Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 4 November 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
White Paper on Defence: Reserve Defence Forces Representative Association
The purpose of this part of the meeting is to facilitate an engagement with representatives of the Reserve Defence Forces Representative Association, RDFRA. We shall discuss with the Reserve Defence Forces how specific elements of the recent White Paper on Defence might be implemented. Members will recall that when the Minister was here recently he recommended that we have an engagement with the RDFRA, which is what we are doing today. We are joined by Mr. Patrick Mulley who is the chairman of RDFRA. He is welcome and I thank him for being here. I also welcome Mr. Neil Richardson, general secretary and Mr. Eddie Mulligan who is a member of the association. The association will be aware of the format as it has been here previously. I invite the delegation to make a formal five minute presentation which will be followed by a question and answer session.
Before we begin, I draw the attention of witnesses to the situation regarding privilege. They should note that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and witnesses are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded that under the rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call on Mr. Richardson to make an opening statement.
Mr. Neil Richardson:
I thank the Chairman and members for having us, it is great to be back here. During our last appearance before this committee, in November 2014, we spoke at length about multiple issues that faced the Reserve Defence Forces at that time, namely the introduction of key performance indicators to the Reserve, structural conflict between the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Forces, recruitment and the package of supports required for the Reserve into the future. We also spoke about the hidden costs to individual reservists which are an unwelcome element of membership of the force. We spoke about the training, roles and functions of the Reserve, issues that existed at the time within the Naval Service Reserve element of the force, and international trends regarding the utilisation of reserve forces and the supports required for this to be achieved effectively. The final matter we spoke about were the benefits of reserve membership to individuals and the benefits that reservists bring to the military, their civilian employers, and their communities in general. We believe a brief update on these matters is warranted.
Key performance indicators are annual performance benchmarks that a reservist must meet in order to be considered as an effective member of the force. The most serious challenge facing reservists is the annual medical exam. It had to be conducted during working hours in a military barracks and was not the easiest task to organise for volunteer reservists who have civilian employment. Thankfully, we can report that an interim measure now exists which allows reservists to be medically examined by their GP, in their own time and at no cost to the individual thereby dispelling this problem. It is a positive development but, unfortunately, the Defence Forces have not revised its personnel management infrastructure to cater for medical grades provided by GPs which presents an obstacle for reservists in terms of access to fitness tests and courses.
In terms of the Naval Service Reserve, we are happy to report that forum meetings have been subsequently held between us and the military authorities with a view to rectifying many of these outstanding issues. These meetings have been extremely productive and all involved are actively working towards improving the Naval Service Reserve into the future.
We can also report that the employer engagement programme which we initiated has been formally adopted by the military authorities. A Defence Forces working group on Reserve Defences Forces employer engagement has been established and it includes two members of this representative association. The working group will shortly release a Reserve Defence Forces employer's handbook which is the first step to actively engage with Irish employers but more will be needed in this regard.
The issue of recruitment is still a matter of significant ongoing concern. Following the reorganisation of the Defence Forces in 2012, the Reserve was reduced from an establishment figure of 9,500 down to 4,069 personnel. That figure has been increased to 4,169 personnel following the announcement in the White Paper of an increase in the Naval Service Reserve establishment figure. At present, the Reserve has 2,712 members due to a lengthy recruitment and promotions embargo which has adversely affected the supply of new personnel needed to bring the force up to the establishment figure. The embargo has also had the knock-on effect of making it difficult to fill vacancies as they arise.
This year, recruitment competitions yielded an increase of just over 300 new members but retirements due to natural wastage have resulted in a loss of more than 200 other personnel. Overall this means that there has been a net gain of approximately 100 new members. If this rate of increase were to continue on a yearly basis into the future then it will be 2030 before the Reserve will have recruited up to its establishment figure which is a period beyond the intended life of the White Paper.
With regard to the package of supports required by the Reserve into the future, one of the key issues is the use of staff from the Permanent Defence Force. We completely recognise and acknowledge that specialist instruction from highly qualified members of the Permanent Defence Force is vital to the progression and development of the Reserve. Therefore, we contend that the involvement of such highly qualified Permanent Defence Force instructors with the Reserve, as instructors, should come with a financial incentive.
