That leads us immediately to No. 4 on the agenda, which is a statement by the Minister of State for Defence on Covid-19, followed by questions and answers. I call the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to make his opening statement.
Covid-19 (Defence): Statements
I welcome this opportunity to update Deputies on the response of the defence sector to Covid-19. At the outset, I express my deepest condolences to all who have lost loved ones during this pandemic and I wish a full recovery to all those fighting the coronavirus.
I will outline the contribution made by the defence sector as part of the overall response of the State to this terrible disease. The collective response of the defence organisation involves personnel of the Permanent Defence Force, members of the Reserve, Civil Defence volunteers, civil servants and civilian employees within my Department. At an early stage in the response to Covid-19, a Defence Forces joint task force was established in McKee Barracks. The joint task force is co-ordinating the Defence Forces supports during the response to Covid-19, with the priority on supports to the HSE.
The contribution of the Defence Forces to our national response includes helping the HSE with contact tracing, engineering support, the fitting of temporary facilities for the agency, such as in Citywest, and operating the new testing centre in the Aviva Stadium on the agency's behalf.
In addition, they have provided tentage for and marshalled HSE testing sites, transported tests to Germany, collected personal protective equipment, PPE, from 150 cargo flights and taken responsibility for the storage and distribution of PPE for the HSE. The Defence Forces also support the National Ambulance Service and its crews.
From 20 March to 29 May, the Defence Forces have undertaken more than 21,000 troop taskings, with the overall commitment of Defence Forces personnel totalling 55,000 taskings, including an average of 446 personnel on standby each day. We should not forget that during the Covid-19 crisis the Defence Forces have continued to fulfil other roles and provide support. Explosive ordnance teams have responded to 35 call-outs, the emergency aeromedical service, EAS, has carried out 117 missions, the inter-hospital transfer service has provided 17 lifesaving transport missions and the Air Corps has provided firefighting support to combat gorse fires in counties Wicklow, Kildare and Laois. The Air Corps conducted 15 military transport flights to and from missions abroad involving the movement of personnel, equipment and PPE. The Naval Service continues to patrol our seas. Most important, the Defence Forces have maintained more than 500 members on overseas missions on behalf of the United Nations.
I wish to commend every member of the Reserve and Permanent Defence Forces who has contributed to this effort. The Government and the public deeply appreciate their efforts in supporting our national response. These efforts are supported by a substantial programme of investment in equipment and infrastructure projects that sustain the capability of the Defence Forces. For example, my Department has committed more than €250 million to acquire six new planes for the Air Corps. The first of these PC-12 fixed-wing utility aircraft, acquired by the Department from Pilatus Aircraft Limited, Switzerland, for €5.2 million, including VAT, has been used to transport Covid tests to and from Germany.
Deputies will be aware that the Covid pandemic has impacted on overseas deployments. Neither the troubled zones in question nor those charged by the UN with keeping the peace there have been immune to Covid-19. To safeguard local populations and peacekeepers, on 5 April the Secretary-General of the United Nations suspended the rotations of 100,000 peacekeepers in 39 missions until after 30 June. I am pleased to state that all of our rotations have been completed. In the case of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, mission, the UN granted us an exemption that allowed our troops to rotate before the end of June deadline. As I stated, I recognise the impact of the delay on members of the Defence Forces and their families. I hope the exemption we negotiated with the UN brings greater certainty in respect of the dates it provided. I wish to thank it and all others involved for their help. I wish to confirm that the two officers who were stationed in the Congo returned to Ireland at the weekend.
The focus on Covid has impacted on Defence Forces recruitment and resulted in changes to training and work practices. I can confirm that the current strength of the Defence Forces is 8,485. This is lower than planned. The ability of the Defence Forces to induct and train recruits has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 situation. Inductions in the first months of 2020 were postponed. Some 160 extra general recruits were expected to have inducted by now. The Defence Forces are currently finalising a revised training schedule to take account of public health guidelines. Covid-19 will continue to have an unprecedented impact on the number that can be inducted and trained at any one time and, as a result, on the rate at which the strength of the Defence Forces will increase during this period.
There is increased interest in careers in the Defence Forces, as borne out by the level of applications for all recruitment competitions, of which there have been 13 so far this year. For example, the number of general service recruitment applications, at 2,994, is above anticipated for this point of the year. The number of applications for Air Corps apprenticeships has also increased significantly over the past year. It is worth noting that overall officer numbers are close to full establishment figure. There are vacancies in some areas or ranks and excess in others. Gaps in particular areas, such as a shortage of pilots, are being addressed.
I am pleased to report that more than 600 applications have been received under the new scheme for re-entry.
Some 500 have gone forward for further assessment by the Chief of Staff. In excess of 35 applications have also been received in regard to the re-commissioning scheme for PDF officers. I anticipate receiving the recommendation of the Chief of Staff shortly in regard to the first batch of re-entrants. The contribution to be made by such experienced enlisted personnel and officers will, I believe, assist in addressing capability gaps.
Despite the demands and constraints arising from Covid-19, work has continued on the Government's high-level plan, Strengthening our Defence Forces. While some projects are taking longer than anticipated, a number have been significantly progressed to date. Any management quotas arising from these finalised reports fall within the scope of representations and will be discussed with the representative associations, RACO and PDFORRA, as appropriate. I would like to thank the civil and military staff undertaking this work for all their efforts to date.
In terms of additional expenditure, and in common with other Votes, the Covid-19 response has placed essential, additional and unforeseen expenditure demands on my Department across a wide range of areas. To date, some €10.8 million has been spent by the Department of Defence in responding to Covid-19-related issues. This expenditure includes, as I mentioned earlier, €5.2 million towards the acquisition of a new aircraft; some €4.2 million in respect of additional medical, engineering, building, PPE, audiovisual and transport costs across the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps; over €1 million in additional allowance payments; and some €400,000 in respect of additional Civil Defence costs. In addition, ICT investment has facilitated remote working opportunities across the defence organisation and has ensured ongoing business continuity during this turbulent period.
Turning to the Civil Defence, the organisation is built on 3,500 volunteers giving freely of their time and expertise. Since the outset of Covid-19 in Ireland in March of this year, the Civil Defence has been activated by the principal response agencies and has undertaken over 2,500 individual tasks. This has required almost 20,000 volunteer hours to be provided by over 800 individual volunteers. In many cases, Civil Defence volunteers have undertaken front-line roles, utilising the fleet of Civil Defence vehicles, such as the transport of Covid-19-positive patients to hospitals and isolation centres, and transport of suspected Covid-19 persons to testing centres. The Civil Defence has assisted the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, delivered medicine, food and support to vulnerable people in the community and transported PPE, tests and staff across the country. I want to acknowledge and recognise the contribution of Civil Defence officers and assistant Civil Defence officers, including the newly-appointed 18 temporary assistant Civil Defence officers and, of course, the volunteers.
As part of our national response to Covid-19, we are seeing the very best of all aspects of the defence sector. The challenge of achieving the full strength of the PDF is acknowledged and there are many strands to the work under way in that regard. There is also significant investment by the taxpayer in equipment, infrastructure and people. While recognising the challenges, it is crucial to also recognise how the Defence Forces have demonstrated their capacity to provide excellent support to the front-line services, alongside the other roles defined by Government.
In conclusion, I would like to thank all of the front-line healthcare staff and other essential workers, including all those across the defence sector, for all of the work that has been ongoing and that continues to be done in these extraordinary times. I welcome the opportunity to update Deputies on the defence sector's response to Covid-19. I again express my deepest condolences to anybody who has lost family members in this very difficult period.
I call Deputy Jack Chambers, who is sharing time with Deputy Robert Troy. I want to clarify if there will be questions.
There will be brief questions at the end.
However, the Deputy will take written answers afterwards.
If the Minister has an update and we have time.
That is fine.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge all those who have sadly lost their lives due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
More that 1,600 people have died here in the past two and a half months. As we have heard, these are not statistics on a page; each case represents families who have lost loved ones dear to them. We honour their memories while continuing to do everything we can to keep rates of infection down and overcome the virus.
As has been mentioned, the Defence Forces have played a central role in the national front-line response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Today is a welcome opportunity to commend their work and remind people of our reliance on Óglaigh na hÉireann, which continually rises to the challenge in the most testing of circumstances. As is the case with the health services, the gardaí and all of our emergency services, our Defence Forces' greatest strength is the character of the personnel we call upon who serve this country and their communities with great bravery, courage and commitment.
