Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

I wish a good morning to the staff of the House, the Minister of State and Teachtaí. It is a glorious morning outside and I am sure it will be one inside as well.

I remind all Deputies that they have 30 seconds to introduce their question. Thereafter there will be two minutes for the Minister of State to respond, a minute for supplementary questions from the Deputy, a minute for the Minister of State to come back and a final supplementary period for the Deputy. Time limits are going to have to be strictly honoured.

Defence Forces Personnel

Jack Chambers

Question:

1. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on whether the 8.1% turnover or churn in the Defence Forces is crippling the service; if the Defence Forces are struggling to fill command positions for a rotation of troops attached to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17125/19]

Those may be famous last words from the Acting Chairman.

I ask the Minister of State with responsibility for defence if he agrees that the current 8.1% turnover or churn in the Defence Forces is crippling the service, as was stated by the Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett. Is it the case that the Defence Forces are struggling to fill command positions for rotation of troops attached to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and will he make a statement on these matters?

I thought the Acting Chairman would be a little more lenient than the Ceann Comhairle or the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, particularly on this morning which seems as if we are in the sunny south east.

The military authorities have advised that there is no issue with regard to filling command positions for a rotation of troops attached to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The 114th Infantry Battalion is due to replace the 113th Infantry Battalion in the area of operations shortly and, with the exception of one junior officer post appointment, which recently became vacant due to unforeseen circumstances, all officer command positions are now filled. A process is under way to fill the junior officer appointment and this is expected to conclude shortly. 

As the Deputy has pointed out, the overarching turnover of personnel in the Permanent Defence Force was 8.1% in 2018. This rate must be viewed against an overall average departure rate of 6.3% since 2002 with a peak rate of 8.58% in 2012.

Of the 731 personnel who exited the Defence Forces during 2018, the military authorities have advised that 139, or 19%, did so before completing their initial training. The number of trainees within the overarching turnover figure can be significant and in 2017, 742 personnel departed of whom 209, or 28%, were trainees.

A total of 592 trained personnel departed during 2018 and 533 trained personnel departed in 2017. The long-run average is 500. However, the number of trained personnel departing can fluctuate significantly year on year and in recent years, this has ranged from a high of 677 in 2012 to a low of 356 in 2014.

The issue of turnover in an organisation with the unique structures, functional areas and particular skill sets of the Defence Forces is complex.   As the rate of turnover can differ across functional areas, the impact of turnover can vary accordingly. Headline turnover figures do not reflect this complexity.

The Minister of State said that military authorities have advised there is no difficulty but Vice Admiral Mellett said, "There are gaps." He also said:

You are always going to have a churn and a churn is healthy, but I would rather it be down about 5% rather than the 8.1% it is at present. It is that extra per cent that is crippling us at present.

I know from speaking to people who have been deployed overseas that there has been a process of a de facto mandatory selection, where personnel have been bounced and semi-threatened into overseas deployment. Some of those people might have familial or personal circumstances which do not suit deployment overseas but attempts have been made to put guns to these people's heads, without necessarily pulling the trigger, and bouncing them into overseas deployment.

A survey of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, shows that domestic and personal commitments are one of the reasons people are leaving the Defence Forces. I welcome deployment overseas but we need to look at the serious nature of what is happening within the Defence Forces. Morale is worsening and people are being bounced into situations. That is confirmed by what Vice Admiral Mellett has had to say. Furthermore, it is concerning that implicit threats have been made to members of the Defence Forces.

As the Deputy knows, Finnish personnel pulled out of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, at the end of 2018. Our military management proposed to me that they would fill that gap for a period of 12 months. We have increased our personnel in that force by approximately 106 or 110 for a period of 12 months from the end of 2018. I was assured by military management at the time that they would be able to fill that gap. I would not have allowed it to happen if we were not able to fill that gap.

