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Sunday 18 March 2018

Howlin failing on promise to reform public sector

Leave, hours and pay all still need to be tackled

Anne-Marie Walsh Industry Correspondent

BRENDAN Howlin's promise to standardise annual leave, working hours and pay across the public sector has hit a brick wall.

The Public Sector Reform Minister complained about the slow pace of change when he took up his portfolio in March, but there is little evidence of progress in the past six months.

Deadlines to streamline work practices in the Croke Park deal were missed last spring, and the plans are in limbo as the minister has failed to come up with public-sector wide proposals.

The IMF and EU bailout team will be back within weeks to assess whether millions of euro in savings are being delivered. Public servants face the threat of another pay cut if reforms are not made.

But in response to a series of questions from the Irish Independent about the lack of progress on streamlining work practices, a Department of Finance spokesman could only say: "It will happen when it will happen."


And Mr Howlin did not respond to questions about who he has met, what proposals are being discussed, and when the plans will be implemented.

The lack of change means some public servants still enjoy working days of less than seven hours, and get more than 30 days' annual leave, while there is different pay for some workers doing the same job.

Management sources vented their frustration after major reforms -- which they put forward in 'action plans' under the Croke Park deals -- were referred to Mr Howlin's department to little effect.

A range of problems include management and union resistance, missed deadlines, and red tape within the complicated industrial relations system.

"Timelines are slipping and the jury's out on Brendan Howlin to see whether he will make the big changes that are needed," said a management source.

"Either he's going to make all the hard decisions in September or October when he finishes his public expenditure review, or he'll do nothing, as he has up to now."

The Irish Independent has previously highlighted how there are big disparities in public service work practices. There is no standardisation when it comes to annual leave, or the length of the working week.

The Croke Park deal and the bailout agreement commit to standardising state employees' terms and conditions to "drive productivity".

Uniform work practices are crucial for the Government to be able to relocate public servants around the state sector without constant disputes about their conditions.

This will be particularly important if Mr Howlin's expenditure review means numerous quangos are axed, as expected.

But the Department of Finance was unable to indicate when these big ticket reforms would be introduced. A spokesman said: "It will be done when it is done. We are not putting a definitive time on when it is done. It will happen when it will happen."

He said talks were under way on bringing in uniform annual leave and working week systems. "There is ongoing informal contact on the issue and this covers all staff. The minister is fully briefed and is closely monitoring the issue."

Unions have opposed some of the reforms, which have then been referred to a range of industrial relations bodies -- including arbitration boards, the Croke Park Implementation Board, and Mr Howlin's department. Other rows have ended up in the Labour Court, but some sources complained that the court often just recommends more talks.

The minister's spokesman said the department had written to the Public Services Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions "suggesting a public sector wide approach to the issue".

However, some senior union sources told the Irish Independent they were not aware of the letter or any upcoming meetings.

Employer group IBEC said progress on standardisation had more far-reaching implications.

"These issues will be very important to the IMF because we are seen as having a high-cost public sector."

A saving of €309m must be made this year, as part of a total €1.2bn reduction in payroll costs by 2014.

Irish Independent

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