Equally impressive has been the continuance of essential non-Covid duties throughout all of this upheaval, such as our peacekeeping operations throughout the world. I have received a huge volume of contacts from family members of those serving on missions in Lebanon and I know the rotation and return of these personnel is causing great concern for their families who are anxiously awaiting their return. I understand there is unhappiness with how developments on this have been communicated to them and the need for better communication. This is an issue I have raised directly with the Minister.
Separately, I am pleased and relieved to see the necessary arrangements have been put in place to ensure our two peacekeepers have been returned from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The safety and well-being of our personnel is paramount in all of our overseas peacekeeping duties.
Ultimately, poor pay and conditions continue to overshadow many aspects of the Defence Forces, who remain the worst paid in the public service. It is no surprise to see the ongoing concerning rates of turnover and not meeting the White Paper target strength of 9,500. As has been mentioned, the strength is now below 8,500, which is well below the minimum strength figure. Last year, the Defence Forces suffered a net loss of 265, with 870 departing and only 605 being inducted. This represents a concerning trend.
My questions relate to the Defence Forces high level implementation plan. I have to say I am very concerned that eight out of the 15 projects are significantly behind schedule. The pay review of technical grades 2 to 6 was presented to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in January and we are a number of months on, almost in the summer. The representative associations were sceptical when the report was published last summer that things would not be followed through and they would not see this being implemented. If the implementation plan is failing and eight of the 15 projects are behind schedule or are not being followed through, it continues to raise morale issues and affects retention and our ability to recruit. Perhaps the Minister of State will give a more specific update on why very generic responses are given to the representative associations. Some projects were started eight months late. I can go through all of the projects but the Minister of State is better aware of them than I am. I am disappointed because when an implementation plan is put in place by the Department of the Taoiseach it should receive cross-departmental follow-through, particularly when we have such a recruitment and retention crisis in the Defence Forces. To see more than 50% of projects behind schedule and not meeting their deadline raises serious concerns about who is implementing the plan, why it has been delayed and why there is no follow-through. Covid cannot be the net excuse for this delay because it started last summer and I would like an explanation of where it is at. Will the delays be rectified soon because we are still seeing an increase in churn and turnovers? I would appreciate clarity on these matters. PDFORRA and RACO are very concerned about the follow-through. Their members and the Defence Forces, to whom we pay tribute today, need to see that politicians are serious about their issues. The implementation plan was the focus of the previous and current Governments. I would appreciate a brief update.
Deputy Chambers referred to the UNIFIL mission. As he knows, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, cancelled all rotations of all of our UN missions.
This was always going to cause some distress to members of the Defence Forces and their families. My Department, the Defence Forces and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade got working to see if we could get our members home earlier than the end of June. I am glad to report that they will be home. We have secured two dates. I thank our UN ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, for her efforts and all her work in that. Ireland is one of the first countries to be able to move out of the UNIFIL mission area. Our members will go into isolation at the weekend for two weeks before they go out. This has been a huge stress on all families. The Deputy referred to communications. When we are dealing with a large number of people, of course information is going to leak out to the media or whatever. There were mixed messages coming back. I was very clear that I did not want to go back to the families until I had a specific date on the return. There was a lot of misinformation out there that was not coming from me, the Department or military management. I know that this caused a great deal of anxiety among people. I am glad we were able to get our two people home from the Congo at the weekend as well.
The Deputy mentioned the high-level implementation plan. Covid-19 has impacted on the project timeframes. I met PDFORRA last week and have agreed to meet with RACO. I am aware that both representative associations have a number of issues that they want to raise with me. Much work has been done already on the high-level implementation plan. Independent chairs have been appointed to a number of the projects and work is ongoing. This will be a priority. There absolutely are challenges. I thought we would have been able to get some of the projects over the line but because of the amount of work involved, it has taken a great deal of time.
Last week we celebrated International Day of UN Peacekeepers. Ireland has a proud record of unbroken service since 1958. I thank all those who have served and remember the 86 people who have died in service. The Minister of State talked about not being able to control what was being leaked. The big issue I found when engaging with those serving abroad relates to the lack of clarity coming from the Department on when they could expect to get home and when their families could expect to see them. It is because of the lack of clear information from the Department that the misinformation was circulating. That created great concern and anxiety for our Defence Forces members overseas. I do not think this was right or proper. The Minister of State compliments the Permanent Defence Force, the Reserve and Civil Defence on the role they are playing, and he is right to do so. They have stepped up to the mark, as they have in so many crises down through the years. They have done so again in supporting other front-line services during Covid-19. However, just like when we complimented the role the Defence Forces played during the centenary celebrations of 2016, they are tired of lip service from the Government as regards acknowledging the respect we have for them. What they want to see are the adequate pay and conditions that have been promised.
It is no wonder that the current strength of the Defence Forces is just over 8,400 when its established strength is 9,500. That is a clear demonstration of the lack of morale that has been allowed to manifest in our Defence Forces in recent years. Can the Defence Forces be guaranteed that a restructuring or a commission on their pay and conditions will commence and be published because we have a serious issue with the retention of serving members of the Defence Forces?
Part of that retention issue stems from a decision taken by a previous Government to abolish the fourth western brigade because there are no longer the same career progression opportunities for people in the midlands and the west of Ireland. As a consequence of that, people are leaving the Army. In terms of a renewed programme for Government, does the Minister of State commit to looking at re-establishing the fourth western brigade to brigade headquarters status in Custume Barracks in Athlone?
I refer to the issue of serving personnel, with four or five people to a car, travelling to locations outside of Athlone to serve and carry out their responsibilities during the Covid-19 crisis, and I raised this directly with the Department as well. There were concerns around separation in this regard. Have those concerns been addressed?
A commitment was given in Athlone for a number of Army personnel to retrain and to be redeployed to help within the HSE and nursing homes. Has that happened and have those people been redeployed to help and assist the HSE and the nursing homes?
Columb Barracks in Mullingar was closed by a previous Government in 2012 and it was earmarked three years ago to be transferred to the Land Development Agency. Can the Minister of State reaffirm his commitment that the community groups that have made a home of this facility and used it in recent years will not be railroaded by the Land Development Agency and that something will be put into the contract when the land is being transferred to make sure this fine facility can be used by community groups in Mullingar in the future?
Like my colleagues, I commend the service members of the Defence Forces have given, as have many public servants, during the period of Covid-19. I also look forward to an opportunity to having more than just gratitude with which to reward them for that.
Deputy Troy mentioned 1916 and I want to raise the case of Mr. William Halpin with the Minister of State, who has not yet been awarded a medal for his service in 1916. He suffered profound mental health difficulties in Frongoch prison camp. I do not expect the Minister of State to have the details with him but I will write to him about it and I ask him to examine the case and to try to find a way to provide a service medal for Mr. William Halpin.
The Minister of State might just provide a brief response because he has less than a minute and he can correspond with the Deputies afterwards.
I ask Deputy McAuliffe to write to me about Mr. Halpin and I will follow up on that case for him.
I know Deputy Troy was in contact with my office about the rotations and we kept him up-to-date with any information we had on same. I was clear from the start that I did not want any misinformation going out. I said that when we had clarity on the dates of return of personnel from UNIFIL we would tell them the exact dates and that is what we did. Of course there was misinformation out there because, as I said to Deputy Chambers at the time, we were dealing with a large number of people and people had received different information. Some people had received information on service with UNIFIL and some people were listening to other information here in Ireland and it was an anxious time for all family members.
We have to move on. I am sorry. The time is up. Is Deputy Ó Snodaigh sharing with two colleagues?
Yes: na Teachtaí Mark Ward agus Sorca Clarke. Tógfaidh mé ceithre nóiméad i dtús báire agus ansin tá súil agam go mbeidh freagraí againn ón Aire Stáit.
Ba mhaith liomsa, cosúil leis na Teachtaí a chuaigh romham, mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le fir agus mná na bhFórsaí Cosanta as a ndíograis agus as an slí ina bhfuil siad tar éis tabhairt faoi na tascanna agus na dualgais atá curtha rompu go dtí seo, in ainneoin na gconstaicí atá orthu agus in ainneoin an slí ina bhfuil an Stát tar éis caitheamh leo le blianta anuas. I also praise the Defence Forces personnel who have been involved in Covid-19 operations in support of the civil power, the HSE and those who were and are now stationed overseas and their families. Thankfully, as the Minister of State has just mentioned, there is clarity on the UNIFIL troops returning in June, and I thank him for communicating with me along the way in that regard. Any time I have got a communication from him I have passed it on to those who had made inquiries.
