Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 4 December 2013
Select Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Estimates for Public Services 2013
Vote 35 - Army Pensions (Supplementary)
Apologies have been received from Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn. As we are in public session, all mobile telephones should be switched off as they cause interference with the recording equipment even if in silent mode. Before beginning I congratulate the Minister on the inaugural national missing persons day today. I attended the ceremony, which was terrific. On behalf of Deputies I pass on our congratulations to the officials who worked so hard on this and did a great job. It was a really moving and important inaugural event, and I hope it is the first of many events relating to that most important issue. I pass those words to the Minister on behalf of colleagues, and I know Senators would also like to be associated with those remarks. It was amazing.
The meeting has been convened to consider a Supplementary Estimate for Vote 35 - Army Pensions. A Supplementary Estimate for Vote 35 was referred by the Dáil to the committee with an instruction to report back to the Dáil by 12 December. The role of the committee under Standing Orders is to consider the Supplementary Estimate and then report that we have done so by way of a message to the Dáil. I thank the Minister for attending and assisting our consideration of this Supplementary Estimate and the briefing material which has been circulated to members. I propose that the following arrangements apply to the debate. The Minister will address the committee, after which each of the Opposition spokespersons will have the opportunity to respond and we can then have an open discussion. Is that agreed? Agreed. I remind members that in accordance with Standing Order 161, discussion should be confined to the items in the Supplementary Estimate, so they should try not to wander into other areas. I will be quite strict about that, as the last time we had a meeting people wandered far and wide.
I thank the Chairman for his kind remarks about the inaugural national missing persons day, and I will pass on his comments to officials in my Department. They did an extraordinary amount of work in bringing together what I think was a very important event and which will become a regular occurrence. I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for their support and engagement in the context of the pupils from Davis College in Cork, who took a very important initiative which very substantially contributed to the decision made to hold the event.
Turning to the matters on the agenda before the committee, I thank members for the opportunity to present for its consideration the 2013 Supplementary Estimate for Vote 35 - Army Pensions, which is for a net sum of €9.4 million. The 2013 Estimate provides a net sum of €208.8 million; however, net out-turn this year is expected to be €218.2 million, leaving a shortfall of €9.4 million. At the outset, I should say that this Supplementary Estimate for the army pensions Vote will be met by an appropriate saving on the Defence Vote. There will be no extra demand on the Exchequer over what was initially voted for the Defence Vote group for 2013. This Supplementary Estimate is therefore Exchequer neutral.
Expenditure under the army pensions Vote is provided under a single programme entitled Provision for Defence Forces Pensions Benefits. The army pensions Vote makes provision for retired pay, pensions, allowances and gratuities payable to or in respect of members of the Defence Forces. The numbers of Defence Forces pensioners have continued to increase during the past year and currently there are almost 12,000 pensioners of all categories paid by the Department of Defence.
Subhead A2 is the main subhead of the army pensions Vote and covers expenditure on all superannuation benefits for former members of the Permanent Defence Force and their dependants. It accounts for over 95% of all military pensions expenditure, including gratuities, and it is primarily demand-led and non-discretionary.
The original provision of some €204.4 million for this subhead will be inadequate to meet all requirements for the year and a gross shortfall is estimated at €9 million. The principal reasons for the shortfall in this subhead are the continued increase in the number of retirement pensioners being paid from the Vote; and the ongoing impact on pension payments of the exceptionally high number of retirements on pension in recent years. In addition, many retirees are in the "long service" category and therefore entitled to maximum retirement benefits, which contribute to the increased costs.
Permanent Defence Force retirements on pension more than doubled annually in the five years up to 2012, and that is reflective of public service trends. Some 1,520 military personnel have retired on pension between January 2010 and the end of 2012, approximately two thirds of them during the 12 months or so prior to expiry of the "grace period" on 29 February 2012. At the end of 2012, there were 11,329 retirement pensioners - that is, retired members and dependants - and the current corresponding number is some 11,400. It is expected that by the end of December 2013, some 260 military personnel will have retired on pension over the course of the year. Overall, the provision in subhead A2 will not be sufficient to meet projected costs.
