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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 8 Oct 2020

Vol. 999 No. 1

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Defence Forces Personnel

Peadar Tóibín


6. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Defence when the working time directive will be implemented in the Defence Forces in order to ensure safe working conditions, increased work life balance and retention. [29117/20]

Sorca Clarke


14. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence the progress that has been made to date regarding the commitment in the programme for Government to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, to bring the Defence Forces within its scope of provisions. [28527/20]

Jim O'Callaghan


43. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Defence when will the working time directive will be implemented in the Defence Forces. [29142/20]

I must be strict about time so that as many Deputies can speak as possible.

The Organisation of Working Time Act dates from 1997, there was a European Court of Justice, ECJ, decision in 2010 and no negotiations have happened since July 2019. In anyone's measure, that level of progress is glacial. When will the working time directive be implemented to ensure safe working conditions, increased work-life balance and, importantly, retention?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 14 and 43 together.

I share some of the Deputies' concerns on this issue. Since I am taking three questions together, I hope that the Acting Chairman will give me a little extra time.

The Minister has four minutes.

The EU working time directive has been transposed into national legislation by way of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. As the House will be aware, the Defence Forces are excluded from the provisions of the Act. However, it is important to say that the Government has committed to amending this Act and bringing the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána within the scope of its provisions. There is no resistance to that.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has responsibility for introducing this legislative change. My Department has worked closely with that Department to progress the legislative changes required. I am advised that responsibility for this legislation will transfer to the new Department of enterprise, trade and employment in the near future and work on progressing the requisite legislative changes will continue with that Department.

The working time directive recognises the unique nature of certain military activities and allows for derogations and exemptions of such activities. A significant amount of work has been undertaken by civil and military management in determining the military activities that fall within the scope of the directive. I am advised that a high percentage of the normal everyday work of the Defence Forces is already in compliance with the working time directive and that a range of activities also qualify for exemption. Deliberations on these matters are continuing between civilian and military management and will feed into amendments to the legislative framework.

A subcommittee of the conciliation and arbitration council, one comprising the representative associations and military and civil management, has been established to discuss matters relating to implementation of the working time directive. Arising from these discussions, amended practices regarding compensatory rest have been introduced. This builds upon existing work practices relating to compensatory rest that comply with the directive. Discussions with the Defence Forces representative associations will continue to be undertaken through this forum as the current work evolves.

My Department and the Defence Forces remain fully committed to ensuring that the provisions of the directive are applied throughout the Defence Forces. I assure the Deputies that the health and safety of personnel in the Defence Forces remain a priority for me and the Chief of Staff.

We are committed to doing this. Mine is not the primary Department introducing legislation. It will change from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to the future Department of jobs. I assure the Deputies that I will pursue this issue and try to move it on in as timely a manner as we can. There has already been considerable discussion, as well as a structure to facilitate that discussion, to ensure that we are doing what we can to act in the spirit of the working time directive before we introduce the amending legislation to get it done in law.

The working family payment, which is relevant in this context, is an admission by the State that a person's income is not enough to survive on. That is a shocking admission. The fact that members of the Defence Forces are being paid such an income while being excluded from the provisions of the working time directive and doing many more hours than 48 hours per week is incredible. The ECJ has stated that there is no blanket exemption and other European defence forces have implemented the directive.

An incredible number of people in the Defence Forces do incredibly serious, technical and dangerous jobs. Bomb disposal officers can be on call for 168 hours per week. Portlaoise duty officers can be on call for 72 hours. Individuals in the Naval Service can be on duty for two to four weeks. These are incredible outliers in terms of normal working practices.

The working family payment exists for a reason. It recognises the need for increased income and support from the State for people who are on low pay. It is a safety net, as it were, for people in certain family situations. Obviously, it is not the responsibility of my Department primarily, but it is an important safety net.

We need to reflect constantly on pay levels across the Defence Forces, and that is what we are doing. It is why we are establishing a commission and have committed to establishing a pay and conditions body specifically to examine these issues within the Defence Forces.

