Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 28 Jun 2022

Vol. 1024 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Defence Forces

Sorca Clarke


68. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence if he will provide a comprehensive update on the engagement and progress regarding the investigation associated with Women of Honour in the Defence Forces. [34169/22]

As this is the last opportunity we have before the recess, can the Minister provide a comprehensive update on the engagement and progress to date regarding the investigation associated with the Women of Honour in the Defence Forces?

I thank the Deputy for giving me an opportunity to update the House on this issue. I am fully committed to ensuring that every member of the Defence Forces has the right to undertake their duties in a safe environment underpinned by dignity and equality. As the Deputy is aware, there was extensive engagement with the Women of Honour group and other stakeholders on the establishment of an independent review to examine issues relating to unacceptable behaviour in the Defence Forces. Without question, the engagements raised very serious concerns and I wish to pay tribute to all parties, including Women of Honour, for the courage they displayed in sharing their experiences.

The experiences shared and the views received from all parties informed the terms of reference for the judge-led independent review, which was approved by the Government on 25 January last. I can confirm that the work of the independent review group is well under way. I had a very fruitful meeting with the members, namely, Ms Justice Bronagh O’Hanlon, Ms Jane Williams and Mr. Mark Connaughton, on 25 April last and plan to meet them again in the coming weeks.

In line with the terms of reference, a total of four monthly reports have been submitted to me on the group's progress and an interim report is to be submitted to me by the end of July. A final report will be presented by the end of the year, which will be brought to Government before being published. This review is a necessary and critical step to fulfilling my duty of care obligation to the men and women of the Defence Forces to provide a safe work environment. The serving members of the Defence Forces expect nothing less. This review will help us in that endeavour.

I would continue to strongly encourage all stakeholders, including the Women of Honour group and serving members who have not yet done so, to engage with the independent review group as their contribution will be critically important in taking this work forward. The independent review group is continuing to accept submissions from individuals and organisations on issues relevant to its terms of reference. The Government recognises the need to allow the independent review group to do its work as a critical and necessary step. These assurances have been relayed to the Women of Honour group.

Since the Sinn Féin motion calling for a statutory inquiry into what we can all agree were truly horrendous experiences, not only for the Women of Honour group but for others, the decision was made to push ahead with this judge-led process. Perhaps it is a question of wording but the Minister and I might have a different understanding of “comprehensive update”. I read “well under way”, “fruitful meeting”, “coming weeks”, “interim report” and “monthly reports”. Can the Minister give us specifics now, five months after that debate, with regard to the advice on the current legislative frameworks, policies and procedures and practices in addressing incidents of unacceptable behaviour, the independent assessment regarding the prevailing culture in the workplace that needs to be fully aligned with the principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect, and also what measures and strategies have been implemented to date?

I also want to take this opportunity to congratulate Katie Hannon and Tom Donnelly for their recent national radio broadcast journalism merit certificate for that outstanding documentary last September on the Women of Honour who took this issue to a national stage.

I, too, want to recognise the significance of that documentary and the bravery of those who contributed to it and, indeed, what that triggered, which was that many others were willing to come forward and speak either in confidence to me at meetings that we set up for that purpose, or speak out publicly.

In terms of the judge-led independent review, we will get the interim report that I asked for by midsummer, which is the end of July. I will hopefully be able to act on some of the recommendations that may come from that. I do not know what the independent review or the interim report will say. I have been very careful not to get involved in the work of this independent review group because, if I did, I would be accused of interfering. This is a genuinely independent process. It is being supported by the Government in terms of anything it asks for or needs around resources, secretarial assistance or otherwise, but it is genuinely independent of me and my Department. I want it that way so it is credible when it reports.

It is important to say again that the Irish military is not the only military that has had this experience, and Christine Whitecross, who led the Canadian investigation, spoke recently at an event in Dublin on the duration of the investigation and the challenges she experienced.

The concern I have is how effective this review has been in light of the other actions that have taken place without some form of real and meaningful co-ordination. The immediate action group was convened by the Chief of Staff and nobody is questioning the motivation behind that. However, that sought to undertake a piece of work regarding behavioural and cultural change which the review also seeks to do. How effective can the multidisciplinary response team, which has delivered briefings to personnel, be without that level of co-ordination? In December of last year, the organisational culture standing committee was put in place to deliver more enduring structural change. We have this perception of a lot of stuff going on at the same time. While I am not saying it is not warranted, it all seems to be happening at a pace that does not react with the other parts and they do not speak to each other.

