We are now in session to discuss Votes 36 and 37 for the Department of Defence. I ask the Minister to make his presentation.
Estimates for Public Services, 2000.
Vote 36 - Defence (Revised).
Vote 37 - Army Pensions (Revised).
I am pleased to put before the select committee the Defence and Army Pensions Estimates for 2000. I look forward to a constructive and worthwhile debate on these Estimates which constitute a substantial amount of Exchequer funds, a total of £608 million.
As the select committee will be aware, the first White Paper on Defence was published earlier this year. The White Paper sets out a comprehensive strategy for the management and development of defence for the next decade. This strategy includes a major new £250 million investment programme in equipment and infrastructure. This will ensure we have a modern and sustainable defence organisation with the depth and flexibility to respond to future demands.
As regards the Defence Forces, the broad goals of the White Paper were to provide a light infantry based force with an appropriate level of all arms capability, to provide sufficient forces and capabilities to meet needs at home and to make a significant contribution abroad, to put in place a more cohesive and better equipped force than exists at present and to provide significant additional resources for equipment and infrastructure broadly within the existing level of financial allocation.
I am glad to be able to tell the select committee that the task of implementing the decisions set out in the White Paper is moving ahead quickly and positively. The most important element of this is the organisation and resourcing of the Defence Forces. In that regard, I recently requested the Chief of Staff to draw up a draft implementation plan for my consideration and approval which will give effect to the organisational elements of the White Paper.
On a point of order, is it possible to get a copy of the Minister's script?
We will circulate it.
I informed the Chief of Staff that I considered it important that the draft plan should adopt the long-term view of the Permanent Defence Force organisation to reflect the ten year timeframe of the White Paper. The new organisation will be based upon an overall PDF strength which will not exceed 10,500 with the option of an additional 250 recruits in training. The implementation plan will provide for the maintenance of existing barracks and will be broadly consistent with the proposals for the reorganisation of the Reserve Defence Force set out in the White Paper.
It has also been decided that an update Defence Forces personnel management plan should be prepared as a matter of priority. This plan will include a continuation of the policy of regular recruitment which is now in place in order to achieve an improved age profile in the Defence Forces. The Chief of Staff will manage recruitment to maintain the 10,500 strength and funding for a recruitment advertising campaign was recently delegated to him. A campaign to recruit an additional 750 personnel, including 130 Naval Service recruits, commenced recently. In addition, a competition to recruit 60 cadets, including 12 Air Corps and 16 Naval Service cadets, is ongoing.
The most important element of the White Paper is the reallocation of substantial resources to improve equipment and infrastructure. I have already announced decisions in relation to major new equipment programmes which are a key element of the White Paper. Air Corps capabilities will be augmented through a special £55 million investment programme over the next three years, with the procurement of new helicopters being given special priority. The Naval Service vessel replacement programme has already commenced. A new state of the art offshore patrol vessel, L.E. Roísín, was delivered in late 1999 at a cost of £22 million. I recently signed a contract for the acquisition of another similar vessel which will be delivered in 2001.
I also announced a multi-million pound investment programme for the Army worth an estimated £25 million over the next three years. The package includes the purchase of light infantry tactical vehicles, modern effective anti-armour weapons, night vision equipment, engineer equipment and medical field equipment. This is in addition to the programme for the acquisition of 40 armoured personnel carriers which are due for delivery by early 2002 at a total cost of £40 million. This equipment will be of considerable benefit to the Army in carrying out its roles at home and overseas.
As regards the provision of living, operational and training accommodation for the Defence Forces, a special reinvestment programme was initiated in 1999 to complement expenditure on the normal range of building and engineering works. The special programme is centred on the Curragh Camp and on Collins Barracks in Cork and is expected to result in the investment of more than £50 million in additional funding in the period to the end of 2003. It is estimated that the combined cost of all new buildings and projects for the upgrading of existing buildings throughout the Defence Forces will exceed £100 million by that date.
Investment of the scale I have outlined confirms that the White Paper represents a serious response by the Government to a sustained case advanced by the military authorities to develop the Defence Forces into a world class military organisation. We have ensured that the funding that this ambitious project will require will be available in the years ahead.
The significant investments which I have outlined for the Air Corps and the Naval Service, will take place against the background of the 1998 Price Waterhouse report which set out a range of recommendations for far more effective and efficient air and sea services. While some of these recommendations could be proceeded with fairly quickly, it was recognised that others would take longer to implement. I am satisfied that the final implementation plans for the Air Corps and the Naval Service will be of a positive nature aimed at ensuring the ongoing development of these services consistent with the needs of the State and the taxpayer.
The White Paper also sets out an overall strategy for the development of the Reserve Defence Force based on the report of a special steering group which I established in January 1998. The group produced its report in September 1999 and the recommendations contained in the report have been accepted as a general basis on which the development of the Reserve Defence Force can proceed. The blueprint for the new Reserve Defence Force will involve replacing An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil with an Army Reserve which will consist of two elements. One element will provide personnel who will integrate with Permanent Defence Force units to bring them up to full operational strength in a contingency situation. Personnel who opt for a period of integrated service will be provided with enhanced military training and career development opportunities, and will be provided with appropriate equipment. The other element will provide the overall Army Reserve, will be organised into three brigades and the personnel will be trained on standard military lines.
The White Paper recognised that a feature of the existing FCA organisation is that it has a countrywide geographical spread which in general will be retained. The full organisational and establishment details of the new reserve force will be determined in the implementation process which will consist of the development of a reserve Defence Force review implementation plan based on the steering group's report.
The implementation of the structural and reorganisation changes will take place over a period of six years. There will be a requirement for the military authorities to consider and recommend detailed proposals for the restructuring of reserve units within each brigade area and such proposals are being drawn up at present. An Slua Muirí will be developed to improve the capacity of members to provide a genuine naval reserve capability based on a revised overall strength of up to 400 personnel.
As a rationalisation measure, the two Dublin based companies of An Slua Muirí will be amalgamated. The Naval Service, in conjunction with the director of reserve forces, will formulate specific proposals to develop an integration role for the reorganised An Slua Muirí, and I am advised by the military authorities that with that in mind a process of briefings and visits to the various companies of An Slua has already commenced.
As a first step in the provision of enhanced resources for reserve training, I am pleased to say that an additional allocation of £1.5 million has been provided under subhead D of the Defence Estimate. This will allow a significant increase in the number of man-days for annual training and full-time courses in the current year. I intend that the allocation for training will be further increased in the years ahead as the reorganisation process develops.
There are at present 873 personnel of the Defence Forces serving with 15 missions under the auspices of the UN, the EU and the OSCE. The recent withdrawal of Israeli forces from South Lebanon has heralded significant developments which will have implications for the future role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. UNIFIL was established in 1978 to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces, restore international peace and security, and assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area.
In terms of UNIFIL troop strength, the UN Secretary General has indicated that the confirmation process may require an increase in strength of the force. Also, arising from a formal request from United Nations headquarters for an increase from four to eight in the number of armoured cars in the Irish battalion, an additional four Panhard AML 90s are on their way by sea and are due to arrive in the mission area later this week. UNIFIL proposes to supply the battalion with an additional five armoured personnel carriers to meet their patrol tasking. The military authorities estimated that this extra equipment would result in the need for 50 additional personnel to provide crews and maintenance for vehicles.
Last week, the Government gave authority to deploy the 50 additional personnel with the 87th Infantry Battalion in UNIFIL until the end of its tour of duty in October 2000. Furthermore, should the exigencies of the operational situation on the ground so require, an engineer party comprising 60 personnel, together with necessary equipment to undertake essential construction work in the IRISHBATT area of operations, will also he assigned. Such deployment will only take place on receipt of satisfactory assurances concerning the safety of the UNIFIL mission. The safety of our personnel is of paramount importance at all times and in that regard I am monitoring very closely the situation in Lebanon. At this juncture I would like to take the opportunity, once again, to acknowledge the contribution the Defence Forces make to Irish society. As a nation we take pride in the excellent work carried out by the Defence Forces at home and overseas.
