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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Vol. 257 No. 10

Defence Forces: Statements

I welcome the Minister of State at the Departments of the Taoiseach and Defence, Deputy Kehoe. We will have contributions from group spokespersons of up to eight minutes, all other Senators up to five minutes and the Minister of State to be called to reply when no other Senators are offering to speak. At the moment I have listed Senators Leyden, Craughwell, Buttimer, Dolan and Ó Donnghaile. I call the Minister of State.

I might be a little over the eight minutes. I might ask for leniency. I very much welcome the opportunity the Senators have given me to speak about our Defence Forces and the actions that the Government is taking to develop the Defence Forces as outlined in the White Paper on Defence 2015.

Defence is a very serious matter and there is a strong danger that overstating the issues facing the Defence Forces will ultimately damage the Defence Forces. In today’s information age, an individual with a smartphone can reach a wide audience and the material that is being disseminated does not undergo quality assurance. I want to deal with facts and I look forward to engaging with Senators on that basis this evening.

At the outset I want to again restate my admiration for the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann. They provide important and vital supports both at home and overseas. In early March we all witnessed one aspect of this work when the Defence Forces contributed to our national efforts in responding to Storm Emma. When deployed overseas the Defence Forces represent the very best of this country. They serve with pride and distinction, continuing to enhance an impressive reputation that has been earned over 60 years of continual contributions to international peacekeeping. Today, Ireland has over 600 members of the Defence Forces serving in ten different missions, including our ship in the Mediterranean. I want to thank those individuals and recognise their families, for it is not just those who serve overseas that make sacrifices, their deployment also impacts on their partners, children, families, friends, parents and all family members.

I have always acknowledged the challenges that face the Defence Forces and I have taken a wide range of measures to begin to address these. The steps that have been taken include initiatives on pay, recruitment, increased opportunities to serve overseas, reviewing contracts and reviewing the conciliation and arbitration scheme. The fact is that the Government continues to demonstrate its commitment to ensuring that the Defence Forces are equipped and well trained to the best international standards to meet operational requirements both at home and overseas.

The budget allocation for 2018 delivered an additional €25 million. An additional €98 million for capital expenditure has been provided out to 2021. One of my priorities as Minister of State at the Departments of the Taoiseach and Defence is to ensure that our Defence Forces continue to have access to modern equipment and technologies. The acquisition of new equipment and equipment upgrades for the Defence Forces is considered in the context of the White Paper on Defence as part of the capability deployment and equipment priorities planning processes. Significant investment in equipment is taking place in the coming years in this context.

The ongoing capital investment in the Defence Forces is providing the maintenance and development of key capabilities. I visited the General Dynamics Europe Land Systems, Mowag, facility in Switzerland recently where we have a programme under way for the maintenance and upgrade of our current fleet of armoured personnel carriers, APCs. I also visited the Pilatus facility where we have placed a contract for three new PC-12 aircraft. In terms of capabilities, these new aircraft will be specially equipped with intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance, ISTAR, tasks and will represent a significant enhancement of existing capabilities. Planning has also commenced recently for the replacement of two CASA maritime patrol aircraft. A fourth new ship for the Naval Service, to be named LÉ George Bernard Shaw, will be delivered later this year, bringing investment in the new ships programme to over €250 million. There is very significant work under way and the Government remains committed to continuing our significant investment in the Defence Forces to meet existing and emerging challenges in the defence and security environment both domestically and overseas.

I want to address human resources, HR. Human resources are the key component of capability. We face HR challenges, similar to other areas of the public service, in recruitment and retention of certain personnel. The Defence Forces climate survey was commissioned on foot of a recommendation contained in the third and most recent report of the independent monitoring group. The comments arising from the survey cover a wide range of issues on human resource management including, among others: pay and conditions, particularly pay for the lowest paid members of the Defence Forces; vacancies; recruitment; retention; promotion systems; performance management; leadership; culture; morale; stress; and work-life balance.

The opinions expressed highlight a number of challenges for the Defence Forces in human resource management across the areas of leadership, communications, organisational culture and the working environment. While work to progress many of the issues was already under way or planned as part of the implementation of the White Paper on Defence, I have directed that certain projects be brought forward and that work commence on these immediately. I am also acutely aware that many of the issues raised challenge assumptions regarding existing approaches, some of which were previously agreed following a detailed consultation. This is a challenge for both management and staff and I am very much aware that there has been ongoing work across a range of HR issues.

It is worth noting that although pay is just one of the issues raised in the climate survey, it is the one which has received the most attention. It must also be noted that the climate survey pre-dated acceptance by the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, of the Lansdowne Road agreement and the pay increases that ensued. Similar to other areas within the public service, the pay of the Permanent Defence Force, PDF, was reduced during the financial crisis. The reduction in pay was on a graduated basis with increased rates of deductions for those on higher earnings. This action was one of the measures necessary to be taken to stabilise the financial situation which faced the country at the beginning of this decade. Memories cannot be so short that people have forgotten the crisis that we were in at that time. It must also be remembered that a number of cuts to certain allowances were agreed by the representative associations as part of the pay deals. Accordingly, their unwinding is encompassed within this process. The success of Government policies is apparent in the improvements within the economy which has provided the opportunity to begin the unwinding of the public service pay cuts imposed under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Acts, otherwise known as FEMPI legislation.

The Defence Forces pay is increasing in line with recent public sector pay agreements. The focus of these increases is weighed in favour of those on lower pay. Members of the Defence Forces received increases in pay in 2017 under the Lansdowne Road agreement. In addition, in a deal agreed with PDFORRA, improved payscales for general service recruits and privates who joined the Permanent Defence Force post 1 January 2013, were backdated to 1 July 2016 and paid in August 2017.

The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for further increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement, with the focus of the agreement once again being on the lower paid. By the end of the agreement, the payscales of all public servants, including members of the Permanent Defence Force, earning up to €70,000 will be restored to pre-FEMPI levels. The restoration of cuts to allowances will also be considered in the context of the agreement. An increase of 1% on annualised salaries due from 1 January 2018 has been paid to members of the Permanent Defence Force.

