News Shane Coleman

Thursday 28 August 2014

Powerful look after strong while the weak get it in neck

Published 26/08/2013 | 05:00

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Civil servants are getting pay increases of €250m while the State can't fund special needs assistants

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THE economy and the country have changed dramatically since the crash five years ago. That's pretty obvious. But in politics, it seems, it's business as usual.

Of course, the faces in the Cabinet have changed. Fianna Fail no longer governs in perpetuity. Fine Gael is the top dog and likely to stay that way. Labour is now getting the flak that the Greens became accustomed to.

The real power base, though, hasn't shifted.

It's largely the same people still who are calling the shots – and the genuinely vulnerable are being ignored.

It emerged over the weekend that hundreds of school-leavers with profound and severe intellectual disabilities have been told they will not get a day service that meets their assessed needs.

That means that as vulnerable a group as it's possible to imagine won't get vital occupational therapy, speech or language therapy and other services on a daily or weekly basis.

This is because of a cut in the allocation to services in this area from €10m to €4m – six lousy million euro that could make the most unimaginable difference to the lives of young men and women who have already had to overcome so much in life.

In contrast, it was also reported over the weekend that public sector workers have received more than €1.4bn in incremental – or length-of-service – pay increases since the recession began.

It's only fair to acknowledge public sector workers have made sacrifices in that time, including two very painful pay cuts.

But it is still difficult to find a credible explanation as to why an effectively bankrupt country is still giving many of its state workers a pay increase.

The trade unions argue that many of those getting increments are among the lower-paid public servants. There is truth to that (although it's far from the complete picture – more than 1,300 earning €65,000-plus will get increases this year).

But there is no getting away from the fact that these pay increases of €250m a year, given to people with jobs, are being paid by a state that is still borrowing €1bn a month; a state that can't afford to provide day services to those with severe intellectual disabilities; that can't provide places in schools for some children because of the absence of resources for special needs assistants; that can't give medical cards to those suffering from motor neurone disease.

And there is no getting away from the fact that this is happening because the public sector unions still carry enormous political clout. In stark contrast, young people who have intellectual disabilities do not.

It would be wrong to make this solely about public sector workers and increments. That would be far too simplistic. Public sector unions are only one of a number of vested interests that are still pulling the strings.

The lack of outraged outcry about cuts to intellectual disability services is in sharp contrast to the conveyor belt of Fine Gael TDs (and ministers) lining up to rule out suggestions that farmers' assets should be taken into account when determining their children's eligibility for third-level grants.

The farming organisations might not be the power they once were, but neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fail would ever risk their wrath – however legitimate the proposed reform might be.

The same goes for the grey vote. It's impossible to even suggest that the same level of cuts be applied to the old-age pension as has already been introduced to the rest of social welfare payments. The reason for that is almost nothing to do with reasons of equity and fairness and almost everything to do with electoral factors.

It's also why the Government will once again bottle it on calls for a means-testing of child benefit or the re-introduction of third-level fees in the upcoming budget – middle-class voters just wouldn't wear it.

There might have been an expectation that with the economic and budgetary collapse and the arrival of the troika, the influence of the vested interests would be seriously diluted. It hasn't happened.

The cake is certainly smaller, but the most powerful groups have largely maintained their slice. It's the genuinely marginalised – the voiceless, the powerless – that have been squeezed out.

AND it's only going to get worse. Reports yesterday suggest the Government is facing major shortfalls in savings to be delivered under the Haddington Road agreement across the health sector. Given that the Coalition will not want to re-visit the pay deal, this will mean even greater cuts in services to compensate. And we all know by now who won't be picking up the tab.

The current Fine Gael-Labour programme for government opens with the bold claim that "a democratic revolution" took place on general election day, February 25, 2011.

Revolution? Different folks, but not so different strokes.

Shane Coleman is political editor of Newstalk 106-108FM.

Irish Independent

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