Following the ratification of the Amsterdam Treaty, the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy will encompass a new role for the EU in the fields of peacekeeping and the prevention and management of international crises through the inclusion in the treaty of the Petersberg Tasks. The Petersberg Tasks include humanitarian and rescue tasks and peacekeeping tasks. EU member states which are not members of any military alliance, including Ireland, will be entitled to participate in such missions on a case by case basis if they so wish. The question of what contribution Ireland can make will be considered in the context of this process, taking account of the voluntary nature of peacekeeping tasks, current overseas commitments and security requirements at home.
Ireland joined Partnership for Peace on 1 December 1999. Our proposed participation in PfP activities is set out in the presentation document which was presented to the NATO secretariat upon signature by Ireland of the PfP framework document on 1 December 1999. In consultation with the NATO secretariat, an individual partnership programme will shortly be developed which will cover a two year period initially and which will set out the level and extent of proposed participation in such areas as co-operation in peacekeeping principles, doctrine, training and exercises and inter-operability in peacekeeping operations. This two year programme will be developed having regard to the State's own requirements in relation to the roles of the Defence Forces as set out in the White Paper and taking account obviously of resource implications.
I now turn to the sale of Army barracks. On 15 July 1998 the Government approved a programme of evacuation and sale of six barracks which were considered surplus to military requirements. The barracks in question are located at Fermoy, Ballincollig, Naas, Kildare, Castleblayney and Clancy barracks, Dublin. Five of the barracks have been vacated by the Defence Forces while the sixth - Clancy Barracks - will be vacated later this year.
Fitzgerald Camp, Fermoy, is being sold to Cork County Council for economic development of the site in conjunction with the IDA. The agreed price is £767,000. The lands will be developed and marketed as a strategic industrial site to attract inward investment. This development will greatly assist in the continuing revitalisation of Fermoy and will enhance its potential for future industrial development.
With regard to Ballincollig, the independent consultants appointed to draw up an integrated area action plan for the former barracks undertook a rigorous process of public consultation as part of their commission. The integrated plan for the property has been completed and provides for a wide range of community, amenity, residential and commercial uses in the future development of this substantial property. My Department has submitted the integrated plan to Cork County Council for consideration in the context of a variation to the existing Cork county development plan. The property will be put on the market following its adoption into the Cork county development plan.
As regards Devoy Barracks, Naas, agreement has been reached between my Department and Naas Urban District Council on the transfer of part of the property to the council for local purposes. The balance of the property has been rezoned for housing in line with the development plan for Naas UDC, which was adopted on 29 May 1999. Following a public tender process, a selling agent was recently appointed to undertake the sale of the property which will proceed as soon as possible.
The vacated Magee Barracks, Kildare, has been used to accommodate Kosovar refugees since May of last year. The arrangements in relation to the Kosovars will be reviewed in the near future. Provision is now also being made for the accommodation of asylum seekers at that site. I did not anticipate the problems that have arisen as far as the housing of asylum seekers is concerned. I appreciate the co-operation of the local community and the public representatives in Kildare, notwithstanding their disappointment, and mine, that we were unable to proceed with the area action plan. However, there is a wider national obligation to the Kosovars and the asylum seekers. I intend to keep the matter under review and I will keep the local representatives informed.
In relation to Castleblayney, it has been decided to sell the site to the North Eastern Health Board for £600,000. Pending completion of the legal and financial formalities, a caretaker's agreement has been completed between the North Eastern Health Board and my Department and the former barracks was handed over to the board on 9 February 2000 on foot of this agreement. It is envisaged that the child care project proposed by the health board for the site will provide for 45 permanent appointments and a sum in excess of £1 million will be invested on the provision of the necessary facilities. In addition, the annual revenue to the town is estimated at in the region of £1.2 million.
Proposed development of the site by the health board includes a gymnasium, an all-weather pitch and a swimming pool. I understand that these facilities will be made available to the local community when not in use for child care purposes. In total, it is expected that in excess of £50 million will be raised from the sale of the properties. The moneys raised will mainly be used for the provision of new accommodation and facilities for the Defence Forces.
I take this opportunity to update the committee in regard to the hearing loss compensation claims. Deputies will be well aware already of the huge burden in terms of costs and resource that Army hearing loss litigation has been for my Department, the Defence Forces and the legal system. They will also be aware of my long-standing intention to remove these claims from the courts and to dispose of them for amounts of compensation which are fair to both the taxpayer and theplaintiffs. To date, over 15,000 claims have been received, of which approximately 5,600 claims have been dealt with at a total cost, including plaintiffs legal costs, of £112.5 million. However, the average quantum of damages for which claims have been settling is now less that £8,000 per claim, reduced from an average of over £30,000 per claim in 1996. New claims are still being received at an average of about 60 per month.
Since the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Hanley case which was delivered on 7 December 1999, it is now possible to establish a mechanism whereby the 9,400 outstanding claims may be removed from the courts. In order to establish such a mechanism, meetings have taken place on 3 February and 1 March 2000 between officials of my Department, the Chief State Solicitor's office and representatives of plaintiffs solicitors. These meetings were convened with the assistance of the Law Society which also chaired the meetings. As a result of the meetings, it was agreed that Army hearing loss claims which were due to come before the High Court in Dublin during the Easter court term which commenced on 4 May 2000 might be adjourned. This adjournment was granted by Mr. Justice Johnson on 14 April 2000. Similar adjournments were also granted in Kilkenny, Limerick and Dundalk.
The adjournment of court cases has provided the State with the opportunity of establishing a system on a pilot basis whereby offers of settlement can be made to plaintiffs solicitors based on the terms laid out in the Hanley Supreme Court judgment. If the exercise is successful, it will mean the relatively speedy disposal of claims with reduced levels of expenditure on legal costs. The progress of the pilot exercise will be the subject of a review by my Department, the Chief State Solicitor's office and the representative group of plaintiffs solicitors in the very near future following which I am hopeful that the pilot exercise can be extended.
Civil Defence this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of its foundation. A number of special events are planned to mark the occasion and a special allocation of £500,000 is included under subhead W of the Defence Estimate. Civil Defence is important for a number of reasons but to me a key reason is that it provides a unique opportunity for people to give voluntary service in their own communities. I wish to express my appreciation and that of the Government for the significant contribution which Civil Defence volunteers make to their local communities.
As outlined in the White Paper the Government has decided that the Civil Defence mission should continue to facilitate, through the local authorities, Civil Defence responses for emergency relief and support to ensure the operation of vital services and the maintenance of public life and to provide other community supports as directed by the Government. Civil Defence will continue to focus its efforts on enhancing its capacity to respond to emergencies as a high-quality second line service while also facilitating community support activities. The voluntary ethos of the organisation will be preserved, the training given to Civil Defence members will continue to be revised and updated in line with best practice and equipment and infrastructure needs will be addressed.
Details of the Defence and Army Pension Estimates have been circulated to Members of the committee. I do not propose, therefore, to make any further comment on individual subheads at this stage but I will be pleased to answer any queries and assist the committee in any way I can in its consideration of these Estimates.
I thank the Minister for his speech and the work he has done during the year. By any stretch of the imagination, the last year has been a dramatic one for the Defence Forces. For an organisation that never was nor sought centre stage, the advent of the debate on our proposed entry into Partnership for Peace and the events surrounding the final days of the White Paper, allied to the ongoing compensation difficulty, certainly placed a spotlight on one of the institutions of the State which has, for so long, been taken for granted.
While it is not my intention to rake over old coals or, to quote the Minister on 29 February last, "the same tired old admonishments", it would be remiss of me if I did not briefly refer to the difficulties surrounding these events. We should have joined Partnership for Peace at the initiation stage, however, it would appear that the then rainbow Government was ever so slightly divided on the matter. This was an influence that, out of proportion to its representation, would also dilute the approach of the Labour Party at a later stage.