We are committed to passing legislation in respect of the working time directive as it relates to the Defence Forces and the Garda. The reason the directive is more complicated to implement in the Defence Forces is self-evident.

If one is off the west coast in February on patrol on a naval vessel, it is pretty difficult to fully comply with the working time directive for all roles. We need to have derogations and exceptions, which I understand are catered for in the working time directive, for military service. Between now and when the legislation is amended, we want to implement the spirit of what we will legislate for as best we can. That is why the representative bodies are part of that discussion

It is a major health and safety issue. The objective of the directive is also to provide for the greater compatibility of work with family life, which is massively important for everybody, but the non-adherence to the directive is also a key driver in Defence Forces personnel leaving. This is not an effort from us to talk down the Defence Forces. It is a demand, a request, a shout and a plea from the Defence Forces themselves. There has been a significant loss of personnel from all ranks in the Defence Forces.

The Minister mentioned that it is practically difficult to configure naval personnel who are off the west coast in the Atlantic Ocean for weeks on end but their hours can be averaged over a period of three, six or 12 months. That could be done in such a way as to give them time off in lieu to allow them to still adhere to the directive. A functioning military service and functioning Defence Forces are not incongruent to adherence to the directive.

Does Deputy Clarke wish to make a short input on this?

I have listened with some interest to the reply the Minister gave to Deputy Tóibín. I am hearing - and serving members will be hearing this as well - about commissions and reviews and I am hearing claims that the Government is working on this, that it is all in hand and that the Government will get there eventually. Do we have any idea of a definitive timeline? Is it realistic to say to somebody serving in the Defence Forces that if his or her child is born tomorrow, the State will be in adherence with the working time directive by the time of that child's first holy communion? This has been going on for so long. What commitment can the Minister give to even an estimated timeline for when this work will be finished?

We are committed to the legislation and I do not see why it has to take an eternity to get it done. We will push to try to get that legislation amended as quickly as we can. We are not waiting for the legislation, however. Compensatory rest is provided for certain duties and this is also in line with the provisions of the directive. We are talking to the representative bodies about that and I have outlined some of the structures that happens in. We are listening to them, we are trying to put supports in place and we are trying to ensure that, while everybody recognises that there are exemptions for serving Defence Forces personnel, we need to try to act in a way that is consistent with the working time directive, even in the absence of the legislation being finalised. That is what we are trying to do. I assure the Deputies that I will push for this amending legislation as soon as is reasonable.

Cybersecurity Policy

Sorca Clarke


7. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence the number of Defence Forces personnel with expertise in security, process development and threat intelligence assessment seconded to the national security analysis centre, NASC, in view of the recognised potential and important role of the Defence Forces in the national cybersecurity strategy as outlined in the programme for Government. [28525/20]

The current national cybersecurity strategy, which was published in December last and runs until 2025, refers to the need to improve the ability of the State to respond to and to manage cybersecurity incidents, including those with a national security component, and to identify and protect critical national infrastructure by increasing resilience to cyber attack. Given some of the most skilled and qualified cyberdefence experts are in our Defence Forces, how many of them are seconded to the NASC?

I thank the Deputy for raising this question because it is an important one. Arising from the recommendations in the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing, a new national security analysis centre was established during 2019 under the aegis of the Department of the Taoiseach. The purpose of the new centre is to co-ordinate between the various State bodies with national security functions and to provide strategic analysis for the Government on security threats.

Defence policy and operations form a centrally important aspect of this work, given the nature of the threat environment. In this regard, NSAC commenced work on the development of a national security strategy in 2019. The strategy will aim to set out a whole-of-government approach for how the State can protect its national security and vital interests from current and emerging threats. An expert policy forum and a public consultation process have provided significant inputs for this process. While further consultation has been constrained by the restrictions necessitated by Covid-19, the centre has continued its research activity in this regard over the recent months.

