Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Estimates for Public Services 2016
Vote 35 - Army Pensions (Supplementary)
Vote 36 - Defence (Supplementary)
As we have a quorum, the committee is in public session. Apologies have been received from Deputies Seán Crowe and Maureen O'Sullivan. As we are in public session, all mobile phones should be switched off as they cause interference with the recording equipment here in the committee rooms, even if on silent mode. This meeting has been convened to consider Supplementary Estimate for Vote 35 - Army Pensions and Vote 36 - Defence. I propose to take both Supplementary Estimates together as they are linked. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Briefing has been circulated to members and our duty this evening is to consider the Supplementary Estimates and to report to the Dáil when we have done so by way of a message to the Dáil. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, and his officials for attending and assisting in our consideration of the Supplementary Estimates. I also thank him for the briefing material that has been circulated to the members of the committee.
I remind members that in accordance with Standing Orders, discussion should be confined to the items constituting the Supplementary Estimates. That applies to the Minister of State and all members. I now invite the Minister of State to begin his contribution.
I thank the committee for the opportunity to present for its consideration the 2016 Supplementary Estimates on Vote 35 and 36. Vote 35 is the Army Pensions Vote and Vote 36 is the Defence Vote. I will commence with a short statement setting out the background to these Supplementary Estimates. For 2016, a Supplementary Estimate is required to address the net shortfall of €11 million arising from the Army Pensions Vote and 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 met from within the Defence sector envelope for 2016.
I will start with the Army Pension Vote which makes provision for the retired pay, pensions, allowances and gratuities payable to or in respect of members of the Defence Forces. In 2016, the Estimate provides a net sum of €218.5 million for the Army Pension Vote. However, net outturn this year is expected to be €229.5 million, leaving a shortfall of €11 million. This amount will be funded by the savings on the Defence Vote. Subhead A2 is the largest subhead of the Army Pension Vote. It covers expenditure on all superannuation benefits for former members of the permanent Defence Forces, PDF, and their dependants. It accounts for over 95% of all military pensions expenditure including gratuities. It is also demand driven and non-discriminatory. The original provision of €214.3 million for subhead A2 will be sufficient to meet all requirements for the year. The shortfall on this subhead is estimated at €10.8 million.
I will outline the main reasons for the shortfall in subhead A2. In other public services areas most people leave at a standard retirement age, which can generally be predicted well in advance. However, the PDF is atypical. The vast majority of military personnel who retire on pension do so voluntarily, that is, at a time of their own choosing. For example, during 2015, some 80% of enlisted personnel who retired on pension did so voluntarily, that is before their compulsory retirement age. The position for 2016 is very similar. This situation is a product of availability - for operational and manpower policy reasons - of the early payment of pension benefits immediately on retirement after relatively short periods of service and regardless of age. Forecasting of Defence Forces pensions expenditure is very difficult from year to year. While up to 270 new retirees on pension were anticipated for 2016 as a whole, current indications are for actual numbers of some 320 by year-end. There is also the ongoing impact on military pension payments of the high numbers of retirements on pension in recent years. During the years 2010 to date, over 2,600 military personnel retired with immediate pension and gratuity entitlements. In addition, many retirees qualified for the maximum retirement benefits, which also contributes to the ongoing increased costs. The number of Defence Forces pensioners has continued to rise during the past year and currently there are some 12,200 military pensioners of all categories. This is a net increase of about 1,200 since 2007. A shortfall also arises on subhead A3 of the Army Pensions Vote. This covers the cost of military disability pensions, disablement lump sums and related dependants’ pensions. It accounts for some 4% of all military pensions expenditure. The original provision of €8.5 million for this subhead will not be enough to meet the full costs arising during the year. A shortfall of €400,000 is expected. This shortfall is due to greater than expected expenditure in respect of new disability pensions and disablement lump sum awards over the course of 2016. The combined shortfall of €11.2 million on subheads A2 and A3 will be partly offset by expected savings of €200,000 on subheads A4, A5 and A6 of the Army Pensions Vote.
