Tuesday, 26 June 2018
Defence Forces Strength
42. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the extent to which the strength of the Defence Forces continues to be maintained or increased, or both; the degree to which gender balance continues to be observed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27710/18]
45. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his plans to address problems with recruitment and retention across the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27741/18]
53. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his plans to increase the number of personnel serving in the Permanent Defence Forces in 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27705/18]
58. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the number of personnel serving in the Permanent Defence Forces; the expected enlistment at the end of 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27704/18]
This question relates to the extent to which the strength of all ranks of the Defence Forces is being maintained, notwithstanding resignations or retirements. Are sufficient procedures in place to ensure this prevails?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 42, 45, 51, 53 and 58 together.
As of 30 May 2018, the strength of the Permanent Defence Force was 9,010 personnel – whole-time equivalents – of which 589 were females. Given the unique and demanding nature of military life, there is understandably a relatively high level of turnover among Defence Forces personnel. This is not new and the Permanent Defence Force has always had a level of turnover that far exceeds other areas of the public service. This is a feature of military organisations internationally as well as in the Defence Forces.
The overall numbers departing the Permanent Defence Force in recent years are broadly consistent with the long-term trend, with some exceptions. As the Deputy will be aware, under my direction the Department brought the issue of recruitment and retention of certain specialists to the attention of the Public Service Pay Commission. Initial data have been submitted and further data and information on the defence sector will be forwarded in the coming weeks.
To address vacancies in specialist positions, I have initiated a full range of actions, including developing proposals for the re-entry of suitably qualified former members of the Permanent Defence Force to fill appointments and for expanding direct entry for suitable posts. Work on these matters is ongoing.
The White Paper on Defence recognises that continuous recruitment is the lifeblood of the Defence Forces. The recruitment plan proposed by the Defence Forces envisages 800 new entrants being inducted across all services and competition streams in 2018.
Similar to other areas in the public service, the Defence Forces must compete with the private sector for applicants. It is too early at this juncture to give precise targets for recruitment in 2019 but I expect them to be broadly in line with this year.
The pay of the Defence Forces is increasing in accordance with public sector pay agreements. The pay of a newly qualified three-star private has increased by 25% in the past 12 months. At €27,257, it is favourable when compared with entry rates across the public service. The starting rate for newly qualified officers is €35,000 and for new graduate officers in excess of €40,000. These amounts are inclusive of military service allowance. This compares favourably with the average starting pay for graduates across other sectors of employment.
The Government is committed to a policy of equal opportunity for men and women throughout the Defence Forces, as well as the full participation by women in all aspects of Defence Forces activity. This is underlined by a commitment in the programme for Government to increase the level of female participation in the Defence Forces.
Several specific initiatives have been implemented to increase the level of female participation in the Defence Forces. These include targeting of female persons in online recruitment campaigns, the adjustment of physical standards for female applicants etc. Over the lifetime of the White Paper, further projects will be progressed to ensure increased female participation in the Defence Forces continues.
I remain committed to ensuring the Defence Forces retain the capacity to operate effectively across all roles required of them by Government at home and overseas.
Will the Minister of State indicate the extent, if any, to which it has been possible to identify particular areas where difficulty has arisen in keeping the strength of the Defence Forces at an optimum level? To what extent do the present numbers reflect the status quoin this regard? Are there particular sectors of the Defence Forces in which it has been found particularly difficult to attract female recruits?
The Department of Defence, in conjunction with the Defence Forces, raised recruitment and retention issues for certain specialists as part of its submission to the Public Service Pay Commission. This is specifically referenced by the commission in paragraph 6.13 of its report. Section 3 of the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides that the Public Service Pay Commission be requested to complete a comprehensive examination of underlying difficulties in recruitment and retention in those sectors, as well as employment streams identified in the report.
It is an ongoing programme of human resources development within the defence organisation, part of which is aimed at ensuring an appropriate work-life balance. The Chief of Staff is actively addressing matters in the Defence Forces to this end. I have commenced several initiatives ranging from the review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme, a review of the criteria governing contracts for enlisted personnel and a comprehensive skills gap analysis across the defence organisation.
I have almost concluded the bringing forward of measures to allow former members of the Defence Forces with specialist skills, such as pilots and engineers, to re-enter the Defence Forces. I will be looking at extending that to former enlisted personnel.
