Friday 22 November 2019

John Downing: Time for Howlin to face the music and cut public allowances

John Downing

John Downing

TALES of shoe maintenance allowances, acting-up allowances and Gaeltacht allowances are manna from heaven for a whole range of bigots to vent their spleen.

They are a great chance to indulge specific prejudices like jealousy towards teachers, a hatred of gardai, a dislike of the Army, or antagonism towards the Irish language. It is true these allowances offer great comedy opportunities which appear too good to miss -- but unfortunately they are also very liable to fuel an incipient public-private sector feud which this country can do without right now.

It has been a very good week economically with a huge boost for morale as much as for the economy. One way and another, between Tuesday and today there will have been solid announcements on jobs which suggest up to 2,000 people will find decently-paid work in the coming two to three years.

This is not the time to go seeking to revive old rows or plunging back into negativity. But as we take on board good news we can also find time to take a more hard-headed look at the other problems we need to tackle.

Public Service Reform Minister Brendan Howlin had been one of the stars of Enda Kenny's Cabinet class of March 2011. As a Labour realist he talked a reasonable and credible story on the need to forge a more targeted and modern public service.

Then just over three weeks ago he found himself in the dunces' corner along with bungling Health Minister James Reilly. Mr Howlin had talked in terms of tackling public service allowances, many with strange and wondrous names, which cost a lot of money when all totted up.

There was talk of saving taxpayers €75m in 2012 and anything up to €150m in a full year. And that was supposed to be just the start of many reforms on the path to a leaner and meaner public service.

On September 18 last, Mr Howlin had to publicly admit that things were "much more complicated than I first envisaged". He had to tell us that he had bagged just €3.5m worth of cuts in public service pay allowances.

Many observers felt Mr Howlin was just trying to save face when he went on to say he had 88 more allowances in his sights. Fine Gael backbenchers did a war dance, some Labour politicians twisted uncomfortably in their chairs, certain union leaders said they were surprised Mr Howlin did not take a more robust stance.

Yesterday, Mr Howlin appeared to renew his vows on these 88 allowances which he hoped would be history by February. He admitted that many of them were 'small beer' and would not save taxpayers a fortune.

The unions kept their powder dry -- but the few soundings which emerged were unsurprisingly negative. We should never expect unions to welcome something which will worsen members' pay and conditions.

Overall, Mr Howlin argued that the public service was on target to save €3.3m net in the pay bill largely by the continuing cuts in employee numbers. It would have appeared to be a poor attempt at window-dressing had the Taoiseach not also stepped forward with the Public Service Minister.

Mr Kenny chaired a meeting of the body charged with overseeing the Croke Park Agreement on the public service. Mr Kenny laid it on the line saying there must be bigger and faster savings on the public sector pay bill next year if Ireland is to meet its commitments in 2013.

The Taoiseach's words had the air of frank and fair talk which will be difficult to ignore as the harsh arithmetic of Budget 2013 was being finessed in the same nexus of buildings where these people met. But, like Mr Howlin's forays into cutting and eliminating allowances, the Taoiseach's statement will still be judged as a more high-powered form of window-dressing.

It was very short on detail. It should be noted that the employers' organisation, IBEC's call for longer public service working hours will find resonance with many ordinary private sector workers already putting in those longer hours.

True, industrial peace and relative social harmony remain precious and bankable commodities for Ireland right now. But they cannot be bought and maintained at any price.

Sooner rather than later some hard issues must be confronted.

Irish Independent

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