Wednesday, 9 September 2020
Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage (Resumed)
Sinn Féin welcomes this Bill. Last night, several Deputies mentioned issues relating to conditions, training and pay in the Defence Forces. It is in the context of conditions that I raise the issue of 12 homes in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines. An example is one 70-year-old woman who has lived there for 47 years. Her husband was a member of the Defence Forces and her son, who has also been an active member of the Defence Forces for the past 20 years, lives with her. They are referred to by the Defence Forces as "overholders" even though they have not been asked to leave or vacate the premises. That woman and her son have asked to buy the property to give them some sense of security because there is none for them now. The Defence Forces have always refused to sell, mainly for legal reasons. A similar case occurred when a family tried on three occasions to buy their home, but the Defence Forces withdrew from the agreements each time. What way is that to treat our Defence Forces' members, our veterans and their families?
Members of the Defence Forces are already badly paid and operate in difficult and challenging conditions. Twelve families have been left in this situation of having no security regarding their homes and, to compound the issue, the Defence Forces will not carry out any repairs to these 12 homes. In addition, permission has also not been given for the residents to carry out repairs. The result is that those houses are crumbling around the residents, and it is unfair to allow people to live in this type of limbo, with no security or clarity regarding what will happen to them or their children in the future. When we talk about conditions, therefore, it is important that we put in place measures to give security to families such as those I mentioned. The legal issues need to be resolved, so I ask the Minister to consider the situation of these residents in the context of conditions and pay for members of the Defence Forces and their families. This is an important matter.
I welcome the provisions in this Bill, which formalise and give full effect to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is not before time that we are doing this. I also strongly welcome the formalisation of the authorisation of a force commander of an overseas operation to exercise operational control over Defence Forces' contingents.
It is true to say that Members across the House are all proud of the significant role that the Defence Forces play in international peacekeeping.
As Members are well aware, not a day has passed since 1958 without Irish peacekeepers on duty. Indeed, in recent years, members of the Defence Forces have played roles at the highest levels of the United Nations, including Irish Brigadier General Maureen O'Brien who now serves as acting force commander with the UN in the Golan Heights in Syria. Hundreds of members of the Defence Forces are now serving overseas on peacekeeping missions in various parts of the world. Across the House, we are proud of that.
The Minister referenced section 4 of the Bill when speaking in the debate yesterday. That section addresses re-enlistment and the Minister told the House that the section could be removed because it has already been dealt with in Covid-19 legislation. However, the issues around re-enlistment and retention of Army personnel have not been dealt with. Deputy Howlin yesterday raised issues about the value of taking young people into the Army and providing them with skills and training, and how valuable that has been, and that also must be dealt with.
In that context, I want to raise the fact that we are awaiting the publication of the review of technicians' pay and grading that was promised as part of the Croke Park agreement. I understand that review has been completed but it needs to be published. It is important that we publish it as quickly as possible. We are losing many skilled members of the force who are leaving for better conditions in the private sector, and this retention issue is impacting morale in the Defence Forces and on our operational capacity. We must retain skilled technicians. It makes no sense to train them and lose them after they have become skilled. There is also a need to implement the recommendations of the high-level implementation plan, and the working time directive should be made applicable to the Defence Forces, as has been promised in the programme for Government.
The last time there was a discussion around the Defence Forces, the outgoing Minister of State gave indications about the issue of membership of congress. In 2018, the European Social Rights Committee found that the Government's refusal to allow members of the Defence Forces to join the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, was a breach of the European Social Charter. The issue of the ageing out of members of the Defence Forces because of arbitrary cut-offs also needs to be addressed.
How we value our Defence Forces reflects on the country as a whole. We have all been aware in recent times, with Covid and Brexit, that there is never any time when we can take issues of national security for granted as they apply to the Defence Forces, food security and anything else. There is a tendency for people to take these things for granted, but moments of crisis show more than ever how important those things are. While supporting this Bill, I ask the Minister to give those issues consideration. I appreciate that he is highly focused on Brexit at the moment, but these issues also need consideration.
