Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 3 December 2014
Select Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Estimates for Public Services 2014
Vote 35 - Army Pensions (Supplementary)
Vote 36 - Defence (Supplementary)
I thank the Members for their support. Apologies have been received from Deputy Anne Ferris and I wish to state that Deputy Stanton has been delayed.
All mobile telephones should be switched off as they cause interference with the recording system, even in silent mode. This meeting has been convened to consider the Supplementary Estimates for Vote 35 - Army Pensions and Vote 36 - Defence. I propose that the committee considers the Supplementary Estimates on a subhead basis.
I welcome the Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, and his staff to the committee. Item 1 is the Supplementary Estimates for Vote 35 - Army Pensions and Vote 36 - Defence.
I thank the Minister and his officials for attending and assisting in our consideration of the Supplementary Estimates. I also thank them for the briefing material that has been circulated to all members of the committee.
I propose that the following arrangements apply to the debate. The Minister will address the committee and after that each of the Opposition spokespersons will have an opportunity to respond. We can then consider the Supplementary Estimates. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I remind Members that, in accordance with Standing Orders, discussion shall be confined to the item constituting the Supplementary Estimates. I invite the Minister to begin his presentation.
I thank the committee for the opportunity to attend. In truth, unlike most other Supplementary Estimates, as the committee will see in a few minutes, this is not the Department of Defence asking for more money. Essentially, this is about facilitating the movement of money within the Defence Forces to deal with an issue with Army pensions. Also, within the Defence Vote, this is about facilitating the purchase of a new ship because there was an opportunity to buy one at good value. We will have an opportunity to discuss the matter.
I thank the committee for the opportunity to present, for its consideration, the 2014 Supplementary Estimates on Votes 35 and 36. Vote 35 is the Army Pensions Vote and Vote 36 is the Defence Vote. They are two separate Estimates. I shall commence with a short statement setting out the background to these Supplementary Estimates.
For 2014, a Supplementary Estimate is required to address a net shortfall of €4.8 million arising on the Army Pensions Vote, while a technical Supplementary Estimate is required within the Defence Vote to facilitate payments under the naval vessel replacement programme. At the outset, I should explain that the Supplementary Estimates sought are on an Exchequer neutral basis and all additional funding requirements will be achieved from within the overall Defence sector envelope for 2014.
I will start with the Army Pensions Vote which makes provision for retired pay, pensions, allowances and gratuities payable to or in respect of members of the Defence Forces. The 2014 Estimate provides a net sum of €215.4 million for the Army Pensions Vote. However, the net outturn this year is expected to be €220.2 million, leaving a net shortfall of €4.8 million. This amount will be funded by savings on the Defence Vote.
Subhead A.2 is the largest subhead of the Army Pensions Vote. It 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 is primarily demand-driven and non-discretionary. The original provision of some €210.6 million for this subhead will not be sufficient to meet all requirements for the year. A shortfall on this subhead of the Vote is estimated at €6.12 million.
The principal reasons for the shortfall in this subhead are the continued underlying increase in the numbers of retirement pensioners being paid from the Vote and the ongoing impact on pension payments of the exceptionally high numbers of retirements on pension in previous years. In addition, many retirees continue to be in the long service category and are, therefore, entitled to maximum retirement benefits which contributes to the increased costs.
The numbers of Defence Forces pensioners has continued to rise during the past year, and, currently, there are some 12,000 military pensioners of all categories paid by the Department of Defence, a net increase of some 1,000 since 2007. Some 1,770 military personnel have retired on pension between January 2010 and the end of last year and it is anticipated that another 240 will have retired on pension by the end of this year.
The increasing number of retirements has resulted in a reduction in the number of serving personnel; however, in line with the Government’s objective of maintaining the strength of the permanent defence forces, I am happy to inform the committee that a targeted recruitment campaign has so far seen the enlistment of 385 permanent defence force recruits, 37 cadets and 15 aircraft apprentices in 2014. Three medical officers have also been appointed.
The overall supplementary requirement on Subhead A.2 will be offset by expected savings of €1.42 million on Subheads A3, A4, A5 and A6 of the Army Pensions Vote. A shortfall of €100,000 is now expected in receipts, and it is intended to meet this from surplus receipts on the Defence Vote. When all issues are taken into account, the net shortfall on the Army Pensions Vote is €4.8 million.
I would now like to turn to the Defence Votewhere a transfer between subheads within the Vote is required to facilitate payments under the naval vessel replacement programme. By way of background, earlier this year, An Taoiseach, who was then Minister for Defence, announcedthat an order was to be placed for a third new offshore patrol vessel for the Naval Service. This was provided for under the existing contract which has already delivered the first vessel, the LE Samuel Beckettearlier this year. The second vessel, the LE James Joyce, will be delivered in 2015. By taking up this option under the existing contract, the Department of Defence ensured that the third ship would be bought at 2012 prices and would not be index linked. The acquisition of these modern new vessels, combined with a continuous process of refurbishment and repair, will ensure that the operational capability of the Naval Service is maintained.
The 2014 Estimate provides a net sum of some €640 million for the Defence Vote. Payments relating to the purchase of ships are made from the Naval Subhead, A11. The original 2014 subhead allocation for this subhead was €36.6 million, however, due to increased commitments under the naval vessel replacement programme, the projected outturn on this subhead is €69.4 million. An adjustment within the Vote of €32.8 million is therefore required. Offsetting savings will be met from the pay and allowances subheads on Vote 36 as follows: €25.8 million on Subhead A3 permanent defence force pay, €1 million on Subhead A4 permanent defence force allowances, €1 million on A5 reserve defence force pay and €4.999 million on Subhead A7 civilian employees pay to provide for the technical Supplementary Estimate of €1,000.
