Other Questions. - National Agreements.

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

69 Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Defence the position concerning the discussions with the representative organisations regarding the benchmarking report; the allocation which has been made within his Department's Estimates for 2003 to pay the benchmarking award; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18774/03]

Kathleen Lynch

Ceist:

91 Ms Lynch asked the Minister for Defence if it is intended to take steps to allow the representative organisations for members of the Defence Forces to participate in future social partnership negotiations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18775/03]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 69 and 91 together.

Members of the Defence Forces are prohibited from belonging to trade unions and, as a consequence, their representative associations are not affiliated to the ICTU. This means that the associations do not participate directly in the negotiations between the social partners which have led to national agreements.

In the course of discussions on the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, agreement was reached with the Defence Forces representative associations on a framework which would facilitate them engaging with the official side in talks parallel to those taking place between the social partners at national level. Under the terms of this agreement, representatives of the Departments of the Taoiseach, Finance, Defence and the military authorities met collectively and separately with representatives of PDFORRA and RACO. These meetings were supplemented by a number of bilateral meetings involving the various parties. This process ensured that the associations were fully aware of developments at the central discussions while at the same time having a forum to raise matters of particular concern to them.

Based on the established model, parallel discussions with the Defence Forces representative associations on how the Public Service Benchmarking Body's recommendations on achieving modernisation, flexibility and change can be implemented in the Defence Forces commenced on 22 October 2002, and are continuing. I am satisfied that these arrangements have in the past, and will in the future, provide an opportunity for the Defence Forces representative associations to engage in a meaningful way with the social partnership discussions.

In expectation of a successful conclusion to these discussions and anticipating that the Defence Forces representative associations will accept the Sustaining Progress agreement, an allocation of €14 million has been made in the Revised 2003 Estimate for my Department. This allocation provides for payment of the benchmarking awards, including the arrears due from 1 December 2001.

Is it accepted by the Government, in principle, that members of the Defence Forces should receive the benchmarking award? If that is the case, when will it be paid, given that public service workers, including members of the staff of these Houses, have already received their first payments? Will he indicate the position?

I do not want to pre-empt the outcome to the ongoing talks between the representative associations and the official side. Once that process is concluded, both associations will be balloted. If the outcome is favourable, which I hope it will be, provision has been made in the Estimate for this year for that payment. I would ensure that such payment would be made between three to four weeks after the agreement was ratified.

I have a record of what the Minister said on 15 May. If he is opposed to members of the Defence Forces having the right to strike, what is his attitude to members of the Defence Forces having some association with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions? Many changes have occurred in latter years. Would there be any objection to the members of the Defence Forces having an association with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in order that Defence Forces personnel could have a direct voice and say in future partnership talks?

I am obviously opposed to the military going on strike. There is a well recognised international position in that regard. I would much rather approach this matter on the basis of working closely with the associations, dealing with the problems they have as they arise, increasing investment in equipment, accommodation, uniforms or whatever and ensuring that the promotional ladder and general opportunities for development within the Defence Forces are enhanced. That is a much better approach than trying to deal with circumstances where the associations or their military people would see the necessity to go on strike. I am sure the Deputy would agree that the manner in which we work with the associations, members of which the Deputy has met at conferences, has progressed dramatically in ten years. There was a major resistance to the establishment of these associations in the beginning but that is no longer the case and now there is a good working relationship which assists both sides. There is also the conciliation and arbitration process where meetings arranged between the associations and the official side are held on a continual basis.

On the other side, we have worked hard with the associations to be able to have parallel arrangements in the pay talks, which means that they are veryau fait and up to date with all the developments that are taking place. That seems to be the most satisfactory way we can progress this matter at present. There is a document which one of the associations presented to me recently, at which I have only had an opportunity to have a preliminary glance. I will consider that over the next few weeks to ascertain to what extent we can improve the facilities in place.

How do the pay and conditions of our Defence Forces compare to those of defence forces in other EU states? What plans has the Minister to bring the pay and conditions of our Defence Forces up the EU ladder? How would the Minister characterise his relationship with the representatives of the Defence Forces given that in the past we have observed at conferences that relations were strained to say the least?

Yes, they were quite strained. There were difficulties around my approach to dealing with the hearing impairment claims, the debate on the White Paper, the reduction in the number of personnel and they were difficult circumstances for everyone involved. There was the disposal and sale of barracks and many issues culminated which did not make matters easy for me or anybody else involved. We worked through all that and I am sure the Deputy would have noticed at the conferences in the past two years that there has been a different approach and significant co-operation on many points, which I very much appreciate. The associations have matured in their approach, which is understandable because we were dealing with structures that were in an embryonic stage in terms of representative associations and the acceptability thereof.

It is working extremely well and we want that to continue. We have had consensus in the House too on a lot of issues, which helped me to secure that position. We are very well up the ladder in terms of salaries, wages and conditions, and in a few areas we are well ahead. There are very few circumstances in the world where pensions are paid after 12 years' service, or after 21 years' service for that matter. These may be difficult positions to hold on to in the longer term but changes do not affect existing personnel, and the changes have to be agreed one way or another. The Deputies can be assured that while we are not at the top of the ladder, there are certainly not too many steps left for us to take. In some areas we are well ahead.

On the question of association with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions for Army personnel so that they would have a direct say and voice in the whole matter of partnership, what is the Minister's attitude?

Again I will answer this my way, rather than fulfil the Deputy's expectations. There is no real possibility of that linkage, or full marriage, to take place, if that is the meaning behind the Deputy's question. What we have tried to do is organise the parallel talks and make sure that nothing happened in the pay talks and the social partnership generally about which the Defence Forces were in the dark. We have managed to bring that process a long way and we have had very considerable support from the Taoiseach in trying to develop it.

This is with reference to Army personnel and Government personnel.

Why then did the Minister not agree to the association with the congress?

What I said was that I did not expect that would happen. It is not a question of my agreement. I am not involved in that.