Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí (Atógáil) - Leaders' Questions (Resumed)

I have listened with great care to the response of the Minister taking Leaders’ Questions. I am not sure if she has read the commentary reported in today’s media and listened to the interview on “Morning Ireland”. These are unprecedented criticisms of the Department of Defence and defence policy made by a retiring senior military officer. He described our Defence Forces as being dismantled and demoralised. He said the sense of betrayal across our Defence Forces is palpable.

These are extraordinary comments. In my political lifetime I have never heard a retiring Army officer say anything as strong as this. They are normally reserved people. It is extraordinary that a senior officer would also think it necessary to take early retirement in order to be free to make this comment. That makes it all the more urgent and that the Government and all Members have careful regard to what he has to say. This morning he said he is leaving the Army not because he hates it but because he loves it and has been forced out.

There is a retention crisis and 9% of Defence Forces personnel are leaving. No organisation can sustain that amount of loss. It is a massive exodus. The bottom line is financial. Our Defence Forces, of course, need a total review of pay and conditions. It is on the desk of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform now. It is not as simple, however, as even doing that. If someone can earn twice as much in a meat factory as they can in our Defence Forces - as well as working much greater hours in the Defence Forces - then it is not just good enough.

Members of our Defence Forces are not permitted to join a trade union or advocate in their own interests as every other worker can do. That is no longer acceptable. I join with Sinn Féin in asking the Government to accept that. When in government, we wanted that. Let us agree to it now and allow members of the military to join a trade union. During peacetime and outside of specific missions, there is no reason we would not do that. Will the Government allow our Defence Forces to unionise? What has the Minister to say in the face of these unprecedented criticisms?

The notion that it is simply another group of public servants to be treated like all others in this context is quite simply not acceptable.

I did not hear Commandant Berry's comment but I understand the concerns of the Defence Forces because I know their members have contacted many Deputies to outline their concerns.

The independent Public Service Pay Commission was established in 2016 to provide Government with independent advice on public service pay. On the instructions of the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, issues of recruitment and retention in the defence sector were brought to the attention of the commission. As a direct result of that initiative, the Government tasked the commission to undertake a comprehensive examination and analysis of the underlying difficulties in recruitment and retention in the defence sector. There have been various reports in the media of what the commission will recommend but those are speculation. The Government has not received the report from the commission as yet and I cannot comment on rumours or hearsay. When the commission's report is brought to Government in the coming weeks it will be given due consideration. As I said, we are now in a better position. The recovery in the economy has provided the fiscal resources to provide a fair and sustainable recovery in the public service pay scale.

Again, it is as if the Army has not got a specific case to make. I do not think the Minister is hearing what has been said. Part of the problem is that the Taoiseach has a full-time job as Taoiseach of the country and yet he assigned to himself also the Department of Defence. The Minister of State at the Department of Defence is not an adequate replacement for a Cabinet ministerial role. I will not repeat the comments made by Commandant Berry about the leadership in the Department but suffice to say it was scathing. Is it not now time for a Minister for Defence to be created that has Cabinet rank? It cannot be a job-sharing role for the Taoiseach. Will the Minister accept that? In the unique circumstances now where morale in the Defence Forces generally has all but evaporated and any confidence in Government policy is gone, will the Minister accept the Government needs to take control again to rebuild confidence in our Defence Forces and assure people that the words uttered of appreciation for their fantastic role is matched by actions?

The Minister for Defence is the Deputy's constituency colleague-----

No. The Minister for Defence is the Taoiseach under the Constitution. That colleague is the Minister of State.

Yes, the Minister with responsibility for defence and he sits at Cabinet. I can assure the Deputy that nobody makes a stronger case for support for the Defence Forces than he does.

Did the Minister read what Commandant Berry said?

We have to wait until the commission has completed its report. There is a process in place. We have to wait for that report, which we will have shortly, and we then will make a determination based on it. A number of initiatives are being developed, including commissioning from the ranks, criteria for the re-entry of former Permanent Defence Force personnel with specific skills and consideration of increased use of direct entry for specialist posts. There is an ongoing recruitment to the Defence Forces, including a current competition for cadetship.

So the 9% leaving is neither here nor there.

From the results of the UK's European elections it is becoming increasingly evident that Brexit is an inevitable reality. The detrimental impact of any form of Brexit, whether it be a hard or soft Brexit, on businesses cannot be overstated. Yet, despite numerous reports and constant pleas from those in the small and medium-sized enterprise, SME, sector across the country, the move to tackle the cost of doing business in Ireland has been minimal at best.

Last year, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Business, Enterprise and Innovation published a report on the cost of doing business and discovered six key drivers to uncompetitive costs faced by Irish businesses. Chief among those was insurance premiums. The report highlighted that the book of quantum is not observed in many judgments. For that reason, far too many cases are settled on the steps of the court, if they get that far, because it is too risky for SMEs to take a case, even in situations where they know they are not at fault. In fact, the report went on to recommend the establishment of an insurance fraud unit within An Garda Síochána and that claimants found to have made false claims should face automatic referrals for prosecution.

