the general public has lauded the Irish Navy for its actions in the past. In 2015 the Irish Navy saved 8,592 lives, in 2016 it was 7,029 and even last year, when Operation Sophia was fully operational, it was 1,888, yet, as the Minister of State stated, this year the LÉ Samuel Beckett saved only 106 lives and none was saved by the LÉ James Joyce in its 16 weeks in the Mediterranean. The purpose for which the LÉ James Joyce was used was to send armed boarding parties onto suspect vessels and it was the only navy to have that duty in the recent past. Will the Minister of State confirm this?

I totally disagree with the Deputy when he says that we have not saved any lives. I think we have saved thousands because we have interrupted the smugglers' model and have destroyed the boats that they used to smuggle migrants. The UN migration agency has been compiling migrant arrival data across the Mediterranean since 2014 and has reported that the number of migrants arriving by sea has continued to drop. The numbers arriving in 2018 are the lowest since the crisis began. Those are not our figures. As part of Operation Sophia, Ireland is working closely as part of the 27 EU member States making a contribution to addressing some of the root causes of migration and human trafficking as well as continuing to be involved in the rescue of migrants at sea.

When we joined Operation Sophia, Operation Pontus was a humanitarian search and rescue mission undertaken as part of Ireland's bilateral agreement with the Italian authorities. Its sole focus was the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean. Now we have joined Operation Sophia which specifically seeks to counter human trafficking and smuggling in the southern central Mediterranean by taking action against criminal networks-----

I thank the Minister and call Deputy Clare Daly for her supplementary question.

If the Minister of State is serious about tackling the root causes then he might start by stopping facilitating the bombing of the countries in the first place.

Smoke and mirrors have been used to obscure what Operation Sophia is and the Minister of State has tried to do that here today. Operation Sophia is a military mission. I am not saying that: that is what the Council decision which established it says, namely that "The Union shall conduct a military crisis management operation". The Defence Forces 2017 annual report says "In July 2017, Government and Dáil approval was secured for the redeployment of Naval Service vessels from primarily humanitarian search and rescue operations, to primarily security and interception operations". It is not to save migrants from drowning or because we have a particular expertise. Recently, we submitted a freedom of information request to the Department of Defence which confirmed to us that none of those considerations formed the backdrop of the decision to participate in Operation Sophia. In fact, it is part of the Government's drip-drip participation into involvement in permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, and a future European army.

I agree with the Deputy 100% that it is a military mission, but it is also a UN mandated mission. When we joined PESCO, which I brought to Cabinet and to the House. Members of this House voted democratically to join Operation Sophia. It totally changed the mission in which we were participating under Operation Pontus. Operation Sophia specifically seeks to counter human trafficking and smuggling in the southern central Mediterranean by taking action against the criminal networks and disrupting the smugglers' business model. By improving maritime security, Operation Sophia is actively contributing to the EU and international efforts for the return of stability in Libya. In addition, Operation Sophia plays an important role in training the Libyan coastguard. We were not doing any of these things under Operation Pontus. I was very clear when we joined Operation Sophia that we were joining a UN-mandated military mission. The work of members of the Irish Navy and Defence Forces, who are representing Ireland in the Mediterranean, does us proud and they are doing a good job.

I thank the Minister.

I was at a European Council meeting yesterday at which Operation Sophia was discussed-----

I thank the Minister. He has three other opportunities to speak. I call Deputy Wallace.

The Minister of State referred to a safe place. Operation Sophia is pulling people back to a place of violence and human rights violations. Only yesterday, authorities used rubber bullets and tear gas to force more than 90 refugees to disembark a cargo ship docked in Misrata. The stand off lasted ten days. The refugees, including children, said that they would rather die than return to indefinite detention in Libya. This is the reality of Libya and of Operation Sophia. Scores of refugees are killing themselves in the detention centres where the Irish Navy help the Libyan coastguard to keep these desperate people.

The Minister of State said that he is saving lives by interrupting smugglers but he is sending people back to violence. They would rather be killed than go back. He spoke of a UN mandate but we should not forget that the UN gave the mandate to destroy this place to begin with.

There is no sense in what is going on. We should have nothing to do with this military mission. We are crucifying people by sending them back to Libya. The Government agreed with the NATO mission which, sadly, was backed by a UN mandate.

I am very proud of the work members of the Defence Forces, inlcuding the Naval Service, have been doing in the past few months. Our mission statement changed when we joined Operation Sophia. I was not hiding behind anything. Part of it was picking up migrants. The UN Migration Agency has stated the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean has decreased in the past few years. If one talks to any of the NGOs-----

They also are dying there.

I am not arguing, but if one talks to any of the NGOs, they will agree that the number of migrants has dropped. Our number one priority was reducing the number of lives being lost because no one was stopping smugglers from bringing migrants across. We are now stopping them from bringing migrants across very unsafe waters in unsafe vessels.

The Minister of State can hide behind words and say there has been a decrease in the numbers, but people are still being put on boats by smugglers, while there are others who are getting into boats of their own volition. Therefore, there is still a need for a humanitarian rescue mission in the Mediterranean. The Minister of State has said the Naval Service has been responsible for destroying the boats of smugglers. Will he confirm that because my information is that the Naval Service is not present in Libyan ports? Is it destroying them at sea? How many ships or boats have been escorted back to Libyan waters by, for instance, the LÉ James Joyce? How many ships have been escorted to EU ports in the same time period?

