Saturday 17 August 2019

We need transparency on salaries now - and constant vigilance in the future

Former IFA secretary general Pat Smith
Former IFA secretary general Pat Smith
John Downing

John Downing

Rows like this one - about the former IFA secretary general's pay package - swiftly bring three types of stereotypical views before the long-suffering Irish public.

There's the "city slicker" arguing it's "not news" that the IFA's top man got half a million in 2013 - a year when the animal fodder crisis gripped rural Ireland. Your "city slicker" believes farm unions never miss an opportunity to "cry poverty" and this is just a case of the mask slipping.

There's the "small countryman," who gets a new lease of life about the "Dublin crowd - all out for themselves". And finally there's the upcoming business person, with management tendencies, who argues that "you have to pay the rate for the job."

Well, all those viewpoints are time-wasting noise. The reality is that there is an issue about rates of pay at the top of our social organisations, which have a huge element of citizen funding in one form or another.

This is an issue which urgently needs to be addressed and will require constant attention in the future. And the main and most urgent requirement is transparency: let's know about salary packages for people above a certain amount of money.

It's not popular to say this - but it is a reality for all that. Our politicians, and many public service workers, took the hit here in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 economic crash. Taoiseach Enda Kenny is on a package of €200,000 per year - but this is some 40pc less than his predecessor.

Ministers are on an annual €180,000 - again about 35pc less than salaries at the height of the boom. It is interesting that trade unions, and organisations like the IFA, spoke at various stages in the past decade about paying their top officials something comparable to the pay of government department heads.

Mind you, that was at a time when some of our politicians, keen on linking in with rising top civil service rates, were happy to see the various department secretary general's pay head north of €400,000 per year. But in the post recession public sector, secretaries general are paid €200,000 per year - a hefty sum but defensible for the responsibilities and demands of the job.

By that standard, Pat Smith's pay package does appear out of whack. But let's not forget the pension issue here. Our department secretaries general will qualify for hefty six-figure pensions, mainly paid out of current tax revenues and not often publicly discussed.

A big chunk of Mr Smith's emolument went on funding his future pension. He is entitled to some mitigation here. But the whole issue of pension pots for those at the top in these social organisations, benefiting from citizens' money, must be taken into the debate.

We are also at the cusp of a pensions crisis with the danger that only a small elite may be covered in future generations. Work is continuing on plans to tackle that - but let's recall that the late Seamus Brennan, as Social Welfare Minister, was also "working on that one" over a decade ago.

In framing this discussion, we need to avoid personalising things. We must eschew rhetoric and cant. But it is high time we let in the light on this subject.


Irish Independent

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