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Carol Hunt: Vulnerable suffer while public servants are coining it

It's been a tough week for His Majesty Juan Carlos of Spain. Not only did he need a hip replacement after a fall on safari in Botswana, but he was forced to apologise to his subjects for swanning around Africa while they grappled with economic crisis.

And if that wasn't bad enough, then the news (in an Irish newspaper last week) that he is paid considerably less than many local authority civil servants in a country with a population over eight times smaller than the one he rules, may have made the poor man wonder why on earth he agreed to come back as his country's monarch in 1975.

He would have been far better off getting a nice job as county manager of Donegal for instance (population 160,927), where he would have earned €142,469 as opposed to his, rather measly in comparison, royal salary of €92,000.

Donegal isn't a particularly special case though (although it does have the worst record for irresponsible planning, according to An Taisce), as local government in Ireland is bursting with civil servants on salaries that would make many a European prince weep with envy -- for example, the top 10 employees in Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown and Fingal earn in total: €1,263,803, €1,104,000 and €1,081,714 respectively.

All of these extraordinary salaries are protected under the Croke Park agreement and any type of reform in local government is proving very slow to implement, although Phil Hogan says it is being "addressed, particularly through the implementation of the local government efficiency review recommendations". There's only two words to say to that: Can. Kicking.

This week also saw the appointment of Dr Ambrose McLoughlin as the new secretary general of the HSE. We don't envy him in his position. The outgoing secretary general, Michael Scanlon, will be sufficiently rewarded for his wonderful stewardship of this efficient and cost-effective entity, however, as he retires on the maximum 40-year pension level (despite only serving 38 years and the top-up being contrary to government policy) with a "well done you!" package worth about €540,000.

Meanwhile, those parasitical bloodsuckers in our society -- lone parents of young children -- did their utmost to protect their entitlement to the one-parent family payment (a whopping €188 per adult and €29.80 per child) after their child reaches the ripe old age of seven.

Despite this extravagant gift from the Exchequer, lone parents and their children strangely continue to experience the highest rates of consistent poverty in Ireland -- but that's their choice, isn't it, as was argued by a prominent economist this week. Some women (it is sadly still mainly women) make a "lifestyle choice" to become a single parent, he said. "Others obviously do not. For example, if a spouse dies or if a spouse leaves the relationship."

"Choice" was rather an ironic word to use for single mums this week, as the Dail voted yet again not to legislate for the X case. If a pregnant girl is dumped by the father and lives in a country where abortion is illegal, she doesn't have much in the way of "choice", bar having her child adopted does she? We're very diligent about protecting the rights of the unborn child, it's just when it actually makes it out of the womb that we're not so bothered.

Still, Miss 'I-made-a-career-choice-to-be-an-impoverished-single-mum' feathered her bed, and in a country that borrows €50m a day to plug the gap between what we raise in taxes and what we spend, hard choices have to be made. As Joan Burton said earlier this week: "Against that background, there is no easy escape from tough budgetary measures. To pretend otherwise is dishonest."

Ms Burton is dead right. Strangely enough, Ms Burton, a socialist, is supported in this analysis by our most successful right-wing businessman, Michael O'Leary, who said (to George Hook on Newstalk) that Ireland's main problem was that it "was borrowing €15bn a year just to survive". His remedy would be more work for less pay, however.

But working harder for less is not going to go down well with all those high-earning local authority civil servants I cited earlier, is it? Or with all the teachers who vowed, at their annual conference, that they would suffer no more pay cuts or reductions in their privileges. And so far their pay and conditions have been well-protected by the Croke Park agreement. Seemingly the country can afford their current salaries, pension, allowances and perks.

This is despite the fact that the most recent report by the Irish League of Credit Unions (What's Left) showed that 47 per cent of Irish adults have less than €100 to spend at the end of the month and almost two out of three people say that they are worse off than a year ago. Last week a survey by the Department of Health revealed that more than one in five children were going to school or bed hungry because of a lack of food at home. Meanwhile, if nearly a third of homeowners say categorically that they cannot afford the household tax, one wonders how on earth they are expected to pay water charges.

Yes, indeed, tough budgetary measures must be made.

It was George Orwell who said: "The lowering of wages and raising of working hours are felt to be anti-socialist measures and therefore must be dismissed in advance whatever the economic situation may be." He believed this to be grossly hypocritical of the left.

By refusing to acknowledge that the Croke Park deal will have to be renegotiated, (there is not a chance we'll be back in the markets next year, we'll need another bailout and we can be damn sure that public-sector wage reform will be a condition of the loan) Labour -- and the unions -- are doing a grave disservice, not just to their own members, but to the most vulnerable people in our society who do not have powerful trades unions to protect them -- consequently they make easier targets at budget time.

Joan Burton has shown considerable aptitude and political nous in her role as Minister for Social Protection and as a politician in general. She isn't afraid to make hard decisions. Though what we are to make of her assertion this week that unless a credible and bankable commitment from the Government on the delivery of (adequate childcare) by the time of this year's Budget, the changes to the one-parent payment will not be made, is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that protecting the most well-off section of the workforce at the expense of the most vulnerable cannot continue: rewarding ineptitude has to stop. Supporting a culture of entitlement which pays so many of its elitist "workers" more than the King of Spain has to be recognised for the injustice that it is.

To quote Ms Burton: "To pretend otherwise would be dishonest."

Sunday Independent