Wednesday, 12 June 2019
Defence Forces: Motion [Private Members]
That Dáil Éireann:notes that:
— the approved strength of the Permanent Defence Forces (PDF) currently stands at 9,500;
— at the end of March 2019 there were 8,847 personnel, compared to 9,057 at the end of February 2018;
— 3,200 personnel left the PDF between 2014 and 2018, a figure which equates to 34.7 per cent of the average strength for those years, with 82 per cent of these being premature voluntary retirements;
— the turnover rate in the PDF now stands at 9 per cent overall, with a rate of 14 per cent in the Naval Service;
— there were 256 discharges in the first four months of 2019, by far the largest figure since the reorganisation of 2012; and
— in April 2019 alone, there were 86 discharges, a figure not previously matched in a single month;
— the ongoing priority given, by Government, to costly recruitment policies;
— the absence of any retention policy for the Defence Forces;
— the underspend of €92.3 million from 2014 to 2018 in the Defence Estimate (Vote 36);
— the high turnover rate that is leading to the creation of a difficult and challenging training environment for remaining service personnel;
— that some personnel are double- and treble-jobbing in an effort to maintain operational output;
— that insufficient supervision and mentoring combined with poor trained manning levels is leading to unavoidable burnout;
— that there are serious concerns for governance, and the ability to manage risk and ensure the wellbeing of personnel; and
— that recent surveys have illustrated the mental health difficulties, increased stress and low morale being experienced by PDF personnel;
— the impact of operating with reduced numbers is already being felt across the Defence Forces;
— the Army is struggling to fulfil its assigned tasks, domestically and internationally;
— ships are unable to go to sea and aircraft are not flying as a result of personnel shortages;
— defence capability is being seriously undermined; and
— reduced governance increases operational and personnel risk; and
— the restoration of military allowances to pre-Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest levels, especially in view of the underspend from 2014 to 2018, to include the service commitment scheme for Air Corps pilots and fixed-period promotion for Special Service Officers;
— the restoration of the supplementary pension for post 2013 entrants;
— a review of the PDF organisation to provide for a training and overseas establishment, bringing the PDF personnel numbers up to 10,500 across all ranks and formations/services;
— a permanent and independent Defence Forces pay body to be established;
— Defence Forces representative organisations to be able to take up associate membership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions;
— greater military expertise in the Department of Defence, who have made some concerning and damaging decisions affecting the Defence Forces;
— the enhancement of the input and discretion of military management in decisions over current and capital spending;
— the implementation of the Working Time Directive, which the Government is currently not implementing properly;
— a clear and defined role for the Reserve Defence Forces, that would enable them to play a meaningful and worthwhile part in support to the PDF; and
— the undertaking of a comprehensive independent review (involving external and international expertise) of defence policy, the Defence Forces and the role of the Department of Defence.
I wish we were not here today. I wish my party had not been compelled to introduce today's motion on the Defence Forces. I would much prefer if there were no retention crisis. I wish men and women were not leaving the Defence Forces in their droves, en masse, heading for the exit doors as quickly as they can.
I wish the measures the Minister of State and the Government have belatedly introduced to stem the flood were not the abject failures they have been. I wish morale among our serving men and women was sky high and not on the floor. I wish our naval vessels had enough staff so they could go out to sea and stop the huge quantities of drugs being trafficked into the country. I wish pilots and highly skilled personnel in our Air Corps were not leaving faster than we can count. I wish our Army personnel did not have to wake up at all hours of the morning and drive hundreds of miles to get to work because of the disastrous reorganisation and removal of the fourth western brigade and the displacement of many personnel in the midlands and west of the country. Commuters in perpetuity is all this has created.
I wish I was not receiving messages daily from desperate families of Defence Forces members stating how worried they are about the bills that are coming through the door which they cannot pay and are not going away, the threatened evictions and the devastating impact all this has on their mental health and well-being. I wish no Defence Forces families were dependent on social welfare payments for supports. I wish the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann and our Reserve Defence Force were treated with the respect and dignity they deserve and given decent pay and proper working conditions. It is 2019 and the Defence Forces is at breaking point.
Of course, none of this is news to the Minister of State. We implored him to take decisive action before these problems blew out of control. It is a real shame he did not heed our warnings. We warned him in May of last year that we could not recruit our way out of this retention crisis and that a credible retention policy was required. The Minister of State told me on that occasion that there was no full-blown retention crisis in the Defence Forces and that everything would be all right. He was like the ostrich with his head in the sand, hoping everything would sort itself out. It has not.
I raised the retention crisis again in November and the Minister of State again assured me he was confident that recruitment would get us to the White Paper target of 9,500 serving members. Since then, we are further away from that target. I ask the Minister of State not to pretend any longer that this is a problem on which he has a grip. He could not be accused of misleading the House because no one here would believe him. His ineptitude, disinterest and inability to resolve this is clear for us all to see. The Minister of State is the silent lamb at the Cabinet table.
We know the crisis we are in. The fact is that 3,200 personnel left the Defence Forces between 2014 and 2018, many of whom were highly skilled and well trained at great expense to the State. A total of 82% of those were premature voluntary retirements. There were 327 discharges in the first five months of 2019, including 71 in May. Of that 71, 14 were recruits. Eighty-six were discharged in April. This is an unprecedented, tsunami-like exodus under the watch of the Minister of State. Turnover is at 9% overall and 14% for the Naval Service, a figure that the Chief of Staff has said is crippling as we are now struggling to fill key leadership positions and overseas missions are at risk. This is also having a knock-on impact as members must double and treble-job so many areas of the Defence Forces can just manage. They are at breaking point.
It is beyond time the Minister of State actually listened to the concerns of the men and women of our Defence Forces because right now they are serving on their goodwill, devout loyalty and dedication to the Irish State. These are the people who go out in the snow and clear the roads so the country does not come to a standstill in bad weather and so gardaí, ambulances and the fire service can attend the scenes of emergencies. Members of the Defence Forces stood in fields and slept in ditches last week so the visit of the US President passed off without a hitch, during which time gardaí earned many multiples of the earnings of Defence Forces members, despite standing beside each other in the wind and rain in the service of the State. These members are not even getting minimum wage when the duty allowance is calculated for the work they do. Does that sound fair to Deputy Kehoe as the Minister of State at the Department of Defence?
The Taoiseach says he represents the people who get up early in the morning. The Defence Forces have not gone to bed. What do they get? Does the Minister of State highlight the fact that our Defence Forces are disintegrating at home when he is swanning around the world and using them as a prop such as he did during his visit to New York when he was trying to secure a place on the UN Security Council? The members of the Defence Forces feel demoralised by those international actions when they are being treated with such disrespect at home. I suspect the Minister of State does not highlight that fact abroad.
The Minister of State should not take my word for it. He should listen to the concerns of the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and the wives and partners of Defence Forces members, some of whom are here today and who have been tireless in highlighting these problems for years now. The Minister of State should look at the University of Limerick climate survey where members of the Defence Forces have told of the chaos across the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps. He should listen to Cathal Berry who left the Defence Forces after a stellar career because he felt he could not just stand by and watch helplessly as it all fell apart around him. If the Minister of State does not want to listen to any of them, he should listen to his own Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, who, in an unprecedented move for someone in his position, felt the need to intervene in the Public Service Pay Commission and make a personal plea for his staff to be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Of course, the entire Public Service Pay Commission process has serious question marks over it. This was supposed to be an independent process. On 3 October, the Minister of State told me a joint submission had gone from his Department and the Defence Forces military management to the pay commission, but he then had to correct the record on 17 January this year, again in oral response to a question, to reveal that the submission had not in fact gone to the pay commission but was being held by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This is deeply troubling. There has been a clear contamination, dilution and butchering of the recommendations from military management. The entire process and independence of the commission has been compromised as a result. The leaked snippets I have seen are miserly, Scrooge-like increases in allowances that will be insufficient to stem the flow. In fact, they will prompt an unprecedented exodus from the Defence Forces, an Armageddon scenario whereby many decent, hard-working men and women are forced to the cliff edge. It is not an exaggeration to say the future of the Defence Forces is at stake here.
The obvious move to rectify this situation is staring the Minister of State in the face: the restoration and increase of military allowances to pre-financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, levels as was in the submission from military management. The Minister of State and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, says we cannot afford such measures. I say to the Minister of State we cannot afford not to have Defence Forces. I say to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, that he is penny wise and pound foolish. Prudent Paschal is now Dangerous Donohoe. He revealed his true colours yesterday when he tried to blame the men and women of the Defence Forces - literally the worst paid public sector workers - for his own failure to manage public expenditure properly. Fianna Fáil did not write the report of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, which outlined the Minister's mismanagement of the public finances. He needs to be reminded that it was not the Defence Forces that overspent by €2 billion on the national children's hospital, he did. It was not the Defence Forces who lost €3 billion on a national broadband network the State will not even own, it was him. It was not the Defence Forces that blew the health budget or lost control of agency spending year on year. It was not the Defence Forces that proposed a €3 billion tax cut in a reckless electioneering exercise. This was a shameful attack by a clearly rattled Minister who tried to use the lowest paid in the public sector as a political pawn to attack Fianna Fáil. He should be ashamed and embarrassed. He repays the unwavering loyalty and absolute commitment of the Defence Forces with the exploitation of the worst paid workers in the public sector.
However, the increase in allowances can be managed within Vote 36. Military management calculated that the allowances can be done at a cost of less than €30 million per year, which is less than the amount the Minister returns to the Exchequer every year as he outlined in a reply to a parliamentary question I asked.
Today's motion also includes a number of other cost-neutral measures which would go a long way to securing the future of the Defence Forces. We need a review of the Permanent Defence Force and the creation of an independent pay review body, as exists in the UK. We are calling for much-needed military expertise in the Department of Defence with greater military management input into spending and decision-making. We are calling for a specific retention policy so we keep our highly skilled people and stop losing vital corporate knowledge. Introducing a superannuation pension scheme for post-2013 entrants would also ensure personnel would not feel the need to walk away to ensure they have a pension. There is also the working time directive. We need a root-and-branch review of defence policy, the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence. We should be immensely proud of the work the Defence Forces do and their peacekeeping duties abroad. We should honour their commitment and dedication with loyalty. The Minister of State should stop disrespecting them, get his head out of the sand, stand up and fight for our serving men and women, and show them a shred of the loyalty they show us every single day.