The purchase of the three vessels will all have been funded directly from savings generated within the Defence Vote – a considerable achievement when viewed against the economic backdrop of recent years. This has been made possible through careful monitoring and management of expenditure within the Department and the prioritisation of this essential project while also maintaining a focus on the delivery of other key outputs. The acquisition of these new vessels, with the latest equipment, will ensure that the Naval Service will be fully equipped to carry out its day-to-day roles in meeting Ireland’s obligations in the areas of fishery protection, maritime safety and security.
I take this opportunity to wish all retired Defence Force personnel and those serving in the Defence Force, as well as the reserve Defence Force personnel a happy Christmas.
The Estimates reflect the reality that the pensions bill has increased somewhat but we have accommodated it within our Vote. We have taken the opportunity this year to make a further acquisition under the fleet replacement programme in the Naval Service. We are saving the State a considerable amount of money by availing of the offer from the yard in which the third ship will be built. The careful management of pay and allowances has allowed us to accumulate the money to do that while at the same time the Defence Force will be at its full complement of 9,500 serving personnel at the end of the year.
I will be happy to answer questions.
I thank the Minister. I apologise for being late but I was at the National Missing Persons Day commemorations at Farmleigh House. It was a poignant and moving event. I thank Deputy Farrell for standing in for me. Our practice is to go through each subhead individually as that gives members the opportunity to comment on each subhead.
We will start with Vote 35 - Army Pensions. Subhead A1 - Army Pensions Board, this subhead covers the salary of the secretary of the Army Pensions Board and fees and expenses of the civilian members. There is an additional requirement of €70,000. Do members have questions?
As nobody wishes to comment, I will now deal with Subhead A 2 - Defence Forces (pensions) schemes and payment in respect of transferred service. This subhead provides for the payment of all superannuation-type benefits by way of pension and gratuity to former members of the permanent defence force and their dependants. The subhead also provides for payments in respect of transferred service.
Similar to the Justice Vote which we dealt with last week, there seems to be substantial under-estimation of the number of members who will retire in a given year. Are there lessons to be learned on making projections?
We have discussed the issue of Defence Force personnel who must retire at a certain age, although individual members feel they are physically capable of continuing to serve. Would the Minister consider allowing personnel to remain in the Defence Force?
I have an allied question, the working out of the 21 year requirement for service. If the hoped for amendments to those requirements are not reached, would particular provisions need to be made in terms of the Department's pension provision into the future?
Let me put things into context. I was appointed as Minister to this Department half way through the year. In my role as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine I know every single line of the Estimate because I have been involved in the preparation of the Estimates over a three year period. The Department of Defence has a really efficient finance team and I have learned a great deal but I have a great deal more to learn.
The ongoing funding of Vote 35 remains a considerable challenge for future years and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is well aware of the position and the context. There are particular difficulties, however, that are unique to the Defence Forces in terms of predicting retirement and turnover patterns. This can contribute to greater than expected expenditure in a given year. This is due among other things to the availability of early payment of a person's pension benefits immediately on retirement after relatively short periods of service, regardless of age. The timing of a person's actual departure is largely set by his or her own choice.
Basically, we make an Estimate at the start of each year. The Vote has been very tight because of the pressure we have been put under by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, as every Department has, so we try to calculate very accurately Vote 35 without any head room. In the other defence Vote, there are many other expenditure variables that the Defence Forces must factor in, so there is normally a little more head room. With pensions, we try to make calculations as accurate as we can as want to have some focus. That is non-discretionary funding but we want to focus as much funding and flexibility as we can on Vote 36, which essentially deals with the financing of our current Defence Forces and the Reserve Defence Force and so on.
I have provided the explanation, sequence and history of the 21-year rule but I can provide an update. This was going through the arbitration process within the Defence Forces and there was no final agreement on it. It has now gone to an independent arbiter to make a recommendation to me. I have very deliberately made the choice not to get involved with this outcome from a political perspective. We want a recommendation that is as fair to the Defence Forces personnel as is possible, particularly with regard to flexibility, but which is also good for the broader Defence Forces in terms of age profile, fitness levels, facilitation of new entrants to the Defence Forces and so on. We should not forget that when most of these personnel started, it would have been on a five-year contract that would have been extended and extended again as contracts drew to a close. Some Defence Forces personnel are now coming to the end of the 21-year period and, unfortunately, have not been promoted as there was not space or they have not managed to reach that level. We are trying to achieve an outcome in the best interests of the broader Defence Forces and the fulfilment of obligations in a safe and efficient manner. We are trying to maintain an age profile appropriate for the Defence Forces while at the same time ensuring that if people have built skill sets over a period, we would try to avoid losing those skills if appropriate. Other issues, such as fitness levels, would also be taken into account.
We should have an outcome in this regard relatively soon, and I expect it within a couple of weeks. I hope the outcome will be politically acceptable and make sense both for the Defence Forces and the personnel involved. If people are to leave the Defence Forces, we have an obligation to prepare them as best we can. If a person comes out of a structure, having been part of it for 21 years, the world can seem quite intimidating, even for people as disciplined, fit and sharp as those in the Defence Forces. There is an obligation to ensure we have prepared people as best we can for the new challenges they face. These are relatively young people coming into the work force. Ironically, they would be about my age, in their early 40s.
