Commencement Matters

Defence Forces Remuneration

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. This matter has been the subject of much scrutiny and media comment in recent years and the reason is clear. The fact is that those who work in the Defence Forces who are often on the front line in an emergency within the State are paid a measly sum of money for the service they provide. The representative organisations have demonstrated in recent times. There was a demonstration outside Leinster House in late 2017 to highlight the impact this issue is having on many Defence Forces personnel.

Figures released last year to my colleague, Senator Craughwell, showed that of the approximately 2,500 new recruits to the Army, the Naval Service and the Air Corps between 2013 and 2017, some 641 had left and only 1,822 remained. The reason was that they were able to earn more money working in places like Tesco, SuperValu, Aldi and Lidl than for the Defence Forces. They had made the decision to leave because they could not afford to remain in that position, this despite the fact that it costs approximately €100,000 to train a member of the Defence Forces.

We have to get real, which is why I am raising the issue with the Minister of State. I have listened to some of the reasoned arguments given by the Minister and the Department on this issue to the effect that remuneration levels are within the confines or parameters of the pay agreements. That is fine. The matter can be dealt with within those parameters, but a special case must be made for Defence Forces personnel. There should be a stand-alone agreement to deal with the issue, given the low levels or remuneration of which they are in receipt. The matter should be dealt with outside the parameters of the Public Service Pay Commission; it should be dealt with as an emergency. Recently the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers outlined that its members had not, to date, received the pay increases they were due to receive in recent weeks. I wonder why that was, despite the fact that administrative or management staff, that is to say, non-uniformed personnel within the Department of Defence, had received incremental pay increases under the Lansdowne Road agreement.

There seems to be an issue. Personnel are leaving the Defence Forces. Another example is illustrated by personnel at Finner Camp in County Donegal. Army personnel working there are being bused to Dublin where they work two days. They are then bused back to County Donegal. Is that the most efficient and effective use of resources within the Defence Forces? I understand that, as a result of that policy direction, fuel costs at Finner Camp have gone up 6,000% during the past three or four years. Is that an efficient and effective use of resources? I am not sure it is.

These issues need to be addressed. The first is proper remuneration for Defence Forces personnel, some of whom are sleeping in cars. Others cannot afford to pay mortgages, while others are living in absolute poverty, which is unacceptable. That is no way to treat Defence Forces personnel.

Rates of pay and conditions of employment in the public service have traditionally been set by, among other things, reference to relative levels of pay across the various sectors of the public service. Like other areas within the public service, the pay rates of members of the Permanent Defence Force were reduced during the financial crisis. These decisions were not taken lightly but were necessary at the time. The Government’s economic policy has led to economic recovery and a resumption of economic growth. This has provided the fiscal resources to provide for a sustainable and fair recovery in public service pay scales.

In 2016, as set out in the confidence and supply agreement, the Government established the independent Public Service Pay Commission to provide an objective analysis and advice on the most appropriate pay levels in the public service, including the Defence Forces. Following the publication of the report of the commission, the Government initiated negotiations on an extension to the Lansdowne Road agreement. Both the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, were invited to the negotiations which were held under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission. They were afforded equal standing to other public sector trade unions and representative associations during the negotiations.

Defence Forces pay is increasing in accordance with public sector pay agreements. The focus of the increases is weighted in favour of those on lower pay. Following the revisions of pay under the Lansdowne Road agreement, the first point of the pay scale for a corporal, including the military service allowance, is approximately €37,000. The first point of the pay scale for a sergeant, including the military service allowance, is just under €40,000 per annum. In addition, as a result of successful negotiations with PDFORRA, the pay of general service recruits and privates who joined the Permanent Defence Force after 1 January 2013 was increased further. The starting pay for a newly qualified three star private and the Naval Service equivalent saw an increase from €21,800 to €27,000 in gross annual earnings, inclusive of the military service allowance, with scope for further income from duty allowances.

Further increases in pay will arise from the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018 to 2020. The agreement provides for increases in pay, ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement, with the focus once again on the lower paid. Arrangements are being made to process the first increase due under the agreement of 1% of annualised salary, effective from 1 January 2018. Permanent Defence Force personnel should see the effects of the increases in their pay scales in the next few weeks.

The Department of Defence, in conjunction with the Defence Forces, raised recruitment and retention issues for specialists as part of the submission to the Public Service Pay Commission. The commission has prioritised the defence sector for a more extensive examination of these issues. I understand both PDFORRA and RACO have been invited to make submissions to the commission. Defence management is also preparing a submission. The Public Service Pay Commission is due to complete this exercise in the second half of 2018. The findings and proposals made will be considered at that time.

