Dáil debates

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Defence Forces

11:30 am

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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81. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if he will report on the fourth independent monitoring group for the Defence Forces which should have been initiated in 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56371/21]

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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84. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the way his Department intends to address the serious issues that have emerged through a documentary (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56294/21]

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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90. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the status of the independent review into allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the Defence Forces. [56514/21]

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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92. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the status of the independent review to examine the effectiveness of the policies, systems and procedures currently in place for dealing with bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Defence Forces; the terms of reference for the review; the person or body that will be carrying out the review; the timeline for the review; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56531/21]

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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98. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the details of his engagement with a group (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56574/21]

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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127. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if an update will be provided on the work being done to address the issues that emerged in a documentary (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56188/21]

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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Will the Minister update the House on the report on the fourth independent monitoring group for the Defence Forces? It should have been initiated in 2019. I do not know if it has been overtaken by the independent review. I hope not.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I propose to answer Questions Nos. 81, 84, 90, 92, 98 and 107 together. Deputies will be aware that there have been three reports from the independent monitoring group, IMG, since the publication in 2002 of the report of the external advisory committee on the Defence Forces, The Challenge of the Workplace.

Following extensive discussions over several months between the Secretary General and the former Chief of Staff on next steps for the IMG process and what that would encompass, it was considered that a back-to-basics external review of policies, systems and procedures for dealing with matters relating to dignity, equality, discrimination, bullying, harassment and sexual harassment was required. On that basis the IMG process is to be set aside.

As the Deputies will also be aware, I met recently with participants from the Women of Honour group and with a number of serving female members of the Defence Forces where I had the opportunity to listen carefully to their experiences in what were very informative, frank and emotional meetings. In addition, there has been a number engagements between senior civil and military management and relevant stakeholders including with both the participants from the Women of Honour group and a group of serving female members of the Defence Forces.

On foot of those meetings, I have decided to proceed with an independent review without delay to examine the effectiveness of systems, policies and procedures to deal with workplace issues relating to bullying, discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the Defence Forces. The draft terms for this review have been shared with a range of stakeholders including the representative associations, serving members and the Women of Honour group. I look forward to receiving their observations which will inform the final terms of the review, which I intend to finalise in the coming weeks. I wish to underline that this review will be undertaken by external and entirely independent and unbiased experts in this field. In this regard, potential members are also under consideration.

Deputies will also be aware that I have recently announced interim measures for both former and serving members of the Defence Forces, both male and female, who have been affected by unacceptable behaviour in the workplace.

An agreement has been reached with Raiseaconcern, an organisation working with private sector and public bodies on issues relating to workplace wrongdoing, on the appointment of an external confidential contact person who will be available to assist both serving and former members of the Defence Forces who have been affected by these issues. This service provides a safe space to support the reporting of alleged wrongdoing.

In addition, I have announced that my Department and the Defence Forces are engaging with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre in terms of assistance for both serving and former personnel who have suffered sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape in the workplace.

Finally, I wish to reiterate my commitment and that of the Secretary General and Chief of Staff, to ensure that every member of the Defence Forces, male and female, can carry out their duties in a safe and respectful workplace based on dignity, equality and zero-tolerance for any kind of unacceptable behaviour.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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There are supplementary questions from Deputies Colm Burke, Catherine Connolly and Gino Kenny.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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The Minister spoke of the review he announced on 28 September. Has a timeframe been set for it? It is always a concern when a review is announced. Everyone welcomes the review, but when will the review be completed? Has the Department set a timeframe for its completion and the delivery of a report?

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I very much welcome what the Minister said about the establishment of an independent review but I am concerned that it seems to have superseded and overtaken the independent monitoring group. That is reflected by the fact that the Minister has linked my question with the other questions on the independent review which is obviously required. However, there is concern among the Defence Force representatives that it seems to be the case that the independent monitoring group has been set aside. The Minister's answer said that it has been set aside on the basis of the establishment of the independent review. Does that mean that the independent monitoring group is going to be disbanded?