The average age of the Permanent Defence Force personnel now is 35 and 68% of them are under 40. We made strategic decisions some time ago to change the age profile of the Defence Forces and that has been a very successful project. We now have one of the fittest defence forces and we can be proud of that change. Nevertheless, I know there is concern within families for people now coming to the end of the 21-year period. They are concerned about their future income and so on, so we are trying to be as flexible as possible without undermining the reason behind the project, which is to maintain an appropriate age profile for a relatively small but what needs to be a very flexible and fit Defence Forces. That relates to some of its assignments, particularly abroad. I am going to southern Lebanon tomorrow and going on to Golan, and I will meet members of the Defence Forces there. That is where our two biggest contingents abroad are now, and people do not need me to remind them of the dangers in those missions. This is why we need fit, sharp and flexible young minds, as well as the experienced minds, in our Defence Forces. I hope the outcome will be acceptable to everybody, or at least as close to that as possible.
Yes. This subhead provides for the payment of all superannuation-type benefits by way of pension and gratuity to former members of the Permanent Defence Force and dependants. The subhead also provides for payments in respect of transference services. Expenditure under this subhead is demand-driven and non-discretionary. The amount provided in the original Estimate under subhead 2 for 2014 was insufficient for what transpired. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of retired Permanent Defence Force members and dependants paid from this subhead rose from 9,962 to 11,406. The current figure is 11,472. In 2014, in the period to the end of October, a total of 389 personnel have left the Permanent Defence Force, and this includes people who retired without entitlement to pension benefits. More people left the Defence Forces than we were expecting and a large percentage were entitled to the pension levels.
Yes. The increased Estimate is essentially an extra €6 million, as we have discussed. There are some savings with some of the other subheads. The overall increase in the Estimate is €4.8 million. That is the net increase transferring from one Vote to another.
Essentially, it is that we would be allowed to move €4.8 million from Vote 36 - the Defence Vote - into Vote 35, which covers pensions. There is not currently sufficient money in the pensions Vote. This is an unusual Department as there are two separate Votes. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine essentially has one Vote, although it is split between capital and current spending. This Department has two separate Votes, with one specifically relating to pensions for former Defence Forces personnel. The other Vote is essentially for the running of current Defence Forces infrastructure and all the people in it. As there is a slight shortfall in the pension provision, we are providing €4.8 million from the running costs of the Defence Forces and putting it into the pension pot to make up the difference. That is what we are asking people to approve.
The Minister is aware of the concern of Opposition Deputies about the continued use of lariam within the Defence Forces. Is any of the provision of €9.4 million being paid to members who have left the force as a consequence of the use of lariam?
The straight answer to that is I do not think there is any connection between the payment and lariam. We can check the matter and revert to the Deputy. The note I have states that payments under subhead A3 comprise disability pensions and gratuities granted to former members of the Defence Forces. Currently, there are 774 recipients. Currently, 225 allowances are paid to dependants for deceased members. I will get back to the Deputy with the specific detail. I have a note on lariam generally in terms of the justification for using it, which is essentially still on medical grounds, but I am not aware that people are being paid an allowance linked to disability or injury because of the use of lariam. I do not think that is the case but I will check the matter for the Deputy.
It is coming from drawdown. This is essentially a demand-led payment structure. The disability pensions and the gratuities granted to both former Defence Forces personnel and to their dependants is essentially on the basis of everybody who is claiming, but we have not changed the rate.
Essentially, we made a prudent estimate to make sure all claims would be covered. When one has demand-led schemes, as in the Department of Health, one essentially makes a guesstimate at the start of each year on the basis of patterns that have emerged in recent years. In some cases we have got them wrong and the Estimates are either slightly too high or slightly too low. On the previous subhead we got it wrong in that we were €6 million short and in this case the Estimate was slightly too high. We were out by €4.8 million with the overall net numbers, which in percentage terms is quite small for demand-led schemes. It is approximately 2%.
We will move on to compensation payments. There does not seem to be any major change. The payments relate to special lump sum compensation by the Department for service-related deaths of members of the Permanent Defence Force while serving overseas with the United Nations and certain other missions.
This figure is quite considerably down but we always have to put a figure in at the start of each year in case somebody wins a compensation claim and there is a big bill attached to it. The figure was €200,000 and we expect the actual outturn to be only approximately €8,000. The payments relate to death-in-service overseas and I am pleased to say nobody has died this year.
It is savings that essentially go into plugging a hole where we have underestimated. In subhead A2, we had a shortfall of just over €6 million, and the savings go into reducing the shortfall, which at the end turns out to be approximately €4.8 million.
The next subhead relates to medical appliances and travelling and incidental expenses. The total is €100,000. There is no change in that regard. The expenses covered include medical examination by applicants for disability pensions and the supply and repair of surgical or medical appliances. Are there any questions on the subhead? The next subhead is subhead B, which relates to appropriations-in-aid.
Could the Minister go back to subhead A6 for a moment? Could he inform me as to whether this particular budgetary outlay would cover the availability of doctors within the Defence Forces to perform medical examinations for members of the Army Reserve? The Army Reserve came before the committee recently and we heard that many of the available hours for such medical examinations were carried out during traditional working hours which required them to take time off work. Given that the Defence Forces operate on a 24-7 basis, 365 days a year, could an allowance be provided within the budgetary framework the Minister has put before us today for such appointments to be accommodated on weekends and evenings, for example?
