Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Defence Forces

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

5. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Defence when the report on the review of mandatory retirement ages for Defence Forces officers will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24895/21]

I wish to ask the Minister about the review of mandatory retirement ages for officers in the Defence Forces. He will be aware that a review has been ongoing now for quite a while. There were reports that the review was supposed to have concluded a year ago. Where is that review and when does the Minister expect it to be published?

As the Deputy will be aware, the report to the Public Service Pay Commission on recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces was published on 4 July 2019. The report was accepted in full by the Government at the time. To facilitate implementation, a high-level plan entitled Strengthening our Defence Forces – Phase One was also agreed and published on the same date.

The high-level plan provided for actions or projects to be undertaken to deliver on the Public Service Pay Commission recommendations. It also proposed a timeframe for actions or projects to commence and identified the lead actor to implement the action or project. The timeframe for commencement of the actions is split into four distinct timelines.

The project to consider options to tackle barriers to extended participation in the Permanent Defence Force was identified as a medium-term project being jointly led by the Department and the Defence Forces together. After initial research, it was decided that this project would be divided into two phases, the first focusing on reviewing mandatory retirement ages for officers and the second to review contracts for service for enlisted personnel.

It was agreed at PDFORRA that enlisted privates and corporals who had reached 21 years' service and were under-50 could remain in service until the end of 2022. Sergeants who were due to retire were also permitted to continue to serve until that timeframe. These measures meant that the review could take place in an extended timeframe.

A report on the first phase of this project on reviewing mandatory retirement age for officers was completed by the joint civil-military project team and is currently with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform awaiting clarification on a number of issues, which I understand are primarily with regard to pension entitlements. Work on the second phase of examining contracts of service for enlisted personnel is under way and progressing well.

Any proposals or decisions that arise from these considerations relating to the mandatory retirement ages will be discussed with the representative associations, of course. My Department continues to engage with the associations on all matters that fall within the scope of the representation, not just those arising from the high-level implementation plan. A draft piece of work is with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform at the moment and we are hoping to get approval and clarification on a number of issues.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I welcome the fact that the report has been completed. I know it is still a draft report but it is now with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The reason I asked the question is because, as those in the House will be aware, many officers who have joined the Defence Forces since 2014 are now leaving ahead of the mandatory retirement age because they are on reduced pension terms as compared with other public servants. We know that those in the Defence Forces are regarded as being different from other public servants in that the retirement age for them is not increasing up to the age of 68 . For those who are Defence Forces officers, the age at which they must mandatorily retire is between 56 and 60.

The other reason I tabled this question is that, unfortunately, because of the gap in pension which arises, many officers make a decision to leave the Defence Forces early. Many of them are leaving in their 30s. That is a time when they should be assuming leadership roles. It is important that we bring clarity and certainty to this as soon as possible because we need to ensure that we retain our officers within the Defence Forces.

The Deputy has made some very fair points. That is why I am anxious to conclude this issue, to have the report finalised and published and to stay in close contact with the representative bodies throughout that process. However, the Deputy will also know that I do not make all the calls on pensions. In fact, I do not make very many of them at all, even for the Defence Forces in my capacity as Minister for Defence. Pensions policy and any changes relating to it, even for the Defence Forces in a niche area, are matters for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and his Department. We are working with that Department. We have asked for clarification on a number of pensions issues and we are waiting for the Department to come back to us on them. The sooner we can bring clarity in respect of this matter, the better.

I am fully aware that the Minister does not make decisions in respect of pensions and I was not trying to land this issue completely on his desk. However, he is the advocate at Cabinet for the Defence Forces. I know that he will continue to advocate on their behalf when it comes to the mandatory retirement age, which I believe should be increased.

The issue for the Defence Forces officers arises because of the Public Sector Pensions (Single Scheme and Other Provisions) Act 2012, which resulted in the designed entitlement to the single pension or equivalent value through a supplementary pension being denied to new entrants who have joined the Defence Forces since 2013. It was always the case for commissioned officers that the entitlement to the State pension, contributory or equivalent value through a supplementary pension, was a factor that was taken into account. The problem for the Defence Forces officers is that if they must mandatorily retire between the ages of 56 and 60 and there is no State pension benefit for them, it puts them in a very difficult position. That is why they are looking elsewhere in their 30s to plan ahead for themselves and their families. I thank the Minister for his answer.

I can understand why the Deputy wants to put his points on the record. If one speaks to officers who have joined after a certain time, it is a big issue for them in terms of planning their careers, particularly the latter parts of their careers as leaders and officers within the Defence forces. That is one of the reasons we are having a review in this area. As I have said, however, we are going to have to wait for clarity from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of the pensions issues that have been raised by Deputy O'Callaghan.

Military Honours

John Brady

Question:

6. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence the progress to date by the independent review group set up to investigate and make recommendations on the battle of Jadotville. [25004/21]

Catherine Connolly

Question:

16. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Defence the status of the work of the independent review group that was established to examine the events at Jadotville in September 1961; if he has received a copy of the group's interim report, which was due by 31 March 2021; when the interim report will be published; the timeline for when the group’s work will conclude; when the final report will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25090/21]

I wish to ask the Minister for an update on the progress of the independent review group that has been set up to investigate and make recommendations on the awarding of medals to the soldiers who participated in the battle of Jadotville.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 16 together.