Much misinformation and scaremongering was offered at the time of the PfP debate and many commentators expressed the view that it was regrettable that there was not a wider discussion on the issue. Many people sought to raise the issue over a few short years but they were never given copy or recognition. The Minister's party insisted on creating this field of uncertainty with the irresponsible approach adopted by the Taoiseach when in Opposition. His contribution was often quoted by those opposed to entry. However, we have joined and the sky has not fallen.
During the final stages of the White Paper there was much controversy and I noted from the Minister's contributions and demeanour that he took it personally. Maybe he knew more than we did. I do not know if the campaign really helped anybody but it was not desirable that the Minister for Defence and his officials were lined up against the members of the Defence Forces as both sides sought to out do the other in terms of public relations. We may now have relative harmony and that is as it should be.
I realise the deafness compensation issue is at a cross-roads and I welcome the apparent downturn in the awards. Notwithstanding that, however, there should be an internal inquiry of sorts to see exactly what went wrong. Was the necessary medical information available at the time? If so, why was it not acted upon? Was the approach adopted systematic of Irish society during that period?
Following almost ten years of review, the Defence (Amendment) Act, 1998, and the White Paper have sought to address the many issues raised and while we may not all agree on the detail, it is time the Defence Forces had parameters within which to work. It is desirable that there is a move away from an almost total and internal focus on change as other matters were pushed to the background. This has left the forces in a state of stagnation and it is imperative that they now move on.
An unfortunate aspect of the military approach down the years was that during ministerial visits or conversations with the Minister, the military authorities always sought to put the best side as opposed to letting the Minister see things as they were. I imagine this was an almost unique approach and, ultimately, it resulted in badly needed funding for accommodation and facilities not coming on stream. I remember having whip-arounds to buy paint to gloss over items for a ministerial visit
The Deputy is reminding me of home as well.
For the mother-in-law's visit.
I have often quoted the case of Spike Island. Following the withdrawal of the Naval Service, it had to be upgraded to house prisoners. Bearing this in mind and the fact several barracks are in a very poor condition, it is most disappointing that subhead L vis-à-vis buildings shows a downturn in the Estimate of 9%, notwithstanding the fact we have fewer barracks to maintain. Working and living conditions are just about tolerable and would be unacceptable to many other Departments.
Our overseas commitment is now at a cross-roads and while our numbers in the Lebanon have increased in the short-term it would appear that in the near future we may withdraw. Overseas service is the life blood of the Defence Forces and a continuous large scale contribution for over 20 years should not be allowed to be scaled down.
We have a glossy strategy statement for 1998-2000 and the White Paper, albeit with some short comings. This Government's commitment can be measured by the funding for defence. I realise that competition with health and education can be difficult but bearing in mind the current economic climate, greater funding is required to bring the Defence Forces to the starting line. I am not so sure that, despite the utterances of the Minister, this Government is committed.
I acknowledge the great sadness caused to many families as a result of the Air Corps crash in Tramore and the UN accident en route to Beirut. Again, I extend my sympathy and that of my party to those families. I will deal with other issues raised in the Minister's speech and the Estimates later.
I appreciate this opportunity to discuss a number of items in relation to the Department of Defence and the relevant bodies. The Minister spoke about the hearing loss compensation problem and I am pleased we are progressing in that regard. Anyone from a constituency in which there is a high percentage of Defence Forces members will know it is a constant item on the agenda when one meets them. I hope this pilot proposal will come into operation as soon as possible. It would alleviate many of the problems and concerns of these people regarding their cases.
Two years ago I complimented the Minister on developments at Orchard Park. I am delighted to see it has come to fruition. A number of cases are outstanding. I have spoken to the Minister on this and I understand the Department is trying to put a methodology in place that will allow the people involved to purchase the final houses. This issue has been outstanding since long before I first became a Member of the Oireachtas in 1992. I know that people in Orchard Park and their families are greatly indebted to the Minister and the Department for reaching this stage. I trust the effort he is making to ensure that the problems associated with the outstanding 12 cases will be overcome, whether it be through shared ownership or an annuity loan from the council. I hope matters will be finalised in that regard.
There are two barracks in County Kildare. The local authority has taken over a part of Devoy Barracks in Naas. I understand it is seeking to provide housing and sites for affordable housing. That is of major importance to the Naas area. The arrangement between the Department, the local authority and the Naas UDC should be completed as a matter of urgency because of the demand for housing in the County Kildare area, especially around Naas. Anything that assists the provision of affordable housing should be done urgently.
The Minister mentioned the loss of life among members of the Defence Forces and the Air Corps. I recently raised this with him. I am pleased to note that the Secretary General of the Department has said action has been taken on the problems I mentioned. I hope every effort will be made to alleviate them. It is only now that the trauma of what happened is affecting the families concerned. The families who have approached me are in great distress. Given the loss they have suffered, they need more help. I compliment the Department and the Army personnel on their efforts. It was a major undertaking to deal with all the problems involved and it was done in a compassionate way. I have no doubt that another visit will be made to the families to help them overcome their trauma.
The protection of members of the Defence Forces on overseas duties is of paramount importance. The Minister has said he will keep the matter under ongoing review. It is imperative to put it high on the agenda with regard to PR work for the sake of the families of members who are overseas. We hear of shelling in south Lebanon and in other trouble spots of the world on a daily basis. Any measures that can relieve the worry and concern of family members should be taken.
The issue of retired members of the Defence Forces has been raised with me on a number of occasions. There is provision for retired personnel in Galway and Dublin in that the United Nations Retirement Group has provided facilities for members. There does not appear to be any such facility in County Kildare. When I last raised this with the Minster he said the Department would not become involved, but would support such an initiative. I hope a proposal will be made in the short-term and I ask the Minister to ensure that while the Department will not be fully involved, it will provide support.
The Minister and I have discussed the problem of McGee Barracks in County Kildare. The local people believed the development of the barracks as part of an integrated area plan would continue, despite the fact that some of the land has to be designated for asylum seekers. I have attended numerous meetings on this matter in County Kildare and I understand we have overcome the major problems and are now at the position where the area in question is designated. Meetings have been held to ensure that asylum seekers will be assisted in every way with regard to schooling and other matters. A meeting involving many of the local bodies was held on this last Thursday night.
The integrated plan should now go ahead and decisions made regarding this piece of land will not interfere with that. The original plan was in respect of 60 acres; it will now cover 54 acres. The Minister should look at that and again become involved with the local authorities. People in the area were very disappointed with what happened. Everything will be done to assist the Minister in the facilitation of asylum seekers. There is no problem with that, but the integrated plan for the area should proceed in tandem with the presence of the asylum seekers. I have no doubt that the chamber of commerce, the local residents' association and others will assist the Minister in initiating plans to ensure that this happens. That was the view expressed when we visited the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue. He indicated that an agreement would be reached between his Department and the Department of Defence and that the integrated plan would continue to proceed without interference.
The Department must have a commitment to apprentices - I am not referring to the apprenticeship school - and should become involved with FÁS in the provision of apprenticeships in a number of trades. That should be part of its brief. We are losing out in making Ireland a nation of craftsmen and tradesmen. Each Department should have a responsibility to provide apprenticeships in whatever trades with which it is concerned. The Department of Defence is one of the most likely Departments to be involved in this area, given the range of agencies it covers. There is a need to look at that.
With regard to the development of the barracks, I am pleased to note that many of the eyesores on the Curragh have been removed. We are moving in the right direction, albeit at a slow pace. However, it is helping to resolve the problems people had. Perhaps at least one of those buildings could be refurbished for the use of retired members of the Defence Forces. The problems regarding Eircom Park have been brought to my attention on numerous occasions. The Department of Defence is hedging when it comes to supplying definitive answers to the FAI to ensure that Eircom Park goes ahead and meets its deadlines. Eircom Park will be a national stadium. The FAI is entitled to a national stadium like any other national sporting organisation. I realise there was a meeting on it yesterday, but there is another report being requested from the FAI and it will cost a great deal of money. The safety aspect is of paramount importance not only to the Department of Defence but to the FAI and everybody else involved in any such projects, but delaying tactics are being employed. I would ask that the Department of Defence do everything possible to meet on an ongoing basis with the FAI to ensure a speedy decision in this application.