On the issue raised, my official has informed me that the Defence Forces are looking to see how medical examinations could be facilitated at more convenient times. The point that was made to the committee has been taken on board and we are trying to do something to facilitate members of the Reserve Defence Force. It makes sense.
The next subhead is subhead B, appropriations-in-aid. Are there any questions or comments on it? We have completed the examination of Vote 35. We will move on to Vote 36. Subhead A1 relates to administration pay. Does anyone wish to comment?
Yes. The subhead covers the payment of salaries and allowances for civil servants of the Department. As I understand it, the savings are of the order of €5 million. Are the savings due to a reduction in the number of civilians working in the Department or the transfer of duties previously undertaken by civilians to members of the Permanent Defence Force or have the savings been achieved by the ending of previous contractual arrangements?
The savings are not significant on subhead A1. The provision is for €17.951 million and that is more or less what we are paying. I do not think any savings are proposed in that regard. There are significant savings later on pay and allowances but not for civil servants in the Department.
We will come to that. I apologise for the confusion. Perhaps we should have been a bit clearer in that regard. Civil servants for the most part are civilians, but they are not considered as civilians in the Defence Forces. Some civilians assist or are part of the Defence Forces efforts.
It is a different subhead. The subhead in question is A1 and there is no change to it in terms of savings or additions. Subhead A2 relates to administration non-pay. As far as I can see, there is no change there either.
This brings members back to the discussion they had with the Minister during the last Question Time when they acknowledged the extent to which the Department of Defence and the members of the Permanent Defence Force have been exemplary in their delivery of change, on the modernisation and the way in which they have reacted to reform. To a certain extent, through the Estimates the Minister has presented to the select committee, he is showing himself and his departmental personnel to be perhaps too good at the job they are doing. They certainly are too good at their job for the members of the Defence Forces because while worthwhile savings are being effected, it is at a cost to the permanent members of the Defence Forces. I am particularly concerned by the reports that up to 20% of the membership of the Defence Forces is in receipt of family income supplement. When one comes to the issue of pay under subhead A3 or that of allowances under subhead A4, these are pertinent matters for serving members of the Defence Forces. While one appreciates the process through which the select committee is going today, one must also appreciate that in respect of both the pay and the allowances that traditionally were paid to serving members, the end of the road has been reached as to what they can tolerate. While members of the select committee may state this is an exemplary Department, which in many respects it is, one must realise the achievements being pointed to have been achieved on the backs of the serving members, who are paying for much of the progress that is being achieved. This must at least be acknowledged.
Allow me to answer that because the Deputy has raised some fair questions. First, like many others paid by the State, the pay levels within the Defence Forces are subject to pay agreements that are in place. Consequently, I cannot simply decide that the Defence Forces will be paid more overnight without a negotiation to do that with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The savings primarily have been made here because even though the full complement of 9,500 members serving in the Permanent Defence Force will be in place at the end of the year, this has not been the case throughout the full year. Even though people usually leave the Defence Forces when they so choose or sometimes because a contract is up, recruitment campaigns happen in bursts, whereby large numbers come in at any given time. Most of that recruitment has taken place in the second half of the year and some savings have been made on pay because the Permanent Defence Force has been below the ceiling figure, before returning to that figure by the end of the year.
This has allowed the Department to make savings of €25 million in a year when it was planned to spend €422 million, which is approximately 5%. This is where the vast majority of the savings have been made and the Department then has put that money back in to the Defence Forces directly by taking the opportunity to buy a new naval vessel. Consequently, it is not as though the Defence Forces have lost the value of these savings as they are being maintained. However, my Department has sought and has found savings in this area because it obviously is a major expenditure element and comprises €422 million of the overall net Vote of €640 million. Savings have been made under this subhead largely because of the timing of the recruitment to get numbers back up to the complement of 9,500 members. This has allowed the creation of some savings, which then have been transferred into expenditure on essential equipment. In essence, this is what has happened. I could talk at greater length about these recruitment campaigns and about those who are being recruited, which in itself is a positive story. Throughout the year, however, the number of personnel has been less than 9,500 and therefore, some savings have been made on foot of that. It may not be possible to make the same level of savings next year but that is what happened this year.
Incidentally, Deputy Ó Fearghaíl or Sinn Féin - I cannot remember which - raised an issue regarding pay on Question Time. There is an ongoing assessment under way with regard to some of the pay and allowances within the Defence Forces. Its purpose is to assess whether they are at appropriate levels and obviously, when those assessments are finalised, I will make the decisions that are appropriate and consistent with them. For the moment, however, like so many other sectors of the public sector, pay agreements have been signed up to by which the Defence Forces abide. This is what determines pay levels within the Defence Forces.
The Minister will be aware of the alarming reports from the PDFORRA annual conference of members of the Defence Forces sleeping in cars. I acknowledge he dealt with this issue at the last Question Time but I also refer to the pay issue, whereby 20% of the membership of the Defence Forces is in receipt of family income supplement. Has the Minister met representatives of PDFORRA since he took up office? Does he plan to meet its representatives? I appreciate this would not be a direct negotiation on wages as there is an appropriate vehicle for so doing but is this something the Minister plans to do? In addition, the Reserve Defence Force-----
The answer to the Deputy's question is yes, I am happy to meet PDFORRA. We were due to meet before the end of the year and I will try to do that but if not, it will be early in the new year. I of course am happy to meet its representatives, as PDFORRA represents the vast majority of the people for whom I have responsibility. I look forward to meeting them.
