Tuesday 17 September 2019

Anne-Marie Walsh: 'Wad of cash might be the answer for finally consigning antiquated and expensive system to history'


Plan: Brendan Howlin was expected to slash the €1.4bn allowances bill. Picture: Collins
Plan: Brendan Howlin was expected to slash the €1.4bn allowances bill. Picture: Collins

Anne-Marie Walsh

The world of public sector allowances is a murky one. It is a place where you can get extra pay for everything from uniforms, housekeeping, unblocking sewers, running prison tuck shops, to shredding documents, or working in the Gaeltacht. Some allowances will even cover your undies and others sound like something from a Dickens novel.

Some are pensionable, meaning they are factored into the calculation when your retirement benefits are worked out. Some are not.

Some are paid for things you do, and some for things that you did once but don't anymore. Some are for rent even if you don't pay rent and some for having qualifications you would probably need to get your job in the first place.

Some are worth a pittance, and some a good couple of grand.

So they can make a big difference in terms of take-home pay.

It's understandable that some have been paid so long that public servants might feel they are part of their basic pay.

But even the former head of the trade union movement, David Begg, thought the system outdated. He once remarked that not all allowances reflect the reason they are paid and were often a "surrogate" for pay rises.

When former minister for public expenditure and reform Brendan Howlin announced a clean up of the system six years ago, he was expected to slash the €1.4bn yearly bill.

Departments were told payments related to "arduous" work or unsocial hours were justified, but others that were there due to "custom and practice" and outdated industrial relations agreements were creating unnecessary costs.

The result was a joke. Just one was scrapped for existing staff saving just a fraction of what was expected. The poor guys coming in the door took the hit. Their allowances were scrapped, although admittedly there were not too many of them at that stage due to a ban on recruitment.

They, incidentally, also took a 10pc pay cut on top of what serving staff suffered and were put on an inferior pension scheme.

To be fair, letters were dispatched shortly afterwards to departments listing 88 allowances to be axed for existing staff. Some departments got rid of them by paying compensation.

Others seemed fearful of the industrial relations repercussions, ie the unions.

A big wad of cash might be needed to finally put these antiquated payments to rest. The alternative is paying millions of euro of taxpayers' money year in year out until the recipients retire or leave.

The Department of Public Expenditure is not able to quantify the cost, but it must be eye-watering given some of the departments' yearly estimates.

Irish Independent

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