At the rate the Government is going, we will not have Defence Forces that are functioning in the future. It is not news to the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, that he is not flavour of the month with the Defence Forces and has not been for quite some time. Instead of leading his Department, he is being led. He has consistently failed to display a vision for the Defence Forces. The Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, is the Minister for Defence, but he has given all duties in that regard to the Minister of State. However, the Taoiseach has no problem paying lip service to the Defence Forces, hopping in and out of Army helicopters or flanking himself with armed officers when there is a good photo op and it helps with the spin unit he likes to progress. How bad does it need to get before the Minister of State and the Government do something to rectify the crisis in the Defence Forces?
The damage that has been caused to the Defence Forces by the Government and its predecessor will take the best part of ten years to fix and reverse, as it is so widespread. The loss of the corporate knowledge held by highly skilled trained personnel who have left the Defence Forces en masse cannot be replaced overnight. In fact, it will take years to so do. That means that the Defence Forces are struggling to maintain basic duties, man our naval ships and fly our aeroplanes, very basic tasks that our citizens assume are being carried out. The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association, RDFRA, and the wives and partners of members of the Defence Forces have been telling the Government the same story consistently for years. In the first four months of this year, 256 personnel walked away from our Defence Forces because they had no other choice. The Minister of State has been in his brief for long enough to understand that these people cannot simply be replaced. It takes years to grow the corporate knowledge and military skills to the level we require.
When the Minister of State is asked about the Government's retention policy, he reverts to talking about recruitment simply because it does not have one. Recruitment and retention go hand in hand, but one does not replace the other. They are distinct and separate policies. There is very little point in taking people in one door and having them walk out another just as fast, but that is what is happening. We are losing recruits who cannot stand to stay in the organisation for more than a year or two because the pay and conditions are so poor. As Deputy Jack Chambers stated, almost 3,500 members left the Defence Forces in four years, which is a staggering number for the Minister of State to mull over. His Department handed back almost €27 million, but he never explained how that can happen. Surely, that money should be redirected to retention policies.
I wish to briefly touch on the Reserve Defence Force. I spent 13 years growing up in that organisation and that has stood to me. The Government has destroyed the organisation. The Minister of State asked me for ideas and solutions three years ago when I was Fianna Fáil spokesperson on defence. I offered them to him, but none were acted upon. Other Members also offered solutions to the Government but it has acted on none of them. The organisation is on its knees. It is upsetting to think that it may never recover. The Minister of State has presided over that decline.
The impact of poor pay and appalling conditions on Defence Forces families has real and significant consequences for many people in Kildare who I represent. They often come to my office seeking help with homelessness and rent, fuel and child poverty. I recently met a number of Defence Forces families who are struggling to meet the costs of paying for their children to sit leaving certificate and junior certificate examinations. That is very sad. I have been in touch with Sarah Walsh of the Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces, WPDF, many times since the group was established in November 2016. I welcome her and her colleague, Sharon Dunne, to the Public Gallery. In her words, the Defence Forces are suffering from political neglect and institutional indifference. The members of the WPDF deserve a lot of credit for highlighting the enormous personal sacrifices made by men and women serving in the Defence Forces and their families, such as the impact on family life of the prolonged periods spent away from home, the daily struggles experienced by families as a result of the paltry wages which leave them unable to meet their basic needs, and issues with training exercises and overseas missions.
I recently held a public meeting in regard to the Defence Forces in Newbridge and another in Portarlington. I welcomed the opportunity to hear first-hand experiences from parents and partners of those working with the Defence Forces. Frustration, anger and helplessness were expressed by the vast majority of those in attendance. It made for very sobering listening. One word completely absent from the meetings was "hope". I have rarely attended or hosted a public meeting where there was no hope. People spoke of their pride in several generations of their family having served, but stated they would not recommend or support a decision by their son or daughter to join the Defence Forces.
The mental health issues, increased stress and low morale being experienced by our soldiers, sailors and aircrew are of significant concern. This morning, I heard about a class of aircraft technicians who have been sitting in Baldonnel with no one to train them. Some of them started first year three years ago and are still in first year because there is nobody to train them. Many do not turn up in the mornings and one cannot blame them for that.
Retired Army Commandant Cathal Berry sent me an adjudication report from September 2010 regarding the Army Ranger Wing. It was forced into arbitration in 2010. There was a breakthrough on an allowance, but it has still not been implemented nine years later. Today, the Taoiseach stated that he wishes to send the Army Ranger Wing to Mali, which is obviously a high-risk mission. The Minister of State and the Taoiseach are asking a lot of those soldiers in light of money having been owed to them for more than nine years.
I will not repeat the points made by my colleagues. It is clear that there is a significant issue in our Defence Forces, with morale being particularly low, as evidenced by the reduction of numbers. Retention is a big issue. The amendment tabled by the Government is appalling. It clearly identifies the challenges faced in regard to recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces, but nowhere in the amendment does the Government deal with the specific issues causing the retention problem. It is not just about the numbers in the Defence Forces; the capacity of the Defence Forces is being undermined. Technical personnel in the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps are being adversely affected. The Government did not address the issue of the removal of the supplementary pension. We have not dealt with issues around restoring defence allowance. These are the core issues affecting members of the Defence Forces, but they are not addressed in the Government's amendment to the motion.
We need the Minister of State to act as a champion for the Defence Forces, not just a manager. We need him to go to the Cabinet and bang the table. The members of the Defence Forces, who are held in high regard by the public, are being let down by the Government. The Minister of State has an opportunity to champion their cause. That is what needs to come from this debate.
Many Members listened to various media reports in the past week in the light of the visit to Ireland of the US President. One story of particular significance related to overtime pay. Some sections got €40 per hour, while others only got €20. This situation is much like that in the health service: the Government is relying on the goodwill of professionals in order to avoid its duty of care to personnel. The Government is confident that these people will not neglect their duty and is capitalising on that and, in my opinion, taking advantage of them. This morning, I spoke to a member of the Reserve Defence Force from west Cork who is currently on duty. He confirmed that in his normal job he takes home approximately €600 after tax for working eight hours a day. A working week in the force will see him bring home €250 based on a 15-hour day. Such differences cannot be justified. My colleagues spoke of morale being at an all-time low. Is it any wonder that is so, given the situation outlined by that member? Of significance is the fact that that example pertains to a reservist. What is to be said for members of the Permanent Defence Force? What initiative is there to ensure we have fully functioning Defence Forces? What initiative is there to attract new recruits? What sense of purpose or place can be derived from a working environment such as this? Many members of the Defence Forces are decorated personnel. I ask the Minister of State to, please, treat them accordingly.
I move amendment No. 3:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:“recognises:— that the Irish people shares its great pride in our Defence Forces and the contribution made by the Permanent Defence Forces (PDF) and the Reserve Defence Forces (RDF);notes:
— Ireland’s long and well respected history of participating in overseas missions under United Nations (UN) mandates and acknowledges that the Defence Forces have played a vital role as peacekeepers all over the world, in Europe, Africa and the Middle East in UN and UN-mandated peace support missions and, today, some 673 members of the PDF are serving overseas in various parts of the world;
— those members of the Defence Forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the State, including those on overseas peacekeeping missions;
— the dedication and professionalism of the Defence Forces;
— the ongoing implementation of the Government’s White Paper on Defence; and
— the challenges that are faced in relation to recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces;— that the Department of Defence has civil and military branches, consistent with its constitutional and statutory mandate;further notes that:
— that the Secretary General heads the civil element while the Chief of Staff heads the military element of the Department of Defence;
— that both civil and military elements provide supports to the Minister for Defence, and that the Chief of Staff has direct and independent access to the Minister for the provision of military advice;
— that ultimately command and management of the Defence Forces is by the Minister for Defence, on behalf of the Government, ensuring appropriate oversight of defence and of the Defence Forces;
— the importance of the White Paper on Defence, which was prepared by joint civil and military steering and working groups, in providing a defence policy in keeping with Ireland’s defence requirements for the period to 2025 and comprehending a developmental and strategic approach to defence provision, including the ongoing modernisation of defence equipment;
— that the finalisation of the White Paper in June 2015 included, at the arrangement of the Minister for Defence, Dáil statements which provided members with an opportunity for final inputs and that, furthermore, there has been engagement with the relevant Oireachtas Joint Committee on any or all aspects of the White Paper as might be desired by Committee members;
— that a key feature of the White Paper is the provision for future-proofing of policy and capabilities through a new process of fixed cycle defence reviews with a Strategic Defence Review to commence in early 2021, while a White Paper Update commenced last year and is being overseen by a joint civil-military steering group;
— that the Government’s commitment to the Defence Forces capability is evidenced through a 2019 provision for gross expenditure of some €1,007 million, an increase of €60 million or 6.4 per cent over 2018, while the capital allocation has increased to €106 million, an increase of 38 per cent on the 2018 allocation;
— that a significant portion of the Defence budget is delegated to the Chief of Staff, to facilitate the exercise of his functions;
— that all major investment decisions are made via joint civil-military work and approved through a joint, co-chaired, civil-military forum and that this collaborative civil-military approach operates successfully within the Department of Defence;
— that this investment will see the replacement and upgrade of significant equipment platforms over the life-time of the White Paper, including an upgrade of the Army’s fleet of armoured personnel carriers (APCs), enhancement of the capabilities of the Army Ranger Wing, replacement of the Air Corps’ Cessna fleet, CASA Maritime Patrol Aircraft and the Naval Service’s flagship LÉ Eithne;
— that there is a sustained programme of investment in barracks infrastructure to improve accommodation and other facilities across the country;
— the range of actions in place for the development of Defence Forces human resources, training, education, family friendly and a range of other supports;
— the development of flexible and adaptive military capabilities as a pragmatic approach to dealing with future uncertainty and the roles assigned, and that capability commitments outlined in the White Paper include maintenance of a PDF establishment of at least 9,500 personnel;
— that specific shortages in specialist areas are being addressed and that work is underway aimed at addressing these particular challenges;
— the efforts to accelerate the rate of recruitment to the RDF within means and resources;
— that in relation to the Working Time Directive, legislation is currently being considered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and civil-military work is underway to achieve a graduated solution which respects the unique operational requirements of a military force; and
— that membership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) by Defence Forces representative associations, as recommended in a recent review of the Defence Forces C&A Scheme, is now under consideration, and that the discussion with ICTU is considering feasibility, taking account of the need to recognise the prohibition on the right to strike, the tasks that Government may require the Defence Forces to undertake, and the necessity that command and control arrangements and military discipline are un-impinged; and— the focus of pay increases under the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 has been those on lower pay and that by the end of the current Agreement, the pay scales of all public servants (including members of the Defence Forces), earning under €70,000 per annum, will be restored to pre-Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest levels;
— public sector pay policy is determined centrally by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, having regard to public sector pay agreements, and that independent sectoral pay determination bodies, such as one for the Defence Forces, is not consistent with this approach;
— public service pension provisions are laid down in statute and apply across the public service; and
— the Public Service Pay Commission has examined recruitment and retention issues in the defence sector and that its report will be considered by Government and form the basis of engagement with parties to the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on defence matters. This motion has given the Government and the House a valuable opportunity to recognise the range and quality of outputs from the defence sector. It also gives me an opportunity to outline what we are achieving in defence and ongoing efforts to address the current recruitment and retention challenges. Let me be very clear that I have no difficulty in acknowledging that we face some HR challenges.
