Tuesday, 28 June 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
76. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the work-life balance measures that are being considered by his Department to make the Defence Forces a more family-friendly environment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33633/22]
That is a very good question. I am advised by the military authorities that there is an ongoing programme of HR development within the Defence Forces, part of which is aimed at ensuring that, where at all possible, there is an appropriate work-life balance for its members. The Defence Forces have piloted new work-life balance initiatives, including reviewing how career courses are conducted to make them more accessible to those with family commitments and facilitating job sharing for overseas deployments. In this regard, prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, a number of family-friendly overseas appointments for commissioned and enlisted personnel were introduced whereby the normal six-month tour of duty could be shared with another member of the Defence Forces, resulting in a three-month deployment. There is scope, I understand, to re-introduce these arrangements once all remaining restrictions pertaining to overseas deployments are lifted.
The Defence Forces have also placed a renewed focus on members whose spouse or partner is also in the organisation, with a view to ascertaining how they can be assisted when their spouse or partner is deployed away from home. This includes 24-hour duties while partners or spouses are deployed overseas, or for two years for a mother after the birth of a child. A range of harmony measures have also been implemented, including hot-desking for certain enlisted and commissioned personnel who have been posted away from their home address, and remote working is considered for a limited number of personnel depending on the circumstances.
The Defence Forces are also able to facilitate the periodic working from home of some personnel. However, given the fundamental and specific nature of military service, there is limited capacity in this regard, as many Defence Forces appointments are not suitable to this practice. Working from home is utilised for specific appointments for which it is suited and having regard to the requirement to develop and maintain an appropriate level of military capability.
In line with the introduction of the Blended Working Policy Framework for Civil Service Organisations earlier this year and the commitments made in the programme for Government relating to remote working across the public sector, I confirm that the defence organisation is examining these policies and commitments in the context of the unique nature of military service.
There is a lot going on but a lot more is coming in this space. On the back of recommendations from the commission, we are about to introduce a new position of head of transformation, which will be a senior appointment within the Defence Forces, that will report directly to the Chief of Staff. This position will be filled by a civilian who will focus on the management of people and quality of life issues, work-life balance, flexibility and so on.
I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. I have no doubt he could provide much more detail and perhaps he will in due course by way of a supplementary response.
Deputy Carroll MacNeill has asked me to focus on one or two areas, to which the Minister has alluded. First, remote working is not realistically going to be practical considering the nature of the work members of the Defence Forces undertake, particularly military as opposed to civilian staff. Will there be a focus on the nature of domestic postings? We appreciate the need for foreign postings, but there is a need to ensure that domestic postings are realistic to the housing and familial commitments of all members of the Defence Forces.
Second, regarding accommodation, what efforts have been looked at in terms of on-base housing? In the Curragh Camp, a number of former officers' residences are boarded up at present. There has been debate about the barracks in Rathmines and talk about selling it off for housing without realising that it is housing for many members of the Defence Forces. How can we maximise use of those facilities?
Honestly, we are looking at all of these matters. One of the possibilities for the next few years, on the back of the commission report, is that we will see a radical restructuring of the Defence Forces, in particular the Army. We will see a new Army headquarters, a new defence headquarters, a new structure headed up by a chief of defence for the first time in Ireland. Senior decision makers in the Defence Forces will be civilians, such as head of transformation and head of HR management. The commission has set very ambitious targets for us in terms of encouraging more women into the Defence Forces. It is not just about women; it is also about young men coming into the Defence Forces. In order to do this, we have to respond to the new realities which are that people expect more flexibility, they expect a work-life balance to be a part of their work. The real challenge is how we marry that with military service, which is of course a different form of public service to anything else.
I agree with the Minister that there are extremely exciting times ahead for our Defence Forces. The report of the Commission on the Defence Forces provides so many avenues, not just in terms of operational capacity but in terms of structural reform. The Minister mentioned the position of head of transformation, and we need to learn from the lessons that have sadly worried us in terms of the treatment of certain members of our Defence Forces over the years and the importance of having a people-focused, soldier-focused, sailor-focused, pilot-focused approach is so important to our military. It comes back once again to the need to ensure that when members of the Defence Forces are stationed domestically, when they are in-country, they should have as balanced a life as possible.
That is when we look at the retention of troops and other people to ensure that their commutes to their places of work will be accessible and that we do not have people driving up from Cork to Rathmines and having to sleep in their cars.
As for accommodation, if there are people sleeping in their cars, I would like to hear the details of that. I have heard people say that before and I always ask for the details but I have not got them yet. It may have happened. I do not know. If it is happening, it should not be and we should be addressing it. We are investing a lot of badly needed money in accommodation in various barracks. Some of the accommodation is not good enough; some of the new accommodation is really good. It is about upgrading all our barracks, including accommodation and gym facilities. We opened two new fantastic gym facilities in Kilkenny and Limerick recently and we have more of that to come. We are investing in improving accommodation in the Curragh and multiple other barracks. We are about to start a big project in Galway that is badly needed. That rolling capital investment programme is important.
As for maternity leave, Deputy Stanton will know because of his proximity to the Naval Service that this has been a big issue for the Naval Service and an insistence on going to sea. If Deputy Stanton has not already seen them, I think he will see changes in policy in this area very shortly.