I am very glad that the Minister of State stated so authoritatively that this is a military mission because it directly contradicts statements made in the House by the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, with whom we will certainly be taking up the matter further. We have already started a process in that regard. The numbers of migrants drowning have decreased, but the numbers of desperate refugees being detained in Libya, sadly, have not. A Médecins sans Frontières doctor has described what it is like for migrants from Libya, stating those who make it are detained arbitrarily. He continued:

Many are held for months without adequate sanitation or food. Torture and rape become a part of daily life. Scabies eats at their skin. Infectious diseases like tuberculosis spread easily.

That is where we send them back and they are intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, a coast guard we have trained and equipped to hold them in these positions. It is not humanitarian and not helpful. It is an absolutely appalling violation of human rights and not something in which the people would want the Defence Forces to be involved.

We applauded the work of the Naval Service in the early years when it was actually saving thousands of lives. It was a wonderful achievement. Now its job is to make sure refugees do not reach Europe and the lawless Libyan coast guard intercepts them before they drown because if they set foot on one of our boats, under humanitarian law, we will be obliged to bring them to Italy. As we know, the last ship brought nobody there. The NATO mission that started all of this, with a UN mandate and the support of the Government, destroyed Libya which is now a dysfunctional state and out of control. Only last year CNN footage showed young black boys being sold as slaves for $400. France and the United Kingdom drove it with the help of President Obama. That is what the NATO mission brought about - it brought slavery back to Libya. It got rid of Gaddafi but replaced him with something 100 times worse.

I will pick up on a point made by Deputy Wallace. The European Union was also building capacity in Libya aimed at improving conditions for the exact people to whom the Deputy referred. That is a known fact which the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, has stated in the House. Operation Sophia is only one element of the European Union's response. We in Ireland are playing our part, as is every other member state.

On the point made by Deputy Ó Snodaigh, migrants picked up under Operation Sophia are brought to a safe European port. We do not operate within Libyan waters. We did not operate in Libyan waters either under Operation Pontus. It is part of our mandate that we do not operate within-----

The Minister of State said the Naval Service had destroyed boats.

I have the figure, but I do not have it to hand. It is in my notes.

The Naval Service does not destroy them in international waters because it is not allowed to do so.

I will get the Deputy the number of boats that were destroyed. We are operating within a UN mandate and will continue to do so. Members of the Naval Service are doing a very proud job for them and Ireland.

Defence Forces Recruitment

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

68. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his plans to deal with issues of recruitment and retention across the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48409/18]

Louise O'Reilly

Question:

71. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the steps being taken to address the retention crisis in the Defence Forces; when the target staffing level of the Defence Forces will be met; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47797/18]

Jack Chambers

Question:

82. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the measures he has brought forward in 2018 to encourage the retention of Defence Forces personnel; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48385/18]

I have noted the number of young people who have entered the Visitors Gallery to listen to the debate. Listening to the Minister of State, I wonder how many of them will be future members of the Air Corps, the Naval Service or the Army. If they knew what were the conditions and pay of soldiers and members of the Naval Service and the Air Corps, work they would think twice or three times about it? We have asked this question already. Will the Minister of State, please, outline the measures he intends to take to address the recruitment crisis in the Defence Forces because its root is the pay and conditions of and low morale among their members?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 68, 71 and 82 together.

As in other military organisations, turnover in the Defence Forces is higher than that which normally prevails in other sectors. In that context, there is ongoing recruitment to replace personnel who depart. Recruitment to the Permanent Defence Force has continued throughout 2018. It encompassed two general service recruitment competitions, a cadet competition, an apprentice competition, an instrumentalist competition and direct entry streams. They have resulted in over 600 personnel being inducted to date. The most recent figures provided by the military authorities give the whole-time equivalent strength of the Permanent Defence Force as being just below 9,000 personnel. Final figures for the numbers inducted in 2018 and strength will not be available until year end. Progress in recruitment will be reviewed in the coming weeks and inform future plans.

There are challenges in recruiting and retaining certain specialists such as pilots, air traffic controllers and certain technicians. These specialists can prove difficult to retain where, as in the current economic environment and jobs market, there are demands for such specialists in other sectors. It is a challenge being faced by military forces elsewhere and is not confined to Ireland. A range of alternative recruitment approaches are being developed, aimed at addressing vacancies in specialist areas. My Department has introduced a scheme which permits former officers with specialist skills to re-enter the Permanent Defence Force and arrangements are in train to provide a similar scheme for former enlisted personnel. There is direct entry provision for those with professional qualifications which is utilised in the recruitment of medical officers and engineers. A working group is examining the scope for greater use of such direct entry recruitment to fill certain specialist positions.

The Public Service Pay Commission has been tasked with examining recruitment and retention issues in the defence sector. An initial tranche of material related to Air Corps pilots was submitted earlier this year. Further material related to the broader defence sector has been sent to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform which is co-ordinating the response on behalf of the Public Service Pay Commission. When the Public Service Pay Commission reports, its findings will be considered.

Ensuring that the terms and conditions of serving members of the Permanent Defence Force are fair and balanced is also a key consideration. A range of actions outlined in the 2015 White Paper on Defence are aimed at advancing this goal. 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, which is to be welcomed.

The Government is committed to retaining the capacity of the Defence Forces to operate effectively across all roles assigned by it Government and to the White Paper strength target of 9,500 personnel for the Permanent Defence Force. There are a number of factors, some of which are difficult to predict, that will impact on the timeframe within which this will be achieved.

That concludes questions to the Minister for Defence. I thank everyone who participated.