The issue of awarding of military medals for gallantry and distinguished service medals to personnel who served at Jadotville in September 1961 has been considered on a number of occasions over the years and a number of actions have taken place to give due recognition to the courage and bravery of all the members of "A" Company, 35th Infantry Battalion, who were stationed in Jadotville in 1961. Notwithstanding the actions that have been undertaken to date, I have asked the Chief of Staff to consider whether it is possible, as an exceptional measure, to have a retrospective examination of the events at Jadotville in September 1961 in the context of the award of medals and the possible implications for the integrity of the award of medals system. In response, the Chief of Staff proposed the establishment of an independent group of external experts to consider the entire case and evidence, including new evidence, if any is available.

The independent review group was established by the Chief of Staff in December 2020 and consists of the following members: the chairman, Brigadier-General Paul Pakenham, retired; Dr. Michael Kennedy of the Royal Irish Academy; Commandant Billy Campbell, retired; Regimental Sergeant Major Michael Dillon, retired; and Ms Linda Hickey of the military archives. The terms of reference for the review are clear and are outlined in my written answer. I can go through them if the Deputies so wish.

In line with its terms of reference, the independent review group will examine, report and make recommendations in respect of the Battle of Jadotville of 13 to 17 September 1961 and will report its findings to the Chief of Staff. The work of the independent review group is well under way and the group has been actively engaged in the consultation and research process. The review group was due to conclude by 31 March 2021, however, given the sheer volume of meetings and the comprehensive nature of the research process, which is still producing a vast amount of material, an interim report was submitted and an extension to the timeframe for reporting to the Chief of Staff was requested. Taking into account the volume of research material and engagement being undertaken by the independent review group in the course of its work on this very important matter, this request for an extension has been recently acceded to. The timeframe for submission of the final report is mid-June. Once the work of the independent review group has been completed, the Chief of Staff will make recommendations, as appropriate, to my office.

At this juncture, it would be premature to state if the interim report or the final report, once submitted, will be published or released. I will await the outcome of the work of the independent review group and the recommendations of the Chief of Staff in due course. When the final report has been received and any findings have been given due consideration, a decision on the release of the interim report and final report will then be made, taking into account any legal or other considerations arising. Certainly, it is my intention to be as transparent as I possibly can be in respect of this process when the final report becomes available. Obviously, however ,I will have to take legal advice on that. I hope that this process will be able to bring this issue, debate and discussion to an end. September next is a very significant anniversary of the heroic contribution of Irish Defence Forces personnel at Jadotville. I hope that we will have a successful outcome to this review which will conclude next month.

Subject to the agreement of the two Deputies who tabled the questions, I will alternate between the them. I will take Deputy Connolly next.

I welcome the Minister's update and the progress made. I know that other Deputies have raised this issue, but I looked at my own previous contributions on the matter and I first raised it in 2017 with the then Minister for Defence, Deputy Kehoe. We have made progress in the sense that there seems to be more openness to look at the issue. It is disappointing that the review has not been completed, but I understand that there is a lot of work to be done. Does the Minister have a date for when the review will be completed and the report published?

I must say that nothing has captured my heart or imagination like this story. I have watched the film, read two books on the matter and attended all of the talks given by the son of the officer commanding. Most significantly, it was the presentations made by the pupils of two schools, Galway Community College and Malahide Community College, that really captured my imagination. We need heroes, and these soldiers were heroes. I will speak more about that in my second contribution. I hope we have learned to do the decent thing. I will conclude so that I stay within my time limit, seeing as I give out so much about it.

I will come back to the Deputy. I do not mind. I was going to take each Deputy in turn.

I posed the question, so normally I would speak first. Perhaps the Acting Chairman will allow me to speak at this point before the Minister responds.

We will not have an argument over it.

I welcome the progress that has been made by the independent review group. There was some concern when a time extension was requested but I understand the rationale behind that. A lot of work needs to be done and I welcome the fact that the review will be thorough. We need to bring an end to the injustice that has been done to the gallant members of the Defence Forces who participated in the Battle at Jadotville almost 60 years ago, with the anniversary coming up in September. That injustice must be brought to an end. We must undo the unjustified shame suffered by those soldiers, especially given the fact that 33 of those who participated in the battle were recommended for distinguished service medals and five were recommended for military medals for gallantry by Colonel Pat Quinlan.

I welcome the fact that an end date of mid June has been set for the review. I ask the Minister to provide assurances that this deadline will be met because, as I said, the 60th anniversary falls in September. There is only a handful of survivors left at this point. I hope that the review leads to the right outcome for them and that the occasion of the 60th anniversary is used for the awarding of the long-awaited medals

I have been involved in a number of debates on this issue and I know the strength of feeling on it in this House and in Seanad Éireann. The Quinlan family have been very strong advocates for full recognition of the contribution that Irish Defence Forces serving personnel made in what were extraordinarily testing and difficult circumstances during the Battle of Jadotville.

It is important that the awarding of medals is a military process and not a political one. What we are trying to do with this review by the independent group with military, historical and archive expertise is to make sure that not only was an appropriate decision made in terms of the awarding of medals, but also that the contribution that was made is considered accurately in view of the knowledge we now have of the historical context and so on. I hope this will be an opportunity to come to conclusions that those who served at Jadotville and their families can be very happy with, that will provide closure and a correction of the historical record, should that be the recommendation in terms of the assessment of those events. I have seen the film too. I have also read a lot about Jadotville and have spoken to many people about it. I am approaching this with the goal of transparency. I want to ensure that all issues around Jadotville are fully considered and recommendations are made accordingly. I hope that the date I have given of mid-June for the final report can be met. Some would have liked even more time but I am anxious to get it done so that we can bring the conclusions back to the Dáil and Seanad before we break up for the summer recess. I hope that those involved will be able to conclude their work but the most important issue is the quality of that work. We must not rush it. The volume of work undertaken by the review group has been quite extraordinary, which is why more time was needed.

