Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 12 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 1

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Question No. 4 is in the name of an Teachta Haughey, but he is not here. Question No. 5 is in the name of an Teachta Lawless.

I believe an Teachta Haughey's question was transferred to me.

I am not sure I have had notice of that.

I have an email the Deputy sent to the Ceann Comhairle's office yesterday, if that is of assistance.

Defence Forces

Seán Haughey

Question:

4. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Minister for Defence his response to the concern expressed in the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces that less than one third of the Reserve Defence Force’s strength is considered to be operationally effective; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23509/22]

Reserve Defence Force, RDF, personnel are an important part of the fabric of the Defence Forces. Concern was expressed in the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces that less than one third of the RDF is considered to be operationally effective. Will the Minister make a statement on that matter?

While I am on my feet, I will make a brief point. I heard Deputy Barry state that the Minister and the Government are committed to level of ambition 2, as set out in the commission's report. I absolutely salute that. I was delighted to hear that. The Government should go there and go even further, if it can. I just wanted to express that view as a side note. The more we can do for our Defence Forces and the greater their capabilities, the better.

That commitment to level of ambition 2 has not yet been confirmed by the Government. It is certainly my view, as Minister for Defence, that we have to be at least where the Commission on Defence Forces recommends that we need to be, rather than where we would like to be, to have at least a basic defence capacity. Let us not forget that the commission carried out its work and finalised its report before the war in Ukraine so the context has already changed. That is an important issue. Some of my colleagues in government are working with us on this. The party leaders will also have to consider these issues in the coming weeks.

The Reserve Defence Force has an establishment of 4,069. As of 31 March 2022, the effective strength of the Army Reserve is 1,380 and that of the Naval Service Reserve is 114, with 271 personnel in the First Line Reserve. These combined strengths account for 43% of the establishment figure, which is clearly not good enough. In order to qualify for retention on the effective strength of the Army Reserve and Naval Service Reserve, members must, in the course of each training year, satisfy certain obligations set out in section 39 of Defence Forces regulations. These include specified minimum attendance at RDF training activities. Members of the RDF who do not meet the specified training or attendance targets are classed as non-effective. The military authorities have advised that the substantive strength, inclusive of both effective and non-effective members, of the Army Reserve and Naval Service Reserve at the end of March was 1,616, with the effective strength accounting for over 92% of this total.  

The Deputy will be aware that the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces contains many detailed recommendations, including recommendations on the future structure and role of the RDF.  A process is under way to consider these recommendations in consultation with my ministerial colleagues and stakeholders. The intent is to revert to the Government with a proposed response and a high-level action plan in advance of the summer recess. It would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt the outcome of that process but I will say for the record that I am absolutely committed to revitalising the Reserve and getting it back up to its full establishment. I am committed to putting the resources in place to make sure that happens. Legislation has already been passed to change the Defence Acts 1954 to 2015 to allow the Reserve to serve overseas, which was not previously possible. I hope people have taken note of that signal of intent.

On the first point on the level of ambition, I welcome the Government's ongoing consideration of that matter. I note it has not been officially confirmed or decided yet and I encourage the Government to go to at least level 2. As the Minister said, the plan arose in the pre-Ukraine context and while many of us could see what was on the horizon globally, it is now beyond doubt. Some of those who opposed those plans used throwaway headline remarks, such as "Why does Ireland need fighter jets?" Another question I would put to some of those advocates is whether it is suggested that we should abandon our Atlantic coastline or that, by not escalating to level 2 or above, we should abandon our responsibilities across hybrid warfare and leave the shipping lines into Europe and Ireland exposed, including the transatlantic cables. There is all of that infrastructure and the significant maritime resource and footprint that we have across our coastline. We need aerial defences, naval defences and conventional defences. This is very important and I want to express my full support for the Government in doing that.

On the Reserve Defence Force, I know morale has been low and there have been some question marks around its activities. We have seen many non-traditional situations where the Defence Forces have been employed in recent years - everything from the big snow to the pandemic, and there was even a suggestion to use personnel at Dublin Airport recently to clear backlogs.

Tá an t-am caite. The Deputy will get another chance.

There is a very important place for the Reserve and it is important that we clarify that and give support and encouragement to those who serve.

On the level of ambition, the commission deliberately put this back to the Government, saying “Here is what we think you should do but, of course, it is your choice from a policy and budgetary point of view.” With regard to the language the commission has used, level of ambition 1 is essentially maintaining the status quo but getting the establishment up to where it needs to be – by the way, the commission thinks that would mean an increased expenditure of about €57 million a year - and the commission is very blunt in saying this is not good enough. The commission is made up of 15 defence experts, including those from academia, former military personnel and senior civil servants. It is a very experienced group of people. The commission's work is probably the most important defence document we have had in 50 years and I think it is a very credible evidence base for us to now act on. However, these are difficult choices for the Government because it involves a lot of money and, of course, there are a lot of competing interests for limited and finite financial resources. What is envisaged is a multi-annual commitment for the next five to ten years to get the Defence Forces to where they need to be in the context of this report and the evidence base that it provides and, of course, there is the international context that we are living in.

I agree with the Minister and I note those comments. It is a difficult choice for the Government but it is a very important strategic one, given our position in the emerging global structures and the threats and challenges that prevail. It is time that Ireland stood up and took its place among the nations of the world. I wish the Minister well in those deliberations and he has my support.

