Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Ceisteanna (42, 47, 48, 71)

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

42. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Defence the establishment number for the Defence Forces by Army, Naval Service and Air Corps; the actual number of personnel serving in each branch of the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36561/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

47. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Defence the number of new recruits that have enlisted in the Permanent Defence Force to date in 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36623/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

48. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the steps in hand to address the issue of the strength of the Defence Forces with particular reference to the attainment of optimal strength; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36574/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Barry Cowen

Ceist:

71. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Defence when he expects the numbers in the Defence Forces to reach the approved threshold of 9,500; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36621/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Defence)

My question is to ask the Minister the establishment number of the Defence Forces, broken down by Army, Naval Service and the Air Corps, and to compare that with the actual number serving. It is important we find that out, and then that the Minister might explain to us why that is the way it is.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 42, 47, 48 and 71 together.

The establishment of the Permanent Defence Force, as set out in the White Paper for defence, is 9,500 personnel, comprising 7,520 Army personnel, 886 Air Corps personnel and 1,094 Naval Service personnel. The military authorities have advised that at 30 September 2020, the strength of the Permanent Defence Force was 8,529 personnel, comprising 6,878 Army personnel, 752 Air Corps personnel and 899 Naval Service personnel. The Government remains committed to restoring the strength of the Permanent Defence Force as soon as possible. However, this will take time.

The Public Service Pay Commission report undertook a detailed analysis of recruitment and retention difficulties in the Defence Forces. Implementation of the high-level plan, Strengthening Our Defence Forces - Phase One, is a key part of the response to address recruitment and retention issues. The immediate pay increases were delivered, and further pay measures will be considered as part of the next pay negotiations. A range of non-pay measures are also being progressed.

I have acknowledged that there are ongoing difficulties in the Defence Force and these have been well documented. The Naval Service is a case in point and a new seagoing service commitment scheme for Naval Service personnel and an extension of a tax credit for seagoing Naval Service personnel are examples of targeted measures I have introduced aimed at retaining experienced Naval Service personnel. This follows the reintroduction of a successful service commitment scheme for flying officers in the Air Corps. As I have said, other measures will be considered as part of the next pay negotiations.

There have been 449 inductions to date this year, including 316 general service recruits, 67 cadets, 20 Air Corps apprentices, five direct entry specialists, three recommissioned officers and 38 re-enlisted personnel. Covid 19 has impacted on the numbers inducted this year. Other initiatives such as recommissioning of former Air Corps pilots have also assisted in boosting much needed specialists, and I understand that further specialist officers will be recommissioned soon. The re-enlistment of former enlisted personnel is another initiative that is to be welcomed. While the numbers being inducted are lower than initially anticipated, all will play an important role in restoring capacity.

The programme for Government provides that a commission on the Defence Forces will be tasked with examining a range of issues. This will provide an opportunity to chart the future direction for the Defence Forces. There is also a commitment to establish a pay review body for the Defence Forces when the commission has completed its work. Working closely with the Secretary General and the Chief of Staff, and a range of key stakeholders, I am confident that the current challenges facing the Defence Forces can be overcome.

I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that the important starting point is to know where we are, to be honest about that and to put in place targeted initiatives to respond comprehensively to a Defence Forces that is effectively 1,000 people below where it should be in terms of strength. I am determined to make a positive impact on those numbers during my time as Minister.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. Perhaps he could outline for me when this divergence started taking place between the establishment strength of the Defence Forces and the position we find ourselves in today whereby we are 10% down in each service. What steps were taken once it became apparent that there was a difficulty retaining and recruiting people to the Defence Forces? What steps were taken once that divergence became apparent? It seems to me that this is a long-standing problem and that everything is always in the future rather than actually dealing with the issue and getting results.

Like Deputy Ó Cuív, I thank the Minister for his reply. A greater emphasis needs to put on retention. We talk about recruitment and retention, but my understanding is, and I am more familiar with the Army than with the other two branches, namely, the Naval Service and the Air Corps, that after five years, many good, young people with great skills and expertise leave. I understand that in the past there existed a pre-discharge leave of 90 days whereby a person who decided to leave after five years had the option of re-enlisting if he or she changed his or her mind within the 90 days. At times people took that option and enlisted again so that this particular human resource was not lost to the Army.

I understand from speaking to people in the Army that too many people are discharged for minor medical ailments, ailments for which people would not be discharged from other physically demanding jobs in the public service. Maybe it is time we visited that particular issue as well. Also, in the past when a person completed five years, there was an incentive offered to the person to stay another four years, be it a monetary award or some particular leave arrangement. Those particular measures worked in the past. They need to be revisited to ensure we get our numbers back to the promised strength of 9,500.

