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Old practices at Central Bank are holding back 'new Ireland'

THE Central Bank likes to see itself as a beacon of 'new Ireland', the no-nonsense authority that will put manners on our banks and insurers and put an end to the disastrous financial practices of old.

But behind that 'new Ireland' ambition lurks a decidedly 'old Ireland' legacy -- some 699 staff on the kind of employment contracts that epitomise the cosy conditions in the often unproductive public service.

These 699 staff -- just over half the Central Bank's 1,301 full-time staff -- are required to be at their desks for just 32.5 hours a week, working hours described as "exceptionally low" by employers' body Ibec.

Some of the 32.5-hour staffers are earning close to €69,000 a year, so we're not talking about light working hours being restricted to the lowly paid either.

The Central Bank itself has described these legacy contracts as "not sustainable" and has been putting new employees on 35-hour weeks since December 2008. Even 35 hours doesn't sound particularly taxing, especially if you compare it to the 60-hour weeks private executives claim to put in though it is the same as the 39-hour week put in by retail staff since the Central Bank doesn't count lunch breaks.

Official sources at the Central Bank are at pains to stress that "contracted minimum hours" often have little to do with the hours people actually work.

The Central Bank has spent much of the last two years engulfed in crises, particularly over the last three months as its banking division grappled with the infamous stress tests.

"During times like that, do you really think anyone's sitting around adding up their 32.5 hours?" asks one source. "Do you really think that would be tolerated?"

The stress tests were a round-the-clock event, sources say, with outside consultants like BlackRock contributing to the erosion of the working hours status quo by operating out of their Central Bank digs from dawn to dusk.

Crisis aside, the new bosses at the Central Bank have made little secret of the fact that they expect much more than the "minimum" from new hires and old hires alike.

Financial regulator Matthew Elderfield claims to be at his desk from 7.30am to 7pm on weekdays with a half day on Sundays thrown in for good measure, while several other senior executives say they regularly put in 12-hour days.

Further down the ranks, things are still in flux.

In the earlier days of the crisis, some new recruits were flabbergasted by the environment they encountered -- one recalls "taps on the shoulder" to go home at 5.30 in the evening during the 2009 work-to-rule.

Over the last three years, the balance between 'old' and 'new' Central Bank staff has been steadily shifting. Some 300 new staff have joined the ranks since 2008 and newcomers now make up about a quarter of the total team.

Many of them are in senior positions and well placed to cultivate a new ethos on their teams, while the opportunity to be promoted in the rapidly expanding organisation and a sense of duty to save the financial system has also incentivised some lifers to up their game hours-wise.

Official sources in the Central Bank insist the change in work ethos has swept through the whole organisation, but industry sources who deal with the Central Bank suggest the transition to modern working hours is patchy.

While the banking team in charge of the stress tests could be reached out of hours, trying to reach some other sections of the Central Bank outside of nine to five can still prove challenging.

Reports of 5.30pm phone calls being directed to voicemail across whole sections persist, helping reinforce the attitude that the 'new Ireland' demanded by the Central Bank is at odds with the 'old Ireland' thriving within the hallowed Dame Street walls.

News of the Central Bank's remarkably undemanding working hours will only further reinforce that perception.

The Central Bank can argue that, in practice, staff work longer. But the simple fact remains that the lax contracts allow the more work-shy members of its team to get away very lightly.

While the industrious staffers may indeed work 60 hours a week to help dig Ireland out of the financial mess, the work shy are empowered to work 6.5 hours a day while Ireland's financial system goes up in flames all around them.

And it also means that if staff opt to go on a work to rule, that work to rule could well set them back to that 32.5 hours a week rather than the week they habitually work.

An obvious way to tackle the problem is to tear up the old contracts and start again, explaining to the 699 workers that a 32.5-hour working week is not compatible with the demands of modern Ireland.

The unions would undoubtedly kick up an almighty fuss, but there's plenty of precedent in private companies.

And if Central Bank staff really are working well over the 32.5 hours in practice then they shouldn't have any problem formalising the arrangement.

The extra 2.5 hours a week mightn't sound like much, but totted up across the 699 workers it gives you as many extra hours as 50 new full-time staff.

There's no denying that the Central Bank could use the guarantee of that extra manpower as it grapples with its ever-expanding 'new Ireland' remit.

Irish Independent