I appreciate the Minister's response. I would just like to point out to Deputy Brady that I also tabled a question on this issue, which was grouped with his. That is why I am here and contributing to the discussion.

The Minister spoke about a process that is not political, and I understand that, but if ever a time was right to do the right thing, the 60th anniversary in September is that time. I do not know how a story of bravery, gallantry and heroism was turned on its head. These were young soldiers, some of whom were only 16 years of age. I imagine their parents were still getting the children's allowance for them when they lied about their age. They were called the "Jadotville Jacks". I do not understand how the story of their heroism could be turned on its head. That alone deserves a new narrative. The amount of pain and suffering and the number of suicides that followed from the consequent behaviour of the system towards those soldiers was unbearable. Among the group of soldiers, 27 were proposed by their commandant for distinguished service medals, 29 for bravery and five for gallantry. I may have those figures slightly wrong but what is important is the substantial nature of the awards that were recommended but not given. I ask the Minister to ensure that we do the right thing.

I know the strength of feeling here. We have seen a whole series of local authorities around the country pass motions on Jadotville and we have seen schools getting involved in advocacy and doing projects on Jadotville. This is something that has caught the interest of many people across the country. It is a story of heroism, professionalism and extraordinary human endeavour. There are many other stories of heroism and extraordinary bravery linked to the Defence Forces too, which is why we have a medals system within the Defence Forces. What is being looked at now is whether they got it wrong on this occasion and whether the contribution of Defence Forces personnel at Jadotville has not been written into history in the way it should. That is what is being considered now. I hope, on the back of a substantial amount of research and consideration, to be able, as Minister, to correct anything that should have been corrected before now. Members should not forget that there have been multiple and very genuine attempts by the State to address the Jadotville issue in terms of the awarding of Jadotville medals, scrolls and so on. However, what is happening now is a more fundamental review of the process and the place in history of this contribution, from a peacekeeping perspective, under extraordinary circumstances. I hope by the middle of June to have recommendations that I can act on.

I wish the independent review body well and I hope it meets the June deadline. It is incumbent on it to do so. An enormous amount of work needs to be done but ultimately this is about undoing the disservice done to those involved. It is about honouring the heroes of Jadotville of 60 years ago. The fact that the testimony of the officer on the ground and his recommendations were not listened to or acted upon was the fundamental flaw in the entire process. We cannot undo that but the fact that the review is taking place at this point is welcome. The handing out of scrolls completely missed the core point. Hopefully, the many mistakes that were made in terms of the classification of these heroic Irish soldiers as cowards will be undone and the record will be set straight. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to do that and I hope the right decisions are made.

I hope Members will accept the sincerity of my motivation here. We have set up a review process involving people who are taking it extraordinarily seriously. I have been assured that this process will be very robust. It will take into account an extraordinary volume of archival and historical material and will make recommendations on the back of all of that, in consultation with the families and many others.

I hope that by the middle of next month, a report with recommendations will be presented to the Chief of Staff, who will forward that report to me. We can have the next debate on this issue in the context of all that knowledge and the recommendations that will come from it.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.

Defence Forces

Bríd Smith

Question:

8. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Defence the timeframe for the work of the commission on defence to be completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25107/21]

Niamh Smyth

Question:

10. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Defence when the commission on defence will complete its work; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24903/21]

Paul McAuliffe

Question:

12. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Defence the progress to date on the commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24889/21]

Barry Cowen

Question:

15. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Defence the status of the commission on defence. [24910/21]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

30. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Defence when the commission on the future of the Defence Forces report will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25079/21]

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

41. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Defence the status of the independent commission on the Defence Forces that was sanctioned on 15 December 2020; the areas on which the commission is focusing its inquiries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25113/21]

Gino Kenny

Question:

43. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Defence the progress of the commission of the future of the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24872/21]

Will the Minister outline the timeframe for the work of the commission on defence to be completed and make a statement on the matter?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 10, 12, 15, 30, 41 and 43 together.

The programme for Government committed to establishing an independent commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the Defence Forces and include the following matters: arrangements for the effective defence of the country on land, in the air and at sea; the structure and size of the Defence Forces, encompassing capabilities, structures and staffing; appropriate governance and high-level command and control; pay and allowances structures; recruitment, retention and career progression; and to leverage the capabilities of the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, in its supports to the Permanent Defence Force and make service in the RDF more attractive.

This independent commission on the Defence Forces was established by the Government in December 2020, with a mandate to report within 12 months. The Government also approved the terms of reference, based on the programme for Government, and the membership of the commission. The commission’s overall approach will be guided and informed by both the White Paper on Defence 2015 and its update in 2019. As part of a broader consultation process, the commission invited submissions from individuals and organisations on issues relevant to its terms of reference. The commission received more than 500 submissions, which it is currently analysing.

