Coalition tensions persist over health cuts, public allowances
HEALTH CUTS and reduced public sector allowances for new entrants are continuing to provoke tensions in the Coalition ahead of this afternoon’s Cabinet meeting, the first since the summer break.
Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton said yesterday it was not credible for Government backbenchers to suggest the recent announcement of a €130 million cost-reduction package by the Health Service Executive was a surprise.
“Whingeing and pretending that you were surprised by budget figures that were agreed last December is not really credible,” she said in an interview with The Irish Times.
“We all went into the Dáil chamber and voted for it, including all of the members of Labour and all of the members of Fine Gael. So let’s have the courage to stand over what we voted for last December and don’t pretend that it’s a surprise that the Department of Health has to meet certain targets.”
Ms Creighton called on “people who’ve never been TDs before” to act calmly and maturely. “We need them to just be a little bit steadier, cooler, stop getting so panicked.”
Her comments were aimed at, among others, Labour Party chairman Colm Keaveney, who said at the weekend it would be wrong for his party not to prepare for a general election.
Both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin say they are to table separate motions of no confidence in Minister for Health James Reilly when the Dáil resumes on September 18th.
Ms Creighton said Ministers and TDs were informed about the health cuts by email a few hours in advance of the announcement last Thursday afternoon.
“Playing games and scoring political points and talking about elections and trying to frighten people is really irresponsible and juvenile and I certainly would hope that people might desist now that we’re entering into the critical pre-budget period.”
Any suggestion that health did not have a big enough budget “is just nonsense”. Ms Creighton said Cabinet meetings between today and December would be dominated by budgetary discussions. She also said the issue of pay would have to be addressed in a second “revamped, updated” Croke Park agreement.
“As James Reilly pointed out in health, he has a 30 per cent element or part, dimension of his budget which he can touch and 70 per cent that’s untouchable. That’s not sustainable if we are to get this country back on track.”
She also suggested public service increments should be frozen for a few years. “We don’t have to take the increments off people, if you’ve earned them you’ve earned them, but freeze them for a few years. The country’s in crisis. We can’t put our fingers to our ears and pretend it’s not happening.”
On property tax, she said urban dwellers should not be “punished for their address”. Square footage and ability to pay should be taken into account.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore were still finalising the agenda for today’s Cabinet meeting in discussions late last night. The childrens rights referendum will be discussed but no decision is expected on the date for same.
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlins intention was to bring proposals to the meeting on procurement and shared services, as well as public sector allowances. Allowances paid to staff across the public service are a second source of conflict between the Coalition parties. These cost €1.5 billion a year and, as part of the review of all departments, each had been asked to provide a business case for each of the 800 allowances.
The Irish Times reported last Saturday that serving personnel were expected to be allowed to retain their current allowances, although there would be significant changes for new entrants. Informed sources suggested last night that while Ministers may discuss the reform proposals tabled by Mr Howlin, a final decision may be postponed.
Mr Howlin last night firmly dismissed the prospect of an early general election, saying the Government had been elected “with a very significant majority to do a very challenging job of work” and would serve out its full five-year term.
Responding to Dr Reilly’s comment on the need for changes in the Croke Park agreement, he said the deal had “facilitated the downsizing of the numbers involved in the health service by 6,500 this year”.