I am sure there will be other issues arising during the examination of the Estimate and I will address them when we come to them.
Do you wish to respond to the points made already, Minister? Do you wish to take the subheads in sequence or do you wish to take the issues as they arise? I will be guided by whatever you decide.
We normally take the Estimates and try to embrace as many of the questions as possible as we move through them to avoid duplication. If, at the end of all that, there is something else which has not been attended to or which somebody wishes to raise and there is time for it, I will be happy to address it.
First we will take subheads A1 to A7 - administration - of Vote 36.
On departmental staff, questions have been raised in the past about the number of staff tied up in the administration of the deafness compensation claims. If that peters out, how does the Minister see those staff being redeployed? Has he plans to decentralise sections, civilian or military, of his Department? Perhaps he is not in a position to answer. I am aware that there are already two sections, training and Civil Defence, involved but are other sections involved?
While each Department is at the early stages of presenting to the Minister for Finance the areas which might present possibilities for further decentralisation, it would be fair to say that the Department of Defence must focus on participating to an even greater extent in the decentralisation programme. It is not clear yet how that will pan out, but we will do all we can to meet the Government's requirements for a fairly extensive decentralisation programme and every Department must focus on that as much as possible. The Department has already, as the Deputy will be aware, 180 in Galway and we will be transferring Civil Defence to Roscrea and 30 from two directorates to Clonmel.
As far as the staff engaged on the hearing loss claims are concerned, we would not envisage any change in their work for a considerable time. We will assume, for instance, that the pilot scheme works, we will get agreement from the plaintiff solicitors and we will continue to reduce the legal costs. Each case still must be dealt with on the basis of its own particular audiogram and case history. Therefore, it will probably be well into the middle of 2001 before I am able to see beyond where we are at present in terms of dealing with almost 10,000 outstanding claims and with claims still coming in at the rate of 60 per month. There is still a sizeable chunk of work to be done. When that is all out of the way there will be an opportunity for the Department to review the work of those personnel participating in that as to whether they will remain in the Department of Defence at other activities or, in the light of the decentralisation programme, where and what type of work would be envisaged subsequently. It is just too early to say.
In the context of staff, the Department wants to respond in every way possible to the trauma where individual families suffer fatalities in the exercise of their duties with the UN or wherever. There has been an especially traumatic circumstance, as far as Deputy Wall's county is concerned, and we will make sure that the best counselling is available to families on a fairly extended continual basis.
What progress is being made on the move of the Civil Defence to Roscrea? Is it part of the overall decentralisation programme or is it a separate issue? The Minister mentioned the move of two directorates to Clonmel also. Would he give some indication of the detail in that regard?
On consultancy services, subhead A7, have consultants been engaged for the SMI; and if so, who are they?
No. The Department has not engaged consultants and we would do so sparingly. If the need arises, there is some provision made which would enable us to call on such specialist services.
The inspection has already taken place in Kickham Barracks, Clonmel, with a view to deciding what part of the premises must be refurbished to take account of the directorates of training and reserves which it was agreed would be decentralised to that centre. I hope to take the opportunity to have a look at it also in order that there would be a speedy transfer. My aim would be to ensure that the transfer will be executed by the end of this year.
On the move of the Civil Defence to Roscrea, a premises has been inspected which is not entirely suitable but may be capable of being refurbished in the interim before a bigger premises can be built or provided. The same will apply there; we would try to make sure that that is executed before the end of this year.
What discussion or examination was there in deciding that Roscrea should be the centre for decentralisation of the Civil Defence as against other towns in the State?
It forms part of a much wider decentralisation programme. Almost every town in Ireland would have a case to make for decentralisation. The rate of unemployment in the midlands is higher than the average and it is further from the seaports and airports in terms of industrial development. To date, decentralisation to places like Nenagh has been tremendously successful. Roscrea is geographically very central. It just happens to be in the Minister's constituency also - I would say that did not do it any harm.
Were other centres examined to see whether they would more suitable?
There has always been a clash of the ash between Cork and Tipperary but I would not begrudge any town in Cork which would be successful in the decentralisation process. I hope Deputy Stanton will be successful in the same way as I have been, but I certainly would not begrudge it to him.
I hope the Minister does not forget Athy in the decentralisation.
On subhead A3, staff training and development, the outturn in 1999 was £99,000 and the Estimate for this year is even less. Why is the Estimate reduced in 2000?
The Department has a rigorous training programme which is fairly consistent. As the Deputy will note, the difference involved is slight. Like any business, there can be a slight variation from one year to another depending on the type of courses undertaken, the expense associated with them, the need for personnel in that regard and the equipment which must be purchased for it. I assure Members that the ongoing training programme for the Defence Forces will continue to offer a consistently high level of training. In addition, we must ensure that we are in a position to meet the requirements set out in the strategic management initiative in respect of improving performance and efficiency. We will do everything possible to ensure that staff are provided with the necessary training to permit them to carry out their work.
I wish to return to the question of decentralising the Civil Defence. The Minister for Finance stated recently that an overall decision would be made by the Cabinet in respect of the decentralisation of Government Departments and offices. He indicated that he expects to be in a position to announce the details of this decision by the end of July. Am I correct in assuming that the Minister for Defence is ahead of the posse and that the decentralisation of the Civil Defence is separate to the overall decentralisation scheme which will be announced by the Minister for Finance in July?
The decentralisation of the Civil Defence forms part of the overall scheme, it was included in the White Paper process and it was approved by the Government. It is not the case that we are ahead of the posse but, as the Deputy will be aware, a considerable period is needed to prepare for decentralisation and certain steps must be taken in advance. For example, accommodation must be provided and refurbishment works carried out. In the case of the Civil Defence, there is also a need to ensure that training exercises are ongoing in order that the organisation can continue to perform at the highest level. However, we are only one or two months ahead of other Departments in terms of our preparation for decentralisation.
Are there any further questions on those subheads? If not, we will proceed to subheads B to F, Defence Forces Pay.
I congratulate the Minister on increasing the overseas allowance. That increase is long overdue.
My predecessor left me with a great deal of work to do.
The Minister should accept credit when it is being offered. If he does not provoke Members, we will conclude our deliberations in a speedy manner.
The Minister was fortunate that, on entering office, there was money available for him to spend.
Perhaps it is the case of this increase, like the budget, being too little too late. Does subhead F.3, Professional Consultants' and Specialists' fees, refer to medical personnel?
Does the Minister not agree that it would be better for the Defence Forces to recruit additional full-time doctors as opposed to employing them on a temporary basis?
The Deputy is correct that the subhead makes provision for specialist care to military personnel, primarily in the medical area. We advertised on a number of occasions last year to recruit specialist medical personnel and, following a long process, only one applicant remained in the running. There are a variety of opportunities on offer to those in the medical profession at present and many newly qualified young medical personnel are taking employment in foreign countries in order to gain experience. Other institutions may be experiencing difficulties similar to those we have encountered in trying to recruit such personnel.
The funds allocated under this subhead are used to acquire the services of medical consultants and specialists in situations where such services cannot be provided by the medical personnel employed by the Defence Forces. However, there will be a need to keep this matter under constant review and we will continue to try to recruit new medical personnel. The number of medical personnel supporting our detachment of troops on the UN mission to East Timor has been increased because those troops are stationed long distances from hospitals and the transport available is poor. It is important that troops serving on UN duty are provided with adequate medical services, but the need to dispatch additional medical personnel has a detrimental effect on the provision of medical services to troops stationed at home. We will give further consideration to this matter.
I thank the Minister for that.
With regard to the military allowance payment due to retired members of the Defence Forces——
Is the Deputy referring to the MSA, the military service allowance?
Yes. What is the current position in respect of that allowance? The reply to the most recent parliamentary question I tabled in respect of this matter indicated that a decision on payment had almost been reached.