The commission has been established as an independent body, and while it is a matter entirely for the commission, I understand it has met a broad stakeholder group, including the representative associations, senior and enlisted members of the Defence Forces, senior officials from my Department and other groups. Site visits to military locations by members of the commission have taken place and I understand that further site visits have been scheduled if Covid restrictions permit. The chairman of the commission, Mr. Aidan O'Driscoll, also met members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence on 20 April to discuss the ongoing work of the commission.

The establishment of an independent commission on the Defence Forces underpins the Government's commitment to ensuring that the Defence Forces are fit for purpose, in terms of both meeting immediate requirements and also seeking to develop a longer term vision beyond 2030. The commission is to submit its report by the end of the year and it will be considered fully at that time. I look forward to having a debate in the House on the contents of that final report when it has been presented to me and the Government has had an opportunity to consider it.

I am a bit concerned by the Minister's response because, in referring to the programme for Government, he stated the commission will be tasked with undertaking a comprehensive review, including of pay, allowances and the composition of the Defence Forces and recruitment, retention and career progression. A couple of weeks ago in The Irish Times, however, Aidan O'Driscoll was quoted as saying that the contentious issue of pay, allowances and overtime for Defence Forces personnel would not be considered by the commission. There is also the sense among the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, that this will be another wasted year.

There have been many reviews over the years and many commissions have examined the Defence Forces but the issues remain the same. They include malcontent among personnel in regard to their rates of pay and overtime, allowances and accommodation. The basic bread and butter issues and respect for the job are absent from the Defence Forces and are not being dealt with. It will be, as RACO has stated, another wasted year unless these are dealt with.

This is perhaps the first opportunity for the Minister to address in the House the comments made by Mr. O'Driscoll before the Oireachtas committee. One of the main reasons I persuaded many people within my party to vote for the programme for Government was that it was clear the commission would deal with the issue of pay and conditions. It appears, however, that Mr. O'Driscoll's comments were at variance with that. Will the Minister directly address that?

While there is a range of issues in the area of the Defence Forces, pay and conditions is the key one for some members. It is the issue on which they are waiting for us to move. Will the Minister address the issue of a permanent pay commission and state whether a pay recommendation will be made in advance of that as part of the commission? Will a separate pay commission be established or should we not expect a pay award to be made until after the commission has published its report?

It is important that the commission does not become about pay only. In its terms of reference, it has been asked to examine pay structures and allowances, how they developed and are structured, and whether they are appropriate in terms of international best practice and so on. It will certainly consider pay structures and allowances, how they work within the Defence Forces and whether those structures can be improved. Separately, we have committed in the programme for Government to setting up an independent pay body for the Defence Forces.

I have contended for many years that people who commit to a career in the Defence Forces are different in many ways from others who commit to public service. They cannot strike or get involved in political advocacy and a series of different structures apply to them, within the defence infrastructure, in regard to arbitration mechanisms and so on. It is a very different type of service and in my view, therefore, it justifies a separate pay body to assess the unique circumstances, challenges and rewards needed in the context of serving in our Permanent Defence Force.

There are two commitments of the Government. Within the terms of reference, the commission can examine pay structures and allowances but is required to be consistent with public sector pay policy. I am often involved in debates in the House in which Deputies ask me to increase pay rates in the Defence Forces.

The very same people will defend collective bargaining in public sector pay agreements, and so on. One cannot have both. We need to have consistency here, which is why we are trying to address this by setting up a separate pay body to look at the unique circumstances within the Defence Forces around pay, structures, allowances and so on. The commission will be looking at these issues and when the commission reports, we have committed to setting up an independent pay body at that time.

Listening to that answer, the Minister has tied himself up in knots. On the one hand he says that it is a different type of service and deserves a separate pay body. On the other hand he says that it is required to be in line with public sector pay. Which is it? Is in line with public sector pay or is a special kind of service that requires a special body to deal with pay? Whichever it is, the Minister must make up his mind because as RACO has stated, this is another wasted year in respect of pay and pay structures, allowances, conditions and the question of affiliation.

The Minister has just empathised with the military personnel, in that they cannot go on strike or flex their muscles in the same way as other public sector workers, but they can affiliate to the ICTU. PDFORRA was given a ruling in the European Committee of Social Rights that the Government was in violation by preventing affiliation to the ICTU. The least the Minister can do is to allow that affiliation and to clarify the complete mess here about pay. Is it a special body, is it public sector, are they linked? In the meantime, many soldiers and military personnel are leaving the service right across the Defence Forces because they are being treated badly. If they are a special force, then treat them as such and stop ignoring the issues.

I greatly welcome the Minister’s clarification that the commission will deal with pay structures and allowances. Allowances are at the heart of some of the key grievances that many of the Defence Forces personnel have. It was unfortunate that the comments were made in the Oireachtas that appeared to say the commission would not deal with HR issues.

Members of the Defence Forces in my constituency will want to know what this means for them. We need to be clear, as a Government, in outlining the timeline for that. I welcome the idea of a permanent pay commission. It is very important for all of the reasons outlined by the Minister. Will the changes in structures and allowances lead to more money in Defence Forces members' pockets at the end of this year or will they have to wait until the end of the pay commission’s deliberations? Those, I believe, are reasonable questions for the Minister.