For the avoidance of any doubt, the Department of Defence has civil and military branches and, with the serving Minister as head, ensures civil control of the armed forces of the State.
The Secretary General heads the civil element while the Chief of Staff heads the military element of the Department of Defence, known as the Defence Forces headquarters which I should point out has an establishment of 327 military personnel. Both civil and military elements provide supports to me, as Minister of State, in the management of defence. I wish to make it clear that the Chief of Staff, the general staff and the generals commanding the various brigades and formations all have direct and independent access to me and can and do provide whatever advice they wish to provide directly to me. I listen to and respect all the advice, whether civil or military. Like all Ministers responsible to this House, the way in which I use this advice rests with me and I must balance it with a wider governmental and policy perspective.
A further dimension which distinguishes defence is its international footprint. Currently some 673 members of the Irish Defence Forces are deployed overseas on peace support operations. These missions arise and are sustained by policy work led by my Department and the contribution of the individual members of the Defence Forces who serve overseas, often on difficult and dangerous missions. I have proposed in the counter-motion that the House again acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice made by members of the Defence Forces in the service of their country overseas.
Regarding White Paper implementation, a total of 95 separate projects are to be completed over a ten-year period. This is being managed by a joint civil-military team. Every project is led jointly by senior civil and military personnel working together. I am pleased to report that, to date, 42 projects have been initiated and 14 have closed, with others expected to close shortly. These are all sizeable projects in their own right and cover the very issues which are of concern, including human resources, equipment, barracks development and much more.
As for funding for defence, the White Paper emphasises the Government's commitment to necessary resourcing of defence into the future. It highlights the connectivity between defence provision and the proper functioning of civil society. The two defence Votes, Vote 35 - Army Pensions and Vote 36 - Defence, provide in 2019 for gross expenditure of just over €1 billion, an increase of €60 million, or 6.4%, over 2018 expenditure.
I wish to draw attention to the fact that the motion includes a false claim that there was an underspend of over €92 million on defence from 2014 to 2018. The true position is that underspends, where they arose, largely due to reduced strength levels, have primarily been redirected elsewhere into the defence Votes, for example for equipment procurement via Vote 36 or to meet shortfalls in the Army Pensions Vote. These reallocations have been the subject of approval by this House year on year. The suggestion that any underspend could be allocated to increasing the pay of members of the Permanent Defence Force is simply incorrect.
Public sector pay policy is set centrally under the responsibility of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Similarly, regarding the call made in the Opposition motion in respect of the supplementary pension for post-2013 entrants, this also comes within my colleague's responsibility, and the existing arrangements in respect of this matter are laid down in statute and apply across the public service.
I wish to correct the record and clearly state that the bulk of the non-pay element of the Defence Vote is delegated to the Chief of Staff to facilitate the exercise of his functions, particularly in the area of the procurement of goods and services. It is absolutely remarkable that the public commentary I have seen and this Opposition motion are so out of line with the facts.
Where significant levels of expenditure are proposed, a joint civil-military high level planning and procurement group is the sanctioning authority in accordance with the public spending code. The group meets almost monthly to progress equipment procurement and infrastructural development priorities.
I recognise fully the importance of our Defence Forces personnel and have pursued, and will continue to pursue, an unrelenting approach to ensure that the Defence Forces have the means to provide the capabilities required by Government.
The Government is committed to reaching a strength of 9,500 personnel and recognises that achieving this strength is a key challenge for the Defence Forces. The difference between the strength target of 9,500 and the actual strength has widened since 2012. There are two primary dimensions to this: first, departures and turnover of personnel and, second, recruitment.
The majority of personnel, around 80%, depart prior to the mandatory retirement age for a variety of reasons at a time of their own choosing. The nature of military service requirements leads to a higher level of turnover compared to civilian organisations. The turnover level in 2018 was 8.1% but this was for all departures and includes trainees. The highest turnover since 2002, 8.6%, was seen in 2012. This turnover is not out of line with other military organisations internationally, some of which have higher turnover levels.
It is important to remember, however, that the current challenges, particularly in the Air Corps, in filling certain posts arise due to very specific circumstances. As with many other areas of the public service, challenges in the recruitment and retention of personnel have arisen in a buoyant economy, with many personnel or potential personnel, including pilots, air traffic control staff and Naval Service technicians, having scarce and highly marketable skills. Significant work is under way by civil and military personnel of my Department aimed at addressing these challenges.
Similar to other areas in the public service, the pay of the Permanent Defence Force was reduced during the financial crisis. I recognise the personal impact this had on all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces. The reduction in pay was on a graduated basis, with increased rates of deductions for those on higher earnings. These are being unwound in a fair and sustainable manner. Meanwhile, the Public Service Pay Commission has examined recruitment and retention issues in the defence sector and the Government will decide the approach to this.
The Defence Forces representative associations' membership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions was considered in a recent review of the Defence Forces conciliation and arbitration scheme. There appear to be different views among the associations and perhaps many of their members. I reassure Deputies that the discussion with ICTU is considering feasibility, taking into account that members of the Defence Forces do not have the right to strike, the tasks that Government may require the Defence Forces to undertake and the necessity that command and control arrangements and military discipline are not impinged.
I have addressed many of the calls made in the Opposition motion and, in presenting this counter-motion, I have clarified some of the misunderstandings and inaccuracies. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, will pick up on some of the other aspects of the motion. I acknowledge there are challenges facing the Defence Forces and there is no quick fix to most of these issues. However, my priority as Minister of State remains the safe conduct of operations and training by personnel and to maintain our focus on the White Paper. The White Paper is a settled policy and the Government will not be diverted by any other agenda. I look forward to listening to the rest of the debate.
Deputy Jack Chambers raised a number of issues and I have just 40 seconds to address one of them. He spoke about the high numbers of Defence Forces personnel on the working family payment.
In total, between the Defence Forces and my Department, 124 people are in receipt of the working family payment.
There are 66 members of the Defence Forces and 58 public servants in the Department in receipt of that payment. I know other Deputies may want to raise the matter in the debate. If the Deputy wanted to find out the figure, he should have tabled a parliamentary question to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The Deputies are shocked and horrified but that number came from the Department and I did not pluck it from the air. When the Deputies are meeting people, perhaps they can give them the correct figure.
I will speak to our amendment. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion and I send the apologies of Deputy Ó Snodaigh, who wanted to be here. Sinn Féin supports the thrust of the motion but our amendment seeks to strengthen it in some respects, in particular by requiring the Government to bring forward legislation to provide for the implementation of the working time directive within six months. Sinn Féin has also produced legislation that would give effect to collective bargaining rights for the members of the Defence Forces. We are also calling for the full implementation of the Dáil motion on Lariam, which called for Lariam to be prescribed as the anti-malarial drug as a last resort. A recent reply to a parliamentary question indicates that Lariam is still being prescribed to members of the Defence Forces in Mali as a matter of course.
As it stands, the Defence Forces have been locked out of public sector pay talks and are prohibited from taking industrial action by legislation. Their voices and concerns have been taken from them, which raises major concerns. I listened to the Minister of State's remarks and although he covered many topics, there was no mention of the welfare or well-being of our Defence Forces personnel or their families, particularly their partners.
I am disappointed by that. This is a very important matter. The welfare of personnel and their families affects the morale of every serving member but this goes further, as we must not forget members who have retired or who were discharged on medical grounds. I can delve into this a little deeper. In our amendment we call for the restoration of military allowances to the levels seen before the financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation, especially as the Minister of State indicated there was no underspend between 2014 and 2018. However, on 24 May 2017, he told the Seanad that money was returned and not reallocated. We can debate the matter afterwards if he wishes.
I do not have to go through all the different parts of our amendment but I will outline why the amendment should be supported. The Defence Forces have been without an in-house psychiatrist since May 2018 due to a failure to replace a retiring clinician. The clinician had been employed on a temporary basis since 2011 but apparently not enough has been done to work out the position. We have been left with unavoidable burnout, serious concerns for governance and the ability to manage risk and ensure the well-being of personnel. A recent survey illustrates the mental health difficulties in the Defence Forces that have led to increased levels of stress and very low morale among Permanent Defence Force personnel.
An interesting survey was conducted by the University of Limerick in 2017. Members of the Defence Forces described an organisation that was in crisis, coping with poor pay, declining training standards and even more people seeking to leave. In an unprecedented piece of research, 600 serving personnel spoke anonymously in focus groups to researchers from the university. The research was commissioned by the Defence Forces and the findings make grim reading. One person stated that living quarters for young recruits are best described as "Hotel Rwanda". They are not my words but the words in the research. In the survey there was almost unanimous agreement across all ranks and age profiles that the Defence Forces, comprising the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps, are at risk. Some officers in the Air Corps were told how they were kept awake at night because of concerns about whether work carried out on an aircraft left them safe to fly because so many experienced personnel had left the service. Others have said that naval personnel on Mediterranean Sea rescue missions returned traumatised and applied for leave. Some chaplains said they had given up encouraging people to stay in the uniform.
I have spoken to a number of members within the Defence Forces and they have all heard how we are taking stuff into account and everything is under consideration. They asked me to convey to the Minister of State that they are fed up of words and they want action. These again are not my words but the words of the people I represent in my area. The 2017 report indicates that personnel describe how they and their colleagues almost routinely hide signs of stress. Instead of going to the medical services provided, these personnel sought credit union loans for private mental health treatment because they would suffer if people in the Defence Forces knew they had mental health issues. I am well aware of people who were probably never even examined after serving in the Lebanon many years ago and who are now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A television documentary not too long ago documented the homeless ex-members of the Defence Forces. That is a sad reflection on those Defence Forces in our country.