Has it been possible to ensure that particularly sensitive sectors in the Defence Forces do not fall below a certain strength? Would it be possible to over-recruit, by way of compensation, during recruitment drives? Will the Minister of State indicate whether this has been tried out? Defence is a sensitive area and it is never known when or how the Defence Forces may be called upon in an emergency. Is he satisfied that sufficient strength remains available for the Defence Forces and the Reserve Defence Force to be deployed at short notice?
Several specific initiatives have been implemented to increase female participation in the Defence Forces. These include the introduction of best practices in recruitment, such as the adjustment of physical standards for female applicants; special consideration is paid to women as a target group for recruitment; a balanced composition between men and women on recruitment and selection boards; all promotions and career courses are open to both sexes on merit; a gender adviser has been appointed to promote gender equality policies and training within the Defence Forces.
As in the White Paper, the Department of Defence recognised the requirement to develop a diversity and inclusion strategy. This, together with the associate action plan, has been achieved. We target specific organisations, such as camogie and ladies football teams, to get women into the organisation.
There used to be recruitment once a year. Last year, I brought in two phases for recruitment in the first part and then the second part of the year. It was unfair for people to apply to join the Defence Forces in February only to be left on a list for 14 months and then, by the time they were reached on the panel, they had moved on to further employment. Now, we have recruitment in two months of the year.
I am seriously examining over-recruitment to ensure there is a cushion available.
During Storm Ophelia and Storm Emma, we were able to get members of the Defence Forces on the streets quickly and they were able to do an outstanding job at short notice.
The Minister of State is keen to slag off the agenda of the left. I have a big problem with boosting military expenditure at the behest of the European Union to bolster the military-industrial complex and arms manufacturers in Europe. I would be quite happy, however, to see money spent on soldiers and their families to give them a decent wage and livelihood in order that they do not have to depend on family income supplement. Up to 25% of the Defence Forces have to take up family income supplement, forcing their families to go out protesting. That is at the root of the significant recruitment and retention difficulties, resulting in the Defence Forces being way below strength. Health and safety has been compromised because of the exodus of experienced personnel from the Air Corps, the Army and the Naval Service. It all comes down to low levels of pay, as well as poor conditions of accommodation, food and other factors which are a result of the Government not putting investment into the soldiers.
Will the Minister of State give us the figures for the last recruitment drive? How many people were actually recruited? I know 3,000 expressed an interest, 381 went as far as being processed and only 180 were called. How many people were actually recruited?
A little over 1% of the Defence Forces are in receipt of family income supplement. I have addressed this matter until I am blue in the face. The only place where these accusations come from is from the left. Other Members have taken on board what I have stated on this before. I went to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection myself to check the figures. I ask the Deputy to believe me when I say that. When it is stated that so many members of the defence organisation are in receipt of family income supplement, that figure includes members of the Department as well.
The Deputy knows the meaning of family income supplement. One could be on €50,000 a year but, if one has 15 children, one is entitled to family income supplement. It is an income supplement that depends on the circumstances of a family.
The Deputy talks about the working family payment. He really should consider the meaning of the payment and what it is all about. I do not have them to hand here but I will come back to him with the full figures for the applications we received during the last intake
How does the Minister of State explain the following comment from one member of the Defence Forces?:
We're only a priority for the State when the State wants to highlight it themselves worldwide. We are far from a priority when it comes to the welfare of our troops, their wages, their conditions, their health.
Another member talks about the fact that he earned approximately €150 per week more between 2005 and 2007, when he was able to get a mortgage, than he earns today. This is the reality, and this is why the Department is unable to recruit and retain people and they are flooding out of the Defence Forces. The Department buys new naval vessels but does not have the personnel to put on them, so the vessels go out to sea but I hear reports that they then cannot do the fisheries patrols because they do not have enough personnel to board ships. The Department is buying new CASA airplanes, but I understand there are only three CASA pilots, some of whom may even leave, yet it takes years to train these pilots. Where will we get the pilots to fly the planes? It is interesting the Minister of State does not have the figures for the result of the recruitment drive. There are all these expressions of interest, but then they decrease to a tiny number because the applicants discover what the pay and conditions are and will not touch the positions with a bargepole.
