Monday 14 October 2019

Editorial: 'Lower-paid workers right to point out elastic spending'

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe insists the Public Service Pay Agreement is in place, and is budgeted for. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe insists the Public Service Pay Agreement is in place, and is budgeted for. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Editorial

Editorial

All industrial disputes come with a unique story of breakdown and recrimination.

After the brinkmanship, they must eventually be settled. But the common denominator in all strikes within the public service is that the user becomes the scapegoat.

When hospitals are the battleground and patients the collateral damage, the sense of injustice is compounded.

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For such reasons, postponement of today's planned strike by 10,000 Siptu staff is to be welcomed. The strike had threatened the cancellation of large numbers of procedures and some elective inpatient work, so there will be relief it has been lifted. The Siptu workers have grounds for grievance, but arbitration is still better than confrontation. They spent years having their claim tested, and finally agreed, by the HSE.

And they watched as the hardline stance taken by nurses paid off by striking, as the Government bowed to their demands.

When they argue they have done with interpretation, and now want to see implementation of their claim - which would cost the State €16.5m - they have a point.

Each year the State plugs the hole blown in the HSE's annual budget to the tune of hundreds of millions. Thus spending targets can become somewhat notional. Successive governments have facilitated this, to the extent that a sense of entitlement has taken hold. This ultimately has far-reaching consequences for society and the economy.

But the Government has just taken a hammering from the Fiscal Advisory Council for its profligacy.

It drew particular attention to significant overruns in health. It also highlighted State problems in estimating the cost of large projects.

Witness the cost of the National Children's Hospital hurtling towards €1.4bn - €450m higher than the figure of €983m approved in 2017.

Or the rollout of the National Broadband Plan, for which €200m was set aside in 2012. In May, the Government signed off on a commitment of €3bn.

So it is not surprising for unions to ask if Government spending can be this elastic, why can it not stretch a bit further for them?

The Defence Forces are also pressing for a significant wage. Members reasonably claim it is impossible to support their families.

It falls to Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe to hold the line. He insists the Public Service Pay Agreement is in place, and is budgeted for.

He also claims it must be protected as there is a wide variety of competing claims.

But the record of the Government undermines his credibility when it comes to adhering to limits. And many lower-paid workers feel there has been an upwards redistribution of income while they have been forgotten.

Brokering a solution will be difficult. Hopefully the expertise of the Workplace Relations Commission will come into its own.

Reasonable expectations should be managed within the space. As the State spending watchdog reminded us last week, it's the unplanned splurges that leave the country vulnerable to an inevitable downturn.

Irish Independent

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