Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh as ucht an chuiridh a thug an coiste dom labhairt anseo inniu. I am honoured to address the joint committee on behalf of the officers of Óglaigh na hÉireann to highlight the current retention crisis that affects all ranks of the organisation and sincerely thank the committee for its invitation. It is heartening to note the interest of committee members in the welfare of Defence Forces personnel. These loyal citizens now need their support more than ever.
I am joined today by Lt. Col. Derek Priestley, who is deputy general secretary of the association, and the president of RACO, Commandant Shane Keogh.
In discussing the retention crisis, I will also touch on a number of contributing factors, including the lack of viable or credible retention policies in the Department of Defence and the weakened industrial relations status of the Defence Forces representative associations. Sadly, the Government has exploited this situation to the detriment of the well-being of the officers, soldiers, sailors and aircrew of Óglaigh na hÉireann. The State has been left vulnerable as a result. Although Richard Branson may not be viewed as an eminent military strategist, these words attributed to him are quite apt in this context: "Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to." In the Defence Forces, we train our people to the highest standards at no small cost to the Exchequer. We align the qualifications achieved with best industry practice and academic accreditation, thereby satisfying the first criterion of Mr. Branson's statement. We then fail miserably in fulfilling the second part of his maxim.
The dysfunctional cycle of turnover being suffered by the Defence Forces was identified by researchers from the University of Limerick in 2015 and 2017. It has continued unabated. Óglaigh na hÉireann is now at its lowest strength in decades. In more than 20 years of service, I have certainly never seen morale as low as it is today. This trend appears set to continue according to numerous employee engagement surveys of Defence Forces personnel and RACO's own recent research. Some 3,200 personnel left the Defence Forces between 2014 and 2018. That is an astonishing 34.7% of the average strength for those years. Before people conclude that this is due to the early mandatory retirement ages for Defence Forces personnel, I should point out that 82% of these departures were premature voluntary retirements. Numerous media publications reported recently that the unprecedented recruitment drive in 2017 yielded a single figure net increase in personnel and that €15 million was spent on induction training that year. It may shock the committee to learn that the Defence Forces attempted to induct a similar number of candidates through a highly visible and professional recruitment campaign last year and, frighteningly, there was actually a net loss of 120 personnel.
In March this year, RACO reported to the Public Service Pay Commission that the turnover rate was a devastatingly high 8.1%. That rate now stands at 9% overall, and it is 14% in the Naval Service. In comparison, the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence recently declared a retention crisis when the turnover rate in the UK armed forces reached 5%. There were 256 discharges from the Defence Forces in the first four months of 2019. This is by far the highest figure since the reorganisation of 2012. An unprecedented 86 discharges took place in April 2019 alone. The impact of operating with reduced numbers is already being felt across the Defence Forces. The Army is struggling to fulfil its assigned tasks, domestically and internationally. Ships are unable to go to sea and aircraft are not flying as a result of personnel shortages, yet the Department of Defence continues to prioritise costly recruitment policies over tangible retention initiatives. This historically high turnover rate is leading to the creation of a crippling operational and training tempo for the remaining service personnel. When will the Government shout stop? Does it realise that defence capability is being ground into the dust? Does it care?
Inadequate supervision and mentoring, combined with inadequate trained manning levels, leads to inevitable burnout. That creates serious concerns for governance and the ability to manage risk and ensure the well-being of our personnel. The climate survey and focus group reports conducted by the University of Limerick laid bare the mental health difficulties, increased stress and low morale being experienced by Defence Forces soldiers, sailors and aircrew. Our people are double and treble jobbing in an effort to maintain operational output due to inadequate trained manning levels in units.
According to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, the personnel of the Defence Forces have been the lowest paid of any organisation in the public sector for many years. This is ironic given that the Institute of Public Administration, IPA, has consistently reported that the Defence Forces is by far the most trusted public service organisation in the State, with a trust score of 82%. Something does not add up. Some 87% of all Defence Forces personnel earn well below the average public sector wage. Senior Government officials have been heard to remark that someone needs to be the lowest paid. The fact that the lowest paid public sector organisation in the State is also the most defenceless in terms of advocating for its rights is deeply unfair and disrespectful to the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann, many of whom are forced to rely on social welfare to support their families.