The actions being taken are in line with the confidence and supply agreement; the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission are being followed and that process should be allowed to continue. So far, this approach has resulted in pay increases for members of PDFORRA and new pay scales for three star privates which were backdated to 2016 and paid in 2017. Also, in line with the public service stability agreement, further increases for all members of the Defence Forces are commencing this year.

I am satisfied that the processes I have outlined are appropriate in consideration of the matters raised by the Senator and delivering results for members of the Defence Forces. I know that the Senator raised the issue of members not receiving their pay increases in early January. The reason was their representative body had been late in signing up to the public service stability agreement. A process had to be gone through, but I understand they will receive their increases shortly.

The Minister of State went well over the time limit in giving his very comprehensive answer.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive answer. This is an issue which must be dealt with. From his response, the Minister of State is on top of his brief. However, on his last comment - I know that it was the response given by the Department - RACO actually rejected the argument made by the Department in respect of its lateness in signing up to the extension of the Landsdowne Road agreement. Its deputy general secretary, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Priestley, said the organisation totally rejected that explanation and that it had clearly identified to the Department on 12 December its acceptance of the proposals well in advance of any required adjustment of the payroll in January 2018.

We had eight minutes for this matter but have now spent 12 on it. There are others matters to be discussed. The Minister of State gave a very comprehensive answer. Unless he wants to make a brief comment on the Senator's response, we will move on. Whether RACO let the Department know in time is a question to be argued.

I just want to let the Senator know that it was not actually the Department of Defence that came up with explanation but the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The Department of Defence was in no way holding back payments. As I fully understand, there is a process which has to be gone through. I am satisfied that was the reason for the delay in making payments.

I thank the Senator and the Minister of State, but I have to keep within the time constraints.

Hospital Appointments Administration

I welcome the Minister of State. As I know that he has come from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health, I will not delay him. This matter was touched on at the committee meeting. It is about people who have appointments to attend hospital outpatient clinics. The figure given at the committee meeting was that 479,000 people had not kept their appointments, but that figure does not necessarily refer to 479,000 different people. Some people might have failed to turn up for a number of appointments. If one divides 479,000 by 52, it comes to approximately 9,211 per week. If one divides that figure by five, it comes to 1,842 a day. What initiatives can be taken to help to reduce this level of non-attendance?

The reason I have tabled this matter is that I was speaking to some hospital staff during the Christmas period and one or two of them advised me that the level of attendance at their clinics was as low as 50%. That results in a huge waste of staff time and resources. Staff could have been doing a lot more or made appointments for others on the waiting list. Has the idea of introducing a text messaging service across the board been considered? Another idea that could be considered is that, rather than have 50 people turn up at 9 a.m., 25 might be given appointments at 9 a.m. and 25 at 10 a.m. What has been looked at in that regard to make the system more efficient, reduce the level of waste and avoid using up the valuable time of the front-line doctors and nurses who are running the clinics?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue which, as he said, was referred to at the committee meeting earlier. When one thinks about it, it is an incredible statistic. As many as 2,000 people a day are not turning up for their appointments, at a time when we have chronic waiting lists. Clearly, there is a serious issue to be addressed. I, therefore, genuinely welcome the opportunity to answer the Senator's question. It is welcome that it has been raised in the House.

Providing patients with access to clinicians in a timely manner is a key priority. Reducing the number of "did not attends", DNAs, is essential to ensure available appointments are utilised fully to see and treat patients.

Outpatient activity has increased year on year. However, the gap between referrals and appointment activity continues to widen. Waiting list data at the end of December 2017 showed an outpatient waiting list of 500,800. The HSE has advised that last year 479,000 outpatients did not attend their outpatient appointment. By way of example, according to the National Children's Hospital, Temple Street, one in eight outpatient appointments is missed. That means that valuable appointment slots are not being availed of, which is leading to longer waiting times for all patients.

In the light of such stark figures, it is clear that technological and e-health solutions have an important role to play in helping to resolve some of the most pressing and practical issues affecting health services. A Programme for a Partnership Government seeks to drive improvements in the management of health services by mandating the HSE "to engage strategic partners to help with the planning, financing and roll out of a 21st century IT health infrastructure, working towards the universal use of data to improve integrated care and outcomes across primary and secondary care". Potential solutions to the problem of DNAs are being considered in the context of recommendations from the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, and the Sláintecare report on access management and e-health.