This is my first time addressing the Minister for Defence so I congratulate him on his portfolio and hope he will have a successful term. I support this Bill which brings about a number of required changes to existing defence laws. I pay particular tribute to the many men and women of our Permanent Defence Force who step up time and again. They helped when there was flooding in Cloonlara and Ennis in County Clare, where I am from, and more recently during the Covid pandemic when those men and women supported our front-line staff. I will elaborate on that in a few moments.
The numbers in our Defence Forces continue to fall, it is sad to say, and Covid-19 will add to the challenge of recruitment. The commitments on defence in the programme for Government urgently need to be acted upon, and I hope they will be a priority for the Minister as he takes on this portfolio. The single greatest asset of the Defence Forces must be their personnel, and yet numbers are now seriously below strength and it is time to rebuild significantly. The decline over recent years left the forces with just 8,423 members at the end of March of this year, some 1,077 below the current agreed strength. In 2019, turnover reached an unsustainable level of close to 10%. This could be considered an existential crisis and cannot be allowed to continue. The retention crisis means that the Defence Forces are experiencing significant underspend of their annual budget allocation despite the scale of this crisis. It is vital that Ireland recommits to its Defence Forces and defence capability.
I am glad that the programme for Government commits to establishing an independent commission on defence. The commission will look at the pay, allowances and composition of the Defence Forces and consider recruitment, retention and career progression. I note that the commission will result in the formation of a permanent pay review body, and it is important that all recommendations made by the committee and their subsequent implementation must be consistent with national public sector wage policy.
It has been mooted that the pay commission would be established before the end of the 2020 and report back to the Government within 12 months. I would like to know where that is at now. It seems to me that, for far too long, the focus in Ireland has been more on investing in high-tech equipment for the Army as opposed to the actual personnel who wear the uniforms, their recruitment and retention. That is the main causes of the recruitment crisis we see at the moment. I have heard of some instances where troops are expected to work extra hours in the evenings and at weekends for as little as €2 or €3 per hour. I know of one recent instance when the Army brought quite a number of its personnel from around the country to help the HSE offload containers of personal protective equipment, PPE, that the Government had procured from China and other places in Asia from its resource headquarters. Some of those soldiers were paid and understood that they could take home that pay but were taxed significantly. The pay that they took home ended up being minuscule and those members of the Defence Forces felt that they had stepped up to the role at a time of crisis and what they took home to their families was negligible.
I hope that the Minister can intervene in the case of unfilled positions within the Defence Forces, across the Army, Navy and Air Corps. There are currently 1,076 unfilled positions, 882 of which relate to those who left the Defence Forces last year.
I also want briefly to raise the issue of medals. Some 27 soldiers from the Jadotville siege were nominated for medals and only eight of those men are still alive. I hope that their bravery will be recognised by this Government. I know that parchments were issued to them last year and there has been much talk in recent times of medals being awarded. Those medals need to be awarded before any more of those men pass away and go to eternity.
An Army veteran living in my county brought an issue to my attention in August. A lot of consultation will be required on this because it divides opinion, but he suggested that those who served with the Irish Army along the Border over the course of the Troubles, right up to the time of the Good Friday Agreement, should be awarded a medal or some kind of recognition for the duty and service they gave to the State at that time and the daily dangers which they faced. There is a counterargument to that. Some would say that was home service and does not merit a medal but I hope the Department, as it continues to consider whether to award medals to those who served at Jadotville, would also engage with veteran groups, particularly those who served the Irish Army during the Troubles, to see whether we could formally recognise in some way their service during those turbulent years.
I would like to take this opportunity to address the issues around our Defence Forces as a whole. We are here today with a Bill before the House that seems merely to address housekeeping issues around the Defence Forces and how they operate, specifically while overseas. While it may be internationally accepted that companies deployed overseas will fall under the command of the regional troops, I certainly hope that this is not an underhanded way of signing off on our neutrality down the line.
I was a member of the Army Reserve and can easily say that I gained hugely from my time there. I gained experience in teamwork skills and general life skills that have truly benefited me.
We trained and worked hard and pushed ourselves physically and mentally. That being said, I, along with many of my counterparts, signed up on the understanding that Ireland was and will remain a neutral State. This is something we must continue to ensure.
