Today I thanked the Minister for Defence Paul Keogh for debating the issue of the Defence Forces with me. His speech included a great deal of information about investment in the Defence Forces, new aircraft, new ships and new everything. There was no information on serving members who do not have enough to live on. Can the Minister of State be proud of a Permanent Defence Force whose members are depending on welfare payments to make ends meet? Families are struggling to survive. I have received communications from privates, corporals and sergeants who simply cannot feed their families. When a bill comes through the letter box they must make a decision on whether they will pay the bill or buy food. That is simply not good enough especially when we are told, and perhaps the Minister of State will confirm this, that the Department returned €27 million of unused money last year.
On the issue of commuting, the Minister said the re-organisation was to meet the organisational needs of the Defence Forces. The climate survey has established that following the reorganisation, 27% of those serving in Defence Forces now want to leave because the cost of commuting is making it next to impossible for some families to live. We are hearing stories of soldiers sleeping in their cars. Will the Minister of State confirm that soldiers are travelling from Donegal, Dundalk and Athlone to carry out regular barrack duties in Dublin? If that is the case, the Minister of State will have to admit that the reorganisation of the Defence Forces has been a disaster.
Under the post-1994 contract, the introduction of which was an absolute insult, soldiers were expected to pull out after five years unless they could show they were fit enough to stay on for 12 years. Thanks to PDFORRA, that has been extended to 21 years. I ask the Minister of State to explain the exit strategy that is available to those who have to leave the Defence Forces. A young man who joins the Defence Forces at the age of 18 will be thrown on the scrapheap at the age of 39. Is an exit strategy in place to ensure these young men and women can have future careers when they leave the Defence Forces?
The Minister of State said he fought for the appointment of an assistant secretary in the Department of Defence at an annual salary of between €128,000 and €149,000. When I submitted a freedom of information request on the matter, I learned that 75 emails were exchanged between the Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I have been told that it is not in the public interest for the contents of those emails to be released. Clearly, this proposal did not receive an easy passage. Why is an assistant secretary for people needed, given that the Department of Defence has a personnel department and the Defence Forces have their own human resources section?
The use of Lariam has been referred to as a horror story in a pill. Why is this drug still on the shelves of the Defence Forces? Why are we still administering it? Has legal advice been received suggesting that it must continue to be used so that cases currently coming before the High Court can be defended? We need to start treating our soldiers with respect. The use of dangerous drugs is not the way to do that.
I would like to speak about local command and control. A lieutenant colonel who is in charge of a barracks has no control over the movements of his troops. If a guard of honour is requested at Eyre Square in Galway, the officer in charge of Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa cannot decide whether it should be provided - the matter has to go back to Dublin. What sort of nonsense is that?
When we talk about the shortages in the Air Corps, great play is made of the fact that pilots are coming on stream. Pilots on single-engine aircraft take up to five years to qualify. It can be between five and ten years before they have the experience to fly twin-engine aircraft. We will have no one to fly all the CASA airplanes we are buying. Similarly, I was contacted the other day by a qualified air traffic controller who wants to join the Defence Forces, but no one in the Department will indicate to him whether direct entry is to be allowed.
The use of the employee control framework, which was developed under the Croke Park and Lansdowne Road agreements, is nonsensical in the case of a dynamic organisation like the Defence Forces. It is not an ordinary organisation to which such a framework might be appropriate. There are very special medical, fitness and expertise capabilities that apply to the Defence Forces. My colleague who spoke about these issues on behalf of RACO is dead right. Eleven bomb disposal officers are available in this country even though the establishment figure is 35. I assure those who might think bomb disposal officers are not required that they are called out very regularly. The young men and women who are serving in these positions at present are taken from their homes to spend up to 21 days on duty.
This brings me to the issue of duty pay. A soldier gets a miserable €20 into his pocket for spending 24 hours on duty. Where else in the world would that be found? We give soldiers €20 for 16 hours of overtime. It does not matter whether it is Sunday, Saturday, Christmas Day or a bank holiday. Soldiers do such duties because they are ultimately loyal. They do their best all the time, even in the horrendous circumstances they have to face.
I want to focus on the number of officers that are available. The 28th Infantry Battalion in Donegal has no lieutenant colonel, two commandants, three captains and two lieutenants. The 27th Infantry Battalion in Dundalk has three of the 11 lieutenants it should have, one of the eight captains it should have and four of the five commandants it should have. The 7th Infantry Battalion in Cathal Brugha Barracks has one lieutenant colonel, four of the five commandants it should have, three of the eight captains it should have and one of the 11 lieutenants it should have. We are being told that the organisation is fit and ready for action. It is fit and ready for action because men and women get out of their beds to deliver when they are called on to do so, but it is not getting the resources it needs from the Department or the Government.
The Organisation of Working Time Act is coming down the line towards the Minister of State very quickly. I would love to know his plans to facilitate soldiers under that Act. A number of adjudications are outstanding, including in respect of Army ranger wing tech pay. What are the Minister of State's plans for bringing these payments forward?
The Minister of State spoke about ships. I wonder whether the public is aware that ships leave Haulbowline and anchor 20 or 25 miles off the coast because they do not have crews, that a ship had to sail into Galway to pick up an extra officer, or that ships which used to have three cooks now have just two cooks. Recently, a ship left port with just one cook to look after the entire crew. We should not pretend that the Defence Forces are fit for purpose. We should stop and rewind.
The recruits who are being brought into the Defence Forces today will take a year to be trained. That is in the other ranks. Cadets are also being brought in, but I recently heard their recruitment described as great training for Aldi. Do we really want our uniformed personnel to aspire to a job in Aldi?
The Defence Forces have been neglected by this Government and its predecessor. I ask the Minister of State to stop investing in hardware and start investing in people. He should meet some of the private soldiers - young men with families - who cannot afford to eat. I know he met members of the wives and partners group recently. I hope he took on board some of the information he was given by real people with real problems.
I will leave the points I have made with the Minister of State. We need to restore the Defence Forces as an organisation to the level of esteem it once held in our society. Right now, it is a second-level group in the public service.