There is a persistent narrative which suggests that those in the Defence Forces are the lowest paid members of the public sector. In an organisation like the Defence Forces where the organisational design is that just over 48% of the establishment is comprised of privates, there is a requirement to ensure that any statistics cited, such as average pay, are contextualised. I suggest that it is more appropriate to consider the pay on offer for each job, having regard to what is on offer elsewhere for positions requiring similar skills and qualifications. The Defence Forces offer competitive starting salaries and excellent career opportunities for any young person thinking about joining. Following the series of pay increases in the past 12 months, a young three-star private on completion of training starts on €27,527, inclusive of military service allowance. This is an increase of €5,700, 25%, on the starting pay scale in the last 12 months. This starting pay compares very favourably with other entry level pay rates across the public service. A newly commissioned officer starts on a salary, inclusive of military service allowance, in excess of €35,000 per annum following 15 months training. If officers are already graduates, they start on a salary in excess of €40,000 per annum, inclusive of military service allowance. These rates compare favourably with the average graduate salary across all sectors. In general service promotion ranks, for Defence Forces personnel paying class A PRSI, the starting pay for a corporal, including military service allowance, is almost €39,000 per annum. The first point on the pay scale for a sergeant, including military service allowance, is just under €42,000 per annum. For officers who are promoted and who pay class A PRSI, including military service allowance, the first points on their pay scales are as follows: captain, €51,033; commandant, €63,644; lieutenant colonel, €76,060; and colonel, €86,579.

These figures represent basic pay, including military service allowance. Members of the Defence Forces also benefit from additional pay rates and allowances. These include technical pay, which, depending on the job of the individual member, ranges from €420 to €7,000 extra annually. In March, 3,680 members of the Defence Forces - approximately 40% of serving personnel - were in receipt of technical pay. Members of the Defence Forces also receive a range of duty allowances depending on their assigned tasks.

In the past two years, we have increased the opportunities for serving personnel to serve overseas. The average overseas payment received by general service personnel was just over €8,000 and the average paid to officers was almost €10,300. These are significant and deserved tax-free payments that are made to personnel who serve Ireland with pride and distinction.

Given the unique and demanding nature of military life, there is understandably a relatively high level of turnover among Defence Forces personnel. This is not new and the Permanent Defence Force has always had a level of turnover that far exceeds other areas of the public service. Some 2,832 personnel left the Permanent Defence Force in the last five years, from 2013 to 2017, inclusive. This figure looks stark and paints a bleak picture if it is taken out of context and considered in isolation from the long-term trends. The selective use of short-term statistics can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. This short-term information does not show that the numbers departing the Permanent Defence Force in recent years are, with some exceptions, broadly consistent with the long-term trend. An analysis of data dating back a number of years shows very similar numbers. For example, in the five years 2008 to 2012, a total of 2,935 personnel left the Permanent Defence Force. Some 2,889 left in the five-year period from 2003 to 2007. Within these figures, on average approximately 22% of general service recruits do not complete their induction training.

In order to balance personnel turnover, there is significant ongoing recruitment at both enlisted and officer level. During 2017, 751 personnel were inducted into the Permanent Defence Force. It is anticipated that approximately 800 personnel, including general service recruits, apprentices, cadets and direct entry officers, will be recruited to the Permanent Defence Force in 2018.

The success of Government policies is clearly evident in the economy, which is continuing to grow strongly, providing far more job opportunities than we have seen in recent years. Nonetheless, a career in the Defence Forces is still a very attractive proposition. It is pleasing that the number of applications to join the Defence Forces exceeds the numbers that applied prior to the economic crash when there were similar employment opportunities. However, I am also aware that the number finally inducted relative to the number of applicants is lower than in the past and this must be considered.

I have previously outlined particular challenges in certain specialist posts, such as those relating to pilots, air traffic controllers and certain technicians. These specialists can prove difficult to retain where, as in the current economic circumstances, there are competing private sector and commercial semi-State sector job opportunities. The extensive professional training that such specialists receive within the Defence Forces makes them very attractive within these sectors. This is not a unique challenge for the Defence Forces, it is also faced by military forces elsewhere. The issue of specialist vacancies throughout the Permanent Defence Force is being addressed by means of a range of recruitment methods that include direct entry competitions for specialist positions. The scope to further expand direct entry is being considered. Civil and military management have been directed to develop proposals to facilitate former Permanent Defence Force personnel with appropriate skill sets to re-enter the Defence Forces.

The Public Service Pay Commission was a central component of the confidence and supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It established an agreed process for looking at public sector pay taking cognisance of the needs of all sub-sectors. In 2017, under my direction, the Department of Defence raised recruitment and retention issues as part of the submission to the Public Service Pay Commission. In a further acknowledgement of these issues, the Government tasked the Public Service Pay Commission with examining these challenges in the defence sector in more detail. The Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, has prioritised the health sector and Defence Forces so that issues relating to recruitment, retention and specialist pay will be considered by the pay commission. The commission has commenced its work and has asked the Department of Defence to provide it with hard data and detailed information. It is important that the commission is given the opportunity to do its work and I have already outlined the pitfalls of misinterpreting data. For this reason, I do not wish to engage in lengthy debate regarding what the statistics do or do not show. That is for the Public Service Pay Commission to consider and I do not wish to pre-empt its work. The Department of Defence is continuing to work in close collaboration with military management with the aim of jointly preparing the material requested. The military authorities have produced a paper which is being considered by my Department having regard to the hard data and information requested by the Public Service Pay Commission. It is proving more difficult than anticipated to source the information requested, particularly in the context of specialist personnel but it is important that the full range of data is submitted. The Department has forwarded an initial tranche of information to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and will forward the remaining data and information in the coming weeks when it becomes available.

The Public Service Pay Commission is due to complete its exercise in the second half of 2018. The findings and proposals arising will be considered at that time.