In the overall context of our Permanent Defence Force, the lack of basic pay and conditions is appalling. Section 4 of the Bill makes provision for the re-enlistment of previous members of the Defence Forces. While I accept that from time to time expertise and experience is required, I feel this is only a requirement in our Defence Forces due to the brain drain in recent years. We are struggling to attract young recruits into the Army, Air Corps and navy due to the extremely poor pay and conditions available to them. That is the reason we are struggling to recruit and keep members, and is the only reason we need to make provision to bring back retired members to fill these gaps.
The aeromedical service in Athlone has come under pressure due to a lack of suitably qualified pilots in the Air Corps. Naval vessels are moored in Cork due to the lack of staff to enable them to go out on patrol. This is simply not good enough.
Members of the Defence Forces recently came to the rescue of people in distress due to flooding, gorse fires and more. In our country's time of need, our soldiers could be relied upon. They are often seen as our heroes in our time of need, but they do not get paid accordingly. When the Pope visited soldiers they were expected to sleep in desperate conditions and were fed substandard meals, but worst of all they were being paid substandard wages while on duty. This is simply not good enough and we can no longer accept it. We need to address these issues, and it would have been much more important to have raised them on the floor of the House.
Like other speakers, I welcome the Bill. It essentially codifies a lot of the current practices. Part of the difficulty for me is that while this is welcome and clear command structures are definitely needed in cases of lethal force, we are in many ways treating the symptoms and not the root causes. Currently our Defence Forces based in Lebanon are part of a mixed battalion involving Maltese, Polish and Hungarian soldiers. It is important that if a Polish major is giving orders to an Irish captain who in turn is relaying them to a Hungarian rifle unit on the ground that those things can flow clearly.
What happened to the days when we could send a full battalion of our own and did not need to worry about these things? The reality is that our ability to do that has been eroded by organisational problems and problems with recruitment, support and retention. This Bill is treating the symptoms of those problems but not the problems themselves.
We have a difficulty with recruitment. Obviously, Covid is making that harder at present but there is a long-standing problem with recruitment. When we hear about the Defence Forces in the media it is either, as has been said, that they are heroes who come to the aid of a civilian power and provide support that others cannot or we hear about the poor conditions of Defence Forces families who are living on the breadline. If a person sees such news stories, will he or she want to put a family in that situation of living in penury despite the fact that he or she is risking his or her life for everyone else? That is a fundamental difficulty which, if we do not address it, will continue to cause problems.
There is not just a recruitment problem. We are losing experienced members of the Defence Forces and people who have skills and qualifications and are in leadership positions. When we start losing them, we create a spiral of unhealthiness and unsustainability within an organisation.
If there is only one mechanic in a particular unit, he or she will be under significant extra pressure to do overseas duty. Where does that leave him or her? He or she will have to go on duty for 18 months at a time again and again and be pulled away from his or her family and home simply because we do not have others with the same qualification as a result of all of these problems.
That is the sort of thing that will make a person wonder if it is worth it for him or her. Being a member of the Defence Forces is, in many ways, a vocation and we are letting them down with poor management and organisation. As I said, we are creating a sick organisation which people leave because it is sick. This builds up more pressure on those who remain and encourages them to leave as well. It creates an ongoing spiral. This is something we have seen in many other organisations.
Let us get things sorted to ensure the Defence Forces can function. What are we doing right now to ensure they can function? Other Members spoke about officers doing the work of two, three or four other officers. Are the structures we are using in the Army suitable for what we are demanding of the men and women in our Defence Forces? The fact that we are seeing a brain drain and are struggling to recruit would suggest that the structures we have are not suitable.
We have a proud tradition of involvement in the United Nations and peacekeeping work, and a lot of young men and women want to be part of that tradition but do not see the Army as an appealing place to work because of what we are talking about. The vocation for international duties and peacekeeping work has been tarnished by cosying up to things like PESCO and multilateral arrangements.
We need to consider deeply the value we as a society place on our Defence Forces and the roles that we will ask them to undertake. As climate change bites, the world becomes more chaotic and flooding in Ireland becomes worse, resulting in the chaotic scenes of flooding we have seen around the country where the Army has been called in, we will be coming to the Defence Forces for their expertise and ability to respond quickly more and more. The situations they will go into will be more and more dangerous.
