Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Ceisteanna (31, 32)

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Ceist:

31. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the timeframe for implementation of the recent decision of the European Committee of Social Rights on the collective bargaining rights of Defence Forces personnel. [10465/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Lisa Chambers

Ceist:

32. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the measures he will take in the wake of the decision by the European Committee of Social Rights on the entitlement of members of the Defence Forces to better collective bargaining and negotiating rights; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10530/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Ceist ar Defence)

What steps does the Department intend to take following the decision in February by the European Committee of Social Rights on the granting of collective bargaining rights to members of the Defence Forces? How does the Minister of State intend to implement the decision?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 31 and 32 together.

The European Committee of Social Rights has considered a complaint submitted by EUROMIL, a European umbrella body for military associations, on behalf of PDFORRA, concerning the lack of certain rights for military representative associations in Ireland. In a non-binding ruling the committee concluded that prohibiting military personnel from the right to strike was not in breach of the European Social Charter but that the charter was breached by prohibiting the representative associations from affiliating with a national employee organisation such as the ICTU and in respect of the right to bargain collectively. The Government welcomes the conclusion of the European Committee of Social Rights that the prohibition on the right to strike for members of the Defence Forces is not in violation of the European Social Charter.

It should be noted that the basis for the complaint pre-dates a number of significant Government initiatives. In relation to collective bargaining, the Permanent Defence Force representative associations participated in the negotiations last year on the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 which were held under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission. The PDF representative associations were afforded equal standing to other public sector trade unions and representative associations during the negotiations. Both PDFORRA and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, have accepted the terms of the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 which provides for increases in pay, ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement, with the focus on the lower paid.

It is critically important that the Defence Forces be fully operational at all times. The taking of any form of industrial action is irreconcilable with military service. The Defence Forces have provided valuable support on many occasions for the civil authorities in maintaining vital services. This was seen most recently in the response to the severe weather event.  In that regard, I record my thanks to members of the Defence Forces, Civil Defence volunteers, civil servants and civilian employees for their particular contribution.

The right to affiliate with the ICTU poses complex questions for the Defence Forces from a legal, operational and management perspective. A key concern is that such an affiliation would carry obligations that would be incompatible with military operations and the roles assigned to the Defence Forces. Members of the Defence Forces have a range of parallel complaint and adjudication mechanisms in law to compensate for the limitations on their access to the normal industrial relations machinery that applies in wider society. They include the redress of wrongs process, a Defence Forces ombudsman and a conciliation and arbitration scheme for members of the Permanent Defence Force. Since its inception in the early 1990s, the conciliation and arbitration scheme has provided the framework to progress many successful negotiated agreements between Defence Forces management and the PDF representative associations. There have, however, been many changes to the industrial relations landscape in the intervening period. In that regard, I have initiated a fundamental review of the scheme to ensure it will remain efficient and effective for all parties. In January I appointed Mr. Gerard Barry to conduct the review. While the focus of the review will primarily be on the operation of the Permanent Defence Force conciliation and arbitration scheme, I have directed that the review consider the findings of the European Committee of Social Rights and this has been incorporated into its terms of reference. It would not be appropriate at this stage to pre-empt any conclusion arising from the review.

I will take follow-up questions from Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh and then Deputy Lisa Chambers.

The extraordinary efforts made by soldiers during Storm Emma and other storms show the lengths to which members of the Defence Forces are willing to go in the interests of the State, over and above what is expected of many other parts of the public sector. However, they had to fight the State tooth and nail in the case they took to the European Committee of Social Rights. The case was defended by the State and the ruling is a vindication of PDFORRA's decision to take it. The complaint was made under Articles 5 and 6 of the European Social Charter and the Minister of State lost. While he has said the ruling is non-binding, I expect the State to live up to the commitments to which Ireland signed up in the European Social Charter. What steps will the Minister of State take to ensure the full collective bargaining rights, not partial rights, all other trade unions or representative organisations have are given to members of the Defence Forces?

As I have said, I welcome the findings of the EUROMIL case and made sure they would be part of the conciliation and arbitration scheme review. In the first instance, I will wait until the independent chairperson of the conciliation and arbitration scheme publishes his report. I expect and hope that all the issues in the EUROMIL case will be looked at in terms of the entire scheme.