In conclusion, in addition to the preparation of material for the Public Service Pay Commission, there is an ongoing programme of HR development within the defence organisation. A number of initiatives have been instigated, including the review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme, a review of the criteria governing contracts for enlisted personnel and a comprehensive skills gap analysis across the Defence Forces. These measures address a range of issues and are aimed at ensuring that the Defence Forces retain the capabilities to undertake the roles assigned by Government and remain a career of choice for anyone who wants to work in a challenging and varied environment which provides opportunities for lifelong learning and self-development.

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House. His speech was very comprehensive and will be read by the representative bodies. Like three other Senators, I have been nominated to the House since 2002 by PDFORRA and RACO, which are part of the Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations, ICPSA, the organisation that nominates seven Senators. It is a matter for the nominated Senators to get elected, of course. Senator Craughwell is also nominated by ICPSA as are Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Robbie Gallagher. We take that position very seriously. Those organisations give us the responsibility to work with them as representatives in Oireachtas. PDFORRA and RACO are not unions but representative bodies. I know the Minister of State has been very attentive in attending all the functions, dinner and events and that he respects their input into the work he is doing. They have the interests of their personnel in sight, naturally, and so has the Minister of State with overall responsibility for the Defence Forces.

Irish people rightly take great pride in our Defence Forces and the contribution made by the Permanent Defence Force, the Reserve Defence Force and by Civil Defence. We all agree that the single greatest asset the Defence Forces have is their personnel, yet the Defence Forces are facing huge difficulty in retaining and recruiting sufficient personnel, as was mentioned by the Minister of State. The Defence Forces are now seriously below strength and it is time to significantly rebuild. The decline over recent years has left the force with just 9,057 personnel, some 443 below the current agreed strength. Two huge recruitment campaigns in 2016 and 2017 have resulted in no overall increase. Retention is a major problem with exit from the Defence Forces by all ranks running on average at almost 60 a month.

Ireland needs to recommit to its Defence Forces and its defence capability. Fianna Fáil believes that we should look to increase our Defence Forces to 10,500 in coming years but we also believe that it just as important to retain what we have. There is a recruitment drive under way which I hope will be successful. I would certainly encourage young men and women to join the Defence Forces. It is a very exciting role and a tremendous contribution to the State. Their work abroad in the Mediterranean and on overseas peace missions is recognised throughout the world. The training of our Defence Forces is second to none in the world. We have an enormous reputation as peace makers and peace maintainers in different regions of the world. We are very proud of that work.

PDFORRA and RACO, which represents the officers, do an excellent job in representing their personnel. One of the more remarkable claims from the October 2017 PDFORRA conference was that the soldiers, sailors and air crews lost a combined 146,000 days annual leave in the past five years. This happened primarily because reduced numbers in the Defence Forces meant they had to plug gaps. PDFORRA estimates that this saved the Department of Defence anything between €17 million and €22 million. The PDFORRA general secretary, Gerry Guinan, said shortages in personnel mean bomb disposal officers are working an average of 76 hours a week, while NCOs are doing 56 hours a week and drivers anything up to 60 hours per week. They want to see the immediate implementation of the EU working time directive for members of the Defence Forces. PDFORRA points out that as far back as 2013, the Government was aware that the EU working time directive applies to members of the Defence Forces, yet here we are in 2017 with still no word on the implementation of this legislation in respect of members of the Defence Forces. The members of the Defence Forces need and deserve clarity. Furthermore, the Department of Defence is failing to provide for the provision of the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 to serving personnel. Outgoing PDFORRA president, Mark Scally, said that it was clearly intended for this legislation to benefit members of the Defence Forces like everybody else. One, therefore, has to ask why that legislation is not being brought forward.

PDFORRA is now campaigning for the restoration of the Saturday and Sunday premium rates. I know the Minister of State is well disposed towards their claim although he has to negotiate with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. PDFORRA is very anxious to resolve the matter and restore the allowance. I hope it will be possible to have that implemented.

In respect of the Air Corps, we are aware of the number of pilots who are being recruited by the private sector. That is why the Minister of State and the Government will have to look at the whole pay rate structure for our pilots. We have very well trained and effective pilots and the State spends quite an amount of money in their recruitment and training. They are sought after by every airline in the world. Safety is a major factor. I have experienced how they work. When I was a Minister of State with responsibility for trade, I was in their company in the Government jet on trade missions. Their care and attention to duty was second to none. Ryanair, Aer Lingus and all the other airlines are anxious to recruit those excellent men and women. In the circumstances, special consideration is required of the Minister of State to retain them.

I commend our Naval Service and the work it is doing in the Mediterranean. It has saved a great number of lives in the last few years. I give absolute credit to its members. I commend the Minister of State on his work. He is accessible to the representative bodies and I am very pleased about that. I know he is being very attentive to his duties and is taking them very seriously. I have a lot more that I could say but I only have eight minutes. I thank PDFORRA and RACO for their friendship over the years to me as a representative in the Seanad who was nominated by them through the ICPSA. I have always respected that nomination. It is my duty and responsibility to highlight the issues as my colleagues have done in this House. It is a tremendous responsibility and asset for them to be in a position to have four Senators elected to this House. It gives them a voice and they certainly use it very respectfully and keep us well briefed.

I thank the Minister of State and the Leader for facilitating this debate at my request. As the Minister of State knows, the first official review of the 2015 White Paper on Defence is due to commence in July. Even though the ten-year White Paper is only into its third year, the world is certainly a very changed place. Brexit, the uncertainty of a hard border, increased international terrorism, cybersecurity, transnational organised crime and mass migration are all new challenges that the Defence Forces are facing. I have the utmost faith in the Minister of State's commitment and the capabilities of both the Department of Defence and military management to identify, map out and respond to the emerging situation and these challenges.

What concerns me and many other stakeholders is the internal threat to the capability and stability of the Defence Forces due to a developing crisis in personnel retention. There is an article in the national newspapers on this problem nearly every day now and while I have congratulated the Minister of State on a very successful recruitment campaign last year, this campaign is being systematically undermined by what can only be described as a crisis in retaining those who have been recently recruited and in providing satisfactory contracts of employment for enlisted personnel, as well as career paths, pay and conditions of employment for those who already serve. Some 84% of those serving in the Defence Forces earn 13.8% less than the national average. Getting €20 for 24 hours' duty is not true compensation.

