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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 27 Jan 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 1

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Pension Provisions

Bernard Durkan

Question:

96. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the number of situations that have arisen in which members of the Defence Forces who were injured in the course of their duties and subsequently awarded damages by the courts are now having the value of the awards recovered by way of reduction in their pensions; if it is recognised that such steps to recover moneys is arbitrary; if the full extent of these situations will be re-examined as a matter of urgency; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3875/22]

This is an old chestnut. I have raised questions about this many times over the years. It relates to former or retired members of the Defence Forces who had been awarded damages in respect of injuries incurred during their service. They are now having the awards recovered, in whole or in part, by a reduction in their pension entitlements. I feel that this is wrong and I ask the Minister to address it.

I thank the Deputy. The Army Pensions Acts provide for the grant of pensions and gratuities to former members of the primary Defence Forces in respect of permanent disablement due to a wound or injury attributable to military service, whether at home or abroad, or due to disease attributable to, or aggravated by, overseas service with the United Nations. Section 13(2) of the Army Pensions Act,1923, as amended, provides that:

Any compensation which may be received from or on behalf of the person alleged to be responsible for the act which caused the wounding […] may be taken into consideration in fixing the amount of any pension, allowance or gratuity which might be awarded under this Act to or in respect of such person. If such compensation is received after the award of any such pension or allowance, the Minister may review the award and, having regard to the amount of such compensation, either terminate or reduce the amount thereof.

The underlying objective of section 13(2) is to prevent double compensation in respect of the same disablement. Compensation of the kind in question would usually result from a civil action for damages against the Department of Defence but compensation received from any other source is not excluded. The provisions do not apply to disability pension cases related solely to disablement due to disease attributable to or aggravated by overseas service with the UN. They apply only to wound pension cases involving a wound or injury or where disease is secondary to the wound or injury.

There are currently 1,011 disability pensions of all categories in payment, of which 275 relating to injury or wound pensions have had a reduction under section 13(2) applied. There have been a number of key cases both at Supreme Court and High Court levels involving section 13(2) and the procedures in place relating to individual cases take account of these judgments. The courts, in various judgments, have upheld the Minister’s statutory right to take into consideration that part of the damages which can properly be regarded as general damages or that part which can properly be regarded as referable to loss of earnings, as he or she considers proper. The reduction of these pensions-----

I will come back in again. This is clearly quite a complex legal area-----

-----but I will do what I can to get as much clarity as possible.

I thank the Minister. This practice is grossly unfair and arbitrary. The fact that it has proceeded as it has for so long is unfortunate. The question that arises immediately is whether the courts erred in the first stage. To my mind, they could not have erred. Even though cases have been referred back to the courts on the basis of the situation, this issue prevails. It is totally outrageous that an award made by the courts is arbitrarily undermined, questioned and turned on its head by a decision, enabled by this Act, that part of the award made by the courts be recovered when the member of the Defence Forces is at a more vulnerable stage, that is, when in receipt of his or her military pension. I ask the Minister for a thorough investigation into this matter with a view to changing the situation.

The response I have here states that it is clear that the reduction of these pensions is not arbitrary. It is provided for under legislation and is done on foot of a bona fide decision by the Minister after careful consideration of the specific circumstances of the individual case. The person or his or her solicitor is advised of the statutory provisions and of the potential implications of his or her application. Representations are invited regarding the person's circumstances, details of the compensation actually received and whether there are any special or extenuating circumstances involved. On receipt of representations, cases are submitted to the Minister for decision, setting out the relevant facts of the case, including details of the representations made and an actuarial assessment in pension cases. The actuarial assessment, which is carried out by an actuary based in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, translates the compensation into an annuity value based upon various assumptions, including the date the money was received and the life expectancy of the individual. Full account is then taken of representations made and the actuarial assessment before a final decision is made by the Minister. There are no plans to discontinue the application of this statutory provision at this time. There is a process where cases are looked at on an individual basis. Extenuating circumstances are looked at and a recommendation is made to the Minister for his or her decision.

