Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Defence Forces Recruitment

Clare Daly

Question:

6. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on the fact that the Defence Forces had a net gain of just three members in 2017 despite a recruitment and training campaign costing in the region of €15 million. [16804/19]

The Government has for many years been warned about the crisis in the Defence Forces. The general secretary of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, recently announced that, in spite of all the hype about the much-trumpeted so-called recruitment campaign, there was a net gain of three personnel in 2017. Unless the Government addresses pay and conditions, this crisis will continue. What will the Government do on this issue? I do not want to hear about the Public Service Pay Commission as we have been told about the work it is doing. The Government must acknowledge that the situation is worsening. What will it do about it?

In 2017, expenditure relating to the publicity and advertising of various recruitment campaigns amounted to approximately €457,000. I presume the figure of €15 million referenced by the Deputy is a figure reported by the media as a saving that could result from retaining existing personnel rather than recruiting new personnel. This figure was provided by the military authorities as an estimate of the cost of training the number of personnel to replace a similar number who left voluntarily in 2016. There is significant scope for misinterpreting such estimates. The majority of that estimated cost relates to the pay of personnel being trained and their training staff. However, I must point out that if the personnel being replaced by trainees had not left, their salary costs would still be incurred. As such, those costs would be incurred in any event. In addition, there has always been a requirement to train recruits and to have instructors to so do.

I am advised by the military authorities that as of 31 December 2017, 751 personnel were inducted into the Defence Forces while 742 personnel exited the organisation. Of the 742 discharges, 209 were personnel who left before they completed their initial training, mainly comprising general service recruits. The long-run average for turnover of general service recruits during training is 22%, while in 2017 it was 28%.

In retention of trained personnel, 533 trained personnel left the Permanent Defence Forces in 2017. This compares to a long-run average departure rate of approximately 500 trained personnel. Additionally, the 2017 discharge rate of slightly more than 8% must be viewed against an overall average departure rate of 6.3% since 2002, with a peak of 8.58% in 2012. The issue of turnover in military organisations is complex, having regard to the range of specialties and internal training dynamic. The impact of turnover may vary depending on the functional area and the ability to regenerate capacity.

There are none so blind as those who will not see. The Minister of State in his response is basically trying to tell me that there is no problem at all and the turnover is normal. There is a crisis. Even the figures he gave indicate that a significant number of skilled personal are leaving the Defence Forces. That is a fact. It cost a lot of public money to get them to that level of experience. They are leaving in greater numbers than was previously the case.

Pay is not the only reason for the increased number leaving. The crazy conditions in which personnel are expected to work are also a factor. According to a member of the Defence Forces who has just returned from a deployment on Operation Sophia, he was working a 12-hour day at sea, seven days a week, with two or three 24-hour duties thrown in. He worked approximately 80 hours a week for an extra €125 per week on top of his basic salary of €435. That is a total of €560 for a 40-hour week with 40 hours overtime. Such working conditions could be addressed in order to save experienced and qualified staff who must endure long commutes on low pay. It is absolutely disgraceful. This is the reason why many personnel are leaving. If the Government continues to try to justify it and state that it is not a big deal as there would be costs anyway, the problem will perpetuate itself, as it has done, and the Government will be responsible for that.

The Deputy asked that pay not be brought into it, but she subsequently did so and, as such, I must address the issue of pay. I have stated on numerous occasions that there are challenges. That is why the Public Service Pay Commission is looking at issues in respect of Defence Forces recruitment and retention. I hope to have this issue addressed shortly.

There are retirements every year. People retire for various reasons. Absolutely, working conditions may be one of the reasons for retirement. There have been retirements year on year. One must have new blood coming into the organisation. Of course, it will cost a significant amount of money to train new recruits and pay the trainers and so on. That has always been the case and will continue to be so. This is about having a healthy organisation.

There are challenges in regard to the current turnover. The Deputy raised the issue of pay. That is being addressed and I hope soon to have the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission such that the Government can then implement those recommendations.

This is not a normal situation whereby there is a crisis because people are retiring. For the Minister of State to claim that is the case is shocking. It is not the reason for the crisis. According to a report published in early March, numbers in the Defence Forces dropped below 8,500 for the first time. The establishment level of the Defence Forces is 9,500, so it is 1,000 below the minimum level. Not only that, we are losing experienced and trained members who are being replaced by new recruits. It takes time and money to get the recruits to a similar level of expertise.

I stated that it is not only about pay. The Government's excuse up to now was that it could not deal with that issue because the Public Service Pay Commission was doing so and that it hoped the problem would soon be sorted out. However, there are several other issues in respect of the working conditions of Defence Forces personnel which are driving them out and over which the Government has control and which it could address, not least the long serving hours and the fact that it could implement the European Court of Justice 2010 ruling on working time which was ruled out of order as being sub judice. On issues such as Lariam and certain events in the Air Corps, the Defence Forces have greatly disrespected their staff. The Government could address these conditions. Doing so would indicate that, at least, it respects the men and women of our Defence Forces. Pay is only one part of this issue.

The working time directive is being worked upon by representatives of the Department and the Defence Forces along with the representative organisations. I have previously stressed that I want this sorted out. I want my officials and the Defence Forces military management to sort it out. There is a point of truth which we must reach on this issue. I want it to be sorted out as soon as possible.

The Deputy referred to a member of the Defence Forces having to carry out 12-hour shifts at sea. As part of normal Naval Service life, personnel serve a week or two at sea. They do not come home every evening and dock the ship.

I referred to personnel working 80 hours a week.

Naval vessels do not return to Haulbowline every evening and set off again the next morning. I recognise that life at sea is difficult and I want the pay commission to do likewise.

I hope it recognises that these people put in long hours. I recognise that and I understand the frustration of some in the Naval Service. It is in the pay commission's hands and I hope it recognises the frustrations of members of the Naval Service and the Defence Forces and that we can take on those recommendations.