If, as I said, we want people to answer the call and take up a vocation to serve the State as a member of the Defence Forces, are we going to give them the support they need? I feel the Bill in some ways supports them and gives clarity to those who are serving overseas. However, as I said it is addressing the symptoms and not the root causes, and there are much wider concerns I hope we address.
I welcome the chance to speak on some of aspects of the Bill. During the general election when we were all on the canvass trail, I met and spoke to many Defence Forces personnel in Dublin West and in every single case they said to me that they were proud to serve and to be a member of the Defence Forces. However, they all had disappointing stories to tell of how they were treated in terms of their pay, conditions and retirement entitlements.
Having committed their lives to the Defence Forces and, in some cases, risked their lives on UN missions in war-torn countries, they feel let down by successive Governments and Ministers for Defence. This Dáil term is an opportunity to right some of those wrongs. That will not always be possible because some people have left the Defence Forces, but for those who are still in the Defence Forces and those who intend to join there is an opportunity to address the matter. A significant number of Deputies have spoken about this and the message is very clear.
The measure of the pride of those to whom I spoke was their willingness to rejoin and play their part during the Covid crisis. Like all employees, all personnel in the Defence Forces must be treated with respect and fairness.
The very fact that we had a call for people to come back into the Defence Forces shows that there is a real need for a certain skill set within the Defence Forces. The option to enlist should be attractive. I hope that will bring an end to highly qualified officers leaving their posts at a personal cost of €60,000 or more, as I have heard in some cases. There is an urgent need for the Government to establish a full commission on the future of the Defence Forces and an independent pay review body. Ireland's Defence Forces are recognised worldwide for their humanitarian work in strife-torn corners of the world and are highly respected where they are based.
Finally, our neutrality is something that has allowed our Defence Forces to go to some of the most dangerous places in the world. I urge the Minister to ensure this is protected at all costs because we will continue to ask our Defence Forces to go on UN peacekeeping missions to very dangerous places. If we do not protect our neutrality, we will not be protecting the members of our Defence Forces.
I will finish up a little bit early to facilitate other Members to speak. I have a number of points to make.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for coming in here tonight. I understand that there are great demands on his time at the moment, particularly when we see the extraordinary events today across the Irish Sea. His presence this evening, therefore, is greatly appreciated. I am also very grateful for the very positive engagement we have had over the last couple of weeks and months. I am far more hopeful now than I was even three months ago that we can finally get to grips with the problems in the Defence Forces and move on from there.
The next point I will make is on the legislation itself. I have no difficulty with the legislation and am very happy to support it. As the Minister mentioned, it is just housekeeping. I can understand from a legality point of view why one might want to enshrine and codify it in primary legislation but the reality is that it is not going to change anything on the ground. We could have added a few more amendments and I will give the Minister a number of suggestions which he might wish to consider. In this Chamber we make minor adjustments at the top that can have significant and disproportionately positive effects downstream.
We should have approximately 4,000 people in the Reserve Defence Force, but we have approximately 1,000, in effect. If one tried to run a school with 25% of the required number of teachers or a hospital with 25% of the required number of nurses, it would be a mission impossible. We really need to focus on the Reserve Defence Force. Many people do not realise why we call them the Defence Forces, and it is plural for a reason because they consist of the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force. The next group of amendments that we make to the Defence Act 1954 should be focused primarily, but not exclusively, on the Reserve Defence Force.
First, we should legislate to allow our Reserve Defence Force to serve overseas in niche operational roles like medicine and communications, in particular. Second, in addition to being able to serve operationally, they should be able to go on training exercises and courses abroad. Third, they should be able to participate in ceremonial events abroad. The Reserve Defence Force should be allowed to travel overseas for those three reasons. It will certainly take itself far more seriously if we take it more seriously too. These three things would make a great difference overnight, unlike the legislation in front of us, which is all well and good but does not impact anything on the ground.
I would like to make a further point from the perspective of members of the Reserve Defence Force. We know how understrength they are. The Minister, or his predecessor, quite rightly introduced legislation to provide for the re-enlistment of personnel into the Permanent Defence Force. Why do we not allow for the re-enlistment of personnel into the Reserve Defence Force? There is no harm in bringing back Reserve Defence Force people who have left if they are a good fit for the organisation.