The purpose of the Supplementary Estimate for Vote 35 is to seek additional funding of €10.8 million for subhead A2; seek additional funding of €400,000 for subhead A3; and reallocate savings of €200,000 on subheads A4, A5 and A6 into subhead A2. As I indicated to the committee on 30 June 2016, it has been my intention to seek extra funding for military pensions as part of the overall future budgetary negotiations. As announced in budget 2017, the gross allocation for Army Pensions will increase by €6 million to €230 million next year. The military pensions funding envelope for 2018 will be addressed next year as part of the ongoing engagement with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and his officials.
I will now turn to Vote 36 - Defence. A technical Supplementary Estimate involving a transfer between subheads within the Vote is required to facilitate payments under the naval vessels replacement programme. Earlier this year, an order was placed for a fourth offshore patrol vessel for the naval service. This continues the commitment underpinned by the 2015 White Paper on defence to continue the modernisation of the Naval Service fleet. This order has been placed under the existing contract which has already delivered three vessels, the LÉ Samuel Beckettin 2014, the LÉ James Joycein 2015 and the LÉ William Butler Yeatsearlier this year, at a cost of €199.4 million. The fourth vessel will be delivered in 2018.
The 2016 Estimate provides a gross sum of some €682 million for the Defence Vote. Payments relating to the purchase of ships are made from the Naval Service subhead A11. The original 2016 allocation for this subhead was €33 million. However, due to increased commitments under the naval vessel replacement programme and some additional maintenance required on the other ships, the projected outturn on this subhead is now €61 million.
An adjustment within the Vote of €28 million is, therefore, required. Offsetting savings will be met from the pay and allowances subheads in Vote 36 as follows: €23 million on subhead A3, Permanent Defence Force pay; and €5 million on subhead A7, civilian employees pay.
The three ships already delivered under this programme are now in operational use and have added significant value to the operational effectiveness and capabilities of our Naval Service fleet. For example, Operation Pontus, which commenced in 2015 as a humanitarian search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea, has been directly responsible for the rescue of more than 15,300 people to date. Both the LE Samuel Beckettand the LE James Joycehave participated in this operation. The commitment to modernising the fleet, together with the professionalism and commitment of Naval Service personnel, has made a substantial contribution to this operation. It highlights the ongoing importance, impact and value of the vessel replacement programme. The acquisition of modern new ships under the naval vessel replacement programme, combined with a continuous process of refurbishment and repair, will ensure the operational capability is maintained and that the Naval Service is fully equipped to carry out its assigned roles. Along with continued investment in Defence Forces equipment and infrastructure, the overall funding will ensure that the Defence Forces are equipped to fulfil the roles set by Government.
Again, I thank the committee for the opportunity to present these Supplementary Estimates. I commend them to the committee and I will be pleased to answer whatever questions may arise.
I thank the Minister of State for coming before the committee. We all support the military, which does brilliant work. I particularly want to mention the Renmore Barracks at Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa in Galway, where the battalion, An Chéad Chathlán Coisithe, which is abroad in Lebanon at present, is stationed. The Minister of State spoke of the savings for the Defence Forces of €11 million on the pension fund. Is this money that will be saved within the existing Vote? Perhaps the Minister of State could elaborate on that.
Reference was made to equipment and the Minister of State highlighted that, but does he know what is the cost to date of the excellent work the Irish Naval Service is doing in saving many lives? Will the Minister of State also provide details on the maintenance of dwelling houses and where they are located? A housing estate was built in Galway at one point but I believe the military sold it a number of years ago. The figures make for interesting reading. How many dwelling houses does the military actually own?
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. I have a couple of questions. This is the first year the committee has considered Supplementary Estimates relating to Defence Forces' pensions. Has the Department taken steps to increase the amount allocated for pensions next year?
Will the Minister of State outline the number of troops serving overseas and indicate if the number deployed has increased in recent months. I agree with my colleague about the wonderful work being done by the Naval Service. We all wish to be associated with that work and to compliment the personnel involved on the number of lives being saved as a result of the participation of the Naval Service. The Minister of State spoke about increased funding for the fourth new ship for the Naval Service as coming from savings on the pay side. Will he confirm that recruitment to the Defence Forces and the delivery of outputs will not be affected by the reallocation of funds or moneys? Perhaps he could elaborate on this matter. People in Sligo have asked - and they may, perhaps, have been disappointed about the third ship that was launched; the LE William Butler Yeats. Given the connection to Yeats in Sligo, at some stage in the future the Department might consider that the people in Sligo would get an opportunity to visit the ship.
