That Dáil Éireann:
— the approved strength of the Permanent Defence Forces (PDF) currently stands at 9,500;
— at the end of March 2019 there were 8,847 personnel, compared to 9,057 at the end of February 2018;
— 3,200 personnel left the PDF between 2014 and 2018, a figure which equates to 34.7 per cent of the average strength for those years, with 82 per cent of these being premature voluntary retirements;
— the turnover rate in the PDF now stands at 9 per cent overall, with a rate of 14 per cent in the Naval Service;
— there were 256 discharges in the first four months of 2019, by far the largest figure since the reorganisation of 2012; and
— in April 2019 alone, there were 86 discharges, a figure not previously matched in a single month;
— the ongoing priority given, by Government, to costly recruitment policies;
— the absence of any retention policy for the Defence Forces;
— the underspend of €92.3 million from 2014 to 2018 in the Defence Estimate (Vote 36);
— the high turnover rate that is leading to the creation of a difficult and challenging training environment for remaining service personnel;
— that some personnel are double- and treble-jobbing in an effort to maintain operational output;
— that insufficient supervision and mentoring combined with poor trained manning levels is leading to unavoidable burnout;
— that there are serious concerns for governance, and the ability to manage risk and ensure the wellbeing of personnel; and
— that recent surveys have illustrated the mental health difficulties, increased stress and low morale being experienced by PDF personnel;
— the impact of operating with reduced numbers is already being felt across the Defence Forces;
— the Army is struggling to fulfil its assigned tasks, domestically and internationally;
— ships are unable to go to sea and aircraft are not flying as a result of personnel shortages;
— defence capability is being seriously undermined; and
— reduced governance increases operational and personnel risk; and
— the restoration of military allowances to pre-Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest levels, especially in view of the underspend from 2014 to 2018, to include the service commitment scheme for Air Corps pilots and fixed-period promotion for Special Service Officers;
— the restoration of the supplementary pension for post 2013 entrants;
— a review of the PDF organisation to provide for a training and overseas establishment, bringing the PDF personnel numbers up to 10,500 across all ranks and formations/services;
— a permanent and independent Defence Forces pay body to be established;
— Defence Forces representative organisations to be able to take up associate membership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions;
— greater military expertise in the Department of Defence, who have made some concerning and damaging decisions affecting the Defence Forces;
— the enhancement of the input and discretion of military management in decisions over current and capital spending;
— the implementation of the Working Time Directive, which the Government is currently not implementing properly;
— a clear and defined role for the Reserve Defence Forces, that would enable them to play a meaningful and worthwhile part in support to the PDF; and
— the undertaking of a comprehensive independent review (involving external and international expertise) of defence policy, the Defence Forces and the role of the Department of Defence.
I wish we were not here today. I wish my party had not been compelled to introduce today's motion on the Defence Forces. I would much prefer if there were no retention crisis. I wish men and women were not leaving the Defence Forces in their droves, en masse, heading for the exit doors as quickly as they can.
I wish the measures the Minister of State and the Government have belatedly introduced to stem the flood were not the abject failures they have been. I wish morale among our serving men and women was sky high and not on the floor. I wish our naval vessels had enough staff so they could go out to sea and stop the huge quantities of drugs being trafficked into the country. I wish pilots and highly skilled personnel in our Air Corps were not leaving faster than we can count. I wish our Army personnel did not have to wake up at all hours of the morning and drive hundreds of miles to get to work because of the disastrous reorganisation and removal of the fourth western brigade and the displacement of many personnel in the midlands and west of the country. Commuters in perpetuity is all this has created.
I wish I was not receiving messages daily from desperate families of Defence Forces members stating how worried they are about the bills that are coming through the door which they cannot pay and are not going away, the threatened evictions and the devastating impact all this has on their mental health and well-being. I wish no Defence Forces families were dependent on social welfare payments for supports. I wish the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann and our Reserve Defence Force were treated with the respect and dignity they deserve and given decent pay and proper working conditions. It is 2019 and the Defence Forces is at breaking point.
Of course, none of this is news to the Minister of State. We implored him to take decisive action before these problems blew out of control. It is a real shame he did not heed our warnings. We warned him in May of last year that we could not recruit our way out of this retention crisis and that a credible retention policy was required. The Minister of State told me on that occasion that there was no full-blown retention crisis in the Defence Forces and that everything would be all right. He was like the ostrich with his head in the sand, hoping everything would sort itself out. It has not.
I raised the retention crisis again in November and the Minister of State again assured me he was confident that recruitment would get us to the White Paper target of 9,500 serving members. Since then, we are further away from that target. I ask the Minister of State not to pretend any longer that this is a problem on which he has a grip. He could not be accused of misleading the House because no one here would believe him. His ineptitude, disinterest and inability to resolve this is clear for us all to see. The Minister of State is the silent lamb at the Cabinet table.
We know the crisis we are in. The fact is that 3,200 personnel left the Defence Forces between 2014 and 2018, many of whom were highly skilled and well trained at great expense to the State. A total of 82% of those were premature voluntary retirements. There were 327 discharges in the first five months of 2019, including 71 in May. Of that 71, 14 were recruits. Eighty-six were discharged in April. This is an unprecedented, tsunami-like exodus under the watch of the Minister of State. Turnover is at 9% overall and 14% for the Naval Service, a figure that the Chief of Staff has said is crippling as we are now struggling to fill key leadership positions and overseas missions are at risk. This is also having a knock-on impact as members must double and treble-job so many areas of the Defence Forces can just manage. They are at breaking point.