I accept that is the practice but I do not accept the validity of the practice and I believe it needs to be changed. This section of the Act is repugnant to the Constitution. Why are all awards made by the courts not challenged by whoever happens to be the payer of the pensions to the individuals concerned at a later stage? It is totally wrong that this would continue. It has caused severe hardship to an awful lot of people. The Department is effectively stating again and again that these people should not really have had an award in the first place and that it has the right to second-guess the courts and decide of its own accord that it will take back the equivalent value through a reduced pension in the future. I urge the Minister to undertake an urgent reappraisal with a view to changing this practice. It is wrong, unfair and archaic.

I will again outline the purpose of the legislation as it was put together. The underlying objective of section 13(2) is to prevent double compensation in respect of the same disablement. That is what it is specifically trying to do. Compensation of the kind in question would usually result from a civil action for damages against the Department of Defence but compensation received from any other source is, of course, not excluded. If somebody takes a civil case against the Department for injuries or disablement linked to their time in the Defence Forces, that is factored in in the context of compensation they may have been previously granted as part of a pension entitlement. This provision is about trying to ensure there is not double compensation as a result of that. That is the purpose of the section. I understand the point the Deputy is making and that is why extenuating circumstances or individual circumstances linked to cases can be taken into account by the Minister when he or she has to make a final decision on the back of the actuarial recommendation and calculation that comes to his or her desk.

Defence Forces

Barry Cowen

Question:

97. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Defence when he expects the numbers in the Defence Forces to reach 9,500; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3768/22]

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

99. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Defence the proportion of commissioned officers in the Defence Forces that have less than five years’ experience; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3770/22]

John Lahart

Question:

103. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Defence the number of new recruits it is planned to recruit in the Defence Forces in 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3819/22]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

111. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the extent to which the strength of the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps is being kept up to what is deemed to be the optimum; that any reviews do not result in a reduction in strength given the various duties and services provided by the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3876/22]

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

120. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Defence the current level of turnover or churn amongst Defence Forces personnel; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3771/22]

My question is about the proportion of commissioned officers in the Defence Forces who have less than five years' experience. The Minister will be aware of the importance of ensuring we have sufficient experience within the commissioned officer ranks of the Defence Forces. What is the proportion and does the Minister have concerns if the proportion of officers who have that level of experience is declining?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 97, 99, 103, 111 and 120 together. There are several Deputies here so I hope the Acting Chairman will give me some latitude when answering these questions.

As of 31 December 2021, the strength of the Permanent Defence Force was 8,468 personnel, or 89% of the agreed establishment of 9,500. While the Government remains committed to returning to, and maintaining, the agreed strength of each branch of the Defence Forces, there are a number of factors, many of which are hard to predict, that will impact on the timeframe within which this will be achieved. In addition to a range of measures already undertaken to address the staffing issues, the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, which is currently being finalised, will also address this matter directly.

As regards current recruitment initiatives, general service recruitment is ongoing and resulted in 576 personnel being inducted in 2021. The level of turnover in the Defence Forces in 2021 was 7.89%, which includes those in training. It is worth noting that the average turnover rate for general service recruits who do not complete training, for a variety of reasons, has been approximately 30% over the past number of years. On the question raised by Deputy O'Callaghan, some 31% of commissioned officers have been inducted in the past five years.

In addition to ongoing recruitment, the scope of direct entry competitions, along with the terms and conditions, continues to be expanded and revised to improve intake. The re-entry campaign for former members of the Permanent Defence Force continues. The service commitment schemes in both the Air Corps and Naval Service and a special Naval Service tax credit for seagoing personnel are examples of targeted retention measures that I have introduced.

There has been significant progress on pay, arising out of increases due from recent pay agreements, the most recent of which was a 1% increase on annualised salaries or €500, whichever is the greater, on 1 October last year, with further increases to follow.

Additionally, the Public Service Pay Commission, PSPC, report on recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces made a range of recommendations with a view to addressing recruitment and retention issues. These have been progressed through a series of projects. While the 2022 recruitment plan is not yet finalised, the Defence Forces remain committed to optimising the number of personnel inducted.

I am confident that along with all other initiatives under way, the pay benefits delivered by the public service pay agreements, in tandem with the implementation of the PSPC recommendations, will improve recruitment and retention challenges currently experienced by the Permanent Defence Force.