In regard to ICT supports for managing DNAs, the office of the chief information officer of the HSE has outlined a number of possible technology solutions to assist in improving the efficiency of the current arrangements. A waiting list validation service has been proposed to focus specifically on DNAs. The proposal is to validate waiting lists using SMS reminder messages, which will speed up the validation process and increase efficiency. It is to remind patients of their upcoming hospital appointments via text message. This solution has the potential to reduce the number of patients who do not show up for appointments and, most importantly, reallocate the appointment slots to other patients.

Currently, 31 hospitals use text message based solutions to manage DNAs. The HSE and the NTPF are working to develop a standardised national approach and enable a reminder service that can process patient replies for hospitals that currently do not have solutions in place. Further phases of the programme would see the standardised approach and solution being deployed nationally. The Department is examining funding mechanisms for this proposal.

Overall, outpatient waiting lists remain a significant challenge to be addressed in 2018. A number of steps, including the commencement of a national waiting list validation project by the HSE, are being taken to ensure the lists are accurate and these efforts are to intensify in the coming months. In order to help patients to access timely appointments, I encourage all patients to let their hospital know as soon as possible if they cannot attend scheduled appointments. That simple action on the part of individuals could free up almost 500,000 additional slots in outpatient departments which could have clear benefits in the context of overall waiting lists.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. In the 31 hospitals that have engaged the text messaging solution, is there any indication as to whether it has helped to improve attendance levels and reduce the number of non-attendances? I understand the overall number of outpatient appointments across all hospitals is 3.2 million per annum. That figure was not indicated in the Minister of State's reply. He might clarify if my information is correct.

From my knowledge, that is the correct figure; there are in the region of 3.2 million outpatient appointments per annum. There is feedback from the hospitals which are using the text messaging system that it has had a positive impact, which is encouraging. The HSE is anxious to have a national standardised system that it can apply in all hospitals in order that they can all learn what is good and bad, but, overall, the response on the use of the text messaging system has been positive. It has focused the minds of those with appointments to either cancel or show up for them.

Planning Issues

It says something that there are only two of us in the Chamber. As a result, we can engage in dialogue. I welcome the Minister.

This Commencement matter concerns the Government's and the Minister's intentions to set up an independent office of national planning regulator, which is timely. The Government is committed to doing so, but I do not know the timeframe or timeline. The raising of the matter is also appropriate because I note that a major story carried in this morning's edition of The Irish Times relates to new rules aimed at curbing challenges in proceeding with key building projects, on which I want to pass one comment. Senators, Deputies, Ministers and councillors are all conscious of this issue.

I took time today to check An Bord Pleanála's website and those of the respective planning authorities and note that a substantial number of senior Ministers have lodged legitimate objections for their constituents. That is an important point to make. Because of all the clamour and controversy about bad planning, we must not batten down the hatches and curtail, in any way, public engagement and consultation. It is an open and transparent planning process. It is important that we do not try to close it down for people with legitimate objections or concerns. I am conscious that we have to roll out critical infrastructure, which issue has presented a problem. In that regard, I am mindful of the North-South interconnector which is a concern for Deputies and Ministers in the Meath constituencies and others. I am also mindful of the controversies in Dublin Port and Dún Laghaoire Port which are before the board. There are a number of ongoing battles. However, in a democracy it is important that we respect and allow people with legitimate concerns to express them, although, admittedly, we need to tighten all of the timeframes. However, I do not want to deviate from the principle of what I want to speak about, namely, the setting up of an independent office of planning regulator. The strong recommendations made by the Mahon tribunal include that we establish such a regulator. It is important that the regulator be wholly independent and not subordinate to the State or arms of it. It is also important that it be fully resourced.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for coming to the House to take this matter. It is important that we have a timeframe for the roll-out of the independent office of planning regulator and the provision of the necessary resources for it.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. A properly functioning planning system is of critical importance in ensuring development across the country takes place in accordance with the principles of proper planning and sustainable development. As in everything, balance is key in who gets to make representations and the kind of representations they get to make. In that respect, transparency is key. If we are to accept that people can make representations, we want to know who is making them and why. Potentially we have a great opportunity to have a lengthy debate on different planning issues as we have the Chamber to ourselves, but I will stick to the issue raised by the Senator in the first instance, namely, the establishment of an office of planning regulator.

As the Senator is aware, this afternoon the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, will be in the Seanad to take the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016. The Bill contains the required legislative infrastructure to allow me to establish the Office of the Planning Regulator which was, as the Senator pointed out, an important recommendation of the planning tribunal. The office will be independent of my Department and responsible for the independent assessment of all local authority and regional assembly forward planning, including the zoning decisions of local authority members in local area and development plans.