Cyber Security Policy

Jack Chambers

Question:

7. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if he will report on the work of the Defence Forces computer incident response team; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16839/19]

There are grave concerns among members of the Defence Forces that this team has been seriously compromised and undermined and that this may pose a serious security risk to the State. I hope the Minister of State can update the House.

As outlined in the Government's White Paper on Defence 2015, the issue of cybersecurity has very significant implications for governmental administration, for industry, for economic well-being and for the security and safety of citizens. Cybersecurity is a standing item on the agenda of the Government task force on emergency planning, which I chair.

The response to cyberthreats remains a whole-of-Government challenge, with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment taking the lead role and with inputs in the security domain from An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces are committed to participating, under the leadership of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, in the delivery of measures to improve the cybersecurity of the State.

Ireland’s national cyber security centre, NCSC, which is located in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment provides a range of cybersecurity services to owners of Government ICT infrastructure and critical national infrastructure. The NCSC is also home to the national computer security incident response team, CSIRT-IE, which acts as a national point of contact involving entities within Ireland, and as the point of contact for international discussions and collaboration on issues of cybersecurity.  The scope of CSIRT's activities covers prevention, detection, response and mitigation services to Departments and State agencies and critical national infrastructure providers. The Defence Forces provide seconded specialists to assist with the work of CSIRT-IE when resources allow. In addition, as in any emergency situation, once defence systems are supported, the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces will provide support to CSIRT-IE, insofar as resources allow.

 While it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the specific cybercapabilities of the Defence Forces, for both security and operational reasons, I can confirm that the priority for the Defence Forces' CSIRT is the protection of the Defence Forces communications network. Other activities undertaken by CSIRT include the monitoring and handling of cyberincidents, the enhancement of Defence Forces cybersituational awareness and the provision of cyberawareness training.

I have been told that a decision was made in September 2018 to stand down the Defence Forces' computer incident response team as there were no trained staff left. The national cyber security centre is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Is that the case? Are the Defence Forces' computers being monitored for attacks? If it is the case that there are no staff members in the Defence Forces' incident response team, this represents a serious security matter for the State. Who is keeping an eye on the security of the Defence Forces' IT network? We do not know who may be attacking the system if the team has no staff. There can be no civilian contract for the computer incident response team because of issues of security and supervision. The Minister of State can tell the Dáil that he cannot comment for operation and security reasons but if it is the case that the computer incidents response team in the Defence Forces has been stood down, this represents a serious security risk for the State.

It means we are not providing a proper response and barrier for potential attacks and it shows how the depletion in numbers in the Defence Forces could compromise security. It is not good enough to quote the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

The Deputy will have another minute in supplementary questions.

This is a specific team in the Defence Forces, relating to the Minister of State's responsibilities to this House. I want him to provide clarity, apart from the operation and security response that he gave.

May I remind Deputies and the Minister of State that we are now running 30 seconds over on every speaker's time? That is not fair to the people who find themselves disappointed when it comes to 11.55 a.m. We set the rules of this House and I ask the Deputies to please keep the rules of the House.

Some of the Deputy's remarks are very disingenuous. He received a reply to a parliamentary question this week relating to military management that on January 2019 the established figure for technical officers in the communications and information service, CIS, corps of the Defence Forces is 22 personnel, that is, 18 Army and four Air Corps, and all posts are currently filled.

The establishment figure for grade 5 and grade 6 technicians in the CIS corps is 202 personnel, out of which there are 66 vacancies at present. A total of 62 personnel are in training across the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps who will be eligible to grade 5 technician pay on graduation from the CIS trainee technician scheme.

Cybersecurity encompasses all sections of society, whether it is business, critical infrastructure, large industry or the ESB. It not only about military, it has a joined-up approach and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has overall responsibility for the State's cybersecurity. The Defence Forces assist them and will continue to do so under the service level agreement which is in place.

From the Comptroller and Auditor General, we know that the cyberunit in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is completely dysfunctional and is not fit for purpose. I am also informed that the Defence Forces cannot fulfil its obligations to that Department due to the depletion of staffing numbers and that there is a security risk. I would like further details on the service level agreement and whether cover is sufficient. Will the Minister of State outline what the service level agreement involves and how he is fulfilling his commitments to that Department? I am told there is a security risk and that there is no robust incident response team in place. According to the Department of Defence's White Paper, the Department and the Defence Forces are supposed to provide a back up to the cyberunit in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in the event of an attack, as it represents the insurance policy in the case of any significant attack. The Minister of State has given the House no clarity.

The Deputy might take this up with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton. The first national cybersecurity strategy, agreed by the Government in 2015, set out a series of measures that would be taken to build the capability of the NCSC and to achieve a high level of security for computer networks and critical infrastructure of the State. These measures included steadily increasing the capacity of the national computer security incident response team, which is part of the NCSC, as well as a series of measures to improve the network and information security of public bodies. The strategy also established how the resilience of critical national infrastructure would be improved, in part by the transposition of the EU network of information security directive and how the national incident response process would be developed through ongoing participation in the national emergency management systems.

It is important that officials from my Department and members of the Defence Forces are involved in the development of the revised strategy, which will be published by the Minister, Deputy Bruton, in coming months. The revised strategy, in conjunction with the White Paper on defence, will continue to inform our engagement in this critical area.

UN Missions

Clare Daly

Question:

8. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence when a decision will be taken on whether to deploy the Army Ranger Wing to the MINUSMA mission in Mali. [16806/19]

In January, the Minister of State told me, in response to a parliamentary question, that the option of deploying a group of Army Rangers was being considered but that it would take some time before a conclusion would be reached. The Army Ranger unit is not trained and organised for peacekeeping and as far as I am concerned, the idea of sending them to Mali is mad. We hear a lot from the Government about international crisis management, peace support and so on, which I regard as doublespeak. Has a decision been made on this and when is it likely to be implemented?

 The Army Ranger Wing, ARW, is the special operations force of the Defence Forces and is part of the capabilities available to the State to be deployed in support of our national security and overseas peace support operations. 

