Thursday, 7 November 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Defence Forces Personnel
2. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if his attention has been drawn to the fact that the situation within sections of the Defence Forces is so bad that the viability of those units is at risk due to the failure to address the exodus from the Defence Forces; and the immediate steps he will take to stem the tide of resignations of commissions and other ranks leaving the Defence Forces in large numbers. [45672/19]
The Minister of State is in charge eight and a half years now. If he is not aware of the dire circumstances within the Defence Forces he should be. It is so bad now that the viability of certain units is at risk because of the retention crisis.
The Government has acknowledged that there are recruitment and retention difficulties in the Defence Forces. As at end September 2019, the strength of the PDF was 8,654 personnel. As the establishment is for 9,500 personnel this means that there are vacancies in units. The Defence Forces are fully funded for 9,500 personnel. This has led to reduced operational availability in certain areas. This continues to be closely monitored and managed and safety remains a key priority for me.
The report of the Public Service Pay Commission on retention and recruitment in the Permanent Defence Force has been accepted by Government. It contains a broad range of recommendations to address recruitment and retention difficulties, some of which will provide immediate benefits to members of the Defence Forces. Immediate measures include a 10% increase in military service allowance, the restoration to pre-Haddington Road levels of certain specific Defence Forces allowances, the restoration of premium rates for certain weekend duties and the return of an incentive scheme to address pilot retention issues in the Air Corps. These measures, which will cost approximately €10 million per annum, have been accepted by the Permanent Defence Force representative associations and are in the course of being implemented. In addition, the report provides for an examination of pay structures in the PDF and the identification of other retention measures, which will be progressed within the framework of the public service stability agreement and future public sector pay negotiations. The report also contains a range of other recommendations aimed at improving workforce planning, recruitment and conditions of service in the PDF.
The Government has prepared a detailed implementation plan setting out timelines and objectives to deliver on the pay commission’s recommendations. Under my direction, this work is being prioritised by civil and military management. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement. The increases due to date under the agreement have been paid to members of the Defence Forces, the most recent being a 1.75% increase on annualised salaries from 1 September 2019. Further increases in pay are scheduled in 2020. I am satisfied that the range of measures being progressed, which provide immediate, short term and longer term actions, are an appropriate response to the current difficulties. It should be noted that it will take time to reap the full benefit of these measures. There are also a range of external variables which impact on recruitment and retention and which can change.
Like many others, I welcome the decision by PDFORRA to accept the miserly offer that was on the table. They had no choice but to accept it but that is not going to stem the tide that has occurred under the Minister of State's watch of those who are leaving the Defence Forces in droves, especially those with specific skills. I have asked on a number of occasions about the explosive ordnance disposal units and the Minister of State has said it is "inappropriate for [him] to comment on the disposition and specifics" of it. I am not trying to gain a State secret in questions I have put to the Minister of State about capacity. That capacity is so low now that men within the section are having duties of nearly 80 hours on a regular basis. What specific actions are being taken to ensure that the navy, the Air Corps, the likes of the military police and in particular the specialist units which require immediate support can be retained? What specific actions is the Minister of State going to take to ensure there are no more losses of men and women from those sections to the private sector, which is very glad of the expertise that is being offered because people cannot sustain their employment?
I would be the first to recognise that we have challenges within the Defence Forces, specifically when we have full employment. This is not the first time we have had challenges in the Defence Forces when there is full employment in the country because there are many more opportunities out there for people.
These are highly-skilled, well-trained and educated people who have been afforded fantastic opportunities within the Defence Forces. The private sector is seeking and targeting members of the Defence Forces. The Deputy will understand that when it comes to public sector pay, we cannot take one part of the public sector and increase salaries by 25% or 30%. I would love to be able to do that but public sector pay does not work that way. There is broad agreement on pay throughout the public sector. I was delighted that the Public Service Pay Commission recommended an increase in the military service allowance and the reversal of cuts implemented prior to the pre-Haddington Road agreement regarding specific duties. The peacekeepers' allowance was increased, the pilot retention scheme was restored and we are reviewing technical pay. The Department and the Defence Forces are looking at other non-pay issues around workforce planning, recruitment and longer service.
Everybody in the public service would, I believe, accept that there is a special case to be made for the Defence Forces because of the type of work they do, the hours they must work and their loyalty. The exodus from the Defence Forces does not have anything to do with full employment because members were leaving in droves even during the recession. It is a pity the Minister of State does not realise that. Members of the Defence Forces are leaving because they are not appreciated in the wages they receive and because of extra duties. I have still not heard anything from the Minister of State or the Government which would stem this tide. The Minister in charge of the Defence Forces is not the Minister of State but the Taoiseach and the ball falls in his court. I ask again what specific steps are being taken to prevent the further loss of men and women working in specialised areas on which the Defence Forces depend and full members of the Defence Forces and to ensure these members do not drift towards employment in Facebook, as military policemen have done, or on cruise liners, as some in the Naval Service have done, and into other areas of the private sector. How can society retain the Defence Forces in any shape or form or will numbers be further reduced as time goes on? RACO reckon that by 2030 Defence Forces strength will be down to 7,500 members.
I listed some of the issues in the Public Service Pay Commission. We have the pilot service commitment scheme, which is a response to one of the commission's recommendations. There is the review of technical pay. Measures in non-pay areas include hot-desking, family-friendly overseas appointments, measures for couples, career breaks, a shorter working year, coaching and mentoring, promotions, which are ongoing, overseas service, provision of professional military education, PME, for trainee technicians, external education and training, and overseas training. There is a range of opportunities for people who join Defence Forces.
I am the first to recognise that the Defence Forces is a very unique organisation. The Deputy is fully aware that the Public Service Pay Commission could not look at core pay. If it had recommended an increase in core pay, the Deputy would be the first man in this House jumping up and down looking for more money for everybody else.
The Deputy understands how public service pay works. That is one of the reasons we are preparing a strong case for the next round of the public service pay talks. That is important and unique because it is the first time we have done.