If it is, what work is going to be undertaken by the independent review and when does the Minister envisage that group will be allowed to continue and complete this work? He will be aware the representative associations make the point that in an environment where inadequate manning levels and operational levels lead to a lack of mentoring supervision and governance, it is essential the employee representatives are included and employee voices heard. Will that voice be heard in the review the Minister is proposing?

11:40 am

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The timeframe for the review to take place will be agreed as part of the terms of reference. My understanding is we are looking at a review that will probably take about six months. This will produce a report with recommendations which we will obviously want to act on fully within the Defence Forces, supported by the Department and the Government more generally. I am sure there will be an opportunity to focus on those recommendations when that report is done.

The independent monitoring group, IMG, process has a value. When I was last Minister for Defence, we worked a lot on the IMG process to improve systems in the Defence Forces around reporting. There have been a whole series of changes within the Defence Forces linked to the IMG and the series of reports and reviews done through it. Unfortunately, the testimonies we have heard from people show the IMG process has not made the fundamental change in culture in the Defence Forces that is needed. While new reporting systems and LGBTQ support groups and support lines and counselling services within the Defence Forces have been put in place, and that is a good thing, there is a still an issue for some serving in the Defence Forces with feeling isolated and cases of bullying and sexual harassment.

We need a very comprehensive response to that in terms of creating an atmosphere that is safe and effective to ensure people commit to the Defence Forces in the future in the numbers we need. We have taken the view we now want to focus on an outside, independent review process. Of course, when we get the recommendations from that report we will act on those, but we also want to involve different stakeholder groups, including the Women of Honour, to ensure both the make-up of that independent review group and the terms of reference are acceptable to everybody and that they have full trust in that process.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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We move now to Deputy Connolly.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Before we start, are we allowed back in for our second minute or are we losing that?

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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It is just one minute I think. All we can afford at the moment is 60 seconds and then 60 seconds for the Minister.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The procedure is that you do not lose your time when a question is grouped, you just lose the 30 seconds.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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Okay, that is fair enough, Deputy. We will go for 60 seconds over and back with the Minister twice and then on to Deputy Gino Kenny.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Acting Chairman. Turning to the Minister, we have all been following up on this because it is so important. The catalyst was the RTÉ radio documentary "Women of Honour" and what it exposed, namely, sexism, bullying, sexual assault and rape in the Defence Forces. In a sense I am glad the questions are grouped but I also have a concern as there is no connection, unless the Minister is going to make one, to the previous independent reports, even though they seem to have been internal. Will they be included? Will they be published? Will they be included in the terms of reference? Have the terms of reference been agreed yet? If not when will they be agreed? On the contact person, I welcome that progress. Has that person taken up the job? Has the Minister had any reports from that independent contact person so far? What about the terms of reference covering disclosures to the Minister and previous Ministers on what was going on?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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There are many questions there. The independent contact person is in place. The importance of that person is to provide a service that is professionally delivered but also confidential so people can feel they are speaking in confidence to somebody who can take on board their concerns. That person will make a report to me as Minister but will not identify people by name. That is the way it should be so that I am aware if there are issues arising in the Defence Forces, or for people who have left the Defence Forces, because that confidential contact person is available for former members as well. We have monitored and continue to monitor the adequacy of that service.