With this in mind, a Reserve Defence Force specialist instruction allowance should be investigated with a view to its implementation for members of the Permanent Defence Force, specifically for those Permanent Defence Force instructors who can provide expertise that the Reserve does not organically possess.
The roles and functions of the Reserve in respect of training have been formalised in the recent White Paper. The White Paper states that the primary role of the Reserve is to augment the Permanent Defence Force in times of crisis, and a further formal role assigned to the Reserve is to contribute to State ceremonial events. In this regard and in particular in respect of the primary role, we seek clarification on what exactly is defined as a time of crisis. If this definition is allowed to remain vague and nebulous, as it is currently, it could arguably result in the under-utilisation of the Reserve in times of great national need. Furthermore, in respect of the primary role of the Reserve being a force to be called on only in times of crisis – an as yet undefined term – the White Paper also references the creation of a specialist Reserve because:
...there may be professional skills that on occasion may not be readily available in the PDF. In this context, there may be individual members of the RDF, who by virtue of their professional civilian qualifications or in the case of members of the FLR, professional military skills, have the competence to undertake such specialised tasks. These could include ICT, medical, ordnance and engineering professionals.
While we are delighted that such a specialist Reserve is to be created, it makes little sense to attract highly-skilled and qualified professionals to this force, only for them to be told that they might be used in a future time of crisis, whatever that might be. A serious motivating factor for such qualified professionals to join a specialist Reserve would be to apply their civilian skills in a military environment, i.e., to actually do a job. Therefore, we strongly request that the Reserve be provided with a defined role that includes utilisation of the Reserve outside of crisis situations, for the sake of attracting qualified professionals to the new specialist Reserve and to get the best value for money and engagement from the Reserve Defence Force in general. Everything, including recruitment, training, the level of commitment of members and organisational outputs, flows from purpose. This purpose must be real, current and tangible rather than a distant maybe. Personnel need to be utilised for operational roles and the requirement of that operation will drive the training and standards.
The hidden costs of membership are primarily the costs of travel to and from reservist barracks or training centres. These costs have actually risen following the barracks closures of recent years which have forced many reservists to travel further afield to attend training. Recently, the Minister stated his intention to use an element of the €437 million capital spending plan on defence to begin rolling back the pay cuts imposed on members of the Permanent Defence Force by the Lansdowne Road agreement. The Lansdowne Road agreement similarly resulted in Reserve Defence Force pay cuts, and so we are seeking assurances that any roll-back in Permanent Defence Force pay cuts will include a roll-back of RDF pay cuts as well. Unlike the Permanent Defence Force, those in the Reserve do not enjoy graduated pay scales. On obtaining a given rank, a reservist will be paid at the entry level for this rank for however long he stays at this rank, despite length of service.
Similarly, the end-of-year gratuity was taken from Reserve members in 2012. Ostensibly this was to provide a force of 4,069 members with 41,000 paid training man-days per year but this was a membership figure the force was never enabled or allowed to reach. Moreover, the number of paid training man-days has been slashed annually to its current allotment of 26,000 per annum. This effectively negates the reason for removing the gratuity from members in the first place. In contrast, members of the first line Reserve, that is, ex-Permanent Defence Force members, still receive a gratuity, as do members of the Garda Reserve. The White Paper states that reactivating annual paid training for members of the first line Reserve is to be investigated, i.e., the provision of an additional source of income for this group. To members of the Reserve, the benefits of a returned gratuity would also outweigh the relatively small cost. It would have a significant and positive impact on recruitment and retention within the Reserve, primarily by making it less expensive for someone to be a member of the force and thereby producing the greatest value-for-money to the State. The gratuity was generally a much-needed end-of-year reimbursement for the often-substantial costs incurred travelling to and from barracks and other military training locations. We contend that the reintroduction of a gratuity needs to be investigated as a matter of urgency. We believe Reserve members, who are loyal and committed volunteers in the service of the State, should not have to pay out substantial sums in annual travel costs to give this service to the State. Furthermore, we completely agree with the earlier statements from the Minister to the effect that the Reserve needs to recruit the right people. A gratuity would certainly go a long way towards attracting qualified professionals to the force.
