This meeting is convened to consider the Revised Estimates for the Public Services 2015 - Vote 35, Army pensions, and Vote 36, defence. A briefing document has been circulated to members. I welcome the Minister for Defence and his officials and propose that we begin with a brief opening statement from the Minister, followed by questions and comments by members.
Vote 36 - Department of Defence (Revised)
I am pleased to appear before the select committee today for its consideration of the defence and Army pensions Estimates for 2015. I have a short opening statement, after which I will be happy to take questions from the members.
The combined Estimates for defence and Army pensions for 2015 provides for gross expenditure of €898 million, of which €677 million will be spent on defence and €221 million on Army pensions. Over 73% of the defence Vote goes towards providing pay and allowances, while the remaining allocation provides mainly for the replacement and maintenance of essential equipment and operational costs.
To allow the Defence Forces to deliver effectively on their outputs and undertake the tasks laid down by Government at home and overseas, an adequately resourced Permanent Defence Force, PDF, is required. In this regard, the 2015 defence pay and allowances allocation of some €496 million will provide for a PDF strength of up to 9,500. In addition, it will provide for the pay and allowances of some 625 civilian employees, 350 civil servants, 18 chaplains and 14 Army nurses. Targeted recruitment was undertaken in 2014 and will continue in 2015. In total, there was an overall intake of 416 PDF personnel in 2014. This represented a substantial employment opportunity for people interested in a military career. On the equipment front, the main investment this year will be on the naval vessel replacement programme, together with the necessary acquisition of a range of defensive equipment.
Last summer, as part of the naval vessel replacement programme, an order was placed with Babcock Marine for the third offshore patrol vessel for the Naval Service. By taking up this option under the existing contract, the Department ensured that the third ship will be bought at 2012 prices and will not be index linked. The first of the two ships, the LE Samuel Beckett, was handed over at the end of April 2014.
The second ship, LE James Joyce, is scheduled for delivery in March 2015 and will replace the LE Aoife, which is being decommissioned. The acquisition of three new and modern vessels not only adds efficiency, operational value and durability to the Naval Service, but also represents excellent value for money, as all purchases were made from within existing allocations without recourse to any additional funding. The 2015 provision will also allow for the continued modernisation and improvement of defensive equipment, which will maintain and enhance the capacity of the Defence Forces to deliver effective services across all of the roles assigned by government.
The year 2015 will see Ireland continue its long standing commitment to overseas missions. At the end of 2014, Ireland had 427 personnel serving in 11 different missions throughout the world. These missions embrace a range of activities, including conflict resolution, peacekeeping, humanitarian missions, crisis management and strengthening international security. Currently, the two largest contingents are serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, with 199 personnel and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, in the Golan Heights, with 138 personnel. I will give the committee a briefing shortly on what is happening with UNIFIL currently. Unfortunately, there have been some unwelcome developments there this morning. Last December on my visit to the Middle East, I met with troops serving with UNIFIL in Lebanon, with UNDOF in Syria and with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, UNTSO, in Israel and I observed at first hand the invaluable role all these troops play within very challenging environments.
The 2015 Estimates allocation will facilitate the continued provision of a military operational response to both the civilian power and civil authorities, as required. This is a broad, multifaceted role which is of vital importance to national security. Examples of the type of duties undertaken include, explosive ordnance disposal duties, air ambulance duties, naval boardings and prisoner escorts.
The Reserve Defence Force has also experienced significant organisational reform in recent years. One of the key outcomes emerging from the value for money review of the reserve is the introduction of the new single force concept, an initiative which means we now have Army units with permanent and reserve components rather than having a separate stand alone reserve. In addition, a campaign is underway to recruit further members to the Army reserve and Naval Service reserve in order to reach target strength levels. In that context, some 26,000 training man days are provided for in the Estimates for 2015.
The Defence Vote also makes provision for certain costs related to the Civil Defence. Civil Defence continues to develop its role of providing supports to the front-line emergency services and in 2014 was actively involved in supporting hundreds of community events across the country. Civil Defence volunteers throughout the country continue to provide support to both front-line services and local communities in responding to emergencies. In that regard, I am delighted to say that Dublin Civil Defence, assisted by Civil Defence units from other counties, is supporting the efforts of Dublin City Council in helping to deal with the homelessness and street-sleeping issue. Working alongside professional carers contracted by the city council, a 20-bed temporary hostel was opened at Dublin Civil Defence headquarters at its premises on Wolfe Tone Quay, which will operate each day throughout the winter months.