The number of surviving War of Independence spouses on pension is currently 157. The last Old IRA veteran in receipt of a pension died in 2006. A shortfall of €400,000 is also expected in appropriations-in-aid. This is also related to the much higher numbers leaving the Permanent Defence Force in recent years, and who are no longer paying employee contributions to the pension schemes.
Under the rules of the new public service single pension scheme introduced on 1 January 2013, contributions of single scheme members, including military personnel recruited to the Permanent Defence Force from that date onwards, will not be paid into appropriations-in-aid in the Army pensions Vote but are instead to be paid directly into central funds.
The overall supplementary requirement on subhead A2 will be offset by expected savings of €880,000 in subheads A1, A3, A4, A5 and A6 and when these are taken into account, the net shortfall on the Vote is €9.4 million.
On the subject of recruitment, the personnel turnover rate in the Defence Forces is among the highest in the public service. During 2013, some 355 personnel had left the Permanent Defence Force by the end of October for various reasons, including retirement on pension. The regular recruitment of young soldiers is an absolute necessity to ensure a pool of fit personnel to fulfil all the operational tasks assigned to the Defence Forces at home and abroad.
At the end of October 2013, the active strength level of the Permanent Defence Force was 9,222. On a positive note, general service recruitment to the Defence Forces is ongoing from the existing competition panels. To date, a total of 339 recruits have been enlisted for general service. Recruitment this year has included a medical officer appointed in September and an intake of 34 cadets, who commenced training in October. Competitions to recruit Air Corps apprentices and Naval Service engine room artificers are currently under way, from which it is proposed to enlist 20 and 15 personnel respectively.
Targeted recruitment will continue within the resource envelope allocated to defence to maintain numbers and it is expected that by the end of the year the strength of the Permanent Defence Force will be in the region of 9,400 personnel. It is planned to run a new general service recruitment competition in the first half of 2014.
Finally, I wish to acknowledge and thank individual members of the Defence Forces for their continued efforts during the year. I am conscious that we have members of the Defence Forces located in 14 different UN missions globally. All of those currently in situare likely to be abroad over the Christmas period. I wish them a peaceful Christmas and a happy new year. I wish that to their families who will not have loved ones at home with them over the Christmas period. I wish to extend my good wishes to all members of the Permanent Defence Force at home. I thank members of the committee for their attention. I am happy to deal with any issue that might arise.
I thank the Minister. I am sure members would like to be associated with his remarks with respect to members of the Defence Forces both at home and abroad. We would be grateful if he could convey that to the members who are abroad over the Christmas period through the Chief of Staff.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I will not detain the committee unduly. I support the Supplementary Estimate. I follow you, Chairman, and the Minister in wishing well all those who serve with great distinction overseas. I am conscious as we move towards Christmas of the sacrifice military families make. They release their husbands or wives to serve on our behalf in locations around the world. They serve with distinction and bring great credit to this country in the service they give.
I will not wander as you gave us careful warning at the outset.
I join in commending the Minister, which I do not do too often. I also commend the Cork students who were responsible for the inaugural missing persons day. That is a worthwhile development. I know two of the families that have been devastated by virtue of losing a loved member and I know how difficult the situation is for them.
The Supplementary Estimate serves to highlight for us the fact that the shortfall of €9.4 million can be found from within the overall Vote of the Defence Forces. It shows how effective the Defence Forces have been over the years in adapting to the changing climate that has prevailed. I frequently said to the Minister that the Defence Forces have learned how to be slim – lean, mean and effective – in how they did their business long before other elements of the public service ever began to think about the need to do it. We support the Supplementary Estimate as we want pensioners to be paid their due allowance.
We were told by the Minister that €880,000 in savings have been achieved in subheads A1, A3, A4, A5 and A6. The Minister said he intends to save approximately €9 million overall. Will he give a sense of where the savings will be achieved? If he could do that to our satisfaction I would have no difficulty with the proposal before us.
I further commend the Minister on his recruitment campaign. It is encouraging to see in excess of 300 young people joining the force. That is a good thing. We need to have ongoing recruitment. At the same time, PDFORRA has raised some concerns about people on the 21-year contracts who remain fit and able, who are in good health and who are well capable of continuing to give service. The Minister should think long and hard before forcing people out of the Defence Forces into an environment where their chance of future employment is slim.