A director has been appointed to lead the NSAC and a number of support staff have been appointed. A number of personnel with a range of expertise have been assigned from the partner bodies to the centre, including two experienced personnel from the defence organisation, one civil and one military, who were seconded in 2019.

The national cybersecurity centre, NCSC, which is part of the Department with responsibility for the environment, climate and communications, is the primary authority responsible for cybersecurity in the State, including incident response, cyber resilience and information provision. The NCSC maintains a significant threat intelligence capability and this is a key tool in the work of the NCSC in mitigating risks to the State and its people from cybersecurity threats. The NCSC works closely with the Defence Forces in this regard. While the primary role of the Defence Forces with regard to cybersecurity relates to the defence and security of its own networks and systems, the defence organisation is committed to participating in the delivery of measures to improve the cybersecurity of the State. This is being done in line with the programme for Government commitment to implement the national cybersecurity strategy.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Ireland’s current national cybersecurity strategy was published in December 2019 and follows on from the country's first strategy, which issued in 2015. There is a particular emphasis in the strategy on improving the protection of government ICT and other critical national infrastructure; on education, research and training, and on enhancing Ireland’s international engagement. My Department and the Defence Forces have inputted to the development of this strategy. Department officials and the Defence Forces are also actively involved in the implementation of the new strategy which, in conjunction with the White Paper on Defence 2015, will continue to inform our engagement in this critical area. This includes work to develop an updated and detailed risk assessment of the current vulnerability of all critical national infrastructure and services to cyberattacks and the provision of a member of the Defence Forces for secondment to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia. In addition, my Department actively participates on the interdepartmental committee overseeing implementation of the strategy, which is chaired by the Department with responsibility for the Environment, Climate and Communications.

The White Paper on Defence, produced in 2015 and amended in 2019, identified hybrid attacks or cyberattacks and threats to the cyber domain and from espionage have been assessed as increasing since 2015, while the wider political and global environment is more complex and uncertain. We have seen similar attacks in Britain on the UK National Health Service, which was a specific and targeted attack. Organised crime is seen as on a par with terrorism by the UN office on terrorism and terrorism prevention in terms of threats. Why then does the NCSC fall under the remit of the Department of environment, climate and communications, and not under the Departments of Justice and Equality or Defence? The Minister has referred to security and An Garda Síochána as having been a key tool. It seems to be a piece of a jigsaw that is slightly misaligned with where the NCSC is sitting.

I can understand that concern and I have asked that question because it was when I was last in the Department of Defence that we put together the White Paper. At that time, there was a discussion within government on national security infrastructure, how the Defence Forces interact with An Garda Síochána and how we can respond to an emerging cybersecurity threat. There is significant expertise in the Department with responsibility for the environment, climate and communications from a communications perspective, which is essentially the platform for cybersecurity attacks. One could argue for the NCSC to come under the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Defence or the Department with responsibility for the environment, climate and communications or for central co-ordination from the Taoiseach. The decision was made, after a lot of discussion, that the national cybersecurity centre should come under the Department with responsibility for the environment, climate and communications because we are talking about communications networks being intercepted and compromised by security threats.

I understand the argument the Deputy is making but there is significant expertise in that Department. Most important, the message is that the NCSC is about pulling together all of the expertise from different Departments, including the Defence Forces as well as the Department of Defence, to make sure we have a central office that is using all of the expertise available to make sure we are protecting the interests of the State from cybersecurity attacks, which are a significant threat internationally. Ireland rates well internationally and we are learning from others. There is a European centre of excellence in Tallinn, Estonia, which we are interacting with to make sure we are fully up to speed with the kind of response that is needed.

The Minister mentioned State infrastructure there but it is more than State infrastructure. It includes State assets as well. I recognise, however, that he referenced the continual learning because that is critical when it comes to issues such as this.

Ireland has a high level of foreign direct investment. We have multinational corporations here that are household names. The investment they have made here is colossal.