In conjunction with the Civil Defence response to homelessness, accommodation in St Bricin's military base has been made available to Dublin City Council for use as part of its homeless service strategy. Homelessness is a complex topic and there is no quick-fix or easy solution. However, I am delighted that the Defence sector has been in a position to provide some level of meaningful security, support and service to the individuals affected.
The 2015 Estimate makes provision for expenditure of €18.5 million on new building works and maintenance of existing buildings and also includes funding for work on the military archives building at Cathal Brugha Barracks. The Government is supportive of the decade of centenaries commemoration projects and has made funds available, over the period 2014 to 2016, to improve access to the facilities at the military archives building. The first two tranches of material from the Military Service Pensions Collection were made available online last year and further material from this historic collection will be released over the coming years.
I would now like to turn to the Army pensions Vote. This Vote funds the payment of military pension benefits of all categories, including retirement pensions and gratuities, disability pensions, spouses' and children's pensions and other miscellaneous expenditure related to the processing of entitlements under the Defence Forces pensions code. The gross allocation for 2015 is some €221 million, over 95% of which relates to the superannuation benefits of former members of the Defence Forces and their dependants. Expenditure under this Vote is primarily non-discretionary and demand-driven. There are currently some 12,000 pensioners paid by my Department from this Vote, a net increase of 1,000 since 2007.
Finally, I would like to refer to the forthcoming White Paper on Defence. The White Paper will provide the defence policy framework for the next decade and beyond. Defence policy is a critical aspect of Government policy and I am determined to ensure that the new White Paper addresses in full the defence response to future security challenges and related resource requirements in a comprehensive way. The preparation of the new White Paper must take into account an assessment of the future security environment and the roles and tasks that we wish the Defence Forces to undertake. The economic environment and the level of resourcing available must also be factored into consideration. This is a fundamental requirement in order to ensure a sustainable defence policy.
Working groups, comprising civil and military representatives, are considering future operational demands and the defence capabilities required to meet projected future operational requirements. This work will inform recommendations regarding defence provision. I have received an initial draft outline of the White Paper and this will be further developed and refined over the coming months. The final draft of the White Paper will be submitted to the Government in due course. I expect I will be looking for Government approval mid summer. I now commend both Estimates to the committee and look forward to dealing with any questions members may have.
I thank the Minister.
I wish to add some comments for the benefit of the few members present, who I am sure are concerned about media reports they have been receiving this morning regarding what is happening in southern Lebanon. There has been no official UNIFIL statement yet, but I understand that starting at about 11 a.m. Irish time this morning, there was quite significant activity in an area called the Shaaba Farms, on the eastern side of southern Lebanon, quite close to the Golan Heights. Six rockets were fired from the eastern sector of southern Lebanon, from a town called Ghajar. Subsequently, a rocket was fired at an Israeli Defence Force convoy and afterwards, a further five rockets were fired into Israel from the Shaaba Farms area. I am told Israel has retaliated and responded to that by firing 123 rounds of heavy artillery into the area. There is no official information in regard to casualties or injuries, but all we know is that it looks as if one peacekeeper has lost his life.
It has not been officially confirmed by UNIFIL that it was a Spanish soldier, but this is the area the Spanish control, so in all likelihood it is a Spanish soldier. As a country that is contributing significant troops to that UNIFIL mission, I wish to express my condolences to the Spanish troops in the area and to the Spanish Government.
This is not what we want to see happening in southern Lebanon. The suspicion is that it was in retaliation for a targeted strike last week on the Golan Heights when a Hezbollah commander was killed, but we do not know this for sure. This is a reminder of the dangerous, difficult and unstable environment in which our troops are operating, both on the Golan Heights and in southern Lebanon, where we have a significant presence in both UN missions. I am happy to report that our troops are about 30 km away from where this incident happened. In military speak, they were "in ground hog" this morning when this was happening, in other words, they were taking cover. Nobody was injured and everybody has been accounted for. There has not been any activity in the area where our troops are, but 30 km is not a great distance and, unfortunately, it looks as if there has been a fatality in the Spanish unit.
We are discussing the Estimates, but I will allow a brief comment on this issue.