Furthermore, the Commission on the Defence Forces is finalising its work with a view to completing the report as soon as possible. The commission's report, when submitted, will be fully considered at that point. There is, as one would expect, a very strong emphasis on recruitment, retention and HR within the Defence Forces in its terms of reference.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Recruitment and retention are considerably important issues in the Defence Forces. The focus of my question was to try to identify the proportion of commissioned officers who have more than five years' experience. The Minister was at the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, conference last year and he probably heard its general secretary state that 24% of personnel in the Defence Forces had less than five years' experience but 35% of officers had less than five years' service.

This is linked to the question of recruitment and retention and it is important we try to ensure that we retain experienced officers within the Defence Forces. Experience matters a great deal, especially in areas such as defence of the country. I am not suggesting that inexperienced people do not have an important role to play, but it is important to have that body of experience among commissioned officers in the ranks of the Defence Forces. I ask the Minister whether any other options are available to ensure we can retain those commissioned officers.

The Deputy highlighted an important area. The way in which we solve the recruitment and retention issues in the Defence Forces will not simply be through a large intake in a very short space of time, because that has consequences from the perspective of training, command and control, experience and so on. That is why we have an ongoing discussion with the Defence Forces and the Chief of Staff and his team, on how we can maximise the number of people coming in each year and, at the same time, ensure we have appropriate training procedures to ensure we maintain the skill sets and leadership we need within the Defence Forces to deliver on what is asked of them.

The figure I gave was that 31%, rather than 35%, of commissioned officers have been inducted in the past five years. Either way, it is approximately one in three officers and we need to make sure we hold on to the experience in the Defence Forces, where possible. The direction of travel the commission report will provide in terms of certainty, ambition and resources may well, I hope, encourage many people to stay in the Defence Forces for longer and, in doing so, hold on to that very important experience.

We have very significant skill sets within the Defence Forces. Sometimes those skill sets are targeted from outside and people are headhunted out of the Defence Forces, be they pilots, engineers, cybersecurity experts or drivers. We need to try to make sure that what drives people to join the Defence Forces remains burning in them in terms of their willingness to stay and serve their country. A series of factors need to be taken into account for that.

I am concerned there might be an intention, as has happened in the past, in some quarters to reduce the strength of the Defence Forces on the basis that we do not need them in a modern economy. We do need them. They provide a very important service. They provide emergency services at all times, coastal surveillance and they also respond to natural disasters. They are relied upon to do these jobs and be there for the citizens of this country. Will the Minister ensure, notwithstanding the review currently under way, that there will be no attempt to reduce the strength of the Army, Naval Service or Air Corps in order that they will be in a position to provide services in the future, as they have done in the past?

All I can say to the Deputy on that is we will not have to wait for much longer to get recommendations from a very experience group of people, led by a very able former Secretary General of the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Justice and Equality. I would be very surprised if they recommended a reduction in numbers in any of the services within the Defence Forces. In fact, I expect it will be quite the opposite.

We have capacity challenges and problems that need to be addressed throughout all three sectors of the Defence Forces - Naval Service, Air Corps and Army. We are investing significantly at the moment but I look forward to a debate on the back of that report, which will outline the levels of ambition required for Ireland to respond in a comprehensive and necessary way to the defence challenges every sovereign country needs to face up to. Historically, that discussion has sometimes been too confined in the context of the defence debate in Ireland and I hope the commission report will allow us to break out of that.

We are over time and we still have speakers to come in on this.

I was due to substitute for Deputy Cowen with a question, but I will make a brief comment instead. My question was on when we will meet 9,500 target strength in the Permanent Defence Force. I completely agree with the Minister about the synergies in terms of private sector employment people can take up after serving in the Defence Forces. People have an opportunity to serve their country, train and perhaps educate themselves and then go on into the private sector to contribute to their country in different ways. That model always worked and it provides us with a strong skill set, especially in the tech and communications sectors. However, the difficulty now is that what might have been a stint of ten or 15 years, or even longer, in the Defence Forces before going into a senior, management, engineering or technical role in one of those organisations has become a few years, with people being moved on before they have had the opportunity to contribute to the country.