I agree with the White Paper that "continuous recruitment is the lifeblood of the Defence Forces; providing young, motivated and enthusiastic personnel to replenish military formations for operational deployments." The White Paper provides for rolling manpower planning but it does not appear to be working. An article in today's edition of the Irish Examiner points out that in 2016 alone, a total of 62 officers and 441 enlisted personnel left the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps voluntarily. Last October I raised the issue of new recruits leaving the forces to take up jobs in Tesco and warned that this crisis was coming down the line. I believe the Minister of State told us that 712 joined. Of that group, 576 left while in training and a further 31 cadets. It blows me away that cadets would actually walk out of the Defence Forces. It is not the Minister of State's fault; there are issues there.

Across the Defence Forces, a total of 2,496 recruits started training between 2013 and 2017. To date, 641 of them have left. In the same period a total of 2,831 personnel left, which represents 29.8% of the entire Defence Forces. Some 76% of those retiring were premature voluntary retirements with 34% having served five years or less. I understand that in 2019, a significant number of NCOs will be leaving the forces and we know that they are the lifeblood of any unit. The NCOs are the culture-forming members of any unit. Officers come and go; the NCOs remain on. This seems to have passed over the heads of the policy makers.

This brain and manpower drain is now at a level that could not have been envisaged by the White Paper, which makes scant reference to the issue of retention, which is conspicuous by its absence. This again points to a failure by the policy makers. Does the Department have retention policy in place and if so can the details of it be released?

As the Minister of State said, 9,500 established PDF personnel provides for the full staffing of each unit within the Defence Forces organisational structures. We know that strength at station is the key figure. In recent weeks we have seen how that has impacted on the Second Brigade and, in particular, on the 27th Infantry Battalion where three captains and two lieutenants are running an entire battalion. They have been augmented recently by one commandant. This is an outrageous breakdown in command and control. It is an operational issue and the Minister of State cannot be out there dealing with operational matters.

The current exodus is playing havoc with this. Several times last year the strength of the Defence Forces dipped below 9,000. We hear of personnel being redeployed to areas far from their homes, personnel acting up for long durations, and in some cases a complete breakdown of command and control.

There will be accidents. Already there have been three near misses with 0.5 calibre heavy machine guns. If such an accident takes place and if lives are lost, where will the indemnity lie? Who will be liable? Will it go all the way up to the Department or will it stop at the senior officer in charge? It is simply not workable to have a captain in charge of a battalion.

The jury is out on the two-brigade structure but is will be difficult to assess and review it with the current crisis in retention. The ripple effect of the retention crisis is enormous. For a start there is the cost of €4 million for replacing the officers who have left and €11 million in replacing the enlisted personnel. That is €15 million down the drain thus far.

As I have said, many are leaving in training. There is the loss of institutional and organisational knowledge, loss of motivation and morale as outlined in the University of Limerick climate survey. What is most worrying is that personnel from all ranks and specialties are leaving. Much is made of the fact that those leaving are the highly skilled technical personnel such as pilots, ordnance engineers, marine engineers, aeronautical engineers and other specialists. However, that only accounts for 30% of those who have left. The other 70% is made up of general service enlisted men and women.

Last year the Naval Service received well-deserved national and international recognition for its humanitarian missions in the Mediterranean yet at home it is a service in crisis. Recently P52, LÉ Niamh, put to sea with just four able seamen on board. It is reckless that an asset worth over €50 million is sent to sea understaffed. What happens if a fire takes place on board? Are crew there to take care of these things? I do not think so. If they are called into an operational situation, are they capable of handling it? I do not believe they are. What is happening with respect to drug interdiction controls and patrolling human trafficking, for which the Naval Service is responsible?

Since 2011 the Air Corps has lost 50 pilots. Pilots are being offered jobs paying up to €200,000 in the private sector. Another issue is the lack of qualified CASA pilots. I wonder whether any CASA aircraft take off any more. Again this is not an issue for the Minister of State but for the operational people. I ask him to see if he can get the matter addressed.

I know that the Defence Forces have a number of recommendations, not least of which would be a separate pay review body for those who serve in uniform. As the one-size-fits-all of the national pay rounds does not fit the uniformed services, we should look at that.

Focusing on the low paid is one thing but raising the pay of the lower paid and leaving the ranks above without an increase in pay, closes the gap between lower ranks and the next up the line. The people up the ranks are getting tired and are deciding to leave. I received a text today from a woman whose husband was aged 50. She has three young children. He is finishing because he has to on an age basis, but he has nowhere to go and nothing to do.

The Minister of State is about to review the White Paper and reconsider the reorganisation that took place in 2012. I wish him luck with it. If I can be of any help on it, I will try.

The next speaker is Senator Colm Burke, who has eight minutes.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I will not take eight minutes because the Minister of State has set out very comprehensively the work the Defence Forces have done and that they need to carry out in the coming years.

There is a challenge on investment. On the good side we have a flow into the economy, which means we can invest in this vital service. The Army, Naval Service and Air Corps provide vital security to the country. They also provide fantastic support in a peacekeeping role. As the Minister of State said, more than 600 people are currently on ten different missions throughout the world. A number of years ago I was in one of the areas in which they worked in very difficult conditions on the Sudanese border. It is not an easy job for any member of the Defence Forces, whether they are in a role as commander or an ordinary member of the Defence Forces.

It is a major challenge to go to another jurisdiction to deal with volatile situations which can change overnight. It is interesting that the one thing about Irish troops, and likewise the Naval Service, is that they have a really good reputation no matter where they go. I remember being in the European Parliament when a member of the British Army came in and made a presentation to a committee advising in respect of the operation which was under way in Chad at the time. He said that the Irish Army had achieved more in six months than the French Army had in 30 years. That was because of the way in which our Army approaches situations. It is not about pointing guns and telling people what to do. It is about going in and asking people what the Army can do for them and how it can help them. That is exactly what it did in its role. In every country it has gone into in its peacekeeping role it has been about working with the community. I suppose that comes from our own ethos in this country of trying to help others who do not have the expertise or skills to complete a task. The members of the Defence Forces have that expertise and are prepared to use it for the benefit of others. That says an awful lot about the dedication and commitment of all ranks in the Defence Forces down through the years.

