Thursday, 17 January 2019

Questions (3)

Jack Chambers


3. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if a review of the 1994 contracts for members of the Defence Forces is to take place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2191/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Defence)

A very worrying scenario may occur in the next 12 months unless we update the policy position relating to this matter.

Military life places unique demands on individuals and it is necessary that Defence Forces personnel are prepared to meet the challenges of all military operations. To this end, it is vital the age and health profile of personnel be such as to ensure that operational capability and effectiveness are not compromised in any way.

The age and fitness profile of members of the Permanent Defence Force was an issue of serious concern during the 1990s and was the subject of severe criticism in a series of external reports. One of the key areas identified for urgent action was the development of a manpower policy with an emphasis on lowering the age profile of Permanent Defence Force personnel. As a result, new terms and conditions were introduced for personnel enlisting after 1 January 1994 and new contracts for enlisted personnel were for a period of five years service. This was agreed with PDFORRA at that time.

Since then, the maximum period of service has been extended following further claims received from PDFORRA. Personnel enlisted after January 1994 now have a maximum service of 21 years unless, they have progressed to the rank of sergeant or above in the interim. Service to 21 years is subject to an individual meeting specified criteria as set out in Defence Forces administrative instructions.

PDFORRA submitted a claim through the conciliation and arbitration scheme for a further extension to the service contract limits in order to allow enlisted personnel to serve until they reach 50 years of age, subject to their meeting fitness, medical and other criteria. The Department did not consider a further extension appropriate, given the manpower policy of maintaining a satisfactory personnel profile. It did, however, propose that in recognition of the investment on training for specialised personnel, privates and corporals in receipt of technical pay group 3 and above would be eligible to serve up to 50 years of age. This is subject to these individuals meeting annual medical and fitness tests and other specified required criteria. PDFORRA did not agree with these proposals.

As agreement could not be reached, this matter proceed to adjudication in 2015, where an independent adjudicator made specific findings which were accepted by both official and representative sides. The adjudicator did not recommend extending the service limit to the extent in the claim from the representative side.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The adjudicator did, however, recommend that there should be a further review of the service limit for line corporals and for privates and corporals in the technical grades 1 and 2. He did not make any recommendation regarding the service limits for current line privates. In fact, the adjudicator accepted that a moderate increase in service for corporals could be balanced by a revised maximum 15 years service for new entrant line privates.

On foot of a proposal from the Department of Defence during the adjudication process, and purely as an exceptional and temporary arrangement, line corporals and both privates and corporals in technical group 1 and 2 appointments were allowed to continue to serve until the expiry of the following two promotion panels, subject to the individual meeting annual medical and fitness tests and other required criteria, such as not exceeding the age limit of 50 years during this period. This temporary arrangement is currently in place.

The Department of Defence and military management are continuing to analyse the matters raised by the adjudicator. Any continuance in service beyond the current maximum periods must not have any adverse impact on operational effectiveness and military outputs. PDFORRA will be consulted on any proposals arising.

In addition a broader review of contracts of service for Defence Forces personnel is provided for in the White Paper on Defence, which was published in 2015.  This will be progressed as part of the White Paper implementation process.

At PDFORRA conference's in 2017, the Minister of State undertook to review the terms of the 1994 contracts. He needs to clarify what he has done in the interim. There is a strong belief that more subjective criteria are needed for the retention of personnel. Members should be retained on capacity not age. I agree that in terms of operational capabilities, the various strata must be considered but it should not be done on a rigid age profile, dependent on promotions. We all know that there is a retention crisis. The White Paper target is not being met. PDFORRA has estimated that in the next year, that some 600 to 800 people may leave the Defence Forces. Much of that is based on the 1994 contracts. That added to the numbers of people purchasing their discharge means that we face a serious manpower issue in the next 12 months, where the Minister of State will be further away than ever from the White Paper target of 9,500 personnel.

I ask the Minister of State to look at what other countries are doing in this area. They are not using the same rigid criteria around age but are looking at the abilities of the people themselves and developing more subjective criteria. I ask that the Minister of State follow through on his own commitment in this.

At the conference in question, I stated that I had instructed civil and military management to develop a broad review of contracts for enlisted personnel within the Defence Forces. I advised that this would require careful consideration of the operational requirements of the Defence Forces and the personnel requirements to meet all of the requirements and needs of the organisation. A group comprising departmental and military management was established subsequently. As a result of this review the criteria relating to re-engagement in service was amended. This has allowed for additional personnel who had enlisted since 2006 to continue in service after 12 years.

A broader review examining appropriate age profiles for enlisted personnel is scheduled to be conducted as part of the White Paper on Defence process. PDFORRA will of course be consulted on all the developments. I have indicated that we should examine seriously the extension of service beyond 21 years. There are, however, a number of areas that we have to consider in consultation with everybody. A balance must be struck between the needs of individuals and the needs of the organisation, and we must make sure personnel are healthy and fit and meet all the requirements of any tests.

I also subscribe to the view that personnel must be physically and psychologically fit to meet the challenges of the job. The Minister of State has outlined another review based on a previous review. An international comparison shows that in Malta, the age limit is 55 years; Finland, 55; Belgium, 56; Cyprus, 52; and Australia, 60. Many personnel in their thirties who must make large mortgage repayments and meet high childcare and other family costs are being let go. There is a contradictory policy in the Department of Defence whereby it is trying to target personnel who have retired. There were headlines in the autumn of last year stating the Defence Forces were targeting retired workers to meet its staff problems. Under the 1994 contracts, the Department is allowing personnel to leave, yet it has a policy of trying to rehire staff it has allowed to go. It is contradictory from the Department's perspective. The Department is targeting personnel who left and, at the same time, is letting personnel go because of a rigid contractual regime. An urgent review is needed. What is occurring could contribute to a serious haemorrhaging of numbers if there is not an urgent policy change in this space. I ask the Minister of State to carry out the review urgently in the spring of this year because his White Paper target will be way off by this time next year if he does not.

It is like comparing apples and oranges. We said we would encourage those with expertise to return to the organisation. If a pilot who retires at 35 years and who has gone to the United Arab Emirates or elsewhere in the Middle East, or who has gone into the private sector for five years, wants to come back into the organisation and has something to offer, it would be acceptable. What is occurring mainly affects enlisted members of the organisation.

They also have expertise.

A number of issues have to be considered. The Deputy may compare the Defence Forces to defence forces in Australia and elsewhere but those countries have large military organisations that may be five, six or ten times the size of ours. One cannot compare other militaries to ours. I attended the PDFORRA conference in 2017. PDFORRA understands my views on this and where I would like to get to. There is work going on. I understand where the Deputy is coming from and the representative association will be kept informed.

Question No. 4 answered with Question No. 1.