To give a further update, I received a telephone call about half an hour ago. My nephew is serving with the United Nations in that part of Lebanon. The message he gave to his family was that they were all safe, but they were very upset and distraught about the death of the young Spanish soldier. It is also an opportunity, as the Minister mentioned, to highlight the great service these young men and women provide for Ireland at UN level as peacekeepers. It is important that we never forget this because they are making a valuable contribution. They are warriors for peace and highly respected internationally.
I concur with the Deputy and I am grateful to the Minister for briefing us on this occasion. More than anything, it will put the minds of family members across the country at ease. We extend our sympathy to the family of the member of the Spanish defence forces who lost his life. The Minister will be keeping the situation under review and we would appreciate it if he continued to brief us, as appropriate, in the period ahead.
We know that the region is very unstable and that the authorities here are keeping a very close eye on what is happening there and will continue to do so.
It is important to emphasise that southern Lebanon has been one of the safest places in the Middle East for the past 12 months. As Hezbollah has been heavily involved in the civil war in Syria, there has not been the friction and the activities that we saw a number of years ago in southern Lebanon and Israel. However, that changed this morning, but the briefing material I have received suggests it may have been in retaliation for what happened on the Golan Heights last week, as opposed to a general escalation of tension between Hezbollah and Israel. I hope that is the case and that we will not see a further escalation, but we will have to wait and see.
I propose, with the Minister's agreement, to go through the Estimates subhead by subhead. The first subhead in Vote 35 is subhead A.1 - administration and pay. As there are no questions or comments on it, I will move on to subhead A.2 - Defence Forces pension schemes and payments in respect of transferred service.
This is the main block of money for pensions. The first is for administration, but the main block is for Army pensions, which is why the figure is big. The Estimate for 2015 is slightly higher than that for 2014 but slightly lower than the outturn for 2014. It should be close to what we will see at the end of the year. The scheme is demand-led and we must make an estimate that is as close as possible to the outturn. There will be no major change from where we have been in the past couple of years.
As there are no comments or questions on the subhead, we will move on to subhead A.3 - wound and disability pensions, allowances and gratuities to or in respect of former members of the Defence Forces. I do not think it includes anything too exciting about which members would want to ask questions. Subhead A.4 concerns payments to spouses of veterans of the War of Independence. There are 121 recipients. The scheme is demand-led and non-discretionary. The number of recipients is dropping.
It decreases every year, for obvious reasons.
Subhead A.5 deals with compensation payments, lump sum compensation by the Department for service-related deaths of members of the Permanent Defence Force while serving overseas with the United Nations and on certain other missions. There were no such payments in 2014. The scheme is demand-led and non-discretionary.
Subhead A.6 concerns medical appliances and travelling and incidental expenses. It includes miscellaneous expenses, travel and medical examination expenses incurred by applicants for military disability pensions.
Subhead B - appropriations-in-aid, receipts, includes contributions to the pensions schemes by officers, NCOs, private soldiers and so on. The next subhead makes provision for Defence Forces' pension benefits. That concludes our discussion of Vote 35.
On Vote 36, there are quite a lot of subheads which we will go through one at a time. If members have questions or comments, they should let me know. The first subhead is subhead A.1 - administration and pay.
We are all conscious of the pressures in various Departments because of staffing constraints. I am thinking, in particular, of the difficulties in the Department of Social Protection, for example. In the Defence Forces there are 9,500 personnel. On staffing, it strikes me as being considerable that in the Department of Defence there are 352 full-time equivalents. How does this figure compare with those for other Departments? We have been given the figures back to 2012, but has there been a significant decrease in the number of civil servants in the Department in recent years?
I will answer the question in some detail, but I can provide further detail, if the Deputy wants.
In the 1980s there were over 600 staff in the Department. As there are now 350, the number has almost halved. This figure can be compared to that for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in which there were 4,500 staff, but that number is now down to about 3,300. Defence and Agriculture, Food and the Marine are two of the Departments in which staff numbers have been reduced significantly. Overall, numbers across the public sector are down by more than 10% in the past four years, resulting in an expenditure saving of well over €3 billion. There has been significant change in terms of a reduction in numbers and expenditure, but if a certain line is crossed, the capacity of a Department to do its job is fundamentally undermined. In having 350 staff, I do not regard the Department of Defence to be overstaffed. We have a significant job to do, not least on the White Paper in the next few months, but there are multiple other tasks the Department must perform to ensure it is run smoothly in terms of the Defence Forces and policy and legislation. I understand the committee will soon deal with legislation from the Department. While I am always open to correction and constructive criticism, the 352 staff we have in the Department are needed and provide good value for money.