Normal public service employment conditions do not apply to members of the Defence Forces. Serving Defence Forces personnel forfeit normal employee status while remaining subject to military law at all times. They have no right to strike and they can be called on 24-7, 365 days of the year. Their unlimited liability contract requires them to face hardship and danger for the benefit of others. The health and safety provisions of the EU working time directive do not apply to the Defence Forces and the State is in breach of this EU legislation. Personnel are subject to mandatory early retirement and annual military standard medical and fitness testing. While we voluntarily accept these unique constraints, we expect to be treated fairly in return. The obligation on defence management, in recognition of these service restrictions and industrial relations limitations, should be to advocate on behalf of the personnel of the Defence Forces. RACO members instead see an ongoing failure on the part of the Department of Defence to protect our weakened employee status and ensure that the personnel of the Defence Forces are not disadvantaged relative to other public service employees. The Department’s approach to representation has been divisive, dismissive and, sometimes, subversive. This has led to an adversarial and dysfunctional industrial relations climate and that has been to the detriment of the well-being of the most loyal citizens of this State. It is nothing short of shameful. I am happy to elaborate further if required by the committee.
The Department of Defence has failed to prioritise retention in the Defence Forces. This is the case even though it is evident that the continual recruitment campaigns are failing to address the ongoing reduction in overall strength, particularly where the underlying reasons for the continued exodus of personnel also remain unresolved. Given that the Department of Defence saves millions of euro every year on the backs of its employees - €26.5 million in 2016 - why does it not see fit to introduce retention initiatives? This approach is in stark contrast to our near neighbours across the Irish Sea. Respect and value for servicemen and women in the United Kingdom are enshrined in an armed forces covenant. That covenant recognises the freedoms willingly given up by military personnel and their families and the restrictions and hazards they face but, in return, it pledges to support, protect and treat them fairly. Let us not forget that soldiers are citizens too. The State must reconsider how it values its Defence Forces and what exactly it expects of them. Ireland spends a comparatively negligible 0.3% of GDP on defence, the lowest figure in the European Union and behind even Luxembourg and Malta. This level of spending speaks volumes about how seriously this State views the security of its citizens and economy.
Initiatives to increase numbers have included reductions in the established benchmarks of entry standards, training standards and timelines. The dilution of security clearance measures and the reduction in recruit and cadet basic training timelines have had the objective of reducing the time taken to increase the numbers. These measures have had no medium or long-term impact other than to potentially expose the organisation to greater operational and organisational risk. No amount of water will fill a leaky bucket. In the face of strong objections from RACO, the Department enthusiastically dispensed with the internationally proven model of fixed period promotion for technical officers of the ordnance and engineer corps. That change left these officers with no viable career paths and effectively showed them the door. They are now faced with a choice of returning to line units or leaving the Defence Forces if they wish to advance their careers. In either event, six years of full-time training at significant cost to the Exchequer, as well as several invaluable years spent learning the trade, are being lost.
The Department of Defence also removed retention initiatives for pilots. That has left the Air Corps on its knees, with the shortfall in pilots now standing at more than 30% and counting. Coupled with chronic shortages in aircraft technicians, this has threatened operational capability and impacted on service delivery. Despite the unprecedented levels of induction training, officer instructors continue to be denied the specialised instructor allowance. This allowance was taken from them under the Haddington Road agreement and has yet to be reinstated. Non-commissioned officer, NCO, instructors continue to receive this payment, as is appropriate, but officers bear the ultimate responsibility. The single biggest factor negatively affecting retention in the Defence Forces, however, and hence the future viability of the organisation, has been the removal of the supplementary pension from those who entered the organisation after 1 January 2013.