I do not believe a gun is put to anybody's head to make them go on overseas service. To judge from the people I have spoken to, a significant number of people want to serve overseas. I am happy to say that the Polish and Hungarians will join us in Lebanon at the end of this year, which will decrease the number of people going overseas next year.

The Minister of State has to agree there were difficulties.

The Minister of State visited the United Nations in New York and was showing a force of strength with the Defence Forces. It is a bit like the emperor with no clothes because the words Minister of State uses abroad do not match the reality of the morale and retention issues at home. The facts and figures in the RACO climate survey carried our by Amárach bear that out.

People want to go overseas but it does not suit certain people at a particular time. It is because of the gaps and the retention crisis, and because the Minister of State's Department has stopped the acting-up rank being facilitated because of the computer logic of some of the mandarins in his Department, that we have this image of a fighting force overseas while Rome burns at home. The Minister of State should be more honest, when he is over at the United Nations, about the difficulties the Defence Forces are facing. The focus should be less on the Minister of State making a pitch to successfully get a seat on the United Nations Security Council, which I would welcome, but that focus needs to be matched by supporting our troops. That is the important context.

We have nine different overseas missions currently.

If Defence Forces management tells me it is unable to fulfil any of the commitments, I will listen and take it very much into account. Any overseas mission in which we partake is with the imprimatur and agreement of military management. The Chief of Staff has responsibility to make sure we have the capability and capacity to fulfil our roles overseas. It is up to the Chief of Staff to advise me if there is a situation where the Defence Forces are unable to fulfil that commitment. The commitments we made at the recent UN peacekeeping conference in New York were with the agreement of the military and the Chief of Staff. He was there with me. Any commitments I made were on behalf of the organisation. We had the full support of military management in making any pledges of support.

Defence Forces Remuneration

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

2. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the status of the Public Service Pay Commission's meeting with management parties following the joint submission from military authorities and his Department; if he or a representative from his Department was at the meeting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16981/19]

Paul Murphy

Question:

4. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his engagement with the Public Service Pay Commission on the pay, allowances and conditions of members of the Defence Forces; his views on the need for improvements to pay and conditions in view of the low pay and poor conditions faced by members of the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16982/19]

These questions relate to the status of the Public Service Pay Commission and a recent meeting it had with the management parties on a joint submission from the military authorities and the Department. What progress is happening on the Public Service Pay Commission submissions to ensure there are proper pay and conditions for our Army?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 4 together.

Similar to other sectors in the public service, the pay of Permanent Defence Force personnel was reduced as one of the measures to assist in stabilising national finances during the financial crisis. Improvements in the economy have provided an opportunity to progress the unwinding of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation, which imposed pay cuts across the public service.

In 2016, the Government established the Public Service Pay Commission to provide objective advice to the Government on public service pay policy. Following the publication of the Public Service Pay Commission's report in May 2017, the Government initiated negotiations on an extension to the Lansdowne Road agreement. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020, which was accepted by members of the Permanent Defence Force through their representative associations, provides for increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement. By the end of the current agreement, the pay scales of all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces, earning less than €70,000 per annum, will be restored to pre-FEMPI levels.

In accordance with the agreement, the Government tasked the Public Service Pay Commission with conducting a comprehensive examination and analysis of underlying difficulties in recruitment and retention in those sectors and employment streams identified in the commission's report of May 2017. This includes the defence sector. To assist the commission with its analysis, the Department of Defence was requested to provide specific data. A joint civil and military team prepared this material. The commission's work is ongoing. The Department of Defence continues to engage with the Public Service Pay Commission and is responding to queries and requests for further information from the commission as they arise and to any issue that may arise as all of the data submitted are examined.

The Public Service Pay Commission issued an invitation to representatives of departmental and Defence Forces management to follow up on defence material submitted, and a meeting was held on 6 March. The Secretary General of the Department of Defence, the Chief of Staff, civil and military personnel from the Department of Defence, senior officials from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and other military people attended the meeting. The Government will give due consideration to the findings and recommendations that may arise from the work of the commission. I am happy to say military management and the Department had an opportunity to address the Public Service Pay Commission and give their side on issues and questions that the commission had and to ask any questions they had.

