Speaking as a Limerick man to a Limerick man, I welcome the Minister, Deputy O'Dea, and congratulate him on his elevation. I wish him every success in his new position.
Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Bill 2002: Second Stage.
As Leader of the House, I echo the words of the Cathaoirleach. On behalf of everyone in the Seanad, I congratulate the Minister and wish him many happy, fruitful years in his position.
I thank the Senators. I am very pleased to present this Bill to the Seanad. It marks the realisation of an important political commitment to establish a new statutory office of ombudsman for the Defence Forces. The Defence Forces ombudsman will effect an historical transformation of current military redress procedures. The ombudsman will, in most cases, replace the Minister for Defence as the final point of appeal in the statutory Defence Forces redress procedures provided for in the Defence Act 1954.
Senators will recall that the late John Lucey, the former General Secretary of PDFORRA, was a most committed and articulate advocate of the case for a statutory Defence Forces ombudsman. He had campaigned tirelessly for the establishment of such a position over many years. I trust that this legislation will act as a fitting memorial to him.
I acknowledge the key role played by my predecessor in office. Deputy Michael Smith was personally committed to the concept of the Defence Forces ombudsman as a specific policy objective during his term in office.
The Bill before the House differs in certain important aspects from the legislation as originally initiated in the Dáil on publication in January 2002. In the immediate aftermath of publication, there were very positive and constructive consultations with the representative associations, PDFORRA and RACO. In the interests of promoting the widest possible consensus in support of the legislation and of the new ombudsman, a number of important substantive ministerial amendments to the published Bill were brought forward on Committee Stage in the Dáil by my predecessor, Deputy Michael Smith. These important ministerial amendments were accepted by the Dáil and I will describe them after a brief review of the more general purposes of the Bill.
The Bill provides for the establishment of the office of the Defence Forces ombudsman and for the appointment of an individual to that office by the President upon the recommendation of Government. The Bill defines the functions of the ombudsman and sets out the general right of Defence Forces personnel to make a complaint to the ombudsman. The limited circumstances in which the ombudsman shall not investigate particular defined types of complaint are also specifically set out.
The Bill provides the ombudsman with considerable independence and autonomy in the discharge of his or her statutory functions and in the conduct of investigations. Military personnel are assured of complete independence from the Minister, the Department of Defence and the military authorities in the investigation of complaints.
Senators may find it helpful if I briefly outline the nature of the existing statutory mechanisms for redress within the Defence Forces. There is an existing system of complaints inquiry which is available to all serving military personnel. Section 114 of the Defence Act provides for application for redress by military personnel who believe that they have been wronged by another member of the Defence Forces. In 1996, this system was modified administratively with the introduction of an external complaints inquiry officer, CIO, appointed directly by the Minister to act in an advisory capacity. The advisory role of the CIO was introduced into the redress procedure on an agreed basis following extensive consultations with the representative associations at conciliation and arbitration.
Individual complaints brought before the Minister could be referred to the CIO at the discretion of the Minister for independent review. The CIO then made recommendations to the Minister. At that time, in 1996, it was agreed that the question of a statutory Defence Forces ombudsman could be considered at a later date, in light of practical experience with and in the context of a subsequent review of the operation of the informal CIO system.
That review commenced towards the end of 1999. The CIO was then dealing with some two dozen cases a year on average. The review identified a continuing demand among enlisted personnel at Private and junior NCO level for a more transparent, independent and statutorily rigorous procedure, which would be clearly seen to be independent of the Defence Forces chain of command, of the departmental secretariat and of the Minister.
There have been other more recent developments which have again highlighted the importance of ensuring that military personnel have faith in grievance procedures. The Doyle report surveyed perceptions and experiences of unacceptable workplace behaviour in the Defence Forces. During the course of her detailed investigations, Dr. Eileen Doyle found a serious lack of confidence in the existing internal military complaint procedures. This lack of confidence was found to be widespread and particularly so among enlisted personnel.
The Doyle report was published in March 2002. While the Bill providing for the new ombudsman was by then already published, the findings of the Doyle report were indeed very disturbing. These findings were based upon extensive research undertaken by Dr. Doyle and her expert team. Dr. Doyle's report showed real and widespread perceptions of bullying and other forms of unacceptable behaviour within the Defence Forces. The report underlined the need for an independent statutory mechanism for the investigation of complaints. Dr. Doyle's report and recommendations were fully accepted. The military authorities responded decisively.
An independent monitoring group chaired by Dr. Doyle herself has been overseeing the implementation of fundamental reforms in the period since 2002. This major enterprise involves the top military authorities, the Department and the representative associations. The follow-on progress report, Response to the Challenge of a Workplace, was launched on Friday, 24 September by my predecessor. This latest document details the significant degree of progress made so far and sets out an agenda for further action for the immediate future.
A great deal has been accomplished over the past two years since the original Doyle report. This process of change will be continued and developed into the future. Indeed, a further detailed survey and review of the Defence Forces' working environment will be carried out by 2007, as recommended by Dr. Doyle in her recent progress report. The findings of that study will also be made public.
The Defence Forces have demonstrated a genuine commitment to the difficult process of cultural change within their organisation. The representative associations have also committed themselves fully to the process. Their role, in particular, is crucial. We are all well aware that securing fundamental and irreversible changes in workplace culture and attitudes is never simple or easy. However, real leadership can establish and maintain the proper environment throughout the Defence Forces.
Seen within the wider context of these other developments, it will be appreciated that the appointment of an independent statutory ombudsman will be of major importance in developing a positive working environment for members of the Defence Forces.
The new Defence Forces ombudsman will investigate complaints with a view to ascertaining whether an action complained of may have been unreasonable, arbitrary, improperly discriminatory or otherwise inconsistent with sound and fair administrative practice. The ombudsman will be statutorily independent in the course of investigations and in the performance of his or her duties.
At present, a complaint may be finally brought before the Minister for Defence, where an applicant so wishes, after the various levels of appeal within the military system, up to and including the Chief of Staff, have been properly utilised. The present right of referral to the Minister for Defence will be now replaced, in nearly all cases, with a right of referral to the Defence Forces ombudsman.
