Thursday 17 January 2019

A bloated and pampered public sector is bleeding the nation dry

Public sector workers, with their 'privilege days' are throwbacks to a bygone era, writes Eamon Delaney

Anyone who with any great hopes of an improvement in our public sector under the much vaunted Croke Park Agreement would have been sorely disappointed by an extraordinary exchange during the week between Tom Geraghty of the Public Service Executive Union and Sean O'Rourke on RTE Radio's News at One.

The exchange was about the union's resistance to giving up their days of privilege, those special days off for civil servants, in addition to annual leave, which actually date back to the days of the Empire. One was for the King's Birthday and another is for Empire Day. Who needs a sovereign independent republic when you can cling to the outmoded trappings of the old regime?

The Department of Finance had fought and failed to have the days abolished, or at least amalgamated with the existing annual leave. But the civil servants resisted and their resistance goes to the heart of why the public sector will simply not be reformed under the fearful 'slowly, slowly' approach of the previous, and present, Government.

On the radio, Sean O'Rourke expressed the amazement of the rest of us as Geraghty doggedly defended the right of the civil servants to retain these archaic work practices, and just about any other of the perks and privileges of his sector. But actually he wasn't that dogged. In fact, Geraghty argues with the complacency and pedantry of someone who knows that he and his members can't be touched, and who will always find a way around these attempts at changes.

There are people listening, said O'Rourke (and I paraphrase here), people with small businesses, who are unable to pay themselves, and who are clinging on by their fingernails, and they must think you are living on a different planet. But this didn't cut much ice with Geraghty who is, indeed, living on a different planet, thank you very much. He pointed out that his members had already taken two pay cuts. But this includes contributing to their own pensions, Tom, a future cushion that the rest of us can only dream of.

The reality is we have yet to see a single civil servant directly lose their job, because of the collapse in the public finances and despite the vast cost of the public sector, which the rest of us have to pay for. And nor will there be, it seems, despite the promises of the Government.

O'Rourke asked about productivity. How can it not be affected by so many people not turning up for work?

"Oh, I'm sure it has some marginal impact," said Tom. Marginal impact. What does this say about the productivity of the civil service, that taking two days off is "marginal"? But perhaps Tom Geraghty is right. Perhaps the work rate is so slow, or at least hard to precisely measure, that another two days off hardly matters. Thank you, Tom, for your honesty.

No doubt Sean was surprised. Two days off in RTE would mean something. Two days off in any other job would mean quite a difference in output. And by the by, said Geraghty during the interview, more credit should be given to the Croke Park Agreement which has been "an enormous success". And, from Tom's point of view, he's absolutely right. This deal is working like a dream for them. This, the deal that trade unionist David Begg described as "revolutionary". So revolutionary that a year after it was agreed, nothing has been done!

Most depressing has been the Government's weak response to all this. In rejecting the department's attempt to abolish the privilege days, the Civil Service Arbitration Board said it would have been easier to understand if it had been presented as the first step in a more general reform to apply right across the civil and wider public service.

So why didn't the Government do this? After all, staff in the health service and in local authorities have similar privilege days. They represent the quaint rituals of Irish life, such as staff with Kildare County Council getting two days' leave to go to the Punchestown horse-racing festival. Or council staff in Leitrim getting a half-day's leave to attend a local regatta on the Shannon. In Waterford, Galway, Kerry, council staff have similar indulgences, and have attended the Galway and Tralee races.

The Arbitration Board felt that the Government should have addressed the issue on a public service-wide basis, rather than dealing with it in a piecemeal fashion -- in order to "create a climate conducive to addressing the very challenging transformation agenda ahead". But this is unlikely to happen, because the Government just doesn't have the bottle for it. And the reason why is revealed by the board's other terribly understanding rationale: the changes to privilege days would have created "a sense of grievance disproportionate to any gains which might accrue".

And here is the real crux. That to make such a change would piss off civil servants, and we can't have that. They will resort to industrial action, or a work to rule, and that's not on. Remember the strike at the passport office, and this was just over a contribution to their own pensions.

And let's be honest. If the Government can't get any traction on this, privilege days, what hope is there of making changes in other larger areas? The abolition of the days would have saved €46m per year, but we need savings of much more than that.

Naturally, Brendan Howlin, the new Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, described the ruling as "disappointing" and said it was "particularly disappointing the unions could not have engaged in a more positive manner". Welcome to the real world, Brendan. He promised that the Government would now pursue the issue across the public service so as to "ensure that the savings achieved are at a broader level". But we'll see.

Far from the unions showing any generosity, they are getting even more dug in. No wonder the teachers unions got on board this week, having at first rejected the deal.

Meanwhile, the real economy, which has to pay for all this, has shrunk again. But there is another issue here, a new and truly depressing effect of tolerating this bloated public sector, and that is the incredulous attitude it invokes abroad, when Ireland pleads that it is being hard done by with financial bailouts.

For instance, consider the figures published this week by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) on pay rates in the Irish economy. According to the CSO, average weekly earnings in the Irish public sector are €912.84. This contrasts with average weekly earnings of €624.99 in the private sector, an extraordinary gap.

In Britain the public service is also better paid than the private sector but the margin is not nearly so wide. Average earnings in the British public service were €634 a week on the last available set of figures by contrast to €912 in Ireland. Considering that we are borrowing at 5.8 per cent to pay the Irish public service average salaries that are 40 per cent higher than those paid in Britain, and way above other European countries, is it any surprise that we are not getting a very sympathetic hearing from those lending to us when we go looking for easier terms?

Why should they, the Europeans, have to fund our expensive, and oversized civil service? Thus, not only do we continue to allow a bloated and pampered public sector to bleed us dry financially, it is also a reason why we can't get a more sympathetic hearing abroad, just when we are trying to fight to regain our economic sovereignty. That's some rut to be in. Why, we'd be better off with the so-called 'privileged days' of the empire.

Sunday Independent

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