I thank the Deputy for that. I believe and hope I have the support of most parties in this House, even though sometimes we have a very abrasive political system here in terms of disagreement on policy and so on. I hope the vast majority in this House will support this because it will be for future Governments too and is not just about this Government. I hope we can listen to and take in what the commission has said to us because it is very direct and blunt. There is a need for fundamental modernisation, restructuring and cultural change in the Defence Forces. There is also a need for the Government to look in the mirror and ask whether we are giving the Defence Forces the resources they need to match what we are asking of them in terms of delivery of outputs, services, capacity and so on. The clear answer to that question from the commission is that, no, what we are asking of the Defence Forces versus how we are resourcing them is not matched and that needs to change.

It is a very fundamental core issue in terms of the functioning of the State, namely, basic defence capacity around protecting sovereignty. The context is what we are seeing at the moment in Ukraine and all that flows from that in terms of uncertainty, instability, tension, security considerations and so on. We are likely to see Finland announce today, if it has not already announced it, that it is going to apply for NATO membership. We are likely to see Sweden do the same in the next few days. We are not likely to do that any time soon, but we certainly need to make decisions in regard to our own security and defence arrangements and capacity and resourcing. It is as fundamental as that. Hopefully, we will be able to find a way of getting agreement across Government by the time we bring a memorandum to Government next month.

Defence Forces

James Lawless

Question:

5. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Defence if he will reinstate the instructors allowance for officers in the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23499/22]

The question concerns the instructors allowance in the Defence Forces, given the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, has made a submission advocating for its reinstatement. I know it was there historically but through various agreements, such as the Haddington Road agreement and so on, it was taken out at one stage. What is the view on its reinstatement?

I have some sympathy for that but I also need to put on the record what has happened here so it is clear from the Government's perspective. The Deputy may be aware that, with the agreement of RACO, the specialised instructors allowance for officers was bought out under the defence sector collective agreement of the public service agreement 2013-2016, which was the Haddington Road agreement. There was a negotiated buy-out, essentially, of that specialist instructors allowance under a pay round discussion and negotiation. While the May 2019 report of the Public Service Pay Commission on recruitment and retention in the Permanent Defence Force made a recommendation regarding Defence Forces allowances, it did not make any recommendation on the re-establishment of any allowances which were abolished under the Haddington Road agreement. Rather, the commission recommended that Defence Forces allowances, which were retained under the Haddington Road agreement but reduced above and beyond any reductions made under FEMPI, would have their reductions restored. Given that the specialised instructors allowance for officers was abolished rather than reduced, it was not encompassed by any recommendation of the commission. I point out that is not the Defence Forces commission but the previous commission.

In 2017, RACO submitted a claim to the conciliation and arbitration council of the conciliation and arbitration scheme seeking reinstatement of the specialist instructors allowance for officers. As the claim was a cost-increasing measure, under the terms of the pay agreement of the day, the Public Services Stability Agreement 2018-2020, the claim could not be considered. RACO has since reinstated this claim and the matter is being processed through the conciliation and arbitration scheme for members of the Permanent Defence Force. As discussions on the scheme are confidential to the parties concerned, I am constrained in what I can say. There was scope in the context of the current pay agreement, Building Momentum: A New Public Service Pay Agreement 2021-2022, to which RACO signed up, to have the matter of the restoration of the specialist instructors allowance considered under the sectoral bargaining element of that fund. RACO members chose a general pay increase instead.

I will come back with a more positive response because I do have some sympathy for this and I want to outline why I do.

I know the Minister is well aware of, and we have discussed in this Chamber and at the committee in the past, the issues of retention and the difficulties and challenges in maintaining the force, largely due to pay and remuneration and those bread-and-butter matters. The defence committee visited Haulbowline, the Curragh camp and other places, and we heard this from many front-line officers and personnel, who want to serve, are very proud to serve and enjoy their career, but are struggling to make ends meet. We are all aware of those challenges and it is a challenge for the country as a whole. It strikes me that the reinstatement of this allowance may be one among a palette of options that might go some way towards addressing this and might be useful in those negotiations.

While it is welcome and is extremely positive news that a minimum of 3,000 new personnel are required within the force to ramp it up again, instruction will be needed for all those new recruits and those instructors will have additional duties, as they have always had. I note that in a submission, either on the Haddington Road or Croke Park agreement, the Department of Defence acknowledged the responsibilities of an instructor as being above the normal required of such a grade and as qualification-based. The argument was made previously to retain the allowance, possibly during the negotiations on the Croke Park agreement. Therefore, the Department does acknowledge the time commitment and skills required. I ask the Minister to consider that.

I have had long discussions with RACO on this issue. It has repeatedly raised it with me and that is fair enough. It has a slightly different version of what happened to specialist instructors' allowances.

However, there is a broader question here that we must address. If we are going to be successful in recruiting the numbers we need to recruit and in maintaining standards in the Defence Forces, there will be a great deal of pressure on training within the Defence Forces in the context of upskilling and accommodating the numbers we have to bring into the Defence Forces over a relatively short period of time. The record over the last ten years or so in terms of recruitment and retention shows that we have an enormous challenge to add a net 3,000 to the Defence Forces over a number of years. That is going to put a lot of pressure on instructors in the Defence Forces. In that context, I believe we should look at this issue again to see how we can accommodate the concerns that have been raised by RACO.