I apologise for being late, I was stuck in the Dáil. On Army pensions, I do not believe that anybody has a problem with it. I wonder if an actuarial review has been done, given that all of us - as a nation - are living longer. Obviously, ,any pensioners who retired from the Army are, like the rest of us, living longer. Is this taken into account for the future? As with everywhere else, the age to which we live we live is being extended greatly. The Minister of State said that he would come back here next year with an increase. Will those factors be taken into account? It is difficult to predict the amount of money that will be needed for pensions. The figure of €11 million is high, but it is understandable in some ways.
With regard to the Supplementary Estimate, like the other Deputies, I welcome the great work being done by the Naval Service, especially in the Mediterranean Sea, with that number of vessels. Is there any possibility of the fourth ship being delivered early? The Minister of State also spoke about some money being saved - and I am sorry if I misheard him - so that this supplementary sum is only a small figure. He said there was a shifting around of moneys within various subheads and that one of these involved a major saving in respect of civilian pay. Could the Minister of State provide details on how that has been achieved? Some €28 million was required to be saved and €23 million was saved in the area of civilian pay. I may have heard wrong, but it seems to be a big sum. Is there a better breakdown of those types of savings?
I will start with Deputy Ó Snodaigh and I will work backwards. The Deputy asked about civilian pay. The figures are actually €23 million on the Permanent Defence Force pay and €5 million on the civilian pay. There has, for various reasons, been a decrease in the number of civilian employees. If, for example, a carpenter is required in a barracks, it might be cheaper to get a contractor to do the job. There are different reasons why those savings are there. Deputy Ó Snodaigh asked if the Department had carried out any sort of a review. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform carries out an annual review on public service pensions so my Department actually feeds in to its annual review. The Deputy mentioned the vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. The other ship is due for delivery in 2018. It is being built at present. We have not decided on a definite name for the new ship but it will be due for delivery in 2018.
Deputy McLoughlin spoke about pensions. We will have an increase of €6 million for pensions next year. The Deputy also asked about overseas personnel. There are more than 660 people serving overseas on 11 different missions. We have increased our personnel in UNIFIL. It was the Finn-Irish Battalion but now it is the Irish-Finn Battalion. It was a joint battalion with the Finns but we have taken over the lead role since earlier this month. Of the 660 personnel overseas, 380 are deployed with UNIFIL.
Reference was made to recruitment. There are, absolutely, enough resources. There are sufficient resources for 9,500 and that will be the case going forward. The Government gave that commitment and it will stand. With regard to the LE William Butler Yeatsvisit, I would have no problem whatsoever with Deputy Tony McLoughlin's suggestion. We can arrange for Sligo County Council members to visit the LE William Butler Yeats. I can arrange that through Sligo County Council or whomever. I can talk to the Deputy about the matter. We would be delighted to do this. On the day of the ship's commissioning, members of the William Butler Yeats family were present in Galway for the ceremony.
I will have to get back to the Deputy on the exact cost but it is within the resources available. There is no extra budget for it. It is in the resource envelope of the Department for the Naval Service. I will come back with the cost. If they were not in the Mediterranean, the ships would be on sea fisheries protection duty or other missions.
The plan in the Department is to sell some of the properties. I am not sure, but I will be able to get the Deputy the detail on what remains in the ownership of the Defence Forces and the Department. I can get the Deputy a breakdown on this. In the Curragh there have been various arrangements with families.
I welcome the Minister of State. What work, if any, has been done on Brexit and how will it affect the patrol of our waters? What extra equipment, such as ships, will be required? What preparation work is being carried out? While I welcome the very valuable work that has been done in the Mediterranean, it obviously puts a strain on minding our waters in respect of illegal fishing. What discussions, if any, have taken place with those in the marine sector? These problems will not go away. In fact, they will get bigger. What preparatory work, if any, has been done to deal with Brexit and what additional work will be put on us? What arrangements or discussions have taken place? Does the Minister of State intend to have discussions with our neighbours as to how we deal with it?