When I attended the PDFORRA conference a couple of months ago, I made it clear that I was looking forward to meeting them. One thing I could not discuss with them in detail was the 21-year rule until a recommendation was actually received. Decisions should not be made on that subject from a political perspective. It needs to be that a recommendation is made that is then discussed. I reiterate I am happy to seek a meeting. I cannot recall whether the Department sought a meeting or whether PDFORRA asked for a meeting. It may have been a bit of both but that meeting will happen soon.
May I ask a question regarding promotions and the position within the Defence Forces, as distinct to pay? I refer to promotions up the various grades and ranks. Are there embargoes or restrictions in place?
I will provide the Chairman with some figures in this regard. This year, up to 10 November, a total of 111 officers and 174 enlisted personnel have been promoted. The non-commissioned officer, NCO, competitions have just concluded and it is expected that promotions from the panels formed will commence in the near future on or about 15 December. It is anticipated that once promotions commence, they will continue into 2015, along with ongoing officer promotions as vacancies arise. It is true to say that until a year or so ago, there were not as many promotions as there had been in previous years. However, I believe there now has been a return to recruitment and quite a lot of promotions within the Defence Forces because the numbers of the actual overall force are not being cut. The Defence Forces have made extraordinary changes over the past five or six years in reconfiguring the way in which the entire Defence Forces infrastructure in Ireland operates and interacts.
They have shown a remarkable capacity to be flexible in facilitating that. The number, which is now 9,500, is not going to be cut any further. That should facilitate vacancies and promotions as people retire as well as new recruitment, as we are seeing at the moment.
I have two other questions. The first concerns promotions from the ranks. If someone is promoted from the ranks into the officer corps, does the fact that they do not have service within it prior to being promoted affect their prospects for further promotion in the officer corps, or is service in the non-commissioned ranks taken into account? I am aware of some instances where it is not taken into account which leads to anomalies and unfairness.
I have been told it is taken into account for pension purposes. Is the Chairman suggesting there is a blockage in terms of promotion within the officer corps? I can check that out from him and give him details later. If he has specific examples, we will follow through on them.
I am informed that this involves military technicians, fitters, plumbers, plasterers and service people, and that there are six different grades.
The Chairman has raised the bomb disposal issue with me separately and I am following up on it. The concern he has raised pertains to the numbers and skill levels of new people entering into bomb disposal within the Defence Forces.
Deputy Alan Farrell referred to the recent presentation we had from the Army and Naval Service reserve. The presentations were very impressive and compelling. They expressed very serious concern about the commitment of the Department of Defence to their continued operation. One has further cause to wonder about that when one sees here that the overall allocation is quite modest, and that within that quite modest provision a saving of €1 million is being achieved. Perhaps it is more appropriate to give the Minister the opportunity to state his position. All the members of this committee are most appreciative of what the reserve does and we see the potential the reserve has to make a greater contribution to the State into the future. Maybe against the background of this saving, the Minister could say something positive to us in that regard.
Yes, we are just over €2 million. The value for money review was published in November 2012. Among the recommendations outlined in it was the retention of an Army reserve and Naval Service reserve with a combined strength of approximately 4,000 personnel. A major reorganisation of the reserve was initiated, overseen by a joint civilian and military high-level implementation group. A revised strength ceiling for the reserve of 4,069 personnel - 3,869 for the Army reserve and 200 for the Naval Service reserve - is now in place. Implementation of the value for money recommendations is ongoing. Issues arising from the implementation process are being address by a high-level civil and military oversight group. These issues include recruitment, training, regulatory changes, requirements to underpin usage of the reserve in a voluntary, unpaid capacity for tasks aiding the civil authority, and the agreement of proposals for submissions on the future of the first line reserve. The value for money review recommended that the implementation of a revised organisational approach and the effectiveness of the reserve be formally reviewed. It was initially recommended that the review take place within a four-year timeframe. However the then Minister, Deputy Shatter, revised this to three years. While the review is not formally scheduled at this time, it is likely to take place in early 2016.
As regards recruitment, a Reserve Defence Force competition was launched in March this year. This represents the first intake of recruits following the reorganisation. There were a total of 1,857 eligible applicants of whom 147 were inducted up to mid-November. The attainment of the required training levels was a key recommendation of the value for money review. Reserve personnel undertake both paid and unpaid training. The review recommended that a paid training allocation in the order of 41,500 man days was required to provide paid training for a full-strength reserve of 4,069 personnel.
In case there is any doubt, we are absolutely committed to a strong, well-trained and properly financed reserve force. My understanding is that there are currently 2,375 active reservists. We need to get the strength up to 4,069, so we will be actively recruiting. One of the concerns expressed to the committee was that resources were not being put into training or that savings were being made by taking money from training. That is not the case. The reason savings have been made here is that we do not have the full 4,069 but a little over half that. We intend to address that issue.
A total of 20,324 paid training man days were used to the end of October. The recommendation I read out was for a total of 41,000 man days for 4,069 personnel. If we have 20,000 man days up until the end of October, which is nearly half of the recommended rate, and we have just over half of the numbers, and that was done by October and does not include the last few months of the year, then we are not a million miles away from where the recommendation says we should be.
I am personally and politically committed to building a strong, well-trained and properly resourced reserve. There is a really strong role for it and I want to reassure whoever is listening or taking note that we are recruiting with some purpose. We need to get the right people and make sure they are properly trained, which is exactly what we will do.
The savings were made primarily because we do not have the full complement of numbers and therefore could not spend as much as we would otherwise have spent.