This has been a bone of contention with many retired people from the public service, across the spectrum. I recall meeting local authority and forestry officials. The commission is exercising its mind on how this matter could be addressed. I hope that it will make a presentation to the Government in the near future. The allocation in the Estimate is between £4 million or £5 million but it cannot be provided for one area without doing so across the other areas where there is a problem. It has been resisted by successive Government's because of the overall cost implications. The time of retirement dictates what follows thereafter but nonetheless there is an anxiety to try to address it and we await the commission's report.
Subhead B is Defence Forces pay. Is it possible to get a breakdown of pay for the three elements, Army, Navy and Air Corps? Will the Minister comment on the future of the nursing service? There was speculation last year that it was being examined with a view to making some changes. Are changes under consideration? Does the uniform allowance for officers and senior NCOs under subhead C cover the full cost of uniforms? Is there a need to increase it? My understanding is that many extra costs are involved in providing uniforms and so on.
I am pleased that the overseas allowance has been increased. That was long overdue because the stresses and trauma caused to families, which the Minster has acknowledged, by the posting of naval personnel overseas for extended periods is horrific in some ways. I know we have discussed this previously, but is there any way to help such personnel so that they are not away from their families for extended periods? The aim is to reduce such periods. What progress has been made? I wish to raise one other issue later.
On that subhead, I appreciate that the overseas allowance have been increased. As the Minister will be aware, members of the committee visited troops in the Lebanon last year and that was one of the issues, albeit a minor one, that was raised with us. It means a great deal to the people working there that at least their work is acknowledged regularly at home. Putting our money where our mouths are is very much appreciated. On behalf of those who raised the issue with us, I thank the Minister.
We are resumed in public session. We were dealing with subheads B to F.
I may have been a little mixed up earlier when I mentioned subhead C and overseas allowances. I understand there is a seagoing allowance for the Naval Service. Will the Minister outline the position in that regard? Has it been increased?
I note from the Minister's introductory remarks that he plans to make changes in the reserves by creating two distinct entities involving an integrated reserve and another unit. Will he outline when that might start to take place on the ground? Will the FCA be stood down at some stage and cease to exist? Does the Minister have any plans to mark such an occasion? The FCA has been in existence for many years and it has given much service to the State. If he plans to mark such an occasion, when might that take place and what type of expenditure might be involved? There have been suggestions that serving members might get a certificate, token or medal. In the context of expenditure and pay, are these plans included in the 2000 Estimates or will they be included the following year?
How will the two new separate sections of the reserve be financed? What is the position with regard to unit funds? What type of structure will be set up to deal with the two separate entities and An Slua Muirí which will also be involved in its new form? Will current members of the FCA and An Slua Muirí have to undergo some form of physical fitness tests or medical examinations to continue serving? Will there be changes in the age structure? Will this impact on the Estimates for next year in any way?
It would be useful if the Minister clarified the position in relation to those general queries and the amount of money being spent. I am glad the amount has increased to £6 million and that the number of days for training will also be increased. Does this mean every member must undergo two weeks training or will there be some form of selection of people to receive extra training? Will there be a limit on the training people receive? Will it only involve two weeks or will some people receive additional training as occurred in the past? Are there any proposals with regard to the 2000 Estimates or future Estimates for the reserve to serve overseas? What type of expenditure would be involved in that regard?
Regarding the distinction between the various salary elements, the Army accounts for 83%, which is £220 million, the Naval Service accounts for 8% or £21 million and the Air Corps accounts for 9%, which is £24 million. These are approximate figures but they are reasonably accurate. A review is ongoing with regard to the medical services. This will take account of the question raised with regard to the Army nursing service.
It is no secret that we are anxious to streamline these services and that negotiations are ongoing with the Department of Health and Children in relation to St. Bricin's where some spare capacity in the hospital has been renovated to assist with problems associated with the Mater Hospital and stand down services. There is also a possibility that could be extended to a wider remit, but that will be considered in the review.
I am anxious to ensure that the best possible medical services are available for our personnel. This is a primary concern of mine, but there is also the broader question of how the health services develop and what specialist or other supports can be given to ease the problems associated with waiting lists and stand down services. For example, the cost of treatment in the Mater Hospital could be reduced if patients could be moved at a certain stage to other facilities, such as St. Bricin's Hospital. These negotiations are ongoing.
I am anxious to ensure that the best counselling service possible is available. Many soldiers are involved in circumstances where there can be considerable stress. It is most important that this area is addressed. However, there is also the question of leave and telephone allowances. When I was in East Timor I doubled the period to try to accommodate members of the detachment there because they are a long way from home. Telephone calls can be expensive if they are not covered within the allowance.
Professional care must be involved in every aspect of what we do in terms of safety at work, etc. This is becoming a major feature. However, the training in which the Army is engaged is extremely rigorous. Deputy Timmins knows about it. He was not able to stick it. He obviously had to take a much less stressful post, serving the constituents of Wicklow.
Avoca. There is a reference to a messing allowance in one of the subheads. I think the Minister is messing.
It is something we must all consider searchingly in terms of how these matters are addressed. Each individual is different. We know this from our experience of life. We must be able to take account of those features and improve the services. That is what we are continuing to do.
Are the counselling services internal or external?
Are the professional counsellors civilians or are they Defence Forces personnel?
They are Defence Forces personnel who are specially trained. We also avail of external expertise. The Deputy asked a number of questions about the FCA becoming the Army reserve. There will be a stand down ceremony but I have not yet decided what form it will take. It is not that the FCA has completed its work and nothing else is happening. It is a significant change but it involves the same personnel who will remain on in the new reserve. There will be a ceremony and I will decide what form it will take in due course. However, it will not take place for some time because, as I said in the White Paper, we expect the programme to take approximately six years.
The first part will be the implementation plan which will be produced for me. Two elements will be involved. The integrated element will be separate but its training, experience and capacity will be closer to the location of the battalions. It is widely spread and it would not be possible to maintain the number of units I want in remote areas.
It is a voluntary service which is stuck in every coast and corner. We will see what the implementation plan says about it. We are talking about people who have the time, can go and can meet the medical, physical, training and other requirements for integration and overseas commitment. I would like to see it started in a year from now, although it would probably be a small number, particularly as we have difficulties in some specialties.
I have delegated a considerable amount of this work to the Chief of Staff. I also intend to have a number of conferences which will be held in four or five different centres throughout the country so all the FCA members will not have to travel long distances to discuss how this will be fine-tuned for the future. I have already provided an additional £1.5 million this year for a return to the two weeks' training. On the basis of the information given to me, almost everyone who can make themselves available to do the two weeks' training will now have the opportunity to do it. We also have weekend and night training facilities.
We must bear in mind that it will be difficult to continue to keep up the numbers. We must talk to employers and try to ensure that people have an opportunity to do the preparatory work and training. It is a hugely competitive labour market where young people have better opportunities to earn more money. Nonetheless, we will improve the equipment, the clothing, the geographical spread and people's ambition to go overseas. We will see what the implementation plan contains when it is published and it will be introduced on a phased basis over a number of years.
Has the Minister given any consideration to reintroducing payment for weekend or night training to encourage members to become more involved and to keep the numbers up?
One of the features of the changes which have taken place in recent times is that the cadre of Permanent Defence Forces who are involved have moved to weekend and night training because of the pressure for people to get away. I told RDFRA when I was appointed that I was anxious to restore the two weeks' training and it was anxious that would happen because it felt it was necessary. I hope that will be the main part of the training. We are not excluding the potential for night and weekend training to take account of the demands in the labour force.
Is the Minister saying he is contemplating reintroducing the payment for weekend training?
I am not familiar with how these arrangements are made but it needs to be done as fairly as we can within the budgetary arrangements. If people can get away for long weekends, we must take account of any loss of income they may incur. That is a pattern for the future rather than the past.
Is the Minister saying he will look at reintroducing the payment because in the past when FCA members did weekend training they got a gratuity? This helped to encourage younger people in particular, who may have been going to school or college, to give up their time. Many young people can now avail of jobs in shops and other places, so perhaps it is unrealistic to expect them to forego payment in a supermarket to go away for a weekend with the FCA without being paid. It might even cost them money. In order to encourage dedicated young people to become more involved in the integrated reserve force, which the Minister is talking about setting up and which is a good idea, he should introduce a reward for people who spend many hours away from their homes and families at weekends.
