Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

3:30 pm

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I am thankful for the opportunity to appear before the House this evening to discuss matters of the Defence Forces with Members. I had requested some time to discuss the Public Service Pay Commission report of recruitment and retention in the Permanent Defence Force following its publication last week. I will comment on the main aspects of the report and outline the ongoing efforts to address the current recruitment and retention challenges.

I very much welcome the report from the independent Public Service Pay Commission and it has been accepted by Government. The members of the commission, ably led by Kevin Duffy, have vast experience in the area of human resources and industrial relations. I thank them for the expertise and commitment they brought to this task.

The report contains a number of recommendations, including an increase of 10% in the military service allowance. This will boost the earnings of the majority of Defence Forces personnel by between €602 and €675 per annum. Another recommendation is the full restoration to pre-Haddington Road levels of the security duty allowance and patrol duty allowance. By way of example, a 10% increase in patrol duty allowance equates to around €5 per patrol day. Other recommendations include a doubling of the premium rates for certain weekend duties and the reversal of the 10% cut in the overseas allowance. For a typical six-month deployment overseas this is worth an additional €1,400 tax free for enlisted personnel and between €1,700 and €1,850 tax-free for officers. A recommendation regarding the reintroduction of the retention loyalty bonus for Air Corps pilots is especially welcome in light of the retention problems facing that element of the Defence Forces. This will see significant increases to earnings for eligible flying officers. The estimated cost on a full basis of all these measures is approximately €10 million.

The report also contains a range of recommendations aimed at improving workforce planning, recruitment and conditions of service. There is also a recommendation that further progress be made on the review of technical pay grades 2 to 6, without compromising the stability of the Public Service Stability Agreement. The report has been presented to the Permanent Defence Force representative associations. The recommended increases in allowances will be implemented on confirmation of acceptance of the measures by their members.

A high-level implementation plan drafted with inputs from the Department of Defence, the Defence Forces, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of An Taoiseach has been approved. Work will commence on the actions in this plan immediately. The plan will be implemented in two phases. This first phase focuses on implementing the recommendations in the report of the Public Service Pay Commission. The second phase will examine core pay in the Permanent Defence Force within the context of the Public Service Stability Agreement 2013-2018 and future public sector pay negotiations.

Several outstanding adjudication findings across the public service could not be implemented having regard to the provisions of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Acts. I have had discussions on the matter with my colleague, the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe. With his agreement, it is intended to prioritise the outstanding adjudications in respect of the Defence Forces and pay on a non-retrospective basis from 1 July 2019. Several effects will result from these measures. The Army ranger wing allowance will increase by approximately €50 to €200 per week. Cooks with the relevant qualifications will go from technical pay grade 2 to technical pay grade 3, which is an increase from €26.90 bringing it up to €40.42 per week. Those account holders currently not in receipt of the account holder allowance will each receive the allowance of €65.80 per week. Recruits and apprentices will no longer be charged for rations and accommodation. The current charge €43.63 per week.

As Senators are aware, the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, has initiated legal action regarding these adjudications. My officials will be discussing these matters further with PDFORRA before the payments are implemented. The increase in the allowances comes on top of the increases to core pay being applied to members of the Defence Forces in accordance with national pay agreements. The restoration of payscales and the unwinding of the FEMPI legislation are being done in an affordable and sustainable manner. The focus of these measures is weighted in favour of those on lower pay. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement. This will see restoration of public service payscales to pre-FEMPI levels for all those earning under €70,000 by the end of 2020. The restoration of the 5% reduction to allowances cut under FEMPI is scheduled to be restored as part of that agreement.Voted expenditure for Defence - Vote 35: Army Pensions and Vote 36: Defence - in 2019 provides for gross expenditure of just over €1 billion, an increase of €60 million on 2018 expenditure. The overall 2019 provision for pay in Vote 36 provides for full funding for the pay of a target strength of 9,500 Permanent Defence Force, PDF, personnel, as set out in the White Paper on Defence.

Given the unique and demanding nature of military life, there is understandably a high level of turnover among Defence Forces personnel. The Public Service Pay Commission identified significant retention issues in the PDF. The PDF comprises highly trained, skilled and well motivated individuals who inevitably will be sought after and attracted to civilian employment, especially in a buoyant labour market. The loss of key personnel places additional pressure on, and limits the capacity of, the PDF in undertaking the crucial role that it performs in service to the State. The high level implementation plan includes a commitment to initiate a review of current retention strategies taking into account the individual needs of each service and minority group members. This will build on existing work and be consolidated into the ongoing programme of HR development within the Defence Forces, part of which is aimed at ensuring that there is an appropriate work-life balance, career development opportunities and educational supports. The Government is committed to ensuring that the provisions of the working time directive are applied to the Defence Forces. The Department of Defence civil and military personnel are in discussions with the Permanent Defence Force representative associations regarding the application of the directive in the Defence Forces.

The Permanent Defence Force continues to offer excellent career opportunities for serving personnel and for new entrants. There are ongoing opportunities to undertake career development courses and the Defence Forces have made significant inroads in ensuring that major courses acquire external accreditation. There are significant opportunities for career progression and development within the Defence Forces and there were over 800 promotions in the PDF in 2018. Each promotion brings extra responsibility but also brings a pay rise. Earlier this year, 24 enlisted personnel completed a potential officers course and were commissioned as officers for the first time in over 12 years. Under my direction, further potential officers courses will be undertaken in 2021 and 2024.

