Government must act on Defence Forces Terms & Conditions

30 November 2017

Today at Leader’s Questions in the Dáil, Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin raised the terms and conditions of personnel in our Defence Forces and the need for the Government to act.

The full transcript of the exchange is available below:

Deputy Brendan Howlin said:

“In addition to his other duties the Taoiseach has retained for himself the role of Minister for Defence. It is not clear to me that he takes any real responsibility for the area of Defence. It is not acceptable for a Cabinet Minister to simply delegate the entire responsibility for a Government Department to a Minister of State. The Taoiseach does not answer parliamentary questions on the matter. I do not know if he attends monthly management meetings of the leadership team of the Department of Defence or if he regularly attends meetings with the Secretary General or other senior officials of the Department.

“He seems to be sidestepping personal responsibility for his Department. Very serious issues are arising. The wives and partners of Defence Forces personnel are outside the gates of Leinster House this morning to continue to highlight some of these issues, in particular the clear fact that many members are leaving because they cannot live on current earnings. The Tánaiste will tell the House that the matter is now being examined by a public sector pay commission, but the Government was happy to act unilaterally in respect of the new Garda Commissioner and the highly paid academics we need to attract. I believe genuinely that the Government would find consensus in the House for a bespoke pay review for our Defence Forces, which is warranted and urgently required. I cannot understand why the Government is willing to recognise the Garda associations in pay negotiations but will not do the same for the representative associations of Defence Forces’ personnel.

“Reports this week have made it clear that an Air Corps whistleblower faces discharge from the Defence Forces. That a serving member of the Defence Forces can face disciplinary action for chronic inactivity, as it was stated, following a work-related industrial dispute is disconcerting, in particular when it is reported that he has told the Minister of State that he was targeted for raising safety concerns. Mr. Christopher O’Toole has been appointed to examine protected disclosures relating to the working environment at Casement Aerodrome. It is reported that the terms of reference he was given were impractical. This is all the more concerning now that we know the State Claims Agency carried out a number of health and safety management audits on the Defence Forces and that the Defence Forces can only offer speculative explanations as to why prior inspection reports from Casement Aerodrome have gone missing. That is unsatisfactory, especially in light of the fact that copies of these documents are in circulation among politicians and the media. Efforts to establish whether these documents were deliberately destroyed have amounted to asking the Defence Forces to investigate itself.

“What action will the Government take to ensure that every member of the Defence Forces earns at least a living wage? Will the Government commit to recognising Defence Forces’ associations in pay negotiations? Is the Government satisfied that the Defence Forces’ members who met with the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, to discuss these concerns are receiving the full protection warranted under the Protected Disclosures Act? Has the Government considered the establishment of a commission of investigation to establish whether the health and safety management regime in Casement Aerodrome meets the standards of the day and whether the allegations have any credibility?

The Tánaiste Simon Coveney: The Deputy has asked a lot of questions. If I do not get to all of them on the floor of the House, I will respond having spoken to the Minister of State with responsibility for defence. I am personally familiar with some of the cases referred to and with previous whistleblowers in relation to issues at Casement Aerodrome. I commit to coming back to the Deputy in detail on those issues.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: I appreciate that.

The Tánaiste: The Government may have to make decisions on future actions there and we await recommendations from the Minister of State in relation to that. It is something in which I have taken a personal interest and have some knowledge of but I cannot go into the detail of it on the floor of the Dáil.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: It needs to happen on the floor of the Dáil.

Deputy Alan Kelly: Look at what happened in the last week.

The Tánaiste: There will be answers to these questions. On the wives and partners of Defence Forces’ personnel who are making a point today, I note that successful negotiations with the Permanent Defence Forces’ representative associations have led to significant pay increases under the Lansdowne Road agreement for Defence Forces’ personnel. The public service stability agreement for 2018 to 2020 provides for a series of further pay increases over the next three years. Given the ministerial offices Deputy Howlin has held, he will know the difficulty of separating one sector from all others for special treatment in public sector pay, but that is what he is asking us to do. There are other issues in relation to what the Department of Defence can do on other supports that are available to Defence Forces’ personnel. There have been reviews in that regard. There are many sectors in the Irish economy and society that can make a very valid case for improved pay and working conditions. I understand that, of course, the Defence Forces will make that case for themselves through the representative organisations and, in this case, private family members. Of course, the Government will listen. However, we have to operate within a certain pay structure across the public sector. If we start to dismantle it for individual sectors, Deputy Howlin knows the kind of chaos it would cause.
As a former Minister for Defence, I record the Government’s strong appreciation for the role the Defence Forces play. I have visited many peacekeeping missions around the world and have had the privilege to spend time with families who have lost loved ones in the service of this country in the Defence Forces. They are valued. We are building personnel numbers in the Defence Forces and the recruitment campaign is a success. We are adding substantially more people to the Defence Forces than we are losing and we will continue to see that trend develop into 2018.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: I appreciate the Tánaiste’s reply and understand that he cannot give me a comprehensive response on the Casement Aerodrome issues. I look forward to either a direct briefing or a written response in due course. I have a full knowledge of pay issues in terms of dealing with the public service as a whole, but there is a compelling case to be made now for separating out the Defence Forces for a bespoke review. I say that in the full knowledge of how difficult it is. The shockingly low pay across the sector is having an impact on retention in key skills areas. When those sorts of difficulties arose in the health sector, we managed to formulate a way to deal with it. For example, we had a formula for skilled nurses. We need to recognise what is going on here. The fact that these people are not allowed to manifest their voices publicly does not mean they should be ignored. As such, I ask whether consideration will be given to a unique pay review within the Defence Forces and outside the public sector pay commission.

The Tánaiste: The Minister of State with responsibility for defence tells me that this is happening in the context of special skill sets within the Defence Forces. It is important to note, having regard to the broader arrangements in place, that combined increases in recent months for new recruits have ranged from 8% to 24% depending on their point on the pay scales. We are now seeing an economy which can afford to pay the public sector more. The bodies which represent members of the Defence Forces have bought into and want to be part of negotiations and their members are now starting to benefit. That is not to suggest there is no frustration in the Defence Forces. However, right across the public sector, including within the Defence Forces, deals negotiated with representative bodies mean we will see continuous improvements in pay into the future, which is positive.
On the Air Corps, the Minister of State has only recently received observations and replies from the three individuals who made protected disclosures on the independent review report which he commissioned and forwarded to them. Having received a response on the report from the three individuals, the Minister will have to make recommendations to Government and we will make decisions as to whether further action is required.

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