However, the published Bill was amended on Committee Stage in the Dáil to ensure that the right of referral to the Minister will be now retained in those clearly defined circumstances in which the ombudsman is specifically excluded from access under the Bill, but where there would be access to the Minister under current arrangements.
In this regard, I would refer Senators to the entirely revised text of section 13 of the Bill as now amended. These specific sets of circumstances relate to security or military operations, as defined in the Bill; matters relating to the organisation, structure and deployment of the Defence Forces; and matters relating to the administration of military prisons.
The Bill also provides that any complaints concerning actions predating the commencement of the legislation will continue to be dealt with by the Minister on a transitional basis. Generally, the ombudsman will become involved in examining a complaint where a complainant has had full recourse to the internal military redress system, up to and including the level of the Chief of Staff; those procedures have been exhausted; and the ombudsman forms an opinion that the complainant has an apparently bona fide and justified cause of complaint or grievance, which in the opinion of the ombudsman has not been satisfactorily redressed or resolved.
The ombudsman will also be accessible to former members of the Defence Forces, subject to the specified time limits. The present redress procedures are confined to serving members and to persons serving at the time of initiation of their complaint. Conversely, it will be entirely for the ombudsman at his or her own discretion to refuse any trivial, vexatious or manifestly unreasonable or foolish complaints, or to refuse complaints where the internal military redress system has not been properly utilised.
The military environment poses quite specific challenges to the traditional concept of an independent ombudsman. There is a delicate balance to be drawn between the need to provide appropriate rights of access to the ombudsman on the one hand and the need to safeguard military lines of authority on the other.
From the outset, great emphasis was placed on minimising the level of restriction upon the remit of the new ombudsman. Nevertheless, in order to ensure that this intention would be fully realised in practice, a major ministerial amendment was made to the definition of "military operation" on Committee Stage in the Dáil.
While military operations will be excluded from the ambit of the ombudsman, the substantive redefinition of the term "military operation" by ministerial amendment on Committee Stage now clarifies the term with some precision. The term "military operation" should only encompass actual operations in the field. The new definition of "military operation" will thus maximise the remit of the ombudsman to the greatest practical extent as regards the type of circumstances falling within the scope of the new ombudsman.
The original definition in the Bill as published was the cause of some serious concern to PDFORRA. The association was of the view that the original definition was potentially open-ended and could be interpreted as covering a vast range of every day routine military circumstances, thus greatly perhaps impeding the effectiveness of the new ombudsman.
Some other exclusions are, of course, self evident. For example, the ombudsman will not be able to investigate a complaint where a legal action has been initiated. The ombudsman will not become involved in matters within the remit of the Defence Forces conciliation and arbitration scheme and the representative associations. Matters relating to the organisation, structure and deployment of the Defence Forces, and matters relating to the administration of military prisons will also be excluded from the remit of the ombudsman.
Security matters will also be outside the remit of the ombudsman and the Minister will retain the right to request the ombudsman to desist from an investigation in such an area. The ombudsman may, however, apply to the High Court and seek a direction from the High Court if such a situation should ever arise. I am confident that the number of complaints falling outside the statutory remit of the ombudsman will be very small indeed.
I am pleased to submit this legislation, as amended by the Dáil, for the consideration of the Seanad. The Government's commitment to provide access to a statutory Defence Forces ombudsman marks a development of major significance for the Defence Forces. This important legislative measure will serve to assist in the cultivation and maintenance of a modern working environment which will benefit all ranks within the Defence Forces.
In conclusion, I believe this Bill represents above all a sensible and practical model for the operation of the Defence Forces ombudsman. This is a real response to a widespread desire for modernisation and reform of the redress procedures among military personnel themselves, and particularly so among those in the enlisted ranks. I look forward with anticipation to hearing the views and contributions of Senators in their deliberations and reflections on the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.
I congratulate the Minister on his well-deserved promotion.
I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on his elevation to ministerial rank. I wish him well and I have no doubt he will do an excellent job as Minister for Defence.
At the outset, I broadly welcome the Bill, the provisions of which are important. One criticism I have is the long delay in getting the legislation through the House. It will soon be three years since the Bill was first published. It should now be progressed with all due speed.
The Defence Forces personnel, on whom we all rely, should have the protection of a dedicated ombudsman without any further excessive delay. The debate this afternoon is timely. At the opening of the annual conference of the association representing Army, Air Corps and the Naval Service personnel, PDFORRA, it was claimed that Defence Forces personnel are being coerced into serving on overseas missions. Speaking at the event, the association's vice-president claimed this was a move away from the principle that volunteers would be considered for service first before others are requested to serve on certain missions.
In line with these concerns, it is right and proper that we should consider the working conditions of our Defence Forces personnel. We cannot expect our enlisted personnel to serve under regulations, conditions and codes of discipline drawn up in another time and age, when the emphasis on fair and decent working conditions was not as stringent as it is today. These days we properly place a high value on human rights and fair employment regulations. The employment conditions governing our Defence Forces must be subject to these high standards and must adapt to modern requirements and acceptable codes of practice.
When appointed, the ombudsman for the Defence Forces will fulfil a crucially important role. The legislation clearly states that the ombudsman shall be independent in the performance of his or her functions and may investigate any action that is the subject of a complaint made by the person affected by the action. In clearer terms, this should allow the ombudsman to investigate any form of bullying, abuse or bad treatment meted out to a member of the Defence Forces. The function of the ombudsman is, therefore, of great importance to Defence Forces personnel. We should not forget the findings of the 2002 Doyle report which examined harassment, discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment in the Defence Forces. Some 20% to 30% of soldiers surveyed experienced difficulty in each of these categories, which is unacceptable. Soon after the publication of this report, the then Minister for Defence stated:
I would like the message to be loud and clear that the practices identified in the Doyle report should have no place in today's Defence Forces. They are contrary to the best interests of the men and women who are the Defence Forces and to the organisation as a whole.
I wholeheartedly agree, but I must say that for a Government which claims to have the best interests of Defence Forces personnel at heart, the delay in progressing this legislation is to be deeply regretted.