I mentioned that the Defence Forces have been without an in-house psychiatrist since 2018 and the post still has not been filled. There does not appear to be any progress in any part of this. I again stress the very worrying aspect of mental health well-being, as I have been informed that it is now at an all-time low in the forces. I have also been informed that we are not just talking about the 8,500 serving members but also their immediate families. The direct hit from this problem could affect up to 20,000 people. I have been told that child, food and housing poverty is rife in the Defence Forces because of low wages. Childcare is too expensive for members on duty, either on exercise or at sea, and most of them have no family support because their barracks or bases are not close to their families. I completely understand the anger and concern of these members. Serving members have said to me that we are living in 2019 and not 1960.
My latest figures indicate more than 70 men and women are sleeping on our ships because they cannot afford to rent privately. We also have reports of people sleeping in cars. I am aware of that because I stood on picket lines on the far side of the naval base at Haulbowline, where I saw serving members driving out of the base late at night or early in the morning while their buddies parked at the side of the road because they did not have the price of the diesel or petrol to drive back to Wexford or wherever they live. It is a poor reflection on the Defence Forces.
These are the experiences of the people we represent. Another member is quoted as saying the Defence Forces is becoming unfit for purpose through no fault of its own but rather because of the Department of Defence and the Minister of State representing the members. This is not a personal attack on him, as I am only relaying what I have been told. There is a bigger picture than just figures and money; there is a human impact. I have spoken to many people who are currently in the Defence Forces but who feel their hands are tied behind their back. They want to be proud of the country they serve and the uniforms they wear. Nevertheless, they feel the Government has let them down and lost pride in its Defence Forces. Why should these people carry such a heavy burden when they try to do their best and provide for their families and partners? It is like shovelling snow while it is still snowing because they just cannot get to the end of it. It is a genuine concern. These people do not want to walk away from the Defence Forces and they want to work in a job of which they can be proud. All they want is to be listened to, so let us hear their voices.
If things were right, they would not have to strike. I have seen at first hand a young married couple with two young children, and the man is broken. He does his best to work but he cannot afford to provide for his family.
I refer again to the mental health issues, which I discussed with the Minister of State in a Topical Issue debate, and touched on earlier. Is it not a sad reflection on us when members of any element of our Defence Forces who want to work in it and have pride in the uniform are tongue tied when they come back from overseas duties and cannot ask for help because they could be victimised? If somebody comes back from overseas duty and mentions anything to do with mental health issues, the possibility of him or her getting a second trip overseas and the ability to earn more money is highly unlikely because the minute any mental illness is mentioned, he or she will not be permitted to hold a gun with live ammunition. That will curtail any chances they have of going on any overseas duty, peacekeeping or otherwise.
I refer to the way people have been silenced and mistreated on the issue of Lariam, which is crazy. I will relate a true story, which was a reflection on what is happening in the country. I was leaving Dublin some time last year on a coach heading for Cork. I spoke to a young fellow who was in training. He was very excited about it and spoke of the training they were getting at the time. They were building up to the final day before they could start using live rounds. He said they were all sitting inside in the mess palling around when one fellow perked up and said he was looking forward to the first day using live ammunition because he was "going to kill every single one of you". The first reaction of the other people was horror and then shock, and they had to report him regardless of whether he was serious.
There are major implications in terms of mental health issues in the Defence Forces. I ask the Minister of State to take an empathetic view and treat all these people as human and give them the respect and the voice they need. I ask all Members to support our amendment because we want to strengthen the motion. Whatever is put to the House this evening, let us strengthen it. Let us start doing the right thing for the Defence Forces, the country and the members' wives, partners and children.
We will support the motion and we have tabled an amendment to strengthen it. There is significant pride in the Defence Forces among the public and its members. One of the items that features prominently in museums up and down the country is the blue hats from peacekeeping missions. I refer to the many peacekeeping missions members have been on and how well the Defence Forces represented Ireland and how well regarded they are internationally, which rightly is a source of significant pride. It is also a source of significant pride for the members of the Defence Forces and for their families. I have the honour of representing a constituency which is home to many members of the Defence Forces between Haulbowline and Collins Barracks from where many friends of mine were proud to pass out in recent years.
There is major frustration among members. Many of the people I grew up with spent a few years in the Defence Forces and then felt they had reached a dead end and that they could not go on. It was not possible on the income they were on and it was not worth the effort they had expended. They did not feel they were being properly respected. I refer to people who, on the one hand, could serve their country internationally or be inspected by the likes of the Minister of State or senior officers and then within weeks be before me or somebody else in a clinic trying to figure out how they would pay the bills and keep the roof over their heads. That is the reality for many of them.
The Minister of State has instanced previously that the numbers on working family payment might be small. The numbers may be small but it is a very real challenge. I have met at least one of those people. According to the Defence Forces representative organisations, approximately 1,700 Defence Force personnel could be eligible for the working family payment, which equates to 20% of the force. The Minister of State said there has been a turnover of approximately 3,500 in four years. That is significant and reflects the fact that people are frustrated.
In many respects these members are an easy target, both for Government and, frankly, elements of the media. Some of the comments Ivan Yates made are a disgrace but that is a matter for another day. They are an easy target for the Government because of the legislation that governs them, which ensures they are locked out. They do not have that voice. They rely on retired servicemen and women, their families and those organisations that have done a fantastic job. The legislation that governs them has restricted them. They are an easy target and their voices have not been heard by the Minister of State.
The leaks from the report of the Public Sector Pay Commission are not encouraging. It is two years in the making. Opposition spokespersons should be briefed on it. We need to go much further than what the leaks are indicating. People deserve much more. A key element of our amendment is to seek the implementation of the working time directive within a six-month period.
These people have served their country with great pride. They are the source of great pride among their families and their communities but they are frustrated and angry. Many of them want to remain in the Defence Forces but they do not see a future for themselves and their families because of the current position. It is up to the Minister of State, the Defence Forces and the Department to fix that to ensure that the many good people who have left the Defence Forces in recent times are retained.
I refer to the Labour Party's amendment to the motion. The party supports the motion and I hope Deputy Chambers will recognise our amendment as a genuine attempt to strengthen it. Our amendment aims to bring what is recognised at the start of the original motion and turn them into actions, particularly in the area of mental health. The original motion recognises the results of recent surveys of members who are experiencing mental health difficulties, increased stress and low morale.
It is 13 months since the in-house physician in the Defence Forces retired and a replacement has not been appointed. Our amendment calls for the establishment of a dedicated body within the Permanent Defence Force to monitor and mediate the long-term care needs - physical, mental and material - of current and former members, in particular those who have returned from service abroad. We seek a commitment by the Government to fast-track the recruitment of psychiatrists to safeguard the mental health of current and former members of the Defence Forces. We also seek an urgent review of conditions for female personnel within the Defence Forces to explain past recruitment failures and a recommitment to increasing gender balance in the Defence Forces.
This Government is now into its fourth year and it is a shocking indictment of it that no progress has been made on improving and investing in our Defence Forces. A constituent wrote to me this week who said that the ever-increasing crisis in our Defence Forces has worsened in the past year. No one can disagree with that view.
The practical measures we have been calling for during this time regarding the implementation of the working time directive, affiliation with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, increases in pay, vital allowances and proper investment in barracks, equipment, facilities and amenities have all fallen on deaf ears.
The Government is uncaring about the plight of our Defence Forces personnel. I do not refer to the Minister of State personally but I believe the Defence Forces are held in low regard by the Cabinet generally. As Labour Party Members have stated numerous times in the House, many serving members are on shockingly low wages. Last year, it emerged that 1,760 Defence Forces members are on the working family payment but I acknowledge the Minister's challenge regarding that figure and will re-check it. Even if his figures are correct, and I suspect they are, given that he checked them, it is far too many. Nobody in our Defence Forces should be on the working family payment.
A greater gender balance is needed within our Defence Forces. Currently, there are just 596 women among a total of 8,847 personnel.
Shockingly, just 33 women have joined and remained in the Defence Forces in the past four years. This is unacceptable and it highlights the general problems with regard to retention within the force. Both men and women are leaving for better-paid positions in the private sector, with better conditions. Members of the Defence Forces are the lowest-paid workers in the public service and this must change. The conditions of work are unacceptable also.
Members of the Defence Forces have been on call for 72 hours at a time, which is a practice outside the scope of the working time directive. Other defence forces in Europe, such as those in Sweden and Germany, have adapted their practices to meet the requirements of the working time directive. As an example, the hours worked by officers are assessed over a three-month period and if they have exceeded the weekly 48-hour limit, they get compensatory time off at the end of the three months. It is not unreasonable to expect our own Defence Forces to be treated the same. The unorthodox nature of Defence Forces work does not make it incompatible to adhere to the working time directive. There is no excuse in hiding behind the nature of the work. It is dishonest.
Real political will is required to support our Defence Forces and implement the working time directive. The Labour Party fully supports the need for a proper and robust retention policy for the Defence Forces. The Government has ploughed money into recruitment drives but they are worth very little if we are losing members prematurely at the other end. Members of RACO told the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence two weeks ago that more than 3,200 members have left the forces from 2014 to 2018. Some 82% of these are being classed as early voluntary retirements. These are members who are choosing to leave. In real terms, we had a net loss of 120 members from our Defence Forces in 2018 when the figures are matched against new recruits. Our Permanent Defence Force can no longer remain a bucket with a hole in it but with 87% of the Defence Forces earning below the average public sector wage, there is no sign that this exodus will halt any time soon. As the general secretary of RACO, Commandant Conor King noted, “The Defence Forces is currently surviving on the goodwill [and loyalty] of its personnel, that willingness to go over and above the call of duty to achieve the mission or complete the task”. This is admirable but it is grossly unfair and is unsustainable.
The Government is not meeting its own promise to keep Defence Forces personnel above 9,500 and recent figures indicate that numbers are less than 8,500. With more members leaving than are being recruited, the Government will be moving further away from its own promised target rather than closing the gap.
Our hope is that this motion will be passed as amended by ourselves and others. We know the unfortunate history of Opposition motions which are passed in this Dáil. They disappear into a black hole, never again to see the light of day. That cannot happen with this motion; the Minister of State cannot let it happen. He cannot leave our Defence Forces to wither and die on the vine through the Government’s inaction. That, however, is exactly what is happening.
What will be the legacy of this Government on defence? It will be a force that is diminished, demoralised and disrespected. It will be a force that has been ground to its knees with so many of its members in receipt of the working family payment. I respect the Minister of State challenging the figure of 1,700 who are in receipt of that payment but no amount of spin can deny these facts.
The motion is a call to action across all levels of the Defence Forces. Through the lack of any meaningful action, we have members struggling with their mental health and high levels of stress. We need to get the basics right. Fix the pay and conditions and put in place, as a matter of urgency, proper supports for the mental, physical and emotional health of our Defence Force members.
