Thursday, 11 July 2019
Public Service Pay Commission Report on the Permanent Defence Force: Statements (Resumed)
The Irish armed forces have provided loyal public service to our country, at home and abroad, throughout the past century. In the coming years, the Defence Forces will undoubtedly face new challenges with the intensification of organised crime and drug trafficking, the enhanced need to patrol our territorial waters after Brexit, and the potential return of dissident republican activity. However, the ongoing recruitment and retention problem poses an existential crisis to Oglaigh na hÉireann and puts in jeopardy its ability to protect the State of Ireland, its territorial waters and airspace.
Fewer than 20 years ago, the strength of the Permanent Defence Force stood at 10,559. In 2018, this had dropped to under 9,000, with a turnover rate of 8.1%, as 731 personnel exited the force. In 2019, another 256 left, with 86 discharges in April alone. This turnover rate is simply unsustainable if we are to maintain the integrity of our security forces. If the Government fails to provide a decent wage, a living wage, a wage that the Defence Forces deserve for their duties, this trend will only continue. To be specific, the results from a survey of serving members, outlined in the Public Service Pay Commission on recruitment and retention within the Permanent Defence Force, indicate that just under three in five, or some 58% of respondents, stated their intention to leave the force within two years, with this figure rising to 61% for privates, the most numerous rank in the force.
Given the feeling of frustration and deep disappointment expressed in response to the report's publication by various groups representing serving personnel, it is clear that the piecemeal allowances proposed will not be nearly enough to stem this exodus. Three quarters of those currently leaving do so voluntarily. They do not want to leave the jobs they love and have wanted to pursue since childhood in many cases but they have to, for the simple reason of pay. It is hard to believe that almost 85% of personnel surveyed cited inadequate pay for their intention to leave the force, with widespread dissatisfaction with pay found across all ranks. To put this into a broader context, 85% of Irish military personnel earn less than the average industrial wage.
In addition, almost three in four also noted problematic staffing levels, which of course is a direct consequence of the low salaries and high turnover.
This serves only to perpetuate a vicious cycle in which the positions of those remaining members of staff and their ability to serve the State are continually undermined. The stark realities of this can be witnessed in the docking of two of our naval vessels, described as being like a neon sign for drug smugglers by one military source, due the lack of sufficient staffing levels.
The core of the Defence Forces is the 7,661 personnel who comprise the three most populated ranks, namely, private, three star and first class. In 2008, the scale for these three groups started at €26,082, rising to €30,429. At the end of the public service stability agreement in 2020, this will have increased to a minimum point of €26,852, or a 3% increase, and a maximum point of €32,118, or a 5.5% increase. To put this in a broader context, rents in some parts of the country are now 26% higher than in 2008, with the average monthly rent having increased 8.3% in the past 12 months. Under the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission, however, these ranks, which make up 92% of enlisted personnel, stand to earn only 96 cent gross per day. This is simply insufficient.
Not only is it insufficient but it is also a short-sighted and inefficient strategy if the Government is serious about resolving the recruitment and retention challenges. As it stands, the proposed increases will cost €10 million. It is estimated, however, that in 2018, the total recruitment campaign and training cost for the year was approximately €15 million. We spend one and a half times more to recruit and train new staff than we spend on retaining existing personnel. Where is the economic logic of that? At the heart of this, there was a clear flaw in the remit given to the Public Service Pay Commission for the work it was asked to do in this regard. The commission was not permitted to examine the issue of core pay. Its hands were tied behind its back because the terms of reference precluded it from looking at the issue of core pay. The commission should have been given a blank canvas to see what it could propose to deal with the acknowledged recruitment and retention crisis. Do we even know the commission's view on whether its recommendations will have a positive impact on recruitment and retention? The whole exercise has been a wasted opportunity.