MINUSMA, the UN mission in Mali, is authorised under Chapter VII of the UN Charter by the UN Security Council. It is a significant UN peace enforcement mission comprising both regular and special operations forces and high-end capabilities. 

Ireland currently has 20 Defence Forces personnel deployed to the EU training mission in Mali. Potential overseas missions are considered by the Department and the Defence Forces on an ongoing basis having regard to available resources and international peacekeeping requirements.

The question of deploying Defence Forces personnel to support the UN mission in Mali - MINUSMA - has been under consideration for some time, as the Deputy said. Recently, the option of deploying a small contingent of Army Ranger Wing personnel to MINUSMA as part of a larger special operations force within the mission, arose and it is under active consideration. The Department and the Defence Forces are in the early information gathering stage in considering this mission. It involves obtaining detailed information on the mission and its operations, consideration of the possible role the Defence Forces may be able to undertake on the mission, how such a deployment would fit with Defence Forces capabilities having regard to existing and potential commitments at home and overseas and a detailed threat analysis and assessment of the area. This process is ongoing. On foot of the respective military and policy advice arising from this process, I will consider the matter.  I emphasise that no decision has been made as of now to participate in the mission.

It is my clear understanding this mission operates under Article 7 of the UN Charter and that it is an entirely different type of operation.

My apologies. I am sorry, it is Article 7.

Exactly. It is a big mistake because it is to maintain the peace through the use of force. It is qualitatively different from other missions in which Irish peacekeepers have participated such as UNIFIL and UNDOF which operate under Article 6. The Army Rangers Wing is an elite special forces unit that is not trained to participate in peacekeeping missions. When one adds the two together, it is a significant departure from what we normally do. The response the Minister of State has given is identical to the one he gave me in January. It is now April and we are none the wiser. The idea of a small neutral state such as Ireland having its army rangers wing involved in this mission is absolutely abhorrent and smacks of an effort to curry favour with the French and, possibly, the government in Mali in a bid to get on the UN Security Council. It is incredibly dangerous and we should have nothing to do with it.

My apologies, it is Article 7, not Article 6. I was not trying to trick the Deputy in any way. It is a reply similar to the one I gave the Deputy in January because we have not yet made a decision. We are gathering information. I am not sure whether I stated to the Deputy that on my most recent visit to Mali in January, I met the head of mission of MINUSMA, by whom I was fully briefed. I want to be satisfied on what is involved in the mission and that we have the capacity and the capability to participate in it if we make a decision to do so. As I stated, we have not yet decided. I would be telling the Deputy a lie if I was not upfront in saying it is a mission we are considering.

What is happening in Mali and other former French colonies is that France is supporting a series of compliant but deeply undemocratic regimes in Africa. It means that they are in a consistent state of exploitation for the benefit of France. The idea that anybody in the Defence Forces should be part of it is unbelievable. We are peacekeepers, not mercenaries for hire by former colonies, which is what the Minister of State seems to thinks. As he said in speaking about his visit, it is an incredibly dangerous place. We also have to think about the safety of our personnel. The situation in Mali is complex. Obviously, as I said, France has its objectives in the middle of it. Why on earth would we send Army rangers into the middle of it? Why should we participate in an Article 7 mission? As I said, we are peacekeepers. If we keep going down this line in a vain attempt to give the government international prestige it does not have, not only will we jeopardise the safety of Defence Forces personnel but we will also undermine our international credibility as peacekeepers.

First, no decision has been made to deploy the Army Rangers Wing to MINUSMA. Any such decision will be based on an assessment of the requirements of the mission and, as I stated, the capacity and capability of the Defence Forces to contribute to it. The possible deployment of Defence Forces personnel has been under consideration for some time and is unconnected to the Seco campaign. It is totally separate from us trying to secure a seat on the UN Security Council. Consideration is being given to the deployment of a small contingent of Army Rangers Wing personnel to the mission. It must be stressed, however, that it is at a very early stage and further detailed analysis and planning will be required. My primary concern before we make a final decision is the safety of our personnel which is of paramount importaqnce to me, the Department and military management. I will take advice from military management if we are to participate in the mission. The last time the Army Rangers Wing was deployed on an overseas mission was in the early 2000s in Chad. It is a well trained unit within the Defence Forces that has the capacity to participate in such a mission, but, as I said, no decision has yet been taken. I will, of course, keep the House informed and updated if we are to participate in the mission.

Defence Forces Remuneration

Bobby Aylward

Question:

9. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the steps being taken to ensure better pay and working conditions for members of the Defence Forces; the further steps being taken to ensure appropriate supports are available to both current and former members of the Defence Forces who may be experiencing financial difficulties; if he is satisfied that recruitment methods are sufficient; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16655/19]

I ask the Minister of State the steps being taken to ensure better pay and working conditions for members of the Defence Forces; the steps being taken to ensure appropriate supports are available to both current and former members of the Defence Forces who may be experiencing financial difficulties; if he is satisfied that recruitment methods are sufficient; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Similar to other sectors of the public service, the pay of Permanent Defence Force personnel was reduced as one of the measures to assist in stabilising the national finances during the financial crisis. Pay is being restored to members of the Defence Forces and other public servants in accordance with public sector pay agreements. The focus of these increases is weighted in favour of those on lower pay. 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 had joined the Permanent Defence Force post 1 January 2013 were implemented.

The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for increases in pay, ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement. The increases due under the agreement from 1 January 2018, 1 October 2018 and 1 January 2019 have been paid to Permanent Defence Force personnel. Further increases in pay are scheduled in 2019 and 2020. By the end of the current public service pay agreement, the pay scales of all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces, earning under €70,000 per annum will be restored to pre-FEMPI levels. The restoration of the 5% reduction to allowances cut under the FEMPI legislation is also scheduled as part of that agreement. New entrants who joined the Defence Forces since 2011 may also benefit from the measures which will see interventions at points 4 and 8 of the pay scales for all such relevant new entrants to the public service.