We broadly welcome the contents of the recently published White Paper on Defence and consider them positive and constructive. Outside of Chapter 8, which deals with the Reserve Defence Force, we have identified initiatives that could be expanded to utilise or benefit Reserve personnel. First, a scheme similar to the defence contribution to employment support scheme for those aged 18 to 24 years, as outlined in Chapter 4 of the White Paper, could be established for unemployed reservists. This would see these individuals obtain skills that could aid them in securing employment. These skills would also then be retained within the Defence Forces. Second, in respect of women in peacekeeping, Chapter 3 of the White Paper identifies that all-female overseas units may be required in gender-sensitive peacekeeping roles. While the Permanent Defence Force is comprised of 6% women, the Army Reserve is 16.3% female while the Naval Service Reserve is 22% female. This clearly marks Reserve female personnel as worthy of serious consideration for inclusion in any such all-female overseas peacekeeping unit.
We are keen to clarify that this representative association completely supports the implementation of the contents of the White Paper, but we also wish to advise on how elements of the White Paper, as they pertain to the Reserve, could and should be implemented. The White Paper provides scope for such suggestions, for example, "The Department of Defence will undertake a review of the provisions of the Defence Acts and bring forward proposals for any changes to the Defence Acts that may be required in order to reflect the possible crisis situations, where activation of members of the Reserve is appropriate." Another example is, "The broader RDF organisational structures will be kept under ongoing review by the Department of Defence." A further example is:
Accordingly, approaches to recruitment and retention will be kept under ongoing review having regard to their success rates and the key goal of having an efficient and effective Reserve. In this context, the current organisational structures will also be kept under review.
A final example is, "The Department will identify the options available to underpin the engagement of those specialist members of the Reserve..."
The word "review" is mentioned many times. It is evident that the specifics of how decisions relating to the Reserve will be implemented have yet to be finalised. Therefore, we are keen to advise on how several elements of the White Paper of relevance to the Reserve Defence Force could be rolled out or advanced in future. Furthermore, we are requesting that this representative association should remain central to any panels or boards involved in such implementation, since the presence of representative association delegates in such circumstances could only benefit the overall process. Representation is an essential part of the military management blend and we require assurances that no unilateral decisions will be taken without proper consultation. I thank the committee and I am happy to invite any questions members of the committee might have.
I thank Mr. Mulley, Mr. Richardson and Mr. Mulligan for the presentation. It was succinct and clear. It raises a number of issues; first and foremost is the area of recruitment. I have raised the issue of recruitment in the Reserve Defence Force on several occasions here and in the House with the Minister. I am convinced that the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, is strongly committed to the development of the Reserve.
Given the figures, the reality is that there continue to be significant difficulties in achieving the establishment figure. Mr. Richardson stated in his presentation that at the current rate of progress it will be 2030 before the establishment figure is reached. Let us consider that reality alongside what appears, on initial reading, in the White Paper to be a strong commitment to the Reserve. However, then we factor in the frequent use of the term "review". It seems to create a situation in which there is not, in so far as the Reserve is concerned, the sort of certainty that is needed to be able to move forward and conduct the type of effective recruitment campaign that is needed.
I have looked at the Reserve forces throughout Europe. In many countries there are more members in the Reserve than in the permanent defence forces. The reverse is the situation here. In light of the overall situation, and given that all of us are supportive of what this is about, we have to see that there is a major benefit to society at large in having a reserve force that can be called upon routinely and in times of crisis, as referred to in the White Paper. However there is also a significant benefit to those participants in the Reserve. Perhaps the deputation could tell us a little about that. My sense is that the training, discipline, collegiality and everything that comes from participation actually benefits the person as well as benefiting society. Moreover, there is an ultimate benefit for employers. I call on the deputation to outline more to us their ideas around the specialist Reserve that may be established and the extent to which that specialist Reserve could be used. I take the point made by the deputation that unless we have a broad meaning attributed to "crisis" then we will not see the level of utilisation that we should see of this specialist Reserve. If we have a broad use or broad interpretation of "crisis" then "crisis" ceases to have any meaning.
We will let the witnesses back on that question and then you can put a further question afterwards, if you wish. I have to declare an interest. I was 23 years in the Reserve. I believe I benefited significantly from it, so I take your point on that, Deputy Ó Feargháil.
I invite Mr. Richardson to respond to the points about recruitment, specialisation and so on, after which Deputy Ó Fearghaíl may like to come back in with further comments or questions.
