Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Questions (2)

Seán Crowe


2. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the measures he is taking to stop the exodus of personnel from the Defence Forces; if 70 personnel left the Defence Forces in July 2019, including seven officers and 16 trainees; his views on whether 2019 is likely to be a record year for personnel leaving the Defence Forces; his further views on whether recruitment and retention efforts are clearly not working; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38535/19]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Defence)

I tabled this question in light of the exodus of personnel from the Defence Forces. Did 70 personnel, including seven officers and 16 trainees, leave the Defence Forces in July? Does the Minister of State agree that all the evidence suggests that his Department's recruitment and retention efforts are not working?

The Government has acknowledged that there are recruitment and retention difficulties and challenges in the Defence Forces. The buoyant labour market and increased competition across sectors to attract personnel are key factors. The level of the departure of personnel can fluctuate, as can the timing of departures. As such, it is very difficult to predict accurately future departure rates. The current departure rates are presenting difficulties for the Defence Forces.

In light of the particular issues faced by the defence sector, the Government tasked the Public Service Pay Commission with undertaking a comprehensive examination of recruitment and retention in the Permanent Defence Force. The commission’s report, which has been accepted by the Government, contains a broad range of recommendations, some of which will provide immediate benefits to members of the Permanent Defence Force, as well as initiatives that will lead to further improvements. Immediate measures include a 10% increase in military service allowance, the restoration to pre-Haddington Road 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 Permanent Defence Force representative associations. The report also contains a broad 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 the identification of other retention measures. These will be progressed within the framework of the public service stability agreement and future public sector pay negotiations. Under my direction, this work is being prioritised. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over its lifetime. The increases due to date under the agreement have been paid to members of the Defence Forces, the most recent being a 1.75% increase on annualised salaries from 1 September 2019. Further increases in pay are scheduled for 2020. I am satisfied that the range of measures being progressed is an appropriate response to the current difficulties.

The Minister of State began his reply by stating that he acknowledges the challenges faced. However, the view on this side of the House is that he is not dealing with reality. He referred to changes within the system but we know that personnel are leaving and that recruitment and retention have become almost impossible due to poor pay and repeated cuts to allowances, as well as poor working conditions. There are also challenges relating to accommodation for personnel.

There is a big problem with morale and while the Minister of State may be addressing the conferences, he is saying nothing that will bolster that. I would argue that the Government has created this crisis itself.

Radical and urgent solutions are needed. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform assessed the long-term turnover rate in the Defence Forces to be 6.4%. Even using the Government's own optimistic predictions, it will not reach establishment strength of 9,500 until 2026. According to RACO, however, the real turnover rate is 10.3%. Is RACO wrong? What the Minister of State is saying here does not add up. He is giving a glossy message that everything will be sorted but the reality on the ground and coming from the conferences is quite different.

I had very constructive meetings last week with RACO and PDFORRA. I addressed the conference this morning and I totally disagree with the Deputy's assertion. While Deputy Crowe mentioned allowances, the Public Service Pay Commission report has restored the allowances to pre-Haddington Road agreement levels and the Deputy fails to acknowledge that. Any officer of the Defence Forces, having accepted the pay commission's report in full, will receive the immediate benefits. It is worth an additional €10 million annually over the position last year for enlisted personnel and officers. If PDFORRA accepts the recommendations, all its members will also receive immediate benefits. Allowances, including the weekend and 24-hour duty allowances, comprised one of the biggest issues raised with me in recent years. I wanted to ensure the allowances were restored and the independent pay commission recommended that they be restored to pre-Haddington Road agreement levels. If the representative associations vote for it, their members will feel the benefits.

The problem relates to core pay and that is what must be addressed. One can tinker around the sides in respect of allowances and so on but the issue of core pay must be addressed. That is one reason the representative associations want to move on and have representation at the table to argue for their case. They perceive a weakness in that the Minster of State is not championing or pushing that forward, which is a big problem. There is a great problem with morale. The figures show that people are leaving day after day. The Minister of State needs to do something different. Pay is clearly one of the issues, as are working conditions. Any efforts regarding retention are not working at present. The Minister of State has stated he understands the challenges but there is concern that lack of pay and low morale are not being addressed. People respond every day by leaving the Defence Forces.

Were I in the Deputy's position in opposition, I would not have the responsibility of Government and I could shout from the rooftop that core pay should be increased. That is very easy to say. I assure the Deputy that were I to state that we would increase core pay for the Defence Forces but for nobody else, he would be in here the next morning hopping off the ceiling saying that if the Government was going to do it for the Defence Forces then it would have to do it for everyone else. The public service stability agreement provides for increases for the Defence Forces year on year. The Deputy should look at the tangible increases in core pay each year, which will continue until 2020 when talks on the next public service pay agreement will commence.

Their families are going hungry.

I am also happy about the restoration of allowances in the pay commission's report. There is also an implementation plan. There is a clear set of guidelines and timelines to ensure that whatever its recommendations, they will be implemented.