On 2 May last year, the Minister of State told me the Public Service Pay Commission was due to complete this exercise in the second half of 2018. It is now April 2019. What is the delay? Why are we now at a stage when members of the Defence Forces and their families continue to suffer? There seems to be prevarication and a desire to delay. There is no sense of urgency in what is happening, so much so that the representative associations are losing confidence in the process. In January, one stated it had lost confidence in the process. All the while, the Defence Forces are haemorrhaging people. This is not a separate issue because pay and conditions are some of the reasons people are leaving. Will the Minister of State please indicate when this will be dealt with? Will the report be in time to be considered to ensure that in the budget for 2020, the key decisions required to be made will be made and those families suffering at present have some hope?

Does the Minister have or the Government have any sense of shame about the conditions of exploitation and downright poverty for many members of the Defence Forces? Over the Christmas period, many Defence Forces families were reliant on food hampers to get by. Sarah Walsh of the Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces stated the families live in poverty and suffer from food, income, fuel and child poverty, that many of them can only dream of owning their homes and that this month some of them are facing uncertainty about their homes while others face homelessness. She also stated that she knows these people. The treatment of ordinary members of the Defence Forces is scandalous. They have very little confidence that the Public Service Pay Commission process will deliver, particularly given the delays Deputy Ó Snodaigh has pointed out. Why should they believe anything will happen here? What is the attitude of the Minister of State? Does he believe the circumstances facing them need to change?

To reply to Deputy Ó Snodaigh, it is a matter for the pay commission and I cannot speculate on when it will complete its work. The Government will give due consideration to the recommendations of the report when it is completed. What I said on the record in May last year was that I wanted the pay commission to receive all of the material. Unfortunately, there was a huge amount of back and forth between the pay commission and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and between the Department of Defence and military management. We wanted to be able to make sure we provided all the data it requested. This is something of which we were very conscious and we did provide it. It is one of the reasons I was very willing for the Department and military management to have an opportunity to have face time with the pay commission so they were able to put forward their side in person. It is very important to do so. It is now a matter for the pay commission. I hope to see this as soon as possible but it is an independent pay commission.

To address Deputy Murphy's question, I have no sense of shame. I am waiting for the pay commission to report. It is easy for Deputy Murphy to be on the Opposition side of the House and be able to shout off the sidelines. He is the same person who came in here and said 50% or 60% of members of the Defence Forces were on family income supplement, which was untrue and false.

Less than 1% of members of the Defence Forces are on family income supplement. Deputy Murphy is the same person who was shouting and roaring this out but he was wrong yet again.

As I say, it is easy for him to do it. I am confident that we will have a set of recommendations from the Public Service Pay Commission as soon as possible. I cannot get involved as the commission is an independent body, but whatever recommendations it makes will be considered by the Government. I hope to see them as soon as possible.

What I quoted was exactly what the Minister of State said last year. I quote him again. He said: "The Public Service Pay Commission is due to complete its exercise in the second half of 2018." That period has come and gone. The Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has said he now expects it to report at the end of quarter 2 this year. Why is there a delay? There is no reason and there appears to be no urgency. Why was it only in March that the Secretary General and the Chief of Staff met the commission? Why did it not happen last year or the year before? We all understand the exceptional work and schedules of the Defence Forces and how they have suffered as a consequence. They are unlike any other part of the public service, which is why they should have been dealt with first. The Government is hedging its bets. If the commission reports at the end of June, within the timeframe indicated by the Minister for Finance and even if it is not kicked to touch, will the measures be brought before the House in the budget? If not, will the Minister of State implement interim measures to stop the haemorrhage from the Defence Forces owing, in particular, to pay levels?