My previous point was that if the Minister meets PDFORRA, he should also meet the Reserve Defence Forces Representative Association. Throughout the last period when we were dealing with the value for money report and its implications, we were receiving representations and there would be a concern. The FCA evolved into the Reserve Defence Force.
The individuals involved in these organisations across the State are civic-minded, patriotic people who, in the main, are volunteering their services and often are involved in work with various charities. They are the face of the Permanent Defence Force in local communities. We are looking at a substantial reduction in budget here and that is cause for serious concern. I have listened to what the Minister had to say, but it would be fruitful for him to meet these people and hear their concerns first hand.
The Chairman is looking very fit still. The new policy thinking is around the concept of a single force. This means, in effect, we will see a much tighter relationship in the future between the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force in terms of training and so on. It is one of the major changes we plan to implement in order that the two organisations can work together in a much more cohesive way. That is what members of the reserve want. The more interaction they have with the Permanent Defence Force, the more effective they will be in their own roles.
I am urging the Minister to meet members of PDFORRA and the Reserve Defence Forces Representative Association in the light of the previous Minister's repeated omission in that regard. That was a profound failure on his behalf. I am not saying the Minister must agree with everything these people have to say when he meets them, but it is-----
I am happy to give the Deputy a commitment that I will meet very soon members of PDFORRA and the Reserve Defence Forces Representative Association.
As part of the review, we are due to receive proposals in regard to the first line reserve. When those recommendations are available, we will be able to make decisions.
The allocation for the first line reserve is €47,000. Army reserve and Naval Service reserve pay is just over €3 million, while Army reserve and Naval Service reserve allowances are €35,000.
My apologies, those are the original figures. Most of the saving is coming out of the €3 million plus figure for pay, although savings are probably being made across all four headings.
My officials tell me there are between 100 and 200 people involved and they receive an annual gratuity. The vast majority of this budget line comprises Army reserve and Naval Service reserve pay.
The main thing they do is make themselves available. It is like having a doctor on call. Once they go through the training regimes and become members of the front line reserve, they are in effect accepting a responsibility. The payment recognition that applies is not very large given that people may be asked to take on a significant responsibility if there is a crisis or security situation.
This subhead provides primarily for the pay of civilian employees based at military locations around the country. These employees include craft workers and general operatives and related grades involved in the maintenance of military installations. Clerical and storekeeping employees are also included, as well as professional and specialist staff who provide support for the Defence Forces. Provision is also made under this subhead for the engagement of civilian medical and paramedical practitioners to provide medical services, as required, to military personnel.
We planned to spend €32.3 million under this heading but have made savings of just under €5 million. The main bulk of the savings we have achieved are accounted for under this subheading and under Permanent Defence Force pay.
Will the Minister give an outline of how these particular pay and allowances savings have been achieved? Has the number of civilian employees reduced, for instance? Have contracts been cancelled and are members of the Defence Forces undertaking roles previously undertaken by civilian workers?
Regarding the engagement of civilian medical practitioners, I read in the notes that the Department had recruited two or three additional doctors. After submitting a parliamentary question recently, I discovered there were 18 serving Defence Forces doctors plus three or four new members. I understand the complement of doctors stood at 32 at one stage. I further understand that the Department has contracts of one sort or another with in excess of 30 GP practices throughout the country. Defence Forces staff are among the healthiest and fittest in the State and the Minister referred earlier to his commitment to ensuring the people who are retained within the Defence Forces are those who are particularly fit. In that context, it strikes me as rather strange that for a complement of 9,500 personnel, we would have somewhere between 20 and 30 doctors in the Defence Forces and then need, in addition, contractual arrangements with more than 30 general practitioners throughout the country. On the other hand, I understand the need for arrangements with consultants, but will the Minister explain those arrangements? Significant savings are being achieved from civilian staff.
Are any savings envisaged in this pretty comprehensive and, I suggest, pretty expensive area of medical provision that is very important but also probably very expensive?
On the direct question on why we are making the savings, we are making them because there are fewer people employed here. The number has deceased from 536 in 2013 to 511 in 2014. That is the straight answer.
In terms of why we are contracting GP practices, that is mainly for medical assessment. A good deal of medical assessment takes place in the Defence Forces in terms of new recruits, meeting fitness levels and all the rest of it. We use GPs from outside the Defence Forces to do that because Defence Forces doctors by and large focus on medical needs within the Defence Forces around everything including injury and so on. I will give the Deputy more detail on that. The main medical services organised by the central medical unit are generally primary care services, occupational health, physiotherapy, mental health and dental services. The locations for care vary from individual barracks at home, across the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps to locations overseas which can, logistically, environmentally, operationally, be challenging. The doctors and medical personnel within the Defence Forces - of whom we need more and attracting doctors into the Defence Forces is an issue - focus on the services I mentioned and then we use GPs as we need them just as the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, uses veterinary practitioners as it needs them. We use them primarily for medical assessments, which are standard but time-consuming. I do know why the Deputy is shaking his head but that is my understanding of how it works.
It seems extraordinary that we would need 30 plus general practices, and nobody is contradicting that figure, plus in excess of 20 full-time members of the Defence Forces to provide for the needs of 9,500 of the healthiest people in the country. That strikes me as extraordinary.
