43. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the reason the personnel strength of the Defence Forces was lower at the end of February 2018 than at the end of February 2017; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 20384/18 asked on 10 May 2018)

Minister of State at the Department of Defence (Deputy Paul Kehoe): I am advised by the Military Authorities that the strength of the Permanent Defence Force, as at:

- 28 February 2018 was 9,057 (Whole Time Equivalent) personnel.

- 28 February 2017 was 9,070 (Whole Time Equivalent) personnel.

The overall difference in strength in February 2017 and February 2018 is a reduction of 13 personnel. Variations in strength figures are not an unusual occurrence and, particularly in the short term, are influenced by factors relating to timings of recruit intake and how this coincides with normal retirement patterns.

Given the unique and demanding nature of military life, there is understandably a relatively high level of turnover among Defence Forces personnel. This is not new and the Permanent Defence Force has always had a level of turnover that far exceeds other areas of the public service.

An analysis of data going back a number of years shows the overall numbers departing the Permanent Defence Force in recent years are broadly consistent with the long term trend, with some exceptions. It should be noted that within these figures, on average approximately 22% of General Service recruits do not complete their induction training.

The White Paper on Defence recognises that continuous recruitment is the lifeblood of the Defence Forces; providing young, motivated and enthusiastic personnel to replenish military formations for operational deployments. To achieve this there is significant on-going targeted recruitment to ensure that the Permanent Defence Force can deliver all operational outputs required by government both at home and overseas. The recruitment plan proposed by the Defence Forces envisages 800 new entrants being inducted across all services and competition streams in 2018.

I also continue to be aware of factors that can influence the retention of existing member of the Defence Forces and I remain dedicated to ensuring that the terms and conditions of service, while remaining appropriate to the needs of the organisation, are as favourable as they can be.

The pay of the Defence Forces is increasing in accordance with public sector pay agreements. The pay of a newly qualified 3 star Private has increased by 25% in the last twelve months and at €27,257 is very favourable when compared to entry rates across the public service. The starting rates for newly qualified Officers is €35,000 and for new graduate Officers is in excess of €40,000. These amounts are inclusive of Military Service Allowance. This compares favourably to the average starting pay for graduates across other sectors of employment.

As I have previously outlined, there are shortages of certain specialists in the Defence Forces. These include pilots, engineers and certain technicians. As the Deputy will be aware, under my direction, the Department brought the issue of recruitment and retention of specialists to the attention of the Public Service Pay Commission. My Department has forwarded an initial tranche of information to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Further data and information in relation to the Defence sector will be forwarded to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the coming weeks as the collation of data and information is completed.

With the support of the Chief of Staff and within the resources available, the Government is committed to retaining the capacity of the Defence Forces to operate effectively across all roles and to undertake the tasks laid down by Government both at home and overseas.