In the opening section of his amendment, the Minister of State recognises everything we all recognise in our Defence Forces, that is, the efforts they put in, their commitment to the cause and so on. Everyone in this House agrees on that but what happens after that? Members of the Defence Forces hear the Minister of State and Members saying that but then realise the circumstances they are in and the major gap between the rhetoric of what Members and the Government say in here about how the Defence Forces are respected as a body and the way in which they are treated. That gap must be filled. If I were a Minister coming into the House, I would acknowledge the points in these motions and the amendments and I would address how we will try to deal with them one by one. I would not acknowledge and note all the things that I could dig up to note in an alternative motion – the Minister of State should address the things that are wrong. He would get greater respect from the people in here and from the Defence Forces themselves if he acknowledged all the things that are wrong and if he said he would get them right and if he gave a timeline for how they would be worked on, one by one.
In the opening paragraph of his opening statement, the Minister of State stated "Let me be very clear that I have no difficulty in acknowledging that we face some HR challenges."
If there is an award at the end of the year for the understatement of the year in the Dáil, that would be a contender. There is a crisis of pay, of conditions and of morale in the Defence Forces. Some 84% of Defence Force personnel earn less than the national average annual earnings. According to recent reports, 50 personnel were sleeping on ships at Haulbowline. Could they afford the rents which private landlords were charging down the road? It seems not. Did the Department provide an accommodation block for them nearby? No, it did not. There is talk that one might be provided, although I suspect personnel will have to wait for that for some time.
The Minister of State has made play of his challenge to figures that were quoted relating to the number of Defence Force personnel who draw down working family payment because their wages are so low. I suspect one reason why that figure has reduced is because people have thrown over the job. They could not afford to stay in the job and were forced to walk away from the service. Neither have they been replaced. Nearly three people each day walked away from the Defence Forces during April.
The Public Service Pay Commission has made a recommendation. The Minister of State is aware of its details, as are his Cabinet colleagues. The Minister of State has not revealed the details of the recommendation to the Dáil. He and the Government are keeping their cards very close to their chests on this one. According to press reports, there is a nervousness around Cabinet about the reaction of Defence Forces personnel to these proposals as they stand. Maybe we will find out the recommendations next week and the Government's remarks on them. It is the key issue exercising the minds of Defence Forces personnel this week.
It is rumoured that the Public Service Pay Commission has recommended the restoration of at least some military allowances but the devil will be in the detail.
Are they to be restored to pre-Haddington Road agreement rates or are they to be restored to the rates in place before the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation? This is an important point. Pre-Haddington Road rates go back to 2013 while pre-FEMPI rates go back to 2009. They should be restored to pre-FEMPI rates dating from before 2009.
Is the recommendation for the restoration of some or all allowances? It should not be for only some allowances but for all allowances because many of the allowances are by no means a king's ransom. Let us consider the military service allowance and the patrol duty allowance. If the patrol duty allowance was to be increased by 10%, what would it be? It would be a little over €5 per day. After tax, what would that be? It would be €3 per day. The figure for the military service allowance would be similar or perhaps even lower. In any case it is there or thereabouts. All allowances should be restored to the pre-2009 level.
Even if that were done, it would still be inadequate. The Minister of State knows that, I know it and the House knows it. This is because the cost of living has increased. In some respects it has skyrocketed over the course of the past ten years. This includes the cost of transport for Defence Forces personnel who have to travel long distances to get to work. In some cases this is because their division has been moved halfway across the country. The cost of accommodation has skyrocketed. This has forced personnel to sleep on board the ships in Haulbowline, not to mention the number of people in the services, for which the Minister of State is responsible, who are sleeping on couches or sleeping in cars tonight because they cannot afford more than that.
We need restoration of all allowances to pre-2009 levels. On top of that, there needs to be a significant increase in the rates pay for Defence Forces personnel. That is the only way in which justice can be delivered for the personnel. That is the only way the Minister of State can avert the crisis of three people walking away every day.
The respect and loyalty protest organised in Cork some weeks back was big. I attended it. I expected it to be big but I had not expected it to be as big as it was. If the Government and the Minister of State do not deliver justice, what size will the respect and loyalty protest be in Galway on 10 August? I suspect it will be bigger again.
The question of associate membership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions for PDFORRA and RACO has been raised. That would be a step forward and welcomed by this side of the House, but it would still be less than full trade union membership. Full trade union membership would allow for the right to strike. This right has been won by defence forces personnel in other countries. We would not be the first country in the world to do it and we would not be breaking new ground. I strongly suspect that if the Minister of State does not move on the issues of pay, conditions and the crisis in morale in the system, then the demand for full trade union rights, including the right to strike, will emerge from the ranks in the period ahead.
I do not think there is anything in the thrust of the motion with which we would disagree. There are major issues in the Defence Forces over morale, pay, conditions and retention of personnel. For far too long the Defence Forces have been forgotten in the public service debate because of their special status. I consider personnel in the Army and the other Defence Forces to be working class like any other worker. There would be outrage if any other set of workers, especially those in the public sector, were treated the way they have been treated, especially in the past five or six years. Some of the conditions they have had to endure have been despicable.
It is good that the Defence Forces are marching. Families of the Defence Forces are highlighting the issue. Deputies are highlighting the issues that the Defence Forces are enduring. It will be interesting. People will look at what the Public Service Pay Commission says. The leaks to date suggest the commission does not go far enough. One recommendation on which we are all likely to agree is that PDFORRA and RACO will be affiliated to ICTU. Members of the Defence Forces should have union representation. Sometimes the issue is that union status is not recognised by the State, preventing them from undertaking collective bargaining for their comrades. It is important that we have this discussion. I hope the Public Service Pay Commission will recommend better pay and conditions for those in our Defence Forces.
The motion is worthwhile. There is definitely a crisis with pay, wages and conditions within the Defence Forces. This applies to all aspects of the Defence Forces, including the Army, Naval Service and the Air Corps. The problem is across the board. This is a retrograde step and something that needs to be addressed.
We had a discussion earlier today. One thing struck me as I listened to the debate on the motion. We had a discussion about Rockall and the inability of the Naval Service to go there or the lack of willingness of the Government to send the Naval Service there to protect Irish fishermen. Perhaps it is because the Naval Service cannot actually put any ships to sea because it does not have crew for the ships. In December, two naval ships could not go to sea because there was no crew for them. This, in turn, was because of the crisis of staffing within our services. The pay and conditions that staff have to live with within the Naval Service and the Army have been well highlighted within the House.
It is interesting to note the response of the Minister of State to the motion. In one breath he said that there were issues and problems within the service. However, he went on to say that the turnover level in 2018 was 8.1% but that the figure was for all departures, including trainees. He said the highest turnover since 2002 was seen in 2012, when the figure was 8.6%. The Minister of State said this turnover level was not out of line with other military organisations internationally, some of which had higher levels. The reasoning holds that there must be no problem. The reality is that there is a problem because the Army cannot keep sufficient numbers and the Naval Service cannot keep sufficient numbers to put ships to sea. There is a problem across the board and it needs to be addressed.
How much of this is feeding into the European militarisation agenda that this Government wants to pursue? The Government seems to be prepared to allow the pay and conditions to deteriorate significantly for our Army and Naval Service personnel. Then, at some point, the Government will restore them but will insist the restoration will have to be part of the overall military agenda taking place throughout the European Union. Is that the price we are going to have to pay to ensure our Naval Service and Army personnel are paid properly? I do not think that price would be worth it. I do not think our Army personnel would agree with that either.
I welcome the motion from Fianna Fáil. It highlights how the work, pay and conditions of our Defence Forces have been deteriorating over the years. We have been warning about this long-standing crisis but it has not improved.
Our Defence Forces are among the few State organisations that have a track record of which we can be proud. Sadly, the esteem in which we hold them does not translate into remuneration and work conditions. The remuneration and work conditions do not suggest that the State actually respects or values the work of our personnel. According to Central Statistics Office figures, those in the Defence Forces are the lowest paid workers in the public service. I do not understand why that is the case. At times they work punishingly long hours in unenviable conditions but they get little in return.
Deputy Clare Daly highlighted recently that a member of the Defence Forces, who had just returned from deployment in Operation Sophia, worked a 12-hour day at sea, seven days a week, with two or three 24-hour duties thrown in. He worked approximately 80 hours a week for an extra €125 on top of his basic salary of €435 per week. That is a total of €560 for a 40-hour week with 40 hours overtime. It is little wonder that we hear about 50 sailors sleeping on ships in their time off because they cannot afford rents in Cork due to the housing crisis. Some 85% of our Defence Forces earn less than the average industrial wage, and it seems they do not have much to look forward to from the Public Service Pay Commission, as leaks have suggested that the average soldier could be looking at a 1% pay increase. As the Minister of State is well aware, turnover inside the organisation is at unsustainable levels, with many experienced and highly trained members leaving on a regular basis. This is happening while millions of euro are being spent on equipment and this expenditure is set to increase further in the coming years as a result of us joining in participation in permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, which Fianna Fáil unfortunately signed up to as well.
The crisis in retention and recruitment has more than just pay at its root. There have been reports of civilians in the Department of Defence treating the general staff of the Defence Forces with contempt. There is also a lack of moral justification for some recent deployments, such as Operation Sophia and the operation on the Golan Heights, for example. In the Golan Heights, our Defence Forces have sat and watched the Israeli Defence Forces give air and artillery support to al-Qaeda forces in Syria, which have caused untold chaos in the region. They also repeatedly say that the Golan Heights will never be returned, which was the point of that UN mission originally. The Minister of State has acknowledged that our role in the Mediterranean was, in its latest form, a military mission, and was no longer about search and rescue but about sending desperate people back to the places from which they desperately wanted to escape. Now we are sending 14 additional Defence Forces personnel to Mali to give support to the French in their neocolonial war to protect uranium, oil, and gold interests in the region. These are under threat from groups coming down from fighting in the north of the continent and recruiting among the desperately poor in the northern Sahel region. If we really cared about peace in this region, we would stop extracting revenue from it by being a tax haven for extractive global corporations and we would oppose western intervention wars that are really the source of the Mali conflict. Likewise, we also would stop Shannon from being used as a US military base to create untold destruction in other countries, which does not make any sense at all.