I am satisfied with the response for now. The Minister is engaging with RACO and I accept that.

This is one of many issues on which we will have to work with the representative bodies. The scale of the reform, change, growth, expansion and investment that will have to be delivered in partnership between the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces will involve a great deal of disruption and change, all of it for the better. This is not about change that is downsizing for cost savings. It is the opposite. It is about upsizing in terms of capacity, people and resources. It is also about modernisation, change of culture and change of structure to make the Defence Forces more family-friendly, attractive and flexible for more people to join. However, all of that requires strong co-operation between me and my office, the Chief of Staff and his team and the representative bodies. It is hoped that we will be able to find a way forward on this issue in that context.

Defence Forces

John Brady

Question:

6. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence if he is prepared to meet with representative bodies of the Defence Forces on the issue of patrol duty allowance, the Naval Service tax credit and the sea service commitment scheme given the concerns of members of the Defence Forces that to date these initiatives have not worked; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23758/22]

Pay and conditions are key to addressing and stopping the haemorrhage of members from the Defence Forces and to trying to build a force that would be attractive for people to join. Allowances are part of the pay. There are key areas of concern with regard to particular allowances. There is the Naval Service tax credit, the sea-going service commitment scheme and the patrol duty allowance. Concerns have been raised time and again about those. What are the Minister's views? Have those concerns been addressed to the Minister? What actions will he take to address them?

The Defence (Amendment) Act 1990 and Defence Force Regulations S6 provided for the establishment of representative associations for members of the Permanent Defence Force. The associations that have since been established are RACO and PDFORRA. The conciliation and arbitration scheme 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.

Officials from my Department continue to work with the representative associations in a positive and collaborative process within the conciliation and arbitration 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 conciliation and arbitration.  Since my appointment as Minister for Defence, I have met with RACO and PDFORRA on numerous occasions. I will be meeting both representative associations again on 1 June next, when they will have the opportunity to raise any issues of concern. I may well meet them in advance of that on other issues.

I am acutely aware of the particular difficulties faced by the Naval Service in terms of recruitment and retention issues and of how the three schemes mentioned by the Deputy are an integral part of addressing these issues. As such, I welcome the opportunity to discuss any views the representative associations may have on the operation of these schemes at future meetings. I look forward to further continued constructive engagement with the representative bodies.

The Deputy is correct that we have introduced a number of schemes. We have increased the Naval Service tax credit. There is a patrol duty allowance and we have added the sea-going service commitment scheme to that. There are approximately 106 people on the sea-going commitment scheme. It is a popular scheme and more would like to be involved in it. I can return to the details of that.

Allowances paid to members of the Defence Forces are significantly less than those paid to members of other bodies such as customs officers and sea-fisheries patrol officers. On many occasions they are on the same operations and in the same ships, yet there is no parity. What people in the Defence Forces are seeking is parity across the board to ensure that issue is addressed.

With regard to the other schemes, only 30% of members are eligible for the commitment scheme. The Minister mentioned a figure of 106. More people want to avail of that but they are precluded from doing so because of the restrictions that have been put in place. That has seriously undermined the credibility of the scheme. That must be addressed. There is also the issue of taxation. Members of the Defence Forces are taxed in respect of many of these allowances whereas other members of the public sector are not. Again, all that people are seeking is parity. These are issues that have been highlighted time and again, but there must be action on them.

I am not sure it is fair to compare the work that customs officers do at sea with that of the Naval Service in terms of time at sea and so forth. It is quite different. However, I take the point. The truth is that it took us many months to negotiate the terms and conditions for the sea-going service commitment scheme because there was a legitimate concern in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that if everybody could avail of this, it would just be seen as a pay increase. We were looking for agreement on this at the same time as the last public sector pay round was under discussion. These things are not straightforward. It is not in my gift, as Minister for Defence, to simply just announce a scheme and start paying people more. We have to negotiate that with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, it has to be consistent with public sector pay policy and precedents can be set and so forth, so it was in that context. It is not so much that the scheme's credibility was undermined because the conditions were clear from the outset. Certainly, many more people would like to join the scheme if possible. The question is whether we can broaden the qualification criteria to allow more people into the scheme, which is something we are examining.

The Minister mentioned the Haddington Road agreement a number of times and also referred to the special training allowance. He said that was bought out. RACO and other representative bodies would contend that this is not the case. That is something that must be addressed because it is a major concern. These allowances were cut and unlike in other public sector areas where some allowances have been reinstated, they have not been restored for the Defence Forces. The specialised technician pay is another allowance that needs to be addressed and reinstated. If we are serious about making the Defence Forces a career path for members of the public to join, we must address all these issues.

Key to that is the right to affiliate with ICTU, and I welcome the Minister's announcement that there will be a decision next week. I hope it will be the right decision because that will be key to allowing the representative bodies to articulate in the room where these decisions are made and to ensuring their voices are heard and acted on.

What I said to the representative bodies and the General Staff is that we would seek to provide clarity on the issue of associate membership of ICTU in the context of public sector pay talks. The Deputy might note that we are dealing with that issue well in advance of bringing the memorandum to Government on the Commission on the Defence Forces, which made a recommendation on this issue.

