Thursday, 13 June 2019

Ceisteanna (6)

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Ceist:

6. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if the actual operational strength of the Defence Forces or strength in station is lower than the official figure of 8,800 when personnel in training, those on leave of absence and those on overseas service are taken into account and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24567/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Defence)

Could the Minister of State advise regarding the actual operational strength of the Defence Forces as reported and whether it takes into account those in training or on leave of absence and overseas service?

The White Paper on Defence of 2015 commits to maintaining the strength of the Permanent Defence Force at 9,500 personnel. This strength provision includes those in training and there is no separate training establishment for recruits to the Permanent Defence Force. This strength provides for all roles assigned to the Defence Forces, at home and overseas. The strength of the Permanent Defence Force on 30 April 2019 stood at 8,828 personnel. This strength figure excludes those on a career break or seconded.

The Permanent Defence Force is actively deployed on an ongoing basis and Defence Forces units provide personnel for overseas service and deployments at home. Personnel are drawn from units across the organisation and posted on the basis of operational needs. Personnel also engage in training on an ongoing basis and this is a key aspect of maintaining and developing capability. This is not a new development and units have always had personnel posted on such activities.

The suggestion that such individuals should not be considered part of the strength of the Permanent Defence Force would appear to be based on the premise that only the strength of personnel in units in barracks matters. This is not the case. The ongoing deployment of personnel highlights the valued contribution that the Defence Forces make to international peace and security and in a wide variety of roles at home. The training of individuals also represents a continued investment in capability.

As I have previously outlined, particular recruitment and retention challenges exist in the Permanent Defence Force. I understand that many military forces internationally are experiencing difficulties, including with specialists such as pilots, and that this is not unique to Ireland.

Despite recent highly negative media and political commentary, it must be highlighted that the Defence Forces offer an interesting, varied and rewarding career. Starting pay for both enlisted personnel and officers is competitive when viewed against other career choices with similar entry requirements. There is also a range of allowances paid in addition to basic pay.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

There is also significant ongoing work aimed at making the Defence Forces an attractive career for those currently serving. There are ongoing promotion opportunities. The Defence Forces offer significant opportunities for personnel to develop skills and earn qualifications throughout their career, while receiving full pay. There are opportunities to gain unique experiences, including on overseas service. There is also ongoing work to enhance work-life balance.

Clearly the Government’s goal is to meet the strength target of 9,500 personnel. There are ongoing challenges in this regard. The independent Public Service Pay Commission has been tasked with examining such recruitment and retention issues. I expect that the Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform will bring its report to the Cabinet in the near future. The Government will consider any recommendations made.

I thank the Minister of State. According to the latest figures we have, to the end of March, the overall extent was 8,847. However, this figure does not appear to take into account those on leave of absence. I believe the Minister of State said that people in training are counted. Is that right? It is misleading, in a sense, as to whether they are all counted. The issue has been raised with us repeatedly through the Defence Forces representatives. Current reported strength, low as it is in comparison with previous times, is not a true representation of the strength on the ground. Those in training cannot be deployed on operations. Is that true? Those on leave of absence are possibly not being replaced. We are told this could be up to 1,000 additional personnel. Is that true?

As I have stated, the strength of the Defence Forces on 30 April 2019 stood at 8,828 personnel. This strength figure excludes those who are on career break or secondment from the Defence Forces. As the Deputy knows, in an ideal world we would have a strength level of 9,500 personnel. This would cover all aspects of the organisation. I accept we have many pinch points within the organisation and have acknowledged it on numerous occasions. We are competing against a very buoyant economy. There is funding in place for 9,500 personnel, however. About 12 or 18 months ago, a recommendation from military management was brought to me to the effect that we would be able to backfill and send about 140 or 150 extra personnel to UNIFIL. They will be returning at the end of this year and will be extra personnel back in the system.

Does the Minister of State consider that there is a need to ensure that the data reported reflect the reality and that there may be a case for providing the figures in a way that reflects actual capacity in the Defence Forces in real terms? The Minister of State mentioned the figure of 9,500. The strength figure was previously 10,500. I see we have lowered the bar a bit. Surely collecting more realistic data would give a much more accurate picture and would be reflective of the current retention crisis faced by the Defence Forces. It is helpful information in terms of monitoring the crisis and its impact on the ground. Will the Minister of State look at this and consider how the official strength of the Defence Forces should be calculated in the future?

In the White Paper on Defence 2015, it was recommended that we would have a Defence Forces strength of 9,500 personnel. That was after the reorganisation. As the Deputy well knows, everybody was very much involved in the preparation of the White Paper on Defence 2015, including all Opposition party Members, many stakeholders, military management and everyone in the Department. A massive amount of work was put into that and it was recommended that we would have a force strength of 9,500. There is ongoing recruitment into the Defence Forces at officer and recruit level. I would absolutely like to see it get back up to 9,500 personnel. I look forward to the publication of the independent pay commission to address some of the challenges we are dealing with at present.