Members of the Defence Forces must be able to bring their concerns and grievances to an independent forum such as an ombudsman. The Doyle report also revealed that 75% of those surveyed believed they could get away with bullying in the Defence Forces. An independent ombudsman would be very effective in dealing with these serious problems. If an ombudsman for the Defence Forces is not created, these trends may continue and create further serious difficulties. The State has both a legal and moral responsibility to provide members of the Defence Forces with a working environment that is safe and meets 21st century standards. Therefore, allowing unacceptable types of behaviour within the Defence Forces to go unchecked is not an option. Every person has the right to work and serve their country without having the appalling spectre of abuse or harassment hanging over him or her. Such people must have access to a fair and impartial office that can offer them assistance in the resolution of their grievances. To allow this type of behaviour to continue would have a dreadful effect on morale in the Defence Forces. We cannot expect our personnel to serve with the type of courage and excellence they have displayed time and time again unless their morale and confidence in the forces is maintained.
Given the vital role the Defence Forces play in our society, their members operate under some unique working conditions. Their own representative bodies have the right to negotiate remuneration, working conditions and similar matters. However, they cannot recommend to their members that they should adopt strike action in the event of a serious grievance with the Government. Given the importance of the Defence Forces, this is an understandable restriction, but it also means that we must put in place different procedures that will protect the members from abuse. The appointment of an ombudsman to the Defence Forces will be an important step in this direction.
I have some concerns about the specific provisions of the legislation in certain areas. For example, the Bill as drafted gives the Government considerable sway over the ombudsman, including setting the length of his or her term. For some reason, the Government in this legislation has seen fit to depart from the provisions applied in the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. As with the Defence Forces ombudsman, the President appoints the Ombudsman for Children. However, a major difference between the provisions of this legislation and those establishing the previous three ombudsmen lies in the age of retirement. In the previous three Bills, the age of retirement is set at 67 years of age, whereas in this Bill the Minister for Defence may set it.
Furthermore, in the Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Bill, the Government will have the power to dictate for how long an ombudsman may serve, and there is no restriction on a person serving for longer than two terms. This is a departure from the previous legislation and Fine Gael will table amendments at the appropriate time. Similarly, I have concerns that the ombudsman should not only have the authority to investigate matters referred to him or her, but should also have the power to instigate an investigation of his or her own volition. This power is essential to the independence and effectiveness of any ombudsman of this kind.
We should compare what is being proposed in this legislation with the type of procedures that exist in other countries. For example, the ombudsman for the Canadian defence forces can hear complaints from a much larger range of people than the proposed Irish Defence Forces ombudsman. In matters relating to the Canadian forces, those eligible to file complaints with the Canadian ombudsman include current and former cadets, members of the Canadian forces, employees, applicants to the Canadian forces and family members of any of the preceding. The legislation we are debating today could benefit from the lead taken by the Canadian ombudsman by expanding the range of those eligible to file complaints. Currently, the Bill places strict limits on who can file complaints. Expanding this right to other people related to the Defence Forces, whether cadets, families or members of the Defence Forces, would help guarantee that the rights of these groups are protected.
Taking action against bullying or harassment in any working environment is very important. However, with the codes of discipline and chains of command that are commonplace in any modern defence force, highlighting bullying or harassment can become even more difficult. Currently, there is a clear perception that when it comes to the defence forces, both here and abroad, it is difficult to have a personal grievance investigated objectively. For a person with a grievance, it takes considerable courage to bring it to the attention of higher ranking officers. This results in many grievances and complaints being buried and overlooked.
The role of the Defence Forces is critical to the functioning of the State. Members of the forces have served with courage and considerable honour with the United Nations. They serve today on one of their most challenging deployments yet, in Liberia. Our Defence Forces personnel deserve the protection of an independent, dedicated ombudsman and I hope this legislation will progress through the House without further delay.
I welcome the Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, to the House and congratulate him on his elevation to the Cabinet. Members have worked with him and seen his work in many Departments as Minister of State and his commitment and dedication in those roles will bear fruit for him in his new position as Minister. I wish him well. As a neighbour of the former Minister for Defence, Deputy Michael Smith, I thank him for his dedication in pushing this legislation forward and for his outstanding work for the Defence Forces. I also mention, as the Minister did, the late Mr. John Lucey, the former general secretary of PDFORRA, who was a committed and articulate advocate of the case for a statutory ombudsman for the Defence Forces, which is the purpose of this Bill. We must recognise his outstanding work.
The Bill proposes to establish the office of ombudsman as an independent, statutory entity to which complaints can be forwarded in cases where a person is not satisfied with the responses obtained from the military authorities to a formal complaint under the Defence Act provisions for the redress of wrongs. In this area, it is timely that the Minister has come into office to move this important legislation forward. The Bill clearly sets out the functions and staff of the ombudsman and amends the Defence Act 1954, setting out the terms and conditions under which the office of the ombudsman shall operate and detailing the framework and nature of the complaints that may or may not be investigated by him or her. The new ombudsman will be provided with clear and precise statutory powers of independent inquiry and investigation, closely modelled on those of the original ombudsman legislation of 1980 but reflecting somewhat the unique circumstances and demands of the military environment.
The legislation has the potential to offer members and former members of the Defence Forces a truly independent forum for dealing with complaints and related injustices. No organisation has the capacity to deal effectively with all complaints involving people at different levels within the system. The Defence Forces are no different in this regard. Can the Minister confirm whether the legislation also covers voluntary members, such as those of the FCA? Perhaps he might come back to that on Committee Stage.
The important issue of bullying and harassment in the Defence Forces has long needed to be tackled. Thankfully, the day of bullying or harassment in any organisation is long gone. I am delighted that this issue is being addressed. An independent, confidential helpline and counselling service was launched earlier this year and an independent body will design, administer and analyse an exit interview questionnaire to establish the views of Defence Forces personnel on their experience of military life. This must be welcomed and, alongside the improvements that have taken place in the Defence Forces over a number of years, will give a good incentive for young people who are interested in joining and a real opportunity for them to feel that they have a chance to be part of the forces in the confident knowledge that all steps are being taken to ensure that they will be safe in that working environment. The message must go out loud and clear that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated anywhere. The Minister and other Members have made this point. The Bill will enhance the position of the Defence Forces as one of the best in the world. There may be many points about the Bill which Members will want to raise on Committee Stage and I am sure that the Minister will explain these points in detail.