In the first instance, members of the Defence Forces benefit, as does every other public sector worker, from the most recent pay agreement. Everybody’s take-home pay is increasing this year across the public sector. We must first wait for the commission to report at the end of the year. The Government has to then consider these recommendations and no doubt we also will have a debate in this House on them and we will make a decision then on the back of that. One commitment we have made, separate to those of the commission but I suspect that its recommendations will be consistent with this, is a commitment in the programme for Government to set up an independent pay body to assess pay issues across the Defence Forces because its members are in a unique category of service. That is justified and is also the case in many other countries where there is a separate pay review body for serving personnel.

Deputy Bríd Smith has raised a number of issues and she quotes both RACO and PDFORRA. As it happens, those organisations have very different perspectives on ICTU affiliation and the setting up of an independent pay body and there is not a uniform view. Different people have different perspectives and I am trying to take account of both. I have told PDFORRA that I have not ruled out ICTU affiliation. While I have some concerns about it, I am committed to setting up an independent pay review body, as is the Government, as can be seen in the programme for Government. That is the right course of action and is also what I understand RACO supports and was looking for. This is an ongoing discussion to try to get this right. The commission is looking at international best practice on pay structures within the Defence Forces as to allowances and how they can be used appropriately to reward service in the Defence Forces and I look forward to the recommendations that will come back in that space.

Departmental Properties

Cathal Berry

Question:

9. Deputy Cathal Berry asked the Minister for Defence his plans for the remaining residential properties owned by his Department in Orchard Park, Curragh; if he plans to hand over the estate to Kildare County Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24607/21]

My question is in respect of Orchard Park, which is the residential estate in the Curragh Camp which is currently being run and managed by the Department of Defence. There are a number of vacant homes in that estate. I would be grateful to hear the Minister's thoughts on what the plans are for those vacant homes and is he minded to hand over the estate to Kildare County Council?

I thank the Deputy and I am aware that he knows this space very well. The Deputy will be aware that it has been a long-standing policy to discontinue the historic provision of tied housing to Defence Forces' personnel. This policy, introduced in the late 1990s, has been implemented on a gradual basis, sympathetic to the needs of those occupying these former married quarters and, in particular, those persons who may be vulnerable. It is not intended to reverse this long-standing policy and, as such, I can confirm to the Deputy that it is my Department's policy to transfer ownership of properties to the housing authority, in this case Kildare County Council, at the earliest opportunity subject, of course, to its agreement.

The Deputy may wish to note that my Department transferred two residential properties that were vacant in 2019 to Kildare County Council. It is intended to make a similar offer to the housing authority in due course.

As to the handing over of the estate to Kildare County Council, it would be my Department's preference that the local authority take the same in charge. However, this is a matter for the county council in the first instance.

I thank the Minister for that excellent and very useful update, which is most helpful. From a broader perspective, the Curragh Camp, as we both know, is an excellent place full of wonderful people but dereliction is a major issue in the camp on foot of decades of neglect. It is quite an old Victorian camp. To be fair to the Department of Defence, it has a finite budget. There is only so much that it can spend in the camp every single year.

What are the Minister's thoughts on mobilising the broader Government to assist in regenerating that facility? For instance, the Office of Public Works has a budget and the Department of Higher and Further Education, Research, Innovation and Science has a budget that could be used for the Military College. The Department of Education could help out with the three schools in the Curragh, and the Department of Rural and Community Development could help out with a rural and town centre regeneration scheme. The question therefore is should we be looking at a broader approach to addressing the dereliction and infrastructure deficits in the Curragh? I thank the House.

That is a very interesting question. The answer is basically "Yes". I have already had a conversation on this with the Minister, Deputy Harris, in the context of the plans that we have around the concept of an international peace and leadership institute as part of the broader Curragh campus, which would be an investment and an expansion in many ways of the Military College and the education and work that goes on there.

First, we have an increasing capital investment programme. The capital investment for this year in the budget is €130 million but this capital investment should be well beyond that and we will be able to supplement some of the existing expenditure from current expenditure surpluses that we will have. There is a broader question here, however, as the Deputy has asked whether we can look at the Curragh in a more holistic way to try to build a community there and deal with some of the dereliction on site.

I have walked through the Curragh Camp. There is too much dereliction even though there is investment going on. I hope to be able to put a more ambitious and broader thinking plan in place with other Ministers.

I am regularly asked on what I would spend the extra funding if the defence budget were increased. The budget negotiations will be coming up in the next few months and I ask the Minister to advocate as strongly as possible to his Cabinet colleagues - I know he does so - that if the defence budget was increased, there would be more money available for infrastructural projects and to invest in the Curragh Camp in particular, which is the home of the Defence Forces. Nearly every member of the Defence Forces passes through the Curragh at some stage in their careers. It is where all the career courses take place. Investment in its infrastructure would certainly make a significant difference.

First, the defence budgets are increasing and have increased again this year on last year. Second, we are investing in the Curragh. I am sure many people would like me to accelerate that further and to spend more but we have invested and are continuing to invest in multiple projects in the Curragh. I will continue to advocate for increased budgets in defence. I think that is justified. We have a five-year capital investment programme already in place which commits to the expenditure of an enormous amount of money across all elements of defence infrastructure, whether it is the Air Corps, Naval Service or Army, in various camps and barracks and in terms of upgrading equipment, whether that is aircraft, refurbished Mowag vehicles or whatever. My job is to make sure that we invest appropriately in the Defence Forces in terms of infrastructure, equipment and human resources. We will do so. I recognise that the Curragh is the centre of operations and I am currently considering certain flagship projects in the Curragh.