I thank Deputy Ó Fearghaíl for his supportive remarks for the event held in Farmleigh today. In the context of recruitment, I gave the exact number of recruits this year up to October. By the time we reach 31 December we will have recruited an estimated 430 new members of the Defence Forces during the course of 2013. That is very important as well in terms of maintaining the strength of the Defence Forces, which moves up and down a little with retirements and competitions. It is also important that there is a constant sense of renewal within the Defence Forces in regard to the age profiles of individuals. I note what the Deputy said about the arrangements concerning compulsory retirements after 21 years’ service. They were put in place some years ago. The Deputy does not want me to revisit which Government put them in place but they were-----
-----put in place for a good reason.
They were put in place to ensure a reasonable turnover in the context of the functions members of the Defence Forces have to perform and, bearing age in mind, to ensure members would have the capacity to perform those functions properly. That was an issue that was very carefully addressed. It arose at one of the meetings of this committee, perhaps when considering last year's Estimates. I do not envisage that position changing. If it were to change, we would have an ageing defence force. It would not create the openings for recruitment and would not allow vigorous young people to enter the Defence Forces. We must maintain some age-appropriate balance within the Defence Forces. I am sure we could all have an interesting conversation on whether 19, 20, 21 or 23 years would be most appropriate but the age was fixed some years ago and I do not envisage a change in the shorter term. The current arrangement affords young people an opportunity to join the Defence Forces and bring value to the organisation. I am conscious that all those retiring have given great service to the State. Some have specialist expertise in specific areas. That is important to acknowledge but, as I said to the Deputy, I do not foresee a change.
The Deputy was right about how we are in a position to fund pensions from within our resources, as opposed to drawing on some major additional allocation. In recent years, it has been usual on the defence side to have a recalibration of the type described at the end of the year, for a number of reasons. First, one does not know for certain in any one year how many members will retire. Second, as vacancies arise and people are recruited, numbers move up and down a little. The number has dipped a little but, by the end of the year, it will be back up to 9,400. We will progress that into the new year.
Effectively, the savings have been effected by very careful marshalling of resources. I agree with what the Deputy said in that regard. I am not patting myself on the back in that what I say applies equally to my predecessor and to the manner in which the Defence Forces themselves and the civil side within the Department have managed resources. It is done with great efficiency. Over time, the careful stewardship of defence spending has meant there is no substantial over-expenditure that can be identified in any area. On occasion, we have succeeded in operating at a lesser cost than might have been anticipated when the original Estimates were agreed. It is basically good management. It is a tribute to the work of the officials in my Department and to management within the Defence Forces. These matters are dealt with very carefully. That is why we are in a position to deal with matters in this appropriate way.
I hope I have answered most of the questions raised by the Deputy. Since what I have outlined is the case, there are no operational issues concerning the cross-transfer of funding between the two different Votes.
I support the Supplementary Estimate. I commend the Minister on yesterday's response to the Smithwick inquiry, which revealed collusion. He came out to the plinth very quickly and apologised. I thank him for that. He represented the views of most Members of the Oireachtas.
I thank the Defence Forces for and commend them on the magnificent work they do both at home and abroad, particularly at United Nations level.
I will not have a go the Minister today but I do have two questions for him. Does he have any up-to-date information on the recent attacks on our Defence Forces in Syria?
Okay. My second question is on the Minister's report on the 339 recruits. Are many applying to join the Defence Forces? From my constituency, I understand many young people are interested in joining but feel they have not got a chance. While the number of recruits is listed in the report as 339, is a figure available for the number of people applying to join the Defence Forces?
On the last occasion on which we advertised, there were in the region of 10,000 applications. There is enormous international respect for our Defence Forces. They do a really good job and the training is excellent. A member of the Defence Forces can acquire expertise in a variety of areas such that job opportunities become available on returning to civilian life. Even in the current climate, there will be job opportunities for some of those retiring after 21 years. A number of very skilled individuals will be available for employment.
