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Simon Harris: Time to end catch-all pay agreements

There has been so much commentary on the issue of the Croke Park Agreement and public sector pay over the last number of months. Many questions have been asked, including: how much has Croke Park saved the taxpayer?

What have the reforms been? What is the cost of increments? Can we afford it? And so on.

While all of these questions are valid -- there is one real question that needs to be asked and addressed. Why are we constantly having a debate which ignores the reality that there is a two-tier public sector in this country?

For the last number of years there has been ongoing debate and discussion about public versus private sector. However, it is impossible to have a rational, informed debate and to take intelligent decisions in the interests of the taxpayer and the economy if we keep talking in vague terms about "the public sector".

We need to acknowledge people who work in public sector jobs do not all earn the same. They do not all have the same terms and conditions. Their allowances, increments and work environment vary significantly.

How can you have an agreement that operates on a ridiculous and completely unfounded assumption that a person earning €30,000 a year in the public sector should be treated and financially protected in the same manner as someone working at a senior level earning in excess of €70,000 or €80,000 or even much more?

In difficult and challenging economic times, the job of the Government and all of us involved in political life must be to protect the most economically vulnerable people -- regardless of whether they are public sector or private sector.

This Government inherited the Croke Park Agreement but it will finish in 2014 and we must ensure that we never again have a situation where a "one size fits all" arrangement passes for a public sector agreement.

We need to have a much more discerning debate about the public sector wage bill -- one which recognises the need to reward hard work and to pay people a decent wage but also have the data on hand in hard times to bring about a pay freeze when people earn above a certain level.

Astonishingly, when I have made such points at the Public Accounts Committee, I have been met with extremely worrying answers from heads of State agencies who tell me that basic data doesn't exist. As politicians and policy-makers we are faced with a dearth of information and this cannot continue.

Let me give you one example of this crazy situation: at a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee in June, I asked the HSE could they tell me a) how many people in the HSE earn a salary in excess of €70,000 and b) of that number, how many of them are in line for pay increments this year and c) what would the cost of those increments be to the health service. I was given a very simple and astonishing answer -- they do not know! I was told that they would seek to get that data and then I received correspondence from them telling me that such data was not compiled and, therefore, was not available.

So as a member of the Oireachtas and as a member of the Dail committee charged with scrutinising how taxpayers' money is spent, I was unable to obtain such basic information, information which I have no doubt any business owner could provide for their own company.

The Croke Park Agreement has allowed for this. It has allowed a bunching together of all pay grades, all increments and all allowances. By lumping everyone in together, from the lowest to the highest paid in the public sector, it has failed us as taxpayers in getting answers as to where our money is spent and it has failed policy-makers in enabling us to make decisions to ensure that lower and middle paid employees are protected whilst pay freezes are put in place for high earners.

This is not about bashing the public service -- far from it. This is about saying when Croke Park ends and when a government sits down in a room to negotiate an arrangement which reforms the public sector, it cannot ever again take the lazy, catch-all approach that is the current agreement.

Some reforms have been delivered, savings have been achieved, but I cannot get away from the sense that the lower and middle-paid in the public sector are the ones that have done the heavy-lifting while those in the higher echelons are left alone.

Forget about public versus private. End the phoney debate. In hard times support those who need to be supported and tell those who have been pampered that the party is over.

Simon Harris is a Fine Gael TD for Wicklow & East Carlow and a member of the Dail Public Accounts Committee.

Sunday Independent