Thursday, 12 May 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
The Commission on the Defence Forces recommends an increase in the establishment figure of our Defence Forces by 2,000, which, given the fact that we are more than 1,100 members below those established figures, would mean in real terms an increase of more than 3,000 members. How will the Minister ensure that these targets are met? Can he lay out a timeline for achieving that?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 3 together.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Permanent Defence Force is currently under strength by just over 1,000 personnel. The report of the Commission on the Defence Forces made it clear that the level of ambition for the Defence Forces must be elevated beyond that at which it is operating at the moment. The report outlines three levels of ambition. Level of ambition 1 is essentially proceeding as we are at present and trying to move back to a full establishment figure of 9,500. The commission concluded that this would leave the Defence Forces unable to mount a credible defence of the State. Level of ambition 2 would address specific priority gaps to improve on-island and overseas capabilities. Level of ambition 3 would bring Ireland in line with other small neutral European countries in terms of spend. I am on the record as saying that level of ambition 2 is the minimum for which we should aim. This level of ambition will require an additional 2,000 personnel beyond the establishment figure of 9,500 and an increase in the defence budget of some 50%. The Defence Forces are responsible for recruitment and I have requested them to examine their recruitment practices and structures to facilitate this increase in numbers.
This commission report also includes,inter alia, consideration of issues relating to culture, recruitment and retention, working hours, work-life balance, training, promotion, diversity and a host of other matters, all of which will have an impact on job satisfaction and morale. Following relevant consultation, I will revert to the Government with a proposed response to the commission's recommendations and a high-level action plan, which will set out proposed timelines and oversight arrangements for its implementation.
In the interim, my focus remains on restoring all branches of the Defence Forces to the current agreed strength. In that context, a number of initiatives are presently being implemented to counter ongoing staffing challenges. There is ongoing general service and direct-entry recruitment and some 110 personnel have been inducted to date in 2022. Retention measures include service commitment schemes in the Air Corps and Naval Service, and the seagoing naval personnel tax credit. Pay has improved as a result of increases arising from the Public Service Pay Commission report and from recent pay agreements. Agreement has also been reached on the extension of service limits for privates and corporals, with discussions ongoing relating to sergeants.
With regard to recruitment and retention, as the Deputy knows, because we discuss it every time we have questions in this Chamber, there are challenges to which we are trying to respond. I have visited virtually every barracks around the country to speak to serving personnel about their issues and concerns and what drives them in terms of staying in the Defence Forces to maintain a career there. The process we are going through at the moment seeks to put a credible action plan in place with the necessary budget, policy changes and restructuring within the Defence Forces, with the support of the Department of Defence, to be able to plan for a future in which we will have significantly more personnel in the Defence Forces, with increased resourcing to deal with the capacity challenges that the commission report has exposed. That is a huge piece of work. A civil military team from the Defence Forces and Department of Defence is working on that now and talking to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I will be briefing the party leaders in a couple of weeks in relation to our ambition in that regard.
I hope this significant piece of work will result in the Government, as a collective, making a decision to significantly increase investment in the Defence Forces to respond to the evidence base, which is very clear in the commission report, but also to the international context in which we are living at the moment in respect of the war in Ukraine.
I thank the Minister. Along with the difficulties regarding recruitment, there is a dysfunctional cycle of turnover in the Defence Forces. I think that is having an effect on the operational effectiveness of the Defence Forces. The latest figures, of which I know the Minister is well aware, indicate that we are below strength to the tune of 1,134 members in the Defence Forces across the three areas of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service. Then we have all the cultural issues that need to be resolved. A process needs to be put in place to ensure the Women of Honour group, and women generally within the Defence Forces, feel they have a role and feel comfortable within the Defence Forces.
We have a programme and a plan in the commission report that was laid before the Government. For the last two years, I have been pushing the Minister on the issue of Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, affiliation. Key to addressing all the issues and challenges of pay and recruitment and retention issues is the right to affiliate with ICTU. The Minister's Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, sat down with representative bodies regarding the upcoming pay sector talks. The one voice that was not at the table yesterday was that of the representative bodies from the Defence Forces. Can the Minister outline clearly when he will allow representative bodies to affiliate with ICTU?
I wish the Minister a good morning. I very much welcome the realisation that an additional 3,000 personnel are needed to staff our armed forces. I certainly agree with it. There needs to be more of an emphasis on retention as well as recruitment. On "The Late Late Show" last Friday, retired sergeant, Mr. Ray Goggins, was asked straight up by Ryan Tubridy whether he would have stayed in the Defence Forces if the pay was better and he said that yes, of course he would. That is the key solution here.