The Defence Forces actively encourage and support personnel to undertake further education and training as well as to participate in physical development and sport. Members of the Defence Forces also have opportunities for diverse service, including opportunities to serve overseas. Members of the Defence Forces have full access to Defence Forces medical officers or contracted medical services. In addition, members of the Permanent Defence Force do not pay statutory public hospital charges for attendance at accident and emergency services and in patient admittance. Furthermore, commissioned officers may be referred for outpatient and inpatient treatment through private or semi-private care in civilian hospitals or private consultants' rooms, where it is deemed necessary. The provision of this range of benefits is unique in the public and indeed the private sectors and, due to changes in the Finance Act 2019, these benefits are not subject to benefit-in-kind taxation.

These are just some examples of the attractiveness of a career in the Defence Forces. While we acknowledge that there are retention issues, there are many in the Defence Forces who choose to stay and indeed want to continue to serve and further their career. In this regard, PDFORRA is seeking for the extension of contracts of enlisted personnel. RACO is looking for all officers to be allowed serve until at least age 63. The high level implementation plan provides for consideration of options to tackle barriers to extended participation in the PDF, including the possibility of extending retirement ages for members.

There is ongoing recruitment at both enlisted and officer ranks. In an effort to continually improve the recruitment process, a new recruitment model has been instigated which allows candidates to apply for general service recruitment on a continuous basis throughout the year. This new approach, aimed at both Army and Naval Service general service recruits, will maximise the Defence Forces training capacity, and will facilitate those making career decisions at any time of the year. The 2019 competition for cadetships in the Defence Forces was launched in April of this year and the assessment process for applicants, including interviews, is under way. An aircraft apprentice technician competition was launched earlier this month. There is direct entry provision for those with professional qualifications, which is utilised for the recruitment of medical officers and engineers. A working group has been established to examine the scope for greater use of such direct entry recruitment for certain specialist positions.

In addition to traditional recruitment, a range of alternative recruitment approaches are being developed, aimed at addressing vacancies in specialist areas. A scheme has been introduced which permits former officers with specialist skills to re-enter the Permanent Defence Force and arrangements are in train to provide a similar scheme for former enlisted personnel. The Public Service Pay Commission has recommended that recruitment methods should be further reviewed and I look forward to the inputs of external expertise in this regard.

There are no quick fixes to the current challenges and difficulties facing the Defence Forces, which are also being experienced by other military organisations internationally. The recommendations in the report will be quickly actioned, with increases in allowances implemented following confirmation of acceptance by the Permanent Defence Force representative associations.

Before I conclude, I want to discuss the issue regarding the Naval Service. I and the Government have acknowledged the staffing and personnel issues that currently impact on the Naval Service operations. The Naval Service fleet is managed in such a way as to ensure maximum availability to meet operational requirements. Last Friday, I received a full briefing from military management including senior Naval Service personnel about the ongoing issues in the Naval Service, including the movement of personnel from ships undertaking maintenance periods. This is a prudent step to take and I was told at the briefing that it has been reconfirmed since by the Defence Forces that the LÉ Eithne and the LÉ Orlaare in dock for planned maintenance and repair. This includes a period of dry dock. By placing both ships in an operational reserve capacity, the flag officer has given the Naval Service the ability to move personnel from these vessels to other ships. At no stage did I or the Government ever deny the staffing issues in the Naval Service. These issues are being addressed as a priority. Two vessels, the LÉ Eithne and the LÉ Orla, are docked for planned maintenance. This position was once again confirmed by the Defence Forces last night. A meeting of the joint civil and military team will take place this week to review the issues at hand and plan ahead for the autumn to ensure that we maximise operational outputs. This review will include consideration of a number of operational ships. As we deal with these issues, the safety of serving personnel must be the number one priority. I expect that a full range of options will be considered and it is clear that difficult decisions will have to be made. I am happy to explain the current status of the naval fleet. The LÉ Róisín is going through a mid-life refit, while the LÉ Eithne and the LÉ Orlaare going through planned maintenance and their crews will be deployed pending the return to service of both vessels. This will be kept under constant review. The three ships will be held in operational reserve or in maintenance. The remaining six vessels are fully operational. I reiterate that I and the Government are fully mindful of the staffing and personnel issues that are facing the Naval Service. That is why I have directed my officials and military management and senior naval officers to meet on Friday to fully explore all options to address the challenge in the Naval Service. My focus is on returning the Naval Service to full capacity as soon as possible.

I wish to conclude by thanking the civil and military staff of the Department of Defence who provided the data and material required by the Public Service Pay Commission to assist in its analysis. I also want to thank RACO and PDFORRA for their input in the form of written and oral submissions to the commission. The Secretary General and Chief of Staff also had the opportunity to make oral submissions to the commission. I will continue to work closely with the Secretary General of the Department of Defence and the Chief of Staff to ensure the full implementation of the high level plan and deliver solutions that address the current difficulties facing the Defence Forces.


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