Thursday, 8 October 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Defence Forces Personnel
6. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence when the working time directive will be implemented in the Defence Forces in order to ensure safe working conditions, increased work life balance and retention. [29117/20]
14. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the progress that has been made to date regarding the commitment in the programme for Government to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, to bring the Defence Forces within its scope of provisions. [28527/20]
The Organisation of Working Time Act dates from 1997, there was a European Court of Justice, ECJ, decision in 2010 and no negotiations have happened since July 2019. In anyone's measure, that level of progress is glacial. When will the working time directive be implemented to ensure safe working conditions, increased work-life balance and, importantly, retention?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 14 and 43 together.
I share some of the Deputies' concerns on this issue. Since I am taking three questions together, I hope that the Acting Chairman will give me a little extra time.
The EU working time directive has been transposed into national legislation by way of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. As the House will be aware, the Defence Forces are excluded from the provisions of the Act. However, it is important to say that the Government has committed to amending this Act and bringing the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána within the scope of its provisions. There is no resistance to that.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has responsibility for introducing this legislative change. My Department has worked closely with that Department to progress the legislative changes required. I am advised that responsibility for this legislation will transfer to the new Department of enterprise, trade and employment in the near future and work on progressing the requisite legislative changes will continue with that Department.
The working time directive recognises the unique nature of certain military activities and allows for derogations and exemptions of such activities. A significant amount of work has been undertaken by civil and military management in determining the military activities that fall within the scope of the directive. I am advised that a high percentage of the normal everyday work of the Defence Forces is already in compliance with the working time directive and that a range of activities also qualify for exemption. Deliberations on these matters are continuing between civilian and military management and will feed into amendments to the legislative framework.
A subcommittee of the conciliation and arbitration council, one comprising the representative associations and military and civil management, has been established to discuss matters relating to implementation of the working time directive. Arising from these discussions, amended practices regarding compensatory rest have been introduced. This builds upon existing work practices relating to compensatory rest that comply with the directive. Discussions with the Defence Forces representative associations will continue to be undertaken through this forum as the current work evolves.
My Department and the Defence Forces remain fully committed to ensuring that the provisions of the directive are applied throughout the Defence Forces. I assure the Deputies that the health and safety of personnel in the Defence Forces remain a priority for me and the Chief of Staff.
We are committed to doing this. Mine is not the primary Department introducing legislation. It will change from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to the future Department of jobs. I assure the Deputies that I will pursue this issue and try to move it on in as timely a manner as we can. There has already been considerable discussion, as well as a structure to facilitate that discussion, to ensure that we are doing what we can to act in the spirit of the working time directive before we introduce the amending legislation to get it done in law.
The working family payment, which is relevant in this context, is an admission by the State that a person's income is not enough to survive on. That is a shocking admission. The fact that members of the Defence Forces are being paid such an income while being excluded from the provisions of the working time directive and doing many more hours than 48 hours per week is incredible. The ECJ has stated that there is no blanket exemption and other European defence forces have implemented the directive.
An incredible number of people in the Defence Forces do incredibly serious, technical and dangerous jobs. Bomb disposal officers can be on call for 168 hours per week. Portlaoise duty officers can be on call for 72 hours. Individuals in the Naval Service can be on duty for two to four weeks. These are incredible outliers in terms of normal working practices.
The working family payment exists for a reason. It recognises the need for increased income and support from the State for people who are on low pay. It is a safety net, as it were, for people in certain family situations. Obviously, it is not the responsibility of my Department primarily, but it is an important safety net.
We need to reflect constantly on pay levels across the Defence Forces, and that is what we are doing. It is why we are establishing a commission and have committed to establishing a pay and conditions body specifically to examine these issues within the Defence Forces.
We are committed to passing legislation in respect of the working time directive as it relates to the Defence Forces and the Garda. The reason the directive is more complicated to implement in the Defence Forces is self-evident.
If one is off the west coast in February on patrol on a naval vessel, it is pretty difficult to fully comply with the working time directive for all roles. We need to have derogations and exceptions, which I understand are catered for in the working time directive, for military service. Between now and when the legislation is amended, we want to implement the spirit of what we will legislate for as best we can. That is why the representative bodies are part of that discussion
It is a major health and safety issue. The objective of the directive is also to provide for the greater compatibility of work with family life, which is massively important for everybody, but the non-adherence to the directive is also a key driver in Defence Forces personnel leaving. This is not an effort from us to talk down the Defence Forces. It is a demand, a request, a shout and a plea from the Defence Forces themselves. There has been a significant loss of personnel from all ranks in the Defence Forces.
The Minister mentioned that it is practically difficult to configure naval personnel who are off the west coast in the Atlantic Ocean for weeks on end but their hours can be averaged over a period of three, six or 12 months. That could be done in such a way as to give them time off in lieu to allow them to still adhere to the directive. A functioning military service and functioning Defence Forces are not incongruent to adherence to the directive.
I have listened with some interest to the reply the Minister gave to Deputy Tóibín. I am hearing - and serving members will be hearing this as well - about commissions and reviews and I am hearing claims that the Government is working on this, that it is all in hand and that the Government will get there eventually. Do we have any idea of a definitive timeline? Is it realistic to say to somebody serving in the Defence Forces that if his or her child is born tomorrow, the State will be in adherence with the working time directive by the time of that child's first holy communion? This has been going on for so long. What commitment can the Minister give to even an estimated timeline for when this work will be finished?
We are committed to the legislation and I do not see why it has to take an eternity to get it done. We will push to try to get that legislation amended as quickly as we can. We are not waiting for the legislation, however. Compensatory rest is provided for certain duties and this is also in line with the provisions of the directive. We are talking to the representative bodies about that and I have outlined some of the structures that happens in. We are listening to them, we are trying to put supports in place and we are trying to ensure that, while everybody recognises that there are exemptions for serving Defence Forces personnel, we need to try to act in a way that is consistent with the working time directive, even in the absence of the legislation being finalised. That is what we are trying to do. I assure the Deputies that I will push for this amending legislation as soon as is reasonable.