Mr. Neil Richardson:
On recruitment, the Minister has said it needs to be a vigorous process and we support that. The testing should be the same as for members of the Permanent Defence Force; we wholeheartedly agree with that. There is interest out there in joining the Reserve Defence Force but the message is simply not reaching the people who might wish to join. Our suggestion is that a national campaign might be more effective than the type of localised campaign that has been pursued until now. If the advertising budget were spent on a national television and radio campaign, as well as on social media and new media campaigns, as opposed to placing advertisements in local newspapers where they might not necessarily be accessed by young people, it might lead to a serious increase in uptake.
We are hearing talk at present of the upper ceiling for enlistment being dropped from 35 to 25 years. If we are trying to recruit qualified professionals and specialists to the Reserve, we should bear in mind that it will be particularly difficult to get people with any serious amount of experience in any sector at age 24 or 25. As such, we would like to see the ceiling retained at age 35. In the British Army, to give a comparison, our cousins across the water hire some specialist personnel up to the age of 60.
One aspect of recruitment about which we have serious concerns relates to Garda vetting and the process whereby applicants have to fill out a form and send it off for processing and approval before they are eligible for recruitment to the Reserve. In some instances, it is taking nine or ten months for those forms to be processed and returned, by which time the Garda clearance is void. There are dedicated citizens who want to join the Reserve but who are being turned away because their Garda vetting forms were not processed on time. This issue affected some 100 applicants this year, which is a serious chunk of our recruitment. It is an issue we would like to see addressed. The main point I would like members to take away regarding recruitment is that the budget probably does need to be redirected into something more national rather than having local campaigns which may not be connecting with young people.
I ask my colleague, Mr. Mulligan, to deal with the question of the definition of a crisis situation.
Mr. Eddie Mulligan:
We are 100% happy that members of the Reserve Defence Force are carrying out their ceremonial role effectively. However, clarity is required in respect of our crisis role. The Government has asked us to augment the Defence Forces in crisis situations but we need to be prepared for such situations. In particular, we are being cut out in the training necessity, or what a commander perceives would be a training necessity. The White Paper mentions aid to the civil power and aid to the civil authority tasks as an area where support could be given. However, there is no particular Reserve Defence Force syllabus for that area. To some extent, training for that role can really only be acquired by completing the job in hand. In that regard, there is a necessity for people to be operationally driving the training requirements of the Reserve.
On further training, chapter 8 of the White Paper states, "Notwithstanding the ability of the PDF to undertake day-to-day operations and to deal with a range of contingencies, there are circumstances where operational demands could exceed the capacity of the PDF." The document goes on to give as examples of such circumstances: "... a significant deterioration in the international security environment resulting in a conventional military attack on this State, a large scale security event at home, certain civil contingencies that could require large scale Defence Forces' support, e.g., a major pandemic, events that require a sustained effort over a prolonged period of time ..." The White Paper states that the Reserve Defence Force offers a cost-effective means of mitigating the risk of the Permanent Defence Force being unable to meet operational requirements.
Taking chapter 8 into account, together with the suggestion of particular response teams set out in chapter 3.3 in respect of the defence of the State from armed aggression, we must bear in mind that the generation of military capabilities can have significant lead-in times. If the definition of a crisis situation is nor sufficiently clear, it could lead to an implied view than an aggressor will effectively work to a timescale that is convenient to the Defence Forces. In reality, maintaining military capabilities for a worst-case scenario on an ongoing basis would be prohibitively expensive. This is where the Army Reserve and the Naval Service Reserve can provide an ability to transition immediately into an organised and capable insurgency force with established resources, skills, tactics and leadership, such as the command control we have at the moment. Under the current Reserve model, resources, skills and leadership instruction extend from national to local level and there is a capacity to transition quickly into a well-resourced, well-organised and well-dispersed local insurgency organisation under the single-force concept, which emphasises the importance of a local Reserve Defence Force as a bedrock element of defence policy. In order to realise that role, we must be prepared for it. However, the definition of the crisis element within the White Paper does not allow for that. It must be incorporated within the operational day-to-day implementation of the role.