The Deputy's question is "[to ask] the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his plans to address problems with recruitment and retention across the Defence Forces", and I am outlining them. Had he asked me for the specific figures, I would have had them to hand, but he did not ask that specific question. He does not have to table another question; I will come back to him with that information. We have issues with pilot retention, air traffic controllers and engineers, and I am taking steps to address all these issues by ensuring direct entry and re-entry of personnel. People who left the organisation want to re-enter it, and they will improve the skills reserve of the Defence Forces. I am working with the Department and the Defence Forces on this issue. I will defend everything we spend on defence equipment. The Deputy specifically highlighted naval vessels. Members of the Defence Forces deserve the best equipment to carry out their day-to-day duties.
The Minister of State mentioned in reply to Deputy Durkan some of the initiatives to increase female participation in respect of recruitment. We are failing abysmally against the international metric. The total of females in our Defence Forces is approximately 6.5%, which is way below international norms. The figure for the US is 16%; New Zealand, 17%; Canada, 15%; and Britain, 9%. Female participation in the Air Corps specifically is below 5% while it is approximately 7% in the Army and the Navy. According to figures received by my colleague, Deputy Lisa Chambers, there was a 9.7% female recruitment rate last year within the Defence Forces, which does not even match the norms in the countries I have mentioned. Clearly, therefore, we need a greater recruitment initiative which involves more than just contacting the GAA or other sports clubs. We need to do more to increase female participation because this will have a drag effect if we want to try to increase the percentage in years to come. A 9.7% rate last year is not good enough. We should seek at the very least to match international norms in respect of recruitment in order that we increase the number of females in the Defence Forces.
A number of specific initiatives have been implemented to increase the level of female participation. Women's websites and magazines are targeted. I just mentioned sports clubs and organisations as examples. I agree that it is difficult to attract women to the Defence Forces. We must change the mindset. I am not sure why women might think a career in the Defence Forces is not an attractive future for them. We must help to change this. I have spoken to the Chief of Staff and the general staff about this. We have discussed using the women within the organisation to promote the organisation, whether through visits to third level or second level institutions, and giving them every opportunity in order that women are well aware that the Defence Forces are an attractive place to work. This will be difficult but we will continue to do it. Female inductions in the cadets increased by 13% in 2017 and is down 1% in 2018. The 2017 numbers were up on the 2016 numbers, and I hope the final figures for 2018 will be up on 2017.
I accept the Department has implemented some initiatives. They have not worked, and I am glad the Minister of State has recognised that. One constructive suggestion I have concerns something the British army does. It has changed its recruitment portal and the way in which the recruitment process works. I know many people who have applied to the Defence Forces and who received an email seeking to confirm their acceptance of their applications to the Defence Forces. A centralised portal is needed. The UK uses a buddy system whereby someone within the force works with the people as they apply. Many people are just waiting for an email signalling acceptance or whether the application has been successful. A centralised portal would help facilitate increased recruitment or give people certainty regarding their applications. The Defence Forces should not use email as a means to determine whether someone has been successful in his or her application. The technology for the recruitment process needs to be modernised in order that there is greater certainty for potential applicants, and the Minister of State should examine what is done in the UK. It has helped many applicants. I know Irish people who have applied to the British army and say it is a much better system of recruitment.
I am always open to suggestions. However, I have looked at the British system and a private company does a lot of the recruitment for the British army. This year, 15% of the applications for the cadets have been from females. If my memory serves me correctly, the figure for general service recruitment for females was 13%. However, the Deputy is correct that we must change our recruitment methods. My officials and I are looking at the various systems overseas. We must learn from other countries whether we need a centralised system we need and whether there should be departmental involvement. We must look seriously at this. We must change the way we recruit, which is what the Deputy is talking about, and that is the way I see it happening. We must look at changing the system we have. This is one of the reasons I am looking at direct entry and re-entry and the two-phase recruitment during the year. I was not happy with one recruitment drive each year. Two-phase recruitment presents better opportunities for people. They do not have to wait around for as long to be part of that. A significant number of people, whether well educated or less educated, have different contributions to make to the Defence Forces. If there are people out there who want to apply to the Defence Forces, I encourage them to do so because they ought to have something to offer to the organisation.