A further point I would make is that there should be a seamless transition for people like myself who have recently retired from the Permanent Defence Force if they are interested in serving in the Reserve Defence Force. It should really be a box-ticking exercise for such a person. The measures I have proposed would have a great impact on the Reserve Defence Force within 24 hours. The numbers would be populated very quickly up towards 4,000. Those are the amendments I would consider from the perspective of the Reserve Defence Force.
From a Permanent Defence Force perspective, I would like to mention an issue that can be solved very easily even though it is a real bone of contention. A provision in the Defence Act 1954 means that a soldier who does not serve the full five-year term must purchase his or her discharge. This is a 1954 Act for a good reason because a provision like that has no place whatsoever in modern employment legislation. Private soldiers and Teachtaí Dála have one real thing in common. They both sign up for a five-year term. If I resign my seat voluntarily now and walk out of here, I will receive a golden handshake. If private soldiers do not complete their full five-year term, they are handed a bill for €300, which is completely scandalous. This can be very easily changed and would have a huge impact on morale.
I would like to refer to a number of non-legislative amendments which would make a significant difference. The first involves additional pay for the navy. The Minister has done a great deal of work on this in recent months. We hope we are looking towards having a very positive announcement in the next couple of weeks. We know how bad things are in the navy. I have mentioned them before and I will not mention them again. An improvement in pay would be a small difference but it would bring hugely positive effects overnight.
My next point relates to quarantine money. For Covid-19 reasons, troops who are serving overseas are brought into barracks for an additional two weeks of work before they deploy overseas for six months. They do not get to see their families for six and a half months. They should be getting some additional pay for the two weeks of quarantine they are doing before they travel. This is a major bone of contention for the people in Syria and in Lebanon at the moment. In some cases, people's spouses have to give up work for two weeks, which means a loss of salary for these families. Anything the Minister can do from this perspective, particularly if it can be done in the next couple weeks, would be greatly appreciated and would have a very positive effect on morale.
As the Social Democrats speaker mentioned, an announcement on the technical pay issue was made with great fanfare on 4 July last year from the plinth by the Minister for Finance and the then Minister of State with responsibility for defence. I presume these announcements were made in good faith. That was over 14 months ago. I know it is probably an unfair comparison to make, but it strikes me that we are currently taking issue with the British Government because it is claiming it does not want to honour an agreement it entered into. The Government entered into an agreement with the Defence Forces and its representative associations in good faith on 4 July last year and it is now up to our Government to honour that commitment. We are not talking about big money. A commitment was made and it should be followed through on. There is no risk of contagion to other parts of the public service. If there was a risk of contagion it would have happened on 4 July last year when it was announced. As a result of the failure to implement the technical pay announcement, we have had huge haemorrhaging of paramedics, mechanics and technically qualified people. Again, a small adjustment could make a significantly positive impact on the ground.
A very positive sentence in the programme for Government commits this Government to providing the same level of medical care to enlisted personnel as is provided to commissioned officers. If the Minister is looking for something that could be implemented very quickly, I put it to him that this could be done next week. This measure would have a significant impact on morale and would demonstrate something tangible for the troops. Providing private medical care to enlisted personnel who are injured, as is done with the commissioned officers, would make a great difference. It is very simply done. Instead of writing "Captain X" on the form, the medical officer just puts down "Corporal Y" and they should then have the exact same access to medical care. We have over 100 personnel who are on long-term sick leave because they are awaiting operations, having injured their backs or knees, or have torn ligaments and are languishing at home for months on the public waiting list. If we could expedite their return to the ranks it would make a great difference. The enlisted personnel also have to pay for their own treatment even though they are injured at work and this encourages them to litigate.
If the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence were paying for their medical treatment, there would be no requirement to litigate. That is another measure that would make a very big difference on the ground.
From a non-legislative perspective I want to mention the budget, which is coming up on 13 October. Traditionally, the Defence Forces always get the lowest level of increase. In addition, the majority of that increase, over the past five years in particular, has gone to paying Defence Forces pensions. The reason for that is the very poor policies that were pursued in recent years, which drove many people out of the Defence Forces against their will, and the pensions bill has risen. If there is anything the Minister could do from a budgeting perspective to ensure that the Defence Forces can get their fare share, it would be greatly appreciated.