In the case of the Naval Service Reserve, we are carrying out a role at the moment where there have been shortages of personnel within the Naval Service. Going by the definition in the White Paper, are we to take it there will never be such shortages of personnel into the future and, if so, what exactly would define a crisis? Will we have one commanding officer who will decide we are not in crisis through shortage of personnel, in which case Naval Service Reserve personnel will not be asked to support seagoing vessels, even though we could have a commander on a particular seagoing vessel who is seriously short of personnel during a particular trip? It is a question of who defines what constitutes a crisis. We have had situations where leading hands were given their own watch going forward.
Another issue to consider is that the Naval Service Reserve is currently performing an information-gathering function within the primary ports around the coast. In the Waterford unit of the Reserve, for instance, we go out and patrol weekly, carry out sighting reports and pass them, through a reporting mechanism, back through operations within the naval base. In other words, the Naval Service Reserve has de factobeen carrying out a port security role, albeit through a voluntary organisation, within the Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Dublin port areas. In the current economic climate, it does not make sense that, via the definition of "crisis", we may be effectively undermining the assets we have within the Naval Service Reserve when it comes to protecting our ports. Is the White Paper inadvertently undermining a vital voluntary asset for coastal information-gathering on behalf of the State? In short, we are worried the White Paper might undermine the deterrent function we are performing.
Mr. Neil Richardson:
Our idea of an employer engagement programme was adopted by the Defence Forces and a Reserve Defence Force employer engagement working group was established. I am a member of that group, together with another member of the representative association. A Reserve Defence Force employer handbook will be published very shortly and provided to all major employers in Ireland. All reservists will be given a copy to present to their employer. It is a fantastic way of engaging with employers and showcasing the value of reservists.
The question then arises as to what the next step should be. International trends suggest that step should be employment protection legislation to support reservists in times of activation and utilisation, coupled with employer supports. To give an example, the Australian military will, instead of buying in a lawyer from a civilian firm, activate a reservist lawyer and pay him or her at the appropriate rank. The individual's employer is reimbursed to a certain degree for the loss of that staff member. This works out cheaper than hiring someone from the private sector to come in and do the job and there is a gain for the reservist, his or her employer and the military. It is something we will need to look at doing. The employer engagement booklet is very much a first step; deciding what comes next is where it gets tricky.
The ending of the Reserve gratuity seems to be to be a significant problem. As I understand it, that payment was ordinarily used by people to defray the cost of participation. Am I correct in saying that because of the closure of barracks, people are now travelling much further to participate? Is the withdrawal of the gratuity also proving a problem when it comes to the vital area of recruitment?
Mr. Neil Richardson:
It absolutely is a problem. Barrack closures mean people are travelling double the distance they formerly did to attend training and so on. The gratuity was taken from us under the 2012 value-for-money review under the auspices of providing a force of 4,069 members with 41,000 paid training man-days per year. However, the force has never reached that capacity because it was never enabled to do so.
We currently have only 26,000 paid training man-days per year. The very reasons the gratuity was taken from RDF members were never met or we were never helped in meeting them. It dissolves immediately the reasons the gratuity was taken away.
These costs are becoming more and more of an issue. To give an anecdotal example, for someone who joins the Reserve in Castlebar, his or her main training location for weekends might be Athlone Barracks, which is quite a considerable distance away. Now that reservist is being expected to pay for travel back and forth for however many weekends or weeks during the year. If one presents this to a potential recruit, the recruit says, " I am not paying to join the force. That is ridiculous.", and simply does not apply. If the gratuity had been retained, it would make it at least cost-neutral for them to join and that could seriously increase our numbers.
I thank Mr. Richardson for his presentation. My colleague, Deputy Crowe, my party's foreign affairs and defence spokesperson, cannot make it today because there is a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. I was my party's previous defence spokesperson and I am fairly well placed to represent him here today.
The issues during my time as defence spokesperson were around the cutbacks. In the peak, in 2006, the budget was €7.1 million and, in 2014, it was €1.3 million. It was a very serious cutback that they faced. Allied with the issue of the centralisation of training and access facilities, it must be having an impact on recruitment. To a degree, that has been touched on.
The Government cut the numbers of Reserve Defence Force in half, slashed the budget drastically and made it much more difficult for potential young recruits to the Reserve Defence Force from rural areas to access it. When one talks about the White Paper - next year there will be a net gain of 100 and projections forward to 2030 - one of my concerns in the past was that when these decisions were being made RDFRA, as a representative association, was not getting access to the Minister to convey its concerns. The Chairman was a Reserve Defence Force member for 23 years. I would like to believe that every Member of the Oireachtas genuinely respects the role, patriotism and community participation of members of the Reserve Defence Force. What is RDFRA's sense of how we can start to reinstate the Reserve Defence Force's place in Irish society over the next 20 years?