We have separated that issue out because we know the timelines require us to provide clarity on it and justification for whatever decision I make. I want that decision made as soon as we can possibly make it, which will be in the first few days of next week. That is the commitment I have given to the representative bodies, and I intend following through on it.

On all of these schemes, it is a matter of negotiation. My job is to get as much as I possibly can for the Defence Forces within the confines of public sector pay policy more generally. That is what I do and I will continue to do it.

Defence Forces

Paul McAuliffe

Question:

7. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Defence the reason that current defence spending was 5% under profile at the end of April 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23508/22]

I was concerned to see that up to the end of April this year, defence spending was 5% under profile. I am conscious that the Minister has just said he wants to get as much money as possible for the Defence Forces. I commend him on that, but what is the reason for the fact that defence spending was 5% under profile up to the end of April 2022?

Vote 36, defence, was allocated a gross funding provision of some €836 million for 2022. This allocation provides for the pay and allowances of more than 10,400 public service employees, the upgrade and replacement of essential military equipment and infrastructure, ongoing Defence Forces operational and standing costs, as well as funding in respect of Civil Defence and the Irish Red Cross Society.

Gross expenditure to the end of April 2022 was some €230 million, representing 27% of the defence Vote allocation. This level of expenditure is some €14 million or 6% below profile and is broadly in line with comparable expenditure trends observed over recent years. My Department will continue to monitor expenditure on the Vote over the coming months and, at this stage, it is expected that the overall expenditure outturn will be substantially in line with the provision at year end.

I am very aware that there continues to be a shortfall between the current strength figures and those of the establishment and I remain committed to addressing the ongoing challenges in relation to recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces. In that regard, a range of actions has been taken to address these issues, which includes the 15 projects undertaken to facilitate the implementation of the Public Service Pay Commission report on recruitment and retention. Most of these projects have been completed, with others being considered in the context of wider public sector pay arrangements.

The overall pay allocation provided to the defence Vote is €545 million. In the event that any pay savings arise at year end, these savings, in accordance with Government accounting procedures and in agreement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, will be used to address other non-pay spending pressures throughout the Vote. I think we are the only Department that has that arrangement.

Defence was provided with a capital expenditure allocation of €141 million for this year. Progress on capital projects is reviewed on an ongoing basis and where any unforeseen delays arise on particular projects, other capital equipment and infrastructural projects are brought forward insofar as is possible. There are a significant number of ongoing defence equipment programmes. I have a list of them, which I will send on to the Deputy.

Obviously everyone in this House wants to see defence spending increase. There is a recognition that we need to spend much more money on our defence capacity, but the concern is that the money received is not all being spent. I listened carefully to the Minister's answer and I note what he says about the €836 million. It appears that part of the problem is that although we have a minimum requirement of 9,500 members of the Defence Forces, we are not getting up to those numbers. We are significantly below that figure, which is a contributing factor to this under-profile spend.

What can the Minister do to ensure he is not in a position whereby money being allocated to the Department is not being spent and must be sent back? Given that we all recognise that defence spending must be increased, it is disappointing that some of the funding has to go back because it is not being spent.

To be clear, we have no intention of giving money back at the end of this year. That is the reason we have an arrangement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We have a budget and Estimate for 9,500 personnel and when currently have money than we need to cover pay and conditions because we are just over 1,100 people short of where we should be. However, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform knows and understands that we are short and has effectively given us the flexibility to divert unspent money in the pay area into other areas. It could be used for capital costs or other current expenditure costs outside pay. We have used that facility to a significant extent in recent years and we will do so again this year. In the first half of the year, before we are sure of our recruitment and retention numbers, it sometimes looks as if an underspend will build up but we make up for that in the second half of the year.

While I welcome the fact that we are not giving back money, if it is the case that we are not spending the full amount allocated for pay because of a lack of recruitment, the amount of money the Department is entitled to get for capital projects or other forms of spending will probably be necessarily reduced. We must identify how we can get Army strength up to the 9,500 members we set as the minimum requirement. I know that is a difficult task and that pay is part of it but there must be other elements to recruitment as well. Part of the reform of the Defence Forces in the future will be how we make it more attractive for people to join them on the basis that there is a good career ahead of them. I do not know if the Minister has any proposals in that respect.

We have a whole suite of proposals coming down the track on that. Three chapters in the commission's report relate to how we treat people in the Defence Forces; how we manage them; transparency around promotions; complaints procedures and how they function; the cultural change that is needed; and the fact that many women in the Defence Forces do not feel safe and welcome, which must and will change. A whole range of factors contribute to the recruitment and retention challenge on which we need to deliver. Pay and conditions are part of it but the commission was very direct with me that these are certainly not the sole element on which we need to focus. While we need to address pay and conditions, we also need to look at other issues around modernising the Defence Forces, having much more success in terms of gender balance, making a career in the Defence Forces more flexible and family-friendly and taking a much more modern approach to how we manage people.