Does the Minister of State deny that conditions of poverty are widespread among low-paid members of the Defence Forces and their families? There is a great deal of evidence to indicate that is the case, but I am interested in the Minister of State's answer and whether he continues to be shameless on the question. The underlying issue is trade union rights, in particular the right to organise and associate. The INMO and the PNA have shown how public sector workers can win concessions through organisation and industrial action, but that basic right to organise is denied to members of the Defence Forces. The retired soldier Anthony Bolger who has protested in favour of increased pay for the Defence Forces notes that members of the Defence Forces are not allowed to speak in public, bargain collectively or assemble for protest. As a consequence, their position is being represented by their families and retired soldiers. While that task is being undertaken very well by the WPDF, members of the Defence Forces should not have to rely on it and should instead have the right to organise into their own trade union to negotiate with the Government.

To Deputy Ó Snodaigh I say that once we consider the recommendations of the the Public Service Pay Commission, we will move as quickly as possible. From a public expenditure point of view, there is a process to be gone through. However, the Deputy can be sure I will push as hard as I can to ensure we will have that. I am not sure whether Deputy Paul Murphy read the review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme, but he should take the opportunity to do so and prepare himself when coming to the House. One of the recommendations made by the chairperson of the review was that we enter into a conversation with ICTU on behalf of members of the Defence Forces. Officials of my Department have already started that process. If the Deputy prepared himself before coming to the Chamber by reading the recommendations-----

Does the Minister of State agree that there should be a right of representation for members of the Defence Forces?

Absolutely, I agree, as I have stated. If I did not agree, I would not have asked officials in my Department to talk to ICTU about the issue. It has been one of the recommendations made in the review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme that I adopted in 2018. I brought in an independent chairperson who produced a set of recommendations which I accepted in full when the review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme was published, part of which meant entering into dialogue with ICTU, as I have stated. If the Deputy had listened more carefully, he would have heard my public utterances on the matter. Perhaps I am ahead of the ball vis-à-vis the Deputy on this one.

Defence Forces Recruitment

Jack Chambers

Question:

3. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the number of former officers who previously left the Defence Forces and have returned to service; when a scheme for former enlisted members to return will be in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17126/19]

How many former Defence Forces' officers, having left service, have returned? Will the Minister of State outline in detail the scheme he has put in place for former commissioned officers to return and will he make a statement on the matter? In the Dáil the Taoiseach diverted attention from the recruitment and retention crisis by referring to the re-entry scheme previously outlined by the Minister of State. Perhaps he might give the House more information on it.

I am advised that, to date, a small number of expressions of interest in a return to the Permanent Defence Force, PDF, have come from former officers.  As I have indicated previously to the Deputy, a scheme is in place which facilitates the re-entry of former officers to the PDF. In the absence of a standard policy for dealing with requests to re-enter, each case was previously dealt with on an individual basis and governed by the rules, regulations and circumstances that applied at the time. In the absence of a defined policy framework, the processing of such applications posed a number of difficulties such as defining procedures, identifying the requirements and needs of the organisation and agreeing terms and conditions with the individual.  To provide a more transparent scheme to facilitate the re-entry of former PDF officers, a policy framework setting out terms and conditions was necessary.

I am pleased that the terms and conditions for the recommissioning scheme include the provision that the recommissioning of former officers of the PDF shall only be considered in specific circumstances.  These are where the Chief of Staff has identified a deficiency in personnel, military capability or expertise in the PDF that cannot be resolved in a sustainable or timely manner from within existing personnel resources. Recommissioned officers will be offered a short service commission for a period of three years. In that period they cannot compete for promotion, nor will they block a promotion opportunity for existing officers.  Recommissioned officers may only be offered a substantive appointment after three years on the advice of the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of the Department of Defence. While a scheme is in place for former officers of the PDF, the attendant scheme for enlisted personnel is still being progressed. The statutory basis for enlisting and re-enlisting personnel varies considerably from the basis on which officers are commissioned. For the purpose of re-enlisting former personnel, it is likely that there will be a need to change primary legislation.