Mr. Patrick Mulley:
On the budgetary allocation, we are down to €2,150,000 in the Estimates for this year. In contrast, that is half the cleaning bill for cleaners engaged by the Defence Forces. When one looks at the phone bill, it is four times what is allocated to ourselves. In that context, it is a straight-line graph which has been going down since 2012.
On fulfilling the numbers in the recruitment, we have a situation now where we are not maintaining the numbers we had originally. Even though we had 150 recruits who crossed the threshold, got in and got a boot on their foot last year, the system that is in place is now very elongated and we are taking nearly 12 months to bring somebody in, from first contact until he or she finally reaches attestation. That is too long for any voluntary organisation.
As regards the reinstatement of the resource allocation, as the financial situation improves in the country, we would be delighted that an allocation would be improved also for the RDF. The bottom line here is that if it is a set allocation, then that is all we can do. We cannot recruit any more. We do not have the clothing for them, we do not have the footwear for them and we will not have the places for them if the allocation is not increased.
The other factor going forward to 2030 would be that the RDF needs a functionality. As the Chairman said on the previous occasion, one cannot be training and then do nothing with the training. We need a framework whereby those who will make decisions at some time in the future at these reviews will set out the functionality. Even if it is only barracks duties or whatever kind of in-house duties we can carry out, that would fulfil some role for a start.
The interesting part is the specialist Reserve that is talked about in the White Paper. We have many specialists. Even in smaller units, we have a range of specialists, from carpenters to scientists. If those reservists were utilised in a role at home before they had any role overseas or anything like that, it would be a step in the right direction. It is difficult for the professional combat soldier commander to turn around and say he or she has 20 RDF members for Friday next. It is difficult for them to get to that point because we all are engaged in our own employment. The fundamental element to address that is employment legislation. If one can guarantee that one can take 20 guys out of their jobs on Friday next for a week and that they will be in their job the following Friday, then there is no problem. That professional soldier will say to himself that he can count on those RDF members, that is where he has a gap and that is how he can fill it. It is not pie in the sky to say that we need employment legislation. The committee members will be well aware at this stage that there are zero contract hours and all sorts of turn-up-when-you-can type contracts. Anybody who is in a job will not risk his job and would be foolish to do so. The more responsible members of the RDF are those who would be in good jobs.
Going back to one of the questions Deputy Ó Fearghaíl asked earlier on the benefits to the personnel themselves, we would see tremendous benefits to the community. We would see tremendous benefits to the personnel themselves. Over the years, very few who have been through the RDF or, as it was previously, the FCA, ever ended up behind bars or anything like that. One or two might have along the way but I can assure the committee that there were very few because we are a little community in ourselves.
In summary, we would see employment legislation, whatever shape that might take at any future date, as essential to reassure members of the Permanent Defence Force that they can call and rely on the RDF to do a job. We would see that the reinstatement of the resource allocation would greatly enhance what we can do within that budget framework.
I assume the transcript will be sent to the Minister for Defence anyway. That is the standard practice.
I commend the RDFRA on the employer engagement working group. I understand they will send on the handbook to us. I look forward to getting that.
Absolutely. I assume they will send it to spokespersons too.
The specialist Reserve issue is an understandable inclusion in the White Paper. In fairness, the RDFRA's points, that it has a considerable range of expertise available, are understandable too. I refer to those who have already signed up and committed to being Reserve Defence Force members. On consultation with the RDFRA before these proposals come forward, what is the RDFRA's sense of that? Do they regularly meet the Minister for Defence? Do they meet the Chief of Staff or the Secretary General of the Department of Defence on a regular basis to have their views heard?
Mr. Patrick Mulley:
Indeed, we do. We would absolutely endorse the present Minister's position in that he is very accommodating with us. We have fairly good access to him.
We also got a commitment from the Minister that the review period of the VFM, which is due to take place next year, be put further out. We are looking forward to being brought in on those consultations as to the review of that because, initially, we were not brought in on the VFM in any significant way.