As there are no further questions, we will move on to subhead A2 - administration, non-pay, which provides for the non-pay administrative costs of the Department.
One of the most critical issues facing Defence Forces personnel is the 21 year contract. Should this matter be resolved in a manner that allows people who have 21 years-----
I remind the Deputy that we are discussing subhead A2 which covers costs incurred for office supplies, equipment and information technology, postal and telecommunications services, travel and subsistence expenses, training expenses for civil servants, etc.
I was looking at the wrong subhead.
Do members have comments or questions on subhead A2?
The Estimate for this year is the same as that for last year. The outturn fell slightly and the Estimate has not increased.
As there are no questions or comments, we will move on to subhead A3 - Permanent Defence Force pay, which provides for line pay, technical pay and military service allowances for officers and enlisted personnel and the pay of members of the Army nursing service. The provisional outturn for 2014 is €359.59 million and an Estimate of €417.47 million has been provided for 2015. Perhaps Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl might wish to raise the contract issue now.
Should the issue of the 21-year contract be resolved in such a manner as to allow a significant number of able bodied personnel to continue to serve beyond 21 years? Would such an outcome have a significant impact on the figures before us, given that persons who have accrued 21 years service would be at a considerably higher level on the payscale than persons joining the Defence Forces?
I do not wish to pre-announce the outcome of an adjudication process which has been ongoing for some time. An adjudication hearing is due to be held on 30 January and we expect an outcome more or less immediately thereafter. We will then have a much clearer picture of what compromises are doable. If we were to keep personnel in the Defence Forces for longer than had been expected, it would obviously have an impact on our recruitment programme for this year. Last year 416 people were recruited into the Permanent Defence Force to maintain numbers at 9,500. The recruitment strategy for this year would have to accommodate any decision to allow personnel to remain in the Defence Forces. I do not want to put numbers on this, as I would like to wait until the adjudication process is finalised.
As there are no other questions, we will move on to subhead A4 - Permanent Defence Force allowances. This subhead provides for allowances paid to Permanent Defence Force personnel in areas such as security and patrol duties and overseas subsistence. As there are no questions, we will move on to subhead A5 - Reserve Defence Force pay, etc. This refers to pay, training and miscellaneous allowances for the Army Reserve and Naval Service Reserve and also provides for grants for members of the First Line Reserve.
The continued underspend in this area underlines in a practical way the difficulties that have faced the Reserve Defence Force in recent times. While the Minister's recent statements have convinced me of his commitment to the Reserve, definitive action must be taken to consolidate the position of the Reserve Defence Force. The expenditure provided for this year may be more realistic than the figure provided in 2012.
We are essentially budgeting for increased activity in this area in which we will actively seek new recruits. Following the publication of the value for money report on the Defence Forces Reserve, a revised strength ceiling of 4,069 was introduced for the Reserve. A campaign is under way to recruit further members to the Army Reserve and the Naval Service Reserve with the objective of reaching the target strength levels. We have budgeted for 26,000 training man days - I am not sure that is politically correct terminology - this year. To achieve this, we must recruit more Reserve members and are actively seeking to do so.
Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl and other Deputies have raised this issue at Question Time in the House. There are practical reasons it is difficult for some of those who would like to join the Reserve to do so. For example, the timing of medical examinations, training and so forth may make it difficult for members of the Reserve to hold down a career in another field. We are examining all of these issues and a civilian-military discussion is under way to ascertain how the attractiveness of the Reserve forces could be improved.
Is the current strength of the Defence Forces Reserve 4,069 or is that the target strength? What will be the financial impact of the proposed increase in Reserve Defence Force numbers in 2015-16?
The target strength is 4,069, while the current effective strength is 2,302. The number of reservists who availed of paid training in 2014 was 1,521. We have work to do to recruit more reservists to increase Reserve strength to the appropriate level. For this reason, we are examining ways in which we could make it more attractive and convenient for people to be members of the Reserve.
On that point, has the Department given serious consideration to how it could facilitate people who may wish to serve in the Reserve Defence Force but would encounter serious problems in their day jobs or personal lives if they were to do so? A number of such individuals came before the joint committee last year.
Ensuring an appropriate balance between voluntary activities and work and home life is a key challenge that is common to individuals involved in many voluntary organisations. The issues raised with me relate primarily to the need to hold medical examinations and fitness tests at times that do not require candidates to take days off work. We are trying to make practical improvements in these areas.
