Calling time on Croke Park deal would be a foolish move
OPINION:Targeting clerical staff, caretakers, special needs assistants or home helps for further cuts would do nothing to aid the economy
IT’S RIGHT that public service pay and reform remain in the policy spotlight as we head into yet another hugely difficult budget. As part of that debate, the benefits and terms of the Croke Park agreement need to be aired, interrogated and understood.
But much of what passes for debate on Croke Park is too poor to help legislators making difficult choices, or even explain why the parties to the deal, including the Government, have stuck with it. If we set aside the invective directed at trade unions and the personal insults fired at some of their leaders, last week’s article by the usually measured Eddie Molloy (“Government should act and ditch Croke Park deal”, Opinion Analysis, September 7th) was a classic of this kind.
Molloy’s article deployed three techniques common to those who tell policymakers that scrapping Croke Park is an obvious and easy solution to our budgetary problems: they ignore the benefits of the deal while attributing unrelated policy failures to it; they imply that all public servants enjoy high pay and huge pensions; and they are mealy-mouthed about what they are really advocating, which is a third pay cut for all public servants, not just the high-paid.
Let’s deal with them in turn, starting with the benefits being delivered under Croke Park. The Government continues to support the deal for three reasons. First, it continues to deliver verified savings. In its first two years, pay and non-pay measures have generated recurring savings worth €1.5 billion a year, and the deal is on course to increase this to €3.3 billion in annual savings by 2015.
Second, its seldom-discussed reforms are ensuring that, by and large, services are being prioritised and maintained as staff numbers, currently at 290,000 from a peak of 320,000, continue to fall. Many of these reforms are themselves cost-reducing. Examples include substantial savings in overtime payments, achieved through changed rosters in medical labs, addiction services, disability supports and other services.
Third, the fact that these adjustments are happening in an orderly way, with the co-operation of staff, is a major contributor to Ireland’s growing international reputation on which our current and future economic prospects depend.
Molloy makes no mention of these surely relevant factors in his polemic. But he does blame Croke Park for a number of unrelated policy issues.
Along with others, unions have consistently criticised the huge pension packages paid to a tiny minority of senior civil servants. Neither do we understand why hospital consultants’ public and private earnings can soar while services are cut and lower-paid staff lose income as changed rosters save on overtime and premium payments. But these issues pre-date Croke Park, and the agreement presents no barrier to any government determined to take them on.
Incidentally, unions did not agree to additional pay cuts for new entrants to the public service either. These were imposed by Government and criticised by unions, and are an issue that will have to be fixed over time. Nevertheless, it is common practice for private companies to adjust starting salaries downwards in a recession. It has happened in Eircom and Aer Lingus, a company Molloy’s article holds up as a private-sector model. No doubt it would have been cited as further evidence of “featherbedding” had the Government not done the same.
The second technique deployed by Molloy and others is to characterise all public servants as high-paid and well-pensioned, a common device that’s essential to the “Croke Park is unjust” narrative. How often do we read about public servants as hospital consultants, departmental secretaries or political advisers? How seldom as clerical staff, caretakers, special needs assistants or home helps?