There are factors and personal circumstances which can give rise to an individual needing support and advice in dealing with particular financial difficulties. The Defence Forces, though the personnel support service, provide a confidential information, education, support and referral service to Defence Forces personnel and their families, giving access to information and services within and outside the military community.

Like other military organisations, turnover of personnel is higher than that which normally prevails in other sectors. In that context, there is ongoing recruitment and promotion to replace personnel who depart.

The Public Service Pay Commission is examining recruitment and retention issues in the defence sector. Its work is ongoing. The Government will give due consideration to the findings and recommendations that arise from the work of the commission.

I raised this issue with the Minister of State at Question Time prior to the budget. At the time I stated the first step in solving a problem was recognising that there was one.

I do not think the Government has yet accepted that there is a problem. It remains reluctant to face up to the scale and impact of the issues facing members of the Defence Forces and their families. Pay and conditions are major contributory factors in dealing with the issues in the recruitment and retention of personnel in the Naval Service, the Air Corps and the Army. I understand there has been a 30% turnover of staff in the past three years. That represents a 10% decline year on year. Poor pay and conditions are also major contributory factors in causing 2,000 Defence Forces families to be dependent on family income supplement to make ends meet. That is a statistic the Government should take on board. I come from Kilkenny, a town with military barracks. I have met members of the Defence Forces and their families and the situation on the ground is dire, especially for those at the lower end of the pay scale. Does the Minister of State accept that morale is low among a wide contingent of the Defence Forces? Does he also accept that there is a need for more urgent radical action to improve pay and working conditions in a way that would make a meaningful difference?

The Deputy is incorrect in saying there has been a turnover of 10%. I have often stated publicly that we have challenges in the recruitment and retention of personnel in the Defence Forces. That is why the Government prioritised the health and defence sectors within the remit of the Public Service Pay Commission. I hope to have the recommendations of the commission soon and bring them to the Government shortly. The Government and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will then consider them. I will continue to work with my Department and military management to address the issue.

The Defence Forces have a sterling reputation all over the world in fulfilling their humanitarian and peacekeeping duties. They are also highly respected by the public for the role they play in the security of the State. However, the Government continues to undervalue them. In an effort to be constructive, I suggest the Minister of State investigate the possibility of increasing the availability of higher education opportunities and third level places for all members of the Defence Forces. I acknowledge that there is already a strong tradition when it comes to participating in higher education. We should, however, seek to do more in incentivising participation in higher education and increasing the availability of educational opportunities. Such a measure would make a major difference to younger recruits and especially those at the lower end of the pay scale. I also ask the Minister of State to seek to address the issue of accommodation. It is often the case that 35% to 40% of a soldier's take-home pay is spent on rent. In many other countries free accommodation is offered to members of their defence forces. It could be a huge incentive and leave a soldier, a pilot or a sailor with more money in his or her pocket at the end of each month. We have always had a tradition of military families living in barracks. That option should be re-examined.

In the confidence and supply agreement the Deputy's party agreed to the public service pay agreement on core pay. There are already many educational opportunities in the Defence Forces for enlisted personnel and members of the officer corps. The Defence Forces' website demonstrates the many opportunities available. I agree with the Deputy that it is important we provide opportunities to up-skill and avail of educational opportunities. The issues of pay, recruitment and retention are being looked at by the Public Service Pay Commission. As I have stated clearly, I would like to see recommendations being brought to the Government as soon as possible. It will then consider them. That is the challenge for me, my Department and the Defence Forces. Most importantly, it is a challenge for members of the Defence Forces.

Defence Forces Strength

Bernard Durkan

Question:

10. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the extent to which the strength of the Defence Forces throughout the Army, the Naval Service and the Air Corps continues to be augmented; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16924/19]

In this question I seek to ascertain the extent to which critical strength levels continue to be maintained in each branch of the Defence Forces, the Army, the Naval Service and the Air Corps.

I thank the Deputy for his brevity. He is always great in that regard.

The military authorities have advised that the strength of the Defence Forces, whole-time equivalents, across all services and ranks, on 28 February was 8,857, comprising 7,167 Army personnel, 716 Air Corps personnel and 974 Naval Service personnel. The Government remains committed to returning to, and maintaining, the agreed strength of the Defence Forces at 9,500 personnel as set out in the White Paper on defence in 2015. In 2018, 612 personnel were inducted into the Defence Forces, encompassing general service recruits, cadets, apprentices and instrumentalists, with other intakes from direct entry streams. In addition, 15 members of the Defence Forces were awarded cadetships in 2018. The recruitment plan proposed by the Defence Forces envisages some 800 new entrants being inducted in 2019, comprising general service recruits, apprentices, cadets and direct entry officers.

The 2019 recruitment campaign commenced with a Naval Service general service recruitment competition. It closed on 21 January and attracted 969 applications. In addition, I launched a general service recruitment competition on 12 March in the Glen of Imaal in County Wicklow. The competition for general service recruits will remain open throughout the year to maximise the training capacity of the Defence Forces. This will give applicants more opportunities to apply. The military authorities have advised that targeted media campaigns using social and traditional media, cinema and print, will continue to form important elements of their recruitment drive. A variety of recruitment initiatives will also be undertaken throughout the year, including outreach events at local and national level. There are retention challenges with some specialist posts such as pilots, air traffic controllers and certain technicians. I have previously acknowledged this fact, which reflects current economic circumstances and the attractive job opportunities available in the private and commercial semi-State sectors.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Has he examined specific measures which might be complementary to encourage enlistment in the Air Corps and the Naval Service, given that numbers are lower in these branches? There is a special need to maintain strength in these two critical services in case of emergency or there is a need for surveillance measures in the future.