The Minister was very good to visit the Curragh Camp recently, and the Ceann Comhairle will verify what I am about to say. Even though it is a wonderful place full of wonderful people, the Curragh Camp is the most derelict town in the entire country bar none. I challenge anybody to mention any other town in the country that has such poor infrastructure. It is not just an Army barracks but a functioning town with two primary schools and a secondary school. If there is anything that can be done from an infrastructural perspective there, it would make a major difference.
We can be creative in respect of our budgeting. First, I do not believe all the funds should come from the defence Votes. There is a lot of housing on the camp in the Curragh that could very easily be funded through the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. The Minister might liaise with his colleagues at the Cabinet table to see if there is any funding from the housing budget that could be routed towards the Curragh. Second, we must remember also that it is an international third level institution taking students from abroad. We have a brand new Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science with a blank canvas, so if there is any funding in that Department that could be funnelled towards Defence Forces training institutions, that might be a possibility also.
The fourth point I want to make is about our new Secretary General, Ms Jacqui McCrum. The announcement that we have an external candidate as Secretary General was wonderful. I have heard nothing but positive comments as to her attitude and performance to date. It is a huge plus that her most recent job was working in the Department of Social Protection where she had to devise, advertise and implement social protections for people who are struggling. Her appointment is to be greatly welcomed. I would go so far as to say that her appointment has the potential to have the same effect as people of the likes of Matthew Elderfield during the financial crisis when he came in to work with the Financial Regulator or Professor Patrick Honohan when he came in to work with the Central Bank. There is great potential and hope in this regard and I very much look forward to working with the Secretary General, Ms McCrum, over the next number of years.
I used sit up in the Gallery when I was a soldier here guarding the Leinster House campus about 20 years ago in happier times. I remember being here one night and seeing the Minister's father, who was Minister for Defence. I never thought for a moment that I would have to come into this Chamber and advocate for very basic living standards for service personnel and their families. It is wonderful to close the circle and be able to address another member of the Coveney clan from that perspective. I presume the Minister's is the only family whose father and son have occupied the position of Minister for Defence.
I hope the Minister regards me as being on his side. We want him to be a very successful Minister for Defence because if he has a successful Ministry, the Defence Forces, and the country, will be very successful. I very much look forward to working with the Minister over the next number of years.
Tá áthas orm labhairt ar an mBille seo. I record my congratulations to Tipperary woman, Roberta O'Brien, who has become the first woman in the history of the Naval Service to achieve the rank of commander. That certainly needs to be acknowledged here. As I understand it, Roberta joined the Permanent Defence Force in 1995 and was part of the first ever intake of female personnel in the Irish Naval Service along with her classmate, Orla Gallagher, who is now a lieutenant commander. It is great to see this development and I hope many more women will follow the trail she has blazed.
To come back to the Bill, as I understand it from the explanatory memorandum, the intention is to make several important provisions. These include permitting the delegation by the Minister for Defence of a limited degree of control and authority over Defence Forces contingents deployed as part of an international force to the force commander of that particular force. While the memorandum is careful to assert that the amendment will not alter the current command structure within the Irish Defence Forces but merely underpin current practice in respect of the day-to-day operational control, it is difficult to see that this is actually the case. This strikes me as serious legislation with respect to the delegation of ministerial powers. In trying to think of some similar situations, I was reminded of the provisions of the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1977, whereby the Government, by order made on the request of a Minister, can delegate to a Minister of State all the powers and duties of such Minister of the Government. It appears that something similar is happening with this legislation. The Minister is granting official power that, up to this point, was his or hers alone, to an international force commander. That does not strike me as being inconsequential. What I and many others would be concerned about, more broadly, is that the Bill, while it is somewhat technical in nature, also creates the impression that the autonomy and sovereignty of the Irish Defence Forces is slowly being eroded within an international context.