We are working from an existing panel at present but we will be advertising again in 2014. I encourage people to apply. There is a very fair system with regard to recruitment. Inevitably, the number of applicants will be large. I will get shot by the Chairman for saying this but I believe I should share with the Deputies the fact that the formal advertisements on Garda recruitment will be in the newspapers on 12 December. This is proceeding as planned. While there were 10,000 applicants on the last occasion for the Defence Forces generally, there are over 30,000 expressions of interest from individuals to join An Garda Síochána before formal advertising. I expect that the number of applicants will exceed that. The application forms will be available to individuals online. There will certainly be no shortage of applicants. I encourage those who are interested to duly apply.
I join those who spoke today about the inaugural missing persons day. I wish everybody involved the very best and congratulate them. It is a fantastic and very considerate initiative. I apologise for my not having been able to attend the function; I conveyed my apologies. I am a member of two committees so I am busy.
I support the Supplementary Estimate. I have been contacted by a number of people who really want to remain in the Army but who must leave at a young age because the 25-year period specified in their contracts has expired. Has that been addressed already?
I will be brief because Deputy Ó Fearghaíl raised it. There are regulations in place with regard to this. As I explained, it concerns ensuring that the Defence Forces are truly fit for purpose. There are very good people who will have served their time in the Defence Forces and who will have made contributions that will be greatly appreciated, but it is important that there be a turnover and that a certain age profile be maintained in the force. A very considered decision was made some years ago in this regard. I believe it was right and I support it. I do not envisage that arrangement changing in the short to medium term.
I thank the Minister for presenting us with the Estimate today. It is very good. I was sorry I could not attend the event this morning. I congratulate the Minister on it. I was deputising for the Chairman at a gathering of the National Women's Council of Ireland, which was launching a report on domestic violence.
I deputised for the Chairman at the launch of the National Women's Council of Ireland's domestic violence report. I wish all our people overseas a very happy Christmas. The average person on the street does not realise we have personnel involved in 14 UN human missions globally. With regard to recruitment what is the upper age limit for somebody applying to join?
I do not know off the top of my head. I have the upper age limit for applications to An Garda Síochána in my head, which I know is 35. I think it is 27, but I will confirm this for committee members. I should automatically know this.
There is a variant between the Army, Cadets and the Naval Service and there is also a particular role with regard to the Air Corps. I am reasonably certain as to which section has an age limit of 27 years but we will confirm it in writing.
I thank the Minister and his officials for coming before the committee. I will start where the Minister ended and acknowledge the very fine work our Defence Forces carry out, in particular those who serve abroad on various UN missions. Given it is December I will take the opportunity to wish them all a very happy Christmas.
With regard to the funding of the 9,500 members, I wish to mention a group of 800 in the Air Corps, some of whom I met last week with the Chairman and Deputy Mac Lochlainn at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel. It was a very interesting visit with the brigadier general and his colonels which showcased the excellent work they do with some very fine equipment. I could not get over the relatively young age profile of the equipment they use, with the exception of the Cessna aircraft which is a discussion for another day. I was very impressed with the professionalism and display put on for us during a two and a half hour visit. It was an eye-o pening experience for me. I had been in Casement Aerodrome as a child back in the 1980s when the aeronautical displays used to take place with the Swallow aircraft among others but this has not happened in a while. Seeing the Air Corps operate, and the Garda Síochána helicopter unit which is also based there, was a great experience and the Chairman, Deputy Mac Lochlainn and I greatly enjoyed our brief visit. I wish to take this opportunity to mention it and commend them on their stellar service to the State.
I wish to be associated with these remarks. Our visit was very worthwhile and I thank the Department officials who were with us and the personnel who gave of their time to brief us on the work they do. I was very struck by how professional the air ambulance service is. It certainly shows the value of these visits because one can speak all day but it is very useful to see what happens. I had a problem getting Deputy Farrell out of the cockpit of one of the aircraft.
I am a small bit puzzled about the Supplementary Estimate. The Minister stated the Supplementary Estimate is Exchequer neutral, but €9.4 million is being sought. The Minister stated it will come from another Vote. From what other Vote is it coming? Am I missing something?