On the terms of reference, there are draft terms of reference which have been shared with key stakeholders. The terms of reference have not been finalised yet because we want to get feedback from people before we do that. We want this to be an inclusive process to ensure the terms of reference are something people can trust and believe in and which they are happy with. Likewise, we want to ensure we get the make-up of the review group right in terms of there being an international contribution to that and a chairperson who will have the credibility and trust to be able to do a very sensitive piece of work.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Minister. I know it is difficult in this set-up, especially in this new set-up, but this goes back decades and it is ongoing. The Minister has acknowledged there has been no fundamental change in culture, notwithstanding the reports he has got to date. Thus, we are in serious trouble here with the Defence Forces. When will the terms of reference be finalised and the independent board set up? As for this repetition of "independent and unbiased", it goes without saying we must have an independent professional board to examine it. The more important questions are when it will be set up and when it will be completed. On the ongoing contact from the contact person, is that formalised in the sense the issues that will feed into the ongoing independent review have been set out? Returning to the question of disclosures, or non-disclosures - something done in a more informal way, how aware have the Minister and his predecessors been of these issues? I have two seconds left. Will the reports to date be published and will the report of this review board be published?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I apologise to the Deputy. The reason "independent and unbiased" is a term used to describe the new review body is we want this to be an external review as opposed to an internal one within the military system or within the Defence Forces, which is what often takes place if there is a problem. The Chief of Staff sets up an internal review within the Defence Forces. That is the way the Defence Forces works with respect to many of the issues it must assess and review. This is different. We want an external group of people to put in place a very robust and in-depth assessment of the Defence Forces and the systems within it to ensure people are protected in their workplace. That is, I believe, what the Women of Honour and many currently working in the Defence Forces want as well. We have tried to listen to them and put in place a review they can trust and believe in.

We will finalise the terms of reference once we have had feedback from all the relevant stakeholders. That will happen in the next few weeks. We certainly hope to have this done this side of Christmas so the review body can be up and running from January. That is the rough timeline we are on.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Most of my questions have been answered at this stage but I welcome the Minister's statement and his attendance at the PDFORRA conference in October. Some of the claims in the radio documentary "Women of Honour" were deeply unsettling. There existed a culture of misogyny, bullying, discrimination and harassment. That culture went on for decades and targeted both women and men. People who want to go into the Defence Forces will be fearful about doing so in future if this culture still exists.

The independent review has to identify categorically what the culture was, what went wrong and resolve it so there is not this culture of behaviour that is unacceptable in any workplace.

11:50 am

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I will conclude by stating that everyone in this House recognises the need for an independent review into the very serious allegations contained in the "Women of Honour" programme. I commend the Minister on the work he has done on that. I do not need an answer to the point I will make and that I ask the Minister to reflect on, which is that that process does not necessarily mean we should shelve the work of the fourth independent monitoring group. The Minister said the previous independent monitoring groups did very good work. The second did good work and the third, which reported in 2014, concluded that "the challenge remain[ed], to continue to improve human resource management and institutional culture including dealing with human issues of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination". I ask the Minister to consider that this makes a very strong case for the continuation and conclusion of a fourth independent monitoring group to continue the good work it has done in the past, rather than setting it aside on the basis of his highly commendable proposal to establish an independent review group into the allegations made in the radio programme.

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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The last time we spoke about "Women of Honour" in the Chamber, I asked the Minister if he had sought legal advice regarding those who had already made settlement agreements with the Defence Forces and signed non-disclosure agreements, or where non-disclosure agreements were part of the settlement made. At that time, he answered that he had not. I again ask if he has got legal advice regarding those non-disclosure agreements that were part of settlements made with the Defence Forces where the person who made a settlement seeks to be involved in any review process? I do not believe this review or any subsequent actions should be closed to any person who wants to be involved in it because of a non-disclosure agreement. I am in no way saying that people should be forced to participate, but the non-disclosure agreement should not be a barrier where there is a wish, want and desire to participate in the review.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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It is very important the review group will have access to all testimonies of people's experiences in the Defence Forces, in the past and currently, as part of its work. If there are non-disclosure legal agreements, we have to figure out how to do that in a way that will allow people to tell their stories but, at the same time, be legally sound. I do not have legal advice to hand regarding that issue, but perhaps I can come back to the Deputy with it.

On the IMG process, I would not say we should or should not put a new IMG process in place in the future. There are two very substantial pieces of work-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am afraid the Minister's time is up.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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-----one from the commission in addition to the review we are now putting in place. We can act on both of those. If that means an IMG-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We need to go Question No. 82, which has been grouped with Nos. 93, 102, 110 and 126.