Tuesday, 21 June 2016
Ceisteanna - Questions (resumed) - Priority Questions
Defence Forces Reserve Strength
16. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence when the number of members of the Reserve Defence Force will reach 4,000; his engagement in addressing the difficulties and delays applicants experience in obtaining Garda Síochána clearance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17096/16]
The strength of the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, at the end of May 2016 was 2,134 effective personnel. The 2015 White Paper on Defence confirms that the primary role of the reserve is to augment the Permanent Defence Force in times of crisis and to participate in ceremonial events. The White Paper also sets out a developmental path for the RDF. It provides that the overarching establishment of the Army Reserve, AR, and the Naval Service Reserve, NSR, is to be set at 4,169 personnel, consisting of 3,869 Army reservists and the expansion of the four NSR units from 200 personnel to 300.
In addition, the White Paper recognises that there may be professional skills that, on occasion, are not readily available in the Permanent Defence Force. Arising from the fact that there may be individual members of the RDF who, by virtue of their professional civilian qualifications, have the competence to undertake such specialised tasks and fill the skills gap, the Government has decided that a panel of such professionally qualified members of the RDF, to be known as the Specialist Reserve, should be established.
A key challenge is to recruit and train sufficient personnel to meet the reserve establishment provided for in the White Paper. The Defence Forces will continue to seek increases to the level of RDF recruitment in 2016.
It must be remembered that membership of the RDF is voluntary and strength levels are ultimately dependent on how many people volunteer for it in any given calendar year and commit to ongoing active participation in training and other activities.
With regard to Garda clearance, as I advised the Deputy recently, applicants to the Reserve Defence Forces are vetted by the Garda central vetting unit as part of the recruitment process. Processing times for vetting of applications can take up to 12 weeks on average. The Deputy will appreciate that in some cases additional inquiries may be necessary and this may result in processing times in excess of the average. For security and operational reasons the Defence Forces cannot comment on vetting processes in individual cases.
I will outline some of the scenarios I have come across. A number of applicants began the fitness testing and interview process in October 2015. Their Garda clearance forms went in after that in October-November 2015 but some of them have still not heard back. The Minister of State outlined to me that the vetting process rests with the Garda Síochána. I submitted questions to the Minister for Justice and Equality on this very issue and asked her what the turnaround times were for Garda vetting. I was told that the average turnaround time was not 12 weeks but four weeks for 80% of applications. She told me that there were certain circumstances in which additional information may be required and that time could be extended. The 12 weeks that the Minister of State just stated does not marry with the four weeks stated by the Minister for Justice and Equality this month. The Minister for Justice and Equality told me that 80% of applications are dealt with within that four-week period, so it does not explain the ongoing huge delays. Between October-November 2015 and June 2016 some applicants have not heard back. It appears that the issue does not rest with the Garda Síochána unless all of the Reserve applications happen to sit in that 20% that could potentially take longer. Will the Minister of State please explain why he has told me 12 weeks when the Minister for Justice and Equality has told me four weeks?
I assure the Deputy that neither the Defence Forces nor the Department are holding up applications to the Reserve Defence Forces. As the Deputy is aware, when one applies for the Reserve Defence Forces, one is going into a specific area. I will check with the Minister for Justice and Equality what the average waiting time on applications for Garda clearance is. Given the importance of ensuring the members of the Reserve are fully security cleared before becoming members of the Defence Forces, it would not be appropriate for me to intervene in this process or to seek for such requests to be expedited nor would it be appropriate for me to seek to have specific applications accorded priority over others. I assure the Deputy that I will look into this. I have still to meet with the recruitment section of the Defence Forces. The Deputy raised this with me at a previous meeting and I will come back to her with a reply.
I have never suggested that applications are being withheld by any particular organisation or individual. I am asking the Minister of State to investigate this because it appears that Reserve Defence Forces applications are taking much longer than anybody would expect. I have the response issued to me on 14 June 2016 by the Minister for Justice and Equality which outlines the number of applications received for the past three years. It shows clearly, in black and white, that 80% of applications are processed within four weeks. The Minister was very clear on that. I can give that to the Minister of State so that he does not need to double check it with the Minister, although he should feel free to do so. Will the Minister come back to me and tell me why those delays are happening? If they are not happening within the Department of Defence or within the Defence Forces but somewhere else, we need to identity from where the problem is originating so we can fix it. If we do not know what is causing the problem, it will persist.
From talking to individuals who have actually applied - people I know - I can tell the Minister of State that they are still waiting on responses to applications they submitted in November 2015. It is simply not good enough because those people are currently lost to the organisation. They will not come back to us again. They are very good young people who want to volunteer but we are not letting them volunteer because we are not processing their applications.
I ask Deputies to observe the clock. If everybody takes a minute, that is five minutes, and it will deny another Member the time to ask a question. Deputies should keep within the time limits on the clock.
I am as anxious as the Deputy to make sure we bring as many participants into the Reserve Defence Forces as possible. We have some very fine people in the Reserve Defence Forces. If a person talks to me about joining the Army, I always encourage them to join the Reserve first and to see at first hand exactly what is involved in military and defence life. The person gets a first-hand experience of that.
I will come back to the Deputy once I have met with the recruitment section in the Defence Forces to see what the challenges are in the process. Everyone should be treated fairly and equally in Garda vetting. I am not sure if there is any hold up in Garda vetting for applications to the Reserve Defence Forces but I will check it out and revert to the Deputy.