Members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence visited Haulbowline recently and heard first-hand the experience of many being recruited into the private sector and leaving, after having been trained up and invested in. It is very demoralising for all involved and particularly in light of the threatened events off the coast, it is critical the Naval Service, along with all the others, has the resources it needs.

I absolutely understand those arguments. As someone who regularly visits the naval base and other military barracks, I am very familiar with the fact that talented people in the Defence Forces are being enticed all the time out of the Defence Forces and into other jobs. If one looks at where the economy going and the prediction to create another 167,000 jobs, which I think was the estimate this week, there is considerable talent in the Defence Forces that the private sector may well look to target. We have to make sure there is a very attractive proposition to stay in the Defence Forces in terms of personal development, training, certainty on income and, of course, the rewards of serving one's country. The HR and management issues relating to that are addressed in the commission's report.

As the Deputy has said, the issues that are currently being debated outside of this House, in terms of Russian military exercises off the Irish coast and the tension that has being building in the Russia-Ukraine situation, highlight the need for Ireland to have an honest and full debate in terms of capacity issues around defence and I look forward to having that discussion.

Time is against us. I propose the Deputies ask one supplementary question each and the Minister wrap up.

Something we need to look at is the mandatory retirement age. Part of the reason people are leaving the Defence Forces is because they know they will have to retire between the ages of 56 and 60. At that age, many people are just getting into their prime - I think of Deputy Durkan here beside me. Could the Minister imagine if there was a requirement in politics that people had to retire between the ages of 56 and 60?

Deputy Durkan still has not reached his prime.

We would lose some of the best wisdom we have in the House. That needs to be looked at again. If people know they will have to retire at 56, they will start making plans for their careers in their 40s and we will lose great wisdom.

Obviously, I entirely agree with my colleague's remarks, but there is a serious security issue as well that needs to be borne in mind in the course of this debate. We have had crises in the Defence Forces due to the shrinking of numbers and the failure to replace them for various reasons. We must put in place whatever provisions are necessary to ensure we retain numbers in the Defence Forces. This is a vital service. In war or in peace, we rely upon the Defence Forces in emergencies. We will continue to rely upon them in the future. That means we must have people who are committed, people who have long-term service as well as new recruits. Most important, if there are issues causing obstacles, we must identify them, deal with them, and try to ensure they are removed from the debate so that we continue to have a standing Army that is effective, efficient, modern and willing to continue to give the services it has given.

On the image of Deputy Durkan being in the Defence Forces, while the retirement age issues are something we have been considering and, as Deputy Brady and others will be aware, we managed to get agreement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in terms of the post-1997 contracts issue for the vast majority of people who have been impacted by that, and I hope to be able to conclude those discussions to ensure everybody is accommodated in that regard, we will continue to have that discussion. That is a discussion that is happening outside of the Defence Forces as well. We must remind ourselves as well that serving in the Defence Forces is different from other modes of employment. If you are stationed in Mali, UNIFIL in southern Lebanon, on the Golan Heights or in any other part of the world on a peacekeeping mission, physical fitness is linked to age as well. We need to be cautious here, but, of course, we also work with the representative bodies in the Defence Forces to ensure the appropriate retirement age is being applied.

On the next group of questions, I ask colleagues for a bit of co-operation as there are many speakers trying to come in on this and we have limited time.

Defence Forces

Emer Higgins

Question:

98. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Defence the progress made at addressing the serious concerns arising from the experiences of some members of the Defence Forces, in particular, women serving and retired; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3639/22]

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

102. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the progress at combating all types of harassment in the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3628/22]

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Question:

113. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Defence the progress at tackling inappropriate behaviour in the Defence Forces arising from concerns raised in 2021 by a number of serving and retired personnel; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3645/22]

Catherine Connolly

Question:

122. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Defence further to Question No. 92 of 18 November 2021, the status of the independent review to examine the effectiveness of the policies, systems and procedures currently in place for dealing with bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Defence Forces; the details of his engagement with a group (details supplied) to date in 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3920/22]

Mick Barry

Question:

124. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the contacts he has had with a group (details supplied); his views on the demands made by the group to take a stand against a culture of sexism in the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3918/22]

Thomas Gould

Question:

146. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the date of his last meeting with a group (details supplied). [3963/22]

This series of questions is about the response to the serious concerns arising from the experiences of members of the Defence Forces, particularly women. I acknowledge the Minister has given a detailed answer to Deputy Clarke already under priority questions. My focus is on the independence of the measure the Minister proposes, whether the chair will be free to write about the scale of co-operation she has received in her work, and the speed with which that can be done.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 98, 102, 113, 122, 124 and 146 together.