I understand entirely that operational efficiency is important. I understand it is a good thing for our Defence Forces to work in smooth partnership with our allies, but have they not always done that? Have they not always made themselves responsive to the operational commands of the various force commanders under whom they have served? For example, section 2 proposes that any delegation of operational control will provide that each member of the Defence Forces assigned to an international force led by a force commander will comply with every lawful order issued to him or her by a member of the international force in his or her military chain of command. Is there a record of the Irish Defence Forces not submitting or complying with legitimate orders? I am asking the Minister for greater clarity to be provided on the problem that this Bill seeks to address. If the Irish Defence Forces have been compliant, and there is no reason to think they have not, why is this Bill necessary? Why are we embedding authority over our forces to an international force commander and delegating ministerial powers to achieve that?
My view is that when it comes to international participation we have an honourable and distinguished history. How will this Bill improve on that? I ask these questions as a non-specialist in the area, like so many of us here, with the exception of an Teachta Berry. I can only speak to the immediate concerns that the Bill creates for me as someone who values the extraordinary work of our Defence Forces but who would be instinctively cautious about seeing them at ever-increasing levels of disposal for international force commanders.
It would be remiss of me to let this occasion go without raising the issue of pay and conditions for our Defence Forces. We know from statements made before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence last year that 3,200 personnel left the Defence Forces between 2014 and 2018, which is an astonishing 34.7% of the average strength for those years. As it has been noted, people should not think that this is due to early mandatory retirement ages for the Defence Forces personnel. A staggering 82% of those were premature voluntary retirements.
Problems such as these highlight enormous gaps that exist between the rhetoric of previous Ministers in terms of what is being done to improve retention and morale and the actual reality of life in our Defence Forces.
I have repeatedly highlighted this issue as a major concern and would really love to see it addressed.
We know that departures from the Defence Forces rose sharply during the economic crisis, particularly from 2010 to 2012. The 2012 reorganisation of the Defence Forces permanently lowered their strength to the current level. Now that we have officially re-entered recession, it is highly likely that existing retention problems will be deepened. I accept, as the Oireachtas Parliamentary Budget Office has pointed out, that the strengthening of our Defence Forces high-level plan shows the Government is progressing the implementation of the Public Service Pay Commission's recommendations. The Oireachtas Parliamentary Budget Office notes that this plan includes reviews of technical pay arrangements, incentivised long-service arrangements, barriers to extended participation and current retention strategies. It appears to provide a framework for addressing the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission. All of this will depend on the level and quality of the monitoring of, and reporting on, the implementation of the plan. It is essential for the confidence and credibility of the plan that this happen. I hope the Minister can commit to progressing it here tonight.
I thank the Defence Forces for their massive efforts and work in their peacekeeping duties over the years. They are held in high regard all around the world.
The recruitment, retention and remuneration of the members of the Defence Forces have been the subject of extensive public and parliamentary debate over many years. One of the main issues the Defence Forces members continue to face is low pay. The Defence Forces personnel are at the bottom of the public sector pay scale. The main problem is the ban on industrial action. The Army does not go on strike; that is part of its code. Much of the blame for this is laid at the door of the Department of Defence. The Department operates a policy of coming in under budget each year. It does this by keeping the number of soldiers in the Army below the desired strength and by underpaying soldiers and other members of the Defence Forces. That is wrong and needs to be addressed. In this day and age, soldiers or others working in the Defence Forces need proper pay to support their families and put food on the table. The Minister must recognise that. If the Government wants to keep the members of the Defence Forces going, it needs to pay them properly. It is as simple as that.
It has been highlighted to us that sometimes soldiers have to sleep in their cars because they cannot afford to drive them home and drive back again in the morning. That is wrong and needs to be addressed. Defence Forces personnel will work and do their duties, as the personnel before them did, but they need to be paid. It is as simple as that. The Government will have to do that. We are told that more than 3,000 members of the Defence Forces left between 2014 to 2020. In the end, they will drift away completely. They are highly skilled. I know a member from Kilgarvan, Daniel Cremin, and another from Gneevgullia, Breda Sullivan. They are proud to be members of the Defence Forces but they are finding it hard to survive on the pay they are getting. I ask the Minister to address the issue. It is as simple as this: if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If the Government is not going to pay the people in the Defence Forces, it not going to have them. It is as simple as that.