Yes, there are major challenges in the Defence Forces now. There is no question or doubt about that. It is like in every State organisation when the economy is improving. Looking at today's unemployment figures, one should remember that we have come from 15.9% unemployment down to less than 6% today. We are practically at full employment. We will now have challenges in retaining people in their respective roles both in the Civil Service and in areas such as the Army and the Naval Service. Another reason people in the Army, the Naval Service and the Air Corps are being sought is that they have the training, that they are extremely well disciplined and that, when they are employed, they deliver the service they are employed to deliver. It is one of the advantages of going through a period of time in an organisation in which there are very strict command structures and a very strict way in which units are managed. That gives people an advantage no matter what job they go into in the future. We must also respond to those challenges. It is not something which can be done overnight. It is a case of constantly reviewing the situation. The Minister of State already gave an outline in respect of the White Paper. We need to constantly review and update the kinds of jobs and security we can provide to people working in the Defence Forces.

There is no question or doubt that as full employment is reached there will a challenge in retaining people. In Cork, for instance, the Naval Service has had huge challenges in retaining people because there is a number of companies just up the road from Haulbowline that are able to offer jobs to members of the Defence Forces, including members of the Naval Service, at pay rates which challenge people who love the work they are in but who must support themselves and their young families. We have to be careful to ensure that we can respond to that challenge.

A lot of progress, however, has been made in recent years. Yes, there were cutbacks at the time of the downturn in the economy and there were challenges in respect of not being able to provide the quality of accommodation and backup support required by the Defence Forces during those times, but that has now changed. In fairness to the Minister of State, my understanding is that there is more than €541 million to be invested between 2018 and 2021. That is a huge sum of money which was not previously available. It is important that we spend that money wisely to the advantage of this country, but also to the advantage of the people working in all areas of the Defence Forces, whether as privates, sergeants, corporals or commanding officers. It is important that we respond accordingly to their requirements and the challenges they face. Again I thank the Minister of State. It is important that the investment programme continues. If possible, additional funding should be put into the Defence Forces to maintain it and to make sure it is ready to face the challenges of the next 20 to 25 years.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I am very proud of my own late father's lifelong service in the Defence Forces. He joined in 1940. His brother-in-law, Séamus Connolly, received his commission from Douglas Hyde. I am glad to say he is still to the good and I am looking forward to welcoming him here to the Houses in the coming weeks. My own brother Jim has also served with the Defence Forces. I have a tradition of understanding Army men from the times about which I am talking. We are making these statements on International Workers' Day. Members of our Defence Forces are workers as well as having a very particular and critical area of work. I want to note that it is unacceptable that members of the Defence Forces are still being provided with inadequate conditions of pay with which to support themselves and their families. It is important and urgent that this be dealt with and that we invest in the welfare of members of our Defence Forces and their families. There are many countries around the world with very high military spending but in which members of the Defence Forces themselves still have very low pay and conditions. We have a peacekeeping Army and Defence Forces and we can justifiably be extremely proud of that tradition. We can also be proud of their support for the civilian authorities through every decade.

I will ask the Minister of State one question now and I will have a few more later. I would be grateful if he were to tell us whether the implementation for permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, will be brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas and when we can expect that. There are real issues and tensions in respect of our traditional stance of neutrality, collective EU responsibilities and solidarity in a world which is becoming more sharply and violently divided. That is almost putting it mildly.

The Defence Forces are one of the true success stories in this democracy of ours. They have served with honour and pride both at home and overseas since the foundation of the State. Their loyalty to this State at all times has been a testament to how an armed force can support a government and, more important, its people. Our Defence Forces mix easily in Irish communities and are very much part of them. To echo a point made by Senator Colm Burke and others, they mix and relate equally well with the people they support all over the world in their peacekeeping duties.

In recent times the Defence Forces have struggled, to put it mildly, to recruit and retain personnel. Surely with the right incentives and some creativity this issue can be overcome. We have to overcome it. It is particularly concerning that the organisation continually loses key technical staff which it then seems unable to replace. We need to invest in our Defence Forces now. They are excellent value for money compared to any defence force around the world.

There may be opportunity on the horizon for our Defence Forces, especially in the context of the EU. Those opportunities can be availed of in keeping with our neutral stance. It is vitally important that a lack of investment at this time does not deny our Defence Forces access to opportunities which can maximise their potential; more importantly their potential as a critical asset to Ireland; and our nation's potential in respect of any ongoing and future developments at EU level.

They play an ambassadorial role and enhance our reputation in a practical way among ordinary people around the world. Ireland has participated on the world stage through the UN but it is important to remember that Ireland has also participated in EU-sponsored peacekeeping missions.

I attended a dinner ten years ago to commemorate men who fought and fell in the First World War as well as members of our Defence Forces who had died, mainly on UN duty. I was sitting beside a youngish woman and I asked her what was her interest or involvement. She replied that she had lost a son abroad with the Army a few years previously. I commiserated with her and said that I was sure it was a comfort to her to know that he died trying to bring peace to people. She cut me dead with her response, saying, "No, I lost my son". I relate that story because at the sharp end of what our Defence Forces do is the possibility of losing life in the service of others and it is daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and partners who are affected as well and not only the soldiers.

In summer 1940, our Army stood between two invasion threats, the most sinister of them being the Nazi threat. However, there was also the threat that the UK would invade us to protect its interests. Many Irishmen stayed to defend us to the hilt. Our defensive capacity was exquisitely displayed in Jadotville, the Congo, in the early 1960s. Men remained in their posts against excessive odds but because of their training, esprits de corps and morale and luck, nobody was killed. They demonstrated what our troops can do. They routinely support us during adverse weather events and other emergencies in conjunction with the civilian authorities. Our armed forces continue to excel and are ambassadors on our behalf. Our navy in the Mediterranean Sea deploys military and technical skills and displays sheer humanity to support families in difficult circumstances.