The reality is that the recruitment initiative which the Taoiseach lauded to tackle the numbers crisis in the Defence Forces has attracted nearly no interest. The response to a parliamentary question on the subject which I received from the Minister of State in the last week contained a single digit figure. Is the scheme actually being advertised? Who makes the decision on recruitment? Is it in line with public sector recruitment practices? I understand that directly after the GOC of the Air Corps had briefed his staff on the Minister of State's intention to recommission two former pilots, two serving officers submitted requests to resign, citing the new policy as their reason for doing so. In fact, the Minister of State's policy has had a negative effect and is, in many instances, driving serving officers out of position. The net effect of the scheme is that an already restless group of employees is livid and speeding up plans for early retirement as a consequence of a failure to introduce a proper retention initiative such as a career incentive scheme. Instead, the Minister of State is diverting attention, receiving no interest in the scheme and creating a further wedge in dealing with the numbers crisis.

If the Deputy looked, he would see that there are a great many career incentive schemes already in place in the Defence Forces. I do not know from where he is getting his information, but he should go back and check. I presume he is referring to the representative association, RACO, when he says some members have reservations about the re-entry scheme. I can absolutely understand people being apprehensive about the scheme. However, many of their concerns have been taken into account.

One of the major concerns relates to whether they are entitled to promotion after their re-entry, but the policy framework sets out clearly that they cannot compete for promotion within this three-year commissioning period.

Let there be one, two, three, four or five pilots. This will make a major difference to the organisation, including the Air Corps.

I thank the Minister of State.

As I have told the Deputy previously, this recommendation came from military management. I agreed with and supported management on this and will continue to do so. The Deputy will shake his head and disagree with me, but that is his job. I support this initiative. It is a good one, and I hope to see more people re-entering the organisation.

The facts are-----

I apologise, Deputy, but we almost went a minute over time there. I want to be fair to everyone.

Everyone should try to stick to the time schedule, please.

There has been no interest in this initiative. It reveals the hollow words that we constantly hear from the Government concerning the crisis in our Defence Forces. The attempt to fill the gap in the Air Corps has resulted in more people leaving. The Defence Forces are haemorrhaging numbers to the point where overseas missions are now in jeopardy and naval vessels cannot go to sea. Using figures from the Department of Defence, the Taoiseach claimed in the Dáil that allowing ex-personnel to return would be an effective measure to address the retention crisis. We now know that to have been empty rhetoric. The Taoiseach's waffle about a re-entry scheme diverts from the systemic retention crisis over which the Minister of State presides. Not only has this policy not seen anyone return to the Defence Forces, there appears to be no interest in such a scheme at all, as the Minister of State has put on the record. It seems to be a tactic to cloud the Government's disregard for Defence Forces personnel. The Government needs to address the real issues at the heart of the retention and recruitment crisis, for example, decent pay and working conditions, so that the Defence Forces can be an attractive career option. These are the facts and figures. Interest can be measured in single digits, never mind how many people have actually re-entered. In the context of the ongoing crisis, the Minister of State's words are hollow.

I assure the Deputy that they are not hollow. It is interesting that, while he originally asked about enlisted personnel, he never mentioned them in any of his supplementary questions. I will mention them. They are equally as important as the officers. Without enlisted personnel, we would not have the Defence Forces. We would need to legislate to accommodate enlisted personnel who wished to re-enter. Were I to introduce such legislation, I would ask for the Deputy's support. A number of former enlisted personnel want to return to the Defence Forces. Regardless of whether that number is five or ten, they should be allowed to do so. The same applies in the case of officers. It is a changing organisation. Most armies across the world allow former officers and enlisted personnel to re-enter. I agree with that. We are in a changing society and world with different personnel and opportunities. We must allow former personnel to re-enter. I fully support the proposal.

Question No. 4 answered with Question No. 2.

European Defence Capabilities

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

5. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the remit of the European peace facility, EPF; the way in which it will be financed; and the way in which it will contribute to conflict prevention and peace building. [16964/19]

How will the EPF be financed and how will it contribute to conflict prevention and peace building?