However, in terms of State protection that can be offered to them, it seems like very little to none. Foreign direct investment alone, as one entity, needs assurance that at the very least, our national electricity grid is protected from a cyberattack. Is this an assurance the Minister can reasonably give and reasonably stand over? Foreign direct investors also assume that our national technical means are of a standard that is fit for purpose in the current environment in 2020 and that we properly monitor our cyberdomain and our digital space. Is that a reassurance the Minister can give to them and stand over?

I think "Yes" is the answer to that question. I do not believe there is a country in the world, even the superpowers of the world, that can give an absolute 100% guarantee against the threat of cybersecurity challenges. There is not. We have seen such attacks on the United States of America and in China. Even the countries that spend hundreds of billions on this issue are not absolutist in the guarantees they can give. Having said that, the Deputy has asked if we can assume a reasonable level of assurance and I think we can. In our cybersecurity strategy, we recognise that Ireland has a significant international presence in this area. A lot of data are managed and held in Ireland in very large data centres. Many communications and IT companies are based in Ireland managing sensitive and confidential data from all over the world. We have focused on this area in a way that prioritises it significantly. We can give a reasonable level of reassurance on the policy response in that regard.

Defence Forces Reserve

Brendan Smith


8. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Defence the proposed enlistment number for the Reserve Defence Force for 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29128/20]

It is essential that Ireland has the maximum possible enlistment in the Reserve Defence Force. I fully appreciate that recruitment during a pandemic is not straightforward. The Minister has heard me say previously in this House and at committees that the role of the Reserve Defence Force, and prior to that the Forsa Cosanta Áitúil, FCA, has never been given due recognition. In the area I come from I am very conscious of the good work done by the FCA and the Reserve Defence Force in ensuring an outlet for young people, and particularly young vulnerable people who may have got into wrong company and associated with undesirable groups in the past. The FCA did exceptional work in ensuring a good outlet for many young people. Subsequently, those young people were able to go on to have distinguished careers in the Permanent Defence Force.

I thank Deputy Smith, I know he has a particular interest in this area. The Government recognises the important role that the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, plays in contributing to Ireland's defence capability. The White Paper on Defence sets out a blueprint for the development of the RDF and that its primary role is to support the Permanent Defence Force in crisis situations.

The Army Reserve, AR, and Naval Service Reserve, NSR, has a combined establishment of 4,069 personnel, which is 3,869 for the Army Reserve and 200 for the Naval Service Reserve. A key ongoing challenge for the AR and NSR is to recruit and retain personnel and I am aware that there continues to be a shortfall between the current strength figures and those of the establishment. We are trying to address this.

I am advised by the military authorities that recruitment is ongoing and a recruitment campaign for the Army Reserve and Naval Service Reserve was opened in March of this year. Assessments are continuing at formation level and, while there are no specific dates yet, it is anticipated that another recruitment campaign will be opened in autumn 2020 with two further recruitment campaigns in spring and autumn 2021.

I understand that 2018 and 2019 saw inductions totalling 142 and 144, respectively, into the RDF, however, the ability to conduct RDF inductions this year has been impacted by the Covid-19 public health pandemic. Nevertheless, 63 additional new members have been inducted thus far this year, with 57 inducted into the Army Reserve and six inducted into the Naval Service Reserve.

Supports being provided to maximise recruitment to the Reserve include the use of social media and outreach activities by RDF members. The Permanent Defence Force exit interviews now also contain information on applying for membership of the RDF. The Government remains committed to increasing the strength of the AR and NSR and to further developing the Reserve.

I thank the Minister. It is essential that the recruitment numbers are more substantial than the number of retirements. I understand there has been a substantial number of retirements in recent years. Naturally, this will occur again.

I advocated at previous committees that a more aggressive recruitment campaign is needed and perhaps a focus on second-level schools, colleges of further education and third level colleges.