There is ongoing recruitment, which is important. The Minister, the Department of Defence and I came up with that initiative. When I first entered the Department, there was only one opportunity to engage in recruitment at the start of the year. We then expanded that number to two. It is important, however, that a person can go online at any stage to apply to enlist in the Air Corps, the Naval Service or the Army. I will also be launching a cadet recruitment campaign next week. If the Deputy or any other Deputy has specific ideas for measures that might be taken to encourage recruitment or promotion, he or she should let me know. There are good career, training and educational opportunities in the Defence Forces for any young person.

I suggest research be undertaken among the general public and existing members of the Defence Forces as the results might indicate practical measures that could be taken. Those who have been in the Defence Forces might be able to shed some light on the most appropriate measures to take to augment the strength of the Army, the Naval Service and the Air Corps. Maintaining strength in the Naval Service and the Air Corps is a particular concern.

I have recently initiated a review of recruitment to the Defence Forces. We have to examine many lessons which have been learned to see what we can do better to improve recruitment, including advertising. We also have to look at the current recruitment process. We brought in an independent chairperson to look at the conciliation and arbitration scheme within the Defence Forces.

I can bring in an independent person who will be able to talk to the people about whom the Deputy spoke - former members of the Defence Forces - about why they joined the Defence Forces and why any young person would want to join the Defence Forces. It is important that we look at all these areas, which is why I want to initiate this review of the recruitment process in order that we look at our practices and the way we do things. I envisage that there will be an input from all people involved in the defence sector.

UN Missions

Jack Chambers

Question:

11. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the reason 150 members of the Defence Forces had their return from Lebanon delayed and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16838/19]

Clare Daly

Question:

15. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the reason 130 members of the Defence Forces were unable to leave the Golan Heights on their scheduled departure date of 4 April 2019 and the steps he will take to ensure accountability for this failure in view of the fact that it is the second time in a year that members of the Defence Forces have been unable to return home on time. [16803/19]

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

19. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the reason for the recent problems with flights for members of Defence Forces returning from Syria and the measures that will be taken to avoid such instances in the future. [16970/19]

I want to ask the Minister of State about the reason certain members of the Defence Forces had their return from Lebanon delayed and if he will make a statement on the matter. This is the second time this has occurred in six months and demonstrates a complete failure on the part of the Minister of State and his Department. In his public announcements, he said that it was the UN's fault. He is responsible for our troops. He let them down again. Many families were upset because they had this planned date. Can the Minister of State provide the House with an explanation of his actions?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11, 15 and 19 together.

The recent UNDOF rotation was due to be completed on Thursday, 4 April 2019. The UN was responsible for organising the rotation flights to transport the current UNDOF contingent back to Ireland and has been organising these rotation flights for decades without incident. On 3 April, the UN advised my Department that the Lebanese authorities had not granted approval for the landing clearance in Beirut for the aircraft. I am glad to report that the UN subsequently secured an aircraft and the requisite clearances were put in place enabling all the soldiers to return home safely on Sunday evening last. All personnel impacted by the delay were kept informed of the situation throughout and families were also updated by designated family liaison officers.

The rearranged flight was the result of a concerted effort by UN staff, the Irish and Lebanese missions in New York, government authorities in Lebanon and Syria and the staff in my own Department and in the Defence Forces. I regret the impact of this delay on Defence Forces personnel and their families.

In October 2018, there was a delay in the return home of personnel from the 57th Infantry Group and in the deployment of the 58th Infantry Group. Similar to the recent incident, the delay last year was due to circumstances beyond the control of my Department. In that instance, the clearance that issued from the authorities stated incorrectly that it was for the UNIFIL contingent rather then the UNDOF contingent, as stated on the request. On that occasion, the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade and Ireland's Embassy in Cairo actively engaged with authorities in Lebanon and Syria and with the UN and the UNDOF mission to secure the relevant clearances in order to ensure the rotation of the contingent and the return home of those personnel completing service with UNDOF at the earliest opportunity. 

The UNDOF contingent is operating in a very challenging region where there can never be complete certainty on transit routes and where the administrative procedures relating to the transit of military personnel are complex and cut across a number of jurisdictions. Approvals for the transit of foreign military forces in a congested conflict zone involve many international layers and are, therefore, not without hazard. While every effort is made to secure the necessary clearances on time, we do not have control over these and rely on the good offices of the states through which we are transiting. We will continue to engage with these states. However, given all the variables, it is not possible to guarantee rotation dates at this time with the requisite certainty and personnel will be advised of this uncertainty when deploying in future. 

This shows that the Department cannot even be trusted to arrange a flight. The Minister of State is the one responsible along with his Department and he cannot deflect attention to the UN. What happened on both occasions shows that both he and his Department were asleep at the wheel. Many families had to cancel their holidays again or cancel plans. All those plans were cancelled when they were looking forward to seeing their loved ones after six months. It was a failure to ensure the safe and timely return of our troops, which is cruel on families.

One concern raised by the wives and partners of Defence Forces personnel was that the Minister announced the return date in the Irish media to protect himself, ahead of the troops on the ground being informed. If that is correct, and perhaps the Minister of State can correct the record, it shows he is putting protecting himself and his reputation over the people who have served Ireland and proudly represented the UN over there. This was a shocking development to see and I hope the Minister of State can clarify it.

To make a hames of the return once is unfortunate but to do so twice definitely smacks of carelessness and a lack of attention from the Department. In his answer, the Minister of State accounted for what happened. We know that but we still do not know why it happened. I would like to know how many other defence forces personnel from other jurisdictions have been similarly impacted in this way. Can he tell us how many have been affected? If he cannot, can he get us that information? Why does he not know? I have been in and out of Beirut on a number of occasions in the past two years and I have never had any problem. The Irish Government does not seem to have any problem in trafficking hundreds of US troops through its shores on a daily basis so I do not buy the explanation that it is a complex and difficult issue in an uncertain area. That does not add up.

If the Minister of State is blaming the UN for this, what has he done to address the situation? How could it possibly happen and what is the nature of the contract in which the Department has engaged to get our personnel back because the idea of this happening twice to families is disgraceful. We are talking about people who have been away on a foreign mission.