I acknowledge the Minister's response and the efforts that are being made. Every effort needs to continue to be made to strengthen the numbers. I echo the sentiments of other Deputies in regard to the need also for flexibility to do everything we possibly can do to retain people, to recruit new members and to create the most positive possible environment for that to happen. I know the Minister is very much committed to that. It is a difficult time in the context of Covid but this is something that is crucially important. I am encouraged by the efforts to date and I encourage further progress.

The history of this is that when the private sector grows rapidly, it often puts pressure on certain elements of public sector employment, particularly in areas where the training and the quality of the personnel are as high as they are in the Defence Forces. The truth is that a lot of people in the Defence Forces were head-hunted by the private sector. For example, in Cork, many members of the Naval Service were effectively targeted as highly skilled and motivated engineers for the pharmaceutical sector and were offered big pay packets to leave. When we saw rapid employment growth over the past seven or eight years, that had an impact on retention within the Defence Forces generally.

We need to learn from that and we need to ensure that we introduce targeted incentives where appropriate to try to address it. The Air Corps is a good example of that. When pilots were in short supply in the private sector, a number of pilots left our Air Corps. When the aviation sector has got into trouble, we have seen some of them return through re-enlistment programmes and so on. We have also introduced financial incentives around retention for key skill sets. Pilots are a good example in the Air Corps. We are putting in place a similar type of scheme for the Naval Service. It is clearly a problem persuading people to go to sea in terms of lifestyle choice versus other options that are available to people. We need to incentivise people financially to go to sea, which is exactly what this new seagoing retention scheme is all about.

I hear what people are saying. I give some reassurance that this is not just about plans for the future. We are spending extra money now to improve our retention numbers and to increase recruitment. We are also setting up a commission in the next few weeks which will again look at all these things, including looking at international best practice. When Deputies see the membership of the commission they will see that we are taking these matters very seriously.

One of the attractions previously of serving in the Garda or the Army was that when a person went out on pension, he or she could get a new job and have the pension. My understanding is that that was changed in the past ten years to a situation where, if a person who leaves with a pension takes up public service employment and does the same full amount of work as his or her colleagues, equal pay for equal work does not apply because there is an abatement of the pension. However, if that person moves into the private sector, he or she can keep the pension and get the private sector wages but the skills are lost to the public sector. Has any assessment been done on that issue to find out the extent to which it has reduced the incentive and the attractiveness of serving in the Defence Forces until the Defence Forces pension age and then being able to move on and take up employment in the public or private sector without penalty?

As the Minister is aware, there has been a diminished Defence Forces footprint in the Border region and in the northern half of the country in particular in the past six or seven years. That has been an impediment to retaining personnel who were attached to barracks in Dún Uí Néill or other areas in the northern half of the country. Is the Minister assured that there are adequate personnel in the northern half of the country, given the unique policing and security demands in that area?

I welcome the commitment the Minister has given to act on the programme for Government commitment to establish a commission on the future of the Defence Forces. I suggest that he should ensure he has personnel on that commission who have served in the Border region and who are conscious of the great work the Defence Forces did in very difficult days for our country when terrorists were a threat to the State and those personnel stood up and defended the State. We need that expertise and knowledge to be brought to the commission on the future of the Permanent Defence Force.

Like the Deputy, I recognise the role the Defence Forces have played at very difficult moments in our history when tension in Border counties was much more significant than it is today. It is important to state that the operational structures of the Defence Forces are predominantly a military matter for the Chief of Staff. As I stated in response to the previous question, Deputies will see that the make-up of the commission is a good mix of national and international military expertise, civilian expertise and academia. It will be clear that certainly there is the capacity on that commission to look at all of these issues, including Border issues.

On the issue of pensions policy, I get asked about pensions policy quite a lot in the context of some of the Defence Forces representative bodies. The Association of Retired Commissioned Officers, ARCO, in particular raises the matter, and understandably so for their members. It is important to state that the Minister for Defence does not control pensions policy. That is very much the domain of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The truth is that it is the overall package that people look at, although I think that when people in their late teens or early 20s join the Defence Forces, most of them are not thinking about their pension at that point but rather are thinking about conditions of work, pay, allowances, whether they will be able to serve abroad, and the structures within the Defence Forces to allow them to move up the ladder over time and so on. I hope many of the young people who have joined the Defence Forces in recent years will look forward to a very ambitious report coming from the commission in 12 months.