Defence Forces

Gary Gannon

Question:

8. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Defence the steps he will take to ensure the retention of personnel in relation to the announcement that the Defence Forces will increase by 3,000 staff; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23485/22]

Gary Gannon

Question:

20. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Defence the steps he will take to increase recruitment in the Defence Forces; the details of the steps he will take in relation to pay conditions and to improve morale in the Defence Forces given the announcement of an increase of 3,000 in Defence Forces staff. [23487/22]

My questions pertain to the announcement of the intention to increase the Defence Forces by 3,000 staff. That is a worthy endeavour which I hope we achieve. In the meantime, how is it intended to ensure we keep the staff we already have? We talk a lot about pay and conditions but what other steps does the Minister intend to take to ensure we keep existing Defence Forces staff?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 20 together.

As I have just outlined to Deputies Brady and Berry, the Permanent Defence Force is currently under strength by just over 1,000 personnel. The report of the Commission on the Defence Forces has made it clear that the level of ambition, LOA, for the Defence Forces must be elevated beyond that at which it is operating at the moment.

The report outlines three levels of ambition. LOA 1 is essentially proceeding as we are at present and trying to move back to a full establishment figure of 9,500. The commission has concluded that this would leave the Defence Forces unable to mount a credible defence of the State. LOA 2 would address specific priority gaps to improve on-island and overseas capabilities. LOA 3 would bring Ireland in line with other small neutral European countries in terms of spend.

I am on the record as saying that LOA 2 is the minimum we should aim for. This level of ambition will require an additional 2,000 personnel beyond the establishment figure of 9,500 and an increase in the defence budget of some 50%. When I gave those figures to the media in response to a question, it was not the case that I was announcing there would be an additional 3,000 staff; I was simply reflecting what the commission recommends. I have to get agreement across the Government that we can support that financially. I hope the Government will make such an announcement in the next six weeks or so but, as of now, it is simply a recommendation that I was reflecting in my commentary, and one which I regard as necessary.

The Defence Forces are responsible for recruitment. I have requested them to examine their recruitment practices and structures to facilitate this increase in numbers. This commission report also includes a consideration of issues relating to culture, recruitment and retention, working hours, work-life balance, training, promotion, diversity and a host of other matters, all of which will have an impact on job satisfaction and morale.

The Deputy has probably heard most of what I have in my answer, so I will answer him directly. One of the reasons I wanted to travel to barracks after barracks and talk to serving personnel is so that I could hear from them about their frustrations and concerns and how we could respond to them realistically while at the same time maintaining military discipline and structure. It has been a good exercise. The commission has given a clear recommendation that we need to have a head of transformation in the Defence Forces, and that person will be a civilian, not a military person, reporting directly to the Chief of Staff and working out of Defence Forces headquarters, to bring about the kind of cultural, structural and HR attitudinal change that is necessary within the Defence Forces for it to modernise and to make it a more attractive career choice for men and women in the future. We can learn lessons from what others have done internationally in this space. We are not the only country that is trying to make this change. Other countries have been very successful and other countries have made mistakes we need to learn from.

That is the kind of work we are doing at the moment. We have quite a large civil and military team working together to try to put an action plan in place that I can bring to Government that will be credible and that will justify increased expenditure.

I thank the Minister for his response. He has answered my question about the other factors, so I will go a bit further. In terms of the message Minister gave to media about the potential for the recruitment of a further 3,000 staff, what units would those staff be in? Could the Minister give us some sense of this? Would that be in the Defence Forces? Would it be in the civilian department? Would it be in the Department of Defence, for example, in terms of recruiting more specialised personnel? In terms of where the Minister perceive that recruitment going, where would those units be expanded?

We must first get up to the existing establishment number, which is 9,500. We are approximately 1,100 below that figure. I gave the figures earlier that we are short of in the navy, the Air Corps, which it is hoped will become the air force in a few months’ time, and the Army. We need to get back up to the establishment figure of 9,500. It is pretty self-evident where we are short there. The numbers are clear.

Beyond that, the commission recommends an extra 2,000 people. Seven hundred of those are for the Naval Service for a specific purpose. The commission recommends we have what is called double crewing on ships. We have a big problem at the moment with recruitment and retention in the Naval Service because many people do not want to spend weeks and weeks at sea every year, away from family and so on. It is a big ask. Even if we do reward it financially, it is a big ask. The recommendation is that we introduce what is called double crewing, which means people would not have to spend as long at sea and we would have crew turnover more frequently. Of course, that means significantly more personnel in the Naval Service.

Go raibh maith agat, a Aire.

There are increases in the Air Corps and in the Army also. There will be increased civilianisation within the Defence Forces, as there has been quite successfully in An Garda Síochána, for example.

A Theachta, an bhfuil tú sásta?

We have had much discussion with the Defence Forces around civilianisation, because we can recruit more quickly if people do not have to go through military training procedures and so on. We need to be careful with that because the Defence Forces operate on the basis of structure, discipline, common standards and so on. We need to ensure that if we introduce civilians into the Defence Forces, we do it in a targeted way that does not undermine military structures, efficiencies and so on. There is a role for that. Again, we can look at other militaries to see how that is being done, where certain specialties can be brought in either on contract or by bringing people in to fit into the Defence Force structures as civilians, just as we have seen in Garda stations, for example, with An Garda Síochána.

We need to have an open mind on all of this. We need to work with the Chief of Staff, with his team, with the Department of Defence and with the head of transformation to deliver the numbers we need to deliver over the next few years.