I made sure that I did not sit on the findings, and instead acted on them straight away. I could have not included them in the terms of reference, but I included them later in order to act on this issue straight away. I take the findings of the EUROMIL case seriously, and I welcome them. Once the review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme is published by Gerard Barry, I will consider the report.

Obviously, I welcome the Minister of State's review and it is to be hoped it concludes quickly. Does he expect, even at this stage, that legislation might be required given the changes he has implemented in the meantime? We have seen the effects on the families of members of the Defence Forces and personnel when they were not able to enjoy full collective bargaining rights. I also welcome the decision in full and the fact that it stated that the imposition of an absolute prohibition on the right to strike was proportionate. It is important that was found. One of the key findings of the committee was that the complete ban on affiliation with ICTU was unjustified and cut across the charter.

Questions Nos. 129 to 132, inclusive, answered with Question No. 120.

I put it to the Minister of State that he is hiding behind the conciliation and arbitration scheme review. I welcome the fact it started in January, but we still have no definite timeline for completion. It serves the Minister of State well to be able to refer back to the report and say that everything is fine until he receives the review. The fact that the case was taken to the European Committee of Social Rights tells him that we have a problem, and that the current system is not working and undermines the rights of members of our Defence Forces.

The European Committee of Social Rights upheld the entitlement of Irish armed forces to better collective bargaining and negotiating rights. However, it also found that the Government is entitled to restrict the right of military personnel to strike. For my part and that of my party, I wish to be very clear. I welcome both findings. When one talks about the challenges to Government and the societal challenge of those members of the Defence Forces seeking membership of trade unions, it concerns the area of strike action. It is accepted by the representative associations and by most of us in the Chamber that it is not permissible for members of the Defence Forces to go on strike because it is not in the interests of the public. Does the Minister of State accept the findings of the committee, given that he opposed them? Will he respect them and, more importantly, act on them?

I am not sure if the Deputy read the press release and statement I issued on the conciliation and arbitration scheme. I said from the beginning of the scheme that I expected the report to be published within six months. I am not hiding behind the conciliation and arbitration scheme review. Had I not included the EUROMIL case in the terms of reference, I presume the Deputy would have jumped up and down today and said I should have included it. Now that I have included it, she has said I am hiding behind the conciliation and arbitration scheme review. That is not the case.

From the minute the findings of the EUROMIL were published, I insisted that they would form part of the conciliation and arbitration scheme review. I hope that PDFORRA, the Department, the Defence Forces and RACO all fully participate in the conciliation and arbitration scheme review, and this case is part of that. I hope the findings of the EUROMIL case will be included in the report from the independent chairperson. I accept the findings of the EUROMIL case.

I can assure the Minister of State that I will not be jumping up and down to make any point. I am well able to make my point without that kind of carry on.

The committee found that restrictions may not go so far as to suppress entirely the right to organise, such as the blanket prohibition on professional association of a trade union. It also said it had not been established why matters like issues of public safety and national security could not be discussed in the course of national negotiations by Government and military representatives. It found that a complete ban on affiliation was neither necessary nor proportionate, particularly as it deprived the representative associations of an effective means of negotiating. It held that the mere hearing of a party on a predetermined outcome would not satisfy the requirements of the European charter.

Most importantly, the committee said it could not conclude that the military representative associations were meaningfully consulted on pay during discussions on public sector agreements. What the Minister of State needs to take from that is that actions are required. A review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme is not sufficient. The committee said that representative associations were not properly consulted about pay and that an absolute ban on association is not necessary or proportionate. The Minister of State did not answer my question. Will he respect the findings of the committee and act on them?

As I said in my original reply, the complaint predates a number of significant Government initiatives over the past 12 months. PDFORRA and RACO were very much part of the public service pay agreement and the negotiations. The EUROMIL case was ongoing while negotiations took place. There have been a number of changes since my appointment. I want representative associations to be at the table and form part of the negotiations, which is only right and proper. They may not be recognised unions but they are representative associations for all members of the Defence Forces. I am happy to say that RACO and PDFORRA subsequently signed up to the public service pay stability programme, which is welcome. I fully accept the findings of the EUROMIL case. I will wait for the outcome of the conciliation and arbitration scheme review to be published to determine the next step.