Most people have had some experience of dealing with members of the Defence Forces or have served in some capacity within the forces. I spent five years in the FCA, an experience I enjoyed. We took part in an annual camp every year, sometimes in Finner Camp in Bundoran. I never experienced problems with any members of the Defence Forces. We enjoyed our times there and participated Sunday after Sunday, shooting on the rifle ranges, and we visited other places, such as the Curragh. My own division, C company, 16th infantry battalion, in Tullamore, held the all-Army rifle shooting championship on many occasions. As is said in the midlands, we had some crack shots in that battalion. Some people seem to enjoy disparaging our Defence Forces but I emphasise that in my time in the FCA I dealt with thorough gentlemen who were highly trained and skilled and possessed of a great sense of care for those assigned to their tutelage. I also wish to mention the members of the Defence Forces I have known who have made a major contribution in their communities, whether to sport or to the many other voluntary organisations in their areas.
The Minister mentioned the in-depth analysis contained in the Doyle report which considered the role of the ombudsman for the Defence Forces. People in charge in the forces took on board the views expressed in that report by Dr. Eileen Doyle, as outlined by the Minister. That report put in train what the Minister is now progressing with this Bill. His concluding remark was that the Bill represents above all a sensible and practical model for the operation of the ombudsman for the Defence Forces. It was a response to a widespread desire for modernisation, reform and redress procedures and also of military personnel, particularly those in the enlisted ranks. I compliment the Minister and the officials who were party to the drawing up of the Bill and look forward to hearing the contributions of other Members. I also thank the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Michael Smith.
I wish to share my time with Senator O'Meara.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister to the House and welcome the speed with which the Government has brought forward this Bill. We were all alarmed at Dr. Eileen Doyle's report. We are glad it has been dealt with so rapidly and that she is monitoring the situation. We have great respect for and pride in our Defence Forces and it was sad to see such a large proportion felt they were subjected to bullying and harassment, sexual or otherwise. It is good to see Government has taken such quick action on the issue.
The definition of military operations was expanded in the Dáil, but I am not in a position to say whether it is satisfactory. Therefore, I take great interest in what members who have served in the Defence Forces say. We must recognise that there is a vast change in what we expect our military personnel to do. The role of being in charge of State security was clearly laid out, but now the forces have a major role in human security. We have congratulated our forces on what they did, and are doing, in Liberia and I spoke in the House to welcome the fact that they were going. I was particularly glad they were going out to work with an African contingent from Nigeria. It was something to go to Liberia to try to deal with an army of children, especially since there are serious problems there involving voodoo. I have been to West Africa and know that large numbers of the population believe what they are told by witch doctors, such as, for example, that bullets will pass through them. We can imagine the perils faced by our forces and how matters might have worked out when faced with a hail of bullets going into mobs of children. I congratulate the forces on the work they have done in Liberia.
I was very taken by a report I read some time ago by Mary Kaldor, a professor of global governance in the London School of Economics. She was the convenor of a study group on European security capabilities. The group examined human security in particular and commented that this was what armies were increasingly being called upon to protect rather than state security. It pointed out how much more difficult this could be.
We frequently hear about the Congo and its difficulties and the difficulty of dealing with child soldiers. Professor Kaldor refers in her report to the emergency in Ituri, where various militias, including thousands of young children, were involved in the laying waste of towns, looting, raping, carrying out massacres and the uprooting of tens of thousands of people. The UN-backed mission that went there did not stay for long and its follow-up was slow. The mission succeeded in stopping massacres and created security on the ground. However, we know the problem is recurrent in such places. Therefore, we must have trained troops that can go into such areas and deal with the problems.
We must recognise the major change in the types of missions on which our troops are sent abroad. I was sorry to hear PDFORRA report on radio this morning from its meeting in Donegal that some of those sent abroad were not volunteers, because I always thought we only sent volunteers. Some people who have specific training that is urgently needed in some areas are sent out on further unsought tours of duty. Perhaps the Minister will address that matter on the conclusion of this debate. I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward this legislation so rapidly.
I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on his recent appointment. I note that he acknowledged the commitment of the previous Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, to this legislation, which, following amendment in the Dáil, bears his stamp.
The legislation is welcome. The principle of establishing an ombudsman for the Defence Forces is welcome. We hope this will usher forward a new era for the forces. The Doyle report, the basis on which this legislation is being brought forward, was disturbing. It showed there was an unacceptable level of sexual harassment taking place within the Defence Forces, and not only of female members. We know women are not the only victims of sexual harassment. In recent years we have had too many disturbing reports indicating there is a culture of bullying and harassment within the Defence Forces. This is unacceptable to the Oireachtas and does not reflect society's view of what is tolerable or acceptable in the forces. This legislation, together with other initiatives based on the recommendations of the Doyle report which the previous Minister was not slow in bringing forward, will ensure we encourage a new culture within the Defence Forces of which we can be proud and which will reflect society's aspirations.
The principle of an ombudsman as a pillar of accountability is well established and the role has become important. The establishment of that role for the Defence Forces sends an important signal which I hope will be accepted by members of the forces, particularly those with a grievance. The office will be independent and will provide an important resource outside of the system. The Defence Forces need to maintain a culture of discipline and obedience and the ombudsman will face a delicate balance in ensuring that discipline is maintained.
I appreciate the Minister's proposals with regard to amendments put forward and accepted in the Dáil. They have strengthened the Bill and show the level of openness with which the former Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, accepted the views expressed by Members of the Dáil, particularly the Opposition. I appreciate in particular the definition of military operations. It is when we examine the exemptions that we can see how the legislation will apply. While the principle is important, it is important that we examine the nuts and bolts of where the ombudsman will or will not have power. I look forward to doing that on Committee Stage. I hope the legislation before us will be further enhanced by our consideration on Committee and Report Stages.
I join previous speakers in welcoming the Minister and congratulate him on his appointment. I wish him well in the challenges facing him in the changing environment of the Defence Forces and pay tribute to his predecessor, Deputy Michael Smith, who presided over major changes therein. While we may not always have seen eye to eye and locked horns on numerous occasions, I acknowledge the tremendous work he did during his term as Minister for Defence.
