independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Howlin tells semi-states to cough up extra €93m

PUBLIC Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin is demanding an extra €93m in cash from the ESB and other semi-state companies this year.

The money is needed to avoid further painful cuts in the social welfare and health budgets. It will help fund the budgets of the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Health, where cutbacks have been reduced by €150m each.

But it means that ESB, Bord Gais and Bord na Mona will all be under pressure to implement cost-cutting measures in their organisations, cut back on projects or increase borrowing.

Last year, semi-state companies paid €111m in dividends to the State but Mr Howlin has told them to raise this to €204m this year.

Although specific figures have yet to be worked out, the biggest demand will be on large cash-generating semi-states such as ESB and Bord Gais. In recent years, the State has not been paid a dividend by loss-making semi-states such as CIE or from the VHI.

The ESB is already aiming to reduce wage costs among its 6,000 staff, who received average salaries of around €70,000, by €115m this year. Its planned voluntary redundancy programme for 700 staff last year fell 100 short of its target. But the company has refused to say if the demand for bigger dividends would lead to further staff cuts and wage reductions.

There is a general rule that semi-states should return 30pc of their profits to the State in dividends. But the Government may increase this percentage.

Last year, the ESB reported that it had generated profits of €469m and paid a dividend of €68.8m to the State.

But it has a debt of €4.3bn and needs to maintain a good credit rating to borrow cheaply on the money markets.

The company has paid dividends of more than €1bn to the State over the past decade.

Labour Dublin South East TD Kevin Humphreys, who obtained details of the dividend payments, backed Mr Howlin's move.

But he warned that the ESB and Bord Gais should get more "efficiencies" from their organisations rather than apply for price hikes.

Implications

"We have to look for a better return to the taxpayer without increasing the cost for the consumer," he said.

Mr Humphreys also said that funds could be obtained from the now state-owned Irish Life company, which made profits of €84m in the first six months of last year alone.

The ESB has refused to comment on the implications for its workforce.

Bord Gais said it would not be making any comment on its dividend payments.

Irish Independent

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