Defence Forces

Mick Barry

Question:

9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the measures taken to challenge sexism and bullying in the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23820/22]

Catherine Connolly

Question:

11. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Defence further to Question No. 457 of 22 March 2022, 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 terms of reference for the review; the details of any monthly reports received by him to date from the review group; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23675/22]

Catherine Connolly

Question:

32. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Defence further to Question No. 458 of 22 March 2022, the terms of reference 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 correspondence that he has received to date from the review group in relation to interim assessments or recommendations addressing issues for immediate action; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23676/22]

An chéad ceist eile is in the name of Deputy Barry, who is not here. The question is grouped with Questions Nos. 11 and 32. I call Deputy Connolly to pose her question.

Will the Minister give an update on the status of the independent review to examine the effectiveness of the policy systems and procedures currently in place for dealing with bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Defence Forces? That in itself is a mouthful in relation to the Defence Forces. I am looking for an update on reports and communications with the review.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9, 11 and 32 together.

I thank the Deputy for asking this question and I know she has spoken regularly about this topic. As the Deputies are aware, following the Government decision on 25 January last, I announced the establishment of a judge-led independent review to examine issues relating to bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual misconduct, as well as workplace culture, in the Defence Forces. This is seen as a critical step in ensuring that there is a zero-tolerance approach to unacceptable behaviour for serving members of the Defence Forces.

There are three aims of the independent review, the first of which is to advise on whether the current legislative frameworks, policies, procedures and practices for addressing incidents of unacceptable behaviour in the workplace are effective. The second is to assess independently 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. The third is to provide recommendations and guidance on the 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.

I have received three monthly reports to date from the chair of the review group outlining the progress of the review to date. I look forward to further monthly reports, in line with the terms of reference, including any interim assessments or recommendations on addressing any issues arising which may require immediate action.

In addition, I recently had a fruitful meeting with the group, namely, with Ms. Justice Bronagh O'Hanlon, Ms Jane Williams and Mr. Mark Connaughton. The review, as the Deputy will be aware, will include the receipt of the views and experiences from both current and former Defence Forces personnel of workplace incidents of alleged unacceptable behaviour. The sharing of such views and experiences by interviewees will be entirely voluntary and will be treated in confidence. The independent review group is also continuing to accept submissions from individuals and organisations on issues relating to its terms of reference. These submissions will form an important input to the group’s final review report. Details of how to make a submission are available on its website.

The Deputy may additionally wish to note that I have recently received a report from Raiseaconcern on the work undertaken by the confidential contact person, CCP, to assist members of the Defence Forces affected by issues relating to bullying, harassment, discrimination or sexual misconduct in the workplace. As agreed, I have submitted the report, which is entirely anonymised, to the independent review group. This report will be an important input into the ongoing deliberations of the group.

The final report from the review group, which is due to be completed within 12 months of its establishment, will be brought to Government and thereafter will be published. I hope to have an interim report by mid-summer. I think the target date is the end of July.

I thank the Minister for clarifying those issues. He has clarified some of my questions, but it is important to place on the record again that this independent review arises from reports of sexism, bullying, sexual assault and rape in the Defence Forces, which was made public by RTÉ Radio 1’s documentary "Women of Honour", which aired on 1 September 2021. I do not wish to keep repeating that, because there are serious allegations and there is such serious suffering. It is important to bear in mind that this independent review did not come about proactively. It came about on the basis of the suffering and the courage of the women.

One of my questions was on the interim report that is due under the terms of reference within six months. The Minister is telling me that is on target. Is there any update on the Women of Honour who, I understand, had reservations from day one and who are not participating in the process? Is that still the position?

On the Minister’s engagement and fruitful meeting with the independent group, how is that being done in terms of the independence of the review?

What is the process around ensuring independence and the Minister meeting members of the review group? I am not saying it is wrong or right. I am simply asking what processes are in place.

I am very careful not to get involved in the work of this independent body. It is led by a judge. She is a very able person who has the support of two other very able people. I simply wanted to get an update on how its work was going to make sure it remained on schedule and whether it needed any further resources for the work it is doing. That is the update I got. I will certainly not be involved in any way in discussions around what the group will recommend and how it will get to those recommendations. The whole point of an independent review group is that it is independent and will make recommendations regardless of how difficult they may be to implement and so on. That is the whole point of this.

I acknowledge the bravery of members of the Women of Honour group in talking publicly about their experiences and concerns. It triggered a whole series of things that has resulted in this independent review. I hope they will engage with this judge-led process to ensure we get the benefit of their experience and concerns.

I take it from the Minister's response he does not know if the women have changed their mind and are engaging in this process. On his communication with the independent review group, a process is in place to ensure there are minutes and a record of his interaction with that group, which will be available. I welcome that the monthly meetings and monthly reports are coming in as per the terms and the six-month and 12-month reports are on target.

My final issue relates to what themes or issues have arisen, if any, in the reports the Minister has been given to date in his contact with the review group, and in relation to the independent confidential person whose report has gone to the independent review board, which I welcome. What are the issues, if any, and recommendations? Has the Minister been asked to take any steps? Has anything of urgency arisen in respect of this process?

I will add to Deputy Connolly's excellent questions and follow-up points. The Minister outlined that if anything urgent arose from the body it would be brought to his attention and action taken. Is there an opportunity, with the provision of the interim report at the end of July he mentioned, for that document to be made available to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence for review? Is that his intent? Will he outline any follow-up changes that might arise if that interim report is provided to the committee?