I believe that currently there is no engagement between the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve due to the pandemic. It is important that a plan be put in place for a return to training, with all the necessary safety guidelines. The Permanent Defence Force needs to have that engagement with the Reserve members, and members need to be involved in training. If there is no ongoing training activity, skills will be lost and it will be very difficult to replace such skills. I seek assurance from the Minister that a level of training within the necessary safety guidelines can be put back in place. I know some young people who are training as members of the Permanent Defence Force and there should be some engagement and some level of training for the Reserve members also.

I take that point but we also have to do it within the parameters and constraints of public health guidelines and so on. This even impacts on my ability to visit barracks at the moment, for example, and in the numbers of serving personnel I can meet at any one time. We all have to try to lead by example in responding to the pandemic in a responsible way. This has impacted on some of the issues the Deputy has referred to.

We have a single Defence Forces concept committed to in the White Paper, which means that Reserve personnel should be training in a way that is complementary to the Permanent Defence Force, to ensure complete interoperability between the two so one supports the other. In the coming months I will be asking the upcoming commission to look at the role of the Reserve, how we can enhance that and how we can make it a more exciting option and choice for people who may want to join. I am certainly open to looking at specialties that can help to fill gaps and support in a complementary way to the Permanent Defence Force, and to allowing Reserve personnel to potentially work overseas also. This would significantly add to the attractiveness of joining the Reserve.

When the Minister establishes the commission and appoints members, I hope that a person with detailed knowledge and association with the Reserve Defence Force over the years will be considered for membership of the commission. Often the Reserve is not given the attention it needs.

I fully agree and fully understand that we must be guided by the health and safety guidelines. That is absolutely essential. If we do not have some level of training, however, there will be a big wastage of skills. It would be very difficult to replace those skills and that knowledge in the future.

Unfortunately, given the medical opinions, we will all be living in a Covid-19 environment for some time. We must develop new ways of training and doing business. I appeal to the Minister to give this matter attention. If engagement is not resumed for the Reserve Defence Force its value and the recognition it needs in society will be lost also. It is extremely important, within the safety and health guidelines, that training activity is resumed if at all possible.

People do not join the Reserve to do nothing. They are not there just to say they are a member of the Reserve. They join up because they want to be part of the action and to make a contribution through training and putting that training to use. This is why we have a Reserve. As of the end of August, the effective strength of the Army Reserve was 1,501 in personnel and that of the Naval Service Reserve was 123.

We are significantly below where we would like to be in terms of the establishment numbers.

What is required is a really proactive recruitment campaign that is public, targets the right people and offers, through a communications campaign, options that will interest and excite people and encourage them to join up. We are going to focus on both elements.

Naval Service

Martin Browne


9. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Defence his views on reports that personnel are leaving the Naval Service to join the Army due to issues related to pay and conditions; his views on the impact this will have on the Naval Service; his further views on pay levels throughout the sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29259/20]

I ask the Minister to outline his views on reports that personnel are leaving the Naval Service to join the Army because of poor pay and conditions. What impact will this have on the Naval Service? I also ask him to outline his views on pay levels throughout the sector.

As the Deputy knows, I have been spending a lot of time trying to understand and address some of the current challenges in the Naval Service. Personnel in the Naval Service are paid basic pay, military service allowance and, where appropriate, technical pay at the same rates as their colleagues in the Army and Air Corps. Enlisted personnel of the Naval Service also receive naval pay.

I am aware of reports that a small number of personnel have left the Naval Service in recent times to pursue a career in the Army. This can be for a variety of reasons, including career progression or personal circumstances. The range of duties undertaken differs across the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service. Where there is commonality, such as base security duties, the same duty rates are paid. However, members of the Naval Service undertake seagoing duty which differs from duties undertaken by other members of the Defence Forces. When on their two-year seagoing rotation, members of the Naval Service can be away from home on a regular basis. For this reason and because of the nature of the duty, seagoing service can prove unattractive. Jobs in the private sector and elsewhere which do not require such absences at sea have proved attractive for members of the Naval Service, both new entrants and more experienced personnel.