I have a brief question about future rotation of those UNIFIL operations, specifically the one that is to happen at the end of June. Since there has been a run-on of the current deployment, will the troops going out to Lebanon have a six-month or four-month rotation? If four months, will they enjoy the overseas allowances for the full six months, as the Minister of State seemed to indicate in early correspondence with me, given that many families have budgeted for a full six months' overseas allowance and that often their mortgages depend on it?
The Minister of State and his Department, and previous Ministers, have undermined the Defence Forces and their ability to respond fully to challenges, in this case Covid-19. Those who have been tasked with work have done their damnedest and gone over and above the call of duty, but I am sorry to say that, given the reduction in personnel numbers and the stripping and undermining of their equipment, buildings and so on, they have not been able to respond as fully as we would expect.
In the Minister of State's response there was no mention of a reserve force. He even mentioned the Civil Defence. Did he say 800 of them were mobilised to do something? That leaves another 1,700 in the Civil Defence who were not called on at all.
This is an emergency, with all hands on deck, yet the Minister of State says how great it is that the Department was able to spend money on an airplane. That was already committed. It is the same with the proposal he brought before the House about recommissioning officers and re-entry. That was all committed to last year. What exactly is being done this year? How much of the €10.8 million he talked about has been committed already?
What about the purchase of new field hospitals and medical equipment? Is that buried in the middle of that figure? It does not seem to be there. I do not see mention of what other armies around the world have, such as field hospitals which are containers like Lego pieces that join up and can be used at a moment's notice. Again, they were not mentioned. I know they were asked for in the past. The Department turned them down. The Minister of State has had since very early in February or March to allow the purchase of such equipment and allow the Defence Forces to continue and enhance their work.
The Minister of State said it would cost a substantial amount of money to bring St. Bricin's hospital up to date. The Government is spending a substantial amount of money on private hospitals. Would it not be better to spend it on public hospitals which are in the Defence Forces' hands, in both the Curragh and St. Bricin's, and bring them up to a standard such that they can be utilised now and into the future in our response? Does the Minister of State accept any responsibility for having the Defence Forces under strength, ill-resourced and badly paid, which has impacted their ability to deliver fully for the State in the Covid response?
I will ask a couple of questions on two separate items. At 5.25 p.m. on 21 May, the rear door of an Air Corps helicopter detached and fell more than 250 m onto the grounds of Moyle Park College in Clondalkin, which is in my constituency. The aircraft had successfully completed a lifesaving mission to a Dublin hospital and was on its way back to the aerodrome at Baldonnel to refuel when the door fell off. Reports have emerged about how the door fell off at the far side of Clondalkin village. It was then blown by the wind across the village and over the heads of pedestrians and motorists before landing in the grounds of the school. People have spoken to me about it. As the Minister of State can imagine, Clondalkin village was a hive of normal village activity at the time. Had we not been in the middle of a pandemic, Moyle Park College would have been bursting at the seams with children training for GAA, soccer, basketball and other sports. It is a miracle that no one was injured on the ground or in the aircraft.
What is the status of the investigation? When will the investigation be concluded and made public? What is the scope of the investigation? Will it include an investigation into what budget is provided for regular maintenance of Air Corps aircraft?
I have seen in my area at first hand the valuable contribution that retired members of the Defence Forces have made during Covid-19. For example, there is a group of seven retired Army personnel who voluntarily collect and deliver prescriptions for people who are cocooning and self-isolating. To date they have collected more than 1,000 prescriptions for our community. I want to take this opportunity to thank Anto, Sammy, Mick and the rest of the lads who are doing that.
On 1 April, the Government announced a scheme to re-enlist Defence Forces personnel to fill the gaps in the Permanent Defence Force. I have spoken to several former members of the Defence Forces who have applied to offer their services to the State but who are disappointed with the lack of response. A written response to a parliamentary question I tabled informed me that 502 applicants had been deemed eligible for re-enlistment. How many of these 502 eligible applicants have been re-enlisted to date? How many will be re-enlisted? What is the delay in the process?
Minister of State, you have two and a half minutes to respond.
I can speak if the Minister of State wants to wait to the end to address all of our questions.
Yes, we can do it that way. Go ahead, Deputy Clarke.
First, I wish to add my voice to the thanks to our Defence Forces for the role they have played in the emergency of Covid-19. I want to raise a couple of issues with the Minister of State today.
The first is the deep concern regarding the future use of Columb Barracks in Mullingar and the proposed construction of 100 homes by the Land Development Agency there. I have put forward several parliamentary questions but have yet to receive responses. The questions I have put forward are to address the deep concern but also to provide clarity on the confusion around the LDA announcement. The agency website states that the number is actually 200 homes and that a design team has been appointed. Who is in this design team? When did they visit Columb Barracks? What is the timeframe for the next complete preliminary design phase?
There are also genuine concerns regarding the future of the protected structures on that site dating back to when construction began in 1814. The history and heritage associated with the site is far more than the physical built structures. Since its opening, Columb Barracks has stood witness to some of the most historic events in our country's past, a history that should not now or ever be bulldozed but rather incorporated into a future for all. The heritage and history of this site is unique. Despite being closed in 2012 it remains an intrinsic part of the DNA of Mullingar and the surrounding areas.
Columb Barracks, the previous home of the 4th Field Artillery Regiment, requires investment. It requires an ambitious vision and approach that combines the needs of the town today with the future needs of the coming generation. The vision for Columb Barracks must not only respect and value the built heritage of the site, alongside the historical elements, but must also provide a secure future for those valued and valuable community and sporting groups operating there and providing much-needed services to the wider community. It cannot simply be plundered for profit.
Will the Department of Defence consider transferring the built structure to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht? This would provide security to the sporting community and ex-Defence Forces groups who currently use these buildings.
It would ensure that the structures were preserved and their history recognised, not only for those who live in and visit the town today, but for those who will do so in future.
A number of years ago, the Defence Forces were seen as a viable career, not only in general terms, but for those who were successful in applying for the apprenticeship programmes within. That was then and this is now, however. Grassroots members of the Defence Forces tell me that they are seeing an entire system in crisis and that they are underfunded, under-resourced and undervalued. They see no respect or loyalty. No member of the Defence Forces should be forced to rely on social protection income support to put a roof over his or her family's head or food in his or her children's stomachs. None should be unable to meet monthly rent payments or be locked out of home ownership because of choosing to serve this country. I am proud to represent the people of Longford and Westmeath, but it is far from pride that I feel when a young man tells me that, if his wife was handed his medals and flag, his dream of a forever home for his daughters would actually come true.
Will the Minister of State set up a pay review commission tasked with establishing the fair remuneration of Defence Forces members? Will he give our Defence Forces the right to collective bargaining on pay and conditions? Will the Department of Defence initiate a root and branch review of itself and instigate necessary reforms to improve the working relationship between it and Defence Forces structures, particularly in respect of responsibility for budget spending?
We have three and a half minutes left. Could the Minister of State perhaps respond to some of those questions in correspondence?
I will not be able to reach them all.
Whatever you can.
In my tenure, I have been able to deliver a package of measures worth more than €20 million in increases in Defence Forces pay through the independent pay commission, public sector pay increases, increases in new entrants' pay and outstanding adjudications. There have been increases under various headings. I do not have time to go through the pay of all of the different ranks in the Defence Forces. I would like to, but I am unable to do so.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh raised the UN's decision to suspend all rotations. My Department is considering a full range of issues, including those the Deputy mentioned, for example, people not being able to go out for a full rotation. We are engaging in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on that matter. It is my intention to get clarity on all of these issues as soon as possible, specifically before the 116th Battalion deploys in two weeks' time, but it is not as simple as my Department just sorting this out. We have to go through the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
Local authorities are the agencies that call out and give all taskings to the Civil Defence. I compliment the Civil Defence. Its volunteers are fantastic and have done great work in recent weeks. Like many thousands of other volunteers across the country, they have put their lives at risk during this dangerous pandemic.
Regarding the air accident investigation into the helicopter incident, I received a preliminary report. As the Deputy knows, I asked for an extensive investigation into the incident. That is ongoing and I do not want to prejudge its outcome. I want to give the Air Corps the time and space it needs to carry out its work. I assure the House that I have received an incident report from the Chief of Staff. While the Air Accident Investigation Unit was involved earlier in the process, it is an internal investigation and remains ongoing.
I launched the re-enlistment scheme on 1 April. We have had more than 600 applicants, a little over 500 of whom are eligible to return to the organisation. A significant process must be gone through - interviews, security checks and so on.