I support the Supplementary Estimate and I thank the Minister and his officials for coming before the committee. I notice there are 12,000 Army pensioners and an active strength of a little over 9,000. This year there are 339 recruits and 260 have left. When was the last year there was recruitment? With how many years is the Minister catching up? Is a strength of 9,000 sufficient for the Army to meet all its commitments, particularly international commitments?
No, we have agreed the objective strength is 9,500. I gave the exact figures a moment ago. At present there are approximately 9,250 in the Defence Forces. By the time we get to 31 December it will be 9,400. Each year there are a number of retirements and I went through the various retirement figures a moment ago. It is important we continue with our recruitment campaign. I stated there will be a new recruitment campaign in 2014. The Government made a decision the objective strength should be 9,500 and at present we are approximately 250 below this. It will increase to 9,400 by 31 December and we will continue this into the new year. Every year different numbers retire and are recruited. Recruitment in 2011 was 526 and in 2012 it was 633. We have different numbers each year, which are substantially dictated by the number of retirements . A number of vacancies can become available and after a little time lag we recruit. The object of strength is 9,500 and there will always be some variant and movement up and down. I am satisfied the numbers we have at present are sufficient to enable us to carry out our duties at home and abroad.
Deputies Anne Ferris and Alan Farrell mentioned the missions abroad. We sometimes lose sight of the fact we are a small country. It is extraordinary we have engagements throughout the world in 14 different locations all of which are conflict zones or troublespots. In some of these we have only small numbers of our Defence Forces, but they are there because they are in leadership positions. For example, last week I visited the Lebanon, Jordan and Israel and I met Major General Mick Finn of the Defence Forces who heads up the truce observer group in the Middle East covering the Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Syria. The group was put in place following the 1973 war in the region. The 250 soldiers engaged in the group come from a broad range of countries but someone from Ireland is in charge. This is replicated elsewhere, for example EUTM Somalia where Brigadier General Aherne is in charge of the mission. Again we have very small numbers there but they do very important jobs. Without doubt we have the capacity to continue to engage in this way and bring our niche skills in peacekeeping and dealing with the neutralisation of improvised explosive devices. In some instances we are in teaching mode for bigger armies. These are very important tasks and the Defence Forces are certainly up to them.
The Defence Forces get good training in these areas and do an important and good job which gets worldwide praise and recognition. When I travelled around the Middle East last week, various Ministers in different Governments praised the contribution we are making and the value of our engagement.
Yesterday, some members met with Mr. Weixiong Chen from the UN’s counter-terrorism committee who said Ireland has much to offer the world in this area. He praised the expertise of our defence and police personnel.
We should all be very proud of our Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána. I am not going to head into other areas that have been in the media for the past 24 hours. It should be remembered, however, that people in both forces put their lives on the line in the public interest and public good, not just on this island but in conflict zones across the world. They serve with great distinction.
The figure is 12,000. It should be noted that some of them are experiencing hard times. The committee will be meeting the Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen and Women next year. I commend the work it does in supporting retired members of the Defence Forces who have may have fallen on hard times. Sometimes one can get institutionalised when one is in an organisation for some time and then have difficulties adapting when one retires.
There was an expectation among many Defence Force members when they joined up initially, that after 21 years’ service, there would be an opportunity for promotion to sergeant and beyond. I understand that this is not happening and this is why it has become an issue. This might have to be taken into account.
In March 2011 when we came into government, the objective strength of the Defence Forces was 11,500. It was to go down to 9,000 and be reduced further to the 8,000 mark. Having regard for the financial realities of the State and our defence needs at home and abroad, a decision was made to create an objective strength of 9,500. With a smaller force, of course, there is a somewhat reduced opportunity for promotions. These are issues which must be dealt with in the public interest. We must make decisions, within the strength we have, to ensure the numbers are fit for purpose in the context of age profile. An interesting statistic is that to date in 2013, a total of 51 officers were promoted but 550 enlisted personnel were also promoted. There have been quite a number of promotions. However, these issues have to be addressed by having regard to the public interest and ensuring the capabilities of the Defence Forces in their varied tasks. There is an overall issue with regard to age profile and capacities that cannot be ignored in the interests of the Defence Forces and ensuring they can undertake the varied tasks that fall on their shoulders.