Last year we had 22,992 training man days and are planning to have 26,000 training man days this year. As such, we intend to increase Reserve Defence Force strength and are actively trying to recruit new members. We also have the First Line Reserve, but that is a separate issue.
Will the underspend in this area in recent years continue in 2015?
I hope not. The provisional outturn for last year was slightly less than the Estimate provides for this year. If numbers remain as they are, there will be another underspend this year. I am hopeful, however, that we will be able to recruit new members and increase current strength. While we will not reach the target figure this year, I am certain we will improve on the current figure.
The next subhead is subhead A6 - pay, etc., for chaplains and officiating clergymen. As there are no comments or questions, we will move on to subhead A7 - Defence Forces civilian support, pay and allowances. This refers to civilian employees attached to units of the Permanent Defence Force and fees payable to medical consultants and specialists in respect of the medical treatment of military personnel.
The Estimate for this subhead is increasing because we intend to recruit more civilians to the Defence Forces. This civilian category does not include civil servants in the Department.
I understand there was an underspend under this subhead in 2014.
The number of civilian support staff declined in 2014.
In 2013 the number was 535 and there were 517 last year. We are budgeting on an estimate of 625 this year. So we are looking to recruit quite a lot of people, which is obviously positive news that reflects the Defence Forces' complex job across many areas. A reliance on civilian staff is an important element for them.
On that matter, what sort of specialisation is being sought with the current recruitment campaign to get the numbers up to 625?
The main focus for 2015 will be the implementation of a targeted recruitment programme to fill key civilian vacancies that have arisen in recent years. The principal areas where the recruitment of civilian employees is planned to take place are as follows. The central medical unit needs specialist staff, for example, physiotherapists and psychologists to provide the necessary services to military personnel. In the naval base at Haulbowline, there is an apprenticeship programme with four posts to provide training in specialist ship maintenance service. Craft workers are required to fill essential vacancies arising in military workshops. Much practical work is required in terms of maintenance and development of barracks and at the naval base in Haulbowline that does not necessarily require military personnel and can be done by civilian staff. The same argument is made for An Garda Síochána. This frees up soldiers to do the work they have been trained to do.
More than 100 will be taken on before the end of the year.
That is the plan.
We will be back next year to see if that has happened.
I thought the Chairman's constituency might be interested in that.
We now come to subhead A8, defence equipment.
I am concerned that a fairly significant decrease in expenditure is proposed here of about 20%. Over the past decade or so there was very significant investment in equipment such as the Mowags, which are invaluable to our peacekeepers abroad. What is the lifespan of such heavy equipment? At what stage do we need to consider replacing them?
I am also conscious when we look at this-----
The Minister will answer that question first and we will come back to the Deputy's second question.
The numbers go up and down depending on what is needed. Spending the same amount on defence equipment each year does not reflect the reality that sometimes we have to replace a naval vessel or buy Mowags, depending on the role at the time. A high-level planning procurement group comprising civilian and military members meets regularly to evaluate ongoing expenditure trends, prioritise future requirements and maintain oversight on key issues likely to impact on resources.
The lifespan for the Mowag APC fleet is being considered this year. My understanding is that they need an upgrade after ten years, but they are certainly operational for at least 20 years. I had an opportunity to look at a number of Mowags in Collins Barracks. They are fairly indestructible pieces of equipment but they age. My understanding is that they have an upgrade requirement after about a decade. However, they are constantly being upgraded in terms of communications equipment and obviously armoury, weapons systems and such like. Different Mowags have different equipment.
I know Mowags are heavy pieces of equipment. Are they very heavy on fuel and expensive to run? Do they break down frequently? Has anybody looked at their reliability over time? Is any record kept of that?
I do not want to pretend I am an expert on Mowags but I understand they are best in class based on what we use them for. They have been an essential piece of our equipment in Golan, for example, where they were tested in pretty difficult circumstances. My understanding is that they are physically pretty heavy and therefore I presume pretty heavy on fuel, but they are very reliable. Ultimately the priority here is not fuel efficiency, but protecting our soldiers and the work they are doing. I can come back to the committee with a more detailed report on that if it would be helpful.
I am conscious that our overall expenditure on defence is very small - both in percentage terms and relative to what our European partners spend. I take the Minister's point about different demand from time to time.
