Thursday, 13 May 2021

Ceisteanna (8, 10, 12, 15, 30, 41, 43)

Bríd Smith


8. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Defence the timeframe for the work of the commission on defence to be completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25107/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Niamh Smyth


10. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Defence when the commission on defence will complete its work; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24903/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul McAuliffe


12. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Defence the progress to date on the commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24889/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Barry Cowen


15. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Defence the status of the commission on defence. [24910/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Ruairí Ó Murchú


30. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Defence when the commission on the future of the Defence Forces report will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25079/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Aindrias Moynihan


41. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Defence the status of the independent commission on the Defence Forces that was sanctioned on 15 December 2020; the areas on which the commission is focusing its inquiries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25113/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gino Kenny


43. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Defence the progress of the commission of the future of the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24872/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Defence)

Will the Minister outline the timeframe for the work of the commission on defence to be completed and make a statement on the matter?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 10, 12, 15, 30, 41 and 43 together.

The programme for Government committed to establishing an independent commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the Defence Forces and include the following matters: arrangements for the effective defence of the country on land, in the air and at sea; the structure and size of the Defence Forces, encompassing capabilities, structures and staffing; appropriate governance and high-level command and control; pay and allowances structures; recruitment, retention and career progression; and to leverage the capabilities of the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, in its supports to the Permanent Defence Force and make service in the RDF more attractive.

This independent commission on the Defence Forces was established by the Government in December 2020, with a mandate to report within 12 months. The Government also approved the terms of reference, based on the programme for Government, and the membership of the commission. The commission’s overall approach will be guided and informed by both the White Paper on Defence 2015 and its update in 2019. As part of a broader consultation process, the commission invited submissions from individuals and organisations on issues relevant to its terms of reference. The commission received more than 500 submissions, which it is currently analysing.

The commission has been established as an independent body, and while it is a matter entirely for the commission, I understand it has met a broad stakeholder group, including the representative associations, senior and enlisted members of the Defence Forces, senior officials from my Department and other groups. Site visits to military locations by members of the commission have taken place and I understand that further site visits have been scheduled if Covid restrictions permit. The chairman of the commission, Mr. Aidan O'Driscoll, also met members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence on 20 April to discuss the ongoing work of the commission.

The establishment of an independent commission on the Defence Forces underpins the Government's commitment to ensuring that the Defence Forces are fit for purpose, in terms of both meeting immediate requirements and also seeking to develop a longer term vision beyond 2030. The commission is to submit its report by the end of the year and it will be considered fully at that time. I look forward to having a debate in the House on the contents of that final report when it has been presented to me and the Government has had an opportunity to consider it.

I am a bit concerned by the Minister's response because, in referring to the programme for Government, he stated the commission will be tasked with undertaking a comprehensive review, including of pay, allowances and the composition of the Defence Forces and recruitment, retention and career progression. A couple of weeks ago in The Irish Times, however, Aidan O'Driscoll was quoted as saying that the contentious issue of pay, allowances and overtime for Defence Forces personnel would not be considered by the commission. There is also the sense among the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, that this will be another wasted year.

There have been many reviews over the years and many commissions have examined the Defence Forces but the issues remain the same. They include malcontent among personnel in regard to their rates of pay and overtime, allowances and accommodation. The basic bread and butter issues and respect for the job are absent from the Defence Forces and are not being dealt with. It will be, as RACO has stated, another wasted year unless these are dealt with.

This is perhaps the first opportunity for the Minister to address in the House the comments made by Mr. O'Driscoll before the Oireachtas committee. One of the main reasons I persuaded many people within my party to vote for the programme for Government was that it was clear the commission would deal with the issue of pay and conditions. It appears, however, that Mr. O'Driscoll's comments were at variance with that. Will the Minister directly address that?

While there is a range of issues in the area of the Defence Forces, pay and conditions is the key one for some members. It is the issue on which they are waiting for us to move. Will the Minister address the issue of a permanent pay commission and state whether a pay recommendation will be made in advance of that as part of the commission? Will a separate pay commission be established or should we not expect a pay award to be made until after the commission has published its report?