As the saying goes, "You'll never miss your mother until she's gone". That is the issue with investment. The Minister of State has to invest now. When I was trying to cram for an exam the night before instead of months before, my Dad used to say, "Jack, it is too late to sharpen your sword when the drum beats for battle". The Government cannot only invest in the Defence Forces when an emergency happens; it should invest in them now. They are a critical backstop and, therefore, the Government needs to get on with that.

Is the Minister of State happy and content with the rate of staff turnover? He stated:

The success of Government policies is clearly evident in the economy which is continuing to grow strongly. This is providing far more job opportunities than we have seen in recent years.

It could be viewed as an excuse that the reason the Defence Fores cannot retain people is we have near full employment. We want full employment but it should be our normal ambition to retain fully deployed Defence Forces in such circumstances.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Táim buíoch go bhfuil an t-ádh orm labhairt ar an ábhar seo and tá sé i gconaí tábhachtach, mar atá ráite ag cainteoirí eile, ár mbuíochas a ghabháil leis na fir agus na mná sna Forsaí Slandála.

I always welcome the opportunity not only to welcome the Minister of State but to commend the commitment and dedication of the men and women of the Defence Forces, not least those who have undertaken such impressive and awe-inspiring search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.

I will make a number of points before putting a number of questions. I will go through them as succinctly as I can because most of them have been raised by colleagues. Since 2009, the salaries and allowances of Defence Forces personnel have been cut significantly. Many rely on family income supplement as the pay is so low.

There is a serious problem with recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces, particularly at officer level, to which the Minister of State alluded in his contribution. Many are taking up better paid jobs in the private sector and, therefore, we have a brain drain. Senator Dolan asked a fair question about what is being done not only to react to the brain drain but to invest to ensure there is not a repetition of this in the future among those who are recruited. The fact that the Public Service Pay Commission has prioritised the examination of recruitment and retention issues in the Defence Forces demonstrates the seriousness of the problem. The Minister of State needs to outline when the Department’s submission to the commission will be completed. He also needs to outline if he has engaged with PDFORRA, the representative of the ordinary rank and file members, in preparing this submission in order that the views of ordinary members of the Defence Forces are represented in this regard.

The European committee of social rights recently recommended that members of the Defence Forces should have the right to collective bargaining. Sinn Féin supports this right and has introduced legislation in the Dáil to give effect to it. We are calling on the Minister of State to immediately introduce an effective mechanism to give effect to the decision of the European committee. We also commend PDFORRA for taking this action. It is a disgrace that members of the Defence Forces were forced to go to Europe to have this basic right vindicated.

On the issue of European militarisation and neutrality, I would appreciate if the Minister of State could clarify if he supports the position adopted by the four Fine Gael MEPs in respect of our neutrality and if this is now considered Government policy. Fine Gael MEPs recently voted in the European Parliament in favour of a report calling for each member state to spend 2% of their current GOP on defence. Currently, Ireland spends 0.3% of its GDP on defence. The Minister of State needs to clarify if he supports this position and if he intends to increase defence spending in line with other member states. While Sinn Féin supports increased investment in our Defence Forces, in particular to address issues such as pay, we have huge concerns at proposed increases to align us with the European militarisation agenda, particularly given the demands in terms of housing and health within society.

I raised with the Minister of State's predecessor the issue of planning and administering recruitment drives throughout the State. We are approaching a time, for example, where universities will be holding freshers' fairs and there will be any number of events throughout the summer. What obstacles does the Minister of State face in instructing the Defence Forces to recruit nationally and to attend universities in the Six Counties and other such events where appropriate? This would give young people from the North who may wish to avail of a career in the Defence Forces the easiest and most comfortable avenue to do that. Perhaps it is an unfair question to throw at him now but could he reflect on that and revert with a response?

Ba mhaith liom fáilte mhór a chur roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí on Teach. Like many Irish people, I am deeply proud of our Defence Forces and the Civil Defence and the contribution they make to our communities.

Their contribution to Irish society cannot be overestimated and when we talk about our Defence Forces, especially those overseas, we cannot forget about their families who also pay a high price for the role that their loved ones take on behalf of the State. We should always remember that and appreciate that in our comments.

It is saddening to see that the figures for the Defence Forces currently stand at 9,057. I am sure the Minister of State would agree that is a low number and is 443 below the agreed recommended strength. Despite the fact that in 2016 and 2017 we had recruitment campaigns, the problem still exists. That tells us that we have a real problem in attracting new people to the Defence Forces and a serious problem in retaining the numbers we have. That in turn raises another question, namely, what is the problem? Clearly the terms and conditions which those members of the Defence Forces enjoy, if that is the right word to use, need to be looked at. Clearly people are speaking with their feet because they are not joining and large numbers of those who are here are leaving, which is disconcerting. As a result, this issue remains to be solved to a level that is satisfactory to all concerned, despite the Minister of State's best efforts. A report in today's edition of the Irish Examiner newspaper claims that last year alone, the taxpayer spent €15 million to replace Defence Forces personnel who left because of pay issues.

That is a very concerning fact and a lot of Defence Forces personnel depend on social welfare payments to put bread and milk on their table. A recent survey of Defence Forces personnel who are in receipt of family income support tells its own story. A total of 792 privates, 519 corporals and 58 captains are getting family income support. It goes to show that this problem stretches right across all ranks. If we are serious about it, the elephant in the room is pay and conditions. Other Members have alluded to it. To be fair, it is not a problem the Minister of State faces in his area alone but is a problem faced across many sectors, including the nursing and teaching professions. It is an issue that needs to be tackled if we are going to retain people and attract new people to join the Defence Forces. It is right and proper to acknowledge the reasonable work done by PDFORRA and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, on behalf of their members. Their approach and contribution on these issues has been very measured, as I am sure the Minister of State, with whom they have a good relationship, will agree. I hope that with their best efforts, we can see some progress in this light. It has to be said that this Fine Gael-led Government's decision to not have a full Ministry at the Cabinet table for defence is a backward step and it is one I would like to see reversed. I am sure the Minister of State would like to see his feet under the Cabinet table and I am sure he is well capable of doing that. It does not make his job any easier when he goes to his colleagues and he tries to make a case for the hard-working men and women of the Defence Forces but if we are serious about doing that, this is something we need to look at.