I understand the concerns about wider public service pay stability. As the Minister of State will be aware, however, there is always wriggle room in public service wage agreements. It was rightly found for nurses and members of the Garda when the Government was put under pressure. The Government seems to have a view that because the Defence Forces cannot go on strike, their members are to be treated differently and are not to receive the increase in their pay to which everyone in the House, as well as everyone in the trade union movement, would agree they are entitled. It is simply not good enough for the Minister of State to hide behind the review of the pay commission when his very Government set the terms and the outcome by not allowing the commission to look at the issue of core pay. While take-home pay will increase for some members of the Defence Forces through allowances, allowances can be taken away as easily as they are given. Core pay is the basis for how any job is perceived by an applicant, or by young people deciding on their future career, how they plan their future and how they will budget for life events. The core pay in the Defence Forces is a massive outlier in public sector pay. It needs to be rectified but the commission’s recommendations do not go far enough.
As for what should happen now, at a minimum the Government should, with immediate effect, set up a process for the PDF that will feed into negotiations for the next public service pay agreement, which will commence next year, to deal with the problems everyone knows exist. That might provide some hope for the relatively near future. The current situation is not only unsustainable for the Army personnel and their families but the Government also must see it is not sustainable for the State if the numbers in the armed forces are dwindling and we have to tie up our naval vessels.
Members of the armed forces section of the public sector, unlike all the other sections, march with stones in their boots. The current model for dealing with public sector pay will never allow them to get rid of the stones. It is no wonder that many of them want to stop marching. We cannot continue with a model of pay settlement incapable of finding a solution for this group of workers under the current set-up. All interested parties must think outside the box and begin a separate process for dealing with the unique case of the PDF. We cannot wait a second longer. It must start immediately - not in six months, as indicated in a Government statement - and must be completed in a very short time. Let us give the PDF and their families some hope and let us start today.
I begin by quoting from a post to the Facebook page of the Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces, WPDF, last week:
Today was a new low. I had to put water in the milk to have enough for the children. We dont even have enough for breakfast for all. I am on leave but I am gonna go into the barracks, throw on a uniform and sneak in the cookhouse to grab some free lunch and hopefully I'll take some milk by pretending it's for the guard room. I have the [Society of St. Vincent de Paul] coming out tonight in the hope that they can help me. Can't afford to leave the job and cant live on what I get paid. I'm at my wits end.
It is in the context of such conditions that the Minister of State's suite of measures must be assessed. They must also be assessed in the context of the €10 million increase in the Defence Forces' pay, given that the Garda overtime for the visit of Donald Trump to this country for a couple of days was also €10 million. It needs to be measured against the fact that the Department of Defence's pay budget for last year was underspent to the tune of €29.4 million, or three times the sum allocated in this suite of measures. There would have been no increases whatsoever if it was not for the agitation and campaigning work done by the likes of the WPDF, and shown in the respect and loyalty protests and by the numerous members of the Defence Forces who have spoken out in social and traditional media.
The general secretary of RACO, Commandant Conor King, stated the proposals will not cut it. The mood among the ranks seems to be that they do not just fall short but far short. The military service allowance is to increase but by only 96 cent per day before tax.The seagoing allowance is to increase but by only €2.50 per day. A day in the Naval Service, however, is not seven and a half or eight hours. In some cases, it means 24 hours, long days indeed. Duty allowance is to be restored for Saturdays and Sundays, at €70 and €80 per day, respectively. That is to be welcomed but what about duty allowance for a Monday, a Tuesday, a Wednesday, a Thursday and a Friday? It will stay at the same low rate of €20 per day for a 24-hour shift. The increases, albeit small, may have a double-edged effect on some families. They will push some families above the cut-off points, meaning they will no longer qualify for the working family allowance, the medical card and the back to school allowance. Small amounts given with one hand can be taken back with the other. Shelley Cotter of the WPDF summed it up well when she stated that last week was a huge lost opportunity.
The Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, is reported to be weighing up the question of a ballot on the matter. It will make its decision but I strongly encourage PDFORRA to organise a ballot, as the ranks should have a say on this proposal. There is much opposition to it as it does not go far enough. On 10 August, the next respect and loyalty demonstration will take place in Galway. I hope it will be a big event and I encourage a large turnout.
