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Saturday 23 September 2017

Howlin’s U-turn puts nurses and gardai in firing line

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

NURSES, gardai, soldiers and council officials will be among the first public sector workers to lose allowances after a major government U-turn.

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has bowed to intense pressure from Fine Gael backbenchers by cutting 88 public sector allowances for serving staff.

It represents a significant U-turn on his decision last month to abolish just one of the 1,100 public sector allowances. At the same time, the savings gained will be minimal as many of the allowances involved apply to a minority of public servants.

Fine Gael TDs had experienced a major public backlash over Mr Howlin's apparent reluctance to cut public service wages.

The allowances that will now be abolished by the end of February include:

* Gaeltacht allowance paid to nurses in Irish-speaking areas, worth €3,500 per year.

* Locomotive allowance for senior gardai who use their private cars for work.

* Acting-up allowance for senior council officials.

* Entertainment allowance for Defence Forces officers who are posted abroad.

* Medical training allowance for consultants, worth €3,000 per year.

The overall cost of the 1,100 allowances in the public sector is €1.5bn per year.

Mr Howlin's department has not released the full list of 88 allowances facing abolition, or how much the move would save.

But he is now putting pressure on every government department to abolish allowances, which they had said were worth keeping in previous business cases.

The gardai had argued that the locomotion allowance for senior members was "cost-effective and value for money". The Defence Forces had defended the entertainment allowance on the grounds that its officers were representing the State abroad and were "required to entertain in accordance".

Fine Gael TDs Anthony Lawlor and Eoghan Murphy, who were highly critical of the failure to make savings from allowances, have welcomed the new move by Mr Howlin.

But they cautioned that they will need to see the full detail to assess the significance of it.

Fine Gael Kerry South TD Brendan Griffin said he hoped that it was not just "window dressing". He added: "We need substantive savings."

But while Fine Gael backbenchers may have been placated, Mr Howlin's plan sets him on a collision course with public-sector unions.

They have argued that allowances are part of staff's core pay and are protected by the Croke Park Agreement.

However, it will guarantee Mr Howlin a less hostile reception at the Dail's Public Accounts committee, which is going to question him about public-sector allowances today.

Yet some of the allowances will save the State very little money when they are abolished.

The entertainment allowance was only paid to seven Army officers last year, who served overseas -- and cost a total of €2,415. The €2,000-per year island inducement allowance is paid to just 10 public-health nurses.

The 88 allowances to be abolished are based on the list of those that were already withdrawn for new entrants.

That means that existing allowances, such as the principal's allowance paid to teachers in charge of schools, will not be touched.

Savings

Mr Howlin told the Dail yesterday that he was planning to "buy out" some of the allowances which were "not justified" under the Croke Park deal and hold on to those which were part of core pay.

The agreement allows for staff to be given an lump sum worth one-and-a-half times the annual allowance they are going to lose.

But Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Howlin had made a "dog's ear" of cutting allowances.

"He backed away from his own estimate of €75m, but worse, he deliberately targeted new entrants, just as he did in respect of the new pension regime for the public sector," she said.

Mr Howlin defended the withdrawal of allowances for new entrants by saying that new teachers could benefit from cheaper house prices.

"A teacher starting today will buy a house at a figure 60pc lower than the cost five or six years ago," he said.

And Mr Howlin said that if he had eliminated some of the most high-profile allowances, it would have taken "€4,000 out of the pocket of every garda and thousands of euro from teachers and firefighters".

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny is going to seek further cuts in the €14bn public-sector pay bill today to avoid hitting frontline services.

He is meeting with the leaders of key public-sector unions in Government Buildings today in an attempt to "squeeze" more savings out of the Croke Park deal.

According to a Government source, the issue of pay is going to be on the table "with a view to maintaining frontline services". He cannot make any cuts to the basic pay of public sector workers under the Croke Park deal.

But savings from overtime reductions, work practice changes, allowances and redeployment of staff are expected to be discussed.

Irish Independent

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