Naval Service personnel undertaking seagoing duties are paid a patrol duty allowance for each patrol day that they undertake. This is in addition to their basic pay, military service allowance, naval pay and technical pay, where applicable. An increase of 2% on annualised salaries is being implemented from 1 October 2020 under the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020. The 5% cut in allowances imposed under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest, FEMPI, legislation is also being reversed from 1 October this year. This will benefit Naval Service personnel with an increase in the daily patrol duty allowance to €56.14 per day for personnel enlisted prior to January 2013, €59.09 per day for personnel enlisted after January 2013 and €58.86 per day for officers. Each ship has a target of 165 patrol days each year. A special tax credit was introduced on a one-off exceptional basis in the Finance Act 2019 to incentivise seagoing duties. A seagoing naval personnel tax credit of €1,270 applies for the 2020 tax year and is based on the number of days served at sea in 2019.

I assure the Deputy that we are continuing to work with the Naval Service to find ways of ensuring that we can enhance even further the attractiveness of committing to go to sea.

First, I commend the valuable work done by our serving personnel on our behalf at home and abroad. I particularly applaud the co-ordination role they have played during the pandemic. I posed this question today because reports indicate that a recent scheduled maritime patrol did not take place because of a lack of personnel. It is also my understanding that this was not an isolated event. I ask the Minister to assure the House that key matters dealt with by our Naval Service, like the interception of illegal drugs, are not being compromised.

I am also aware that the sums involved in the pay restoration under FEMPI are meagre and are unlikely to make much of a difference to the lives of those considering leaving the Naval Service. In recent years, there have been media reports of serving personnel in our Defence Forces having to sleep in their cars because they could not afford to travel the distances required of them. What is the position regarding pay restoration for our Defence Forces? What is the position with regard to improvements in their pay and why are they so underappreciated? The Minister made a promise in mid-July to deal with this issue because he acknowledged that members of the Defence Forces are among the lowest paid of our public servants.

The straight answer to the straight question as to whether the role of the Naval Service is being compromised is "Yes". We have a fleet of nine ships. One of them is in service and two are tied up because we do not have sufficient personnel to crew them. Let us call a spade a spade; we have a serious problem in the Naval Service. The service is not at full strength and cannot perform the functions expected of it were it at full strength, although it is doing very well to compensate for that in terms of the work it is doing. The service is highly efficient in the way it operates at sea and on land.

We have a White Paper and a Government commitment to support a fleet that is below strength and that has consequences in terms of fisheries patrols and many of the other really important roles that the Naval Service plays. Despite all of that, the Naval Service has still managed to add significantly to national efforts to respond to Covid-19, including testing on the dock and so on. This shows the flexibility and professionalism of our Defence Forces in general and the Naval Service in particular. However, the status quo is not acceptable. We need to be more impactful in a positive way in terms of retention and recruitment in the Naval Service to deal with the shortage of personnel and I am focused on trying to resolve that issue.

We all accept that Defence Forces personnel have been underpaid which is why many are leaving to take up other employment. Has the Department drawn up any projections regarding the implications if this trend continues? In particular, has it analysed the impact low personnel numbers will have on the overall size of our Defence Forces and the security implications of same? What is needed to attract former personnel or new recruits in order to restore the strength of our Defence Forces to an adequate level? Finally, will additional demands be placed on our Naval Service when Britain leaves the EU, particularly if new arrangements regarding EU fishing waters have to be put in place?

In response to the Deputy's final question, there could be additional demands on the service but people like me and others must try to ensure that we reach a deal on fisheries, trade and a level playing field and fair competition before the end of the year. Those three areas will either all be agreed or none will be agreed, frankly. They come as a package, in parallel. In the absence of an agreement on fisheries, we will have a very complex problem on our hands at sea in terms of tension between fleets and we will need to manage that as best we can. That will obviously put pressure on the Naval Service.