There is a lot happening in this space. Last October, I introduced a number of interim support measures for both serving and former members of the Defence Forces impacted by unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. I appointed a confidential contact person, CCP, within an external independent company, Raiseaconcern, to assist both serving and former members of the Defence Forces. The CCP provides a safe place to support the reporting of wrongdoing in the workplace. The CCP is independent and is outside of the Defence Forces chain of command and their role is to listen to individuals and to assist them.

The Inspire confidential helpline was also set up and is available 24-7 for all serving members of the Defence Forces, and it is also being made available to anyone who has contacted the confidential contact person. There is a lot going on. I felt I needed to act in terms of interim measures and to work with the Chief of Staff and with the Secretary General in the Department.

Ultimately, we have recommendations from the commission which have to be implemented and we have a specific independent review, led by a judge, that will make an interim report in the next few weeks and will make a full and final report at the end of the year. Yes, there is a lot going on, but it is all funnelling work in the same direction, which is to change culture in the Defence Forces and to make them a safer and more attractive place to work.

Defence Forces

Cathal Berry


69. Deputy Cathal Berry asked the Minister for Defence if he will outline the pay improvement measures recommended by the Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces; the expected timeline for the implementation of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33771/22]

As we are aware, approximately five months ago, the Commission on the Defence Forces report was published. There are a number of very specific pay improvement recommendations in that report. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on what those pay improvement recommendations are and, most importantly, what is the timeline for implementation of the recommendations.

As the Deputy is aware, the Commission on the Defence Forces has undertaken a significant body of work encompassing wide-ranging terms of reference, including an examination of the evolution of remuneration systems and structures currently in place in the Defence Forces. The report makes a number of recommendations in this regard, including on pay structures, pay review, pay bargaining and ICTU. These recommendations are significant and require detailed consideration. In regard to the ICTU recommendation, the Deputy will be aware that I recently provided my consent for the temporary associate membership of ICTU for the purpose of engagement in national pay negotiations.

It is worth noting also that the commission observed that much of the commentary surrounding issues of pay in the Defence Forces does not seem to fully reflect the totality of the remuneration package and it believes that this needs to be better communicated. A recently developed infographic on the benefits of a career in the Defence Forces aims to address this. It sets out, for example, that a graduate cadet, on commissioning, will receive €43,630 per annum; a school leaver cadet, on commissioning, will receive €38,601 per annum; and a recruit, on completion of 26 weeks training, will receive €30,152 per annum. I have detailed rates of pay across all ranks, which I will happily provide to the Deputy, although I suspect, given his background, he is more than familiar with those rates.

Clearly any implementation of the report’s recommendations requires careful consideration and in some critical aspects an interdepartmental discussion. Since its publication, I have engaged in extensive consultation with my ministerial colleagues and with a range of other stakeholders, including representative associations. I will shortly revert to the Government with a proposed response to the commission's recommendations and a high-level action plan.  This is a complex process dependent on securing Cabinet agreement on the recommendations. The implementation process will, and can only, follow that.

In terms of pay more generally the Government remains fully committed to addressing pay and conditions in the Defence Forces where issues arise and in the context of national pay agreements. The current public service pay agreement provides for increases in pay and allowances to all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces, and the Deputy is aware that negotiations have been ongoing on an extension to this agreement. I will come back to him with more detail.

I thank the Minister for his response. I welcome the permission for the PDFORRA and RACO to associate with ICTU. That is at least half a step forward. The measures to which I specifically referred are on page XXIV - it is in Roman numerals - in the report. The commission identified four things: it recommended an increase in military service allowance for people with fewer than three years' service; the introduction of long service increments; the simplification of offshore allowances for the Naval Service; and the introduction of a lance corporal rank of about 840 people. We have assembled an international panel of experts. We must remember that the military is the only group of workers in the country with no access to the Labour Court. In the spirit of constructive engagement, would the Minister accept that there is merit in recognising these pay recommendations from the commission as being equivalent to a Labour Court recommendation and as such should be accepted and implemented by the Government?