There will be spikes at times. In addition there are other subheads for equipment. I can tell the Deputy what we are spending here. There is an RBS70 missile upgrade programme. There is a 76 mm weapon for the third offshore patrol vessel. There is a replacement of heavy machine-gun programme and replacement of mortar fire control system. These are the kinds of weapons that-----
I appreciate that but nonetheless there is a 20% cut against a background of a very low level of overall expenditure. I am very conscious of this as I come from County Kildare, where the military are of particular significance. There is concern that arising from the Minister's recent negotiations with the British Government there was a suggestion that the Irish Defence Forces would be getting second-hand equipment from the British army. Is that not correct?
There is no suggestion from me of that.
There might not be from the Minister but there were certainly media reports to that effect. If it is not happening, we would be very pleased to hear it.
Let me clarify that. We said we would look at possibilities in many areas of mutual interest. There is nothing binding about that MOU; everything is voluntary. For example, if joint procurement in certain areas makes sense for both sides, we will look at that. There was no suggestion that we would have hand-me-downs or anything like that. I can assure the Deputy that any equipment we provide for the Defence Forces will add significantly to our defence capabilities rather than anything else.
The committee recently discussed firearms. It was mentioned that in 1979, thousands of firearms were handed over to the Defence Forces for storage. While it might not arise here, is there a cost involved in that? Are there any long-term plans to dispose of those weapons? Related to that is the storage of obsolete equipment such as Bren guns and Gustavs that are no longer used. Is there a cost of storing those?
I will check it out. I am not aware of it being a significant cost because if it was I would be informed about it. However, if there is an issue, we will come back to the committee. None of the experts on either side of me are familiar with it.
The Minister might provide some numbers as to what is there, bearing in mind that we do not wish to breach the security aspect of it.
If these are weapons, why are we storing them?
That would have been a security issue. People were asked to hand over weapons that have the capacity to fire live ammunition. One of the things the Defence Forces are good at is storing weaponry safely; that is what they do. If there was some kind of decommissioning or hand-over scheme, it presumably made sense for the Defence Forces to manage that. I am not sure if we still have them. There may be some security issues with releasing information on that. However, I will check it and come back to the committee. It has clearly been raised with the committee so I will follow up.
The next subhead is A9, Air Corps aircraft equipment and support. This provides for the purchase, upgrade and maintenance of Air Corps aircraft and equipment, fuel and training.
Subhead A9, military transport, is of interest to me, bearing in mind a discussion we had not too long ago on the stranded Government jet in America. Is it sustainable for us to be without an operating ministerial aircraft? How are the pilots able to keep their flying hours at required levels, given the limited fleet that we have? Is there a proposal to replace the Government jet with additional aircraft?
As I stated before, when the Gulfstream jet was presented for its due service last summer, many extra problems arose. The closer the aeroplane was looked at, the more issues that emerged with it such as corrosion on the undercarriage. I made the decision then that we were not going to spend any more money on it in trying to make it fit for purpose. Given the budgetary position the country was facing and the Government had to manage in the past four years, we had to ensure we were not spending money on an aeroplane that was really at the end of its life. Accordingly, we stopped spending money. We have since gone through a process of selling the aeroplane to get as much of a return as we can on it. I cannot give the Deputy figures as matters are still being finalised. However, the sales process is under way. An interdepartmental high level working group of officials, chaired by the Department of Defence, is reviewing the medium and long-term options for the future provision of the service provided by the Government jet. I will report to the Government on the group’s recommendations once they are finalised.
The Government is operating with one smaller, shorter range Learjet. I do not expect this to change at any time soon. I would prefer to outline my recommendations to the Cabinet before I announce anything at the committee. I do not anticipate that the Government will be buying a new jet any time soon.
Is it sustainable?
I believe it is. Many countries have different approaches in getting Ministers and Prime Ministers - in our case the Taoiseach - to where they need to be. We have changed the approach to the use of the Government jet. No Minister can use it without getting the permission of the Taoiseach. Ministers travel on commercial airlines for most of the travel they need to undertake. It is only in exceptional circumstances that the jet is used. There are certain times when it is necessary, but most of the time Ministers use commercial airlines. Since last summer we have been operating with one shorter range jet which does not have the capacity to engage in transatlantic travel. We will work away on that basis for the foreseeable future. I do not expect any announcement or decision on the purchase of a new Government jet, which is unlikely, given the budgetary constraints that continue.