As I outlined earlier to the House, on Tuesday last, following Cabinet approval, I announced the establishment of a judge-led independent review group to examine issues relating to sexual misconduct, bullying, harassment and discrimination in the Defence Forces.

The overall aims of the review are to advise on whether the current legislative frameworks, policies, procedures and practices for addressing incidents of unacceptable behaviour in the workplace are effective; independently assess whether the pervading culture in the workplace is fully aligned with the principles of dignity, equality, mutual respect and duty of care for every member of the Defence Forces; and provide recommendations and guidance on measures and strategies required to underpin a workplace based on dignity, equality, mutual respect and duty of care for every member of the Defence Forces. This independent review is seen as a critical and vital next step to ensure the workplace for serving members of the Defence Forces is safe, where there is zero tolerance of unacceptable behaviour and where we learn from historical experience.

My Department and I have engaged extensively in recent months with the Women of Honour group and with other stakeholders, including both serving and former members of the Defence Forces, the representative associations, PDFORRA, RACO, and the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association, RDFRA, and with a second group representing former members.

These engagements have brought serious issues to my attention, which indicate it is not just an historic issue we are dealing with. Incidents of alleged unacceptable behaviour are continuing to occur. Current and former members of the Defence Forces have been clear that the culture that is pervading and the application of those policies, systems and procedures for dealing with unacceptable behaviour have not and are not serving all Defence Forces personnel well.

The most recent engagement with stakeholders took place on Tuesday afternoon last where I provided an update to stakeholders on the Government decision to proceed with the independent review. This was the seventh meeting, as I said earlier, at senior level that has been held with the Women of Honour group since last September, three of which I personally attended.

Current and former members of the Defence Forces have welcomed the review, and while I acknowledge the disappointment expressed by the Women of Honour group, which has been seeking a commission of inquiry, I am strongly aware of the need for immediacy of action to ensure the safety of serving Defence Forces personnel.

I want to be clear this does not preclude Government from considering further bodies of work that may be necessary. The review group has been specifically asked to advise on whether further work is required to examine issues of an historical nature and to make any recommendations regarding how this might be pursued.

The review group will provide me with an interim report in six months. A final report is expected within nine months. I will bring the final review report to Government, which may consider any further bodies of work that might be necessary, taking into account the findings of the independent review group. Thereafter, I intend to make the final review report public.

I wish to reiterate my commitment and that of the Secretary General and Chief of Staff to ensure every member of the Defence Forces can carry out his or her duties in a safe and respectful workplace based on dignity, equality and zero tolerance for any kind of unacceptable behaviour.

Having spoken to the chair of this review group who is a former High Court judge, I can assure Deputy Carroll MacNeill she will be insisting on full co-operation and I expect that will very much be in the report if she is not getting that co-operation. If there needs to be new structures that have compellability powers etc., I assure the Deputy she will have no hesitation in making those recommendations if so needed.

That is the key point for me, that she is free to express whether she has received co-operation. That is one of the key concerns around a statutory inquiry or otherwise.

I ask the Minister to recognise, of course, in his capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, that today is Holocaust Memorial Day. It may have been marked by another Deputy in advance of me mentioning this. It is an opportunity to commemorate this event solemnly and the 6 million Jewish victims and other communities who were persecuted by Nazis. For the Minister for both Foreign Affairs and Defence, Deputy Coveney, with his European counterparts, it is an important part of preventing crimes against humanity and stopping antisemitism throughout Europe. I invite the Minister to recognise Holocaust Memorial Day in the Dáil today on such an important occasion.

I welcome the Minister's comments that if the chair of the commission feels there is a need for compellability, that will happen. That is the key process.