I approach the debate from a unique position, having been a member of the Defence Forces for 21 years. The legislation could not have been contemplated when I enlisted in 1975. While considering it, I wondered whether I was bullied or whether I engaged in bullying. That is the magic question. It is terribly difficult to apply civilian standards and rules to a military force and there is a fine line. All Members can speak with the mind of a civilian about the role of an ombudsman in addressing wrongs and bullying, in particular as it is straightforward and easy to do so. We are all aware of the plethora of welcome, necessary Bills that have been introduced to address bullying in the workplace, which I fully support. However, one cannot apply such legislation to the armed forces. The legislation can be adapted, modified and made to fit because it is needed but it should be examined in detail.
While I welcome the legislation, I wish to highlight its uniqueness. No chief executive or manager has command or control over a lethal force. The legislation applies to military institutions, procedures and operations. I accept military operations have been defined under the legislation but if I am engaged in a military training exercise and I must deal with a scenario which ultimately could lead to the saving of lives, and I shout at and harass a soldier or his colleagues, am I bullying? We must be careful about such issues.
I refer to a comment made by Senator O'Meara. The level of bullying and harassment in the Defence Forces is not disproportionate to that which takes place in civilian organisations. We should not think a bullying culture within the Defence Forces has gone unnoticed and unchecked for many years, thereby necessitating this legislation, because that would be unfair.
A system for redressing wrongs has been in operation under the Defence Act and it has served the military well. I have been involved in administering, processing and adjudicating at various levels within that system and, on occasions, we found in favour of the complainant. The rank structure within a military organisation is unique and the responsibilities and control mechanisms provided to ensure a military force operates efficiently and effectively are also unique. At times the manner in which directions and orders are dispensed is not similar to that used in a civilian organisation and that must be acknowledged. The legislation, as drafted, and the Committee Stage debate in the Lower House reflect that point. However, I ask Members to consider the uniqueness of the legislation and ensure it is adapted.
I refer to the history of the Defence Forces since the foundation of the State. When they were founded, there were questions regarding whether they would be overly politicised. We owe a major debt of gratitude to the founders of the Defence Forces and those who served in their formative years that they remained outside the political system when it would have been easy for them not to do so given the climate of the time.
Developments within the Defence Forces since the late 1980s such as the introduction of representation should also be considered. Representation was unheard of in the mid-1970s. I was serving at the time and people said it would not work but it has worked effectively. It took time and we had difficulties and problems in defining the demarcation lines but we got it right. We did not know what to do when females were permitted to join the Defence Forces. Were we to open the door for them or vice versa? I did not know what to do and it was totally confusing. According to the culture of the Defence Forces at the time, there was no way we could adapt to the presence of female personnel but we did. Women members have been effective and have enhanced the Defence Forces.
The command structure of the Defence Forces is unique and that must be borne in mind in applying the legislation. I am wary that, in bringing it forward, there could be an over-civilianisation of the Defence Forces, which would prevent officers from carrying out their duties in a proper and effective manner. Ultimately, a commander in the Defence Forces has responsibility for the safety of his troops and he must direct operations so that their safety is ensured at all times.
Under the legislation operations involving personnel serving overseas who are under the command of the members of other defence forces will be exempt. Will the Minister clarify whether this is the case? On occasion, when I served overseas, I was the only Irish soldier present and my boss could have been a Finn, a Norwegian or a Swede. If I were seeking redress now, would I use the UN system or the system provided under the legislation? We should have a full and clear understanding of this.
I also pay tribute to the late John Lucey. He was a champion of this legislation for which he fought and campaigned. He died tragically but he would have been a happy man to see us debating the legislation.
We are not only addressing the administration of the Defence Forces through legislation such as this. There is also a significant need to maintain the movement to reorganise them not only through modernising their procedures but also by investing in equipment and implementing the White Paper, which reduced them to the required strength and will address the rank structure within the forces. I ask the Minister to be conscious of barrack closures. I do not wish to make a political point but the reduction of ranks and structures will require political decisions, which will also involve barrack closures. Decisions on both issues must be taken in tandem, otherwise we will end up with a housekeeping army minding a number of deserted barracks. That issue must be examined. Given the percentage increase in the defence Vote in recent years, there has been a significant saving through the disposal of lands. It was agreed that money from that source would be reinvested in the Defence Forces to improve them, which was a welcome development. However, such money should not form a substitute for increases in the defence Vote in line with increases in other Departments. Were that to happen, there would be no great gain. I ask the Minister to consider these matters.
I welcome the Bill and I am delighted as a former Army officer to speak on a matter pertaining to the Defence Forces. I record my gratitude for the 21 years I served in the Defence Forces here and overseas. We should never underestimate the calibre of person serving in today's Defence Forces. They are the true ambassadors for this country, operating in very hostile environments and doing us proud. A colleague of mine with absolutely no experience of the Defence Forces, the then Lord Mayor of Cork who visited our troops in the Lebanon a couple of years ago, told me on his return that he had encountered "the best kept secret from the Irish people". It should not be a secret, rather we should fly that banner proudly.
We are all indebted to our Defence Forces and not only for their service to the State from within. While some question the value for money of the Defence Forces, I always claim they are the greatest insurance policy we have. If on one day over their lifetime the Defence Forces uphold the democracy of the State, they will have served it well. On top of this consideration is the service they have contributed on the world stage in so proud a manner. I congratulate all members of the Defence Forces on such service.
The person who is appointed ombudsman will have a major responsibility to cross the line I have spelt out from civilianisation to military command. The person will have to be uniquely qualified and the process will take time. I am glad we are maintaining the existing structures of redress within the military system. If the Defence Forces fulfil their role properly and embrace this legislation as I expect they will, the ombudsman will have a quiet job in terms of the number of cases with which he or she will have to deal.
I welcome the Minister to the House and compliment him on his elevation to the Cabinet.
I thank the Senator.
He hit the crossbar a few times, but eventually the Minister got there. I pay tribute to him and wish him well.
The body which nominated me to the Seanad is the Irish Conference of Professional and Services Associations, of which PDFORRA is an integral part. It is therefore fitting that I should make a contribution to the debate on this Bill. It was also fitting that there was a speech by a former member of the Defence Forces, Senator Minihan, who laid down the parameters of the legislation as he saw fit and provided the House with the benefit of the vast knowledge gained from his experience. It is very important to hear such contributions when we have Bills like this to discuss.