Yesterday, as Deputy Calleary has mentioned, we heard the news that Fort Lucan in west Dublin will be forced to close some of its attractions, as a result of the claim culture partly leading to excessive insurance costs. Earlier this year, at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, a presentation was made from a play centre in Navan highlighting the plight of businesses facing such insurance costs. I could list educational, retail and, of course, leisure services facing the fallout from the claim culture and a poor court system for dealing with such claims. If one wants to bring a child to a play facility, for example, one must sign a waiver in most of them. Given the events in the news in the past week, if there is no change what we will see is that the same will apply to adults when they go into a hotel or pub. That would be madness. There must be action on this.

Despite a number of Bills coming before the Dáil on these issues, and, indeed, one from Deputy Kelleher having passed Second Stage, no real progress has been made on this issue. The Deputy Maria Bailey fiasco this week has put it back into the spotlight. While I am sure it is greatly embarrassing for the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and for her party colleagues, there is a much bigger picture at play here with which the Government must deal. Will the Government urgently progress the legislation to improve the book of quantum, as recommended by the Oireachtas joint committee? Will the Government move to progress Deputy Kelleher's Bill, which would enable a judge to refer a fraudulent claim to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, for possible prosecution? Would it consider legislation making it mandatory for claimants to go through the Personal Injuries Assessment Board process, thereby reducing the costs of court for everyone?

There are, of course, many challenges facing business and none greater than Brexit, which the Deputy mentioned at the outset. The Government has put in place a wide range of supports to help businesses prepare for Brexit. Businesses should be conscious that Brexit is very much on the horizon. We need to get them to prepare for the worst possible outcome, which is a hard Brexit, while we negotiate for the best possible outcome.

There are a number of supports of which businesses need to avail, through Enterprise Ireland, the local enterprise office or InterTradeIreland, to help them engage and prepare for Brexit. They need to identify the risks and mitigate for those risks. We have a €300 million Brexit working capital loan scheme, which was launched in March 2018, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and I recently launched a new €300 million future growth loan scheme in April to provide for long-term loans of up to ten years to SMEs for farmers and primary producers.

Insurance is another cost which I am aware businesses are incurring. It is an issue that is raised with me regularly. I know how frustrating it is for businesses when fraudulent or exaggerated claims are made because many of them feel that they are being punished for this compensation culture.

My view on this is very simple. People need to have some common sense and to be responsible for their own personal safety. If one trips or falls, one has to ask why it happened. More often than not the answer is that it is because of one's own carelessness. People need to accept that and we need to change this culture. There is a culture in this country which is that when one has an accident, it is everyone's fault except one's own. That applies to the play yard as well.

And the media as well, Minister.

It is a culture in this country. When we were children if one fell in the play yard, one was dusted down and sent back to school the next day. Now people look to see if there is an opportunity here and that is a culture that we have to change. When people have an accident they have to take responsibility for their own welfare.

On insurance, as I outlined earlier, the Government is committed to making sure that we continue to proceed with measures that will reduce insurance costs for businesses. In respect of my Department, legislation was enacted in April to ensure greater compliance with the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, process, which the Deputy mentioned, and we have strengthened its powers.

The Minister will have a further minute to reply. I call Deputy Catherine Murphy.

I will take it that the Minister, in her comments, is also referring to her colleague and showing some leadership in regard to personal responsibility.

Returning to Brexit, we know about the ports and airports and that loans have to be provided to small and medium-sized businesses but we have to address the issue of costs where we need to see action. We spent the first three months of this year doing nothing except Brexit yet we are not addressing one of the key issues that will put businesses out of business. Costs have been identified as the key driver. This has to be given the serious attention it requires. The Government needs to tell us exactly what it intends to do and in what timeframe, so that some of these businesses will still be in business when Brexit inevitably occurs.

There are a range of supports out there from the agencies, whether from Enterprise Ireland, InterTradeIreland or the local enterprise offices, which also do great work in helping businesses. There are vouchers and there is the market discovery fund and the Be Prepared grant, so there are supports are available to businesses.

A number of months ago I launched Future Jobs Ireland 2019, which is whole-of-Government initiative that looks at exactly what the Deputy is talking about, namely, how we can future-proof this economy but, more especially, how we can ensure our businesses remain competitive. There are a number of pillars in this plan. The first one is embracing new technology. We will launch the disruptive technologies fund and we hope to bring businesses in to show them how new technology is going to change the way they do business, whether through artificial intelligence or robotics.

The second pillar of that plan is improving productivity within the SMEs, which is what the Deputy talked about. We will work with them to look at how they need to improve their processes and whether they need to go onto lean programmes where they can be more productive. Many things are happening. I will have another meeting with the SMEs within the next month at which I will talk to them.