Part of the proposal is to provide a road towards membership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. That is a positive recommendation, which I welcome, but there is still no right to strike. The failure of the Minister to listen and of the pay commission and Minister to act means that the day when the ranks demand the right to strike, which exists in other countries, has come somewhat closer.
It is deeply ironic but maybe typical of Fine Gael that this report has been published at a time when it pushes ever harder to abandon Ireland's traditional military neutrality and deploy Irish troops in extremely dangerous missions, such as that in Mali, or push us into greater involvement with the emerging European army and its relationship with NATO. Mali is effectively a French colonial project in a very dangerous and volatile area. There is an ambition in Fine Gael to break our neutrality and put our troops in danger but our Defence Forces are beginning to disintegrate. That is ironic as the Government does not respect the personnel and skills involved with the Defence Forces. Fine Gael has all the political ambition but none of the respect for the Defence Forces, which are really in a sorry state.
The report confirms this sorry state. I am sure the small increases in the allowances will be welcomed but as many people have said, they are absolutely paltry against a background of the Defence Forces being on the lowest rung of a public sector that has been hammered by austerity and where people are still getting paid less than they were in 2008. Is it not incredible that public sector workers in general are still being paid less than they were 11 years ago and the Defence Forces are on the bottom rung of that ladder? We have seen consequences in the health service, where there is an unprecedented crisis in recruitment, retention and all the impact this has on services. It is exactly the same scenario of disintegration.
There are nine vessels in the Naval Service and three are fully operational. There are two that will not be operational for the foreseeable future and others will only be semi-operational. We have six specialist divers in the Naval Service and we are supposed to have a complement of 29. It is quite extraordinary. There is a pilot shortage of 30% and if we include senior officers, this goes to 50%, and we are now outsourcing to private companies medical emergency flights. As has been said, we are well below the complement numbers recommended for the Defence Forces generally and they continue to spiral down. It is incredible that according to the commission's report, 60% of enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers have indicated they plan to leave the Defence Forces in the next two years, with 57% of officers in specialist positions also saying they plan to leave. It is absolutely extraordinary.
Senator Craughwell pointed out to me an issue with cybersecurity. The Government loves to talk about this as the new front line in defence and security, and there is much chatter about our involvement with it in Europe. The Defence Forces computer incident response team was shut down a few months ago because the last person in the office purchased their discharge. It is quite incredible and I understand that operation will be outsourced, so cybersecurity for the State will be done by a private company. That is brilliant.
This is an absolute mess. As Deputy Barry has said, the only reason we even have this report and the paltry, albeit welcome, increases in allowances is because of the agitation of the wives and families of Defence Forces personnel, as well as their supporters. It also comes as a result of Defence Forces personnel being willing to speak out. It is the only action they can take if they want to achieve full pay restoration and increases in core pay that will be necessary to recruit and retain the skills and number of personnel required to have Defence Forces that are capable of carrying out their duty. The Defence Forces make extraordinary efforts to carry out their duties but they are being completely undermined by a lack of resources and respect. They are being demoralised by a Government that hammers them with austerity and does not understand the basic need to pay people enough to survive and have a proper existence.
The Defence Forces and their supporters should keep up their battle and continue the protests in order to force this Government to listen. The Government could save them all that trouble, of course, if it just got rid of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, cuts and raised core pay to a level where we could genuinely recruit and retain the people we need.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. I have read the report and it would be churlish of me not to welcome the package. However, as has already been mentioned, the package can only be judged in the context of the géarchéim or the emergency on the ground. This certainly was not a proactive action by the Government and I am struck by the Minister of State's statement that there are no quick fixes to the current challenges. I would not be looking for a fix but rather recognition of the Defence Forces as an essential part of our democracy. These forces keep the peace at home and abroad, and in that context to say there are no quick fixes is insulting. This is the third report of the Public Service Pay Commission and way back in May 2017, it openly recognised there was a problem with recruitment and retention. That problem has worsened.
