Thursday, 8 October 2020

Ceisteanna (5)

John Brady

Ceist:

5. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence the details of the reasoning behind the ongoing refusal to allow members of the Defence Forces to form an association with a union (details supplied). [29077/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

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

I raise the Government's refusal to allow members of the Defence Forces to associate with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. This has been a long-standing request, particularly from PDFORRA, since 1994. Will the Minister outline the rationale for this continued refusal?

I have spoken to Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, on this previously and I am sure that I will do so again. Under the Defence Acts, 1954 to 2015, the permanent Defence Forces representative associations are prohibited from being associated with or affiliated with any trade unions or any other body without the consent of the Minister.

To compensate for these restrictions, there are a range of statutory redress mechanisms available to serving members, including redress of wrongs, a Defence Forces Ombudsman and a conciliation and arbitration scheme.

In 2017, the European Committee of Social Rights, in a non-binding ruling, found that Ireland was in violation of the European Social Charter in respect of the right to organise, that is to affiliate to certain organisations, and the right to negotiate collective agreements.  It found that Ireland was not in violation of the charter in respect of the prohibition of the right of military personnel to strike.

The Government is aware of the long-standing desire of PDFORRA to associate with ICTU. However, association with ICTU poses complex questions for the Defence Forces from a legal, operational and management perspective. It is critically important that Defence Forces operations are not restricted and this is a key concern.

The European Committee of Social Rights, in arriving at its decision, took into an account a statement made in the complaint which claimed that ICTU had stated that “PDFORRA could be affiliated to ICTU with whatever conditions the Government deemed necessary”. Defence management, civil and military, have engaged in discussions with the permanent Defence Forces representative associations and ICTU regarding the practicalities of a Defence Forces representative association forming association or affiliation with ICTU. These discussions have encompassed matters of concern to all parties.

PDFORRA subsequently initiated legal proceedings on this matter on 26 June 2020. As this matter is now subject to litigation, it would not be appropriate to comment further.

This is an issue I would rather was not in court and was not concluded by legal ruling. What we are trying to do in setting up a commission to look at all issues, including pay and structures within the Defence Forces, and the commitment in the programme for Government to set up a separate pay entity to assess pay within the Defence Forces after the initial commission's work is to recognise that serving in the Defence Forces is different to other public sector work. People take an oath to the State, they are the last line of defence for the State and compromises come with that. My job is to ensure that we more than take account of that in the structures that are there to represent Defence Forces personnel properly, whether that be in public sector pay talks or in any other area. I do not have a closed mind in this area but I have real concerns and will continue to speak to PDFORRA and other representative bodies about their concerns.

The Minister will be well aware of how bad things are in the Defence Forces, something which several Members have mentioned earlier. The numbers of members of the Defence Forces who have to rely on the working family payment is a stark illustration of this and for public sector talks to go ahead with no input from members of the Defence Forces is not right. Unfortunately, legal proceedings had to be initiated because of the Government's heel dragging on the issue. It is not a route that anyone would like to go down, particularly members of the Defence Forces or their representative bodies.

Many European states allow members of their defence forces to engage with trade unions and enjoy the right to collective bargaining. It should be no different here. Many of the concerns that have been raised in the past have been addressed by PDFORRA and other representative bodies. Will the Minister outline his concerns? It is a fundamental right to be able to associate with a trade union.

The Deputy mentioned the number of Defence Force personnel that are on the working family payment. I understand there are as many people in my Department on working family payment as there are in the Defence Forces. The payment is calculated based on a range of factors. I do not want there to be an impression that members of the Defence Forces are the only people in the public sector that are on working family payment; that is just not true. Of course, we are looking at pay and conditions in the Defence Forces to try to ensure that it is an attractive career path and we can deal with the recruitment and retention issues that everyone knows has been a problem, but let us not exaggerate for effect, please, because that also has an impact, as I keep saying, on our ability to be able to attract people into the Defence Forces. Every time we talk about the Defence Forces in this House, the questions come up in a very negative light. My job is to be real and to accept problems when they are there. I do, and there are problems which we need to fix, but there are also very positive aspects for people who choose a career in the Defence Forces in what that career path offers.

I do not have a closed mind on this issue but my primary focus is to ensure that the Defence Forces are always there when we need them and that no decision I make can impede the ability of that response that we rely on the Defence Forces for. We need to ensure that concerns are reflected and that there are systems in place to support Defence Forces personnel in that regard.

I find it absurd that the Minister would pit low-paid workers against each other, as though it is some badge of honour that staff in his Department rely on the working family payment. That is shameful and really low. The stark reality is this sector has no input into national pay agreements and must take the agreement or leave it, unlike other workers who are allowed have representatives around the table.

An argument put forward is that it would be completely wrong if members of the Defence Forces, having associated with ICTU, might go on strike. That red herring has been put forward time and again. PDFORRA has stated categorically that it has no intention of doing so and that it would withdraw if there were any concerns on that issue. The European Committee of Social Rights stated that the right to strike is incompatible with military service and PDFORRA completely accepts that argument. From my perspective, and that of the representative bodies, there are no reasons they cannot freely associate with ICTU. The Minister said he is open to it; now is the time to do it.

No one wants to go down the route of taking legal proceedings, but they can be withdrawn if there is a commitment from the Department and the Government to allow the freedom to associate with ICTU. I ask that the Minister make that commitment on the floor of the Dáil.

I am not pitting anyone against anybody. That is not my style. That the Deputy would try to create that narrative reflects his approach to this issue. I am working hard to ensure that everyone in the Defence Forces is understood in terms of the frustrations and challenges he or she faces and that we respond to those financially and from a policy perspective. This is what I am doing to try to ensure that we can attract the numbers and talent we need into the Defence Forces. I am not pitting anyone against anybody. I am simply giving the Deputy the factual position on the working family payment. Unfortunately, he chooses to try to twist that into something else.

It is important to say that representative bodies in the Defence Forces will have representation in this round of pay negotiations. I will ensure that. It does not necessarily mean being affiliated to ICTU, but those bodies will be heard and they will be in the room to make their case. Not only that, but we are setting up a structure separately to the pay negotiations to consider the specifics of serving in the Defence Forces. Not only have we committed to setting up a commission to consider the future of the Defence Forces as well as all of these issues, but we are committing to establishing a pay body specifically to consider the future of Defence Forces personnel's pay and conditions.

Please do not give the impression that we are not trying to prioritise Defence Forces personnel. We absolutely are trying to prioritise them, recognising that they play a unique role in public and national service. I do not have a closed mind on the question of whether their representative bodies being affiliated to ICTU enhances that process but I have not been convinced by the arguments. People have a right to take legal challenges, but the issue that will determine this for me is the question of what is the right thing to do for the Defence Forces and the country in the context of the role the Defence Forces play.