We will look at it, although I am anxious to preserve the voluntary ethos.
This was done in the past.
I must also take account of the changing circumstances as far as attracting young people into the force is concerned compared with other competitors. I will try to strike the right balance.
Will the Minister provide facilities for Slua Muirí in the same way as they are provided for the FCA? I have received representations from a person about its development. Will that be included in the proposals the Minister mentioned?
Yes. The Deputy also asked me about support for the provision of premises for veteran soldiers. I was involved in this area when I was Minister for the Environment and we provided approximately £400,000 for a major development in Queen Street. We also introduced the social and voluntary housing scheme which should be used in this area. I also dedicated a premises to the Irish United Nations Veterans Association in Arbour Hill. I have submitted an application in Athlone and I would like to support any other proposals sent to me. I will also consider converting premises we have. I advocate the use of the voluntary housing scheme where 90% of the funds are provided.
Trying to look after people who, for one reason or another, have not done as well as others and their accommodation needs is a priority for us. We are not the first line service in this area but we are involved. As regards Athlone, we have already had an offer which is insubstantial in terms of the value of the property. We have asked to have another look at it and we may come to an agreement.
I asked two questions to which I did not get a response. The first related to the time at sea allowance.
The sea allowance is paid when a person is at sea. It is £27 per day.
What was the overall amount paid last year and what is the estimate for the current year?
It was £1.4 million in 1999 and it will be £1.5 million this year.
The second question related to the uniform allowance. Does it cover the cost of the uniforms, etc.?
I am reliably informed it could leave a person with a few pounds to spare.
A margin for a pair of socks.
As regards subhead H, the increased funding in 2000 is required for the proposed purchase of equipment for fishery protection and for the improvement of training and other facilities. Perhaps the Minister would explain that.
To what is the Deputy referring?
We have finished subhead B.12 and we are now moving on to Subheads G to V.
What equipment has been purchased and what improvements have taken place in training and other facilities? Subhead H states that the increased funding in 2000 is required for the proposed purchase of equipment for fishery protection and for the improvement of training and other facilities.
We are making a down payment on the new ship. We had expected to have this ship commissioned in September 2001 but we were informed in the past week that it will be June 2001. That would form the bulk of it. The ongoing training in Haulbowline for the cadets and the younger members of the Air Corps is a continuing demand on our resources. Considerable investment is made in the facilities and everything else so people are properly trained and ready for a rigourous and demanding job. The primary part of this is for the new ship.
Some of the points I wish to raise were covered by Deputy Wall so there may be no need for the Minister to respond to them. The first point relates to Eircom Park and Baldonnel. I know from being involved in planning in Wicklow that it is very annoying and frustrating if a Government body, such as An Taisce, sends in various submissions on planning applications. They are not very clear about the situation, do not really state what they are at and just tinker at the edges. I am sure the Minister has received many representations about this.
What is the Department of Defence's attitude to Eircom Park? Is it objecting to it? Will it sit down with the FAI to tease out the various problems? That can be clarified quite easily if the will is there. I know there are other outside issues surrounding this statement. However, it is just a technical matter from the Department of Defence's point of view which should be easily addressed. I would appreciate if the Minister could co-operate with the FAI. Will he also give an update on the situation regarding Baldonnel Airport vis-à-vis the civil aspect and any proposed development in that regard?
Are military vehicles liable for the national car test? If so, how are they getting on? The Minister can come back to me on that if he does not have the answer with him. From my recollection, very few of them would pass the test. I do not know how the Minister will cater for that or what the situation is. I do not know if State bodies are exempt from that test.
I support Deputy Wall's point about the buildings for retired members. Many Army buildings are in very poor condition. When I was in the Western Command I was transferred to Kilkenny and I could not get over the condition of Kilkenny barracks. It was like something out of the Boer War in comparison to the barracks in the Western Command. At that time, old married quarters in Galway were done up as offices, for which there was not a huge requirement, at a cost of about £500,000. I am not necessarily blaming the Minister of the day for that. However, the accommodation in Kilkenny was dire and money should have been spent on that in proportion. The situation there was scandalous. I have an affinity with Kilkenny because I was based there for several years. The conditions there are deplorable and something should be done about them.
A lot of money is spent on telecommunication services for normal telephones and faxes. Is the account with Eircom? Has the Department tried to get a better deal from Esat or another company? Has it done an audit on this service?
I know the Minister was carrying out an audit on the disposal of lands to local authorities. When I tried to raise this matter in the Dáil, the Ceann Comhairle said one cannot buy or sell land in the House. I hope the Acting Chairperson, Deputy McGennis, does not cut across me. To be parochial, there is a lot of land in the Glen of Imaal and along the edge of Coolmoney camp which does not interfere with training. I am encouraging the local authority to make a submission to the Minister for some acres for local authority housing for people who cannot afford a site there. If such a submission is made, I ask the Minister to look upon it favourably. I appreciate he is concerned about the danger of eroding the integrity of the military there and that it might cause difficulties down the line. However, they could be facilitated in the camp area rather than the range area.
What is the situation in regard to compensation for post-traumatic stress? Has there been an increase in the number of applications? Does the Minister see any cause for concern in that area?
In regard to equipment, has the investigation into the accident at Kilworth been completed? That has been going on for a couple of years. Is the 60 mm mortar still out of commission? What is the situation in that regard? I am not sure if the report is finished.
I will let Deputy Stanton ask his questions before the Minister replies.
Under subhead J, which covers maintenance of Naval vessels, the amount estimated for this year is more than double what was spent last year. Given that the Minister has told us in the House on a number of occasions that there has been a major haemorrhage of personnel from the engineering branch of the Naval Service, is it envisaged that some of this work will be subcontracted out or is the Minister confident that the Naval Service can cope with the amount of work? He has told us that personnel with a lot of experience and qualifications are continuing to leave the engineering branch of the Naval Service.
I am concerned, as I am sure the Minister is, about the safety aspects. Is it still possible to have engineers on ships at sea or are we coming close to the time when this will no longer be the case? Will the ships be able to sail if they do not have experienced Naval personnel with the necessary engineering qualifications on board? A Naval ship is a bit like a floating town. It has a sewerage plant, electrical generators, cooking facilities and so on. They are highly complex and, in addition, they have military capability. I am quite concerned about this and I ask the Minister to address it in his reply.
Subhead M deals with the ordnance section. I have discussed this with the Minister in the past but it might be easier for him to reply to me in this climate. I am concerned about the design of the uniforms that were purchased, which I notice will be an ongoing purchase next year. Was money spent on the design? I know the disturbed pattern on the uniforms is specialised and that the Irish one is unique. I presume people had to investigate the best design, test it out, get expert opinion and so on because a lot of money was spent on these uniforms. I am sure the Minister and the Department were anxious to get it right. What mechanism was used to come up with this design? According to recent media reports, some of these uniforms cannot be washed with fabric softener. Are there problems with washing these uniforms? We have heard reports from various sources that the dye can run and that the infra-red coating can be removed if they are not treated properly. I understand this infra-red reflective coating is a defensive mechanism in that enemy personnel find it much more difficult to detect people wearing a uniform with this coating. It would be a matter of concern if washing the uniforms in certain ways removed this coating and left the personnel exposed to danger.
Subhead T covers compensation for damage or injury in cases of accidents in which Army vehicles were involved. That figure was over £500,000 last year and will possibly be more this year. How many accidents were involved? Was it one or two major accidents or a plethora of a small ones? What action is being taken to reduce accidents?
What is covered by miscellaneous equipment expenses under subhead U? It is the largest section in subhead U, at £277,000 for the coming year.
Subhead V covers the barrack reinvestment programme. I am pleased to note the Estimate for this year is over six times the amount spent last year. Where will this money be spent?
I will start with the question on the Naval Service. Proposals are currently being formulated by the military authorities for maximising the effectiveness and efficiency of Naval Service ships and ships' companies on patrolling duties. All eight naval vessels are operational and the military authorities advise that current operational commitments are being met.