I heard the Minister of State's opening statement. I also heard the Taoiseach today when he was replying to Deputy Healy and I do not accept their arguments. They say there is only so much money to go around and while that is true, I am not so old - though God knows I am older than most people in here - that I do not remember when the Minister's party was regarded as the one most prudent with money. The Taoiseach talked today about the necessity to be prudent with money. However, this is the same Government that has stood over the national children's hospital. I have argued in here on eight occasions that the Government could save itself a minimum of half a billion euro by going back to the drawing board, renegotiating the contract and changing the form of contract. The Government does not even know where it is going to end up at the moment or how much it is going to cost because the contract is wrong. It is wrong and the Government has the option of redoing it. The Government is wasting all that money but it does not want to give members of the Defence Forces a proper wage. It does not make any sense, and it does not add up. I am not even talking about the €3 billion for broadband or what is going on in NAMA. No-one wants to know about NAMA, but it has cost this State about €20 billion. Everyone says that it will go away in time and that it is history now but the amount of money that has been wasted by the Government is frightening. We are expecting the Defence Forces to work for less than the rest of us. How many people who work for the State in this country are getting as little as members of the Defence Forces? The Minister of State can defend what the Government is doing until the cows come home but no-one is explaining to me why members of the Defence Forces are paid less than everybody else. It does not make any sense. We all say we are proud of them, that we all think they do wonderful work and are a great credit to the country and then we pay them the least. Where is the explanation for that, because I still am not hearing it?
I support this motion, and compliment colleagues in Fianna Fáil on bringing it forward. There is clearly a massive disconnect between the Government's view that it is doing everything it can to support our armed forces and the statements made by senior Army personnel that morale is on the floor. Any of us worth our salt, the Minister of State included as he must be in touch with them and their families in his area, know that morale is on the floor and even below that. There are serious questions to be asked here in respect of the capacity of the State as an employer. We see the clear inability of the State to either recruit or retain staff in key public service role positions right across the board. There is an abject failure here. I support the measures called for in this motion, particularly the restoration of the military allowance to pre-financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, levels, especially in view of the underspend from 2014 to 2018. I also support the restoration of the supplementary pension for post-2013 entrants and the need to conduct a review of the PDF organisation to provide for a training and overseas establishment, thereby bringing PDF personnel numbers up to 10,500 across all ranks and formations and services. It is simply intolerable that we ask so much of these brave men and women and give them so little. The use of pious platitudes, that is, praising them and saying we admire, respect and are proud of them, does not put bread and butter on the table by any manner or means. It is unbelievable that they have to go community welfare officers, CWOs, and receive income supplements. I welcomed the visit of President Trump to Ireland recently and he was entitled to be treated with respect when he came. During that visit, members of the Defence Forces were on duty alongside members of An Garda Síochána but were getting paid much less money than were the members of the Garda, with worse conditions. We are operating a system of apartheid towards our soldiers here. I have a young man sitting his leaving certificate at the moment who is mad to get into the into the armed forces, and I am trying to talk him out of it. How is he going to sustain a family? How is he going to get a mortgage, build a house, and so on? The Minister of State should hang his head in shame.
I salute our overseas forces and their bravery in the work they have done with the United Nations over the years. However, I totally oppose sending the rangers to Mali with the French forces. The Minister should consider having them here with An Garda Síochána, given the savagery and thuggery that is going on here in Dublin at present. We are starved for gardaí in the country, because of all the special units up here in Dublin trying to deal with that. The Minister of State should have the Defence Forces supporting the role of An Garda Síochána and should look after our own. We should keep our nose out of other international issues. We are supposed to be a neutral country but we are far from it with the way we are behaving. I definitely support this motion here this evening and hope the Government will be shamed into supporting our proud Army personnel.
I wish to illustrate the issue of the disparity in pay and conditions between the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána, in particular in how they were treated during the recent visit of President Trump to Shannon and Doonbeg, to which Deputy Mattie McGrath has referred. For a 24-hour shift, members of the Defence Forces received an additional €20 per day, after tax, as part of the aid-to-the-civil-power allowance, while at the same time, members of An Garda Síochána, which supplied security for the President, earned between €1,000 and €1,500 for that visit. In addition, the Defence Forces personnel had to sleep in hangars in Shannon Airport or in tents in Doonbeg, while members of An Garda Síochána were put up in bed and breakfasts and other reasonable accommodation. This is an illustration of the disparity in pay and conditions between these two groups, which also existed during the Pope's visit last year. Is it any wonder that the morale and sustainability of our Defence Forces are now hanging in the balance? By ignoring the issues of pay and conditions and allowing the problems to build up and fester, a crisis resolution is now required. Going through the normal channels, such as the Public Services Pay Commission, is not going to solve this crisis.
PDFORRA and RACO are frustrated, as illustrated by the comments of Commandant Berry when he retired recently. He stated that the Defence Forces were being dismantled, demoralised, humiliated and suffocated by this Government and were suffering a sense of betrayal by it, and still the Minister of State seems to think that a turnover of 9% is not out of keeping with other elements of the public service. To lose 9% year on year is to lose the expertise and corporate knowledge of experienced members of the Defence Forces. Continuity in the Defence Forces and in its members' expertise is important.
Members of the Defence Forces are suffering from food poverty, income poverty, fuel poverty and child poverty. Members of defence forces in other jurisdictions are offered many perks - accommodation, third level education while in the defence forces and after leaving, and health services - but no such services and supports are available in Ireland. The Minister of State should think on that.
I will begin by thanking the Rural Independent Group for allocating some of its time to allow me to speak on this important motion. It is evident that the work of our Defence Forces is neither respected nor valued. Our recruitment and retention emergency is systemically embedded in the Defence Forces. In the three-year period from 2015 to 2017, 1,902 personnel left the Permanent Defence Force. In the three-year period from 2010 to 2012, 1,903 personnel left it while 2,282 left in the three-year period from 2001 to 2003.
The response to the ongoing crisis in retention has resulted in an unmitigated policy failure. The Minister of State asserts that the issues surrounding staff turnover are down to the unique and demanding nature of military life without once accepting that this Government is effectively guaranteeing that it is far more demanding than necessary. The families and, in particular, spouses of Permanent Defence Force members have lost all faith in the willingness or capacity of the Government to increase pay and address the issues around conditions. Many are unable to survive financially, which is contributing to the mass exodus from the forces across the board.
As I understand the situation, the recruitment and retention crisis is directly responsible for ensuring that, at a minimum, each soldier, sailor and air crew member conducts two 24-hour security duty shifts each week along with a further 16 hours of routine duties. This amounts to an average 64-hour working week on very low rates of pay. This has to change, especially in light of the fact that the Government is committed to increasing defence spending, including more than €250 million on a ship replacement programme and a capital budget of €416 million for the 2018 to 2021 period.
I call on the Minister of State to ensure that this issue is addressed once and for all. It has dragged on. Permanent Defence Force members' spouses and families came to Leinster House just to ask for fair pay and conditions. They were forced to demonstrate. What is happening is wrong and members deserve respect and at least a fair wage for the great work that they do.
I will be sharing time with Deputy Naughten.I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and to support it and the Sinn Féin and Labour Party amendments. I am shocked by the Government's amendment. It betrays an unbelievable arrogance and shows that the Government is out of touch with the situation that has developed within the Permanent Defence Force.
During the course of the recent local elections, this issue was raised regularly with candidates on the doorstep. It is certainly a concern among the wider public and, of course, members of the Defence Forces themselves. It is clear that the Government policy in respect of the Defence Forces that commenced in 2012 with their reorganisation and the closure of barracks has led to a serious crisis within the service. Those of us who warned that the policy would create such difficulties were not taken seriously. Indeed, we were laughed at and not listened to. Unfortunately, what we warned against has happened.
One of the closures was of Kickham Barracks in Clonmel. Seven years later, and even though we have been promised various projects, a stone has not even been placed on another stone. A query is now being raised about whether the overruns in the national children's hospital and national broadband plans could create difficulties for these projects.
The situation within the Permanent Defence Force is very serious. There have been significant reductions in numbers, pay, allowances, pensions and conditions of service. There is undoubtedly low morale, and studies have shown serious levels of anxiety, stress and mental health difficulties among serving personnel. The figures tell the story. On 1 March this year, there were 210 fewer serving personnel than on 1 March last year. Some 3,200 personnel left the Permanent Defence Force between 2014 and 2018. In the first four months of this year, there were 256 discharges. Due to staff shortages, ships have been unable to go to sea and aircraft have been unable to fly. This is a picture of a service that is not fit for purpose due to the deliberate actions and policies of the Government.
This morning, the Taoiseach told the House ad nauseamabout public service pay and how he could do nothing about pay, conditions and allowances. We have been hearing that line for a number of years. As I pointed out to the Taoiseach, however, the facts of the matter are that the Government gave significant increases to gardaí and nurses in recent times outside the public service pay agreement. In respect of gardaí, there was a €4,000 per year increase in the form of rent allowance and other concessions. There was a package worth €50 million in respect of nurses. Due to the crisis in attracting nurses to the service and retaining them there, the Government was forced to back down and it made significant concessions. Clearly, there is precedent for improving the pay and conditions of members of the Defence Forces, and they should be improved. That more than 80% of members have pay that is less than the average public servant's pay is unacceptable and unsustainable and will completely undermine the Permanent Defence Force unless the issue is addressed urgently.
As Minister for Defence, the Taoiseach is responsible to the Dáil and the public for the situation in the Defence Forces.
I call on him, as a matter of immediate political will, to restore Defence Forces pay and allowances to pre-2008 and pre-FEMPI levels sooner rather than later.
