Thursday, 8 October 2020

Ceisteanna (9)

Martin Browne

Ceist:

9. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Defence his views on reports that personnel are leaving the Naval Service to join the Army due to issues related to pay and conditions; his views on the impact this will have on the Naval Service; his further views on pay levels throughout the sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29259/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

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

I ask the Minister to outline his views on reports that personnel are leaving the Naval Service to join the Army because of poor pay and conditions. What impact will this have on the Naval Service? I also ask him to outline his views on pay levels throughout the sector.

As the Deputy knows, I have been spending a lot of time trying to understand and address some of the current challenges in the Naval Service. Personnel in the Naval Service are paid basic pay, military service allowance and, where appropriate, technical pay at the same rates as their colleagues in the Army and Air Corps. Enlisted personnel of the Naval Service also receive naval pay.

I am aware of reports that a small number of personnel have left the Naval Service in recent times to pursue a career in the Army. This can be for a variety of reasons, including career progression or personal circumstances. The range of duties undertaken differs across the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service. Where there is commonality, such as base security duties, the same duty rates are paid. However, members of the Naval Service undertake seagoing duty which differs from duties undertaken by other members of the Defence Forces. When on their two-year seagoing rotation, members of the Naval Service can be away from home on a regular basis. For this reason and because of the nature of the duty, seagoing service can prove unattractive. Jobs in the private sector and elsewhere which do not require such absences at sea have proved attractive for members of the Naval Service, both new entrants and more experienced personnel.

Naval Service personnel undertaking seagoing duties are paid a patrol duty allowance for each patrol day that they undertake. This is in addition to their basic pay, military service allowance, naval pay and technical pay, where applicable. An increase of 2% on annualised salaries is being implemented from 1 October 2020 under the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020. The 5% cut in allowances imposed under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest, FEMPI, legislation is also being reversed from 1 October this year. This will benefit Naval Service personnel with an increase in the daily patrol duty allowance to €56.14 per day for personnel enlisted prior to January 2013, €59.09 per day for personnel enlisted after January 2013 and €58.86 per day for officers. Each ship has a target of 165 patrol days each year. A special tax credit was introduced on a one-off exceptional basis in the Finance Act 2019 to incentivise seagoing duties. A seagoing naval personnel tax credit of €1,270 applies for the 2020 tax year and is based on the number of days served at sea in 2019.

I assure the Deputy that we are continuing to work with the Naval Service to find ways of ensuring that we can enhance even further the attractiveness of committing to go to sea.

First, I commend the valuable work done by our serving personnel on our behalf at home and abroad. I particularly applaud the co-ordination role they have played during the pandemic. I posed this question today because reports indicate that a recent scheduled maritime patrol did not take place because of a lack of personnel. It is also my understanding that this was not an isolated event. I ask the Minister to assure the House that key matters dealt with by our Naval Service, like the interception of illegal drugs, are not being compromised.

I am also aware that the sums involved in the pay restoration under FEMPI are meagre and are unlikely to make much of a difference to the lives of those considering leaving the Naval Service. In recent years, there have been media reports of serving personnel in our Defence Forces having to sleep in their cars because they could not afford to travel the distances required of them. What is the position regarding pay restoration for our Defence Forces? What is the position with regard to improvements in their pay and why are they so underappreciated? The Minister made a promise in mid-July to deal with this issue because he acknowledged that members of the Defence Forces are among the lowest paid of our public servants.

The straight answer to the straight question as to whether the role of the Naval Service is being compromised is "Yes". We have a fleet of nine ships. One of them is in service and two are tied up because we do not have sufficient personnel to crew them. Let us call a spade a spade; we have a serious problem in the Naval Service. The service is not at full strength and cannot perform the functions expected of it were it at full strength, although it is doing very well to compensate for that in terms of the work it is doing. The service is highly efficient in the way it operates at sea and on land.

We have a White Paper and a Government commitment to support a fleet that is below strength and that has consequences in terms of fisheries patrols and many of the other really important roles that the Naval Service plays. Despite all of that, the Naval Service has still managed to add significantly to national efforts to respond to Covid-19, including testing on the dock and so on. This shows the flexibility and professionalism of our Defence Forces in general and the Naval Service in particular. However, the status quo is not acceptable. We need to be more impactful in a positive way in terms of retention and recruitment in the Naval Service to deal with the shortage of personnel and I am focused on trying to resolve that issue.

We all accept that Defence Forces personnel have been underpaid which is why many are leaving to take up other employment. Has the Department drawn up any projections regarding the implications if this trend continues? In particular, has it analysed the impact low personnel numbers will have on the overall size of our Defence Forces and the security implications of same? What is needed to attract former personnel or new recruits in order to restore the strength of our Defence Forces to an adequate level? Finally, will additional demands be placed on our Naval Service when Britain leaves the EU, particularly if new arrangements regarding EU fishing waters have to be put in place?

In response to the Deputy's final question, there could be additional demands on the service but people like me and others must try to ensure that we reach a deal on fisheries, trade and a level playing field and fair competition before the end of the year. Those three areas will either all be agreed or none will be agreed, frankly. They come as a package, in parallel. In the absence of an agreement on fisheries, we will have a very complex problem on our hands at sea in terms of tension between fleets and we will need to manage that as best we can. That will obviously put pressure on the Naval Service.

Not for the first time, I am on record as saying that I am focused on trying to address the particular problems in the Naval Service. We have a whole range of other issues that need to be addressed across the Defence Forces generally but the Naval Service is a particular problem right now. This time last year, the Air Corps was a particular problem but a solution was found. We need to get our fleet back up to a more acceptable strength and get our ships back out to sea. To do that, we need to devise an impactful strategy to retain personnel and stop them leaving, and also to recruit former members of the service as well as new serving personnel. We are focusing on that and will be launching a specific strategy to do that in the next few days or weeks. We are also working on a support package to try to achieve our aims. These things are not easy but they are important.