The EPF is a proposal from the High Representative and Vice President of the Commission, Federica Mogherini, who has proposed that a financial mechanism be established for funding actions under the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy, CFSP. The mechanism would, if approved, incorporate the Athena mechanism and the African Peace Facility. It would also include a mechanism for funding actions in support of capacity building for peace and security. Under the High Representative's proposals, the EPF would be used to fund infrastructure and equipment for the training and capacity building of security and military forces in fragile and conflict states so that they can better provide their own security. The most controversial aspect of the proposal is the suggestion that this could include funding for some lethal equipment, most likely small arms and weapons.

The aim of the EPF is to give the EU the capability to contribute to the financing of global military peace support operations led by international partners such as the African Union. This financing would assist in building the capacities of partner countries' armed forces to preserve peace, prevent conflict and address security challenges. By providing comprehensive support through integrated packages of training, equipment and other means of support as necessary, partners would be enabled to address their own crises and security challenges.

Since the initial circulation of the proposal last June, the topic has been discussed at a number of ministerial and working group level meetings only. At these meetings, there has been limited support for aspects of the proposal and a clear view expressed by member states that they wish to ensure continued member state control of such funding mechanisms, similar to the current existing governance arrangements.

I have stuck to the Acting Chairman's time.

People could be forgiven for thinking that this is part of the increasing militarisation agenda in Europe and the growing pressure to have a European army, but there is no doubt that there has been a great deal of mystery surrounding this facility. Its remit is "to broaden actions with a military or defence nature, such as capacity building activities for military actors, that can be undertaken under the CFSP". In particular, this would cover a new range of military related training, equipment and support to the armed forces of third countries, inter alia, the provision of infrastructure, military equipment and supplies, or military technical assistance. This is going under the name of "peace facility", but there are many questions to be asked about how funding weapons, ammunition and salaries for soldiers will contribute to peace. Questions arise regarding accountability, how to ensure that this mechanism will not be used in the mistreatment of people, including prisoners and human rights activists, and guarantees on the funding's use. The facility raises more questions than answers. It is good to hear that some member states are against or not in favour of it. Where does Ireland stand on the fund and its accountability mechanisms?

I agree with some of what the Deputy has said, but this is at the stage of initial discussions only and has not reached ministerial level. It has been dealt with by the civil side more than the political side. From speaking to my EU colleagues, there genuinely is limited, and I mean limited, support for this proposal. It has only been discussed at working group meetings so far. Contrary to the commentary from some in Europe, there is in no way widespread support for it. I assure the Deputy that I will highlight our neutrality policy in any decision that is made.

There is some positivity in the Minister of State's reply. From what he said, it sounds like some countries were testing the water to see whether the proposal would be supported. Those who have criticisms and reservations about it must raise them strongly. I hope that Ireland takes the lead in that regard, given the significance of the questions raised. There is no guarantee that the EPF will contribute to conflict prevention or peace building, which is what the EU, UN and so on are about.

In the context of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, questions arise around the EPF's financing. That same applies in respect of decision making. From the little I have read, the decisions would be made by certain member states and not the European Parliament. Many questions arise.

I hope that those who are strongly against it will be very vocal in their opposition, particularly if the European Parliament will not be involved.

I reiterate that it should be remembered that the European Peace Facility is currently only a proposal and that there is a long way to go on it. A significant amount of work remains to be agreed by member states in regard to the proposal, including the budget, and it is considered unlikely that it will be concluded in its current format of which the Deputy may have read. Any agreement on the level of proposed funding will only be agreed by member states in the context of the multi-annual framework. I state that sincerely to the Deputy. Ireland's position on this proposal will continue to be developed on consideration of proposals from the working group. Any decision we make will be within our policy framework of military neutrality. We will engage with the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Finance, and Public Expenditure and Reform in formulating Ireland's position on this matter.