Friday 22 February 2019

Minister wants state jobs and quangos cut

OUTSPOKEN: Minister John McGuinness outside Kilkenny Castle yesterday
OUTSPOKEN: Minister John McGuinness outside Kilkenny Castle yesterday
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Trade and Commerce Minister John McGuinness has called for a vast programme of redundancies to be implemented immediately right across the civil service and the state sector.

In the most outspoken attack on the public sector by any politician to date, Mr McGuinness said that jobs need to be cut right across the civil service and government departments.

The minister even admitted that the overstaffing extends to his own department and said he has raised the question of staffing levels there as part of the discussion of impending cutbacks by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan.

The minister elaborated on a lengthy speech he delivered on Friday in which he presented a devastating critique of the Irish public service, especially in time of recession.

He described the public service as "now so protected by its unions that it has largely become a reactionary, inert mass at the centre of our economy."

He said: "There can be no equality in a country where a significant number of those who spend public money enjoy wages and conditions far more favourable than those who create the wealth of this country, protected by unions

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whose own self-interest is best served by keeping their members in golden cages, refusing to pull aside the blanket of protectionism."

He said that the public service culture "destroys ambition, resists change and is now so insulated from reality that information can be withheld from a minister, unfavourable reports are doctored and answers to parliamentary questions that come too close to the bone are masterclasses in dissemination and obfuscation which can deny our TDs the information they need to get to the heart of a matter.

"This culture protects the sacred inner sanctum where status quo is venerated."

He claimed that many professional positions in the public service are not filled by professionally qualified people because promotion is all too often based on longevity rather than ability or qualification.

"As a consequence there are far too many well-paid but unhappy square pegs in round holes throughout the public service."

He said most state institutions are not subject to many of the controls and regulations which are "hung around the necks" of private individuals and commercial enterprises.

He called for a central office linked to the Comptroller and Auditor General, to oversee all procurement and purchasing.

"I am particularly concerned that the public service continues to employ more and more people who are almost impossible to let go and who will, in due course, be getting inflation-proof salaries and pensions.

"In today's world this is madness if it was ever sensible."

He said the Government should tell the unions that pay and conditions for new employees will be substantially different, "thereby drawing a line under an arrangement that I consider an abuse of the taxes paid by the owners and workers in the private sector".

There is now a two-tier Ireland which is destructive and "steals individuality, encourages arrogance, drains enthusiasm and denies the people, politicians and wealth creators, the benefit of a modern, high powered creative arm of the State that is vital to our continued success," he said.

The minister also proposed closing, consolidating and downsizing quangos as necessary; appointing professionals to reduced boards of those that are kept and demanding results and accountability.

He said: "I am tired of committees with big names and small achievements."

He claimed that over the last number of years far too much power had been handed to virtually unaccountable bodies of one sort or another.

"Elites have grown up, some of which believe themselves to be beyond political influence ... and maybe even above political control."

This is not the first time Mr McGuinness has lashed out at public sector overstaffing and inefficiency, but this was his most strident attack on it to date.

The fact that he is a serving minister in a key department, that of Trade and Commerce, makes his comments all the more extraordinary.

Mr McGuinness told the Sunday Independent that not only are there many people in the civil service who have no function, there are in fact huge numbers of people in all sectors of the public service who don't even know what their job is supposed to be.

"There are people within the civil service who are not even sure of their function," he said "You could identify that right across the civil service."

He believes that the recently mooted figure of 8,000, a number said to be floated by a group of anonymous civil servants, is probably an accurate assessment of the number of jobs that need to be cut in the public sector.

The minister also called for the nature of employment in the civil service to change.

"You cannot continue to employ people on a permanent and pensionable basis when the whole world has been turned on its head elsewhere,'' he said.

He believes that the kind of mixture of employment types that exists in the private sector, including hiring people on a contract basis, needs to be introduced in the public sector.

The minister believes his views are not extraordinary.

"I don't know what's extraordinary about this,'' he said.

"They wanted benchmarking and they got that and more yet their responsibilities and work ethic hasn't changed at all.

"But if you want to be like the private sector that's the challenge -- welcome aboard. And I don't see anything wrong with that."

The minister said he hasn't had a real debate about this with his colleagues, though he admits that to attack the public sector so openly is a risky thing to do.

"There is a huge risk in it,'' he said, "but the risk is not as bad as it seems. Decent people in the civil service want this to happen."

He admitted that no government has yet had the appetite to deal with mass redundancies within the public sector because of a fear of coming into conflict with the unions.

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