The package of €10 million is welcome but RACO put this in perspective by saying that the pay rise is worth approximately 96 cent gross per day for a private soldier. I can only go on what I am being told and what I read. It is €1.30 for an officer and approximately €1.70 for a non-commissioned officer. RACO argues that there is a widespread feeling of disappointment and so on. The foreword of the report by the chairman, Mr. Kevin Duffy, states:
A career in the [Permanent Defence Force] is not comparable with that of any civilian occupation. It is well established that there are special disadvantages associated with military life. They include unsocial hours of duty, prolonged periods of separation from family, exposure to danger and restrictions associated with military discipline. It is clear from the research undertaken in the preparation of this Report that those who join the [Permanent Defence Force] do so for a variety of reasons, but most are motivated by a desire to serve their country, which they do with pride and dedication.
That is the chairman of the commission and I will come back to those details.
A submission from Óglaigh na hÉireann points out that Ireland ranks as the fourth-highest country in Europe with respect to national level of trust in its armed forces, with a score of 85%.
The Defence Forces also have the highest average trust score, which is important because, on every level, the people of this country have lost trust in the banking and political systems, the medical profession, consultants and so on. The Defence Forces are being pushed to the edge and they have the highest average trust score of all the public services surveyed with a consistent score of 82%, yet they continue to be the lowest paid public sector body.
The public service stability agreement restored allowances to many others, including gardaí, prison officers and firefighters, but not to the Defence Forces. We know, from parliamentary questions, that a substantial number of members of the Defence Forces rely on social welfare to survive and some of them are sleeping in their cars. That is the background to this €10 million package.
Page 17 of the report shows that the estimated pay bill for the Permanent Defence Force this year is €408 million, which accounts for just over 2.5% of the total public service pay bill. The members of one of the remaining organisations in which the public has utter trust are paid the least and treated with the least respect and dignity. I welcome the package but it is unacceptable for the Minister of State to tell us there are no quick fixes.
The body of the report is divided into the Army, navy and Air Corps. The figures are stark and there is no need to exaggerate them in any way. They point out that the Army is the largest component of the Permanent Defence Force and explain how it is divided and so on. It has an establishment of 7,591 and a whole-time strength of 7,243. There was a shortfall of 85 in 2013 and that has worsened. The Minister of State has told us there are no quick fixes but that shortfall was in 2013 and we are now in 2019. In 2018, there was a shortfall of 276. While the Army is experiencing a proportionately lower number of vacancies than applies elsewhere, there is a wide variation within that. The strength of non-commissioned officers, NCOs, remained consistently below establishment.
In the report's conclusions, we learn there is a shortfall of 348, which is 4.5%, and where existing enlisted personnel are upskilled to fill technical vacancies elsewhere, which is a positive, this creates general consequential vacancies that must be backfilled. Evidence presented to the commission indicates that the ranks of captain, sergeant and corporal have been consistently below establishment across the Permanent Defence Force generally, with a strength of 77%, 87% and 88% at the end of 2018.
I refer to the navy and Air Corps. We have commitments under permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, which we joined without much discussion some years ago, notwithstanding the fact that we begged the Government for a proper discussion about it. It is interesting that the Minister of State outlined the minutiae of the €10 million now allocated to the Defence Forces but there are none to explain what it means to be a part of PESCO. We know there is a commitment to increase our spending on defence from 0.3% of GDP, €960 million per year, to 2%. We are talking about Monopoly money here. The Government has not given the detail of it but, from what I can figure out, that amounts to €2 billion overall, to which we will contribute our percentage. There is a European Defence Fund of €13 billion into which we will also put millions of euro. We do not have the minutiae of any of that but we have the minutiae of this €10 million.