It is beyond time the Minister of State actually listened to the concerns of the men and women of our Defence Forces because right now they are serving on their goodwill, devout loyalty and dedication to the Irish State. These are the people who go out in the snow and clear the roads so the country does not come to a standstill in bad weather and so gardaí, ambulances and the fire service can attend the scenes of emergencies. Members of the Defence Forces stood in fields and slept in ditches last week so the visit of the US President passed off without a hitch, during which time gardaí earned many multiples of the earnings of Defence Forces members, despite standing beside each other in the wind and rain in the service of the State. These members are not even getting minimum wage when the duty allowance is calculated for the work they do. Does that sound fair to Deputy Kehoe as the Minister of State at the Department of Defence?
The Taoiseach says he represents the people who get up early in the morning. The Defence Forces have not gone to bed. What do they get? Does the Minister of State highlight the fact that our Defence Forces are disintegrating at home when he is swanning around the world and using them as a prop such as he did during his visit to New York when he was trying to secure a place on the UN Security Council? The members of the Defence Forces feel demoralised by those international actions when they are being treated with such disrespect at home. I suspect the Minister of State does not highlight that fact abroad.
The Minister of State should not take my word for it. He should listen to the concerns of the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and the wives and partners of Defence Forces members, some of whom are here today and who have been tireless in highlighting these problems for years now. The Minister of State should look at the University of Limerick climate survey where members of the Defence Forces have told of the chaos across the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps. He should listen to Cathal Berry who left the Defence Forces after a stellar career because he felt he could not just stand by and watch helplessly as it all fell apart around him. If the Minister of State does not want to listen to any of them, he should listen to his own Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, who, in an unprecedented move for someone in his position, felt the need to intervene in the Public Service Pay Commission and make a personal plea for his staff to be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Of course, the entire Public Service Pay Commission process has serious question marks over it. This was supposed to be an independent process. On 3 October, the Minister of State told me a joint submission had gone from his Department and the Defence Forces military management to the pay commission, but he then had to correct the record on 17 January this year, again in oral response to a question, to reveal that the submission had not in fact gone to the pay commission but was being held by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This is deeply troubling. There has been a clear contamination, dilution and butchering of the recommendations from military management. The entire process and independence of the commission has been compromised as a result. The leaked snippets I have seen are miserly, Scrooge-like increases in allowances that will be insufficient to stem the flow. In fact, they will prompt an unprecedented exodus from the Defence Forces, an Armageddon scenario whereby many decent, hard-working men and women are forced to the cliff edge. It is not an exaggeration to say the future of the Defence Forces is at stake here.
The obvious move to rectify this situation is staring the Minister of State in the face: the restoration and increase of military allowances to pre-financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, levels as was in the submission from military management. The Minister of State and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, says we cannot afford such measures. I say to the Minister of State we cannot afford not to have Defence Forces. I say to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, that he is penny wise and pound foolish. Prudent Paschal is now Dangerous Donohoe. He revealed his true colours yesterday when he tried to blame the men and women of the Defence Forces - literally the worst paid public sector workers - for his own failure to manage public expenditure properly. Fianna Fáil did not write the report of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, which outlined the Minister's mismanagement of the public finances. He needs to be reminded that it was not the Defence Forces that overspent by €2 billion on the national children's hospital, he did. It was not the Defence Forces who lost €3 billion on a national broadband network the State will not even own, it was him. It was not the Defence Forces that blew the health budget or lost control of agency spending year on year. It was not the Defence Forces that proposed a €3 billion tax cut in a reckless electioneering exercise. This was a shameful attack by a clearly rattled Minister who tried to use the lowest paid in the public sector as a political pawn to attack Fianna Fáil. He should be ashamed and embarrassed. He repays the unwavering loyalty and absolute commitment of the Defence Forces with the exploitation of the worst paid workers in the public sector.
However, the increase in allowances can be managed within Vote 36. Military management calculated that the allowances can be done at a cost of less than €30 million per year, which is less than the amount the Minister returns to the Exchequer every year as he outlined in a reply to a parliamentary question I asked.
Today's motion also includes a number of other cost-neutral measures which would go a long way to securing the future of the Defence Forces. We need a review of the Permanent Defence Force and the creation of an independent pay review body, as exists in the UK. We are calling for much-needed military expertise in the Department of Defence with greater military management input into spending and decision-making. We are calling for a specific retention policy so we keep our highly skilled people and stop losing vital corporate knowledge. Introducing a superannuation pension scheme for post-2013 entrants would also ensure personnel would not feel the need to walk away to ensure they have a pension. There is also the working time directive. We need a root-and-branch review of defence policy, the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence. We should be immensely proud of the work the Defence Forces do and their peacekeeping duties abroad. We should honour their commitment and dedication with loyalty. The Minister of State should stop disrespecting them, get his head out of the sand, stand up and fight for our serving men and women, and show them a shred of the loyalty they show us every single day.