Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Questions (1)

Jack Chambers


1. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on whether the pay recommendations of the report of the Public Service Pay Commission into recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces will be sufficient to end the retention difficulties being experienced by all three services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38888/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Defence)

What are the views of the Minister of State on whether the pay recommendations of the report of the Public Service Pay Commission into the recruitment and retention difficulties in the Defence Forces will be sufficient to end the current retention difficulties being experienced by all three services?

The Government has acknowledged that there are recruitment and retention issues in the Defence Forces that must be addressed.  It is a fact that members of the Permanent Defence Force, PDF, are being attracted to jobs elsewhere in a buoyant labour market. In light of the particular challenges faced by the defence sector, the Government tasked the Public Service Pay Commission to undertake a comprehensive review of examination and analysis of underlying difficulties in recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces.

The commission’s report, which has been accepted by the Government, contains a broad range of recommendations that will provide immediate benefits to members of the PDF, as well as initiatives that can lead to further improvements. These include a 10% increase in military service allowance, the restoration to pre-Haddington Road agreement levels of certain specific Defence Forces allowances and the return of an incentive scheme to address pilot retention issues in the Air Corps. These measures will be implemented swiftly on confirmation of acceptance by the PDF representative associations. Any suggestion that these measures are only worth 96 cent per day is disingenuous and a soundbite that has been used to misinform people.

The report also contains a range of recommendations aimed at improving workforce planning, recruitment and conditions of service.

The Government has prepared a detailed implementation plan setting out timelines and objectives, which indicates its commitment to deliver on the recommendations of the pay commission. The plan also provides for an examination of core pay in the Permanent Defence Force and identifies further retention measures within the context of the public service stability agreement and future public sector pay negotiations. Work on implementing the plan is under way and, under my direction, being prioritised by civil and military management.

I am confident that the implementation of the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission, in tandem with pay benefits being delivered under the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 with the most recent being a 1.5% increase on 1 September, will help to ameliorate the recruitment and retention challenges being experienced by the Permanent Defence Force.

It is the Minister of State who is misinformed about the crisis. The pay commission report indicates that 57.8% of Permanent Defence Force members stated that they will leave in the next two years and, of those, 84.5% pointed to pay as a primary consideration. The Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, stated today at the conference of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, that the situation will get worse before it gets better. The proof of the Government's plan involving the pay commission will be whether the Minister of State can end the exodus of personnel and bring the complement back towards the target of 9,500. Based on the current rate of attrition and turnover, it appears that the number of personnel is still falling. Structures in the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service are collapsing. When does the Minister of State expect to turn the corner in terms of personnel numbers? Not even the best recruitment campaign could bridge the gap created by the current exodus and retention difficulties. I am not sure whether the report of the pay commission has thus far achieved what the Minister of State set out in his statement.

I have acknowledged that there are significant challenges within the Defence Forces. As I stated, we are competing in a very strong and buoyant jobs market in which there is almost full employment. I asked the two Defence Forces representative associations to consider very carefully the report of the pay commission published in July. I am delighted that the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission were accepted yesterday at the biannual RACO conference. Immediate and tangible benefits will accrue to RACO members from that acceptance. We have increased the military service allowance and restored allowances cut under the Haddington Road agreement, as well as bringing back the pilot retention scheme. An implementation plan to strengthen the Defence Forces is being led by the Department of the Taoiseach and we are into phase 1 of the plan. There are specific timelines set down for its implementation and it is being led by a civil and military team.

The Minister of State did not accurately reflect what was stated by RACO representatives. They stated that its acceptance of the recommendations should not be seen as an acknowledgement that the Defence Forces retention crisis is close to being solved. RACO considers that the reversal of the exodus of personnel is the true metric by which to measure whether the plan is working. Earlier this month, the President intervened and stated that it should not be too much to expect that military personnel who are paid an income-----

It is not in order for Deputies to raise remarks made by the President.

I will reference remarks made by all Deputies and some persons outside the Houses and correctly so. He humiliated the tenure of the Minister of State at the Department of Defence by showing leadership on the issue. RACO stated that there is much frustration and disappointment at the meagre increases set out in the Government's proposals, which is hardly an endorsement of the plan. Of course, when one has a gun to one's head, one will accept a meagre increase. Far more must be done to address the recruitment and retention crisis. When does the Minister of State expect the gap between current and desired staffing levels to close? That will be the key metric by which to judge the report.

It is very easy to stand on the sidelines and criticise. The Deputy does not have the responsibility of dealing with public sector pay. Of course, his party previously had that responsibility and got us into a big mess. I want to get back to a strength level of 9,500 personnel and that is achievable with the assistance of military management, the Department of Defence, RACO and the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA. All of those parties want to reach that figure. There is funding for a complement of 9,500 personnel. I have acknowledged that public sector pay is a significant challenge for me as Minister of State with responsibility for defence and for the Government as a whole because public servants are keeping a watchful eye on what is happening in other areas of the public service. I am not sure whether the Deputy will acknowledge that. I want to be able to get the staffing level back up to 9,500. It will be difficult to do so because we are competing in a buoyant economy with almost full employment. There is a significant appetite among the private sector for members of the Defence Forces because of their training and the way they are equipped. I acknowledge that we are losing some very good people. People should also consider the numerous benefits of being a member of the Defence Forces.