As he is probably aware, the fishing rights along various parts of our coastline are very complex, with quotas built up by other European countries and Britain. To add to the complication, British individuals have had the habit of selling off some of their quotas to others because as a country Britain did not protect the quotas. We will have a serious problem as the European quotas will impose in our waters, which will add to our difficulties in policing these waters. Therefore, we need to do preparatory work well in advance to see what extra resources we will require and what negotiations we need to carry out with our partners in Europe. It is one of the biggest difficulties we will face with regard to Brexit.
It is highly complicated and I am aware from my days as Minister with responsibility for the marine that all sorts of agreements exist with regard to quotas in Irish water. I want to bring this to the attention of the Minister of State. It will put more pressure on the Naval Service. While I fully support the efforts made by the Minister of State and the Department in participating in the rescue of people off various shores, it has put a great strain on the resources available for protecting our fishing waters. Some countries do not pay a great deal of attention to quotas or territory. There is a need to make certain we do not lose out by not having resources available to protect our waters. This is my concern.
Structures have been put in place in the Department to address the potential challenges arising from Brexit, including assigning responsibility to a senior official for all Brexit-related matters. This senior official is leading the Department's input into the deliberations in terms of the framework established throughout the Government, and works in particular with the senior official appointed by the Taoiseach in his Department for all Brexit negotiations.
Today I had a meeting with the Secretary General, and Brexit was one of the issues we spoke about. Along with the Secretary General, I will meet the British Ambassador next Wednesday evening. A member of the general staff will be in attendance along with other officials from the Department of Defence. I had a bilateral meeting with my counterpart in the UK earlier this year in Poland at the NATO summit. In January or February I hope to visit Appledore, where the new ship is being built. On that occasion I hope to arrange a visit with my counterpart in the UK to discuss issues, including Brexit and how it will affect Ireland and the UK. It will have huge consequences for Ireland with regard to North-South relations, the Border and sea fisheries protection.
I have been assured by the Chief of Staff that although the mission in the Mediterranean will continue, the Naval Service has all of the capabilities necessary to be able to patrol our seas with the LE Eithne, LE Orla, LE Ciara, LE Róisín, LE Niamh, LE James Joyceand the LE William Butler Yeatswhile the LE Samuel Beckettis in the Mediterranean. In 2014 we had 1,127 patrol days and in 2015 we had 1,204. In 2014 the number of fishery boardings was 936 and in 2015 it was 1,079. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has responsibility for maritime issues and policy. We work closely with it and various agencies on fishing to ensure we are on top of our area of responsibility.
I apologise for being late. I was in the Chamber. I very much welcome the increased expenditure on the Naval Service and clearly it is required given the other three vessels we own are approximately 30 years old, which is quite old.
I have a concern about how it is to be financed. It says in the documentation that it is being offset by an underspend in two other subheads. A saving of €23 million is to be made in Permanent Defence Force pay and a saving of €5 million is to be made in civilian employees' pay. I have raised with the Minister of State on a number of occasions my very real concerns about our failure to reach a personnel level of 9,500 within the Defence Forces. We do not seem to be getting any closer to that level. If I am correct, the current number of personnel in the Defence Forces is 9,110. It looks on paper like a concerted effort was made to make savings so that this shortfall in the pay requirement could be used to offset perfectly the cost of €28 million. Are real efforts being made to hire the additional soldiers needed in our Defence Forces to increase the personnel level to 9,500? Has the strength of the Defence Forces been conveniently maintained at approximately 9,100 to achieve the savings required to pay for the new vessel? It is suspicious that the savings made in the area of pay are exactly those needed to offset the cost of the new vessel. I would welcome the Minister of State's comments in this regard.
It is a real concern that there has been a reduction of €23 million in Permanent Defence Force pay because of our failure to reach the required number of personnel. We are continually under-recruiting. We are not reaching the required levels. I suggest that 9,500 is a very conservative target and that a larger number of personnel is needed in our Defence Forces in light of the precarious international security position, this country's UN commitments, the need to protect international security and defence and the implications that Brexit will have for defence. We are constantly way below the 9,500 level. The Fianna Fáil Party would like that target to be increased to 10,500. We are not even meeting the 9,500 requirement. The two points I am making are linked.