Question No. 10 answered with Question No. 8.

Air Corps

Cathal Berry

Question:

11. Deputy Cathal Berry asked the Minister for Defence if he is still committed to the Air Corps having a role in search and rescue; his views on whether the Air Corps should be tasked to undertake this role in the same way as it was tasked to provide the emergency aeromedical service and Garda air support unit service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24605/21]

My question relates to the national search and rescue service. The service is up for renewal in 2023 and I understand proposals will shortly be brought to Cabinet with regard to how best to configure the service from 2023 onwards. I was very grateful for the comments of the Minister a few months ago when he stated that, in his view, the Air Corps should be given the most significant role in providing that service as humanly and physically possible. Is that still his view? I ask him to update the House in that regard.

No decision has yet been taken to change any aspect of the current delivery model for search and rescue aviation services in Ireland's search and rescue, SAR, domain. There is, as I am sure the Deputy is aware, currently a project ongoing under the remit of the Department of Transport to consider, develop and bring to fruition a new marine search and rescue aviation contract for future service provision. The current contract for the SAR helicopter service is between the Minister of Transport and a civil helicopter operator, namely, CHC Ireland DAC. The contract commenced on 1 July 2012 for a period of ten years, with an option to extend for a further three years. The existing contract has been extended for one year to 2023 to facilitate the lengthy procurement process and ensure compliance with the public spending code.

As the House is aware, a strategic assessment and preliminary appraisal document in line with the public service code was brought to the Government for information last July. It included an appraisal of various service delivery options, including where the State assumed full responsibility for the service, either through the Air Corps or a dedicated Irish Coast Guard aviation branch. Both were ruled out for a variety of reasons, notably the risks to the State and questions around potential affordability and deliverability. I agree with the strategic assessment and preliminary appraisal to which I have referred and I do not see the Air Corps taking full responsibility for SAR services in Ireland’s search and rescue domain. I think many people in the Air Corps would agree with that assessment in terms of the timelines and capacity issues involved.

I have acknowledged in the House and other forums that I would like to explore further the option of the Air Corps providing some element of the SAR aviation service, given its historical role in this area. I confirmed previously that late last year I asked my officials to engage further with the Department of Transport to explore the option of the Air Corps providing some element of the next generation SAR aviation service while ensuring that the service meets domestic and international obligations for search and rescue and represents value for money for the State. I have not been prescriptive regarding what model any potential SAR marine aviation service delivery by the Air Corps could take. There is much to consider and examine, including legal considerations, as part of this process. I thank my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for his proactive engagement and that of his team on this matter with the defence organisation in recent months.

I thank the Minister for his very supportive and useful comments. When Roscommon hospital was closed down in 2013 and there was a need to establish a medevac helicopter in Athlone, the Air Corps was tasked with providing this aeromedical emergency service. It has been providing that service successfully for the past ten years. It did not go out to contract; the Air Corps was just tasked with doing it. When a Garda air support unit was needed in the late 1990s, that did not go out to contract; the Air Corps was just tasked with providing the service. Not only was it tasked with doing so, it was actually resourced to do so. Two helicopters were purchased and, as all present are aware, those helicopters are still flying in the air over Dublin. That model is a good one. We should identify what component of the service the Air Corps can look after and then task and resource it accordingly. Any part of the service that cannot be provided by the Air Corps should be outsourced to a civilian contractor. I would be grateful for the views of the Minister on this issue.

I am somewhat limited in what I can say because there is a process under way that I do not want to legally undermine. If I made an inappropriate contribution, I could be accused of undermining the process. This contract involves an enormous amount of public money. It is a process that must be fair to everybody, whether the existing operator or others who wish to bid for the service. It is being managed by another Department. There has been considerable engagement between that Department and my Department to try to do what is appropriate and what would provide value for money and protect the integrity of the process. My Department and I have been involved in that regard.

Ultimately, decisions on the scope, nature and procurement strategy for the next SAR marine aviation service will be a matter for the Government once the detailed appraisal and business case has been finalised by the Department of Transport. My contribution here is to try to ensure that the Defence Forces, through the Air Corps, put options on the table for how they can contribute in a positive way that can guarantee a quality of service and value for money that should be part of the broader considerations. It is up to the Department of Transport to respond to that. We have put a lot of work into this.

I fully appreciate how limited and restricted the Minister is in his comments. The key final point I wish to get across is that this contract could be an enormous contract, worth up to €1 billion over ten years, which is the equivalent of half a children's hospital, but without having a children's hospital or even half a children's hospital to show for it. My specific recommendations are that, where possible, we should invest in our public service first and foremost. We should try to keep the money of Irish taxpayers in Ireland. Instead of assisting international helicopter leasing companies, we should focus on providing for and resourcing our own services first and then outsource what it is not possible for them to provide.

I get the Deputy's rationale. My approach as Minister for Defence is always to look at what the Defence Forces can do, whether they can do more and whether I can resource them to do more so that we can use the assets of the State and the skill sets of the Defence Forces in new areas. It is important to note on the record the quality of the SAR service we currently have in place. I have been winched up into helicopters on more than one occasion. Lives have been saved. The contribution the search and rescue operation that is currently in place has offered in recent years is of very high quality.