This is the second time this has happened that we know of. It is a cock-up of monumental proportions for the families awaiting the return of their loved ones who have served for six months. They probably had some idea, given that they were the ones who went in after the last cock-up. On that occasion, 119 soldiers were unable to return at the time they were told they would be returning. The Minister of State has blamed the UN. What has he said to the UN since then? Is he going to take this without any protest or without being given any guarantees? I ask because at the end of his reply, he said that when deploying troops, he could not guarantee return dates. That essentially is what he is saying. While he will send them wherever, it is a case of perhaps getting them back on the day on which they are supposed to return but it also might be a week or two weeks later.

In the last instance, a payment was given to those who were discommoded, that is, to each of the 199 soldiers affected. I do not know whether the Minister of State has looked at compensation for the changes families had to make to their routine, which had been set for a number of months, given that when the Minister of State sent the troops out, he indicated they would return after six months.

In response to Deputy Jack Chambers, my office announced this on social media on Thursday afternoon. Some media outlets picked up on that. I would call them very professional because they were able to pick up on that. I understand that the Deputy and his party communicate through social media. It is a very important tool that allows us to communicate-----

The Minister of State told the media before the troops.

The Deputy might listen. He is not good at listening. We communicate through social media to inform the families. It would have taken 130 phone calls and up to very late on Thursday night to do that. I want to be able to communicate the message as quickly as possible. Many media outlets picked up on that.

In response to Deputy Jack Chambers and Clare Daly, the UN was responsible for this rotation. It is a very complex part of the world. There is war in Syria and thousands of people are crossing the Syrian border into Lebanon. This leads to very complex issues and this is one of them. The fact that other Irish troops who were going to go to the UNDOF mission were landing in Lebanon raised many issues. We spoke to the Lebanese Prime Minister's department, the Minister's department and our ambassador to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason.

In one case, the man in question, a taxi driver, touched a 19 year old woman's chest, rubbed her cheek, and when she managed to get out, he followed her in his taxi and continued to harass her and try to get her back into the car. He rubbed the face and lip of another victim, a 20 year old woman, before brushing his hand down the right side of her body. When she arrived at her home, he asked her if she needed a hug before he leaned in towards her as if to kiss her. In another case, an 18 year old schoolgirl got into his taxi and he immediately began rubbing her leg and telling her how soft her skin was. She managed to push him away and he tried to get his hand into her underwear. The woman in question accepted a call from her friend while in the taxi and tried to give her the information she could read from his ID. He became very angry, leaned across her, opened the door and told her to get out. She tried to take a photograph of him but he stopped her from doing so. The man in question here has pleaded guilty to these incidents and his legal team have accepted that these were young vulnerable people who were relying on him to bring them home safely. He did not do that.

I accept that court decisions and sentencing are the remit of the Judiciary and I will not be commenting in a way that influences that, although the Tánaiste will know that I am anxious for sentencing guidelines to be introduced to ensure consistent and fair sentencing. What I want to raise with the Tánaiste is the safety of women. Bail conditions have been agreed for this man that stipulate that he can continue to drive a taxi but that female passengers are not permitted as front seat passengers. Incredibly, this man is still entitled to drive a taxi and carry passengers, including women. This is outrageous. How can any women feel safe in a taxi, no matter where they are seated, that is being driven by a man who has pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault? What mother or father would not be worried that this man could collect their daughters tonight in a taxi? It is unsafe, it is absolutely wrong, and our legislation should not allow it.

What is the Government going to do to ensure that people who are guilty of sexual offences and these specific types of offences are nowhere near taxis and in a position to collect people? What message does this send to the overwhelming majority of decent taxi drivers and the checks they have to go through? If it requires legislative change, let us do that. The Minister for Transport Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, needs to get on top of this immediately. It is beyond unacceptable. It is frightening that such a man could drive a taxi in Dublin tonight and it should not be allowed.

Before the Tánaiste responds, this is a matter that is still before the courts, as I understand it, and it is highly irregular for us to engage in any sort of discussion about a matter still before the courts, notwithstanding the enormity of the importance of the case that the Deputy raises. I trust-----

I accept that, I have given careful thought to what I have worded, and the proposition that I have laid before the Government is on legislation and who is entitled to drive taxis.

Let all of us tread very warily here.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for that guidance. I can understand the Deputy's concern but we need to be careful about what we say here in the context of individual cases, particularly when there are court cases ongoing. I am not familiar with the status of the court case so I need to be careful.

I would like to say more generally that the Government is totally committed to preventing and addressing sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Increased reporting of sexual crime to An Garda Síochána can be seen in some ways as a success in that victims feel more confident in reporting these crimes today. The laws surrounding sexual offences have been significantly strengthened in recent years through the introduction of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 and the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017. This important legislation helps victims identify that the behaviour they are suffering is wrong and encourages them to report it to An Garda Síochána. Divisional protective service units are also being rolled out this year across all policing divisions. These are specialised units tasked with improving services to victims, improving the investigation of sexual violence incidents, and identifying and managing risk. The Government has also approved a radical new national survey approach to the collection of data by the Central Statistics Office on the prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland, which will greatly improve the evidence base for public policymaking in this area in the future.

I know the Deputy is looking for a more specific answer from me. As a father of three daughters, I have to say that it is important that parents and young people can have faith that when they get into a taxi, they are safe. I need to be careful in referring to any individual case but I will try to come back to the Deputy later, having taken some advice on it, to give him a more detailed answer.

The question I asked was not answered and perhaps I can put it in a way that the Tánaiste can answer. For the Ceann Comhairle's information, what I am about to say is quoting directly from newspaper reports and I will not depart from that. It is what is in the public record.