The Office of the Planning Regulator will evaluate compliance with relevant national and-or regional policy, including the forthcoming national planning framework which will also receive statutory underpinning in the amendment Bill. Among the functions set out in the Bill, the planning regulator will be empowered to review the organisation, systems and procedures used by any planning authority or An Bord Pleanála in the performance of any their planning functions under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. It will also be enabled to consider complaints from members of the public.

The planning regulator will have the power to advise the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government whether a plan made by a local authority conflicts with national planning policy. In the interests of transparency, any such advice will be published. The Minister will then make the final decision on whether a direction should be issued under section 31 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 and he or she will be accountable to the Oireachtas for his or her decision in that regard. The planning regulator will bring an additional layer of transparency to the planning system, while maintaining democratic accountability which is essential for public trust.

My Department has been progressing administrative matters in setting up the new Office of the Planning Regulator in so far as it can without the legislation being in place. In addition, I am sure the Senator will be pleased to know that funding for the office in 2018 has been secured. In the budget for this year we secured funding to set up the office, staff it and enable it to get its work under way.

Once the Bill has completed its passage through both Houses and has been signed into law, which is due to happen in the next couple of weeks following the Seanad's consideration of that Bill, my Department will then be in a position to proceed with the implementation plan to set up the new office which involves the recruitment of the new regulator through the Public Appointments Service, which, as the Senator knows, can take a couple of months, and putting in place the staff he or she will require to carry out the functions of the office appropriately. Once the appropriate administrative steps have been taken, I will be in a position to determine when to establish the office formally.

Given what we are trying to achieve in reforming our planning system, the huge ambition we have for capital investment over the coming years and the new national planning framework which is being developed, it is very important that the office is set up without delay. Funding is in place for the regulator. Once we have passed the legislation we can then move to the public appointments system to have the person appointed through that system. We can then set up the office with that person and later in the year we will formally open the office and it will begin its work. By then we hope the different regional spatial economic strategies will be well developed by the three regions concerned. The different city and county council plans will flow from that.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. This is about maintaining confidence in the planning process, which is very important. I am conscious of what has been reported in the media today. It is very important that we do not close down but rather tighten up the timeframes and timelines involved. We must encourage some consultation within the process. The sooner we have the office in place, the better, and the Minister will have my full support for the Bill. It is coming before the Seanad today and I accept its importance with particular regard to the national planning framework. It is important that we have that.

It is important that local councillors throughout the country have the necessary skill sets to interpret plans. I often receive representations from councillors who have said they feel disempowered. Only today I received an email from a Dublin local authority representative stating, in effect, that management was shutting down the consultation with planning files. The discussion of planning files with councillors was described as a sort of courtesy but one which is not provided for in legislation. Councillors are an important part of the planning process and are the guardians of their county development plans, which is a very important role. I ask the Minister to talk to the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, about training once the provisions of the Bill are rolled out. It is important that councillors fully understand the powers and functions of the new office and are assisted in understanding the process.

I thank Senator Boyhan for his reply. When it comes to the skill sets of our local authority members, he touched on a very important point. As we look to fix the housing sector in the country while also planning for future population growth, local authority members, together with Senators in this House and Members of the Dáil, will be a part of the solutions and of driving those solutions.

From my experience in Dublin City Council, when it came to things like the city development plan we were given some form of training. High density ratios and the other aspects which needed to be considered when a development plan is being framed were explained to us. We were told about the importance of different types of zoning, mixed use and those types of things. I would like to think that training happens in every local authority, but if it does not, it is something I will consider.

When it comes to county and city plans, it is not an executive function and members of local authorities have an extremely important role and responsibility. I want them to be able to execute that responsibility with confidence. They do not need to work hand in hand with the planners and will never be skilled as professional planners because it is not their full-time job, but they need to be able at least to engage with them at a sufficiently high level to make sure they are working in the best interests of the county or city in terms of development and planning.

On transparency and confidence in the system, historically our planning system took a huge hit because of things which were revealed during the Mahon tribunal and other investigations. Over recent years a great amount of work has been done to restore that confidence and faith in the system. We have to maintain that, and that is why the recommendation from Mahon is so important. The legacy will involve setting up an office, something the Government and Oireachtas will achieve this year. It is a very important step change compared with how we viewed the planning process in the past.

An extra layer of oversight and transparency will be transformative in terms of what we are hoping to do. We hope to align our national plan all the way down to local area plans and have a seamless follow through. We want to be able to have confidence that someone is looking at every step of the process, independent of Government and each part of that process. That is what the regulator will do. It will be a very important change. If we can achieve it together as soon as possible on the legislative side, I can then move quickly to appoint a regulator and get the office up and running.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.