I am not sure about recognising that the commission's recommendations on pay would be the equivalent of a Labour Court recommendation but certainly they need to be taken seriously, regardless of what equivalence there may be. The Government needs to deliver on the recommendations of this commission report. It is credible and badly needed. It has exposed significant capacity gaps in our defence infrastructure that need to be responded to. I hope to be able to bring the report to the Government very shortly. I cannot give the detail as to what the Government will decide in regard to some of the recommendations. I do not have Government approval for that yet. I have to get that approval from colleagues before announcing it in this House. The Deputy has no doubt read this report a number of times, as I have. They are very sound recommendations in regard to how we manage people and reward them for the work they do and for the risks they take. I want to see the recommendations in this report implemented in full. Questions arise as to how and how quickly we do that, what it will cost and whether I can get Government agreement on it. I hope to be able to answer all those questions shortly.

I thank the Minister. The reason I raise the Labour Court issue is that many of the Minister's Cabinet colleagues would probably not be aware – I would not expect them to be aware – that military personnel are the only people without access to the Labour Court. To me, a panel of international experts recommending specific pay improvements should at least hold equivalence. It gives the Minister a small level of leverage from a negotiation point of view with his Cabinet colleagues. There is legislation which would give the Minister significant leverage, in that these recommendations in the commission’s report really only bring many of the troops up to the national minimum wage of €10.50 an hour. The Minister’s Cabinet colleagues may not be aware that the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 applies to the Defence Forces but is currently not being applied. Those two factors should certainly be considered. The military has no access to the Labour Court and some of these recommendations are only bringing military pay up to the national minimum wage. I would be grateful if the Minister would raise that with his Cabinet colleagues. It is a significant point of leverage when it comes to negotiations.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Minister for Defence does not make a final decision, certainly not on their own, in regard to pay and allowances in the Defence Forces and how the military is treated in terms of public sector pay policy. That requires the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's approval. The Deputy will have seen for example the Naval Service supports on going to sea and how long it took to get agreement on those issues. We are in the middle of a pay discussion at the moment and I need to be aware of that. We are also close to bringing recommendations from me to Government in regard to how we respond comprehensively to the commission's report. I am in contact with other key Ministers, in particular the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Taoiseach's office in regard to trying to provide as comprehensive a response as we can to some of the issues raised. However, it must also be consistent with public sector pay policy. I do not think the Deputy will have to wait too long to get the answers to those questions.

EU Directives

John Brady


70. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence the progress that has been made to date on the full implementation of the EU working time directive as it applies to the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34178/22]

It is widely acknowledged that there is a recruitment and retention crisis in our Defence Forces. One of the main ways to address that is the full implementation of the EU working time directive. Key to that is the recording of hours worked by members of the Defence Forces and then paying them accordingly. What progress has been made in regard to the full implementation of the EU working time directive?

That is a fair question. As the Deputy will be aware, the Defence Forces are currently excluded from the provisions of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, which transposed the EU working time directive into Irish law. The Government, however, has committed to amending this Act and bringing both the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána within the scope of its provisions where appropriate. The EU working time directive recognises the specific nature of certain military activities and allows for derogations or exemptions of such activities. Extensive work undertaken by civil and military management has determined that a high percentage of the normal everyday work of the Defence Forces is already in compliance with the EU working time directive. However, it has also been determined that there are some activities which may qualify for an exemption due to the very specific nature.

I understand that ongoing deliberations between civil and military management on the wider implementation of the EU working time directive within the Defence Forces are at an advanced stage. In fact, they are nearing conclusion. The deliberations between civil and military management are being informed by the interpretation of recent European case law on military service, the fundamental requirement to ensure that rights are afforded to serving members, and the requirement to ensure the Defence Forces can continue to fulfil their essential State functions.

As the Deputy will appreciate, these are complex matters. I am assured that the outcome of these deliberations, including with regard to possible exemptions for certain activities, will be fully aligned with the provisions of the EU working time directive and case law on these matters. Furthermore consultation with the representative associations on the outcome of the deliberations by civil and military management on the wider implementation of the EU working time directive will be undertaken through the mechanism of the working time directive conciliation and arbitration subcommittee in the very near future. My Department will thereafter engage with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which is the lead Department responsible for drafting any necessary amendments to the primary legislation.