The Bill represents a definite advance for the Defence Forces. My colleague, Senator Paddy Burke, has outlined my party's position in detail and will address the matter even more closely on Committee Stage. I join previous speakers in mentioning John Lucey who did so much over the years to encourage the appointment of a Defence Forces ombudsman. The legislation is a fitting reminder of John's work within the Defence Forces.
Like other Members, I was concerned to learn of a matter raised at the PDFORRA conference. Dozens of soldiers are being coerced to join overseas missions despite the availability of volunteers for service abroad. The matter will probably be raised with the Minister if he attends the conference this evening. If volunteers are available and we are changing the manner in which things are done, an explanation is necessary. If the system has worked well, why are changes being made, especially with regard to Liberia, the dangers of which have been alluded to by other speakers? I hope the Minister will address this issue. I share the Minister's confidence that very few complaints will fall to be dealt with in the number of areas which will be outside the statutory remit of the ombudsman. I hope the legislation will cover the vast majority of complaints which come before the ombudsman.
We would be remiss if we neglected to pay tribute to the work of the Defence Forces since the foundation of the State. As has been stated, the Defence Forces played a vital role in the formation and defence of democracy. We should never forget that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the forces for that work. The Defence Forces are recognised throughout the world for their work on peacekeeping missions and the excellent rapport members have established with people wherever they have gone. We should not be slow to praise the work of the Defence Forces on these missions as well as at home. This is a period of transition in which barracks are being closed. I join Senator Minihan in requesting the continuation of the reinvestment programme for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service. The money which accrues from the sale of barracks must be reinvested to allow the members of the Defence Forces to see that funds are being ploughed back into a system which needs investment at this time.
I hope this necessary Bill will pass speedily through the House, having taken some time to get to this point. Fine Gael will do everything it can to expedite its passage.
I am very pleased to speak about this Bill and I join other Senators in wishing the Minister well with his new remit. He will make a great go of it coming from an Army town himself, the city of Limerick. I speak as someone from Athlone, the headquarters of the Western Command, which has an extensive complement of personnel at all ranks from the enlisted to the top. I was born and brought up 100 yards from Custume Barracks whose Army community has been very involved in the town of Athlone. The members of the Defence Forces, their wives, children and extended families form an integral part of the work and social lives of the town.
The Bill is overdue and I am very happy with it. I pay tribute to Deputy Michael Smith, the previous Minister, who put great care into the legislation. His five-year guardianship of the Defence Forces was a model as he worked through cutbacks and obtained money from all sorts of places. He had an amicable relationship with PDFORRA and all ranks of the Army. The Minister's speech made interesting reading. My late brother, Brian Lenihan, as Minister for Defence in the late 1980s, began the consultation process. An alarming incident involving Army wives which occurred in the lead up to 1989 election caused a great deal of friction at the time. It was following that incident that former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, appointed my late brother, Brian Lenihan, Minister for Defence. He worked with former Senator Brian Hillery who had a doctorate from UCD and was very strong on personnel matters. PDFORRA was established at that time providing the Army with a union-type organisation to represent it.
Following the establishment of PDFORRA, the CIO was established to deal with specific complaints. I was aware all my life that it did no good for a private or corporal in the Army to use the redress system. I handled many cases of redress none of which was of value to the enlisted person. Such complaints got nowhere because armies have hierarchies and when the hierarchy moved in, the enlisted soldier obtained no redress much as he or she tried. I have been involved in many such cases down through the years and I am not aware of one complaint that was upheld. However, things are different now.
I have no objection to captains, lieutenants, commanders and so on; that is the structure of armies. However, it was impossible to properly investigate complaints because the hierarchy always won out. Those who brought such complaints were usually enlisted soldiers and matters were loaded in favour of those in command. The CIO helped in particular cases and worked effectively within its remit. Dr. Eileen Doyle, whom I know very well, was, during my term as Minister for Education and Science, very high up in educational managerial status. She was a nun who, on leaving her order, set herself up as a consultant. The Doyle report produced by her was an important milestone for the Army. It set out what could and could not be done and much flowed from it. Dr. Doyle who undertook further reports for the Army is a brilliant, clever and strategically able woman. A commitment was given to the establishment of an ombudsman for defence following the publication of her report.
My final letter to former Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, set out my intention to deal with this legislation during the first week of the Seanad's return. However, that was not possible given the reshuffle and it is being taken today. The Minister travels to Letterkenny tomorrow to meet PDFORRA.
Many important amendments were made to the Bill on Committee Stage in the Dáil including the retention of personal appeal to the Minister in specific cases not covered by the ombudsman's remit. That is good. The scope of the ombudsman's remit is laid out and rightly so. I notice with alarm the use of the word "he" in the context of all references to the ombudsman. I presume the ombudsman does not have to be male.
I cannot understand why the ombudsman could not be female given that a brilliant woman, Dr. Eileen Doyle, produced this report.
It is covered by the Interpretation Act.
Yes, I know that. However, I do not like the Minister's use of the word "he" throughout his speech. I presume the position of ombudsman will be publicly advertised. It is right and proper that it be completely independent of the Army. The CIO system did not always work well.
The Minister has a fertile field ahead of him in dealing with the Defence Forces. There are currently many rumblings regarding the extension of the 12 year period for enlisted men and women. The Minister should agree to the extension. It is an issue of which the Minister will get an earful tomorrow in Letterkenny. I am sure he is aware of it and will take it on board. I am aware of it through my contact with Army personnel in Athlone.
The Minister should not take forever to fill the position of ombudsman. The position of Ombudsman for Children was not filled for two or three years. I hope the Minister can advertise and fill the position as quickly as possible. There is much riding on this legislation for Army personnel and I believe it will bring about change. It is interesting to note how the legislation evolved. It began following action by Army wives in 1989-90. Each stage marked an increase in transparency, hope and help for Army personnel. This legislation will put the seal on matters. I understand the Minister will be visiting Athlone in approximately two weeks time. I look forward to welcoming him there.
Senator O'Rourke will be relieved to know that the Bill refers to the ombudsman as "he or she".
Yes, but the Minister's speech does not.
Yes. Other Senators have also used the term "he".
I might apply for the position.