There were four key recommendations by the Commission on the Defence Forces, which really need to be implemented as soon as possible. The first is that the military service allowance be increased for personnel with less than three years' service. The second is that additional long-service increments be brought in for people. The third is that a new pay grade of lance corporal be established, which would assist 840 personnel. The fourth and perhaps most important recommendation is that offshore allowances for the Naval Service be increased. Could the Minister kindly indicate if those four measures will form the basis of the memo he is going to bring to the Cabinet in a few weeks’ time?
There were a number of questions. First, with regard to strength, as colleagues will know, in the Army, the establishment is 7,520 and the current strength is 6,778. In the Air Corps, the establishment is 886 and the current strength is 733.
In the Naval Service, the establishment is 1,094 and the strength stands at 855.
We have a challenge here. While it is about recruitment, it is also about capacity in terms of training and about retention, on which the commission carried out quite a lot of work. In some parts of our Defence Forces, there is not, in fact, a significant retention issue relative to that in other defence forces and other sectors of the economy in the context of turnover rates. Nevertheless, in other areas of the Defence Forces there is a high turnover rate and we need to respond to that with targeted policy and funding initiatives, which I hope we will be able to do.
I cannot yet confirm what I will bring to the Government. Of course, anything to do with pay and allowances involves a discussion with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister at that Department, Deputy Michael McGrath. Those discussions are under way, as might be expected given we are planning to bring a memorandum to the Government next month.
On the ICTU issue, this is not as straightforward as some people make out, according to our legal advice. We have received legal advice from the Attorney General on what we can and cannot do and how to do it. As I have said to many serving personnel I have met in the past week, we are very close to making a final decision on this issue. I hope to be able to do that before the middle of next week.
I welcome the fact there has been some movement on this. Along with the representative bodies, I have been calling for and demanding this because it is a key aspect of addressing the haemorrhaging of members from the Defence Forces and ensuring it will be an attractive career for members of the community to want to join. I contend that the Minister has deliberately excluded those representative bodies up to this point, which has led to the current circumstances we face.
I welcome the fact there has been some movement on it and I hope the correct decision will be taken, but there is another issue on which we need movement, namely, the working time directive. That, too, has been a key issue in making the Defence Forces an attractive career which people will want to remain in but also to join. The Minister might update us on what will be done to address the issue relating to the working time directive. Has the Attorney General given any advice in that regard? It is a key element in addressing the haemorrhaging of members.
The Minister quite rightly urged the Commission on the Defence Forces to be ambitious in its recommendations, and I urge him now to be ambitious in the implementation. There is virtually unanimous cross-party support for this. I have not heard a single dissenting voice in the Chamber on the issues of improving pay for our troops, increasing the number of personnel and improving the infrastructure and premises throughout the Defence Forces. I urge the Minister to capitalise on that common ground and that consensus. This is a golden opportunity to finally fix defence and to restore the pride of a once-proud Óglaigh na hÉireann.
On pay, I am being asked to ensure the representative bodies within the Defence Forces can have associate membership with ICTU, that is, to ensure that pay within the Defence Forces will be consistent with public sector pay policy. At the same time, I am being asked by the very same people to increase pay in the Defence Forces as though it was not a public sector pay policy issue at all. Let us have some consistency and honesty here. My view is that we need to address pay and conditions and allowances issues. We need to try to use allowances, in particular, strategically within the Defence Forces to maximise take-home pay, incentivise recruitment and retention and reward the extraordinary service in uniform to which people choose to commit by joining the Defence Forces. Nevertheless, we also have to be honest in the context of the broader considerations regarding public sector pay negotiations and to recognise I do not make decisions on pay. I can make recommendations, but it will be the Government generally, on the advice of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, that will make decisions on public sector pay policy, and we are about to head into a discussion and negotiation process regarding public sector pay.
I appreciate that. Briefly, on the working time directive, which is an important issue we have discussed at length as we have moved through the barracks, we are making really good progress. The Government is fully committed to ensuring the working time directive will apply to the Defence Forces, but there will have to be exemptions in certain areas to facilitate military service and the role of the Defence Forces in the context of the work they do, such as on peacekeeping missions overseas or on patrol of the coastline. We have to ensure the Defence Forces can operate as a military efficiently, can make decisions and so on, but we also have to ensure that, where possible, the working time directive will apply to how hours are set and so on for serving personnel. I think we are very close to reaching a final agreement on that. There has been much back and forth in civil and military consultation on the issue, as there has been on the ICTU issue, on which I have heard very strong and varied perspectives from different elements within the Defence Forces.
I am using the question time directive now. We are over time.
On the grouping of priority questions, it is a relatively new phenomenon that they have been grouped, following a decision taken by the Department. Until recently, each priority question was taken separately. The Department might wish to re-examine that in the context of the time allocated for responding to multiple members in one grouping.