It is expensive but it is good value for money given the service that is provided. What is under consideration now is whether the skill set of the Defence Forces can be part of an overall new SAR contract and, if so, what would be the appropriate level of contribution. A range of issues must be considered in that regard by the Department of Transport, which has shown a real open mind on this. I do not want to overplay or overestimate the capacity of the Air Corps and Defence Forces in terms of the role they can play, but I certainly hope they play some role in contributing to the next search and rescue contract.

Question No. 12 answered with Question No. 8.

Defence Forces

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

13. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Defence the progress made to date in resolving the low pay issue in the Defence Forces which is making it difficult to retain personnel; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24962/21]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

50. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the extent to which any outstanding issues in regard to pay and conditions in the Defence Forces have been resolved; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24968/21]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

276. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the extent to which issues in respect of pay and conditions in the Defence Forces are resolved or are in the course thereof; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4469/21]

What is the progress made to date in resolving the low pay issue in the Defence Forces? The operative word in that question is "progress". I listened to the Minister addressing a parallel issue to this earlier and it seems there are plenty of commissions but no progress. Can he give an indication of when we might see progress in the only area that makes much of a difference, namely, pay in the pockets of those serving in the Defence Forces?

I propose to take Question Nos. 13, 50 and 276 together.

There are many reasons individuals may leave the Defence Forces, ranging from individual personal circumstances to career opportunities, having fulfilled their contract or retirement on age grounds. The Defence Forces offer significant career opportunities and while pay has been highlighted as an issue, there has been significant progress in recent years.

Public service pay policy is determined by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform having regard to public sector pay agreements. The Department of Defence does not have discretion to award separate pay increases, as Deputies understand. The Defence Forces have received pay increases in line with the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020, the most recent of which was a 2% increase on annualised salaries from 1 October 2020. The restoration of the 5% cut in allowances imposed under the financial emergency in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation was also restored from 1 October 2020.

In addition to the general round of pay increases awarded to public servants, members of the Defence Forces have also benefited from the implementation of increases in Defence Forces allowances as recommended by the Public Service Pay Commission. These included a 10% increase in military service allowance; the restoration of a 10% cut applied to a number of Defence Forces allowances under the Haddington Road pay agreement; the restoration of premium rates for weekend security duty allowances; and the restoration of a service commitment scheme for pilots.

The introduction of a new seagoing service commitment scheme for Naval Service personnel, which came into effect from 1 January 2021, is aimed at retaining highly trained and experienced personnel and incentivising seagoing duties within the Naval Service. The seagoing naval personnel tax credit of €1,270 was applied in the 2020 tax year for members of the Naval Service who served 80 days or more at sea on board a naval vessel in 2019. This tax credit has been extended for a further year and is increased to €1,500 for the 2021 tax year.

Negotiations on a new public service agreement were held in late 2020 with public service trade unions and representative associations. A new agreement, Building Momentum - A New Public Service Agreement 2021 - 2022, has subsequently been ratified by the overwhelming majority of public sector unions. The Permanent Defence Force representative associations have yet to ballot their members and, accordingly, advise the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, of formal acceptance, or otherwise, of this agreement. The agreement provides for a further increase in pay to all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces, should the representative associations advise the WRC of formal acceptance of the agreement. It includes a general round increase in annualised basic salary for all public servants of 1% or €500, whichever is greater, in October 2021; the equivalent of a 1% increase in annualised basic salaries to be used as a sectoral bargaining fund, in accordance with chapter 2 of the agreement, on 1 February 2022; and a general round increase in annualised basic salaries for all public servants of 1% or €500, whichever is greater on, 1 October 2022.

The Government remains fully committed to addressing pay and conditions in the Defence Forces and this is reflected in the programme for Government. This provided for the establishment of a commission on the Defence Forces, which was established on the 15 December 2020. After completion of the commission’s work, I will consult the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the establishment of a permanent pay review body for the Defence Forces.

I know there are problems with recruitment and retention across the Defence Forces. I am very aware of these and we are working on them. It is not true to say there has been no progress on pay and allowances. There has been considerable progress is many areas. We need to do more and we will continue to look at those issues. We have to assess the recruitment and retention issues in the round. Pay and allowances are part of that but other factors must also be taken into account.

We are great at lauding the Defence Forces of this country, and we rightly laud them. The Minister referred to some special allowances but they are allowances and not basic pay. Most of the other increases he announced will be given to the public service in general. That does not address the fundamental issue.

The Minister correctly pointed out earlier that the Defence Forces are unique. They are not compatible with the public service in general. For example, members of the Defence Forces cannot strike, as the Minister pointed out, but they do not get overtime either. They are, therefore, in a totally different category. By saying they are included in the public service agreements seems to indicate that we will talk about it but we will not recognise that there is a special underlying issue that needs to be addressed here.

The Minister talked about setting up a special group to look at the pay of the Defence Forces. Can he give an indication of when that will be set up, when it will likely submit a final report and when decisions will be made on it?

There is a commission on the future of the Defence Forces which, as part of its remit and terms of reference, will look at pay structures and allowances for the Defence Forces. What we have committed to in the programme for Government is that on the back of what the commission reports to me before the end of the year, I will consult the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath, on the setting up of an independent pay review body for the Defence Forces. The reason for this is the uniqueness, as Deputy Ó Cuív outlined and as I referred to earlier, of serving in the Defence Forces, members' inability to strike and get involved in political lobby and so on.