I regret very much the Women of Honour are not in negotiation with the Minister now and I urge him and the chair of the commission to engage with them. It is important given the clear suffering and harassment they endured and the appalling treatment they got that they would have confidence in the process.

On compellability, if somebody is asked by the judge to come before her and if that person does not turn up, that should automatically trigger compellability.

There can be no ands, ifs or buts about it. If they are called, they must go. I fully appreciate the efforts the Minister is making but I also appreciate the strong and determined resolution of the Women of Honour group to hold people to account, which is what he wants to do as well.

We are now in the crazy position where those who came forward in the documentary that was broadcast on public radio have indicated they will not participate in this independent review. The Minister stated a review is being set up to examine “whether the current legitimate frameworks, policies...are effective”. Clearly, they are not, which is why the women had to appear on radio. He stated it will “independently assess whether the pervading culture in the workplace is fully aligned with...dignity”. Clearly, it was not. Finally, the review will provide recommendations, and I have no difficulty with that.

We are setting up a toothless tiger with no power to look at policies and procedures that clearly failed the women, about which they, the independent monitoring mechanism and I have all told the Minister. Furthermore, I understand that last week, appearing before an Oireachtas committee, the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces, Mr. Justice Alan Mahon, asked for his remit to be extended in order that he could investigate harassment. Something is seriously wrong with this independent review.

Why did the Women of Honour group feel they had no alternative but to walk out of a meeting with the Minister on Tuesday? Does he agree that, one week after all the contributions in this House about a new culture of tackling sexism and misogyny, this is really not a good look for him or the Government? The women did not just leave the meeting quietly; they said afterwards that they felt they had been blaggarded and disrespected. They said they were not allowed to ask questions at the meeting or to have any input. They said the meeting was a fait accompli and a waste of their time. I want to hear the Minister's response to those points the women put forward.

There were a number of questions. Of course, I recognise Holocaust Memorial Day, and I will attend an event this afternoon, and another event on Sunday, to mark the Holocaust. I look forward to attending those events to mark the horrors of the Holocaust and to ensure it will not be forgotten in any way.

On the other questions that were asked, we are trying to get the balance right in respect of getting a report with recommendations that have teeth in order that I, along with the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General, can begin the process of implementing those recommendations on the ground before the end of the year. I did take advice on whether I should set up a commission of inquiry and was advised against that by a number of people who are very credible in this space. Many have endorsed the approach I am taking and I am being advised on the journey to get there. Of course, I regret that women in the Women of Honour group have not welcomed the fact we are setting up a review and instead wanted a commission of inquiry. I hope they will talk to Judge O'Hanlon and her review group and will get reassurance from that.

Nevertheless, I point out to those women and everyone in this House that, if the independent review makes a recommendation for setting up a commission of inquiry or some other structure to deal with historical cases, or for compellability to get answers in certain areas, we will act on that, and we will have those recommendations by the end of the year. My fear was that, if we had set up a commission of inquiry, the process would have become a legal one very quickly and may well have gone on for two or three years, and I would not be back before this House with recommendations before the end of the year to act on. My motivation and bona fides here are solely on the basis of listening to all the groups I have spoken to. It is driven by a duty of care I have to the 600 women who are employed in the Defence Forces today, who are very anxious that I get on with this job of reform-----

Those women support the Women of Honour group.

-----and get recommendations.

I certainly do not want to drive any form of division. I have absolute respect for the Women of Honour group. We met for one hour, after which the meeting concluded. I am available at any point to meet the group again, should they want to meet, and to answer any questions they may have. I hope, as I said, that this new review group will be able to build a relationship with this group of women, who have shown extraordinary courage to be able to highlight these issues and drive change in the Defence Forces.

It is important, when somebody makes a complaint about harassment or any other form of bullying or unwanted activity, that the person has the capacity to have that raised, heard and acted on quickly. Speed is one of the most important factors in respect of being heard, having access to justice and having the matter resolved quickly.