I believe our Defence Forces are a vital safety net that protect the democratic institutions of the State. In many instances, they have had to step into the breach to provide vital services when industrial action was being taken elsewhere. None of us knows the extent of the challenges that Brexit will bring to security on this island. The Defence Forces must be on hand in such circumstances to protect our citizens and our democracy. Like many people, I heard retired Commandant Cathal Berry saying on the radio that a soldier who does a 24-hour duty on a Saturday will take home approximately €1 an hour. He pointed out that this level of pay would not even cover the cost of the petrol used to go on duty. Such an intolerable situation cannot be allowed to continue. The mileage clocked up by Defence Forces personnel from three barracks to provide duty cover in Dublin, which is equivalent to travelling around the world 18 times a year, is equally unsustainable. The current movement of Defence Forces personnel from Custume Barracks in Athlone to do duties in Dublin is completely unsustainable in the medium term. We need to look again at how we organise our Defence Forces, particularly in light of the threat of Brexit. When the Minister of State is responding, I ask to address a specific issue that has been brought to my attention and the attention of communities across the midlands. There is a concern that the departure of many experienced staff from the Defence Forces, and the Air Corps in particular, will have an impact on the lifesaving air ambulance service that operates out of Custume Barracks in Athlone and provides a vital service across the midlands and the west. If we do not act quickly to address these issues, our Defence Forces will face permanent and irreversible damage.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on the degradation of our honourable Defence Forces. I thank Deputy Jack Chambers for his tremendous work in this area. Members of the Defence Forces give loyal and determined service to this country. Irish people have great respect for their commitment. I believe the Defence Forces deserve the best supports they can be given. The number of people serving in the Defence Forces has been allowed to fall below 9,000. Morale among members is on the floor. There is a major issue with pay and conditions. Many members of the Defence Forces feel they have been abandoned. My Fianna Fáil colleagues have spoken about the unacceptable conditions under which Defence Forces personnel must operate. I want to be associated with the remarks they have made in defence of such personnel. One of the specific failings in the Defence Forces is the lack of a permanent psychiatrist. Many reports have referred to the poor pay and conditions in the Defence Forces. The level of pay on offer is a clear difficulty in attracting a psychiatrist. I understand the pay grade of the position is at lieutenant colonel level, which attracts approximately half of the salary that a psychiatrist position in the HSE would attract. If one is advertising for a position and offering just half of the salary being offered by the HSE, one cannot be surprised when one receives no applications. The members of the Defence Forces are under significant mental strain in the normal course of their duties. They operate in strenuous circumstances and often in dangerous environments. Post-traumatic stress disorder, which is common among soldiers, is treatable but requires early intervention. The availability of a psychiatrist to assist soldiers at the earliest point is of critical importance. A research document, Workplace Climate in the Defence Forces, identified the significant stress and strain under which soldiers are operating. The current low staffing levels place an additional strain on the members of the Defence Forces. When will the Defence Forces be shown the proper respect they deserve?
Our Defence Forces have a sterling reputation all over the world for their humanitarian and peacekeeping duties in other countries. They are highly regarded and respected by the Irish public for the role they play in the security of this State. However, they continue to be undervalued when it comes to pay and working conditions. This Government remains reluctant to face up to the scale and impact of the issues facing members of the Defence Forces and their families. It is obvious that pay and conditions are contributing significantly to the personnel recruitment and retention issues in our Naval Service, Air Corps and Army. These issues must be addressed as a matter of urgency. I understand there has been a 30% turnover of staff in the past three years, or 10% year on year. Poor pay and conditions are also making a major contribution to the fact that many families of Defence Forces members depend on family income supplement to make ends meet. I come from a military barracks town and have met members of the Defence Forces and their families in Kilkenny. The situation on the ground is dire for those at the lower end of the pay scale.
In an effort to be constructive in the short amount of time available to me, I would like to suggest that the Minister of State should investigate the possibility of advancing alternative solutions to address the recruitment and retention crisis. An increase in the availability of higher education opportunities and third level places to all members of the Defence Forces would be a start. I acknowledge there is already a strong tradition when it comes to promoting higher education within the Defence Forces. We must do more to incentivise and increase the availability of educational opportunities to all members of the Defence Forces. Accommodation is a major issue because between 35% and 40% of the take-home pay of members of the Defence Forces can be spent on rent. Many other countries offer free accommodation to members of their defence forces. This is a huge incentive because it leaves soldiers, pilots and naval personnel with more money in their pockets at the end of the month. It is time for the Government to wake up to the situation that has happened. The Minister of State is in denial about is happening with personnel on the ground. As I have said, I come from a military barracks town. I know at first hand what families have to put up with because of the pay and conditions of Defence Forces personnel. I ask the Minister of State to do something for these people and these families.
I thank my Oireachtas colleagues for facilitating me in speaking on this motion. Corrective action is required immediately to restore the confidence of Army, Navy and Air Corps personnel, especially those in the lower ranks. Our Naval Service forces and ships are based at Haulbowline near Cobh in my constituency of Cork East. Many Army exercises are carried out at the range at Kilworth Camp, which is also in my constituency. We must not forget the former Fitzgerald Camp in Fermoy. The town of Fermoy and the surrounding areas continue to have a strong connection with the Defence Forces. The comments we have been hearing during this debate are reflective of the mood of the public in Cork East. I am not here to bash the Minister of State but we cannot allow the role of many members of the Defence Forces to be affected when jobseekers' restrictions kick in. In other words, some members of the Defence Forces would be better off in receipt of jobseeker's allowance. The Minister of State gave the House some figures earlier with regard to various payments and so on. I am hearing that in some cases, people join the Army because they cannot qualify for jobseeker's payments. I am concerned about the future security of this country. During President Trump's visit to Ireland last week and the Papal visit last year, we almost got a blow-by-blow account of the operation of our Defence Forces over the national airwaves. This can be attributed to the frustration of ex-members of the Defence Forces and the spouses of current members, who have been campaigning tirelessly for some time. The Minister of State must seek to fix the pay and conditions of military personnel with immediate effect. It is said that one should look after one's own first. The Government is prepared to give an open chequebook to fund the European defence mechanism through PESCO at the expense of our own Defence Forces. I ask the Minister of State to resolve the matter.
I will be brief. I compliment my colleague, Deputy Jack Chambers, who has worked tirelessly on this issue since he was appointed as Fianna Fáil's spokesperson on defence. The type of pressure he has been exerting in this case is needed. We must review FEMPI. We must establish a pay commission to address the damaging 2012 restructuring programme and restore the three-brigade structure. We must honour the working time directive, which the Government is not implementing. We must examine the present structure of the Department of Defence to enhance the input and discretion of military management in decisions on defence spending. The turnover rate in the Permanent Defence Force is 9% and in the Naval Service is 14%. The Minister of State knows this is not sustainable. It is most worrying. We need to realise that this is no ordinary case. Not very many years have passed since members of our Defence Forces died while ensuring members of the public were kept safe in this country.
They have also died abroad in the line of duty. We owe it to the people in the Army and their families, who cannot speak out or protest, to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. When there is a crisis with bad weather or back-up is needed for firefighting services, we cannot forget that the Army is there. This is not an ordinary situation and we need to act on it as quickly as possible. I do not blame the Minister alone. The responsibility lies clearly with the Taoiseach and he needs to take responsibility and support Army personnel.
Since my election to the Dáil in 2011, I have witnessed nothing but utter contempt from Fine Gael and, now, from the Independent alliance, for the Defence Forces. They closed Columb Barracks in Mullingar and are still unable to confirm their future use or what, if any, community projects will be facilitated when the Land Development Agency takes over. The previous Government decided to abolish the fourth western brigade and downgrade Custume Barracks in Athlone. At the time, a firm commitment was given, in writing and on the floor of this House, that its strength would be maintained at 1,100 personnel. Today, there are 700 people attached to Custume Barracks. Why is there a mass exodus of personnel from our Army? It is because of the pay and conditions. The disparity in pay and conditions of our front-line services was illustrated by the recent visit of the Holy Father, Pope Francis and, even more recently, by the visit of President Trump when people were paid €20 for an additional 24-hour shift. Soldiers from Athlone are being sent to man four different locations and there is a deliberate attempt to make Athlone look like an expensive barracks because the Government wants to downgrade it further. There is a worry in Athlone over the long-term viability of the barracks and this anxiety needs to be addressed.
Some 300 personnel have been waiting almost a decade for their tech-3 payment to be paid. When will it be paid? The Minister has repeatedly promised that it will be paid but, despite the Department returning money to the Exchequer, these people are still awaiting their payment. The Minister and his colleagues should hold their heads in shame for the manner in which they have treated the Defence Forces and the way they have refused to take on board the genuine concern of the people in the forces. They should take their heads out of the sand as there is a serious problem here that needs to be addressed and they are failing to address it.
As Deputy for Kildare South, I have huge regard for our Defence Forces and the really important role they play in Irish society. I say this not because the Defence Forces training centre is on the Curragh Camp in the heart of my constituency, or because Kildare South has the largest postal vote in the country. It is because many of my friends from school had parents in the Defence Forces and I will not be lectured by anybody on the other side of the House on this issue. I was aware of every member of the local GAA club who was a serving member of the Defence Forces and I remember the huge regard in which they were held. As I grew up, some of my friends went into the Army apprenticeship school and some joined the Air Corps or the navy. Our biggest concerns were that they would be sent abroad on a tour of duty and would miss a championship match. As they got older, got married and had children, I saw the strain on them and their families when they were sent on a tour of duty and I acknowledge the difficulty for wives and partners of serving members in this regard.
I hate the fact that our Defence Forces have low morale at the moment and feel they are not as valued as they should be. I work very hard, with the Minister, Deputy Kehoe, and others in Government to put that right because our Defence Forces matter. This problem manifests itself in recruitment and retention and we are determined to put it right. I will continue to use my position as a Government Deputy in this area. I am well aware of the strain when the forces do not have the full complement of personnel, when training and tours of duty mean the onus falls on all the other members. I am not surprised, however, that we have recruitment and retention issues. The level and quality of training for the Defence Forces mean their members are highly sought after and, at a time of full employment, the private sector is screaming out for the talents and skills they have, in the areas of logistics, discipline etc. We will continue to work to improve conditions to make sure that we can compete with the private sector.
We need to address a number of areas. We need formal affiliation for our personnel and their representatives, such as PDFORRA, with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and I commend the Minister and his officials on their work in this area, much of which has been done behind the scenes. I hope to see the fruits of that in the very near future. A working group was established to make progress on the working time directive and this has happened, without getting big headlines. It is not easy to deal with staffing and HR issues in the Defence Forces because of the unique role they have in our society. I hope the Public Service Pay Commission makes progress in the near future and that we will see movement on the outstanding adjudication awards for the Army ranger wing, allowances for chefs, technicians' pay, account holders' allowances and rations of recruits and apprentices. I understand that PDFORRA has taken an action around the retrospective nature of this but we should see movement on it. I have spoken with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. Let us get it paid from now. The action can take care of itself but we could start paying it straight away and I would love that to happen.
I am acutely aware of the challenges in the area of public sector pay. We have a broad public sector pay agreement but some people on the other side seem to have forgotten that. In the confidence and supply agreement, Fianna Fáil signed up to the public sector pay agreement. Its finance spokesperson, Deputy Michael McGrath, agrees that it is the right approach but the Members present want to undermine that now. I was part of the negotiations for the confidence and supply agreement and not once was the pay of the Defence Forces raised. One could say that Fianna Fáil is playing politics with this issue.