I can assure the Deputy that the health and safety of personnel in the Defence Forces remains a priority for myself and the Chief of Staff and we remain fully committed to ensuring the provisions of the EU working time directive are applied throughout the Defence Forces. We are within weeks of finalising the issues in terms of what derogations should and should not apply.

I thank the Minister. We have engaged with each other on this issue a number of times over the past year or two. While it is welcome that some progress has been made, the last time we spoke about this issue the Minister spoke about the derogation and exemptions for peacekeeping operations, overseas work and offshore patrols. While there are comprehensive deliberations and consultations going on between civil and military management, where are the conversations with the representative bodies which are key to this? While the Minister talks about derogations, etc., none of that is achievable without having consultation and agreement with the representative bodies. When was the last time the working time directive conciliation and arbitration subcommittee met to discuss this issue? Will the Minister give us an update on the last meeting?

First, I met RACO on this and other issues last week and we had a discussion on it. However, the process that involves civil and military management needs to conclude first in terms of understanding the Chief of Staff and the General Staff's concerns around ensuring we have a functioning military and learning from international experience around what is and is not appropriate, where derogations from the working time directive are concerned, to facilitate the running of a military. I understand that process is close to concluding. Once it does, we will go into a process of consultation with the representative bodies to ensure everybody understands the basis of what is being agreed and the rationale for it. That is reasonable. Of course we will ensure the representative bodies are part of that process and we will try to get agreement then to ensure we are moving ahead on the basis of a clear understanding of how the working time directive will be fully applied across the Defence Forces. Then we obviously need to draft legislation to make that law.

I thank the Minister. The consultation is key to this because there can be no exemptions or derogations without agreement and the associated protections for all members of the Defence Forces. I asked the Minister a specific question because key to the full implementation of the working time directive is the conciliation and arbitration subcommittee that was established in 2019. It is my understanding that committee has not met since then so when we talk about consultation it is safe to say the Minister and his Department have been lacking over a considerable period of time with regard to meaningful consultation on full implementation of the working time directive. I appreciate and welcome the fact he met RACO last week but that was part of an overall broad conversation and not specific to this issue, so there needs to be a commitment from him and Government that whatever comes from the civilian and military management, there is comprehensive agreement through negotiation with the representative bodies to ensure this is fully workable.

This is just a sequencing issue. We need to conclude the work between civil and military management first so we actually know what we are consulting on. My understanding is that work is now very close to completion and I gave an assurance to RACO last week that then we would move to the structure around proper consultation to ensure everybody understands the rationale for all the decisions. That process will happen as soon as we can do it. I want to get on with this so we can then talk to the Tánaiste's office about drafting an amendment to the legislation to make it law. That is what we are trying to press ahead with now and I think we will do that in the months ahead.

On the legislation, I hope we will be moving ahead with the consultation within the next few weeks.

Departmental Reports

John Brady


71. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence the current status of the report from the commission on the future of the Defence Forces; when there will be a full Government response on the report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34179/22]

I ask the Minister to provide details on the current status of the report from the Commission on the Defence Forces. When does he believe there will be a full Government response to the report? We have read over the last number of weeks and indeed months that there will be a proposal brought to the Cabinet. It is important there is a full debate in this House on the report and scrutiny of it and the Government's response to it at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence before the summer recess to give us time before the budgetary cycle starts. That is coming at us very quickly.

The Commission on the Defence Forces was established on foot of a commitment in the programme for Government. As Minister for Defence, I welcomed the publication of the report of the commission on 9 February last.  The commission has undertaken a significant body of work that encompassed wide-ranging terms of reference.  The report contains 69 main recommendations with a large number of sub-recommendations totalling 130 individual recommendations.  It recommends significant changes for the Defence Forces and defence provision more generally in Ireland. It covers high-level Defence Forces structures, defence capabilities, organisation, culture and human resources, the Reserve Defence Force and funding.

Given the significant recommendations contained in the report, detailed consideration of these recommendations has been undertaken over the past four months by my Department and the Defence Forces.  This has involved significant interdepartmental consultation and I and my officials have engaged with key stakeholders, including the representative associations, to ascertain their views. Following this engagement, I intend to return to the Government with a proposed response to the commission’s recommendations and a high-level action plan before the summer recess.

