Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Defence Forces

10:40 am

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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2. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence having regard to the recommendations of the Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces and his public statements on the Defence Force budget, does he believe that there needs to be a greater spend on improving the pay and conditions for Defence Forces personnel, capital projects and for the purchase of military equipment and for military research; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23923/22]

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The Minister has quite clearly nailed his colours to the mast in favour of the second level of ambition as a minimum, which would involve a significant increase in the expenditure on defence. Am I correct in stating that entire increase in spending will be capital, such as on new military equipment and so on? Will pay be covered by another Department or will it be covered as part of the increase in defence spending? What kind of breakdown does the Minister envisage between pay and the other elements?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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That is a fair question. I will come to the specifics of the issue after I have outlined my prepared contribution for the record. The Commission on the Defence Forces was established on foot of a commitment in the programme for Government. As Minister for Defence, I welcomed the publication of the report of the commission on 9 February. There is an ongoing requirement to consider whether the capabilities we maintain are appropriate, having regard to the security environment, the roles we wish the Defence Forces to undertake and the likely risks that come with that. This is the work the Commission on the Defence Forces was requested to undertake. The commission undertook a significant body of work, encompassing wide-ranging terms of reference. It recommends significant changes for the Defence Forces and defence provision and covers high-level Defence Forces structures, defence capabilities, organisation, culture and human resources, the Reserve Defence Force and overall funding.

Given the significant recommendations contained in the report, their detailed consideration is required. This involves significant interdepartmental consultation, and my officials and I are engaging with key stakeholders to ascertain their views. Following this engagement, I intend to return to the Government with a proposed response to the commission’s recommendations and a high-level action plan to implement them.

The Government remains fully committed to addressing pay and conditions in the Defence Forces. As the Deputy will be aware, the current public service pay agreement, Building Momentum - A New Public Service Agreement 2021–2022, provides for increases in pay and allowances to all public servants, including members of the Defence Forces. A general round increase in annualised basic salary of 1% or €500, whichever was the greater, came into effect on 1 October last. The current pay agreement also provides for further increases in 2022, namely the equivalent of a 1% increase in annualised basic salaries to be used as a sectoral bargaining fund, in accordance with chapter 2 of the agreement, on 1 February 2022; and a general round increase in annualised basic salaries for all public servants of 1% or €500, whichever is the greater, on 1 October 2022.

In addition to general round pay increases arising out of ongoing national pay agreements, members of the Permanent Defence Force have also benefited from the implementation of increases in Defence Forces allowances recommended by the Public Service Pay Commission in 2019. I will come back to the Deputy on his specific question in a second.

10:50 am

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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Let us say that defence spending is increased by €1 billion. Is the Minister going to take the pay increases out of that €1 billion or will they be covered by another Department? Will the Minister give us a breakdown of where he sees the increases going? How much will there be for capital spending, for military equipment and for pay, if his Department is to cover the pay element? I am hearing a lot about 3,000 extra personnel and new military equipment but I am not hearing a lot about the issue of pay. That is the number one issue and must be addressed before anything else. If 3,000 new personnel were recruited in the morning, how many of them would still be in the Defence Forces in a year's time given the numbers leaving because of pay and conditions? Relatively recently, 85% of Defence Forces were earning below the average industrial wage. What measures does the Minister intend to take on that front? Will he give me clarity on my question?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I have spoken to the commission in some detail about this and, for what it is worth, while pay and conditions are a factor, they are by a long shot not the only factor with regard to people leaving the Defence Forces. Let us be clear on that. Let us also be clear that Deputy Barry and others want to ensure that the Defence Forces are part of the ICTU negotiations on public sector pay agreements that are to get under way in the coming weeks. The Deputy cannot have it both ways. He cannot say he wants to see significant increases in pay for the Defence Forces while at the same time wanting them to be part of broader public sector pay agreements and so on. It is important to say that. Pay is a very significant part of the defence budget and will continue to be so. Many of those increases in defence spending we talk about are associated with pay. That is why the estimated cost to achieve level of ambition 1 in the commission's report, which involves staying where we are but reaching the full establishment of 9,500 personnel, involves increased expenditure associated with pay. Pay is a big part of our broad defence budget. Pay comes from the defence budget rather than the budget of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. Of course, decisions on pay involve other Departments but it comes under the defence budget.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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I thank the Minister for that clarification. The representative associations have been locked out of the public sector pay talks.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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They have not been locked out.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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They have been locked out in that they have not been allowed a full voice at the talks. Pay talks are about to get under way. Are the representative associations going to be not only present at the talks, but given a full voice and full say at them? On the issue of the democratic rights of Defence Forces personnel, in other jurisdictions, including Sweden, defence forces personnel have the right to strike. It is a democratic right and its absence is a key factor as to why we have had so many problems with pay and conditions. I am talking about those workers in uniform having the right to have their grievances aired but also acted upon. I would like the Minister to state his position on that. I know what it is but I would like to hear him tell the Dáil why he opposes that democratic right for Defence Forces personnel.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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With all due respect, none of the representative bodies representing Defence Forces personnel are looking for the right to strike. What they have asked me to consider and what they have taken legal action on is the right to allow ICTU to negotiate on their behalf through their having associate membership of ICTU, which is a very different thing. We are looking at the legalities. I hope we will be in a position early next week to write to all of the interested parties to let them know the decision we have made on those issues. However, PDFORRA is not advocating for the right to strike. By the way, I do not believe the Swedish defence forces have the full right to strike either. Perhaps they do but that is certainly not my understanding. Should Defence Forces personnel have the right to air grievances and concerns? Absolutely. We have to make sure that people serving in the Defence Forces have protections and that there are complaints procedures in place. We have clearly seen that there is a need for reform and cultural change in this area. I meet the representative bodies all the time to ensure they can air grievances with me, which we try to resolve where possible. However, that is a very different thing from having the full right to strike, which is not going to happen and which no one is looking for.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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That completes priority questions and is also the end of flexibility on time. We are now back to strict time limits.