In the past few months, we were certainly consulted on the content of the White Paper. Our views were taken on board. They were expressed in the White Paper. We would not be 100% with a lot of the wording of what transpired to be the White Paper because the word "review", which is mentioned approximately 20 times, is undefined. Once that is the case, succeeding Governments could have a different view and intent on the White Paper from that of the present Minister. We would be fearful of that and that it would not be followed through to that extent. We would certainly say that we, through the offices of Deputy Stanton here, and in bringing us in in the first instance, have definitely opened up channels with the Department, with the Chief of Staff and with others in the Department of Defence.
I am delighted to hear it. Deputy Stanton is passionate about it, and he is a champion of the RDF and the wider Defence Forces. It has not always been the case through this five-year term and I am pleased it is the case now. Regarding unemployed reservists, we support the concept of a defence contribution to employment support schemes for 18 to 24 year olds. The RDFRA is enthusiastic about it and it is a good idea. What skills are likely to be developed and how could the programme work? What is the RDFA's vision for it?
Mr. Patrick Mulley:
Unemployed RDF people could be engaged on the Department of Social Protection's Tús and JobBridge programmes, although many people are averse to it, given that the Defence Forces are already using JobBridge programmes in other areas. A JobBridge internship programme could be very beneficial to a person who would be a productive member of the unit to which he or she was attached and would gain military skills under the umbrella of the RDF. It would be a win-win situation. It would be a stepping stone for the individual towards gaining employment. One gains many skills in the military, other than marching, and they all add up on a CV. From a community perspective, it would be ideal if people knew that if they joined the RDF they might be eligible to participate in such a programme, if the unemployment rate keeps going the way it is. It would be multi-beneficial and should be able to work within the Defence Forces. While it would not bring everybody off the dole, people in the RDF who are unemployed should be afforded the opportunity. We raised it with the Department before we came here last time.
I welcome the members of the RDFRA. Mr. Richardson said there was a great interest in the RDF among the public. Where is the evidence? He said that while 300 joined last year, 200 left and therefore the net gain was 100 RDF members. Where is the evidence that there is significant interest among the public in the RDF?
Mr. Neil Richardson:
The evidence is in the applicant numbers. The numbers who apply to join the Reserve and who get through to the end and become recruits are often staggeringly different. There may be thousands of applicants for an intake of 300. It is not that the applicants are the "right people", to use the Minister's phrase, but that various elements of the recruitment competition prohibit them from progressing further. I mentioned an anecdotal example from Castlebar. If one's fitness test is arranged for a Wednesday and one is asked to go from Castlebar to Athlone barracks in the middle of a working day, chances are one will not be able to get time off to do it. The Defence Forces are trying to arrange these, where possible, outside working hours and on weekends to accommodate these applicants. Often, the fact that the recruitment process is made somewhat difficult for people who have civilian jobs or education commitments that prevent them from attending the recruitment testing phases means the people who join the Reserve are those whose schedules happen to align with the testing. Given the shocking difference between the thousands who apply for each recruitment competition and the 200 or 300 who are taken in, we are missing many people.
I have concerns about the age limit of 35 from the perspective of the RDF trying to recruit people. I have a strong view that many people aged 25 or under 35 are often very skilled, capable and mature. Is the RDF not missing a vital asset by having this policy?
Mr. Neil Richardson:
We maintain that the age cap should remain at 35. I agree that there can be qualified professionals in their early 20s, and with extra time one can have people with ten, 15 or 20 years experience in a particular field. The Civil Defence recruits up to the age of 60. While the argument could be made that at the age of 33 or 34 these people are starting to be past their physical best and should, therefore, not be taken into the RDF, it is down to their personal fitness. We would be missing a trick by lowering the age profile from 35 to 25. There are plenty of applicants to the RDF in the 25 to 35 year age bracket who have extra life experience and can bring more to the table than the person aged 18 to 20. We want to get a mix of members in the Reserve, and this is what makes the force as strong as it is. We are against lowering the age limit from 35 to 25, given that we would miss out on many highly skilled professionals by doing it, which would worry the RDFRA.
We will have to agree to disagree on it. There is one aspect of the RDF with which I am very impressed. The proportion of women is 6% in the PDF, 16.8% in the PDF and 22% in the Naval Service. There is a high interest among women in the RDF compared to the male population. What is going on?
