Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Ceisteanna (52)

Jack Chambers


52. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the number of discharges from the Defence Forces to date in 2019; the number of inductions over the same period; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53207/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (14 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Defence)

What is the number of discharges from the Defence Forces to date in 2019 and the number of inductions over the same period? Will the Minister of State make a statement on the matter? As the Minister of State knows, we have had very worrying levels of turnover in the past two to three years. Perhaps the Minister of State will update the House on the percentage level of turnover for this year based on the data.

I thank the Deputy for his question.

The military authorities have advised me that, as at 30 November 2019, 605 personnel had been inducted into the Defence Forces and ten serving soldiers were awarded a cadetship. At that date, 793 personnel had exited the organisation. They further advised that, as at 30 November 2019, the strength of the Permanent Defence Force whole-time equivalent across all services was 8,751 personnel.

I am very much aware that there continues to be a shortfall between the current strength figures and those of the establishment and I remain committed to restoring the strength of the Defence Forces to 9,500. This will require improved retention and recruitment.

The Government has acknowledged that there are recruitment and retention issues in the Defence Forces that must be addressed. It is a fact that members of the Permanent Defence Force are being attracted to jobs elsewhere in a buoyant labour market. In light of the particular difficulties being faced by the defence sector, the Government tasked the Public Service Pay Commission to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of recruitment and retention issues in the Permanent Defence Force.

The report of the Public Service Pay Commission on recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces was accepted by Government on 4 July 2019. The report contains a broad range of recommendations which will provide immediate benefits to members of the Permanent Defence Force as well as initiatives that can lead to further improvements. The immediate benefits include a 10% increase in military service allowance, the restoration to pre-Haddington Road 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 cost around €10 million per annum.

The increases in military service allowance and the restoration of the rates of the other allowances as recommended by the Public Service Pay Commission are in addition to measures relating to core pay, which are in the current public service stability agreement. The recommended increases in the allowances and any back money due have been paid to officers and enlisted personnel. I welcome the fact that RACO and PDFORRA have accepted these recommendations.

The report contains a range of recommendations aimed at improving work-force planning, recruitment and conditions of service. The report also recommends an examination of pay structures in the Permanent Defence Force-----

I thank the Minister of State. He will get an opportunity to come back.

The figures are very concerning. Last year, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett stated the turnover in 2018 at 8.1% was crippling us and that there were serious gaps in the organisation. I have had it confirmed by military forces that we are heading for 10% this year. We have a worsening level of turnover. The Minister of State has given the figures that the exodus is greater than recruitment and we have no retention policy. Morale is on the floor. When will we see the gaps filled? The Minister of State mentioned in the summer that the Naval Service ships having planned maintenance would be back out to sea in the autumn. Do we have the permanent retirement of these naval ships under the watch of the Minister of State? The net loss in the Naval Service this year is one crew. Next year, if we see this ongoing level of turnover, we will have more ships docked. We have seen the consequences of the turnover in the Air Corps with regard to the reduction of the air medical service. Will the Minister of State confirm the turnover this year will be close to 10%, as I have had confirmed based on the figures of the Minister of State? Will he also outline when he will see the restoration of some of the services that have collapsed under his watch? The Naval Service is one, with the ships that were docked, and another is the air medical service.

The most important issue from me as Minister of State is the safety of all of our personnel, no matter what service they carry out. I have never disputed that we have retention issues. Contrary to the remarks of the Deputy we do have retention policies. I have stated here with regard to the independent pay commission report that PDFORRA and RACO recently accepted its recommendations. It will take time for members of the Defence Forces to feel the benefits of accepting those recommendations.

The Deputy mentioned the Naval Service. We had serious challenges in the Naval Service this year in specific areas. It was not with regard to the overall numbers, it was where there were key challenges and key pinchpoints for specific areas in the Naval Service. We are working to solve the issue with military management and Naval Service management.

I thank the Minister of State.

The Deputy mentioned the air ambulance. I stated this was an issue with regard to safety and we were cutting the service for a number of days for November, December and January-----

I thank the Minister of State. I am conscious of time. I want to get the questions in.

-----but it will be back up and running from 1 March.

The Minister of State's record in 2019 is a double-digit level of turnover of 10%. This is an increase of 25% of the turnover from 2018. It is up from the turnover of 7.5% in 2017, with regard to which the University of Limerick stated there was a dysfunctional cycle of turnover. The Minister of State said the ships that were docked would return in the autumn but they did not. He is now telling us the air ambulance service will be back in the spring. How can we believe him if the LÉ Eithne and the LÉ Orla are not back as he said they would be, so that he could get himself out of a gap?

The reality is the retention policies under the watch of the Minister of State are resulting in an ongoing exodus of personnel. He cannot recruit his way out of this retention crisis. We have serious health and safety concerns. This is an absolute fact. Some of the ships that are leaving our shores have a minimal bare bone level of staff. Will it take a serious terrorist incident or a serious incident on a ship or during an operational deployment for the Minister of State to take this retention issue seriously? With a double-digit level of turnover, which is increasing year on year, and with record levels of turnover on the Minister of State's watch, we are facing an ongoing collapsing level of structure and safety risks.

I met Naval Service personnel last week to look at the ongoing challenges we have in the Naval Service. I have stated the number one priority for me as Minister of State is the safety of our personnel. I do not want a situation where there is an incident because of the lack of personnel in a specific area. I hope the Deputy will agree with me on this. I will not back away or shy away and state I should not have made them. It is paramount for any organisation. I have been given reassurances from the Naval Service and military management that they have taken my concerns on board and that for any operational issue being carried out all of the safety risks will be taken into account. This is only right and proper. I have never stated we do not have the challenges or the retention challenges that we have. The independent pay commission report was published earlier this year and Defence Force members are feeling the benefits, including the tax credit that I negotiated in the budget with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, for members of the Naval Service.

We have to watch the time. The Minister of State is way over time.

The Naval Service tax credit will be worth €1,270 per annum to individuals who spend more than 80 days at sea.

We have to be mindful of other Deputies who want their questions to be heard. We have allocated time and I am trying to be flexible and reasonable but it is being taken to the extreme and we cannot have that.