I welcome the Minister's availability and his commitment to meeting with the Women of Honour group and to engaging with the chairperson. We all have the same objective. We want change and accountability, sooner rather than later. Obviously, I do not speak for the Women of Honour group, but we need to ensure they will be satisfied. If there were a commitment at the meeting with the chairperson that the matter would be looked at objectively, which will be the case, there could be a parallel process. Some of the issues the Minister raised are different from those a commission of inquiry could examine, particularly in the case of historical circumstances, individuals, processes or matters that were separate to changes that are needed now and into the future. There is room for negotiation and action in that regard.

I have the most serious concerns about what is happening. I have no concerns about the judge, and I ask the Minister not to waste my time telling me how good she is. I know the judge, and that goes without saying. My difficulty relates to setting up an independent review with no power and no terms of reference published, and the terms we know about from the Minister's press release beggar belief. I refer to the suggestion the review will examine strategies and policies that have utterly failed. That is an insult.

The press release indicates that witnesses can come forward. We saw how witnesses came forward to the formal commission of inquiry and all the problems that entailed. How will witnesses' testimony be treated when they come forward? Will their experiences be recorded? Will they be quoted in the report and so on? That was missing from the press release. Where are the terms of reference and who has had an input into them? Can we see what they are and return to them? A review with no statutory authority is being set up and Deputies are standing up and saying we need urgent action, but the urgent action has never happened. There is a litany of utter failure by the system and the governance that are there. We want to know why that happened, not to look at idiotic policies that were never enforced. Why and how did this happen?

The Minister knows how serious these allegations are. For example, one woman with 31 years' service has stated that 27 of those years were stained with harassment, bullying and inappropriate remarks. She has also said she suffered an attempted rape. These women want a statutory inquiry. They want the power to compel witnesses. They want to see the men who did these things to them be made to answer questions. They want an inquiry that can access documents. I support their call 100%. It is a shame the Minister is not doing that, not in the dim and distant future but now.

Will he explain how he thinks he can organise an effective review that gets to the bottom of these issues and allegations given the victims have decided not to participate, because they have no faith in what he is doing? Will he explain how the hell he thinks he can make that work?

First, the whole point is I am not making that work. This is not a review that is being undertaken by the Department of Defence. It is a review being undertaken independently, with an independent chair, a former High Court judge, and a very experienced HR reform consultant, who has spent the last 12 months looking at some of these issues already through her work with the Commission on the Defence Forces. The whole point is to take it out of the Department of Defence, the Defence Forces and, quite frankly, the political sphere and to ask an experienced group of people to consult widely having been given broad terms of reference with which they are happy. We have learned from other countries in a context of those other countries responding to these issues in their defence forces to try to ensure we have terms of reference that are broad and based on international experience as well as our own.

I know Deputy Connolly says we should not raise the issue of the competence of the judge. I have spoken to the judge and she is satisfied from the terms of reference that she will be able to do a substantial piece of work. Of course, if there are problems along the way, I will hear about that and we will have to make changes, and if she recommends new structures, then we will respond to that too. The whole point is to try to get recommendations back to me and to Government so we can act on those as soon as possible. We hope to be able to do that and to have an interim report in the summer and a final report before the end of the year, which is what we are trying to do.

After all the fine speeches last week, we have to listen to that. It is unreal.

Question No. 99 answered with Question No. 97.

Defence Forces

Kieran O'Donnell

Question:

100. Deputy Kieran O'Donnell asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the investment in equipment for the Defence Forces as part of the five-year equipment development plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3916/22]

I would like an update on the investment in equipment for the Defence Forces. This is part of the five-year development plan launched in 2020. In that context, the Minister made reference to Russian aircraft off the coast of Ireland and developments and speculation in that area. Have we now reached a point where we as a country need to invest in the development of radar surveillance capability, in particular a primary radar system? Do we need to put money into that and is it being considered under the investment programme? I would like an update on the equipment investment programme. Do we now need to make that substantial investment?

My priority as Minister for Defence is to ensure the operational capacity of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service is maintained and developed. This is to enable the Defence Forces to carry out the roles assigned by Government, as set out in the White Paper on defence. Equipment priorities for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service are being considered in the context of the lifetime of the White Paper on defence as part of the capability development and equipment development planning, EDP, process. Further additions to the equipment development plan are under consideration.