With regard to staffing levels, there are eight officers and 12 cadets undergoing training for watch keeping certificates. Last January, nine non-commission personnel started a two year course with a view to be commissioned as watch keeping officers. The competition for direct entry to watch keeping officers is under way and an assessment of current applications is nearing conclusion.
There are currently five cadets and four officers undergoing training as marine engineer officers. Proposals for a direct entry competition for a marine engineer officer are currently being considered and are at an advanced stage. The cadet competition for this year is also under way and it is anticipated that 16 Naval Service cadets will be offered posts. Two non-commission personnel were commissioned as Naval Service electrical engineering officers last November. One non-commissioned officer was commissioned in March to fill an information technology appointment. Vacancies which have arisen at non-commission rank are being filled internally by promotion, as are vacancies created in the lower ranks. Consequently, these promotions are being filled by the ongoing recruitment process.
The present policy of ongoing recruitment for enlistment in the Defence Forces, which I have approved, is designed to address the question of any shortfalls in personnel numbers in the Defence Forces, including the Naval Service. In 1999, a total of 97 general service recruits were enlisted in the Naval Service under the general recruitment campaign. A further general service recruitment campaign for the Defence Forces in respect of 2000 is under way. The proposed schedule for the intake of recruits for the Naval Service for 2000 is as follows: April - 20 to 30 recruits; September - 40 recruits; December - 40 recruits. Thirty seven recruits completed training on 6 April 2000. There are currently 45 apprentices in training as follows: engine room artificers - 19; shipwrights - six; radar technicians - seven; electrical artificers - 13.
Notwithstanding all of these efforts, the best ingenuity of the Navy and the greatest freedom I can give it, a continual number are leaving to take up work in the wider economy. It means we must look at every option open to use. However, on the information provided to me, we are well able to run the shops competently on the staffing levels we have, but we are constantly under pressure. Any proposal from the Navy to me to try to address this question is being given the greatest understanding and sympathy and will continue to be so.
With regard to the Estimate change, considerable refurbishment work is being done on the le Ciara and le Roisín this year, which will account for the difference touched on by the Deputy.
On post traumatic stress, the numbers have doubled in the last year from 20 to 41. It is a worrying trend. The compensation amounts in respect of these cases are substantially high, but we must wait and see if the situation will explode. The hope is that it will not. In the meantime we must ensure we have the counselling and support services at home and away that can reduce or eliminate the potential for problems in that area.
With regard to Eircom, the last meeting took place yesterday between my officials and the FAI. Two meetings were held earlier in the year. Notwithstanding the adverse publicity my Department has received in respect of the Eircom proposal, we are prepared to talk to the FAI at any time and present them with the facts as we see them. There is no question that my Department is either sitting on the fence or making a frivolous objection to Dublin South County Council. This proposal is in the path of our training arrangements, with young pilots training. An Air Corps report substantiates the hazards associated with that development. We want to be sure from every technical point of view that should the development proceed, our interests and the safety of our pilots are safeguarded.
We have no other interest in this matter. We are not sitting on the fence, neither are we standing in the way of the FAI proposal proceeding. However, we must ensure our interests are safeguarded. Once that has been done to our satisfaction, if it can be done, we will have no problem and will withdraw our objection. I do not wish to comment further on it at this stage beyond saying that we held a meeting yesterday. We passed on the Air Corps report to the FAI yesterday for its consideration. It is a specialist report undertaken by the Air Corps on how it sees the proposal affecting the work and training of the Air Corps.
Is it the case that the Department has objected to the proposal?
Was that at the outset?
Yes. It was December 1999.
Has the report by the Air Corps on the technical difficulties sent to the FAI been also submitted to the local authority?
That has not been done, but it will be.
It will be done in support of the objection?
Yes. The 60 millimetre mortar is not in use.
With regard to the uniform, my Department has no say or involvement other than to pay for uniforms. This matter was delegated in its entirety to the military who, in fairness to it, did exhaustive work in the planning and preparation of a design for a new uniform to take account of the kind of work and activities in which the members of the Defence Forces are involved. These would include involvement in very warm and humid as well as very cold conditions. All these factors were considered. There was the highest of praise for the changeover when it took place and the military authorities tell me they have no serious complaints with regard to the uniform, notwithstanding some press comment.
It is not unusual for a minority view in the military to hit the headlines, but I have no evidence to substantiate any of what has been reported beyond saying that the senior people in the Defence Forces tell me they are very satisfied with developments. It was mentioned that if the uniforms are not cleaned and washed according to prescription difficulties may arise. I am checking that out at present. However, from my meetings with soldiers from all over the world, they all praise the uniform. They are the people I wish to listen to. I had no hand, act or part in this matter. It is entirely for the military to prescribe, dictate and provide. I provide the funds.
The average age of military vehicles is seven years. To that extent the averages save us a little, but I am checking to see whether we are exempt or not. We have very good support services on the mechanical side. I am sure it would be possible for us to have an older vehicle in good trim. It is unlike my position or that of members of the committee, where we have to undertake repairs and pay for them. When the State is paying it should be possible to keep machinery in relatively good repair, even if it is one or two years older than desired, by checking it out.
With regard to the Glen of Imaal, I will look at the question as to whether any land could be used for local authority or private housing. The military tell me that all the land there is required and I must take that into account. Housing is a big issue for everyone in every area and I will look into the matter.
With regard to Casement Aerodrome Headquarters, £1 million is being spent on helicopter support operations and £4 million is being spent on the completion of the hanger. This year, £2.1 million is being spent on Cathal Brugha Barracks signals engineering works, £1.4 million is being spent on Collins Barracks, Cork, NCO Mess and £1.75 million on Collins Barracks gym and sports hall.
With regard to the Curragh, £2.5 million is being spent on barrack armoury, £2.4 million on the training centre, £1.5 million on accommodation upgrading, £2.9 million on the armament storage facility, £4.7 million on artillery, engineering and training, £1 million on the upgrade of the sewerage and water system and £2.4 million on ordnance, transport and workshop training facilities. A sum of £2.2 million is being spent on accommodation at Connolly Barracks, £1.3 million on new transport signals at the medical college, £3.1 million on clothing, barracks service, storage facilities and £1.6 million on technical services stores. In addition, no doubt to the delight of Deputy Wall, £6 million is being spent on the new swimming pool and gym upgrade. In addition, £1.42 million is being spent on accommodation at Clarke Barracks, £1.3 million is being spent on upgrading the ordnance workshop and £1.8 million is being spent on the accommodation there. The total cost of these improvements and upgrades will be £42.42 million, £29 million of which will be spent this year.
Members will note that priority has been given to upgrading barracks which were obliged to take staff from the barracks that were closed. Improvements to other barracks will be carried out in the normal way and we will consider the position in Kilkenny in due course. However, priority had to be given to those barracks to which additional staff were posted. I trust the account I have given of the extraordinary sums of money which will be spent on upgrades and improvements will be a source of satisfaction for Opposition Members.
What is the position with regard to telephone charges?
I remind Members that we must conclude our deliberations by 2 p.m. I have no wish to stifle debate, but I request that Members and the Minister ensure that their contributions remain focused.
Telephone charges are kept under constant review. Such charges are kept down by virtue of the fact that the Defence Forces' network uses private microwave technology and leased data lines. In 1999, the total for telephone charges was £3.099 million. It is estimated that this will be reduced to £2.58 million in the current year.
A variety of matters such as costs associated with free legal aid, funerals of military personnel, complaints, inquiry office expenses and reimbursement of registration fees for medical officers are dealt with under subhead U6 - miscellaneous expenses.
To which subhead does Deputy Wall's question relate?
It relates to subhead O. Non-commissioned officers are private members of the Defence Forces. Are such officers allowed to take leave of absence in order to pursue third level degrees, sit examinations, etc.?
Yes, they are allowed to take career breaks and we reimburse them in respect of their fees.
Has any progress been made in respect of the development of Baldonnel Aerodrome as a civilian airport?
