Thursday, 17 January 2019

Questions (1, 4)

Jack Chambers

Question:

1. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if Defence Forces management will be engaging directly with the Public Service Pay Commission in relation to recruitment and retention issues; if it is planned to filter engagement via his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2190/19]

View answer

Michael Harty

Question:

4. Deputy Michael Harty asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on whether poor pay and working conditions will drain the brightest and the best from the Defences Forces. [2139/19]

View answer

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Defence)

Will Defence Forces management, in particular the Chief of Staff, be allowed to engage directly with the Public Service Pay Commission, PSPC, on recruitment and retention issues or is it intended to filter engagement through the Department of Defence? As the Minister of State knows, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett has said he wants to engage directly. I would welcome clarity on whether the Minister of State and his Department will allow and facilitate that direct engagement and how and when it will occur.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 4 together.

Although I note that Deputy Harty is not present currently, I will answer his question. Similar to other sectors in the public service, the pay of Permanent Defence Force personnel was reduced as one of the measures to assist in stabilising the national finances during the financial crisis. Pay is being restored to members of the Defence Forces and other public servants in accordance with public sector pay agreements. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement, with the focus of these increases weighted in favour of those on lower pay. The increases due from 1 January 2018, 1 October 2018 and 1 January 2019 have been paid to Permanent Defence Force personnel. Further increases are scheduled for 2019 and 2020. By the end of the current public service pay agreement, the payscales of all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces, earning under €70,000 per annum will be restored to pre-FEMPI levels. The restoration of the 5% reduction to allowances cut under FEMPI is also scheduled as part of that agreement.

New entrants who joined the Defence Forces since 2011 can also benefit from the measures that were recently announced in respect of interventions at points 4 and 8 of the relevant payscales for all such new entrants to the public service. This measure, should it be accepted by the Permanent Defence Force representative associations, will be effective from 1 March 2019.

In accordance with the provisions of Public Services Stability Agreement 2018-2020, the Government has tasked the PSPC with conducting a more comprehensive examination of specific recruitment and retention challenges in the defence sector. The PSPC requested specific data and statistics to assist in its analysis. This material was collated and prepared by civil and military personnel with inputs from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. That Department co-ordinates the public service management response to the commission and it sent the Defence Forces material to it on 20 December 2018. The Department of Defence will continue to engage with the PSPC and respond to any specific query or follow-up request for information. It will also continue to work closely with the Defence Forces in this regard.

The Deputy may wish to note that, arising from such requests, there has been direct engagement between the Defence Forces and the commission to facilitate the surveying of Defence Forces personnel. Should the PSPC wish to meet the defence management team, this would include civil and military representatives. I understand that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform would also be represented.

The commission's work is ongoing and the Government will give due consideration to the findings and any recommendation that arise from that work.

I will outline the timeline. Late last year, the Minister of State told me that both parties had signed off on a jointly agreed detailed submission to the PSPC. Today, he has told me that, if there is engagement in writing, military management may be allowed to engage with the PSPC. That is welcome. Since the Minister of State's remark that a joint submission had been made, the Chief of Staff has said he is uniquely competent to make his public plea and to engage with the PSPC. He must be a differentiator from the defence perspective. He also uses different language from the Taoiseach, who in Mali recently insulted members of the Defence Forces by saying that it was not all about pay. The Chief of Staff has stated that there is an inextricable link between pay and being valued. There was considerable disgust with the Taoiseach's remarks. On the one hand, he lauded the Defence Forces and their work in Mali - we all have great regard for that work - and, on the other, dismissed these pay concerns. It is important that the Government's language reflects the value that we place on the Defence Forces instead of being so dismissive about the worst paid workers in the public service.

Let me refer to what the Taoiseach stated in Mali. I am not sure whether the Deputy listened to the full interview. The Taoiseach agreed that there was an issue with pay in the Defence Forces and added that people did not join the Defence Forces just for the pay. He was right in saying that. Many people join the Defence Forces for the experiences they can get. They want to join from childhood. I speak to them on a weekly and monthly basis.

The submission is a joint one from military management and civil personnel. I would like to see the parties get an opportunity to address the PSPC in person. Both parties are competent and able to bring their concerns to the commission, be that in the form of the Secretary General or an assistant secretary of the Department or the Chief of Staff or a deputy chief of staff. In this context, anyone who speaks to the PSPC has my full confidence that he or she will be able to get his or her message and concerns across to it.