To conclude, I thank the Minister of State for his continuing efforts to address this important issue. The security of our State is what we are talking about. It is about basic respect for the men and women who stick on a uniform to defend that State and all they are looking for are reasonable terms and conditions in order for them to stay within that job.

I thank Senator Gallagher and all six Senators who spoke this evening. I call the Minister of State to respond and conclude.

As many Members raised the issue of pay, that will be the first issue I will address. Thereafter, I will try to go through as many of the issues people have raised with me as possible. There have been significant improvements in pay for members of the Defence Forces under the Lansdowne Road agreement, particularly for lower-paid members. The pay scales will increase further in all ranks over the lifetime of the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020. The Permanent Defence Force representative associations participated in the negotiations on the agreement and their members subsequently voted to accept the terms of the agreement. I acknowledge both PDFORRA and RACO for their participation in this regard, as well as for the excellent working relationship I have with them.

Senator Gallagher raised people's eligibility for working family payment. This is determined having regard to criteria such as family income and the number of dependants. Circumstances surrounding an application for working family payment, formerly known as the family income supplement, is a private matter between the applicant and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Family income and the number of dependants are key variables in determining eligibility. Public service pay is determined having regard to the specific public service position, skill levels, etc. and not family circumstances. The Senator mentioned 300 privates - I am not sure but by the time he had finished totting up, he reached a figure of more than 750 members of the Irish Defence Forces who were in receipt of this payment. I encourage the Senator to go back to where he got those figures because he is making a huge mistake. There are fewer than 100, or just a touch over 100, members of the Irish Defence Forces in receipt of this family payment. Like all this stuff that is out there in the ether, it is absolutely false. In a similar manner to the texts and tweets that go out, a huge amount of it is totally false. Everyone who spoke has said they are so proud of the Irish Defence Forces, as I absolutely am. I have to compliment Senator Leyden, who did not criticise the Defence Forces organisation. I compliment him on that, as well as my party colleague, Senator Colm Burke. They did not go out and start throwing out figures that there are gaps here and there and everything like that because some of the information that has been put out this evening is totally untrue. Senator Gallagher's comments on the family income supplement are totally untrue. I hope that on some occasion, the Senator will come back into the House and withdraw that figure because that is damaging. In one sentence he stated he was very proud of the Defence Forces and I do not fault that. I believe him 100%, as does every Member, but I ask him to please not put out misinformation. Alternatively, if he has information and wants to get it checked by me I will do my best to do that. However, that observation is totally untrue.

In some quarters, the example that a commandant with four children could qualify for working family payment is being used as an example of low pay. The annual salary for a commandant paying class A PRSI ranges between €63,644 and €77,129, including the military service allowance and depending on points on the payscale. Moreover, there are higher rates of pay for specialists serving in the engineering corps, the legal services office, etc. as well as in other areas. While individuals in receipt of annual salaries of amounts in excess of €60,000 may have their own financial difficulties arising from personal circumstances, a basic salary amount of this nature cannot be considered as low pay.

Senator Leyden spoke about the military personnel, particularly those who have a skill set which is directly transferable to non-military work and is very attractive for prospective employers. He is dead right. We have a challenge. I highlighted it. I am not hiding in saying that we have a challenge in that regard, be it in respect of pilots, air traffic controllers or engineers.

I accept that they are going out into the private sector. I am happy to say that was highlighted in the report by the Public Service Pay Commission which was published in May 2017. Subsequently, on 17 October, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, prioritised two specific areas to be addressed under specialist pay, namely, the health sector and the Defence Forces. When we submit information to the commission we must submit real data. We are currently working with the military management on the issue. A pilot submission has already been made to the Public Service Pay Commission but it is based on data and evidence. That is what we have been asked to do by the officials and I have ensured that is the approach that has been taken.

Retention of certain specialist personnel within the Defence Forces was specifically referenced in the first report of the Public Service Pay Commission. The commission has commenced the process and is examining in more detail the recruitment and retention challenges within the Defence Forces. The Department of Defence has been requested to provide hard data and detailed evidence for the commission. Military management has provided some material for consideration. The type and extent of the material requested by the Department in connection with specialist personnel within the specific corps and services is proving more difficult to obtain. I am not going to put in a half-hearted effort, nor are my officials going to do it. They will put in the full facts and the data that are needed and required.

I will respond to the points raised by Senator Craughwell. The manpower requirement of the Defence Forces is monitored on an ongoing basis in accordance with the operational requirements of each of the three services. Personnel deployed by units or engaged in development training should not be confused with vacancies. Units are maintained in order that personnel can deploy, not for units to remain fully manned in barracks. I recently spoke to a senior military officer about gap analysis. I thought what he said was a genuine example of the gaps we have. I accept there are challenges in that regard. When a fire engine is deployed to the scene of a fire or accident one does not bring in additional fire engines to the base while others are in use. If we send people overseas, of course there will be gaps. If personnel are taken from Cork, Galway or Kilkenny then I accept there will be gaps but we must manage with the resources that are left behind. I have been assured by military management that the Defence Forces are capable of carrying out all of the duties required of them within the White Paper and all that is expected by the Government.

The Defence Forces have always drawn personnel from units for overseas service and other employments and personnel also engage in training on an ongoing basis. It is important that military personnel have experience of a full range of duties so that they can be part of a military force in a situation where they may be called upon to reinforce operations in various parts of the country. We have seen that specifically during the recent bad weather and snow in March. Military personnel can be deployed to locations where the relevant experience can be gained. That is to be welcomed. Any decisions regarding scaling back on overseas deployments, deployment at home or for training will be informed by the advice of the Chief of Staff. I can confirm that I have not received such advice to date.

