Tuesday 16 January 2018

No reforms but 'benchmarking ATM' still delivering

Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor

THE benchmarking 'ATM machine' continues to deliver the cash, almost a decade after the controversial report that was supposed to balance public and private sector pay and achieve major reform in the delivery of services in return.

Senator Joe O'Toole told primary teachers' union activists that getting an increase from the benchmarking body was the equivalent of walking up to an ATM machine.

At the time, the INTO leader was rubbishing the attempt of the secondary teachers union, ASTI, to achieve a catch-up pay rise of 30pc outside of benchmarking. But the phrase summed up the view of the public sector of the benchmarking exercise as a means merely to get a wage rise -- not fundamental changes of work practices.

The benchmarking awards were supposed to be made in return for major reforms.

The programme provided wage increases of an average of 9pc in 2002, costing the taxpayer €1.1bn per annum.

It wasn't a once-off payment. It was a permanent increase.

But the individual reform plans were so watery, they showed contempt for the taxpayers' outlay.

The public sector wanted to be paid the same as the private sector, but without the same terms and conditions, while retaining their job security and pension entitlements.

Fine Gael's Richard Bruton drew the opprobrium of the public sector upon himself when he stated the payments should be withheld until the reforms were specified and verified. The Government ignored his claims, but history has proven him right.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan now appears to be admitting the influence of social partnership and major spending programmes like benchmarking was damaging.

The country's leading trade unionist, ICTU general secretary David Begg, was dismissive yesterday about the continued criticism of the benchmarking affair.

"The benchmarking exercise took place, I think, 10 years ago, I think, at this stage. It is really beaten to death at this stage," he said.

"The average pay award in benchmarking was 8.9pc. The Government have taken back on average 15pc from everybody since then -- almost twice the amount awarded under benchmarking."

But the benchmarking payments are still being paid. Every year the Exchequer pays out €1.1bn in return for reforms that were never delivered.

From a model to achieve industrial peace and assist economic growth in the late 1980s, social partnership became a means for vested interests to hold the taxpayer to ransom.

Recalling the 'ATM machine' comment, Mr Bruton lamented the demise of social partnership.

"The Government caved in to demands to get more money," he said.

The cosiness between the union movement and the Government is well documented and was probably best described by Labour's Willie Penrose three years ago.

"Forget about the trips to Farmleigh and cosying up to Bertie. Forget about the trips to Merrion Square and drinking from the best china," he said at a party conference.

The reason social partnership is being written off is not because of a Fine Gael-driven right-wing agenda. The mechanism has ultimately proved incapable of adapting to the new economic reality.

This time last year, a pay deal collapsed because public sector workers expected days off in return for pay restraint and private-sector workers didn't trust the Government when it said this wouldn't happen.

The Croke Park deal was so easily cobbled together it appears to have left out minor details like achieving savings. Running a €19bn deficit this year, the Government can't identify any savings from the deal.

Irish Independent

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