The Department of Defence has received a capital allocation under the national development plan of €566 million over the 2022 to 2025 timeframe. Within that capital allocation, the defence annual capital budget for 2022 is €141 million. Over recent years the capital budget has also been augmented through the reallocation of pay savings and, due to the numbers being below the establishment, we were effectively able to recommit that unspent money to the capital budget.

There are a number of defensive equipment acquisition and upgrade projects for which there will be capital expenditure in the coming years. These include the midlife upgrade of the Army's fleet of 80 Mowag Piranha III armoured personnel carrier vehicles, which is well under way, as well as the completion of the delivery of an additional 30 armoured utility vehicles. The Army's softskin fleet continues to be updated also, with more than 220 vehicles due for delivery in 2022.

In regard to air-based capability, the programme for the supply of two C295 maritime patrol aircraft is well under way, with delivery of the aircraft expected in 2023. Alongside the recently acquired PC-12 aircraft, some €276 million, including VAT, has been committed to the acquisition of all these enhanced capabilities.

With regard to the Naval Service, the programme of works has been under way and the midlife refit and upgrade of the LÉ Róisín has been completed, while works have commenced on LÉ Niamh. The replacement of the flagship LÉ Eithne with a multi-role vessel, MRV, is an important element of the development investment programme. Marine advisers have been appointed to support the procurement of the MRV, and the replacement of other vessels is also under consideration.

An independent Commission on the Defence Forces was established in December 2020, as I mentioned. The work of the commission encompasses the consideration of appropriate military equipment capabilities, structures and staffing, and its report will inform decisions regarding the future development of the Defence Forces.

On the Deputy’s question on radar, that is certainly an issue under consideration. We have said that, subject to the availability of resources, we would look at that but it is not currently on the equipment enhancement plan. I suspect we may well get recommendations on that from the commission report.

When does the Minister expect the Commission on the Defence Forces to report? The issue of radar surveillance equipment is very much in focus with the public and generally.

We will probably have that commission report in the next two weeks, so we do not have to wait very long to get it.

Defence Forces

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

101. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Defence the progress made in implementing the mental health and well-being strategy for the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3629/22]

What progress has been made in implementing the mental health and well-being strategy for the Defence Forces?

I will have to give a quick answer as we are tight on time. The mental health and well-being strategy for the Defence Forces, which was launched by me on 2 December 2020, recognises the unique nature of the experience of military life in Ireland. The aim of the strategy is to provide a co-ordinated and effective mental health and support system for the personnel of the Defence Forces through the adoption of a series of measures between 2020 and 2023. Eight supporting objectives - governance, resilience, suicide, stigma, critical incident stress management, a comprehensive approach, military families and a model for clinical support - have been identified as essential components of the strategy to support the principal aim. It is intended that, at the end of 2023, mental health and well-being support within the Defence Forces will be delivered in a co-ordinated, multidisciplinary and directed manner that is designed to produce the best outcomes for the organisation and the military personnel and their families.

Question No. 102 answered with Question No. 98.
Question No. 103 answered with Question No. 97.
Question No. 104 replied to with Written Answers.

There is just time for Deputy John Brady to introduce Question No. 105.

Defence Forces

John Brady

Question:

105. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence if he will introduce a grading standard for facilities in which the failure to meet that standard would mean the Defence Forces would be obligated to source alternative accommodation for members that would at the very least meet a minimum standard given the substandard state of many Defence Forces accommodation facilities, in particular those in the Curragh; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3893/22]

I will get a written response from the Minister. On the Minister's watch and the Government’s watch, military accommodation continues to deteriorate. There are many substandard accommodation blocks, not just at the Curragh but throughout the State. The Minister needs to act. It is adding to the crisis within the Defence Forces and is leading to the continued haemorrhaging of members from the Defence Forces. We need to see a commitment to ensuring that, in the midst of a housing crisis, at least the basic minimum standard of accommodation can be provided for the people who are tasked to provide security to the State.

We have a standard we comply with on this.

The Minister might adhere to it.

We have a significant investment programme that is under way, spending tens of millions of euro on physical infrastructure, and we will continue that investment in the years ahead.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie.
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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