Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Ceisteanna (5)

Brendan Ryan


5. Deputy Brendan Ryan asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on whether it is a fair expectation that men and women serving in the Defence Forces should have an income and prospects to provide for themselves and their families; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38910/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Defence)

My question is to ask the Minister for Defence his views on whether it is a fair expectation that men and women serving in the Defence Forces should have an income and prospects to provide for themselves and their families. The recent statement from President Michael D. Higgins fairly reflects what I and other Opposition spokespeople-----

It is completely inappropriate to make reference to the President, his remarks or his actions in this Chamber. It is out of order and I ask the Deputy please not to do so.

Okay. It is something about which I and other Opposition Deputies have been speaking and about which we have spoken directly to the Minister of State. I am conscious that the first few questions also related to this matter but the timing is out of my control. I seek the Minister of State's response.

Similarly to other sectors in the public service, the pay of Permanent Defence Force personnel was reduced as one of the measures to assist in stabilising national finances during the financial crisis, during which the Deputy was a member of the Government. The recovery in the economy has provided the fiscal resources to provide for a fair and sustainable recovery in public service pay scales. Pay is being restored to members of the Defence Forces and all other public servants in accordance with public sector pay agreements. The focus of these increases is weighted in favour of those on lower pay.

The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement. The increases due under the agreement have been paid to members of the Defence Forces, the most recent being a 1.75% increase on annualised salaries from 1 September 2019. Further increases in pay are scheduled in 2020. By the end of the current public service pay agreement, the pay scales of all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces, earning under €70,000 per annum will be restored to pre-financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, levels. The restoration of the 5% reduction to allowances cut under FEMPI is also scheduled in the agreement.

In light of the particular challenges faced by the defence sector, the Government tasked the Public Service Pay Commission to undertake a comprehensive examination and analysis of underlying difficulties in recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces. The commission’s report, which has been accepted by the Government, contains a broad range of recommendations that will provide immediate benefits to members of the Permanent Defence Force, as well as initiatives that can lead to further improvements. These include a 10% increase in military service allowance, the restoration to pre-Haddington Road agreement levels of certain specific Defence Forces allowances and the return of an incentive scheme to address pilot retention issues in the Air Corps. These measures will be implemented swiftly on confirmation of acceptance by the Permanent Defence Force representative associations.

The Government has prepared a detailed plan for the implementation of the recommendations in the Public Service Pay Commission's report. The measures are aimed at improving workforce planning, recruitment, retention and conditions of service. The plan also provides for an examination of core pay in the Permanent Defence Force within the context of the public service stability agreement and future public sector pay negotiations, and the completion and implementation of actions related to a review of technical pay arrangements for grades 2 to 6. The plan also outlines timelines and objectives, indicating the commitment to deliver on the pay commission’s recommendations.

The Government is committed to ensuring that the pay and conditions of all members of the public service are commensurate with their skill levels and the work undertaken.

As I have noted during every Question Time on defence, the wages of Defence Forces personnel are far below what they should be, with some members being paid close to minimum wage for work that is deserving of much more, as it requires great discipline and sacrifice from both the personnel and their loved ones. I have brought this issue up multiple times and will continue to do so until members of the Defence Forces are given the respect they deserve, which is indicated by how they are paid and their conditions of employment.

The findings of the study undertaken by the Public Service Pay Commission a few months ago conclude that the Defence Forces are at a critical juncture. It is stated that the findings presented intimate that without immediate and substantial intervention, particularly in respect of pay, allowances and pension entitlements, the organisation may, within a short time, face major difficulties in maintaining its personnel establishment and in carrying out its mandate. Due to its terms of reference, the commission was precluded from dealing with aspects of core pay but it would have been interesting to hear its thoughts on that subject. I am sure it would have had something to say.

The Deputy will recognise that all public service pay was cut back in the tougher economic circumstances we went through at the time when the Deputy was a member of the Government. Nobody wanted to do it. As our public finances are improving, the public service stability agreement is now in place, in which there are real financial benefits for all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces.

The independent pay commission examined issues of recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces. It reported back in July and made a number of recommendations, including a package of €10 million per annum. In addition, I was able to personally negotiate some outstanding payments for members of the Defence Forces with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, at a cost of €1.7 million.

I was delighted that RACO, which is the representative group for officers of the Defence Forces, accepted the recommendations of the pay commission yesterday. There are real tangible benefits for officers of the Defence Forces in doing so and I understand that PDFORRA will also consider the recommendations shortly. I hope it also accepts the recommendations because that would be of real benefit to members of the Defence Forces. I acknowledge the challenges and the concerns the Deputy has around recruitment and retention and on the latter in particular. However, an implementation body has been put in place for phase one of the strengthening of the Defence Forces, which I am confident will make a real difference and put more money into the pockets of Defence Forces personnel.

The Minister of State referred to RACO. At its annual conference today, RACO delegates called for a pay review body for the Defence Forces, which I and my party would support. The rate of turnover in the Defence Forces is currently 10%, which is happening without adequate retention measures or a pay review. The organisation will never reach its establishment of 9,500 personnel, despite the current high level of recruitment, because it is like constantly pouring water into a bucket with a hole at the bottom. RACO has also passed motions on allowances and has called for improved conditions, such as improved living quarters for married and single members. That would act as a very real retention tool, as it would provide a stable, secure and modern living environment for the families of Defence Forces personnel. Members of the Defence Forces are using their own voice and are calling for dignity. They are calling for the right to live a normal life in Ireland, to be able to afford the basics and to provide for themselves and their families. They need a future worth believing in, not the fear of long-term homelessness once their service is complete. I do not think that is too much to ask of a body as august as the Defence Forces.

I am sure the Deputy would acknowledge and understand the importance of the public service pay agreements we currently have in place for all public servants. He is correct that RACO has called for its own independent pay review group. The UK Government has a similar group in place, but the UK Government also has a different method of determining rates of public sector pay.

They have independent pay review bodies for individual sectors; one each for the army, the police, teachers and nurses. It would be difficult to take out one public sector group here and have a separate pay determination for it. That is, however, not within my gift; it is a matter for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The British armed forces do not have representative associations to negotiate on their behalf. They do not have group associations such as PDFORRA and RACO to interact with Government or with the equivalents of the Departments of Defence and Public Expenditure and Reform. The overarching public service pay policy, as I said earlier, is a matter for the Minister for Finance, and Public Expenditure and Reform.

I acknowledge RACO's leadership in accepting the independent commission's recommendations.