This is ongoing. I hope to have a list from the Chief of Staff soon recommending to me a number of people to be brought back into the organisation. This is the right thing to do for people who have left the organisation and who want to come back. It has been hugely successful and will give people another opportunity to serve.
I thank the Minister of State. Time is up.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh referred to the plane in which we invested. That was an additional plane; it was not one of the those for which we had planned for last year. It is additional and we decided to invest in it in March.
I am sharing time with Deputies Higgins and Feighan. I thank the Minister of State for taking questions. I wish to ask about Columb Barracks, which has also been raised by other colleagues. I want to give the Minister of State time to respond regarding the 24-acre site that was closed several years ago when a number of barracks in the midlands were closed. The Land Development Agency, which does not have legislative power as yet, has drawn up a design proposal for a number of houses and uploaded a video in connection with the site. This online video is unhelpful because it does not show much detail. I want to make clear that the buildings on the site are listed. When I raised this issue previously with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, who has responsibility for the Land Development Agency, he made it clear that it would not be sliced and diced and assured me that there would be a significant community dividend in respect of the site, which is historically significant. General Seán MacEoin was captured there in 1921. He went on to serve as Minister for Justice and Minister for Defence. A number of clubs operate from the site that are vital to the fabric of the local society and community. The old jail is historically significant and Mr. Jason McKevitt, a local historian in Mullingar, has done considerable work aimed at unlocking the huge potential of the site. I ask the Minister of State to assure people that it is not the case that a bulldozer will go in and knock down all of the buildings in the barracks and that there are no plans to do same. A clear commitment was made that there would be public consultation and a clear plan to deliver development on this essential site. The site requires resources but it has enormous potential for the local community. We must ensure that we unlock its potential for the benefit of the people of Mullingar. Housing can be built on the 14 acres of the site on which there are no buildings. I ask the Minister of State to reassure people in that regard.
We will hear all of the questions and then come back to the Minister of State.
The response from our public service has been heroic. In Ireland's time of need, we know we can always rely on the loyalty and dedication of our Defence Forces. Whether it is establishing and operating test centres on Dublin's quays, playing a vital role in contact tracing, putting overflow facilities together in Citywest at a moment's notice or transporting vital and life-saving PPE, the Defence Forces have risen to challenge. I want to especially acknowledge the efforts of the Defence Forces personnel serving at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, which is in my constituency. I am sure they will be pleased to hear that the Minister of State has allocated over €250 million for six new planes for the Air Corps. I ask the Minister of State to outline his plans to recognise the efforts of the Defence Forces and the dedicated and talented volunteers of our Civil Defence once this crisis has passed. I also ask that a thorough investigation is completed into the freak incident in Clondalkin just two weeks ago when the door from a military helicopter landed in Moyle Park College. Thankfully - and possibly miraculously - nobody was injured but we cannot ever have an incident like that again. I would welcome details from the Minister of State on how aircraft maintenance will avoid any such future incidents or potentially catastrophic situations.
I join my colleagues in thanking all of the members of the Defence Forces community for their efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic. We have a strong military community in counties Sligo and Donegal, with Finner Camp in south Donegal as well as the Army barracks in my home town of Boyle. The latter has been there since the foundation of the State and before. I was a member of the FCA in the early 1980s and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
We went to Finner Camp and Dunree in Donegal. When the FCA upskilled to the RDF in the early 1980s, people like me who thoroughly enjoyed themselves were not called back. The 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising took place in 2006 and at that time Bertie Ahern held a showcase in O'Connell Street involving the Army and Air Corps. I was hugely impressed to see fine young men and women who were very professional. Fourteen years later, it is great to see professional, well-turned-out and, hopefully, well-mobilised but mostly well-paid members because the Defence Forces can sometimes be neglected and sometimes we need to show they are the people who are defending our State.
Does the Minister of State believe the Permanent Defence Force could have played a more prominent role in providing assistance to An Garda Síochána during the Covid-19 outbreak? I know Civil Defence played a significant role.
Deputy Berry mentioned military aircraft on a previous occasion, and it was appropriate to raise it with the Taoiseach. I am not taking from Deputy Berry, who spoke on the last occasion, but I thought it was ironic that we were one of the only countries in Europe that did not have its own military aircraft. I think the Taoiseach rightly said that he would investigate this. Given the serious difficulties we have seen in efforts to repatriate Irish citizens, I was very taken aback. I believe that serious consideration will now be given to the expansion of Air Corps capabilities and I thank Deputy Berry for raising that issue because it was one I did not fully understand. I thank the Minister of State and all members of the Defence Forces for their service and dedication. As political representatives, we should do everything we can to assist them in choosing that vocation in the defence of our country.
As Deputy Peter Burke is very much aware, Columb Barracks, which closed in 2012, is now longer required by the Department of Defence for military purposes. In establishing the Land Development Agency, LDA, at the time, the Government recognised the potential of this site for development as part of meeting housing demand. The LDA has confirmed that Columb Barracks is a key site that is suitable for its development requirements. To this end, the Department is in discussions with the LDA to formally transfer ownership of the site to the LDA. It is understood that the LDA is in the process of planning for future development. I know that some of these plans have been published. The Deputy has approached me on a number of occasions regarding this very important issue.
In response to Deputy Higgins, I compliment members of the Defence Forces - our cadets - who were very much involved in the first part of contact tracing. Members of the Defence Forces are still part and parcel of contact tracing. I also compliment the Naval Service, which had a testing centre on Sir John Rogerson's Quay, and administrative staff who are very much involved in the testing centre at the Aviva Stadium. They are performing a vital service for the HSE with regard to testing.
I compliment the Air Corps for its assistance with regard to Covid-19. I am delighted that the Government was able to commit €265 million for the acquisition of six new aircraft. On 2 April 2020, we took delivery of a new Pilatus PC-12 worth €5.2 million. In July, we are scheduled to take delivery of a further three PC-12 aircraft worth €39 million.
These will be well equipped and will have intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities. They will be an important piece of kit for the Air Corps. In December, I signed a contract to replace the two 26 year old C-295 maritime patrol aircraft to the value of €221.6 million.
There has been discussion recently regarding strategic lift. The Taoiseach spoke about it in the House last week. We have tasked the Chief of Staff to prepare an options paper in that regard, inclusive of what use Ireland, as a country, might have for it. Other countries do have it and it is fantastic to have. In recent years, aircraft availability was never an issue in terms of transporting military personnel from overseas. There were other issues rather than the availability of aircraft. It would be fantastic if we did have our own lift capacity but we have to ensure value for money for the taxpayer in circumstances where we make investments.
I will put a number of questions to the Minister of State and give him an opportunity to respond. Before doing so, I join him and colleagues from across the House in recognising the huge work that members of the Defence Forces have done during the Covid-19 crisis, from the establishment of the early testing centres on naval vessels to their participation in contact tracing and their involvement across the country in the community call. We are all incredibly grateful for the steadfast work of members of the Defence Forces and their efforts at this time.
It is always worth noting the unique role that the Irish Defence Forces have played, particularly in matters of peacekeeping over 60 years, their involvement in Mediterranean rescue missions in recent years and their participation in UN peacekeeping duties in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lebanon. Our Defence Forces are unique. Their uniqueness is recognised internationally. It is recognised by the United Nations. The impartiality that members of the Irish Defence Forces display in the conflict zones in which they serve is hugely valued.
We are well aware of the challenges that are faced by our Defence Forces, many of which have been raised by previous speakers. I refer to retention and recruitment owing to low pay and the fact that members of the Defence Forces are not permitted to be members of trade unions, which creates issues for them in terms of a lack of support in the context of their participation in public pay agreements.
In mid-April, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade began urging Irish citizens to return home, where possible, before the strictest of the Covid-19 restrictions in Ireland and abroad came into place. It was around the same time that the Irish peacekeeping troops in Lebanon were informed that rotations were being suspended to prevent the spread of the virus. Understandably, this led to a great deal of uncertainty and stress for members of the Defence Forces and their families. It is welcome the Minister of State's confirmation that those serving in Lebanon will be allowed to return to Ireland later this month. However, there is a lack of clarity on a number of issues. I hope the Minister of State will be able to provide that clarity today. First, can he clarify the quarantine requirements for those who are returning. Will he outline the level of contact troops will be able to have with families during the quarantine period, particularly those who choose to quarantine in a barracks? Second, I understand members of the Defence Forces who are being rotated out in Lebanon will be required to complete the full 14-day quarantine. Can the Minister of State clarify what procedures will be put in place should a member of the Defence Forces test positive with Covid-19 during this quarantine period?