I would like to ask the Minister of State about a completely different topic. What is the level of subvention paid to the representative associations? I would be interested to hear what amounts are paid to RACO, PDFORRA and the RDFRA? I understand that the RDFRA has made a business case to the Department for an increase in its subvention. My understanding is that it receives less than the other two representative bodies. Clearly, it has been severely affected by the problems in recruiting personnel into the Reserve Defence Force. As a result of the lack of recruitment and the dwindling numbers in the Reserve Defence Force, the RDFRA is getting decreased revenues from the member subscriptions on which it relies to fund itself. It is in real financial difficulty because its subvention is less than it should be getting and it is having to deal with reduced payments from members. Will the Minister of State comment on the business case that has been made to the Department? What do the Minister of State and the Department propose to do to deal with the RDFRA's financial difficulties? As the representative association for the Reserve Defence Force, the RDFRA is very much needed.
I agree with Deputy Chambers, who has said she welcomes the investment in the Naval Service, that there was under-investment in the service for quite some time. It is important that our ships are capable of carrying out the work they do every day. Although savings of €23 million and €5 million, or €28 million in total, are being made in the context of the current strength of the Permanent Defence Force, I assure the Deputy that sufficient resources are available to increase its strength to 9,500 personnel. Since my appointment, I have had meetings with representatives of the Defence Forces, including the Chief of Staff and the Deputy Chief of Staff Support, Major General Kevin Cotter, on the issue of recruitment. We are keen to ensure we recruit as many people as possible. I assure the Deputy that the resources are there for 9,500 personnel. I can inform her that 646 personnel have been recruited to date in 2016. The largest cadet class in the history of the State went through the senior and junior cadet classes this year. Just 100 junior cadets started in September of this year. The resources are there to make sure we can increase the strength of the Defence Forces to 9,500. I assure the Deputy that real efforts are being made in the area of recruitment. I have spoken to Major General Cotter about this issue and I am meeting him again next week to discuss how we can make sure a wider community interacts with next year's competition, which is an issue we discussed the last time I appeared before this committee. If members have any ideas, I am open to listening to them.
Funding of €170,000 is available this year for all the representative associations - RACO, PDFORRA and the RDFRA. On the Reserve Defence Force-----
I am not sure of the breakdown, but I will get those details for the committee. I have met all the representative associations on a number of occasions in recent months. The RDFRA has not raised this issue with me. I will be glad to get a breakdown for the Deputy of exactly what we have given to each of the three organisations in 2016.
I met members of my local Reserve Defence Force at an open day in Wexford last Sunday. They are looking for ideas. I would be the first to acknowledge that recruitment to the Reserve Defence Force is a struggle for us, partly because of Garda checks and everything like that. I am not happy with how Reserve Defence Force recruitment is going at the moment. I have met representatives of the RDFRA once or twice this year. I attended one of its training days to show my support and appreciation for the job it is doing. I want to encourage as many young people as possible to join the Reserve Defence Force. Membership of the Reserve Defence Force gives those who want to join the Permanent Defence Force and others an opportunity to see exactly what happens in Army life. As I have said, I am the first to acknowledge that this is a struggle for us. In 2016, the Reserve Defence Force pay allocation of €21.15 million is providing for 30,000 paid training days. This represents an increase on 26,000 paid training days in 2015. At the end of September, some 15,610 training days had been used up.
I would like to ask a supplementary question. I thank the Minister of State for his replies. I asked my question because I thought it looked unusual that there was a saving of €28 million on one side and a funding requirement of €28 million on the other side. I suppose it is my job to ask the questions.
I understand, having met representatives of the RDFRA yesterday, that the association made a business case to the Department regarding its subvention some months ago and is struggling to get a response. I appreciate that this might not have been brought to the attention of the Minister of State. I will ask the RDFRA to write directly to him. He might take the matter up with the Department to see whether something can be done to assist the association with the severe financial difficulties it is encountering as it seeks to keep the show on the road. The RDFRA is considerably less well resourced than RACO and PDFORRA. I accept that PDFORRA certainly represents more members and RACO probably does. At the same time, the RDFRA is performing an important role.