The victim impact statement from the first woman said that she would not allow her boyfriend to touch her where this man had touched her and she said she felt scared and numb and had problems sleeping at night. She later attended weekly counselling and she still finds it difficult to get a taxi, especially at night. The second woman was traumatised after the incident and lost trust in taxi drivers. She worries about the safety of others in taxis and feels ashamed for allowing herself to be so vulnerable.

I ask the Tánaiste this in the abstract in the hope he can answer it. Is he confident that the Taxi Regulation Act 2013 ensures that people who are guilty of sexual offences are not entitled to drive taxis? If not, will the Government bring forward legislation to ensure that is the case?

As I said earlier, we need to be careful what we say, regardless of what is written in newspapers or what has been in the media, whether it is social media or mainstream media. We have to stand over what we say in this House ourselves because we should set the standard in cases such as this. Having said that, the issue the Deputy is referring to is a serious issue and of course legislation should be tested and, if necessary, changed to ensure that people who are travelling in taxis are protected appropriately and that people who are given a licence to drive taxis are appropriately vetted to make sure that women or men who are travelling in taxis are given the appropriate legal protections that they deserve.

This question refers to threats to our agricultural industry and our agricultural community. There are three threats as I see it. In the short term there is Brexit, as we are all aware. In the medium term there is the potential reduction in the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budget. In the longer term there are challenges presented to the agricultural community by climate change and climate action.

On Brexit, the issues have been well identified and I will not go over them now, but any form of Brexit will have a negative impact, whether it is a soft Brexit via a withdrawal agreement involving the UK staying within the customs union and the Single Market in some form or other, or a harder Brexit where the UK cuts its ties almost completely with the EU. The loss of the UK market will be substantial for the beef and dairy industries. The imposition of tariffs will add to that and the delays in transport across the UK landbridge will be a serious blow to agricultural exports. Farm families need to know from the Tánaiste what level of support will be available from the Government and from Europe to maintain their incomes. I would like the Tánaiste to outline what those supports will be.

The CAP budget is under review and there are fears that this will be reduced substantially, with consequent threats to the beef and dairy sectors, if the UK leaves the European Union. The loss of the financial contribution that the UK makes to the CAP will obviously be a major factor there, so what reassurances can the Tánaiste give to farmers on this? Ireland is the most exposed of the European countries to a CAP reduction.

On the challenge posed by carbon emissions from beef and dairy farming, farmers are very fearful of the narrative that their traditional indigenous industry is being blamed in some quarters as a major damaging contributor to greenhouse gases and the threat to our planet.

An educational guide recently issued to schools by An Taisce recommends a reduction in meat and dairy consumption, equating such consumption with contributing to environmental damage. I believe this is the wrong message to give to our children, who are very impressionable. Excessive intakes of sugar, processed carbohydrates and salt are all contributing to obesity, which is now reaching epidemic proportions. This is the message which should be given to our children and their parents regarding diet while at the same time promoting exercise and sport. We all know that a balanced diet is very important for health and well-being, and the manner in which we process and cook our food is as important as the content of that food. The message should go out that farm families are custodians of our environment and are not contributing to its destruction. The uncertainty in the farming sector regarding Brexit and the CAP budget is being compounded by the narrative that farming damages our planet and provides food that can damage our health. We should ensure educational material does not do that.

I thank Deputy Harty for those questions. I would have liked a much longer time to reply because I have a lot of personal interest in this area given that I am a former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and a farmer.

We know that Ireland is more exposed and more vulnerable to a no-deal Brexit or the wrong outcome from Brexit. Ireland exports more than €1 billion worth of beef to the UK and dairy products worth more than €1 billion. We also import food and drink worth billions of euro from the UK. Should this trade be subject to tariffs in the future, or to other non-tariff trade barriers, it would be very damaging to the Irish agricultural and food industry and to Irish farming. We are conscious of this and we have been for many months. Hardly a Cabinet meeting passes without the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, raising these issues and the challenges that emerge from them.

I want to reassure farm families. There are 130,000 farm families in Ireland, nearly 100,000 of whom get some farm income from beef and 70,000 of whom get all of their farming income from beef. I want to reassure them that if Ireland faces a no-deal Brexit - which looks less likely today than it did last week - we will be ready to support Irish farm families and the food industry through what will be a very difficult period of change and disruption. We are working with the European Commission and Commissioner Hogan has been very strong on this also. There will be a significant support package to help farmers through the disruption of a no-deal Brexit, which would be considerable for Irish agriculture.

On the issue of CAP, I was involved in trying to finalise the Common Agricultural Policy the last time around. There is a really competitive environment for EU funds now. With the UK likely to leave the European Union and in the medium term no longer contributing to EU budgets, and with increasing demand for more money in EU budgets at the same time, especially in respect of security, external relations, climate and the promotion of technology and research, we have seen some pressure on the CAP budget and on other regional budgets. The Government has made it very clear that it is a priority for us in the new multi-annual financial framework, MFF, to protect the CAP budget. We have said that we will contribute more to EU budgets as long as the CAP budget is protected. We have developed a strong alliance - and the Minister, Deputy Creed, has worked very hard on this - across the European Union to protect the CAP budget. A significant number of countries are now part of that coalition to do this. As the debates continue on the MFF I can assure the House that the CAP budget will be a big priority for us.

The third issue raised by Deputy Harty was on climate. The agriculture and food industry has a responsibility to ensure we respond to the emissions challenge facing the sector, as faced by other sectors also. We need to do that in a way that continues to protect farm incomes and to protect the agriculture and food industry as part of the broader economy. This is what we will continue to do, as the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton and the Minister, Deputy Creed, work together from a climate change perspective, as well as an agricultural perspective.

I linked the three items of Brexit, CAP and climate change together because I have met farmers over the last months who have became quite disillusioned with the way they are being portrayed and in how they are being supported. I accept the Tánaiste's comments on the supports that will be delivered, whatever form of Brexit develops over the next months. The uncertainty over CAP cannot be predicted but the farmers can certainly see, coming down the line, that they will be under severe financial pressure if there is a reduction in the CAP budget.