For members of the Defence Forces who are due to be deployed overseas and have been delayed because of the extension of the original rotation, there will be a consequent delay in receipt of the overseas peace support allowance. Can the Minister of State advise if there will be any additional financial supports put in place to mitigate the loss of income that those people and their families will incur?
We are all aware that allowance and that extra income is extremely important to many members of the Defence Forces and their families.
Members coming back from Lebanon have the option of quarantining in their own home or in barracks. Personnel deploying to UNIFIL in Lebanon will go into quarantine together two weeks from departure. I understand arrangements are in place and the chief medical officer of the Defence Forces is very much involved in preparing the quarantine of personnel going to UNIFIL.
My Department is looking at a full range of financial issues affecting members of the Defence Forces regarding allowances and there is full engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform at this time. I want to be able to let members and personnel know the outcome of those discussions and negotiations as soon as possible. I hope the Deputy understands the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is dealing with a range of other areas as well, but it is my intention that as soon as I get the information I will inform personnel going out to UNIFIL and give them full clarification on it.
When will PDFORRA be able to affiliate to ICTU?
There are discussions between PDFORRA and ICTU. This was a recommendation from the recently published C&A scheme, which I recommended at the time. The new C&A scheme is up and running with an independent chair. When the report came out there was a recommendation that the Department would get into discussion with ICTU and discussions are ongoing.
What exactly is the state or nature of those discussions? When will PDFORRA be able to affiliate to ICTU?
Can I get back to the Deputy with the exact state of play on that? My understanding is - I can be corrected on this - there is discussion between PDFORRA and ICTU at this time. However, I do not want to say that is the exact state of play, but I will get back to the Deputy with an absolute, full and frank reply on the issue. There is absolutely no delay on my behalf. These discussions are ongoing. The Deputy can understand this is a very sensitive matter. He can be reassured that I will come back to him with a full and frank reply.
I want a reassurance that there is no impediment on the Government's part to ensuring that, as a principle, PDFORRA can affiliate to ICTU.
Probably, it will not be a decision for this Government, but it will have to be an issue for the new Government. This is a big decision to be made. I do not believe a caretaker Government should be making a decision of this magnitude. The next Government should make this decision. The Deputy can be reassured that if I had been able to get a decision on this one way or the other, I would have done so.
A huge amount of work is ongoing and has been done between my Department, PDFORRA and ICTU. Management were kept aware of ongoing negotiations as well.
On pay and conditions, the Minister of State spoke to the issue of engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform regarding those who have either returned from overseas deployment in Lebanon or are going out. He told us that there is full engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and that he hopes to come back to Members on the various issues that have been raised as soon as possible. The latest UN deployment to Lebanon took place in mid-November 2019 and would have ended in May 2020. As I understand it, approximately 50 personnel would have then come home for leave. They have an entitlement to a two-week leave arrangement, which they would have taken up. They understandably did not return to Lebanon because of the pandemic we are in the midst of, but the net effect of those 50-odd personnel having returned home is a loss of income. They have effectively lost one third of their allowance, though provision would have been made for that allowance anyway. Will the Minister of State give an assurance to those who returned home on leave during the last tour of duty that they will have the element of their pay they lost restored?
A number of claims have been received by my Department regarding people who might have been on leave and who were not able to get back. Those claims have been received from various individuals in varying cases. They state that as a consequence of the travel restrictions on movements back and forth to combat the spread of Covid-19, and specifically UN Under-Secretary-General Jean-Pierre Lacroix's announcement that there would be no rotations until after 30 June, these people were denied the opportunity to return to their deployment. This matter is under consideration and there will be full engagement with the Defence Forces representative associations through the conciliation and arbitration scheme. I am aware of this issue and it was unfortunate that people who came home for holidays or took leave during that time were unable to get back. I am not able to give the Deputy the exact number of people affected because the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, was able to do the rotation as planned and very successfully right before the real lockdown came into force. Unfortunately some people were home on leave when the UN announced that there would be no rotations and that for people who were home on holidays or who were due to go home on holidays, rotations would be delayed. Unfortunately, it was out of my hands. As I said in my opening statement, this affected over 100,000 personnel from various countries. We were lucky enough to be able to negotiate and discuss getting our troops out earlier than had been planned with the UN.
I welcome the Minister of State's response, because he is aware of the issue and is sympathetic to the plight of those people. I return to my point that this money would have been budgeted for anyway and through no fault of their own, this situation has resulted in a serious loss of income for these people. We know the consequence of that loss of income for a Defence Forces family, especially in terms of keeping a household and managing bills. If there is a process of engagement with the relevant authorities, I ask for a clear and sympathetic view for that cohort of Defence Forces personnel who were affected by a set of circumstances that was entirely out of their control.
I ask that that issue be dealt with.
Like other Deputies, I wish to make the case in respect of those who are now going into quarantine before going out. They are away from their families and households. It is arguable that for the sake of equity and fairness they would have a case for the payment of allowances while they are in quarantine on Irish soil. I add my voice to the case that has been made by other Members that they receive appropriate recompense for the period of time during which they are in quarantine. I ask the Minister of State to respond to that.
The Minister of State may not be able to respond to a particular issue I wish to raise. I refer to the current status of the Lynch Camp in Kilworth, County Cork. What is the status of the barracks? It is being used by the HSE, as I understand it, but there is anecdotal evidence of families being asked to socially isolate there. Can the Minister of State confirm whether that is the case? He may not be able to answer that question now, but if he could write to me I would be most grateful.
I am very sympathetic to the financial issues raised by Deputy Sherlock. I wish it was as simple as me writing a cheque, but it is not. The paymaster is the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, as the Deputy is very well aware given that he served in and understands the workings of government. Any financial issues have to go through the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. If he has an opportunity to talk to the Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform he can have a friendly word in his ear.
There have been two Ministers who have come in here and have used the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for a bit of cover. I am not sure how acceptable it is.
I wish I had the chequebook. I will revert to the Deputy on Kilworth. I know any returning personnel from overseas are given an opportunity to quarantine in a number of barracks. Kilworth is available to the HSE. Thankfully given that the spread of Covid-19 has slowed somewhat I am not sure what the HSE's plans for Kilworth are, but I can get the Deputy a full reply.
I have a few questions for the Minister of State and will give him plenty of time to respond. I would like to extend my sympathy to the family and friends of George Floyd and express my strong solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It is important that we all stand united against racism in all its forms at home and abroad and strongly reject State and institutional racism. We must stand up against the politics of fear and hate espoused by President Donald Trump and state leaders in Hungary and Poland and we must move quickly to end the dehumanising practice of direct provision in Ireland.
I want to join with other Members who have commended the Defence Forces on the role they have played at home and abroad during the Covid-19 crisis. I want to strongly support the members of the Defence Forces.
My first question relates to the comments made by the Taoiseach about the possible purchase of an airlift carrier for the transport of personnel. Is there any update on that? Is it under consideration?
The Chief of Staff has been tasked with coming up with some options or a discussion paper on this. If we are going to buy such an aircraft we have to ensure that, given that it will be funded by the taxpayers, it will not be used for only 100 days a year.
We need to ensure there is dual use of this. We need to bring other areas into the discussion as well as the Defence Forces. As I have said previously in my tenure in the Department, we have never previously not had the availability of aircraft to bring members home from missions. This year we did because we do not have an aircraft available and we were unable to bring two members home from Congo. We have the smaller jet, but it would have taken at least seven hops - three stoppages on the way down, a stoppage in Congo and three stoppages on the way back with very difficult challenges in trying to do that. I understand where the Deputy is coming from. However, if we are to invest in such an aircraft, we need to give good tangible reasons for needing it and what we might be able to use it for in the future.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. My concern relates to the retention problem in the Defence Forces, morale issues and issues over pay and conditions. It was notable that the Taoiseach was giving consideration to this level of expenditure and yet we do not see the same movement in addressing issues such as pay. I agree with previous comments that it is very important that the Defence Forces representative organisation, PDFORRA, is admitted into Congress. As is the norm in many other European countries, it should be playing a full role in participating in public sector pay talks.
The return of the two officers from Goma is very welcome. Will more officers be sent out? If so, how many will be sent and when will they be sent?
I met the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of my Department yesterday. Because of the restrictions on rotations, we had planned on sending three officers to replace the officers who were out there, but that rotation will not take place until after 30 June. The Chief of Staff is in discussions with the head of the mission in MONUSCO and we will be rotating. I have asked the Chief of Staff to give me a full security and medical assessment to ensure the safety of the personnel going out there. At the moment it is our intention to send three further officers out there to replace the officers who had been there, but it will be after 30 June.
