Thursday, 8 October 2020

Ceisteanna (2)

Peadar Tóibín

Ceist:

2. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Defence when he will meet representative organisations of the Defence Forces and discuss the high-level implementation plan for strengthening the Defence Forces. [29116/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Defence)

The members of the Defence Forces are heroes and patriots. They have been the last form of defence for the country on many occasions. They travel the world to defend peace in difficult and dangerous places. They work in shockingly difficult conditions with very low pay. That has been very damaging to morale within the Defence Forces and has also dealt a blow in terms of their numbers to the extent that it is increasingly difficult for the Defence Forces to function in the manner they wish. When will the Minister meet representatives of the Defence Forces?

On assuming my role as Minister for Defence, one of my first actions was to meet the Permanent Defence Force representative associations, namely, PDFORRA, and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO. At the meeting in a barracks in Cork, we agreed that we should commit to meeting on a more regular basis and I am happy to follow through on that. I hope we can meet quarterly or at least three times per year or as needed. As the Deputy will be aware, the report of the Public Service Pay Commission on recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces was published on 4 July 2019. The report was accepted in full by the then Government and, in order to facilitate implementation, an extensive high-level plan entitled Strengthening our Defence Forces – Phase One, was agreed and published on the same date.

I am aware that the representative associations have been briefed on a regular basis by the officials of my Department charged with co-ordinating all the projects in the high-level plan as to progress in each of the project areas. I understand that some ten briefings, oral and written, have been provided to date, with the latest taking place on 1 October. In addition to the briefings, there is a standing invitation to the representative associations to submit any material they wish to be considered relating to any of the projects. In this context, several submissions with extensive observations have been made and I appreciate this engagement.

The immediate pay recommendations in the high-level implementation plan have all been delivered on foot of their acceptance by the representative associations. The timelines for the other projects which are set out in the plan were reviewed as the projects progressed and as work requirements become more evident. I am satisfied that the projects outlined in the plan are being prioritised and delivered as quickly as possible. However, it must be acknowledged that the anticipated timeframes for certain projects were overly ambitious. In addition, the Covid-19 emergency has impacted on some of the project timeframes. In some cases, personnel resources were necessarily reassigned to matters relating to the Covid-19 response and where other essential work was necessary, that took priority. However, work is ongoing on all projects and they are being progressed as quickly as possible.

I intend to develop a very good relationship with the representative bodies. I hope we can meet regularly. I expect that we will meet next week to go through the terms of reference for the upcoming commission for the review of the Defence Forces. I also wish to speak to them about a series of other issues. My style and approach as a Minister will be one of engagement. If necessary, that will be robust engagement, but I certainly wish to hear what the representative bodies have to say. We will respond as best we can.

I welcome the Minister's statement because I have spoken to representatives of the Defence Forces and they have asked when the implementation plan for the strengthening of the Defence Forces will be discussed. A representative of RACO recently stated that there are 300 fewer personnel in the Defence Forces than there were when the plan was put in place last year. Although there is a plan, we are still going in the wrong direction. Military officers have been quoted in newspapers as stating that, so far, it has been allowed to fail. It was obvious that the plan was failing well before Covid hit, so it is not necessarily the case that the pandemic has affected its implementation. A retired general told me that the low numbers are affecting operational capability on land and sea. I understand the Minister may have a different perspective and approach and I welcome that, but it is really important that he discuss with representatives of the Defence Forces how each level of the strengthening of the Defence Forces plan is implemented.

To be blunt, that is happening. It is true the benefit of the plan has not yet been seen in terms of increasing numbers in the Defence Forces. We had and continue to have a recruitment and retention challenge in the Defence Forces. That challenge was particularly acute in the Air Corps which, frankly, did not have enough pilots. That has been turned around in the past 12 months or so and it now has enough pilots. As Members are aware, there are particular problems in the Naval Service. Ships that should be going to sea are tied up because there are insufficient crews and specialties in terms of skill sets to crew them. That is not acceptable to me or this House. We have been working with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to try to address some of those issues and we are continuing to so do. Likewise, investment is required in certain areas of the Army. It is often the case in politics that when things are done they tend to get banked and people move on to the next thing. A significant amount of implementation of the plan is already in place and signed off on. There are some matters outstanding but we are prioritising getting them done as quickly as possible. There are other things that need to be done beyond the plan, which is why we are putting a commission in place which it is hoped will be set up in the coming three or four weeks, ahead of schedule. That will be a clear statement to the Defence Forces that we are prioritising the upcoming commission and the work it will do.

I acknowledge the Minister stated things have been done, but this issue did not arise overnight. It is not the case that people have just put in requests for these changes. This is not recent analysis on the weakening and reduction of the Defence Forces. The Minister rightly indicated that it is quite shocking. It is amazing that ships are currently tied up because crews are not available to deliver services on them. I refer to the working time directive, which I will discuss at a later stage. That legislation dates from 1997 and was the subject of a court case in 2010. It is now 2020 and we are still wondering when the implementation will be ready. I understand the Minister cannot do everything overnight but these are critical issues and I am asking that he meet the representative organisations to ensure the measures are fully implemented.

I do not wish to pretend that just because I am now Minister for Defence everything is different. My Department has been working with representative organisations to get many things done relating to the reports that have been completed. I am looking at a list of projects, most of which are complete and some of which are under way. Some of the asks of the report were for reviews etc. There are some asks which will be considered under the new round of pay negotiations and so on. It is important to state that much has been achieved because often the narrative around the Defence Forces focuses on what is not working and what has not been achieved.

Sometimes that contributes to our recruitment challenge because of the impression that is being given.

There are real problems. We are trying to address them and I intend addressing them head on. Some of them involve resources and money and some involve ensuring we have open terms of reference for this upcoming commission and we appoint top-class people to that commission to make sure the work the commission will do over a 12-month period or so can impact significantly on the future of the Defence Forces. It is an exciting time to be Minister for Defence. We have problems to solve but we also have robust mechanisms with which to do that.