The updates I have got to date have been largely procedural relating to how the group is going about its work, including who it is reaching out to, resourcing, accommodation and things like that, to make sure a proper support structure is in place around the work this independent group of people is doing. I committed to, and wanted to have, an interim report because I wanted there to be an opportunity for the independent review to address issues early if it needed to, within six months rather than 12. It will be up to the group to decide what it wants to put in the interim report, whether that is reporting progress towards finalising at the end of the year or specifically dealing with certain issues, making recommendations around those issues, and having the evidence base to be able to do that by the end of July. I do not know which approach it will take but it has the option to do either of those things.

If there are early actions the review group would like us to take, those may well be consistent with the action plan for the implementation of the Commission on the Defence Forces because there are quite a lot of recommendations and statements around cultural change, complaints procedures, the environment for women in the Defence Forces and a whole range of issues around that, which will also be part of our action plan for change I will bring to Government next month. We will be informed by the end of July in the interim report, but to have a complete picture we will need to wait for the full 12-month period. The time to go to the committee will be when we have a full picture of what has happened and a series of recommendations that will go with that.

Defence Forces

Willie O'Dea

Question:

10. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Defence when he will bring forward a plan to implement the recommendations of the Commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23503/22]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

12. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the efforts that are currently being made to implement the recommendations of the recent review of the Defence Forces; the way that this is likely to manifest itself in early initiatives; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23753/22]

Alan Farrell

Question:

27. Deputy Alan Farrell asked the Minister for Defence the timeline for the actions that the Government is expected to take following publication of the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23835/22]

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

41. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Defence when recommendations will be brought to Government following the publication of the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22658/22]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

48. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the extent to which the review of the Defence Forces is being implemented at present; the steps already taken and that remain to be carried out in this regard; if a degree of urgency will be applied to the work in hand; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23752/22]

The report produced by the Commission on the Defence Forces received a very positive response from the public when it was published some three months ago. The Minister has read it, is very supportive of it and will not let it gather dust on a shelf. When will he bring proposals to Government in respect of the implementation of the recommendations in that report?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10, 12, 27, 41 and 48 together.

The answer to that is next month. The initial commitment was to do so before the summer recess. I then said we would like to do it in June so there will be an opportunity to debate it before we break up for the summer recess. This is arguably the most important reform and change to the Defence Forces since the establishment of the State. It is that important. We do not yet have consensus and agreement in the Government on the ambition levels we will have financially to respond to in this report. It is my job to go through the process of getting there, which is not straightforward because there are so many competing demands on the Exchequer at present. This is something fundamental to a sovereign state, especially in the context of the instability we see globally right now. Let us not forget the recommendations and work of this report were concluded before Russia invaded Ukraine. The new context in which the evidence base we now look at, which is highly credible in this report, is even more stark and more relevant in terms of the need for action.

It will not be easy to agree on this but there is a sense in Government of the need to do something of real significance and substance in this space. I hope that will be supported by Opposition parties too. It is my job to make sure that what we commit to do is credible in respect of timeline and budget, and that we do not overpromise and under-deliver. What we are asking of the Defence Forces in this report is very significant in terms of reform and change and we also have to make sure we deliver, as a Government, our side of the bargain, which are the resources needed to go with that change. This is about upsizing, modernising and growing capacity, strength and numbers over a sustained period. This simply cannot be done except over a five- to ten-year period to get to where we need to be. That is in process at present.

I hope those Deputies who are interested in defence issues will be vocal during that process because this is something about which we need to speak honestly to the public. I do not believe we have had an honest discussion with the public on defence issues for many decades in Ireland. This report gives us a real focus for discussion. What we are living through on the Continent of Europe at present gives us a context that cannot be ignored either.

It is important to emphasise, as the Minister has done, the world has changed considerably and dramatically since this report was produced. I suspect the world will change even further by next month when we stand in the Chamber again for questions on defence. If we look at the fact that Finland and Sweden have indicated they will join NATO, the map of Europe will change significantly. The only EU members who will not be in NATO will be us, Austria, Cyprus and Malta. I am not advocating that we join NATO. Irish neutrality has served this country well, but we need to recognise it will be us, Malta and Cyprus, all island states to a certain extent, that will be seen as the sections within Europe that do not have the perceived protection of NATO.

I am happy to stay out of NATO and promote Irish neutrality. If we are going to do that we need to increase spending and have a coherent and proper defence strategy so I welcome what the Minister has said.

As I have said here before, I strongly support the recommendations of the review. It should have taken place many years ago. I welcome the Minister's response. I support my colleague. Things are happening quickly now. It is much more quickly than in the past. They are likely to happen equally quickly in the future. One thing we need to do now is to recognise the pivotal role that will likely be played by our Defence Forces in the medium- and medium-to-long-term and the necessity to protect the State and its interests and to be able to do that in a meaningful way notwithstanding all the other exigencies within which we must operate including the compelling demands on finance. This is also a compelling demand. It requires a rapid response now.

At every question time on Defence in my time in the House I have raised the need to equip the Defence Forces that they be ready, capable and able and to be properly and effectively run at every stage. I ask the Minister to convey to the Government the urgency of this situation as it unfolds before us.