It is worth examining the section of the report on the Air Corps because it makes for fascinating reading. The establishment of the Air Corps remained at 887 at the end of 2018, a shortfall of 18.3%. There is an acute challenge in retaining flying officers. I could go on but my time is limited so I am just picking out the kernel of the issues fleshed out in detail by the commission. It has been said that the hands of the commission were tied and I agree. It was not allowed to consider core pay. It was allowed to fiddle at the edges, as it were, and make recommendations within its terms of reference.
The White Paper on Defence confirmed the establishment of the Naval Service at 1,094. In 2018, the strength was 989, a shortfall of 105, which is 9.6%. The Naval Service has operated at below establishment since 2016 with a shortfall of 9.6% and so on.
One can be blinded with figures and it is important to read and understand the report before drawing out the message. It is a tiring time of day, we are all tired and looking forward to going home, but we must stand up and use our voices for those who are restrained because of the jobs they have. These people are dependent on social welfare. Our Defence Forces have no problem with money when it comes to warmongering and peace enforcement - a lovely twisting of language - yet when it comes to looking after our own men and women at home, upon whom we are dependent to defence us, we hide behind language.
I will ask for no more comments from the Minister of State today. I ask him to go back and read the report and take on board the crisis that is there. I welcome that there is an implementation body. There is an absence of dates and times within which the recommendations must be implemented. There is no hope that our Defence Forces will be seen as an essential part of our democracy and given the proper remuneration so they do not have to beg us to stand up, they do not have to sleep in their cars and depend on social welfare.
The Minister of State does not need me to repeat what has been said. It has been made abundantly clear by the thousands of members of the Defence Forces that the proposals put forward in this report are simply not going to cut it for them and their families.
We know that the report was hamstrung from the outset by virtue of its terms of references and what it could and could not look at. The main issue excluded was core pay. In that context, how will there ever be a satisfactory outcome? There could not have been and there was not. There has been a degree of spin around the manner in which this has been presented and how well remunerated members of the Defence Forces are. That takes a brass neck but that is how it has played out to many people and that was how I heard it.
Some of the recommendations are welcome but not enough to offset the considerable disappointment regarding pay levels and overall working conditions. Some of the retention issues relate to progression, which is certainly the case in the Air Corps, for example. It is difficult to be motivated about one's work environment when one is working hard, doing dangerous work for part of the time and, in some cases, drawing on a working family payment. That is not a minor number of cases; it applies to people with families. They are precluded from striking and, if they were in the domestic economy, they would certainly be representing themselves in a different way.
Morale in the Defence Forces is at an all-time low. Everyone present has already noted how retention is a significant problem in all branches and against that backdrop, recruitment will be as difficult. How are we to increase our Defence Forces up to the strength at which they should be?
In the 16 months or so since RACO made its submission to the Public Service Pay Commission in February 2018, nearly 1,200 members have left the Defence Forces. Few would have made a different decision had they known the eventual report would give an additional 96 cent daily for privates, €1.30 for officers and €1.70 for non-commissioned officers. They would not have waited for that money. Those are not make-or-break sums that can determine whether a member and his or her family can continue to commit such huge personal sacrifices to the Defence Forces. A great many members of the Defence Forces have wanted to remain there but have had to leave because they are unable to remain.
It is not a nine to five job, nor is it something from which people are able to clock out. The State drafts the Defence Forces into many different types of work, such as the role they played during recent snowstorms, although their main work is outside such activities.
Defence Force membership is often vocational. In any walk of life where there is a vocational aspect, there will be some underpayment as it is taken advantage of but ultimately, people must put food on the table and they need to pay their bills. Our cost of living is very high and that applies to the Defence Forces as it does to anyone. It is unfair to expect people to struggle financially while assuming they will put up with it because they want to serve in their branch of the service.
I recognise the Minister of State's commitment to review core pay and retention issues in the next six months but I have heard members of the Defence Forces respond that they are sceptical about that commitment. They do not hold much hope that there will be substantial change, not least when they have heard the Government spin on the presentation of this report. It is telling that the RACO executive had to make it clear that the small concessions proposed in the report will not become available to those serving unless they accept the report. There is bad faith from the word go. When people are on such low incomes, small amounts matter but these are paltry increases, with Defence Force members being told they will not see further advances if they do not accept the report.