Is the Minister of State giving an assurance that they will not be sent if there are concerns over safety because there were concerns over the safety of the two officers and the time it took to get them home? Is it a strong assurance that it will be the safety of the personnel first and foremost and that they will not be sent if there are concerns? How will that be evaluated?
That decision will be made when I get the reassurances that I have asked the Chief of Staff for. I want to make sure that the safety of all personnel in any of our mission areas is paramount. I am not sure when I will get that from the Chief of Staff, but as soon as I get that we will make a decision on it.
The Minister of State and others have rightly praised the role of our Defence Forces in the public health effort. They have done fantastic work in areas like testing and tracing. Obviously, there is the bravery of forces on missions in Lebanon, Congo and elsewhere.
Does that praise not ring a bit hollow when we consider the failure to really support our military personnel with decent pay and conditions? The figures are damning, because of the poor levels of pay, the cuts in allowances and the failure to restore pay and the many allowances cut in the period of austerity. The strength of the Defence Forces stands at 1,000 fewer than it needs to be. We have 610 unfilled vacancies at junior non-commissioned officer, NCO, ranks and 77.6% of establishment at the rank of captain. We no longer provide accommodation for many of our military personnel caught up in the housing crisis that grips the rest of the country. We also refused to refurbish the married quarters that could provide affordable accommodation for our military personnel on or near bases.
We do not have the airlift capacity to bring troops back from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, mission. In addition, we had the ignominious situation where military personnel out in a very dangerous situation in Chad essentially had to hitch a lift with the French in order to get home. As I understand it, they had to leave their weapons behind and lose all their ammunition because they had to go on a civilian aircraft to get back as we do not have that airlift capacity. I welcome that we do not have a jet to whisk Ministers and taoisigh around the place, but would it not be a good idea to have airlift capacity for our military personnel, for the many thousands of our citizens stranded all around the world during the Covid-19 crisis and for mercy missions we might wish to undertake? It seems pretty crazy to me that we have the bizarre situation where we do not have that key airlift capacity. Let us back up the rhetoric of support for our military personnel with decent pay, conditions, accommodation and the airlift capacity to bring them home.
I am very much in favour of airlift capacity. It would be brilliant to have it. As the Deputy knows, however, it costs a great deal of money. I would be supportive of any Government proposing to buy that capacity. I am delighted to be able to say that during my tenure in the Department we have been able to invest some €265 million in aircraft for the Air Corps.
On the pay of the Defence Forces, the Government was able to deliver a €20 million package of measures to increase pay through the independent pay commission, the public sector pay agreement, new entrant pay scales and outstanding adjudications. We also put in place the high-level implementation plan. The recommendation of the pay commission was an increase in the military service allowance of 10% and allowances cut under the Haddington Road agreement restored. The weekend premium rates were restored. A pilot service commitment scheme, valued at €22,000 a year, has been reintroduced. Outstanding adjudications were implemented. Allowances were increased for the Army Ranger Wing by €50 a week to €200 a week. There were also increases for cooks from €13.50 a week, account holders at €65 a week and for those not already in receipt of allowances. The long-standing practice of charging recruits and apprentices for rations and accommodation was ended, which is a weekly saving of €43.63.
Other pay-related initiatives include a tax credit for sea-going Naval Service personnel, exemptions from benefit-in-kind for healthcare provided to members of the Defence Forces and exemption from the lifetime community rating loading for the private healthcare provided to officers.
Since 2016, the basic starting pay of three-star privates has increased by 31%-----
Perhaps the Minister of State could respond to the Deputy in writing because we are running out of time for Deputy Paul Murphy.
After six months training, a new soldier earns €28,685. More can be done. I am the first to recognise that there are challenges.
I thank the Minister of State. We must move on.
Like every other member of the public service, members of the Defence Forces are regaining-----
I call Deputy Paul Murphy.
From day one, members of the Defence Forces have got stuck in to help fight the impacts of this pandemic. They have transported PPE, helped with testing and tracing and much more besides. Like retail workers, cleaners and other essential workers, they have worked throughout the crisis, in many instances putting their health and lives and those of their families at risk in order to keep society running. Despite the remarks of the Minister of State, it is a fact that they receive shockingly low pay for so doing. At the start of 2020, more than 100 Defence Forces personnel were in receipt of the working family payment. They were receiving another payment from the State, such was the low nature of their pay. More than 80% of Defence Forces personnel are paid less than the average national wage. They are low-paid, as are many other workers on the front line. The cheap talk of the Minister of State and the Government about how much they recognise all the work that members of the Defence Forces are doing does not pay rent or put food on the table and so on.
An additional factor has been referenced which differentiates these workers from others. Like certain other workers, their health and safety have been compromised and their need for PPE, sanitiser and proper social distancing has often been forgotten. However, unlike other workers, they do not have the same legal right to join a union or take industrial action to demand, for example, that unsafe working conditions be improved. That is a real slap in the face for these workers and their families and highlights the need to give full trade union rights to Defence Forces personnel. I listened to the earlier reply of the Minister of State in respect of this issue to the effect that this is a question for the next Government. He is probably correct in that regard because it is likely that we will soon have a new Government. Does he personally support the idea that these workers should have full trade union rights as well as decent pay?
That will be a matter for the next Government to decide. I never stated that discussions had concluded. Had they concluded, I would have brought a recommendation to the Government. Unfortunately, we did not reach a point whereby I could bring a memorandum to the Government regarding whether we recommended the extension of trade union rights. As I stated in reply to Deputy Sherlock, discussions are ongoing with PDFORRA and RACO. This is a recommendation of the review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme and I acted upon one of its recommendations.
The Deputy is totally incorrect to state that more than 100 members of the Defence Forces are in receipt of the working family payment. He should go back and check that out.
I stated that that was the case at the start of the year.
There are varying circumstances surrounding why a person would be in receipt of the working family payment. A three-star private who has passed out earns between €28,685 and €39,583 and might be single or in a relationship with one, two three or four children. If the latter is the case, that person may qualify for the working family payment, as do many other people.
I have another specific question I wish to ask the Minister of State.
The Deputy can ask his question when I have finished answering this one.
If the Minister of State keeps answering it, I will not have time to ask another.
The Deputy asked me a very simple question. I gave him the opportunity to ask a question and I wish to have the opportunity to answer it. A three-star private earns between-----
I wish to ask about the 116th Battalion. The Minister of State is aware of this issue. Will its members receive their full six months' overseas allowance in order that they will not end up out of pocket as a result of Covid-19?
I answered that question earlier. Several claims have been submitted to my Department on a range of issues. We will work with the representative associations and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on those issues.
The Deputy raised the issue of pay. A three-star private starts off on €28,685. That can rise to €39,583.
A corporal is on between €38,786 and €40,523, a sergeant is on between €41,479 and €43,938, a company sergeant is on between €47,960 and €51,010, and a sergeant-major is on between €52,613 and €56,096. For commissioned officers, a lieutenant is on between €41,666 and €51,922 and a captain is on between €50,472 and €62,460, depending on the class of PRSI the individual is on. I can give the Deputy the full range of pay and allowances for all ranks of personnel.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to answer questions on defence matters. If it is okay, I might go straight to questions and answers. To provide some structure to the proceedings and for the convenience of the Minister of State, I might group my questions in regard to the four domains the Defence Forces operate under, namely, land, sea, air and cyber. I might take a break between each one to allow the Minister of State to respond.
From a land perspective, the Minister of State launched a re-enlistment scheme or pathway and it was voted through the House on 26 March. In the ten weeks since that date, the HSE has managed to recruit more than 1,200 personnel and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has been paying approximately 1 million people income protection. The Minister of State mentioned a lot of statistics in regard to 500 or 600 people who are interested in joining. The only metric that really matters is how many people have joined the Defence Forces through the scheme in the last ten weeks. That is the first question.
On 1 April last, I launched a scheme for re-enlistment of former members of the Permanent Defence Force, in particular former enlisted personnel who have skills and expertise required to fill identified vacancies that currently exist and that were identified by military management. The scheme will allow for initial re-enlistment for a minimum of six months up to three years. The duration of the re-enlistment offered will be dependent on the vacancies.
Does the Minister of State know the number?
Over 600 people applied and, although I cannot be exact, something like 514 or 520 are eligible to come back into the Defence Forces. A huge amount of work has been ongoing within the Defence Forces organisation.
Just the number, please.
None as of yet, but I expect that the Chief of Staff-----
That is zero.
