Thursday, 13 May 2021

Ceisteanna (5)

Jim O'Callaghan

Ceist:

5. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Defence when the report on the review of mandatory retirement ages for Defence Forces officers will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24895/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

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

I wish to ask the Minister about the review of mandatory retirement ages for officers in the Defence Forces. He will be aware that a review has been ongoing now for quite a while. There were reports that the review was supposed to have concluded a year ago. Where is that review and when does the Minister expect it to be published?

As the Deputy will be aware, the report to 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 Government at the time. To facilitate implementation, a high-level plan entitled Strengthening our Defence Forces – Phase One was also agreed and published on the same date.

The high-level plan provided for actions or projects to be undertaken to deliver on the Public Service Pay Commission recommendations. It also proposed a timeframe for actions or projects to commence and identified the lead actor to implement the action or project. The timeframe for commencement of the actions is split into four distinct timelines.

The project to consider options to tackle barriers to extended participation in the Permanent Defence Force was identified as a medium-term project being jointly led by the Department and the Defence Forces together. After initial research, it was decided that this project would be divided into two phases, the first focusing on reviewing mandatory retirement ages for officers and the second to review contracts for service for enlisted personnel.

It was agreed at PDFORRA that enlisted privates and corporals who had reached 21 years' service and were under-50 could remain in service until the end of 2022. Sergeants who were due to retire were also permitted to continue to serve until that timeframe. These measures meant that the review could take place in an extended timeframe.

A report on the first phase of this project on reviewing mandatory retirement age for officers was completed by the joint civil-military project team and is currently with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform awaiting clarification on a number of issues, which I understand are primarily with regard to pension entitlements. Work on the second phase of examining contracts of service for enlisted personnel is under way and progressing well.

Any proposals or decisions that arise from these considerations relating to the mandatory retirement ages will be discussed with the representative associations, of course. My Department continues to engage with the associations on all matters that fall within the scope of the representation, not just those arising from the high-level implementation plan. A draft piece of work is with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform at the moment and we are hoping to get approval and clarification on a number of issues.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I welcome the fact that the report has been completed. I know it is still a draft report but it is now with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The reason I asked the question is because, as those in the House will be aware, many officers who have joined the Defence Forces since 2014 are now leaving ahead of the mandatory retirement age because they are on reduced pension terms as compared with other public servants. We know that those in the Defence Forces are regarded as being different from other public servants in that the retirement age for them is not increasing up to the age of 68 . For those who are Defence Forces officers, the age at which they must mandatorily retire is between 56 and 60.

The other reason I tabled this question is that, unfortunately, because of the gap in pension which arises, many officers make a decision to leave the Defence Forces early. Many of them are leaving in their 30s. That is a time when they should be assuming leadership roles. It is important that we bring clarity and certainty to this as soon as possible because we need to ensure that we retain our officers within the Defence Forces.

The Deputy has made some very fair points. That is why I am anxious to conclude this issue, to have the report finalised and published and to stay in close contact with the representative bodies throughout that process. However, the Deputy will also know that I do not make all the calls on pensions. In fact, I do not make very many of them at all, even for the Defence Forces in my capacity as Minister for Defence. Pensions policy and any changes relating to it, even for the Defence Forces in a niche area, are matters for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and his Department. We are working with that Department. We have asked for clarification on a number of pensions issues and we are waiting for the Department to come back to us on them. The sooner we can bring clarity in respect of this matter, the better.

I am fully aware that the Minister does not make decisions in respect of pensions and I was not trying to land this issue completely on his desk. However, he is the advocate at Cabinet for the Defence Forces. I know that he will continue to advocate on their behalf when it comes to the mandatory retirement age, which I believe should be increased.

The issue for the Defence Forces officers arises because of the Public Sector Pensions (Single Scheme and Other Provisions) Act 2012, which resulted in the designed entitlement to the single pension or equivalent value through a supplementary pension being denied to new entrants who have joined the Defence Forces since 2013. It was always the case for commissioned officers that the entitlement to the State pension, contributory or equivalent value through a supplementary pension, was a factor that was taken into account. The problem for the Defence Forces officers is that if they must mandatorily retire between the ages of 56 and 60 and there is no State pension benefit for them, it puts them in a very difficult position. That is why they are looking elsewhere in their 30s to plan ahead for themselves and their families. I thank the Minister for his answer.

I can understand why the Deputy wants to put his points on the record. If one speaks to officers who have joined after a certain time, it is a big issue for them in terms of planning their careers, particularly the latter parts of their careers as leaders and officers within the Defence forces. That is one of the reasons we are having a review in this area. As I have said, however, we are going to have to wait for clarity from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of the pensions issues that have been raised by Deputy O'Callaghan.