We have received a number of inquiries from private interests about the leasing of lands at Baldonnel to facilitate the landing and take-off of executive jets and helicopters. This matter is currently under consideration and amending legislation, which will enable us to use Baldonnel for civilian and military purposes should the Government decide to take that route, is before the Dáil. However, the position will become clearer later in the year when the Minister for Public Enterprise and I make a presentation to the Government in relation to the future of Baldonnel Aerodrome. In the past I stated that I was anxious to see the facility being better and more widely used because the Department would benefit from the profits which would accrue from such a development and such profits could be used to improve services at Baldonnel. I would also like the fire services and other airport services available at the aerodrome to be used to the fullest possible extent.
Subhead T.1 deals with compensation for damage or injury in cases of accidents in which Army vehicles are involved. What action has been taken to reduce costs under this subhead? In how many accidents were Army vehicles involved last year?
I am informed that Army vehicles appear to have been involved in a fairly high number of relatively minor accidents. Apart from the cost of repairs to vehicles, I do not believe that significant amounts should be paid out in compensation. However, claims for compensation have become prevalent in recent years. Having said that, there is no question but that injuries have resulted from a number of these accidents. The Defence Forces are taking action in respect of this matter by ensuring staff reduce the speed at which they drive and take due care and precautions on our roads. They are determined to ensure that money is not wasted on paying for repairs to vehicles which were damaged as a result of carelessness, a lack of training or some other factor. The prevailing trend in this area is a cause for concern.
In how many accidents were Army vehicles involved?
I do not have that information in my possession but the number is considerably high. I will try to obtain an exact figure and communicate it to the Deputy at a later date. There has been a significant increase in the number of compensation claims - I refer here to claims other than those made in respect of hearing impairment - in recent years.
We will now proceed to subheads W to Z which deal with other services and appropriations-in-aid.
I acknowledge the excellent work done by the Civil Defence which is a voluntary organisation. Will the Minister indicate on what the £500,000 allocated for special events will be spent? With regard to appropriations-in-aid for the UN, in his opening statement the Minister referred to the resource implications for Partnership for Peace and our ability to carry out certain missions. Will he elaborate on this?
The Defence Forces, whether planning operations at home or abroad, must have regard to the level of resources at their disposal. The Government was happy to proceed with Ireland's application to join Partnership for Peace and the partnership document to which I referred is being finalised with the United Nations secretariat.
The Deputy also inquired about resource implications. Given that we are involved in a number of operations and missions with the United Nations, the EU and the OSCE, our military resources are thinly spread at present. In light of the progress being made in the Middle East peace process, it is hoped that the level of our involvement in the Lebanon will gradually change. This will afford us the opportunity to send larger numbers of troops to participate in training exercises and to meet our commitments in respect of other foreign missions.
The Army has purchased armoured personnel carriers and has been given funding to purchase light infantry vehicles, night vision, engineering and purification equipment and the various other components which ensure that military units can be self-sufficient and can be more flexible in terms of the way they undertake certain tasks. We are not concerned about our ability to meet our future commitments. At present, however, we are over-committed because 900 personnel are on duty abroad, a further 900 are in training to replace them and another 900 are ready to enter training. However, Deputy Timmins will already be aware of this fact.
I thank the Minister for his reply.
Does the Deputy wish me to proceed to answer his question about the Civil Defence?
No. Does the Minister believe that our commitment to the UNIFIL mission is nearing an end?
The United Nations has requested additional personnel and the Government has agreed to provide 50. When security matters have been resolved, members of the engineering corps will be deployed in the buffer zone to ensure that everything is normal. It is logical to assume that the atmosphere of calm following the Israeli withdrawal is likely to extend across the Lebanon when people begin to return to their villages. People have built houses but they have not yet returned to live in them. As they begin to return, the situation should improve and our commitment to UNIFIL should begin to be scaled down. It is hoped that it will begin within a year. One cannot be absolutely certain but it will not be too far in the future.
Regarding the Civil Defence, there will be more extensive national exercises. I had the opportunity to see the fantastic work going on in Louth and my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Séamas Brennan, was in Galway at the same time. Personnel is not the only concern. We need more modern equipment and facilities to support the Civil Defence initiative. Whatever the emergency services require of them, whether it is ambulance or other duties, they must have better facilities. The money is being allocated to exercises and the improvement of equipment.
Is the Minister satisfied the staffing problem in the Irish Red Cross has been resolved? Regarding subhead Z and the receipts from the EU in respect of fishery protection, there has been a dramatic drop in the 2000 Estimate compared to the 1999 out-turn. There is no increase in the fees being charged by the Department for bank escorts. Is that an ongoing contract and will it be reviewed?
I put down a parliamentary question to the Minister some time ago and I am still waiting for information on receipts on discharge by purchase and the number of people involved. This is No. 8 under subhead Z and refers to the number of people who buy themselves out of the Defence Forces. I sought details on this last February or March and I am still waiting for a response. I do not know whether there are difficulties in obtaining this information. I would appreciate if the Minister could get back to me on that.
Perhaps he could give us the details of how many are involved. The figure seems to have halved - is there a reason for this? Does the money received by the Department for bank escorts cover the cost it and the State incurs? How is that figure arrived at? Has a study been done of the cost? What negotiations or discussions, if any, has the Department had with the banks regarding the cost? Will the Minister tell us why miscellaneous costs under subhead Z have almost doubled?
The £2.2 million figure covers the allowances but not the pay. The question of charging the banks for the escorts provided by the Army and the Garda was considered initially by the former Departments of Finance, Justice and Defence. The banks intimated they were not prepared to agree to meet the cost of what was, in their view, a State security service. That is hardly acceptable and perhaps it is time to initiate another effort to see how we can increase the payment. I will undertake to do that.
On fishery protection, the change of attitude of the EU because it has less funding available reflects the lower receipts this year. There is also an outstanding difficulty with a submission made by the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources in respect of the le Roisín. We must ensure we have the funds, which we have done, so we can purchase the ship. We will boost those figures if we can.
Regarding the staffing of the Irish Red Cross, I would like to give a definite answer but I do not think we are at that stage yet. There has been a considerable improvement. We are not involved in the daily management of the organisation but we are anxious that it becomes more streamlined. In so far as the Irish Red Cross is concerned, we need to come to the fore in the activities of the Red Cross internationally. Deputy Andrews has been appointed as chairman and the committee is being appointed. We are anxious to leave the dissent and problems behind us and ensure we are doing the kind of work for which the Red Cross is world renowned.
We see this as a process of reinvigoration, leaving the past behind and appointing a staff member to the committee to ensure there is dialogue. Staff relations and management are important but there must be give and take on both sides. Personality clashes have no place in a major international voluntary organisation which deals with poverty, famine and other traumatic events throughout the world. We are keeping a close eye on it, notwithstanding the fact we are not involved in its daily management.
The miscellaneous costs under subhead Z are mainly reimbursement from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for payment for Garda aircraft. I will have to get the details on receipts on discharge by purchase for Deputy Stanton.
We will now move on to Vote 37, army pensions.
Deputy Wall mentioned the former members who did not qualify for the military service allowance seeking to get that included in their pension rights. I am satisfied the Minister dealt with this.
Thank you, Acting Chairman, for the efficient way in which you stepped into the breach at short notice. I am sorry that on occasion I tried to provoke my colleagues. They do it do me so much I like to take the opportunity to do the same. I thank Deputies Wall, Stanton and Timmins for attending and showing such an interest in the Department of Defence and its expenditure. We have £608 million to spend and it is important we do it right and continue to make as many progressive changes as we can to enhance the Defence Forces.
Reference was made to previous problems - we consign those to the past and move ahead with a positive outlook. It is helpful to the democratic and political system that Deputies from constituencies where there is a large number of Defence Force personnel and those where there is not, take such a broad interest in the Estimate. There were some years in the past when the Defence Estimate was dealt with quickly but now we take our time. I am grateful to everyone who made this possible. I thank my officials for their advice, research and preparatory work. I hope Deputies were happy with the submissions and that they helped in dealing with today's business.
Consideration of Votes 36 and 37 is now concluded.