Government policy determines that all personnel are subject to early mandatory retirement ages, anywhere between their 54th or 60th birthday depending on the rank of officer. Hence the vast majority of post-2013 single pension scheme officers will retire a full ten years before they can receive the State pension. A recent RACO Amárach research survey found that a shocking 79% of officers inducted since 2013 intend to leave the organisation well in advance of their mandatory retirement age. The lack of an adequate pension provision for this cohort means that a significant majority feel that they have no future in the Defence Forces and will not stay long enough to develop and advance up the ranks and populate the chronic shortages at middle management level. The unprecedented level of cadet inductions and associated unbearable burden it has placed on training capacity will all have been for nothing. To his credit, the Minister of State has recognised this and has pledged to address it as a priority once pay issues have been resolved.
The 2015 White Paper on defence notes that the recruitment, training and development, and retention of suitable military personnel are essential factors in developing the military capabilities required to discharge the roles assigned by Government. Despite this, no initiative or review has been initiated to address these issues. The delay in commencing White Paper projects concerning the ongoing recruitment and retention issues is indicative of the current approach to personnel policy in the defence organisation. The consequence to the organisation is the current manning level crisis and loss of corporate memory and military expertise on an alarming scale.
The Minister of State and his officials claim that this White Paper and the identified projects towards implementation are cognisant of the priority of demands. Why then has the project team failed even to commence the most critical and pressing human resource projects which concern retention? None of the projects completed to date is assessed to have any significant impact on the retention crisis. The White Paper implementation approach has not yet yielded any tangible impact on the Defence Forces. RACO views it as nothing more than a box-ticking exercise.
The cost benefit of retention is indisputable. The unique demands of Defence Forces service require unique, specialist, in-house military training and the development of military specialist skills. A direct entry civil engineer would have to undergo two years' military training and professional development in military engineering competencies before being available for operational tasking. Similarly, the costs associated with developing the range of military competencies can amount to €1.54 million for an ordnance bomb disposal officer at captain rank, or €1.72 million for a captain pilot in the Air Corps. The cost of training one officer cadet is estimated at more than €100,000 per student. At what point of dysfunction will management favour retention over the continual failing demands of recruitment? We cannot go to market to replace a middle manager such as an experienced captain or sergeant. We replace them with cadets and recruits. At a turnover rate of 9%, the policy is destined to fail.
With this in mind, a comprehensive external review, similar in nature and scope to the 1990 Gleeson Commission on Remuneration and Conditions of Service in the Defence Forces, or the recent Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland should now be considered by Government where management are unable or unwilling to address the underlying organisational issues.
The Defence Forces is surviving on the goodwill of its personnel, that willingness to go over and above the call of duty to achieve the mission or complete the task. The inability of personnel to take to the streets in protest at their appalling service conditions has resulted in them voting with their feet and leaving the organisation. It has been humbling, however, to witness the concerned efforts of veteran and family organisations in attempting to highlight the shameful treatment of service personnel. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed, and it is hoped they will not be in vain.
It is no exaggeration to state that the Defence Forces are staring into the abyss. The reported meagre recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission have the potential, if implemented, to act as a catalyst for further departures. The Government should be encouraged to ensure that the loyalty displayed by thousands of soldiers, sailors and aircrew is reciprocated, that they are paid a living wage, and that their skills and experience are recognised for the indispensable and irreplaceable asset they truly are. RACO strongly recommends the adoption of a specific Defence Forces standing independent pay review body to ensure military personnel are fairly treated. Unnecessary suffering is the worst kind, and the Government has it within its power to remedy easily many of the retention difficulties being experienced by Óglaigh na hÉireann and to begin to rehabilitate this proud and loyal organisation. It is for the Government to decide whether we are finally going to take the security of our State seriously and allow our Defence Forces to do what they signed up for, namely, to strengthen the nation that they love and provide the security that allows our democracy and economy to flourish.
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for their time and I am happy to take questions.