Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Questions (40)

Bríd Smith


40. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Defence if he will accede to the request from an organisation (details supplied) to allow it to affiliate to a body; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37149/20]

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Oral answers (13 contributions) (Question to Defence)

I and others have continually raised the question of PDFORRA and its affiliation to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, over the past number of years. The reason we support the campaign for PDFORRA to affiliate and to receive full recognition is not that we believe the ICTU is a panacea for all of the issues but that at least it would allow a systemic way in which Defence Forces personnel could have their issues raised and advanced. They are the lowest paid in the public services. They have been haemorrhaging members because of that low pay. The Defence Forces have an inability to retain personnel, have dreadful conditions of accommodation and a systemic underfunding of their key roles. Will the Minister address the matter?

Under the Defence Acts 1954-2015, the Permanent Defence Force representative associations are prohibited from being associated with or affiliated with any trade unions or any other body without the consent of the Minister. To compensate for these limitations, there are a range of statutory redress mechanisms available to serving members of the Permanent Defence Force, including redress of wrongs, a Defence Forces Ombudsman and a conciliation and arbitration scheme.

In 2017, the European Committee of Social Rights, in a non-binding ruling, found that Ireland was in violation of the European Social Charter in respect of the right to organise, that is to affiliate to certain organisations, and the right to negotiate collective agreements. It found that Ireland was not in violation of the charter in respect of the prohibition of the right of military personnel to strike. The European Committee of Social Rights, in arriving at its decision, took into account a statement made in the complaint which claimed that ICTU had stated “PDFORRA could be affiliated to the ICTU with whatever conditions the Government deemed necessary”.

The basis for the complaint pre-dates a number of significant Government initiatives. On collective bargaining, the Permanent Defence Force representative associations were represented alongside other public service unions and associations in the negotiations, which led to the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020, which were held under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission.

An independent review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme for members of the Permanent Defence Force was completed in 2018. One of the recommendations from that review was that the official side should, with the consent of the Minister, engage in discussions with ICTU to explore the practicality of a Permanent Defence Force representative association forming association-affiliation with ICTU, while giving due consideration to any likely conflict that might arise between such an arrangement and the obligations of military service.

Defence management, both civil and military, have engaged in discussions with the Permanent Defence Force representative associations and ICTU regarding the practicalities of a Defence Forces representative association forming association-affiliation with ICTU. PDFORRA subsequently initiated legal proceedings on this matter in June 2020. As this matter is now subject to litigation, I am somewhat limited in what I can say but I will try to answer the Deputy's questions.

The Minister more or less just read back to me a reply to a parliamentary question I tabled in October. I really did not need that answer because, no matter what the Minister said, whatever moves have been made in the past 12 months have not addressed the situation of low pay, poor conditions and appalling accommodation in the Defence Forces. Frankly, it is insulting and does not address the systemic issues in all grades.

If the Minister really wants to signal that he is doing something on this, then his minimum starting point should be to signal that he will consider PDFORRA's affiliation to ICTU. I do not believe it is a panacea for everything.

I noted in a debate last week that we are awaiting a report on the Blackrock Island R116 accident. At least one element of concern in this regard was the systemic underfunding by the State of the air sea rescue mission. The decision now to privatise the search and rescue mission really shows what former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said in a blunt, casual way, namely, that we all know we do not have enough pilots or air traffic controllers to staff the Air Corps properly. This can lead to the deaths of personnel and puts huge stress on them. It must be dealt with urgently.

It is important when we take questions in Parliament to deal with facts. If one looks at what has happened over the past 12 months with the Air Corps, we have seen significant increases in the numbers of pilots. We did have a significant shortage. A scheme was introduced to retain pilots and it has worked. We have seen people rejoining the Air Corps which has been a huge assistance in terms of the pressures we had 12 months ago as regards not having enough pilots. We are now trying to do the same in the Naval Service.

To claim that the Government and policy does not respond to pressures in the Defence Forces because we do not have affiliation with ICTU just is not true. I am listening to representative bodies in the Defence Forces all the time. We are working with them to try to put schemes in place. We increased the budget significantly for next year. We are setting up a commission to look specifically at the future of the Defence Forces. We have committed to set up a pay and conditions body specifically for the Defence Forces. No other sector in society has a specific pay body just for it.

I ask for Members' co-operation with the times.

At the PDFORRA conference this year, it announced it was lodging a complaint with the European Committee of Social Rights. This has led to the legal action about which the Minister spoke. The European Committee of Social Rights found that the Government was in breach of Articles 5 and 6.2 of the European Social Charter. PDFORRA has repeatedly said that the reason it wants to affiliate to ICTU is not to put pickets on barracks or withdraw their services from the roof of the Houses of the Oireachtas; it is because it wants to be in the public sector pay talks. The reason for that is because it is the lowest paid section of the public sector.

In a recent article in The Journal, Tom Clonan stated:

The Defence Forces have reached the point where they are unable to service their mission to protect the state of Ireland, its territorial waters and airspace.

This abject state of affairs is a direct consequence of the cuts imposed on defence spending in Ireland [and of those being the lowest paid sector in the public service].

This is not being addressed.

Is Deputy Bríd Smith advocating for increased defence spending? Is that what she is calling for? I think Tom Clonan would certainly like to see us do that.

I have always advocated to give soldiers, the Navy and the Air Corps more pay.

Any increases in pay have to be in the context of public sector pay negotiations. The Deputy knows that.

Then let PDFORRA be at the ICTU table.

Representative bodies in the Defence Forces will be part of public sector pay talks. They are just like they were in the last round. There was a time when they were not and that was wrong. That has subsequently been addressed.

My job is to make sure their case is heard and they have a platform to make that case as part of the public sector pay talks. I do not have a closed mind on the question of affiliation to ICTU.

I want to do what is right for the Defence Forces. At the moment I am most convinced by the argument for setting up a specific body concerned with Defence Forces pay and conditions. Serving in the Defence Forces is a unique type of national service. In my view a specific body is needed to look at that unique service and how it is rewarded. As I say, I do not have a closed mind on any of this stuff.