I expect that the Chief of Staff will recommend to me next week a number of people to come in. Deputy Berry said at the start we would only get 12 to re-apply.
To confirm, the number is actually zero. To correct the Minister of State, I did not say 12 would apply; I said that approximately 12 would be inducted. I was being over-optimistic in thinking it would take place in the month of May and, obviously, that has not happened. Is there a target date or does the Minister of State have a preferred date for when the first inductions will take place?
The Deputy said at the time that no more than 12 people would apply for re-enlistment but, instead, we have over 600 people. I should also say that more than 30 officers have an interest in coming back into the Defence Forces and I am awaiting a recommendation from the Chief of Staff on that. As I said, I expect I will have a list of recommended candidates for re-enlistment from the Chief of Staff next week, and there will be further people who will come back into the organisation over the next short while.
I thank the Minister of State for confirming that the number is zero and that not a single member of the Defence Forces has been re-enlisted through this scheme in the last ten weeks. I also point out there is no projected date for the first person to be enlisted. I want to confirm as well, and people will be very happy to check the record-----
As I said, next week I will have a full list of people who want to come back into the Defence Forces, as recommended by the Chief of Staff.
Yesterday, it was confirmed by the Chief of Staff that I would have it next week.
Understood. To clarify, my question is when we will have the first person in uniform and working. That is what induction means.
I see my role here as to facilitate and advise and maybe gently nudge things along rather than being adversarial. I have no intention of being adversarial. There is a group of people, the Army nursing service, that I suspect people in the Chamber may not be aware exists. A report on reinvigorating the Army nursing service, which would have been very useful over the past couple of months, has been in the Department of Defence headquarters since 2012. It has not been acted upon over the past eight years. A number of agency nurses are working in the Defence Forces. They would love to join the Army nursing service but cannot. They are not allowed because the report still has not been implemented. This is a gentle request in the nicest possible way. Perhaps the Minister of State has only a few weeks left in the role. Would it be possible for him to look at the report and try to regularise their situation? It would save the taxpayer a fortune. Instead of paying agency rates for agency nurses we could bring this couple of nurses into the fold and pay them a normal decent wage with a permanent salary.
I will come back to the Deputy on this issue.
I thank the Minister of State. To move on to the Naval Service, we know that two Naval Service ships have been in Cork Harbour for approximately 12 months. We recognise there was some miscommunication approximately 12 months ago as to whether they were in for maintenance or because of a lack of personnel and sailors. As of this date, 3 June 2020, why are the two ships still in Cork Harbour? My understanding is that it is exclusively for lack of sailors. Will the Minister of State please confirm whether this is the case?
There are particular challenges in the Naval Service. Given the highly specialised nature of personnel, staffing shortages have had a significant impact. At present, the Naval Service has 898 personnel and its establishment strength is 1,094. This means there is a shortage of 200 personnel. As personnel return to career courses, it is likely we will have ongoing challenges in the Naval Service. The next Government will have to take a serious look at this. If we are to recompense members of the Defence Forces, the Naval Service has to get special attention. I say this because we have to make the Naval Service an attractive organisation to join. It is not seen as an attractive organisation at present for various reasons.
People have to spend long periods at sea. We have to make sure they are financially rewarded for this.
Deputy Berry has further questions.
I would ask that they are specifically looked at by the next Government.
Perhaps Deputy Berry will pose all of his questions now, given the limited time.
I thank the Minister of State for clarifying this. The reason the two Naval Service ships are tied up in Cork Harbour at present is because of a lack of personnel. We understand this now.
I am glad the Minister of State mentioned that pay is an issue. A high-level implementation plan was launched on the plinth on 4 July last year. One of the main focuses and reasons for it was to sort out the retention issue in the Defence Forces. Does the Minister of State have the statistics on the net loss of Naval Service personnel who have left since the launch of the programme? How many people have left the Naval Service?
With regard to our UNIFIL troops, has a flight been booked to move them from Lebanon to Dublin? My understanding is that people are not home until the troops have landed safely in Dublin Airport or Baldonnel. If a flight has been booked, which airline is involved? Is the Minister of State satisfied the airline will be punctual, reliable and safe for our troops to fly back on?
There has been only one occasion that an airline has let us down on a rotation. That was when a mobile phone fell down between the electrical works and the aircraft was unable to take off. The aircraft was not the reason for a delay on any other occasion.
I understand that it is the United Nations rotation on this occasion. I have not got the specific details as to whether the flight has been booked. I presume work is ongoing on this issue. I have never stated that personnel are home from any mission until they safely land on Irish soil. I only have the figures in front of me regarding the personnel from the Naval Service who were discharged. From 1 January to 21 May 2020, we have 45 who have been discharged and in 2019, I think from the same dates, there were 62 people discharged. The three-year average for the period is 49, with the 2020 figure slightly better than the three-year average. However, the current trend is concerning. I have stated on numerous occasions that we have some real challenges within the Naval Service. There is a working group between military management and my own Department working with the line flag officers. Some recommendations have come back. They are being looked upon. I will have a look at those recommendations as well. If it is at all possible to do anything for the Naval Service through these recommendations, I will put them in train.
I am sharing time with Deputy Nolan. Like everybody else in this country, I was absolutely shocked, horrified and disgusted at the recent death of Mr. George Floyd over in America. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the minute's silence for people who have been victims of racism in all different ways. This particular act hit a chord with everybody, not only in government but also on the Opposition benches and with people up and down the length and breadth of the country.
Over the last months, the people of Ireland have put their shoulders to the wheel, adhering to the guidelines and restrictions put in place by the Government. Great sacrifices have been made by the people to contain Covid-19. This has come at a cost. Very sadly, we have lost 1,658 people to this virus. Thousands have lost their jobs. Many businesses will not reopen. Front-line staff cannot see their families. Weddings have been cancelled, grandparents cannot see their grandchildren. The very fabric of normal life has halted and possibly has been altered for the foreseeable future. I fully support the people and the reason they protested over the last days, and I fully support that people are so driven by what has happened in America that they want to go out and protest. I really do respect that very much. I would go so far as to say that if there were people protesting outside on the street this minute, I would want to be there to stand shoulder to shoulder with them because of what has happened. However, at the same time, we have to obey the rules and have consideration for the sacrifices that have been made already. That is why I have to say that we really must be careful with regard to that protest and future, planned protests. We cannot ignore social distancing. We cannot afford to lose sight of the regulations such as the 5 km travel restriction. We cannot waste the good work that has been done so far or the sacrifices that have been made. Even though it is with the best of intentions and even though the people who want to protest do so over such an important thing, I ask that we really make people aware of this.
I want to allow the Minister of State an opportunity to respond so I will stop now.
This is probably a matter for the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, but I agree wholeheartedly with the Deputy. When one looks at what has happened in this country, specifically in the past nine or ten years, one sees the amount of people who have become Irish citizens. They are black and white and from different races and ethnic backgrounds. It has been fantastic to see how many people have become new Irish citizens. I accept that my party was in government at the time, but I take this opportunity to applaud the then Minister and former Deputy, Alan Shatter, for introducing that policy, which was continued by the current Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and his predecessor, Frances Fitzgerald.
I understand that a number of protests are planned for the weekend. Anybody who intends to protest should take account of the public health guidelines. The citizens of Ireland have done a fantastic job over the past three months to combat Covid-19. I call on people to continue that great work. I saw some of the scenes the other evening of people protesting in Dublin over this barbaric tragedy that happened in America. It should never have happened. However, if people come out and protest this weekend, I ask them to take social distancing into account. I do not want to stop protests but there is a time and a place when we can do that, namely, when we emerge from this dangerous pandemic. I do not want to stop people from expressing their frustration at what happened. It did not happen in Ireland, it happened in the United States of America. I do not believe it would ever happen in Ireland.
I want to begin by thanking the Minister of State's office for the constructive engagement it had with myself and my staff on Lebanon and the UNIFIL soldiers returning home. I was contacted by many constituents who were left struggling with everyday issues such as childcare and work duties. The decision made by the Secretary General of the United Nations to suspend the rotations was extremely unfair and it had a negative impact on the families of the soldiers concerned. I welcome that the rotations have been put back in place, with the first being on 21 June followed by the second on 29 June. I want to stress to the Minister of State that he ensures that all military personnel are returned home on those dates because it has a hugely negative impact on families of members of the Defence Forces.
