3. 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 20688/18 asked on 10 May 2018)

Deputy Jack Chambers: What are the reasons the personnel strength of the Defence Forces was lower at the end of February 2018 than at the end of February 2017? Will the Minister of State make a statement on the matter? As he knows, the Defence Forces face a full-blown retention crisis. Despite attempts to enhance recruitment we are haemorrhaging massive numbers. Why does the Minister of State believe that despite the recruitment campaign he is trying to promote, almost the same number of people are in the Defence Forces this year as were there last year? What is he doing to address the serious systemic retention issue we have?

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 and on 28 February 2017, it was 9,070 whole-time equivalent personnel. The overall difference in strength between 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 over 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 ongoing targeted recruitment to ensure the Permanent Defence Force can deliver all operational outputs required by the Government both at home and overseas. The recruitment plan proposed by the Defence Forces envisages almost 800 new entrants being inducted across all services and competition streams in 2018.

I continue to be aware of factors that can influence the retention of existing members 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 three star private has increased by 25% in the past 12 months and at €27,257 is very favourable when compared with 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 with the average starting pay for graduates across other sectors of employment.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

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 regarding 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.

Deputy Jack Chambers: I am surprised the Minister of State mentioned there are normal retirement patterns and that they match that long-term trend. There was a massive recruitment campaign last year of 860 personnel, but there are fewer personnel this year than there were last year. Clearly this does not match any long-term trend. Look at the figures. A total of 30% of members of the organisation have left the Defence Forces in the past five years. If this is a long-term trend it does not match the recruitment we have seen in recent years. Clearly we have a retention crisis. We have fewer people applying for recruitment compared with previous years, despite there still being demand. People are leaving en masse. They are cut to the bone and their allowances have not been restored. As far as they are concerned, they are the last in the queue when it comes to priority in public pay and they are fed up. Their morale is at an all-time low.

To hear a departmental line that this is just a normal pattern and matches the long-term trend means officials are not listening to the Chief of Staff, who has said there are serious difficulties with retention and pay in his submission as part of the public pay process, which has been reflected on in recent times. There needs to be a discussion between the Chief of Staff and officials in the Department in order that the Minister of State does not give information to this Parliament on long-term trends when one third of the organisation has left the Defence Forces in the past five years. It does not add up.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: The Deputy tabled a parliamentary question earlier this week on retirements from 2002 to 2017. In 2002, 732 personnel departed the Defence Forces and in 2017, 707 did so. If one goes through the intervening years the numbers included 579, 543, 649 and, in 2013, 445. At the height of the recession fewer people left the Defence Forces. Going back over the years when we had the so-called boom, equally as many members left the Defence Forces. The Deputy got this information in the reply to a parliamentary question this week.

I do not agree with the Deputy there is a full-blown retention crisis. Absolutely we have a retention issue and I recognise this. I spelled it out last week at the committee. The submission made to the pay commission was a joint submission, including from the Department. Defence military management or the Chief of Staff did not submit any papers to the pay commission. Any papers going to the pay commission are joint papers from the Department and military management.

Deputy Jack Chambers: At the committee meeting last week, the Minister of State said he has written to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform regarding what he says is a retention issue. Writing to somebody with whom he sits at Cabinet is not an adequate political response to what is an issue, as the Minister of State has admitted himself. There needs to be an escalation with regard to the serious pay and conditions problem that exists in the Defence Forces. The Minister of State is missing his own threshold and target in the White Paper, which he outlined. He did not match it this year and he will not match it next year.

Despite increased recruitment, we still have haemorrhaging in our Defence Forces and morale is at an all-time low. We are losing corporate knowledge and experience because people are trying to leave because of the lack of hope about pay and conditions. It is not sufficient simply to write to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. There needs to be a greater pathway of hope for the restoration of pay and allowances and a proper policy on retention, rather than giving answers to this Parliament quoting various patterns and trends. It is clear to everyone who has any knowledge of the Defence Forces that they have a problem with retention and recruitment and people trying to leave en masse. It is important that the Minister of State has policies to address this problem and that his officials take it seriously.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: It was the Deputy, in his original supplementary question, who raised patterns and trends. I was only replying to him on patterns and trends. He took what he wanted out of the figures.

11 o’clock

We have an issue. I will not call it a full-blown crisis. The Deputy is in opposition and I understand that he has to raise it but I do not agree with him. I am not sure if he read the recent headline in the national newspapers, which stated that ten hopefuls are applying for every post advertised in the Defence Forces. We have recruited the largest cadet classes ever over the past two years and there will be another large intake this year. I was delighted to attend the training college in the Curragh last week to welcome the recruits who were commissioned from the ranks. This is the first time in ten years that there will be people in training who were commissioned from the ranks.

I have written to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I am sure if the Deputy checks the record for the years during which his party was in power, he will find that Ministers wrote to fellow Ministers regarding various issues. I wanted to put on the record that we have an issue in this regard, which I want addressed, and I am happy that the Minister acknowledged my correspondence by recognising the comments of the Public Service Pay Commission on shortages.