The Irish armed forces have provided loyal public service to our country, at home and abroad, throughout the past century. In the coming years, the Defence Forces will undoubtedly face new challenges with the intensification of organised crime and drug trafficking, the enhanced need to patrol our territorial waters after Brexit, and the potential return of dissident republican activity. However, the ongoing recruitment and retention problem poses an existential crisis to Oglaigh na hÉireann and puts in jeopardy its ability to protect the State of Ireland, its territorial waters and airspace.
Fewer than 20 years ago, the strength of the Permanent Defence Force stood at 10,559. In 2018, this had dropped to under 9,000, with a turnover rate of 8.1%, as 731 personnel exited the force. In 2019, another 256 left, with 86 discharges in April alone. This turnover rate is simply unsustainable if we are to maintain the integrity of our security forces. If the Government fails to provide a decent wage, a living wage, a wage that the Defence Forces deserve for their duties, this trend will only continue. To be specific, the results from a survey of serving members, outlined in the Public Service Pay Commission on recruitment and retention within the Permanent Defence Force, indicate that just under three in five, or some 58% of respondents, stated their intention to leave the force within two years, with this figure rising to 61% for privates, the most numerous rank in the force.
Given the feeling of frustration and deep disappointment expressed in response to the report's publication by various groups representing serving personnel, it is clear that the piecemeal allowances proposed will not be nearly enough to stem this exodus. Three quarters of those currently leaving do so voluntarily. They do not want to leave the jobs they love and have wanted to pursue since childhood in many cases but they have to, for the simple reason of pay. It is hard to believe that almost 85% of personnel surveyed cited inadequate pay for their intention to leave the force, with widespread dissatisfaction with pay found across all ranks. To put this into a broader context, 85% of Irish military personnel earn less than the average industrial wage.
In addition, almost three in four also noted problematic staffing levels, which of course is a direct consequence of the low salaries and high turnover.
This serves only to perpetuate a vicious cycle in which the positions of those remaining members of staff and their ability to serve the State are continually undermined. The stark realities of this can be witnessed in the docking of two of our naval vessels, described as being like a neon sign for drug smugglers by one military source, due the lack of sufficient staffing levels.
The core of the Defence Forces is the 7,661 personnel who comprise the three most populated ranks, namely, private, three star and first class. In 2008, the scale for these three groups started at €26,082, rising to €30,429. At the end of the public service stability agreement in 2020, this will have increased to a minimum point of €26,852, or a 3% increase, and a maximum point of €32,118, or a 5.5% increase. To put this in a broader context, rents in some parts of the country are now 26% higher than in 2008, with the average monthly rent having increased 8.3% in the past 12 months. Under the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission, however, these ranks, which make up 92% of enlisted personnel, stand to earn only 96 cent gross per day. This is simply insufficient.
Not only is it insufficient but it is also a short-sighted and inefficient strategy if the Government is serious about resolving the recruitment and retention challenges. As it stands, the proposed increases will cost €10 million. It is estimated, however, that in 2018, the total recruitment campaign and training cost for the year was approximately €15 million. We spend one and a half times more to recruit and train new staff than we spend on retaining existing personnel. Where is the economic logic of that? At the heart of this, there was a clear flaw in the remit given to the Public Service Pay Commission for the work it was asked to do in this regard. The commission was not permitted to examine the issue of core pay. Its hands were tied behind its back because the terms of reference precluded it from looking at the issue of core pay. The commission should have been given a blank canvas to see what it could propose to deal with the acknowledged recruitment and retention crisis. Do we even know the commission's view on whether its recommendations will have a positive impact on recruitment and retention? The whole exercise has been a wasted opportunity.
I understand the concerns about wider public service pay stability. As the Minister of State will be aware, however, there is always wriggle room in public service wage agreements. It was rightly found for nurses and members of the Garda when the Government was put under pressure. The Government seems to have a view that because the Defence Forces cannot go on strike, their members are to be treated differently and are not to receive the increase in their pay to which everyone in the House, as well as everyone in the trade union movement, would agree they are entitled. It is simply not good enough for the Minister of State to hide behind the review of the pay commission when his very Government set the terms and the outcome by not allowing the commission to look at the issue of core pay. While take-home pay will increase for some members of the Defence Forces through allowances, allowances can be taken away as easily as they are given. Core pay is the basis for how any job is perceived by an applicant, or by young people deciding on their future career, how they plan their future and how they will budget for life events. The core pay in the Defence Forces is a massive outlier in public sector pay. It needs to be rectified but the commission’s recommendations do not go far enough.
As for what should happen now, at a minimum the Government should, with immediate effect, set up a process for the PDF that will feed into negotiations for the next public service pay agreement, which will commence next year, to deal with the problems everyone knows exist. That might provide some hope for the relatively near future. The current situation is not only unsustainable for the Army personnel and their families but the Government also must see it is not sustainable for the State if the numbers in the armed forces are dwindling and we have to tie up our naval vessels.
Members of the armed forces section of the public sector, unlike all the other sections, march with stones in their boots. The current model for dealing with public sector pay will never allow them to get rid of the stones. It is no wonder that many of them want to stop marching. We cannot continue with a model of pay settlement incapable of finding a solution for this group of workers under the current set-up. All interested parties must think outside the box and begin a separate process for dealing with the unique case of the PDF. We cannot wait a second longer. It must start immediately - not in six months, as indicated in a Government statement - and must be completed in a very short time. Let us give the PDF and their families some hope and let us start today.