I understand there is an ongoing review in terms of health provision. GPs would be in for about an hour in the morning to do medical assessments. It is not a full-time contract. They come in and out as they are needed. The other doctors or medical personnel who are permanently employed as Defence Forces doctors are there to do some of the work I outlined. I have a reasonable understanding of this area because we have looked at the Defence Forces medical provision in the context of offering assistance to fight Ebola in West Africa. One of the issues I encountered when examining what we had the capacity to do was that we do not much spare headroom here in terms of extra doctors and medical staff that we can easily deploy abroad in big numbers. There is an ongoing review in terms of medical provision but we are talking about a very active, physically demanding lifestyle, both at home and abroad, for nearly 10,000 personnel and we need a good qualified cohort of doctors in appropriate numbers to ensure that they remain fit and strong, both mentally and physically.
We will move on. The next subhead is A.8 - Defensive Equipment and there is no change in it. Moving on to the next subhead, A.9 - Air Corps - Equipment and Expenses, there is no change in it. The next subhead is A.10 - Military Transport and there is no change in the original Estimate and no Supplementary Estimate has been sought. The next subhead is A.11 - Naval Service: Equipment and Expenses and a Supplementary Estimate of more than €32 million has been requested under it.
It is probably the subhead on military transport but no Supplementary Estimate has been sought under it.. There is no change in the original Estimate that was discussed last January. We are not being asked to do anything with it.
For the Deputy's information, we are operating with one Government jet at present because the other one is essentially out of service. When we put it in for its scheduled servicing in the US over the summer, it was clear that it had many other problems. I made the decision that we were not going to spend any more money on it because I did not think it could be justified or that it represented value for money. We essentially stopped any more expenditure on that and I will be bringing a recommendation to Government in the coming weeks on what decisions should be made around air transport for Ministers and for the Taoiseach. We will be doing that in a way that I can assure the Deputy will be cost effective and will represent value for money. In the meantime we are operating with the existing Learjet which is the smaller of two and has the shorter range of the two but it is doing a reasonable job in the circumstances in which it is operating.
Will there be any value in doing that? One of our former vessels was sold last year for €200,000 or €300,000 and another one is on the market at present. Is there any kind of value in a jet of that type?
We have set up a group within the Government to examine what is needed and what is sensible in terms of air transport for Government and it will give me a recommendation which I will be take to Cabinet. The straight answer to the Deputy's question is that I do not think there is going to be a significant value in it. We are seeking to maximise that value but it may be sold for parts as opposed to as an aircraft that will be flying in the future. This aircraft is quite old and has some fundamental problems with its structure and body. It was due to have its engines replaced in either 2017 or 2018. We have had to make sensible choices as to where we should be spending money but I will have a full set of recommendations which I will take to Cabinet. We will make a decision on that basis and that decision will be publicly known at that stage.
I assume that relates to the issue the Minister mentioned earlier about a new contract for a new vessel to supplement the existing fleet. Has a vessel being identified to be taken out of operation in light of the new vessel that has being ordered at 2012 prices that the Minister mentioned and, if so, which vessel will be it be or has that decision been made? The Minister said the cost would be based on 2012 prices and at the time of the launch of the Samuel Beckett, which I had the pleasure of attending along with the chairman and others, I did some research and found that the price the Government of the day paid for that vessel was extraordinarily cheap on some comparatives I found for vessels of similar yardage. Given the age of our fleet, is there a proposal to have a gradual replacement programme and will that include other vessels as our economic circumstances improve?
Has any consideration been given to naming this vessel? Our literary greats in history are lining up and I am sure that certain names spring to mind.
As new ships come in old ships go out. We have a policy around an eight ship Naval Service and that is the policy for the foreseeable future. When the next Naval Service ship,LE James Joyce, arrives in a couple of months time, the LE Aoifewill be decommissioned and sold. Some 12 months after that, the next ship will arrive so that we will have the LE Samuel Beckett, LE James Joyceand the soon to be named vessel. These are more or less identical vessels, a super design. They are essentially a development on LE Niamh and LE Róisín, slightly longer, sleeker and faster. They are more stable and more fuel efficient. These ships have essentially evolved and one of the good things about working with the contractors who are building these ships, is that our Naval Service personnel have been involved in talking to the design team about how we can make incremental improvements on the design of the ships. From what we have learned in the operation of theLE Samuel Beckett , we have been able to make improvements in the workings of LE James Joyce. I suspect this will apply to the next ship. Certainly the yard is building on the designs and the success of the LE NiamhandLE Róisín,which were the previous two ships. The long-term size and composition of the Naval Service flotilla will be determined in the White Paper. The current policy is that we will have eight ships. I would not like to predict what we will be recommending in the White Paper.
If my recollection is correct, I know that the range of some of the vessels was limited. If I am not mistaken, one of the Naval Service ships visited Hong Kong some years ago and I remember reading about the limited range and the ship having to make stops on the way. I presume the new vessels will have a much greater range. The Minister mentioned fuel efficiency. I assume the range has been increased.
The main specifications of the new offshore patrol vessels as they are know, is that they can accommodate a crew of 54 personnel, 44 ships company and ten trainees. It is capable of operations for 21 days or three weeks. It will provide strong operational capability for up to 40 years service. The current fleet has a recommendation of about 30 years. TheLE Aoifewas commissioned in 1979 and the LE Aisling in 1980. They have gone beyond the recommended period of service in Irish conditions. They may well be suitable for the Mediterranean or somewhere else.
We have some of the roughest waters in the world off the west coast and we need ships out in those conditions virtually all of the time. There are specific design considerations in terms of ballast, stability, depth and hull design that suit Irish waters. This is the reason we cannot buy other ships from other parts of the world and assume they will be fine in our waters. That is not the way it works. The next ships can achieve a top speed of 23 knots, which is about 28 miles per hour. This is significantly higher than the top speed of 18 knots, which is achievable by other Naval Service vessels. They are equipped with power taking systems which will enable major fuel savings as engines can be shut down in favour of generator power. I have been on the LE Samuel Beckett and it is very impressive. I would encourage members of the committee to see the ship.