Currently, 640 members of the Defence Forces personnel are serving on overseas duties. That is a significant contribution in the context of the resources available for defence. The majority are serving in the Middle East, including Ireland's current contribution of 375 personnel participating in UNIFIL. This year not only marks the 60th anniversary of Ireland's first participation in UN peacekeeping but also marks the 40th anniversary of Ireland's first deployment to Lebanon as part of the UNIFIL mission. In recognition of that we are planning a programme of events to commemorate the anniversaries during the summer.

From speaking to my ministerial colleagues across the EU I know that the retention challenges we face in this country are also an issue for many other military forces, in particular in the filling of specialist posts. Work is under way to address the challenges. That will remain a priority for me personally as Minister of State.

The Department has forwarded an initial tranche of information to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform relating to Air Corps pilots. Further material on the challenges in the defence sector will be submitted to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the coming weeks when the collation of data and information is completed. The submission will be finalised shortly and will be sent to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which is co-ordinating the responses on behalf of the Public Service Pay Commission.

Senator Leyden raised an issue. I agree with what he said about PDFORRA and RACO. I work very closely with them. It is my duty as Minister of State to work closely with them. I meet them annually and discuss with them any issues that arise.

Senator Craughwell spoke about the White Paper on Defence 2015. The review is expected towards the end of 2018. Society has changed since 2015 but we must be able to face the challenges. We will address them. I have every confidence in all of the security services, be it An Garda Síochána or the Defence Forces assisting An Garda Síochána as an aid to the civil power when required. I do not believe there is a crisis but I accept there are challenges. I did not want to come in here this evening and say that everything is rosy in the garden, let us move on, there is nothing to see here. I want to be truthful and upfront and tell Members exactly what is happening. We have challenges but we are working to address them.

Senator Leyden referred to the contracts. I am reviewing the 1994 and 2006 contracts at the moment. In terms of people exiting the organisation, he referred to more than 30 cadets exiting in 2017. That is totally untrue. A total of 12 cadets exited in 2017 for various reasons. It would be like someone going into politics and not liking it in the first term and leaving. If a person loves politics he or she will stay. If a person goes into teaching, nursing or the Army but does not like it he or she will get out. The reasons for the 12 cadets leaving vary and they include medical reasons. A total of 209 personnel in training left.

I accept the clarification.

Actually, it was not Senator Leyden.

I withdraw the remark in that case.

A total of 209 personnel in training left in 2017. In 2001, during the so-called boom, 302 personnel left. In 2007, which was the height of the boom, 188 left. The numbers leaving fell in each of the years from 2011 to 2014 because there was a recession and people wanted to stay. A total of 169 left in 2016 and 209 left for various reasons in 2017. Some might not have been up to it and they left and others left of their own accord.

I am not aware of the heavy machine gun incident, which was nearly an accident. I do not micromanage and I take action when I am told about issues. I read in the public fora about a ship going out and having to come back because of insufficient crew. I am not aware of the case.

Senator Dolan spoke about our neutrality. No matter what decision we make in Europe I will make sure that Ireland's position is reflected in that. When we signed up to PESCO, I brought it to the Government and to the Dáil for approval. I also brought the issue to the Seanad for discussion even though there was not a vote on it.

I came in here and explained exactly the reasons we were joining PESCO. Our joining is a good thing. One of the reasons is, as Senator Craughwell said, that we face different challenges. We cannot be left behind. If we are to have a Defence Force that has capabilities and experience, we must be able to be as good as the rest. However, our neutral stance is very much reflected in all the decisions we make as a Government. Senator Gallagher stated that we have contributed hugely to overseas duties. I agree absolutely, and being able to work with like-minded countries and states within PESCO is very important.

Recruitment to the Defence Forces has been ongoing and has never stopped. From 2011 to 2016, when members of the Opposition were saying we should stop recruitment into the Defence Forces and recruit elsewhere, we did not do so because it was so important to have continuous recruitment into the Defence Forces. I received, through negotiations with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, a €98 million package in the last budget. We have €541 million for the period 2018-22 to spend on all types of infrastructure, whether equipment, barracks or whatever else. I outlined some of the equipment platforms we are renewing and upgrading in my opening speech.

Reference was made to family members being lost overseas. As I have stated previously, we are celebrating our 60th year of participation in UN duties and 40 years in UNIFIL. It is important we celebrate - I would call it a celebration - our anniversaries and our participation in UN peacekeeping. As part of these celebrations, I will include each and every one of the families who lost either a son or a daughter - it has been all males who have lost their lives overseas, to my recollection - in some sort of service or event over that weekend. It will be a very solemn ceremony specifically for the family members. I am determined to do this because I believe it is important and because the people who lost their lives overseas sacrificed not just their lives, but also the lives of their parents, wives, partners and children. I was delighted that in March of this year, over St. Patrick's Day, to bring back one of the surviving members of a serious incident involving UNIFIL in Lebanon. It was the first time he had been back to visit the scene of the accident in which two of his colleagues were shot.

Senator Ó Donnghaile raised a number of issues about neutrality, which I have addressed. Recruitment closed on Sunday night. Last year, I introduced a proposal that we should have two tranches of recruitment, one in the first part of the year and the second in the second half of the year, because I felt that people were applying for the Defence Forces and were left for almost 12 months on a rolling application. I thought that was wrong. No young person should have to wait for seven, eight or 12 months to be called. He or she should know within four or five months exactly where he or she stands. That is only right and proper, and I am very happy with the number of applications. Furthermore, the apprenticeship for the Air Corps is still open.

Senator Robbie Gallagher said it is a pity that I am not at the Cabinet table. I inform Senator Gallagher that I have my feet firmly under the Cabinet table and am proud to fight at the Cabinet table on behalf of the Defence Forces. I have been given full responsibility as Minister of State with responsibility for defence and I will represent all members of the Defence Forces, from the newly recruited to the most senior, as long as I am in this position, and I am proud to do so.

That concludes the statements. When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 May 2018.