Thursday, 11 July 2019
Public Service Pay Commission Report on the Permanent Defence Force: Statements (Resumed)
The Minister of State does not need me to repeat what has been said. It has been made abundantly clear by the thousands of members of the Defence Forces that the proposals put forward in this report are simply not going to cut it for them and their families.
We know that the report was hamstrung from the outset by virtue of its terms of references and what it could and could not look at. The main issue excluded was core pay. In that context, how will there ever be a satisfactory outcome? There could not have been and there was not. There has been a degree of spin around the manner in which this has been presented and how well remunerated members of the Defence Forces are. That takes a brass neck but that is how it has played out to many people and that was how I heard it.
Some of the recommendations are welcome but not enough to offset the considerable disappointment regarding pay levels and overall working conditions. Some of the retention issues relate to progression, which is certainly the case in the Air Corps, for example. It is difficult to be motivated about one's work environment when one is working hard, doing dangerous work for part of the time and, in some cases, drawing on a working family payment. That is not a minor number of cases; it applies to people with families. They are precluded from striking and, if they were in the domestic economy, they would certainly be representing themselves in a different way.
Morale in the Defence Forces is at an all-time low. Everyone present has already noted how retention is a significant problem in all branches and against that backdrop, recruitment will be as difficult. How are we to increase our Defence Forces up to the strength at which they should be?
In the 16 months or so since RACO made its submission to the Public Service Pay Commission in February 2018, nearly 1,200 members have left the Defence Forces. Few would have made a different decision had they known the eventual report would give an additional 96 cent daily for privates, €1.30 for officers and €1.70 for non-commissioned officers. They would not have waited for that money. Those are not make-or-break sums that can determine whether a member and his or her family can continue to commit such huge personal sacrifices to the Defence Forces. A great many members of the Defence Forces have wanted to remain there but have had to leave because they are unable to remain.
It is not a nine to five job, nor is it something from which people are able to clock out. The State drafts the Defence Forces into many different types of work, such as the role they played during recent snowstorms, although their main work is outside such activities.
Defence Force membership is often vocational. In any walk of life where there is a vocational aspect, there will be some underpayment as it is taken advantage of but ultimately, people must put food on the table and they need to pay their bills. Our cost of living is very high and that applies to the Defence Forces as it does to anyone. It is unfair to expect people to struggle financially while assuming they will put up with it because they want to serve in their branch of the service.
I recognise the Minister of State's commitment to review core pay and retention issues in the next six months but I have heard members of the Defence Forces respond that they are sceptical about that commitment. They do not hold much hope that there will be substantial change, not least when they have heard the Government spin on the presentation of this report. It is telling that the RACO executive had to make it clear that the small concessions proposed in the report will not become available to those serving unless they accept the report. There is bad faith from the word go. When people are on such low incomes, small amounts matter but these are paltry increases, with Defence Force members being told they will not see further advances if they do not accept the report.
There will be road shows around the report. What is expected? People can clearly understand what has been put before them, they know their cost of living, what their expectation was and they know they once again are being asked to wait for core pay to be examined. Will the Minister of State give commitments on his intentions for that review later in the year? There is some scepticism around it.
We pay a lot of lipservice to the Defence Forces. While there was much talk of reputational damage to Ireland in respect of the crash and repaying bondholders, for instance, we would all agree that peacekeeping is the one area where our reputation is enhanced and we are all proud of the role they have played. That does not come without a price. We also pay lipservice to our Defence Forces' health and safety. I have been trying to raise an issue on the Air Corps and the large number of early deaths there. Several cases are before the State Claims Agency. There is the effect of Lariam, with people having to go through the courts over their health and welfare. Not only are members underpaid and not only do they have poor progression but we do not take their health and safety as seriously as we need to.