Seanad debates

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Adjournment Matters

Defence Forces Retirement Scheme

8:30 pm

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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The next matter has been raised by Senator Thomas Byrne. I welcome the Government Chief Whip, Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe. Senator Byrne has four minutes.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus go raibh maith agat as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a léiriú sa Seanad anocht. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the 1994 Defence Forces contract, which is like a train coming down the tracks at many members of our Defence Forces.

Approximately 124 members of the Defence Forces were recruited in 1994 and will be summarily dismissed in April next year because of a contract from 1994 which sets a maximum service limit of 21 years for private and corporal personnel. I believe the upper service limit should be greatly increased, and the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, has also advocated for this, subject to the necessary medical and fitness tests. The future employment prospects of many of these people, who have done the State great service, would be quite poor. There would also be a significant additional cost to the State next year in terms of the modest gratuities and pensions that would have to be paid out, as well as the probable costs of hiring new members of the Defence Forces.

I have met members of the families of the Defence Forces members affected by this contract and they are very distressed. They do not see any rational reason for this, and they would be grateful if the Government should consider opening up this issue and changing it because it is an unfair and indeed disastrous situation for them to be in. It does neither them nor the State any good. I appeal to the Minister of State to say that this will be changed by next April, or that there are significant moves afoot to enable it to change at this time. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Minister of State and Government Chief Whip, Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue. The Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, sends his apologies for his absence this evening, and would like to advise the Senator that he will be taking questions on this issue tomorrow morning in the Dáil.

I will commence by outlining the background to the present upper service limits applicable to personnel who enlisted in the Permanent Defence Forces, PDF, post-1 January 1994. Due to the robust nature of many military operations and their attendant physical training regimes, personnel are exposed to a unique range of challenging environments. In these circumstances, it is vital that the age and health profile of personnel be such as to ensure that operational capability and effectiveness are not compromised. In 1990, the Gleeson Commission commented on the unsatisfactory age and fitness profile of the PDF. Thereafter, an in-depth study of the Defence Forces by Price Waterhouse Consultants in 1994, commissioned by the Efficiency Audit Group, EAG, expressed severe criticism of the age profile of the Defence Forces.

The EAG's report was accepted by the then Government in 1995. It reflected the serious concerns which the military authorities had held for a number of years in relation to the age profile of the Defence Forces. The present terms of enlistment for general service recruits arose from the criticism in the EAG Report. One of the key areas identified for urgent action by the EAG was the development of a manpower policy with an emphasis on lowering the age profile of PDF personnel. In an effort to alleviate the situation, the Government had already decided in 1993 to enlist personnel on a five-year contract basis, following consultation with PDFORRA.

In 1997 an agreement was reached with PDFORRA on a new manpower policy for the Defence Forces. This policy, applying to personnel enlisted after 1 January 1994, provided that service for private soldiers would initially be for five years with the option of being extended to a maximum of 12 years, subject to meeting standards of mental and physical fitness and conduct. Longer periods of service were envisaged for non-commissioned officers.

In 2004, PDFORRA submitted a claim under the conciliation and arbitration scheme for a further review of the terms of service applying to personnel enlisting in the PDF after 1 January 1994. A set of criteria was agreed with PDFORRA to provide longer careers for those who enlisted post-1 January 1994 while continuing to address the Government's objective of having an appropriate age profile to meet the challenges of a modern Defence Force. The criteria require that any person re-engaging after 12 years' service must be able to continue to operate at their current level both at home and overseas on an ongoing basis. Re-engagement is subject to the individual soldier meeting specified criteria in regard to physical fitness, medical category, successful completion of military courses of instruction, service overseas and conduct ratings. The maximum service period for these personnel is as follows: enlisted personnel, up to and including the rank of corporal (and equivalent Naval Service rank), may not serve beyond 21 years service; enlisted personnel, in the rank of sergeant (and equivalent Naval Service rank), may be permitted to continue in service up to the age of fifty years; and enlisted personnel in all higher ranks may serve to the age of 56.

As military life places unique physical and psychological demands on individuals it is necessary that members of the PDF be physically and mentally prepared to meet the challenges of all military operations and be in a position to undertake their duties on deployment overseas. In these circumstances it is vital that the age and health profile of personnel be such as to ensure that operational capability and effectiveness are not compromised. As such, in order to maintain the age profile of the Defence Forces to carry out the operational tasks required by Government, it necessary to have a constant input of recruits into the Defence Forces. The maximum age for personnel who have enlisted in the PDF post-1 January 1994 provides the mechanism through which a satisfactory age profile can be achieved.

With the approach of 2015 the first effects of the agreement, whereby privates and corporals may not serve beyond 21 years, will be felt by PDF members in those ranks. A claim has been received from PDFORRA for a further review in regard to this matter. In accordance with normal industrial relations procedures, the claim by PDFORRA is being dealt with under the conciliation and arbitration scheme for members of the PDF. I understand that discussions have been taking place with PDFORRA under a special subcommittee of conciliation council. As discussions are confidential to the parties involved in accordance with the terms of the scheme, I do not in any way want to prejudice them or impact upon their outcome.

However, in dealing with this issue the manpower and operational needs of the Defence Forces must be the primary consideration. The need for continuing recruitment to the Defence Forces of young, fit men and women, so that the Defence Forces can discharge all the roles assigned to them by Government, both at home and overseas, is an issue of which I need to be cognisant. It was for this reason that this policy was introduced in the first place.

I understand the concerns this matter raises for enlisted personnel due to be discharged, and their families. I am sure that all matters raised during the discussions taking place with PDFORRA are being comprehensively examined as part of the discussions at conciliation council. I would not like to pre-empt or second guess the outcome of current discussions at conciliation council and it would be totally inappropriate for me to comment publicly on the matter at this time.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Does the Minister have any idea as to when the conciliation process will conclude?

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Minister of State and Government Chief Whip, Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Wexford, Fine Gael)
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The process is currently under way and I expect that it will take approximately eight weeks. We may not have a final decision at this stage but I hope that in eight weeks' time we will have some form of decision, as I know that this is a matter of concern both for the officers concerned and their families, as we are rapidly approaching early 2015, when they are due to be discharged. I hope that the Department, the military authorities and PDFORRA can work together in the conciliation process.

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for attending the House, and I thank Senator Byrne for raising the matter.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 18 September 2014.