The Minister of State is right when he suggests that in addition to making criticisms, the members of this committee should also offer solutions. I would like to suggest a couple of things that would help the Reserve Defence Force with recruitment. We need to get back into more communities. When we took a lot of the outposts away, we removed the opportunity for many towns and villages to access the Reserve Defence Force. The facilities are simply too far away. There is a social benefit to joining the Reserve Defence Force. It is not merely a stepping stone to the Permanent Defence Force. It can be for some people, but for others it is an opportunity to give something back to their communities. I know that reservists in my own community gave their time voluntarily to play an important role in flood defence in the Athlone area last year. We need to reflect in this context on the whole concept of volunteerism, the experience it brings to the individual and what it gives back to the community. There is a social benefit.
We struggle to put a financial figure on that or its worth to our community but we should give it more consideration.
I do not know how we will solve the problems of recruitment and Garda clearance. I have tabled questions to the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality asking if there is a backlog. The Department tells me there is not. It will not give me a breakdown of the number of recruitments to the Defence Forces. I now hear from the Permanent Defence Force, PDF, that it too is struggling with Garda clearance. I ask the Minister of State to liaise with the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality and her Department to see if we can fast-track some of these individuals or at least set a reasonable timeframe so that when young people join the Reserve, they are told they absolutely will have an answer within a specified period. As it stands, people are waiting for a year or perhaps two and still do not know if they ever will get clearance or be able to join. This uncertainty leads to their saying, "To hell with it, I will not even bother." I ask for a little certainty about the timeframe. If it were a lengthy timeframe, at least applicants would know what it is and would be able to plan ahead. Units would also have a better idea of the numbers coming into the unit so they would be able to plan ahead for the coming year in terms of resources, training and having personnel on board to train people. That is one solution to the problem.
Regarding the difficulties we have in recruiting to the PDF and RDF, I maintain my support for a three-brigade structure. The fact that we have a two-brigade structure means there are soldiers covering a very large area of the country who can be posted to Finner, Donegal, one day and to Dublin another. This lack of work-life balance and this uncertainty make it a less attractive prospect perhaps initially for people to join, but certainly makes it less attractive to stay on and continue in longer levels of service. I believe that is why we see so many people leave the Defence Forces. Again, let it not be said that I have not attempted to offer at least some solutions to the many problems faced by the Defence Forces.
I hope that in any discussions at Government level, the Department of Defence is fully represented regarding anything to do with Brexit. People can conveniently forget that the Defence Forces have a huge part to play in the Brexit situation. It is very important that they be represented at a very high level.
I complement the excellent work done by the Defence Forces, particularly in my constituency in Galway. During the recent flooding there, they brought many kids to school and they helped out a lot. I do not know if the Minister of State is aware - I will bring it to his attention - that the ferry service to the Aran Islands is due to be withdrawn, I think as of tomorrow. I do not know if the Minister of State, Seán Kyne, has met Deputy Kehoe on the matter, but according to the Aran islanders, the Army might even have to be used to bring groceries and heavy, bulky goods to the Aran Islands because there will be no ferry service. Is the Army in a position to provide such a service to keep the islanders alive? If the ferry services go, there will be no access to provide a service to the island that the islanders badly need, and the Army or the Naval Service is being mentioned as potential providers of such a service. Is the Department equipped to do something like that?
On Deputy Grealish's point, if any such request comes our way, we absolutely will consider it. We have never left the Irish population in need of anything.
On Deputy Barrett's point on Brexit, I assure him that I have instructed my Secretary General and his officials to make sure they are involved in all aspects of the conversation and deliberations about Brexit. I would be the first to acknowledge that there are huge consequences for the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces in this regard. The Deputy can be assured that at every MinMAC meeting between my office and the senior officials in my Department, Brexit is discussed as a standing item on the agenda. This occurs on a bimonthly basis to make sure we get an update each month.