Mr. Eddie Mulligan:
We were disappointed that the Minister, in recent public engagements, talked about how disappointed he was that the percentage of women is so low in the PDF but did not mention that the RDF has been leading the way with such high figures. In my unit in Waterford, we have 40% women. There is major female integration throughout the RDF. The White Paper quoted the request by the Secretary General of the United Nations that consideration be given to the contribution of female soldiers to the United Nations operations. This is an area in which women in the RDF can contribute to the PDF. We have women in Waterford RDF who are qualified watch keepers. We have three officers being commissioned at the end of the month, two of whom are marine watch keepers, a qualification which takes considerable study and experience to achieve. One is a pilot on the River Thames and comes back and forth and lives in Waterford. Another is a master mariner undergoing training to become a master of vessel. We could have missed out on those commissions if our age limit had been lower.
We have women in the RDF who are counsellors, who have third level qualifications and who make major social contributions through a wide diversity of civilian jobs. Their expertise would be very applicable to a woman-only unit going overseas, particularly in gender-sensitive peacekeeping roles. It is a major way the RDF could contribute. Women would be preferable in situations in which military or paramilitary forces may have been the perpetrators of violence against women. Given that the women of the RDF are not full-time soldiers, they would gain much credibility serving with an overseas service. This is commonly used in our sister organisations.
I welcome the deputation. I declare an interest to the extent that my son was a member of the Reserve Defence Forces and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I also know a number of members of the Reserve Defence Forces.
The witnesses referred to the restoration of pay to its previous level. I am an advocate of restoring much of it. Unfortunately, the economic climate in previous years did not lend itself to pay restoration. However, if pay is to be rolled back to previous levels through the Haddington Road and Lansdowne Road agreements, this must be done across the board. It is reasonable, therefore, for the Reserve Defence Forces to expect the same treatment as other public servants.
We must communicate with the Minister, departmental officials and other decision makers that representation is an essential part of military management. We require assurances that no unilateral decisions will be taken without proper consultation. That is probably the key message the joint committee must communicate.
Given the representations the Reserve Defence Forces Representative Association, RDFRA, made at the previous meeting with the joint committee, which I was unable to attend, RDFRA appears to accept that it is getting traction and balanced consultation has taken place. Is that the case? Is the association being listened to?
Mr. Neil Richardson:
We have regular forum meetings with the military authorities and our views are certainly listened to. In particular, we had great success with four meetings regarding the Naval Service Reserve. Today's presentation is more about the White Paper because it includes more than 20 references to the word "review", as Mr. Mulley noted. While the military authorities are certainly listening to us and dealing with the concerns we raise, the issue is what shape the decisions outlined in the White Paper will take in the coming months and years. We are seeking to nail this down and ensure we are involved in all the relevant decisions because we are best placed to help in that regard.
Mr. Neil Richardson:
If I may, I will speak briefly about the specialist Reserve. We are hoping to obtain assurances that the specialist Reserve will contain members of the Reserve Defence Forces. While that may sound like a strange request, it should be noted that Ireland has the Permanent Defence Forces, which is referred to as the first line Reserve and consists of retired members of the Permanent Defence Forces who are kept on the books in an administrative capacity, to be reactivated if necessary, as well as the Reserve Defence Forces or second line Reserve. The White Paper states that the specialist Reserve will contain members of the first and second line Reserves. We are hoping to ensure that the specialist Reserve is not comprised exclusively of members of the first line Reserve and that the Defence Forces will consider our members for inclusion in the specialist Reserve.
I thank the witnesses for attending. I am pleased to note that since our most recent meeting, many changes have occurred and considerable debate and discussion have taken place between RDFRA, the military authorities, the Minister and departmental officials. The use of the word "review" can be viewed as an opportunity to expand, grow, develop and use the various skills to which the witnesses alluded. The joint committee will reflect on the information presented to us and may submit something in writing to the Minister. I wish the witnesses and the members of the association well in the work they do nationwide. It struck me during our discussion on crime with representatives of Muintir na Tíre that the Reserve Defence Forces could assist Muintir na Tíre, even in a civilian capacity. As with many organisations, Muintir na Tíre is having problems with recruitment and the age profile of its members is increasing. Obviously, we are not in favour of the Reserve Defence Forces assuming a military role but it could do something in a civilian role.