The Air Corps does a lot more than fly Ministers or the Taoiseach around. In 2014 it completed 18 emergency inter-hospital air ambulance missions. It also completes surveillance work in offshore fisheries and search and rescue missions. There is much more in the fleet than just the Government jet. It was very rare that both Government jets were used at the same time. It would have happened the odd time such as for the St. Patrick's Day celebrations when there would have been Ministers all over the world. In the case of needing to get the Taoiseach somewhere quickly because of an emergency, the use of air taxis is always possible. I suspect, however, that would only happen in the case of an emergency.
Not much has changed in the training hours required to be undertaken by Air Corps pilots. It must be remembered that this subhead also covers presidential travel. We have been managing with one smaller aircraft. I accept that this is not ideal at times, given the number of people who may need to travel with the Taoiseach or the President. However, it has not caused significant problems.
What is the capacity of the Government jet?
Eight. It is normally five persons, plus crew.
I note a significant reduction of almost 23% in subhead A10 - military transport. Is there a reason for this?
This subhead provides for the purchase of vehicles and the maintenance of the Defence Forces transport fleet and fuel costs. The breakdown is: purchase of vehicles, tools, equipment, €300,000; maintenance of non-armoured vehicles, €2.4 million; maintenance of armoured vehicles, €2.3 million; fuel and lubricants, €3.7 million. The difference is that there is no purchase of vehicles of any value planned for this year which explains the reduction. I suspect the fuel bill is the same as it was in previous years.
We will move on to subhead A11 - Naval Service vessels, equipment and support.
I commend the Department for securing a very good deal in the commissioning of new vessels. Obviously, we have an enormous area to patrol and the Navy does terrific work in difficult conditions. Having the most modern fleet possible is very important. When committee members visited Haulbowline, they had a spin on one of the Navy’s vessels.
In excess of over €150 million will be spent on the Navy’s vessels for several years, but we seem to be scoffing at the possibility of purchasing a ministerial jet simply because it is a different service being provided. I appreciate the politics of it, but that is my personal view. That is the comparison I would like to draw.
The Naval Service is doing a completely different job and there is a necessity to do it. There are other means of transport for Ministers and, in particular, the President. I find it strange, however, that when President Higgins goes to the United States he will be flying business or first class in a commercial airline. I do not know what is the norm internationally. This probably is the norm for countries of our size. I wish to draw that comparison.
I know the second vessel has been named, is there any light at the end of the tunnel in respect of the third vessel? One of our colleagues suggested that we should find a suitable woman's name. I was not able to think of any literary giants-----
We could get into a long debate.
The LE Maeve Binchy?
Most of our fleet are named after women from the LE Niamh and LE Róisín to the LE Ciara, which has now been decommissioned. Traditionally our Naval Service vessels had been named after Irish females and in some cases mythical names. My predecessor, Deputy Alan Shatter, decided to use names that would help to improve the ambassadorial role that naval vessels have when they are abroad so that people would associate Ireland with people and things that Irish people are proud of, one of those areas being literary names. That is why we have the LE James Joyce and LE Samuel Beckett. There is no final decision yet on the name of the third vessel. The Deputy will have to wait and see.
The figure of minus 36% looks like a big reduction on last year but it is a really significant increase on the years prior to that. The figure last year was to take account of the €70 million spent on a new ship. This year €34 million is being spent on the new ship. Back in the years 2012 and 2013, the total figure would have been in the range of €33 million to €35 million. This is actually still €10 million more than would normally be spent on naval equipment. We are delivering on the commitment to have three new offshore patrol vessels, which is a significant addition.
There will be opportunities for the Naval Reserve to gain more training. Have we considered increasing their number?
We will deal with subhead A12 - Barrack Expenses and Engineering Equipment. This subhead provides for utilities-related expenditure together with expenditure on engineering equipment, furniture and bedding, cleaning equipment and printing, binding and stationery services.
This figure is more or less the same as last year. It is a roll-over.
Is there a breakdown between the utilities expenditure and expenditure on engineering equipment, furniture and bedding and so?
Yes, the provision for utilities, electricity, gas and so on is €10.7 million; furniture, bedding, utensils is €900,000; cleaning equipment and tools is €1.1 million; engineering equipment is €500,000; office equipment and related supplies is €20,000; printing, binding and stationery services is €300,000, making a total of €13.5 million.
Subhead A13 - Defence Forces Built Infrastructure: Construction and Maintenance provides for new building works and the maintenance of existing buildings.
We are doing some refurbishment that we could not afford to do in the past few years.