Regarding Deputy Chambers's comments on the recruitment process for 2017, I have spoken to the Chief of Staff and the Defence Forces about different ideas and told him that I can assist him with such. If anyone has any ideas to contribute, I am absolutely open to them and would be delighted to take them on board. The recruitment campaigns can be quite difficult. If a class of recruits is being inducted in Galway, attempts are made to have as many people from that region as possible in the class. Similarly, if a class is being recruited in Cork, attempts are made to have many people from the region of Cork in that class. The same applies to Limerick or Kilkenny. The point is to avoid someone from Kilkenny being obliged to travel to Galway, someone from Donegal being obliged to travel to Dublin or someone from Dublin being obliged to go to Cork. There are ways and means in this regard. I absolutely take on board the Deputy's point that quite a number of people are travelling. Travel is part and parcel of joining the Defence Forces. Someone who has been used to being in a barracks quite close to his or her home sometimes will have to shift somewhere else. The relocation process can take quite some time. With the reorganisation, it took at least 12 to 18 months to relocate people to a barracks while considering their personal circumstances and so on. This has settled down but it is a huge issue for officers because the nature of their responsibility means they may have to travel quite a lot. I have asked, with the new recruits for 2017 and into the future, that we cater for them as much as possible in that they are located as closely to home as possible. The cadets are trained in the training college in the Curragh and can be located anywhere after that. When people enter the Defence Forces, especially cadets, they accept that they might not go back to the barracks closest to their home and that they can go anywhere in the country. Deputy Chambers spoke about the social benefits in the context of the RDF. I absolutely agree with her. I encourage as many people to enter the RDF as possible.
I will give the committee an interesting story. The Sunday before last, I was in a barracks in Wexford. A Polish man of 28 or 29 years of age had joined the RDF there. Fair play to someone from outside of Ireland having such an interest. He wants to give something back to Ireland and felt the only way he would do so was by joining the RDF. There are many other such people. Deputy Chambers is right in saying that at the start of the year, if quite a number of people put their names forward for the RDF and must wait for six, seven, eight or nine months for Garda clearance and vetting and our own security checks within the Defence Forces, they can get fed up and leave. I want to streamline this more so that we try to retain the people who put their names forward. It might only be people submitting expressions of interest, but I want to make sure that they are given every opportunity to become members of the RDF.
Surely, the Government could take a decision to issue an instruction that these matters must be replied to within a certain time limit. It should not be at the whim of An Garda Síochána to decide when it replies and gives information that is necessary for other people to take up employment.
The Chief of Staff has spoken to the Garda Commissioner about this issue, and I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, about it. There is absolutely a need for anyone entering the Defence Forces to have a full Garda clearance and security check, and I fully understand and appreciate the reasons for this. Applications to the Reserve Defence Force are vetted by the Garda's central vetting unit. I am led to believe that in standard cases this takes four weeks. However, additional vetting also takes place as appropriate to the role of the Defence Forces as an element of the national security infrastructure. The overall security processing time can take up to 12 weeks. I can assure the committee that the military authorities are addressing any avoidable delays that may occur during the recruitment process without diminishing any of the rigorous procedures that must be followed.
I have one final question. It concerns the relationship between the Naval Service and the Customs and Excise service in respect of support and back-up.
Recently in the Dáil I raised a concern that had been brought to my attention about the amount of drugs brought ashore along the west and north-west coast up as far as Killybegs. Quite an amount of drugs were washed ashore on the coast of County Clare recently. I was wondering about the relationship between the Naval Service and the Customs service to try to eliminate the drugs being brought ashore. How vigilant is the Naval Service in the area?
The Naval Service has an excellent relationship with the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and the Customs service. The Customs service calls for assistance from the Naval Service and that is when it assists. Recently, and for several years, there have been several interceptions of large quantities of drugs by the Naval Service which does a brilliant job. I will give the Deputy the number of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and can get back to him on how many times the Customs service has called out the Naval Service to assist it.
