Thursday, 13 June 2019

Questions (7)

Jack Chambers


7. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on claims by the former head social worker for the Defence Forces that he was ignored repeatedly when he warned the Minister of State's officials regarding increased poverty levels being endured by serving military personnel and their families; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24478/19]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Defence)

I ask the Minister of State his views on the worrying claims by the former head social worker for the Defence Forces, which were ignored repeatedly. Officials in the Minister of State's Department were warned regarding the increased poverty levels being endured by serving military personnel and their families. We have recently heard about the state of accommodation within various barracks. Can the Minster of State make a statement on the matter?

As Minister of State with responsibility for defence I take the welfare of members of the Defence Forces very seriously. The Defence Forces have a range of personnel supports in place to assist individuals who are experiencing difficulties. This includes social workers who provide very valuable supports and services. The circumstances in which personnel find themselves in economic difficulty can vary significantly and the State also provides a range of supports for individuals and families, should this be required. Members of the Defence Forces experiencing difficulties are assisted in accessing these supports.

The salaries of all public servants were reduced in the aftermath of the economic crash. Pay is being restored to members of the Defence Forces and other public servants in accordance with the public service pay agreement. The focus of increases is weighted in favour of those on lower pay. 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. Increases due to date under the agreement have been paid to the personnel of the Permanent Defence Force. Further increases in pay are scheduled for later in 2019 and 2020. By the end of the current public service pay agreement, the pay scales of all public servants, including members of the Permanent Defence Force, earning under €70,000 per annum will be restored to pre-financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, levels. The restoration of the 5% reduction to allowances cut under FEMPI is also scheduled in the agreement.

Pay rates for newly qualified members of the Defence Forces are comparable to other areas within the public service, having regard to entry requirements. A newly qualified three-star private can expect to earn €27,759 gross per annum, including military service allowance but excluding duty allowances. This starting pay is subject to incremental progression and increases to €38,388 per annum at this rank. A range of duty allowances are also payable.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

A newly qualified school leaver entry officer can expect to earn €35,614 gross per annum, inclusive of military service allowance, after initial training. A graduate entry officer can expect to earn €40,566 gross per annum, inclusive of military service allowance, after initial training. The maximum for the lieutenant pay scale is €50,645 per annum, inclusive of military service allowance.

These earnings relate to Army line ranks. In many cases Air Corps and Naval Service personnel receive additional remuneration per equivalent rank arising from additional allowances for duties performed. Defence Forces personnel also receive tax free payments for certain overseas deployments and duties.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Defence Forces are experiencing recruitment and retention challenges. This is reflective of the economic growth that has been experienced under the current Government and the associated buoyant labour market. The Public Service Pay Commission has been tasked with examining recruitment and retention challenges in the Defence Forces. The Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform will bring that report to Government in the near future.

The former head social worker for the Defence Forces stated he was ignored repeatedly when he warned Department officials about the increasing poverty levels being endured by serving military personnel. Mr. Mervyn Ennis, who was head social worker, stated it was obvious to everybody how serious this situation was. The two schools at the Curragh have been classified as DEIS schools by the Department of Education and Skills, as they were deemed to be in serious areas of economic disadvantage. There is a very high concentration of children coming from military families at those schools. Mr. Ennis said that one chap who was a senior NCO was sleeping in a car. He said another lad was sleeping in a barracks and could not get access to his children because they could not come in there. This man was referred to a homeless unit. Mr. Ennis has said that others did not have money for food, and that the chaplaincy knew this too and was saying so. He says he was told by a Department official, "at least they have a job." He says the Department simply does not care and that because the issues are constantly being ignored, morale in the Defence Forces is at an all-time low and is getting lower each day. He says that is why the lads are voting with their feet. It is a shameful account, as is the attitude of the Department. The Minister of State needs to clarify how he feels about those remarks, over which he is presiding.

In respect of the person to whom the Deputy is referring, I only have hearsay of this in media reports. It is very easy to say something in the media. To my recollection, and I have looked for this, there has been absolutely no correspondence between this person and my Department. This person would actually have no contact with officials in my Department. He would have been dealing with the Defence Forces rather than officials in my Department. There has been no correspondence whatsoever between this guy and my officials, to my recollection. I have been looking for this and there has been no trace of this person. As I have stated, this person was employed in the Defence Forces during the absolute crash for which the Deputy's party was responsible. He was there when there were massive pay cuts.

Now we are trying to reverse this by giving pay increases to the lower-paid members of the Defence Forces. It is important to note that they will have full pay restoration by 2020.

I have had no contact with the person in question whatsoever. I also do not believe there is any correspondence between the person and my Department.

I was going to ask the Minister of State for his reaction to the serious issues the person in question outlined. Instead the Minister of State questioned the integrity of what he said. That is an unbelievable reaction from the Minister of State in his bunker of denial when it comes to issues facing our Defence Forces. We all need to learn that it is not about attacking the individual who raises legitimate concerns but acknowledging and trying to deal with those issues.

I am sure Mervyn Ennis can provide information and details about the officials and the departmental correspondence he mentioned in media reports. Why would he make it up for sensationalist reports? I am sure he can document the issues around DEIS and those Defence Forces members sleeping in cars. These issues were also in the University of Limerick climate survey report. Accordingly, some of the remarks in Mervyn Ennis’s public iterations are mirrored in other reports presided over by the Minister of State. Does the Minister of State believe what Mervyn Ennis said? The fact the Minister of State is questioning his integrity and what he has put on the public record is not a prudent response. Instead, he should acknowledge it and seek to help the personnel in question.

The person in question was employed during the financial crash when there were a significant number of pay cuts. When I was appointed in 2016, the University of Limerick climate survey report was one of the first matters put on my desk. It was also carried out during the financial crash when there were no pay increases. We had to recover from this financial crash for which the Deputy’s party was responsible. We now have pay restoration for lower-paid members of the Defence Forces.

The Minister of State should publish the pay commission report on Defence Forces pay.

The independent pay commission report will be published shortly. It is good there are positive developments occurring. While I would like to see them happening faster, we must stick within the realm of the public sector pay agreements. Fianna Fáil signed up to this under the confidence and supply agreement.

I have not seen any correspondence from the gentleman to which the Deputy referred. If the Deputy has the correspondence, I would have no issue with him bringing it to my attention. However, his employment by the Department was previous to my coming into it

There are important issues involved and I have allowed a run over of time. I seek Members’ co-operation with the next set of questions as seven will be taken together