It is important that we set aside the debate that has arisen as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the context of the commission on the Defence Forces report and the course of action that the Minister and the Cabinet takes and that this House will then endorse by way of majority, which I assume it will. That is primarily because the conversation about neutrality is completely different from the conversation about ensuring that we have a Defence Force that is capable of meeting the responsibilities that we set out for it in terms of the defence of the nation.

There are various issues that have been highlighted in the commission's report around force strength. The Minister went into that in great detail. There is also structure, capacity, primary capabilities and the matter of personnel, their treatment and the practices within it. These are all of crucial importance. If we have a conversation, as I am sure we will, in the next six weeks about the ability of the Defence Forces to meet the demands that we set for it the minimum of option 2 which the Minister outlined is what we should pursue. I ask that he urge the Cabinet to support his own position on that.

I thank the Deputies for their very informed comments on this. One reason why I wanted to be back in the Defence brief was because we had committed to a commission that I expected would make some very telling interventions on the considerations around defence that are necessary and can not be avoided any longer. We have fantastic Defence Forces. They do a brilliant job as peacekeepers and in the roles that we ask of them within the confines of the resources that they have available to them. But it is not enough in today's world to have the level of defence infrastructure that we have available to us when we know that more is needed. This is not about the militarisation of Ireland or anything like that. If we move to level of ambition 2 we will simply move from spending about one third of what other countries our size in Europe spend on defence to spending about half of what they spend on defence.

Minister please.

Therefore we will still be an outlier but at least we will be in a more credible position.

I call Deputy Durkan.

Do I not get longer when I have three people asking me questions?

I am only reading the clock.

Yes but it is a bit strange when I am replying to, I think, four questions here.

It is the Minister's Department that grouped them.

It is five questions that I am answering.

I have two questions in the group. We cannot overemphasise the urgency and necessity to implement the commission's recommendations. I know that when the time comes at Cabinet everything gets pushed to one side. The Ceann Comhairle will know about this because we have seen it in our respective constituencies in the past. I ask the Minister to become really aggressive at the Cabinet table in dealing with the needs of the Defence Forces to ensure that they are adequately equipped, in personnel and equipment, to carry out their duties. There should never be a situation when we do not have enough ships to go to sea at any time or enough staff on board to be able to do the job.

The world has changed. That is true across Europe and we had better change with it. If we think our neutrality will defend us in the event of attack we have another thing coming to us.

Deputy O'Callaghan.

It is okay. I have made my contribution.

I firmly echo Deputy Durkan's remarks. After the Cabinet comes to its decision on the course of action to take implementation will be crucial. Our ability to detect and dissuade are two of the most important aspects of the commission's report outside of the personnel, force strength etc. On that I re-emphasise a point I have made in this House on a number of occasions around primary radar and our ability to detect aircraft which may or may not have their transponder operational. From a civilian perspective, never mind a military one, that is important. It is in the commission's report and it is important that the Minister would outline his commitment on that.

The commission went into quite a lot of detail about what moving to level of ambition No. 2 means. It also goes into a lot of detail about what it would cost. That gives us a good basis for putting an action plan in place. But this is not a question about me being aggressive at the Cabinet table but about working with colleagues. I have already spoken to the three party leaders about this and I will meet them again. I think there is a recognition in the Government that we need to act in this area. There is not a country anywhere in Europe that is not currently reviewing its defence and security arrangements on the back of what it happening in Ukraine. Therefore, as Deputy Farrell said, this is not a debate around neutrality at all but about capacity and resourcing and the ability of the Defence Forces to be able to deliver the tasks that we ask of them in a safe manner with the resources they need to do it, both at home and abroad and whether in the air, at sea or on land. I do not think that we have ever had a report that goes into the detail that this one does in terms of outlining where the capacity gaps are and where they need to be filled. Deputy Farrell mentioned primary radar capacity but there are other examples of areas where there is clearly a capacity problem that needs to be addressed. It does not happen by itself. The Government needs to make a decision to commit to that and put the resourcing in place to make it happen. The Defence Forces need to adapt to those new realities. All of that can and will happen under the guidance of the Government.

Deputy Richmond should just have time. He does not even want to introduce his question.

All right. Well that is the end of questions to the Minister for Defence then.

If I may, I wish to be as constructive if I can. I appreciate that the Ceann Comhairle has little to do with this but the groupings this morning on the Defence questions were most peculiar. A number of questions were totally separate to the commission on the Defence Forces but the vast majority of the questions that were inter-related were not grouped. Some were grouped and some were not. It was a most peculiar set up. I have been watching and present since 10.30 a.m.

I ask the Department of Defence public servants who are grouping these questions to take a more favourable view of them. I do not know if questions on defence will be taken again before the Government will make a decision on the commission's report but it is important to put that on the record.

The fact that the Minister did not feel he had enough time to deal with his questions which had been grouped by his Department is indicative of a problem. I am sure the Minister will communicate that to his officials.

We had the unusual situation today where a lot of the questions revolved around the one issue. We probably could have grouped 20 questions on the commission report and had a discussion on nothing else. That is because of the scale of the recommendations in it and how relevant they are at the moment. By the time we have the next round of questions, I suspect that questions will be put on the commission report as well, but it will be more focused on the Government’s action plan on the back of the report if, as I hope, we can get that agreed in June.

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