I extend a warm welcome to Deputy O'Dea to this House on his first occasion as a member of the Cabinet and Minister for Defence. I welcome also the staff from his Department to deal with Second Stage of the Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Bill 2002. The Minister has served as a Deputy for the constituency of Limerick for some time. As far as I am aware, he has been a Member of the House for 22 years and as such has gleaned tremendous experience as a public representative. His qualification as a barrister and other qualifications make him suitable for appointment by the President on the recommendation of the Taoiseach.
The Minister follows in the steps of an extremely capable and confident Deputy Michael Smith who took on difficult issues during his term as Minister in the last Government, particularly in terms of the Army deafness claims. The Minister now has a clear mandate from Government on the Defence Forces. Like Senator Cummins, I wish to declare an interest in this issue. I, too, was nominated by PDFORRA and RACO through the Irish Conference of Professional and Services Associations of which they are composite members. PDFORRA and RACO exercise their nomination rights with great discretion. In that regard, I am interested in the legislation and in defence issues as is our spokesperson, Senator Moylan. I have free association and contact with those organisations on issues related to their work with the Defence Forces and in that regard was anxious that the Bill be dealt with today. The Minister will attend the annual PDFORRA conference in Letterkenny tomorrow. We will not be able to attend the annual dinner in Letterkenny tonight because this Bill is going through the House but it is more important that the Minister is here on its behalf to pass this Bill. I have taken the liberty of faxing the Minister's speech to Letterkenny to let the organisation know that he has brought the Bill to the House and inform it of the Minister's great work.
Both RACO and PDFORRA were involved with this Bill and they are delighted it has reached this point. Before the summer recess, it was planned that the Bill would be completed in this House last week but it was not possible to achieve that because of the reshuffle. It is now here and next week Committee and Report Stages will be taken as quickly as possible. The Bill has already been passed in the Dáil, where the former Minister accepted amendments. I know from the new Minister's experience of legislation that if any area of the Bill can be improved, he will not hesitate to table an amendment in this House.
There are 10,500 members of the Permanent Defence Force, of whom 1,200 are officers, with 930 members of the Air Corps and a further number serving in the Naval Service. That is a strong force with many people to work with, placing a tremendous responsibility on the Minister. Few Ministers, however, in their first week in office would hand away so much power. It reminds me of the late Seán Flanagan, who proposed the abolition of the Land Commission just as he had been appointed to it. The Minister, however, has a lot of work to do in the Defence Forces and this disciplinary work should be given over to an ombudsman.
There are 12,000 people in the Reserve Defence Force, 7,000 of whom are very active. The Reserve Defence Force is being reorganised. I brought delegations from Boyle in County Roscommon to discuss that reorganisation and I ask the Minister to look at the reports on this issue. It is important that there are offices for the Reserve Defence Force in Roscommon town, Castlerea, Boyle and Strokestown. The force plays a key part in civic ceremonies, marching for pride at events such as the Easter and St. Patrick's Day parades. Involving local people in the Defence Forces creates credibility and goodwill.
Since I became a public representative in 1977, I have found there is a high regard for the Defence Forces. I had the pleasure of working in Bosnia Herzegovina in 1998 with the OSCE to monitor elections. I was very impressed by the ability and training of the Irish Defence Forces compared to any other army in western Europe involved in those events. They were extremely well trained and disciplined; the Minister is taking over an extremely competent force. They are lean and well equipped, and they will be better equipped after the Minister's tenure in office because he will bring a new and refreshing approach to this task. It is interesting that the Minister's first portfolio is defence, the first of many. Over the next three years I have no doubt he will make a success of that job.
This House appreciates the contribution of the Defence Forces in UN peacekeeping missions and the sacrifices made by those men who have died in the cause of peace. They sacrificed their lives for the people of this State and we owe them a great debt of gratitude, particularly for their defence of the realm.
PDFORRA headquarters are named in honour of John Lucey. I met him in 2002 when I was canvassing for the nomination to the Seanad and I regret his demise. He was a marvellous advocate for PDFORRA, as is Gerry Rooney, the current general secretary, and Commandant Brian O'Keeffe, general secretary of RACO.
I wish the Minister well in his portfolio and his visit to Letterkenny. He will get a tremendous welcome and the issues raised by Senator O'Rourke will be looked at afresh. Deputy O'Dea's appointment is a marvellous step forward. I recall the election in 1989. That was a very difficult period and the genuine issues raised were resolved by the incoming Government. I hope to see the Minister in this House on many occasions dealing with issues on behalf of the Defence Forces. His is a well-deserved appointment and the Defence Forces are delighted with it.
The appointment of Deputy O'Dea to the defence portfolio is a timely recognition of his Trojan service to the people of his constituency as a Deputy and as a Minister of State. On many occasions they have given him a resounding mandate to represent them and I have no doubt he will reflect the success he has achieved to date in representing them in the new portfolio he has been given.
It would be remiss of me not to say that I was sad to see the previous Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, leaving because in the last Seanad I was the Government spokesman on defence. When the Army deafness legislation was being debated, it was a trying time for the Department of Defence and the Minister but he handled it very well.
I welcome this legislation which is a milestone. In my capacity as spokesperson on defence in the last Seanad, I met PDFORRA and RACO on a number of occasions. In addition, I am from Mullingar which is a military town. We are proud of our barracks and the personnel who serve in it. Mullingar has been well served, not alone in the security that Columb Barracks gives the town, but the community as a whole benefits from the great service the Defence Forces personnel give across the board. They are involved in every organisation and always leave their mark.
I commend the Minister and the Government for introducing this Bill. The previous Minister introduced it in the Dáil last year and this is a fitting tribute to Deputy Michael Smith and his remarkable tenure and achievements in the Department. The late Frank Aiken may have served longer than Deputy Smith in the portfolio and I am sure the new Minister, Deputy O'Dea, will be nipping at their heels.
Since 1997, the former Minister successfully revitalised our Defence Forces and maintained the policy of continuous recruitment that he introduced in 1998.
As a long-standing member of Westmeath County Council, I spoke many times on motions about recruitment. The age profile of the Defence Forces was totally unacceptable. Many people, including former Ministers, said that action should be taken but it was Deputy Michael Smith as Minister who actually did something about it.