Let me say it might put a bit of manners on members and they might start to appreciate what the Naval Service does for this country.
The new vessels have a longer deck area which would accommodate remotely operated submersibles and decompression chambers for divers. This is to facilitate more effective search and rescue missions, black box retrieval and a close review of the ocean environment and habitats. I can see a time when the Naval Service becomes more involved in data collection at sea, whether it is around fisheries or marine observation and so on. Defending Ireland is not just about war going capacity, it is also about defending our national assets, some 90% of which are under water, given the size and scale of our oceans. Many do not realise it, but if one counts our sovereign territory at sea, as well as our land, we would be the third or fourth largest country in the European Union. We need to be able to manage, protect and to defend those resources as well as ensuring that we undertake the other more conventional defence roles that the Naval Service has to undertake.
We are modernising the fleet, equipping and designing ships to fulfil the challenges they will face both at home and perhaps abroad, if there is a role for our Naval Service in peace operations abroad at some stage in the future, which may well be the case.
The value of these ships is roughly €70 million, when fully equipped. That is what we are budgeting for.
I commend everybody who has been involved in the process of acquisition of this third vessel. It has been very well handled.
I have a question on the issue of asbestos in the old ships. Has that matter been fully addressed?
I do not have an exact cost but two ships have had historical issues in terms of asbestos usage on the ships. That needs to be addressed and is being addressed. A third ship is undergoing survey work. My understanding is that by the end of the first quarter of next year, that issue will be fully resolved. This will be met within existing maintenance budgets. This is unfortunately time consuming, if not that costly. It has resulted in ships taking longer to service than they would otherwise have been, which is a frustration. This needed to be done It is a historical problem that needed to be dealt with.
Please correct me if I am wrong but in the remaining subheads in this Vote there is no change from what was passed last January. This is from Subhead A 12 - Barrack; A 13 - Buildings; A 14 - Ordnance, Clothing and Catering; A 15 - Communications and Information Technology; A 16 - Military Training; A 17 - Travel and Freight Expenses; A 18 - Medical Expenses; A 19 - Lands; A 20 - Equitation; A 21- Compensation; A 22 - Miscellaneous Expenditure; A 23 - Participation in the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy; A 24 - Civil Defence; A 25 - Irish Red Cross Society and so on. Can we take them as dealt with unless members wish to comment on anything?
May I ask two brief questions? In respect of Subhead A 13 - Buildings, has the Department of Defence examined the building stock in Dublin in light of the homeless problem in the city? Finally, the allocation of €860,000 to the Equitation School in Subhead A 20 is definitely money well spent. The Army Equitation School has been for decades phenomenal ambassadors for equitation, the Defence Forces and the county as a whole.
Money spent in that regard is money well spent.
I have a similar question to that of Deputy Ó Fearghaíl. It is a budgetary question on the same point he made about the possibility of barracks being used. As a broad estimate, how much would it cost to renovate one of the disused or mothballed barracks in and around the Dublin region? Are any of them in such a condition that they could be used for the purpose mentioned by Deputy Ó Fearghaíl regarding short-term housing needs, homeless or sheltered accommodation or similar purposes? In the view of the Minister or his staff, would it be practical for the State to use these facilities for such purposes?
There are a number of matters. First, I am glad to hear I am not the only one who is a big fan of the Army Equitation School. I have visited it, walked through it and spent some time there talking to the riders. I consider it to be a valuable addition to the Irish Defence Forces that will not be undermined and hopefully will be enhanced significantly during my time in office. Clearly, however, there are budgetary considerations in this regard but no reductions are proposed there. Some investment is required, as well as some future partnerships in which the Army Equitation School could be involved. It will get strong support from me and I am glad to hear those sentiments because it is easier for me to do that if I get strong support from other parties, particularly those in opposition.
As for homelessness, for some time my Department has been examining how the Defence Forces could be helpful in a practical way. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Kelly, this week about the involvement of some Defence Forces infrastructure in the context of providing short-term emergency accommodation through a difficult winter period if that would be helpful. There are well over 1,000 emergency beds available in Dublin and more are coming on stream for a winter response. However, I am anxious that the Department of Defence would play its part in being helpful when and where appropriate. At present, consideration is being given to the St. Bricin's site, that is, a former military hospital that is currently a military clinic. It has not had any capital investment for a long time. As a former military hospital, it contains wards and rooms and is located just off Infirmary Road, which is near Heuston Station for those members who are not from Dublin.
This is the obvious place to start because there are all sorts of complications if one accommodates people who are homeless in functioning Army barracks. While the personnel are trained very well, they are not trained to manage a homelessness problem that, as most members are aware, is a great deal more complicated than simply putting a roof over somebody's head in respect of supports, counselling, health care, addiction and so much more. The reasons people find themselves without a home are often highly complex and what it may be possible to do on a temporary basis is to work in partnership with Dublin City Council or some of the other organisations that provide the complex care needed for people who unfortunately find themselves homeless. It may be possible to provide some support structures, accommodation or security, that is, the kind of things the Army does well. To be helpful, the Department will have a representative tomorrow at the forum that is being convened by the Minister, Deputy Kelly, and which is closely supported by the Taoiseach. Moreover, if asked, the Department will be helpful.