On Casement Aerodrome, the barracks.
We come to Subhead A14 - Defence Forces Uniforms, Clothing, Equipment and Catering.
Again there is a slight increase under this heading. There was some commentary on Defence Forces uniforms during the year by PDFORRA. We undertook a rigorous examination. I have been told in no uncertain terms by the Chief of Staff that there is no issue with the availability of uniforms. There is a slight increase in this subhead on both the outturn and the Estimate for last year.
On subhead A15 - Defence Forces Communication and Information Technology, there has been no major change in that subhead.
It is more or less a roll-over.
Subhead A16 - Military Education and Training is more of the same. There is no major change and there is provision for career advancement and leadership appointments.
The allocation under subhead A17 - Defence Forces Logistics and Travel is 5% above the allocation in 2014. Were there pressures in 2014 that needed to be addressed?
The annual travel plans are developed based on anticipated operational training and overseas commitments. It can be demand led. I suspect the figure was up slightly in 2014 because there was extra travel back and forth to New York because of what was happening in the Golan Heights. Certainly I was there and I would not otherwise have been in New York.
Under subhead A18 - Defence Forces Medical and Health Care Support, there do not appear to be too many changes.
The Estimate is more or less the same as the outturn from last year.
Subhead A19 provides for the maintenance of military lands and the renting of lands and premises for the Defence Forces and the figure is down on last year.
It is down somewhat because we are offloading some of the properties we no longer have a strategic use for, mainly to other State agencies, local authorities or to the Garda Síochána. It would be expected that the Estimate would be down slightly.
Subhead A20 provides for equitation and the purchase and-or lease of horses for the Army Equitation School, the feeding and maintenance of horses and the cost of attendance at horse shows. The figure seems to be slightly down on before but it is a very important area. The committee members might like to visit the equitation school at some stage.
In this subhead it is important to note that the figure is being recorded as a reduction but it is actually the same Estimate as last year. If the expenditure goes slightly above we will deal with it. Anyone who has not visited the Army Equitation School should do so, it is really impressive and is not just for people who are interested in horses. For me this is a really important connection with the Defence Forces from an historic point of view. I would like to see the Army Equitation School involved in broader sport horse promotion . We are working on ways in which that can be done.
I have visited it in the past and we plan to go there in the future.
Subhead A21 provides for litigation and compensation costs, compensation for damage or injury arising from traffic accidents involving military vehicles and provides for the payment of settlements, awards and legal costs. The Estimate seems to be up on last year's figure.
This is an Estimate. We cannot know what will come down the tracks, but we have to have a budget for it.
What was the difference between the Estimate and the outturn last year?
Last year the Estimate was €5 million and the expenditure was €4.24 million. We have the same Estimate this year.
Subhead A22 - Miscellaneous Expenditure provides for a range of miscellaneous items, such as the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre, which we have visited and were impressed by the good work it does, the military service pensions collection project, the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. Is the Estimate up this year?
The Estimate this year is the same as the Estimate last year. The expenditure was a bit less, but we are just being prudent.
Subhead A23 provides for Ireland's participation in the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy. The Estimate is slightly up on the provisional outturn for 2014.
This Estimate is slightly higher than it was last year. Again we are anticipating a slight increase in activity.
Subhead A24 provides for Civil Defence and the Estimate seems to be down quite a bit on other years.
It is the same Estimate as last year but the outturn last year was slightly higher. Most of this money goes to local authorities because the Civil Defence works closely with the local authorities in their area. We cover the cost of 70% of that work.
Finally, subhead A25 provides for a grant towards the running costs of the Irish Red Cross Society.
That is the same as last year and the outturn was the same as well.
There was no change.
We will now deal with subhead B - Appropriation-in-Aid. This subhead comprises moneys received by the Defence Forces. The Estimate seems to be down a good deal.
Are bank escort duties no longer being performed?
In the 2015 Estimates receipts from banks for cash-in-transit escorts have been reduced to €6.8 million from €8.1 million in 2014.
Are there final comments?
I thank the committee for giving me the opportunity to discuss the Revised Estimates. If there are further developments in southern Lebanon or on the Golan Heights on which members require to be briefed, they are free to contact my office directly. We will try to be as open as possible.
That concludes the select committee's consideration of the Revised Estimates for Vote 35 - Army pensions and Vote 36 - Defence. I thank the Minister and his officials for their attendance and assistance in our consideration of the Revised Estimates.