My question was on the payscales in the Defence Forces and the appalling levels of pay their members are given. The particular matter I will raise is that of recruitment and retention.

The ability to recruit and retain members of our Naval Service, Army and Air Corps is a major issue in the Defence Forces. There is a turnover of 10% every year. There has been a turnover of 30% in personnel in the past three years. Pay and conditions are part of the reason. The effect of poor pay is that up to 2,000 Defence Forces families, including the families of commissioned officers, are dependent on family income supplement. This is completely unacceptable in a defence force which carries out a humanitarian role and a peacekeeping role and which is involved in the security of the State. With the onset of Brexit in the coming months, who knows what will be placed in the arms of the Defence Forces?

I am not sure if the Deputy is aware of the report of the Public Service Pay Commission from May 2017. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, gave priority to both the health sector and the Defence Forces in the work of the commission. A joint submission has been made to the pay commission. The Deputy referred specifically to payscales. I will outline the average pay of members of the Defence Forces. These are gross average earnings from 2018. A three-star private earned €37,529; a corporal, €41,075; a sergeant, €44,622; a company quartermaster sergeant, €49,605; a company sergeant, €50,224; a battalion quartermaster sergeant, €53,606; and a sergeant major, €54,878. At officer rank, a second lieutenant made €37,108; a lieutenant, €42,291; a captain, €53,138; a commandant, €66,496, a lieutenant colonel, €79,162; and a colonel, €88,480. I stress that these are average earnings. A joint submission by the military side and the civil side was made to the pay commission in December of last year. I am confident that we will see the results of that in the first or second quarter of this year.

The Minister of State's language is interesting. I welcome the fact that he has said he will facilitate the direct engagement of the Chief of Staff and military management and I hope he will do so. In autumn of last year, he said that a joint submission had been made. Now he is referring to a joint submission in December. In his initial remarks he also referred to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Will he clarify what that is about? Based on remarks the Minister of State made in the House previously, it was my impression that the joint submission was signed off and sent to the pay commission in the autumn of last year. Why was there a delay between autumn and December? He is now saying it was sent in December. Will he explain that gap? He also referred to the first quarter of 2019 but is now referring to the second quarter. What caused the delay with the submission? Was it sent in the autumn? Will he explain that point?

Personal testimony is important when dealing with issues such as this. Sarah Walsh of the organisation, Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces, gave a chilling message last year. She said:

Our families live in poverty. We suffer from food, income, fuel, and child poverty. Many of us can only dream of owning our home, and some this month are facing uncertainty about their homes, while others are facing homelessness.

I doubt that has changed much in the past six months. To try to be positive and put some ideas in the Minister of State's head, pay and conditions are important. Pay is one element but conditions are another. Many other defence forces offer their members the opportunity to access higher education. Consideration should be given to offering university places to members of our Defence Forces. Second, accommodation is a significant problem. Up to 35% of the income of a member of the Defence Forces goes on accommodation. Many other defence forces provide free accommodation. That is a major incentive, which attracts people into the service.

First, there is a significant number of educational incentives within the Defence Forces. I will address Deputy Chambers's question first. We sent the joint submission to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in September or early October. I may be corrected on that. That is the body which submits it to the Public Service Pay Commission. The Department was looking for specific statistics over two or three months. It was going back and forward to military management and the Department of Defence in that regard. When it finally received all of the data and information it required, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform submitted it to the Public Service Pay Commission. It will not decide whether a team from military and civil management appear in front of the commission. That is entirely up to the independent commission. As I have stated clearly here on numerous occasions, it is an independent pay commission set up by the Government and it will decide who it wishes to call. What I am saying - and I am on the record as saying this previously - is that I would like an opportunity for the people who made the submission to appear in front of the commission.

On Deputy Harty's issues, less than 1% of members of the Defence Forces are on the working family payment. It is a total myth that thousands of members of the Defence Forces are on the payment. It is a weekly tax-free payment available to employees with children. Eligibility for the payment is determined by average weekly family income and family size. The net assessable earnings are calculated after deducting tax, PRSI and USC. The more children in the family, the higher the income threshold is. By way of example, an individual with five kids who is earning approximately €50,000 per annum after tax and deductions could qualify for this payment. There is a myth out there that there are thousands of people in the Defence Forces receiving this payment. That is absolutely and totally untrue. The 1% I mentioned includes officials in the Department of Defence as well. I could stand here for the next half hour talking about the educational opportunities offered to members of the Defence Forces to further their careers and education.