Deputy Smith also delivered a significant programme of investment in new equipment and infrastructure in the Defence Forces. He left his mark in the Department of Defence. His most enduring achievement was the first ever White Paper on Defence which sets out the blueprint for the future development of the Defence Forces to the year 2010. It lays out an investment programme that gives members of the Defence Forces the modern equipment required and a military organisation that is second to none. He also brought about a number of significant changes in reducing the overall level of cost to the State on the issue of Army deafness which have received widespread publicity. I am confident the taxpayer will be very grateful to him. As the Minister admitted in this Chamber, there was a need to have this matter addressed but it had to be addressed in a balanced and cohesive manner and he found the right balance and formula.
In congratulating the new Minister, Deputy O'Dea, I remind him that Deputy Michael Smith is a tough act to follow, but then Deputy O'Dea is a tough act himself. I am glad of the opportunity to speak in the debate on the Bill. Although the legislation has been in development for a long time, as other speakers have pointed out, it received a welcome from all interested parties. It is never too late to do the right thing.
Many Members referred in their contributions to the late John Lucey. I met him a number of times and there is no doubt that he was a king among men in his work on behalf of the Defence Forces and especially the representative body, PDFORRA. May he rest in peace. He campaigned tirelessly for the appointment of an ombudsman.
The purpose of the Bill is to create an office of the ombudsman for the Defence Forces, to provide for the appointment, functions and staff of the ombudsman and to amend the Defence Act 1954. When this legislation has been enacted, it will have the potential to give members of the Defence Forces a genuinely independent forum for dealing with complaints and any injustices that may emerge. No organisation has the capacity to deal efficiently with all types of complaints involving people at different levels and this should also apply in the case of the Defence Forces.
In my capacity as spokesman on defence, I received a number of complaints. I freely admit that I had no basis on which to act on those complaints because there was no formula in place to deal with them. This Bill is a step in the right direction. It is taking the proverbial bull by the horns and bringing to task those in positions of responsibility and command. It is always preferable to command respect rather than demand it. In the management of human resources, whether in terms of factory employees, members of the Defence Forces or whatever, it is important that the people in charge administer their responsibilities in a fair and even-handed manner but, unfortunately, that has not always been the case.
The present arrangements provide for remedies in the informal mechanism of an external civilian complaints inquiry officer who can investigate, examine and make recommendations on individual grievances which are submitted to the Minister by members of the Defence Forces. Under the arrangements, the Minister has the power of discretionary reference of a complaint to the complaints inquiry officer. A revaluation of this process carried out towards the end of 1999 indicated that the officer was dealing with between 20 and 25 cases per annum. It was found that a specific demand existed at private and non-commissioned officer level.
The process used was autonomous of the Defence Forces, the Department of Defence and the then Minister. The new office of the ombudsman will be a fully autonomous statutory entity to which complaints can be forwarded in cases where complainants are not content with the responses obtained from the military authorities, to former complaints under the Defence Act provisions for the redress of wrongs.
The new office of the ombudsman will function as an entirely independent entity, which is to be welcomed. It will have clear statutory powers of independent inquiry and investigation, closely modelled on those in the Ombudsman Act 1980. The powers of the new office will, however, take account of the singular circumstances and the demands of the military environment. Other speakers have referred to the fact that the military environment is different from any other working environment. The concept of military activities is based on a person being in charge and the men and women under his or her direction obeying reasonable orders. We expect the highest standards from the Defence Forces.
The Defence Forces have proven to be outstanding models in the community, whether in Mullingar, Athlone or further afield. In the context of overseas service, there have been no better flag bearers than the members of the Defence Forces. They have shown that Ireland, even as a minuscule nation on the periphery of the EU and the Atlantic Ocean, can produce men and women who have excelled in the even-handed manner in which they deal with difficult situations.
I wish the Minister well in his new position and wish this legislation well as it is much needed. The issue of female membership of the Defence Forces needs to be addressed. I would like to see more women serving in the Defence Forces. I ask the Minister to ensure the continuation of the recruitment campaign initiated in 1998 by the then Minister, Deputy Michael Smith. There was a haemorrhage of good people from the Defence Forces in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The age profile of the Defence Forces was undesirable and unacceptable. I ask the Minister not to allow that situation occur again but I am confident it will not happen under his stewardship.
Like other speakers, I welcome the Minister to the House. It is very fitting to have such a Minister. Last Wednesday I heard Opposition Members jokingly say to him that the country was safe. That is no joke; the country is very safe with Deputy O'Dea as the Minister for Defence. It is fitting that the Minister comes from the county he comes from which has one of the biggest military barracks in the mid-west. He is very aware of the problems faced by the military.
Much of what I wanted to say has already been said and I will not go back over it again. I wish to highlight a few issues. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the significant debt of gratitude we owe the Defence Forces since their inception. We have been well served by them. I live in Sligo which has a large Army population, although not quite as big as that in the Minister's constituency in the mid-west. Sligo's Army population serves out of Finner Camp. We in the north west are very proud of our men and women who at times put their lives on the line in order to serve us.
It is very fitting that this legislation is passing through the Upper House. The Bill is a significant tribute to the late John Lucey. As far back as ten years ago, he examined the subject. At the time there was some opposition within the Defence Forces. They were a little afraid, and perhaps rightly so, of outside interference. The Defence Forces normally look after everything to do with themselves and do so quite well. I spoke to both PDFORRA and RACO this morning. They are both singing from the same hymn sheet and are of one voice. They are happy with the legislation that is coming through and they say it is an important leg in the anti-bullying and harassment policy that is now in place. This is as a result of that good report of two years ago.
The late Mr. Lucey was a great man. Somebody once described him as a king, a giant of a man. It is a testament to him that so many people have talked about him in this Chamber today. Speaking as a widow, it is a source of great comfort to his widow and family to hear their loved one spoken of in such tones.
I look forward to the Committee Stage of this excellent Bill. I intend to ask then how the Bill will reflect on the reserve forces and I look forward to debating the issue with the Minister.
I rarely get a chance to inform my eminent colleague, Senator Leyden. I was listening to a debate on RTE just before the European elections last June. One of the candidates was talking about the word "ombudsman". She informed the listenership that it was a Swedish word for a conciliator, someone who brings things together. I do not think there is a word in any vocabulary for "ombudsperson".