Because they are a traditional, indigenous industry, farming families feel they are now being blamed for climate change, for damaging the climate and for producing food that is deemed to be unhealthy. As I said earlier, a balanced diet is very important. Farmers need to be reassured that they are recognised as being custodians of the environment and the land, and that they are not producing products that damage people's health or damage children's health. Perhaps the Tánaiste might address this issue in his next response.

Food Wise 2025, the current agrifood plan for the country, is about sustainable growth and expansion. It is about ensuring that young people are still attracted to farming as a way of life and as a way of deriving an income. It is also about driving efficiency: driving down the carbon efficiency of how we produce food while sustainably realising the potential of a growing and expanding dairy sector. Ireland produces dairy product at the lowest carbon intensity on the planet. Surely it makes sense for countries that have the capacity to produce dairy product, which is a huge part of human nutrition globally, and who do this best from a climate and emissions intensity perspective, to allow their industries to grow and expand.

In respect of beef, Ireland is probably in the top 30% in terms of efficiency and we need to do more in that regard. Part of the challenge is the herd size. We are breeding more efficiency into our breeds and supporting farmers financially in making that change through the beef genomic scheme and other innovative schemes. We will continue to support this sector to make the changes it needs to make to become more climate aware and emissions efficient. This does not mean the farming and food industry does not have a bright future of growth and expansion.

South Tipperary General Hospital is a success story despite swingeing cuts to budgets and staff numbers and a shortage of beds. I compliment and thank all of the staff at the hospital, from the newest recruit to senior management, who work in partnership and as a team in delivering quality hospital services under very difficult circumstances.

In November 2008, in response to the HSE and the Department of Health proposals to downgrade the hospital and to transfer all of its acute services - medicine, surgery, maternity, paediatrics and emergency department - to Kilkenny and Waterford, the Save Our Acute Hospital Services Committee was formed. Working with the whole hospital community, all stakeholders and the public, the committee responded to the threat and put 15,000 people onto the streets of Clonmel to stop the proposals in their tracks. Success saw a huge increase in hospital activity, a significant increase in inpatient admissions, and a virtual explosion in outpatient and emergency department attendances. Side by side with this we had budget cuts, staff cuts and shortages of beds. The hospital today works at 120% capacity overall. The medical department works at approximately 150% capacity. Unfortunately, given that the hospital regularly has 40 or more patients on trolleys we are consistently near the top of the trolley watch figure. Last week the hospital had to appeal to the public not to attend the emergency department because of the huge overcrowding.

Despite the best efforts of staff, the conditions for patients in that overcrowded emergency department are totally unacceptable. Staff are under constant pressure every minute of every day. Fortunately, pressure was applied and led to the approval of a new 40-bed modular unit for the hospital, and after several false dawns that unit is now under construction and will be completed at the end of July. It was supposed to have been completed by June of last year. However, there have been significant delays in approving funding for equipping and staffing the unit. It is required urgently and should be opened immediately upon completion. I want the Tánaiste to confirm today and give us a guarantee that this unit will not be the subject of the staff freeze which was announced last week by the HSE. Will the Tánaiste assure us that staff numbers and funding will be agreed by the HSE and that the unit will not be subject to a phased opening into next year? It should be fully opened on completion because the hospital desperately needs beds.

I thank the Deputy for his very reasonable approach to this issue. It is true to say that South Tipperary General Hospital has been under pressure, as have other hospitals, through the winter. Looking at the national picture, it is true to say that the trolley count through the winter months this year was about 13% less than last year and the lowest for the past five years. That being said, many individual hospitals, including South Tipperary General Hospital, have been under pressure at different times. There is a capacity issue in Tipperary, which is why the Government is committed to and has funded the building of a 40-bed modular unit to add capacity. It is under construction and will open mid-summer. My understanding is that there will not be staffing difficulties associated with the new unit, but I will revert to the Deputy later today with an exact response from the HSE on that matter.

On the circular from the HSE concerning staffing freezes, which has been raised this week in the House, where there are plans that are within the spending estimates of this year, there are no problems in terms of taking on more staff. In fact, the ambition is to take on significantly more staff this year, but that ambition has to be managed from a cost perspective. I will revert to the Deputy on the staffing implications of a new 40-bed modular unit in south Tipperary. It makes no sense to open that new unit with the aim of increasing capacity and taking pressure off the existing hospital infrastructure if appropriate staffing is not lined up to ensure that the unit can do what it is intended to do. I will revert to the Deputy later today with a more precise response on the staffing implications, the staffing decisions and the financing of it.

The concern around staffing stems from the fact that the HSE has form in allowing units to be completed and then allowing them to lie vacant for quite considerable lengths of time. We have only to look at Our Lady's Hospital in Cashel, just 15 miles down the road. Some €14 million was spent on that facility, it was in pristine condition, but it has been vacant, with not a bed in it, for the past ten years. Something similar happened in South Tipperary General Hospital in the early 2000s. I am asking the Tánaiste to instruct the HSE to exempt this unit from any staffing freeze and to agree the business case and the staffing proposals from hospital management which have been with the HSE for the past 12 months. This unit must be opened urgently. The hospital is under severe pressure. It is doing excellent work under very difficult circumstances. I welcome the Tánaiste's indication that he will come back to me later today on some of the issues I have raised.

Under the capacity programme for 2019, which has been agreed, provision is made for increases in capacity. As set out in the national service plan for 2019, 78 additional beds are planned for quarter one of this year, including a 40-bed modular build in South Tipperary General Hospital, which the Deputy referred to. The plan also refers to other hospitals. Funding has been provided in the national service plan 2019 to facilitate the opening of the modular build at South Tipperary General Hospital, and the HSE has advised that the project is at an advanced stage. There is no reason that this building should not open once it is completed. It should serve the purpose it is being built for, which is to relieve pressure on South Tipperary General Hospital from a beds capacity perspective. I will get back to the Deputy with the precise costing for staff to ensure it gets across the line.