I was contacted last week by RACO. It is deeply concerned that the number of Defence Forces personnel continues to decrease and is now at an all time low of 8,485. This issue has been raised with me many times by people involved in the Defence Forces and their families. They are extremely concerned. RACO has also called for immediate and significant intervention in the form of retention initiatives, to include improved remuneration and other non-pay measures. According to RACO, the initial and modest pay commission recommendations have not stemmed the outflow, while the Government's plan to strengthen our Defence Forces is being allowed to fail despite commitments to the contrary. Has the Minister of State received the submission from RACO? What actions will he be taking to address the legitimate and genuine concerns it raises? RACO is severely critical of the recent report issued on the Defence Forces by the Parliamentary Budget Office. It is being claimed that the Parliamentary Budget Office report on recruitment, retention and remuneration only uses data up to 2017 and relies on Department of Defence and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform figures and trend analyses.
According to RACO, however, the situation has become much worse in subsequent years and vacancies have increased by a staggering 310%. These developments must be highlighted to provide accurate and complete advice on the Defence Forces to the Houses of the Oireachtas because this issue has come up here time and again and it is very important that the correct figures and the true reflection are conveyed. Is the Minister of State aware of these claims regarding the inaccuracies in the budget office report? Normally I find our Parliamentary Budget Office to be exemplary, but this is a serious charge being levelled against it by RACO and it needs to be addressed and clarified. We cannot allow the impression to go out that the PBO is somehow deliberately misleading the House.
Finally, I wish to highlight the incident in which three Irish soldiers received minor injuries when an improvised explosive device exploded near their convoy in eastern Mali on Tuesday, 25 February. As the Minister of State is aware, there was serious concern last year when the decision was taken to send our troops to Mali. Many people raised particular concerns that such missions continue to erode any meaningful sense of neutrality we have. My question is whether there continues to be any real value to the so-called triple lock guarantee on our neutrality.
Before I call the Minister of State, I point out to Deputy Nolan that the PBO is a matter not for the Minister of State but for the House, and I assure her we will investigate the matters she has raised.
Absolutely. I just wanted the matter on the record of the House.
I welcome the fact that she has highlighted the superb work the PBO has done.
Yes, it has done superb work.
I would think it highly unlikely, and see no reason, that the PBO would have any vested interest in misrepresenting any fact.
Absolutely. It is clarity that is needed.
We will take the matter up.
In my 18 years as a Member of the Oireachtas, the Library and Research Service and now the Parliamentary Budget Office have been an absolutely great source of information. Whatever information was sought from my Department by the PBO, we handed over. This was totally independent of Government and my Department. I had absolutely no influence over it whatsoever. Neither the Government nor my Department had any influence over it. I thank Deputy Nolan for her comments on the staff in my office and the assistance they gave her. Yes, it was a very difficult time for family members. I spoke to a huge number of them. They contacted me directly. Once I explained the situation to them, they fully understood that getting the personnel to return from the UN mission was out of my control and that it was a UN decision to delay all rotations until 30 June. Fortunately, we have been able to get them home earlier.
On the Deputy's issue with RACO, officers at the moment are at 99% capacity. Their established strength is 1,233, and the current strength is 1,222.
We will have to come back to the matter because we are way over time. Perhaps the Minister of State will correspond-----
I wish to make just one further comment on that. There are 35 officers, former members of the Defence Forces and the officer corps, in respect of whom expressions of interest have come back in. This is something I really pushed. Quite a number of pilots - five, I think - have re-enlisted already and more have shown interest in returning into the organisation.
We hope Deputy Berry is not one of them and that he is happy to stay here. Is Deputy Pringle sharing time with Deputy Harkin?
Yes. I wish to ask a number of questions, and perhaps the Minister of State could respond to them before Deputy Harkin comes in with her five minutes. I compliment, as all Members have done, the very important and very welcome role the Defence Forces have played in the Covid-19 crisis.
My first question concerns the aircraft. This has been discussed by a couple of Members already. The Minister of State has kind of answered the question but will he explain how the Department uses transport under normal procedures? Does it hire in aircraft? How does that work?
What would the actual use of it be? Do we need actually to purchase a military aircraft at all?
The second question for the Minister of State is on the view of the Department on the discussions taking place in Europe around permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, and the European initiative being fostered by France in respect of military actions in Africa. What is the view of the Department and Ireland and what is the likelihood of these being developing further?
Does the Department have any view on the continued use of Shannon Airport by the American forces and the ongoing use of Shannon during the lockdown period? Is that factored in to the defence services?
The last question is a matter for the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney. I will let the Deputy take that up with him.
Regarding an aircraft carrier or troop carrier proposed to be used for bringing troops back and forward and transporting troops back and forward, at the moment every second rotation is either an Irish rotation, which involves my Department, or a United Nations rotation. We share the rotation, taking every second one. My understanding is that the current rotation is a UN rotation. I can come back to the Deputy and give him clarification on that. When we are doing a rotation, we put it out to airline carriers and they tender for it. There is an abundance of carriers that tender for the contract. I presume we give it to the most secure one, but price comes into it too. I presume there is a kind of scoring sheet like for any tendering document. My understanding is that different carriers have been used in the past. My understanding is that this has never let us down, except on one occasion when a mobile telephone fell between the seating into the electricals. This delayed one of the rotations by one or two days because it was unsafe for the aircraft to lift off at the time. I do not recollect that a specific aircraft was delayed or its availability was delayed in the rotation.
I have said that it would be fantastic to have it, but we have to be able to explain to the taxpayers of Ireland the reason we are getting it. It is not as simple as going out, buying an aircraft, parking it down at Baldonnel and using it specifically for the Defence Forces. We have to look at dual use by Departments, including Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade humanitarian work and so on. We will have that discussion at a later date. I presume the next Government will be making that decision.
I only had one European Council meeting last week. I can come back to the Deputy on the specific issue he raised.
I was not here when the House had its minute of silence but I bowed my head in memory of, and in sorrow at, the shocking murder of George Floyd. We all have to do two things. First, we have to look inside ourselves at our unconscious racism. Second, as legislators, we have to ensure that racism is stamped out in Ireland.
Like many other colleagues, I wish to thank the Defence Forces for their highly valuable contribution to the nation during the Covid-19 crisis.
My first question relates to Finner Camp. The Minister of State will be aware that prior to the 2012 reorganisation of the Defence Forces, soldiers could access training in Athlone. For example, if a corporal wanted to train to become a captain, she could go there. Now, they have to travel to Dublin for that training.
For operational matters, soldiers must also come from Finner Camp, Athlone and Dundalk on rotation to Dublin. This is a complete waste of time and has a serious impact on people's daily lives and work-life balance.
In the context of strengthening our Defence Forces, arguments for which have been made strongly today, will the Minister of State consider the re-establishment of the Western Command in Athlone now that we are eight years on?
My second question relates to the current situation in the Defence Forces. I do not need to reiterate the figures that many Deputies have cited concerning the number of vacancies at the level of junior NCO, captain, etc. Instead, I wish to discuss how we have no military airlift capacity. In this, we stand alone in Europe. Many pilots in the airline industry have lost their jobs. In that context, will the Minister of State look to establishing an airlift capacity and employing some of those pilots, who would now be available?
On that, a number of pilots have shown an interest in returning to the Air Corps. I introduced re-enlistment for pilots. That measure has been successful, with five re-enlisting in the past number of months from the end of 2019 when I recommissioned the first two officers to the end of March or some time in April. I believe five have re-enlisted, although it could be six. A number of other people have also shown an interest in returning to the Air Corps as pilots.
There are challenges, specifically in respect of sergeant, corporal and private ranks. The same obtains in the Air Corps and Naval Service. It is in respect of that core of people that we face significant challenges. There are a number of reasons for this in the various organisations. For example, I have already referenced the Naval Service. The next Government will have to take its particular challenges seriously, including the ability to put ships to sea and further challenges that will arise later this year. That Government will have major decisions to make when it comes to the negotiation of the next round of public sector pay. The Naval Service is a specific and difficult job, with people spending days and days on end at sea. We must be able to make that job more attractive.
Strengthening the Defence Forces has always been a priority of mine.
I will revert to Deputy Harkin regarding the amount of travel involved. Deputy Troy asked about the health and safety of people travelling. I understand from the Chief of Staff that all health and safety measures are taken into account when people travel.
On the specific issue of an airlift carrier, we must be able to demonstrate to the taxpayer the reasons for having one. We must have good and tangible reasons. It would cost a substantial amount of money, so we would need to demonstrate to the taxpayer what use we would make of it and that we would get the best use possible out of it if the Government decided to buy one. The next Government will face some very difficult economic challenges. If that decision is made, we will need to be able to demonstrate to the taxpayer why we need one.