Providing for the defence of the State is a fundamental role of any Government and I firmly believe this is an opportunity to have a mature debate around the type of defence provision that we require and I will very much welcome deliberation, debate and discussion around that.

I am on record in this House as saying I hoped to bring this report to the Government in the month of June. We are running out of time to deliver on that, so this is now going to be brought to the Government in early July. My focus is more about getting the content right and getting Government agreement than it is about whether it is a week before or after a deadline was set. However, I assure the Deputy this will be done in the next couple of weeks. I hope it will be done next week but if not it will be done shortly after that. We are ready to bring recommendations to Government but are still consulting a number of other Ministers to finalise some of the detail.

I thank the Minister. It is unfortunate there are delays. I appreciate the Minister wants to get it right but there also needs to be full debate and scrutiny of what is being proposed by Government to ensure there is proper oversight from the joint committee, which has also been committed to. That needs to happen this side of the summer recess. I am pressing the Minister to ensure that happens and that there is a commitment that will happen this side of the recess, because the reality here is the longer the Minister dithers about a response and action to stem the haemorrhaging of personnel from Defence Forces, which are on their knees, the worse the situation gets. We see it this evening with a report on thejournal.ie on our Naval Service. A secret report commissioned last year highlighted to the Minister again that there were serious challenges with staffing levels and manning levels within the service and that it would be reduced to just three operational ships due to the failure to either recruit or retain key technical staff. The longer the Minister dithers, the more serious the crisis with our Defence Forces becomes.

Nobody is dithering and neither is anybody denying we have had significant recruitment and retention pressures in the Naval Service for many months now. We have discussed this both publicly and privately many times so let us get back to the real issue here, which is delivering a comprehensive Government decision on the back of a really good commission report that gives us an evidence base to act on. We also need to recognise we are acting in the context of a different international security environment now because of Russia's aggression in Ukraine and all that leads to. It is in that context we are trying to get this right. This is about setting a course for the Defence Forces for the next decade, not the next few months. My job is to get this right and then obviously be fully accountable to this House and the committees in taking questions around the implementation plan we will be looking to get approved by the Government. Of course I am going to be available to do that; I am looking forward to it. I hope I will get the support of this House because this is not something that should be party political. This is something that is core for the next decade in terms of the provision of security and defence infrastructure and is going to run through consecutive governments. As such, I will be very open about the basis of all the decisions we make and look forward to that process once we get a Government decision.

I thank the Minister. He will have all-party support, I hope, once the bases are covered. Those bases are the retention, remuneration and conditions of members of our Defence Forces.

That needs to be at the core of anything that comes before us. I refer to the possibility of there being contention. Unfortunately, we have seen the debate segue from discussion on what the Defence Forces will look like in future. The whole issue of neutrality is starting to seep into the conversation. I do not want the situation in Ukraine to be used by some to abandon our position of military neutrality, in which regard we have a proud tradition. If the debate and conversation moves into that space, the Minister will receive serious opposition from those of us on this side of the House. This is about putting in place a Defence Forces of which we can be proud, one that will be able to honour its mandate in terms of our UN role across the world. It is about ensuring we will have the capacity to build on to ensure our footprint and the soft power we have is expanded.

I remind Members that other Members are hoping their questions further down the running order will be reached. I ask Members to stick to the timeframes.

I assure the House that nobody is seeking to use the war in Ukraine to do anything apart from to have an honest conversation in respect of what our security needs are, how we respond to them and how, as a member of the European Union and a contributing state on this Continent, we can contribute to peace and security on the Continent of Europe. That is a perfectly valid debate to have. Ireland's neutrality, which is defined as non-alignment in terms of a defence pact, is one thing but Ireland is not neutral on the war in Ukraine. We have not been neutral on it since the start. We have contributed €44 million to Ukraine to support the Ukrainian military to defend itself and its people from the kind of horrors we saw yesterday, which was state-sponsored terrorism involving the targeting of a shopping mall with cruise missiles. We are not neutral on that. What we are focusing on in terms of the report of the commission, however, is not Ireland's traditional stance of military neutrality; it is about capacity issues for the Defence Forces to be able to do the job that we ask of them. It is about ensuring there are sufficient numbers in the Defence Forces and they are well equipped and resourced to do the increasingly complex job we ask of them.