Serving in the Defence Forces is unique in the public service and requires an independent pay review body that will not just report on a single occasion but will be permanent and will assess pay issues in the Defence Forces each year. That is what the Government has committed to and I look forward to being able to deliver on that.

An international ruling was given that PDFORRA should be allowed to affiliate with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. I do not think anybody wants this to be adjudicated in a court in this country. The Minister stated he had some difficulties with this. Will he outline what those difficulties are? Will he clarify whether he is considering changing the age limits for members of the Defence Forces or intends extending them? There are serious issues that must be addressed. Will he clarify exactly what the problems are?

On the ICTU affiliation issue, I must be careful in what I say because there is a legal action potentially under way in relation to that. What we are trying to do is reflect the fact that people who serve in the Defence Forces are, in many ways, part of a unique service. They take an oath to the State and commit to not getting involved in industrial action, so they are in a different category.

We need to make sure we put structures in place to recognise that and to ensure that people serving in the Defence Forces are protected in that context. There are different ways of doing that. PDFORRA would contend that the best way of protecting the interests of the Defence Forces is through affiliation with ICTU, particularly around public sector pay negotiations and so on, but there are different views on whether that is the best way to protect the interests of Defence Forces personnel. The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, takes a different view, for example. We are looking at both. I have an open mind. I have not ruled out anything. It is not as straightforward as some people maintain.

On the second issue, we spoke about that a lot earlier in some of the previous questions. We have a review coming close to an end on retirement age within the Defence Forces. I hope to be able to bring those recommendations soon.

Question No. 14 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 15 answered with Question No. 8.
Question No. 16 answered with Question No. 6.
Question No. 17 answered with Question No. 7.

We are right up against the clock but if Deputy Clarke would like to put the question, I will ask the Minister to supply a written response, if that suits her.

Defence Forces

Sorca Clarke

Question:

18. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence if he and his Department will engage with an organisation (details supplied) and other representative bodies in the Defence Forces on pay and conditions for serving members, many of whom are experiencing a housing crisis while living on or close to the poverty line; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25111/21]

That is perfect. I ask the Minister and his Department to engage with the representative bodies, particularly on the experiences serving members are having due to the housing crisis. They are at the pin of their collar. Many live close to if not on the poverty line because of ever-increasing and exceptionally high rents. This is the number one housing issue that comes through my Athlone office, which is very close to Custume Barracks. I ask the Minister to engage with the representative bodies to see if a clear plan can be put in place to address this crisis, which will absolutely affect future numbers in the Defence Forces.

I ask the Minister to revert with a written response because we are against the clock.

I will come back to the Deputy in writing. I take her point. I talk to the representative bodies all the time and I will happily talk to them on this issue.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The scheme of Conciliation and Arbitration, C&A, for members of the Permanent Defence Force provides a formal mechanism for the determination of claims and proposals from the Permanent Defence Force Representative Associations, relating to remuneration and conditions of service and having regard to the provisions of public sector pay agreements.

Officials from my Department continue to work with the representative associations in a positive and collaborative process within the C&A scheme to resolve issues. There is also ongoing engagement on a regular basis between the official side and the representative side on a range of items which are processed through C&A.

The C&A scheme was independently reviewed in 2018, the outcome of the review containing a number of recommendations aimed at improving the efficiency of the scheme. Agreement was reached with the associations on a revised C&A scheme, incorporating the recommendations in the review, and came into operation in January 2020. Whilst agreement on all matters is never inevitable it is the case that the associations have delivered numerous positive benefits for their members through C&A.

Since my appointment as Minister with responsibility for Defence, I have also met with both Permanent Defence Force representative associations, RACO and PDFORRA, on three occasions: 17 July 2020, 20 October 2020 and 17 December 2020. I have also met with the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association on one occasion on 23 November 2020.

The Department of Defence does not have discretion to award separate pay increases. However, the stabilisation of the national finances following the financial crisis has led to improvements within the economy which have allowed the Government to restore pay to members of the Defence Forces and other public servants. This has been delivered in accordance with national public sector pay agreements. The focus of these increases has been weighted in favour of those on lower pay.

Some of the increases received in recent times on foot of the most recent pay agreement include a 2% increase on annualised salaries from 1 October 2020 and the restoration of the 5% cut in allowances imposed under the FEMPI legislation, restored from the same date. In addition to the general rounds of pay increases awarded, members of the Permanent Defence Force have also benefitted from the implementation of increases in Defence Forces allowances as recommended by the Public Service Pay Commission including a 10% increase in military service allowance.

While the minimum remuneration for trained personnel is comprised of basic pay and military service allowance, remuneration for individual members of the Permanent Defence Force is also dependent on a range of factors relating to the role and duties they perform. This can entail additional remuneration relating to technical pay, duty allowances or other special allowances.

Negotiations held in late 2020 on a new public service agreement lead to a new agreement, Building Momentum – A New Public Service Agreement 2021 – 2022,which has subsequently been ratified by the overwhelming majority of public sector unions. Should the representative associations accept this agreement, their members will benefit from further increases in pay. I look forward to further continued constructive engagement with the Defence Forces representative associations on that agreement, which I hope will be ratified by the associations.

The programme for Government provided for the establishment of a Commission on the Defence Forces which was established on 15 December 2020. Upon completion of the commission's work, I will consult with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the establishment of a permanent pay review body, reflecting the unique nature of military service in the context of the public service.

Questions Nos. 19 to 62, inclusive, replied to with Written Questions.