Not for the first time, I am on record as saying that I am focused on trying to address the particular problems in the Naval Service. We have a whole range of other issues that need to be addressed across the Defence Forces generally but the Naval Service is a particular problem right now. This time last year, the Air Corps was a particular problem but a solution was found. We need to get our fleet back up to a more acceptable strength and get our ships back out to sea. To do that, we need to devise an impactful strategy to retain personnel and stop them leaving, and also to recruit former members of the service as well as new serving personnel. We are focusing on that and will be launching a specific strategy to do that in the next few days or weeks. We are also working on a support package to try to achieve our aims. These things are not easy but they are important.

Public Sector Pensions

John Lahart


10. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Defence the way in which he plans to bridge the gap of ten years between forced early retirement on age grounds in the Defence Forces and access to the State pension. [29137/20]

John Lahart


26. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Defence his plans to extend the supplementary pension provision to post-2013 new entrants to give them the option of a lengthy career in the Defence Forces. [29138/20]

Peadar Tóibín


46. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Defence the way in which he plans to bridge the gap of ten years between forced early retirement on age grounds and access to the State pension. [29118/20]

I thank the Acting Chairman, Deputy Durkan, for facilitating my move from gamekeeper to poacher for a minute or two.

As the Minister knows, members of the Defence Forces are forced to retire at the age of 50.

What plans has he to help them bridge that gap of ten years until they reach pension age?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10, 26 and 46 together.

I take it the Deputy is referring to the absence of the concept of “supplementary pensions” from the provisions of the single public service pension scheme. The occupational pension scheme terms for post-1 January 2013 new entrants to the public service, including the permanent Defence Force, PDF, are governed by the Public Service Pensions (Single Scheme and Other Provisions) Act 2012. All first-time new entrants to pensionable public service employment on or after that date are members of the single scheme.

The single scheme is a key structural fiscal reform introduced to help significantly reduce the cost of public service pensions in the long term, while at the same time continuing to provide valuable pension benefits for employees. In the general context of that policy objective, the terms and rules of the single scheme, which are fundamentally different to previous superannuation public service arrangements, make no provision for the concept or award of supplementary pensions for any new entrants joining any public service group from 1 January 2013 onwards. Notwithstanding the distinguishing features of the single scheme, members of the PDF in that scheme retain the minimum pension age of 50 to reflect operational needs, as already applies to new entrant military personnel recruited since April 2004. Importantly, the single scheme also retains "fast accrual" pension terms for groups such as the Defence Forces.

Under the 2012 Act, overall statutory responsibility for the single scheme pension terms and rules rests with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. In that regard, the absence from the single scheme of provision for the concept of supplementary pensions for any new entrants joining any public service group, including the PDF, on or after 1 January 2013, has previously been confirmed by the official side to the Defence Forces representative associations, and the position in that regard has been restated to RACO by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform at a recent meeting with that association.

I am also advised that the Public Service Pay Commission considered certain aspects of military superannuation provisions, which were submitted as an influencing factor on military recruitment and-or retention outcomes. The commission’s report on recruitment and retention in the PDF, which was accepted in full by Government in July 2019, considered the concerns expressed by the military representative associations in relation to various aspects of pension scheme provisions for the Defence Forces. The commission made no recommendations advocating any improvements to the pension scheme terms of the PDF. However, the Public Service Pay Commission report recommended a range of measures relating to pay and non-pay aspects that would result in immediate and future benefits for members of the PDF. These projects are currently under way or completed. These include a review of barriers to extended participation in the PDF and, in particular, the possibility of extending or increasing retirement ages for members of the PDF. Phase 1 of this project, the review of mandatory retirement ages for commissioned officers, is nearing completion, while phase 2, the review of contracts of service for enlisted personnel, is commencing. However, while those deliberations are ongoing, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further. This is primarily the responsibility of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and I need to be careful what I say in this regard.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive response, which contains some interesting material. He said he assumed I was referring exclusively to the supplementary pension provision but it is not just that. Obviously, as he said, the age of retirement reflects the duties involved and he also referred to the fast accrual system of pension for military personnel.