There will be road shows around the report. What is expected? People can clearly understand what has been put before them, they know their cost of living, what their expectation was and they know they once again are being asked to wait for core pay to be examined. Will the Minister of State give commitments on his intentions for that review later in the year? There is some scepticism around it.
We pay a lot of lipservice to the Defence Forces. While there was much talk of reputational damage to Ireland in respect of the crash and repaying bondholders, for instance, we would all agree that peacekeeping is the one area where our reputation is enhanced and we are all proud of the role they have played. That does not come without a price. We also pay lipservice to our Defence Forces' health and safety. I have been trying to raise an issue on the Air Corps and the large number of early deaths there. Several cases are before the State Claims Agency. There is the effect of Lariam, with people having to go through the courts over their health and welfare. Not only are members underpaid and not only do they have poor progression but we do not take their health and safety as seriously as we need to.
I thank everyone who has contributed to this afternoon's debate. It is unfortunate that some Members have made accusations and then scurried out of the Chamber before the reply. To be fair to Deputy Boyd Barrett, he told me he had to leave early.
People have referred to the 96 cent per day increase. Members are all well-educated people. They should multiply 96 cent by 9,500 and see what they come up with. I can assure them it comes well below €10 million. This is not about 96 cent per day. I do not think any contributors, apart from Deputies Boyd Barrett and Barry and possibly Deputy Connolly, recognised the other allowances referred to in the report. No one acknowledged the outstanding adjudications. However, I was in opposition myself and I understand that it does not suit the narrative or the good news in the package.
Deputy Jack Chambers referred to the return in respect of the Department of Defence annual budget. When I was in his position in opposition, I used to have the same figures and would throw them out. It is very easy to do that - I did the exact same when I was in opposition - but when sitting on this side of the House, I am in a very different position and have responsibility. The Deputy should go back and look at the returns. They fall far short of the figure he has cited.
The Deputy referred to the routine maintenance of ships. He did not read the full statement from the Defence Forces press office, which came out on Monday night and which states the LÉ Eithneand LÉ Orlaare due for planned maintenance periods. If the Deputy is going to read a press release he should read the whole thing-----
What I was told I reported absolutely accurately.
Deputy Jack Chambers referred to the working family payment. I have been absolutely beaten up on successive occasions at Question Time by all of the Deputies present regarding the number of people in the Defence Forces who are on this payment, which is fewer than 70 or less than 1% of the entire organisation. This includes staff of the Department. Now, I am being beaten up for giving people too much back in their allowances and bringing them over the threshold for the working family payment. I just cannot win. I am being accused of taking people out of scope for the working family payment. Deputies either want members of the Defence Forces to receive the working family payment or they do not. I do not want to see people receiving the working family payment. That is one of the reasons we had the independent pay commission report. It is also one of the reasons we increased allowances, with 10% for the military service allowance and the immediate restoration of all allowances that were reduced under the Haddington Road agreement, namely, the security duty allowance, the patrol duty allowance, the 24-hour weekend duty allowance and allowances relating to the Army Ranger Wing and the bomb disposal unit. There has also been a return to premium rates for weekend duties and recognition of peacekeepers in the context of the overseas allowance increasing from €19,000 to €20,400 for officers and from €15,300 to €16,100 for enlisted personnel. This reflects exactly what Deputy Catherine Murphy stated regarding our peacekeepers' work overseas. That work is very much recognised. This is why we have increased their allowances.
The State's cybersecurity is a matter for the Department for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Military authorities have informed me that the Defence Forces' networks are monitored on a 24-7 basis and that they have the staff to man our networks.
I would love to have another half an hour to be able to wrap up. I thank the Opposition Deputies who came to me looking for reports and a briefing on a number of issues. I emailed Deputy Jack Chambers but he did not take me up on my offer.