It is important that the commission does not become about pay only. In its terms of reference, it has been asked to examine pay structures and allowances, how they developed and are structured, and whether they are appropriate in terms of international best practice and so on. It will certainly consider pay structures and allowances, how they work within the Defence Forces and whether those structures can be improved. Separately, we have committed in the programme for Government to setting up an independent pay body for the Defence Forces.

I have contended for many years that people who commit to a career in the Defence Forces are different in many ways from others who commit to public service. They cannot strike or get involved in political advocacy and a series of different structures apply to them, within the defence infrastructure, in regard to arbitration mechanisms and so on. It is a very different type of service and in my view, therefore, it justifies a separate pay body to assess the unique circumstances, challenges and rewards needed in the context of serving in our Permanent Defence Force.

There are two commitments of the Government. Within the terms of reference, the commission can examine pay structures and allowances but is required to be consistent with public sector pay policy. I am often involved in debates in the House in which Deputies ask me to increase pay rates in the Defence Forces.

The very same people will defend collective bargaining in public sector pay agreements, and so on. One cannot have both. We need to have consistency here, which is why we are trying to address this by setting up a separate pay body to look at the unique circumstances within the Defence Forces around pay, structures, allowances and so on. The commission will be looking at these issues and when the commission reports, we have committed to setting up an independent pay body at that time.

Listening to that answer, the Minister has tied himself up in knots. On the one hand he says that it is a different type of service and deserves a separate pay body. On the other hand he says that it is required to be in line with public sector pay. Which is it? Is in line with public sector pay or is a special kind of service that requires a special body to deal with pay? Whichever it is, the Minister must make up his mind because as RACO has stated, this is another wasted year in respect of pay and pay structures, allowances, conditions and the question of affiliation.

The Minister has just empathised with the military personnel, in that they cannot go on strike or flex their muscles in the same way as other public sector workers, but they can affiliate to the ICTU. PDFORRA was given a ruling in the European Committee of Social Rights that the Government was in violation by preventing affiliation to the ICTU. The least the Minister can do is to allow that affiliation and to clarify the complete mess here about pay. Is it a special body, is it public sector, are they linked? In the meantime, many soldiers and military personnel are leaving the service right across the Defence Forces because they are being treated badly. If they are a special force, then treat them as such and stop ignoring the issues.

I greatly welcome the Minister’s clarification that the commission will deal with pay structures and allowances. Allowances are at the heart of some of the key grievances that many of the Defence Forces personnel have. It was unfortunate that the comments were made in the Oireachtas that appeared to say the commission would not deal with HR issues.

Members of the Defence Forces in my constituency will want to know what this means for them. We need to be clear, as a Government, in outlining the timeline for that. I welcome the idea of a permanent pay commission. It is very important for all of the reasons outlined by the Minister. Will the changes in structures and allowances lead to more money in Defence Forces members' pockets at the end of this year or will they have to wait until the end of the pay commission’s deliberations? Those, I believe, are reasonable questions for the Minister.

In the first instance, members of the Defence Forces benefit, as does every other public sector worker, from the most recent pay agreement. Everybody’s take-home pay is increasing this year across the public sector. We must first wait for the commission to report at the end of the year. The Government has to then consider these recommendations and no doubt we also will have a debate in this House on them and we will make a decision then on the back of that. One commitment we have made, separate to those of the commission but I suspect that its recommendations will be consistent with this, is a commitment in the programme for Government to set up an independent pay body to assess pay issues across the Defence Forces because its members are in a unique category of service. That is justified and is also the case in many other countries where there is a separate pay review body for serving personnel.

Deputy Bríd Smith has raised a number of issues and she quotes both RACO and PDFORRA. As it happens, those organisations have very different perspectives on ICTU affiliation and the setting up of an independent pay body and there is not a uniform view. Different people have different perspectives and I am trying to take account of both. I have told PDFORRA that I have not ruled out ICTU affiliation. While I have some concerns about it, I am committed to setting up an independent pay review body, as is the Government, as can be seen in the programme for Government. That is the right course of action and is also what I understand RACO supports and was looking for. This is an ongoing discussion to try to get this right. The commission is looking at international best practice on pay structures within the Defence Forces as to allowances and how they can be used appropriately to reward service in the Defence Forces and I look forward to the recommendations that will come back in that space.