The final part of the reply refers to ongoing work on barriers and measures being considered to benefit members of the PDF. Does that include continued employment? The Minister talked about extending the contract but does this include assisting Defence Forces members to seek non-active positions within either the Department of Defence or the Defence Forces? Given the unique nature of Defence Forces personnel, to which he referred in earlier replies, and the fact they are treated differently in other ways, for example, with regard to union recognition, what creative measures are being considered? There is a long period remaining after a person ceases work at 50 and while some have particular skills they can take into other professions, and do, this is not always the case. Will the Minister respond regarding any creative solutions he is considering?

As I said, a review and a conversation is ongoing in terms of required retirement ages. As the Deputy knows, there is a reason many in the Defence Forces are required to retire at a certain age. It is a challenging career, so there are age constraints in regard to some of the work that is done. That said, we are discussing and reviewing this at the moment. Many people in their 50s and 60s have pursued successful careers in the private sector and, indeed, the public sector after leaving the Defence Forces. That is with good reason because they are highly sought after, by and large. It is a problem for us at the moment because they are so sought after by the private sector that we are struggling to hold on to some of them, whether in the Naval Service or the Air Corps, where our pilots were essentially being headhunted by private airlines. Because we train the Defence Forces very well, there are career options after people leave, particularly for officers but also for others, in particular as that skillset and discipline towards work are highly sought after. That is a kind of double-edged sword from our perspective. If the Deputy has any ideas or proposals in that regard, I will try to take them on board.

Defence Forces Strength

Bernard Durkan


11. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the extent to which measures have been taken, or are being taken, to bring the strength of the Defence Forces, including the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps, up to its optimum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29112/20]

The military authorities have advised that the whole-time equivalent strength of the Permanent Defence Force at 31 August 2020 was 8,374 personnel, comprised of Army, 6,763; Air Corps, 716; and Naval Service, 895. I am aware that there continues to be a shortfall between the overall current strength figures and those of the establishment and I am committed to restoring the strength of the Defence Forces to 9,500, which is the figure in the White Paper. The Public Service Pay Commission report and implementation of the high level plan, Strengthening Our Defence Forces - Phase 1, is a key part of the response to address recruitment and retention challenges and my responses to other questions today detail this.

I accept there are ongoing difficulties in the Defence Forces, and these have been well-documented. The reduction in the number of operational ships due to personnel shortages is a case in point and is one area where I believe further measures are required. The inability to induct recruits at previous levels as a result of Covid is also an aggravating factor. However, there are also positive developments which are restoring capacity in areas which were significantly depleted. By way of example, overall officer numbers are just 13 off the full establishment figure as at 31 August 2020. While I appreciate that experience levels have declined at some ranks and that gaps remain gaps in certain areas, the continued attraction of officer cadets in what was a competitive jobs market is indicative of the continued attractiveness of such a career.

Further initiatives such as the recommissioning of former Air Corps pilots have also assisted in boosting the number of much -needed specialists. I understand that further specialist officers will be recommissioned. The re-enlistment of former enlisted personnel is another initiative that is to be welcomed. While the numbers being inducted are lower than initially anticipated, all will play an important role in restoring capacity.

The fact is that the restoration of capacity in the Defence Forces will take time. The programme for Government provides that a commission on the Defence Forces will be tasked with examining a range of issues. This will provide an opportunity to chart the future direction of the Defence Forces. There is also a commitment to establish a pay review body specifically for the Defence Forces when the commission has completed its work.

Working closely with the Secretary General, the Chief of Staff and a range of other key stakeholders including the representative bodies, I am confident that the current challenges facing the Defence Forces can be overcome, although it will take some time. I appreciate colleagues' comments on all of these issues.

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