I concur with the remarks made, particularly those of Deputy Lisa Chambers, about the Reserve Defence Force. At the last meeting of the select committee I highlighted the undervalued importance of this resource during the years. From where I come, many young people have been kept out of the way of harm and prevented from getting mixed up with the wrong company by good Reserve Defence Force officers who recruited young people who might have been vulnerable at a particular stage in their lives but who went on to serve in the Reserve Defence Force and, subsequently, the Permanent Defence Force and many other careers. I firmly believe the role of the Reserve Defence Force was crucial in ensuring successful careers for the people concerned and preventing them from getting involved with paramilitary organisations, etc.
There must be some innovative campaign to try to recruit to the Reserve Defence Force. I do not have the answer, but some colleges of further education offer security courses. The cohort of students attending such courses may be interested in joining the Reserve Defence Force. It might be worth considering having Army personnel liaise with the education and training boards which run the colleges of further education. Cavan and Monaghan institute of further education run very successful security courses and a cohort of the participants may be interested in becoming involved with the Reserve Defence Force. It might be worthwhile for senior Army personnel to speak to these classes. In my area, Cavan and Monaghan, many members of the Reserve Defence Force have given sterling service during the years and they never did it for the few pounds they received but to serve their local communities.
The Minister of State spoke about the unanticipated number of retirements that could occur in any year. Unfortunately, two or three years ago, too many personnel in the lower ranks were pushed out of the Army when they reached a certain age or had completed 20 years of service. Many people I knew well, predominantly men in their mid to late 40s, who were still extremely fit and had the physical capacity to meet all duties that would have been assigned to them, were pushed out because they had served a certain number of years. It was regrettable that this knowledge and expertise were lost. Having a finite cut-off point is incorrect in any organisation. It is regrettable that so many good people were lost. Many of the individuals I knew had serious family commitments, with children just starting in third or second level education. They had to leave their professions and jobs to which they had given absolute commitment. A few of them had served on several overseas missions and had always worked extremely hard to honour the national flag to the greatest extent possible. They were exemplary members of the Permanent Defence Force. It was regrettable that the Army pursued this policy which should be examined. Where there are good people with the required fitness levels to continue, they should not be pushed out because they have completed so many years of service or because they have reached a certain age. I hope the Minister of State will take this into account.
Some 80% of retirements are voluntary. People leave of their own accord, not because of age limits, medical issues or fitness levels. There is a strict medical and fitness regime to which all members are subject to stay within the Defence Forces and there are reasons for this. The last time I was here the Reserve Defence Force was mentioned and it was suggested we hold a specific meeting on how to recruit to it. I would be delighted to come and listen to the ideas of all committee members.
Deputy Lisa Chambers raised another point. The personnel who may be assigned to Finner Camp may be in Dublin for much of the time. The Minister of State rightly points out that when one joins the Army, one is not going to be stationary but will be moved around. However, when one is assigned to particular barracks and works most of one's time far from them, it is not the best way to keep professionals involved. I hope it could be minimised and that the numbers will increase to ensure a critical mass in every barracks.
Absolutely. I have spoken to the Chief of Staff about the matter and he has spoken to his general officers commanding, GOCs, in the first and second brigades and the training college. I have asked that those who apply be allocated to barracks close to their homes. In certain circumstances they may have to move around the country, for example, if they are promoted. However, it should be totally up to themselves. At the start of their careers, they should be located, if at all possible, as close as possible to their homes.
The Deputy spoke about members of the Defence Forces going into secondary schools to speak to students. I feel very strongly about this. If we are to educate people about Army life and joining the Reserve Defence Force or the Permanent Defence Force, we must go in to schools, particularly where there is no military life or history of the Defence Forces in a town, for example, in County Wexford where there is a Reserve Defence Force barracks but no real history of the Defence Forces. We would be going before a new audience to encourage them and let them know about the Defence Forces and what they do. There have been some programmes aimed at the promotion of the Defence Forces and it is a great opportunity to show the wider community what the Defence Forces do.
I thank the Minister of State for his participation and his officials for forwarding the briefing material in advance of the meeting. I thank members for their attendance and contributions. That concludes our consideration of the Supplementary Estimates for Votes 35 and 36. The first meeting of the joint committee will take place tomorrow at 9 a.m. and the second at 11 a.m. We expect all members to be here, please God, shortly before 9 a.m.