A lot of work has been done but now Fianna Fáil brings forward this motion. Its members are playing games and trying to position themselves to take credit for something on which they have been quiet in the past. I have huge regard for people in the forces, including people in my constituency, and I will continue to work with the Minister and colleagues to make sure we bring about the changes that are needed to put the Defence Forces back in the proud position in which they should be. I hate the fact that their frustration has risen to this point and I will to ensure the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann see improvements in their circumstances, given the crucial role they play in our society.
Irish people quite rightly take great pride in our Defence Forces and the contribution they make to our domestic security, international peace and security and the broad range of supports they provide to other Government Departments and agencies on an ongoing basis. Many of us have witnessed at first hand the important work the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service undertake, both at home and overseas. It is important to recognise the excellent work of the Reserve Defence Force in supporting the Permanent Defence Force. This is led by the Minister with responsibility for defence and his Department.
The counter-motion seeks to give a more balanced presentation of the facts. The Minister, Deputy Kehoe, has already mentioned the increased levels of funding for defence he has successfully secured and, in accordance with the National Development 2018-2027 and Project Ireland 2040, the capital allocation for Vote 36 - defence has been increased to €106 million for 2019, an increase of €29 million or 38% on the 2018 allocation. The national development plan provides for a total of €541 million over the period from 2018 to 2022. This substantial increase in funding supports a programme of sustained equipment replacement and infrastructural development across the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service, as identified and prioritised in a White Paper. This investment will see the replacement and upgrade of significant equipment platforms over the lifetime of the White Paper, including an upgrade of the Army's fleet of armoured personnel carriers, enhancement of the capabilities of the Army ranger wing and replacement of the Air Corps' Cessna fleet and the CASA maritime patrol aircraft.
The decision to acquire a large new multi-role vessel to replace LÉ Eithnewill provide a new enhanced set of capabilities across a wide range of roles. In addition, I am pleased to note the sustained programme of investment in barracks infrastructure to improve accommodation and other facilities across the country.
Regarding the issue of pay, as the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, has outlined, the Public Service Pay Commission examined recruitment and retention issues in the defence sector and the Government will decide on its approach to this. The focus of pay increases under the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 has rightly been on those on lower pay. The agreement provides for increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4%. Increases due under the agreement to date have been paid to Permanent Defence Force personnel and further increases in pay are scheduled for later this year and next year. By the end of the current agreement, the pay scales of all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces, earning under €70,000 per annum will be restored to pre-FEMPI levels. The restoration of the 5% reduction to allowances under FEMPI is also scheduled under the agreement.
The motion calls for the establishment of a permanent and independent Defence Forces pay body. In Ireland, pay policy is determined centrally by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform having regard to public sector pay agreements. The Government established the independent Public Service Pay Commission to advise it on public service pay. I can confirm that there are no plans to institute separate pay bodies.
The position in respect of the working time directive is that legislation is currently being considered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This will remove the blanket exemption previously understood to apply to military personnel. Work is under way to achieve a graduated solution that respects the unique operational requirements of a military force in the understanding that the directive provides for the exemption of certain military activities. I am aware of, and welcome, the fact that a joint civil-military approach is being taken and that there is deep engagement with the representative associations on the directive.
This Government will continue to address the challenges facing the Defence Forces and looks forward to the publication of the pay commission's report, which will form the basis of further discussions with relevant parties to the public service stability agreement.
Cuireann sé áthas orm deis a bheith agam cúpla focal a rá faoin ábhar seo. The first comment I will make in the short time I have is that it was a fundamental mistake not to have a senior Minister at the table. The idea of the Taoiseach double-jobbing, that is to say having line Ministries as well as the functions of the Taoiseach, is bad practice. I saw it happen under a Fianna Fáil Government many years ago, before I came into this House. It was bad practice then and it is bad practice now. No matter how worthy a Minister of State is - and I have been both a Minister and a Minister of State - it is not the same as a line Minister fighting his or her corner at the Cabinet table. When the referee is fighting one of the corners, it makes the job more difficult. That issue should, and can, be addressed. There should be a Cabinet Minister with responsibility for defence at the table. That is no reflection on the personalities involved; it is a reflection on the structures. I do not mean that one Cabinet Minister cannot have two Departments, as the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform has, but only that it should be a line Minister rather than the referee in the game, an Taoiseach, who does so.
Everyone on all sides of the House agrees there is a problem. We seem to have gotten ourselves into a tangle with all of the structures we have put in place such that, when a clear problem arises, we are not able to work our way through the fog. When a crisis then arises, as happened in respect of the nurses and other disputes, a way we were told was not there is suddenly found to be there. A lot of damage is, however, done in the interim.
The proposal here is quite simple: restore the allowances. Many of these allowances were abolished during the downturn in the economy. At that time savings had to be made, but times and circumstances have changed. The economy is competitive and much more buoyant, which puts pressure on the public service. The Government should have the will and find the way. It seems that in dealing with all of the problems we face, all we do is go into endless processes. We need an end to this crisis.
The evidence that there is a serious problem in the Defence Forces is the number of soldiers at all levels who are choosing to leave the service. The decline over recent years left the force with just 8,847 personnel at the end of March, which is some 653 members below the current agreed strength. I would like to specifically focus on the pay and conditions of our soldiers. Pay and conditions are now so poor that young people are quitting as quickly as they can after training. To quote one member, "DF [the Defence Forces] has been turned into a JobBridge". Living quarters for young recruits are shocking and the buildings used are not fit for purpose. In fact, recruits say they are expected to live in Third World conditions. Instead of going to the medical service provided, soldiers are going to credit unions for loans for private mental health treatment because they would suffer if the Defence Forces knew they had problems.
It is truly shocking to hear the stories shared in testimony from a focus group included in a report within the Defence Forces called "Workplace Climate in the Defence Forces". The authors of the report have recommended better pay and have advised senior officers to face up to the problems exposed by the research. A number of privates spoke of struggling to survive, often depending on their parents. One quote included in the report was:
I can’t get a mortgage. Some members are even on Family Income Supplement. We would be better off on the dole as we would have no bills
Another soldier said:
People are sleeping in cars. Two people in Athlone couldn’t afford to pay to stay in the barracks or commute home so they stayed in their cars at the weekends
Another said: "I have to live with my parents along with my wife and kids".
There is clear evidence that there is a need for serious change and this change must be initiated by the Government. The overall health of our Defence Forces, which is a major arm of our State security, reflects poorly on us as a State. Our Defence Forces have had an excellent reputation worldwide for generations. It is unacceptable for the Government to allow morale to reach such a low ebb . Action is required to restore our Defence Forces to where they should be.
Táim cinnte go bhfanfaidh mé laistigh den am. I thank my colleague, Deputy Jack Chambers, and my other colleagues in Fianna Fáil for tabling this important motion. Fundamentally it shows up a lack of respect on the part of Government for the Defence Forces. That is what people feel and that is what is biting people about this particular issue. The lack of sympathy and empathy from the Government is not shared by the general population. I was contacted by a constituent this morning. He was in a public house last night and said that this issue was the talk of the place. He said people are annoyed about this issue, first, because of their sympathy for the plights of individual members of the Defence Forces and, second and most important, because of the honour the Defence Forces have brought to this country throughout our history. We are an independent, sovereign, neutral country and that neutrality has allowed our Defence Forces to prosper and to gain an unbelievably proud reputation for fairness, even-handedness, and efficiency around the world.
The Government has shown a distinct lack of respect for the Defence Forces, as exemplified by the lack of a Cabinet Minister for defence other than the Taoiseach, which Deputy Ó Cuív and others have pointed out. The attitude towards the Defence Forces seems to be, "I do not care". People are discharging themselves at unprecedented levels. Numbers are down. This must be the only area of the public sector in which numbers are down. There are issues with equipment and missions are difficult to accomplish. All of this is happening at a time soldiers, sailors, and other members of the Defence Forces are being sought out to provide help in difficult situations all over the world, as they have done in the past.
It is worth recalling that members of the Defence Forces have given their lives for this country and for the projects, peacekeeping, and peace enforcement in which they have been involved over the years. This is a difficult job and it is made all the more difficult by the financial and material circumstances in which the Government has left our soldiers. I believe there is a certain amount of embarrassment on the Government side of the House. I appeal to the Government to seriously examine this issue and to think of these soldiers and of the good they do on behalf of this country around the world.
I acknowledge the words of many of my colleagues in Fianna Fáil and across the House. I will certainly examine the amendments in a very open way. We all have to work together and to collaborate on defence policy.
The Minister of State's statement was rounded off with one major denial, "some HR challenges", which was the understatement of the day. It is so out of line with reality. In his submission to the Department, the Chief of Staff stated there is a serious retention challenge, a mass exodus, with 3,200 Defence Forces members purchasing their discharge last year. and the Minister of State talks about "some HR challenges". Has he read the Defence Forces climate survey? It stated that the Defence Forces are being turned into JobBridge. There will be a major safety issue in the Air Corps. Living quarters for young recruits have been described as Hotel Rwanda and yet the Minister of State refers to "some HR challenges".
Defence Forces members say they cannot get mortgages. Some are even on family income supplement and claim they would be better off on the dole as they would have no bills. People are sleeping in cars. Two people in Athlone could not afford to pay to stay in the barracks or commute home so they stayed in their cars at weekends. That is the legacy of the Minister of State. The one thread of consistency in recent years is his position in the Department of Defence. As I said earlier, he has been the empty suit and the silent lamb at the Cabinet table, saying nothing and staying where he is. He has said very little to acknowledge the serious recruitment and retention crisis today.
I quote from one of the members of the Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces:
I’m writing looking at the single bed that I share with my eight-year-old daughter and the blow up Peppa Pig bed our toddler sleeps in.
My husband sleeps on the couch as there is no room for him. This is our home, a box room in my in-laws two bedroom house.
Living on someone else’s floor is not easy...
I cry because I miss him so much & I worry about him overseas...
We just want to be a normal family doing normal things but we will never afford a home on these awful wages.
Today I want to ensure that her tears do not fall upon deaf ears. There are countless stories like this one and all the Minister of State says is that there are some HR challenges. What planet is he living on?
I want the members of our Defence Forces to enjoy the same living standards as many members of the public service. The great contradiction in public pay policy was demonstrated by the members of the Defence Forces standing side by side with their front-line public service colleagues in the Garda Síochána. The miserly Scrooge-like duty allowance presided over by the Minister of State is a national disgrace. We need to move the Defence Forces back from the cliff edge. We cannot have continual crisis management and a dysfunctional cycle of turnover. That is why the Minister of State should support the motion and should use his voice at the Cabinet table.