Confusion ends as Taoiseach rules out renegotiation of Croke Park deal
ANALYSIS:Barring some dramatic unforeseen event, the Government yesterday made it clear that it is intent on seeing the course with the Croke Park agreement until it expires in 2014
TAOISEACH Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore moved yesterday to end confusion, largely, it must be said, created by members of the Cabinet itself, over the Government’s stance on the Croke Park agreement.
Kenny categorically ruled out any renegotiation of the agreement, which guarantees public service staff that they will not face further pay cuts in return for their co-operation with reform. Gilmore said the position of the Government was very clear – it had an agreement “and we’re honouring that agreement”.
However, there had been mixed messages on the issue over the last 10 days, with various Ministers saying different things about the agreement.
It was unclear whether some Ministers were talking about changing the current agreement or seeking to add provisions to any follow-on deal that may emerge after 2014.
Minister for Health James Reilly started the ball rolling when he said public service pay was the “elephant in the room” and effectively called for the deal to be renegotiated.
Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn proposed talks on a successor deal with everything on the table. Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar as late as yesterday lunchtime told Newstalk radio that if a better Croke Park deal could be renegotiated with unions before 2014 then it should be brought forward.
However, it was Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte who caused most surprise when he appeared to suggest on RTÉ Radio yesterday morning that in advance of the budget in December, the Government could call in the unions, using specific provisions in the deal, and introduce new elements into the discussion. Union leaders appeared quite relaxed at the mixed messages coming from various Ministers. They maintained they had it from the highest authority that the Government would stick with Croke Park.
However, many Fine Gael TDs are still very sceptical about Croke Park and are unlikely to change their minds.
As the 2013 budget draws nearer and decisions have to be made on where €2 billion in savings will be made, the question of why services for vulnerable groups may be hit when pay for public servants with secure jobs is protected will not go away.
The issue of the Government paying up to €200 million in increments to public service staff at a time of cutbacks is likely to be to the fore in any such debate.
Ironically, the current controversy over Croke Park came on the day the agreement secured another significant “gain” in securing a new standardised working week for staff in local authorities. A minimum 34-hour week will be introduced on foot of a Labour Court recommendation.
However, the Labour Court seemed to deal a blow to proposals by health service management to seek for staff to work longer hours. It said this could only come at the end of the current deal.
The new working week arrangement is the latest in a number of reform achievements which the Government has attributed to the agreement. These include new standardised leave arrangements and revised sick leave provisions.
It has also highlighted that nearly 12,000 staff have left State employment in the last year or so, thousands of others have been redeployed and services have been maintained with no industrial unrest.
However, no matter how many reforms the Government may say have been achieved there will be those who will say that the price is too high and that private sector workers have had to undertake dramatic changes to work practices without any similar guarantees on their pay or job security.
THE CROKE PARK AGREEMENT AND PUBLIC SERVICE REFORM
WHAT HAS BEEN ACHIEVED
* The number of staff employed in the public service fell by 17,500 in the first two years of the Croke Park agreement and by more than 11,000 in the last year alone.
* The State’s pay bill has fallen by more than €800 million in the first two years of the agreement, mainly as a result of staff departing.
* The Government estimates that overall it will make savings of €3.3 billion on its pay bill by 2015, net of increases in the cost of providing pensions.
* Annual leave arrangements across the public service have been standardised.
* New sick leave arrangements across the public service have been agreed and are to be implemented.
* New standardised working hours for staff in local authorities were agreed yesterday.
* Industrial peace has been maintained in the public service.
WHAT HAS NOT BEEN ACHIEVED
* Reform of the 800 allowances paid to staff in the public service is unlikely to reach the target of €75 million in savings this year. The plan to reform allowances goes to Cabinet tomorrow but is expected to mainly affect new entrants.
* No decision yet on the Government’s review of 46 additional quangos, which was scheduled to be announced in June.
* A deal on greater flexibilities and work practice changes for consultants proposed by the Minister for Health as an alternative to further pay cuts has not yet been agreed with representative organisations.
* A Government decision on the outsourcing of public services is not expected until next spring.
* Moves to pay staff in the Civil Service on a monthly basis, which have been strongly opposed by unions, are not expected until next spring.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT MAY SEEK
* Deferral or suspension of payment of incremental pay increases as proposed by Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar, who said it could save between €170 million and €200 million a year.
* Changes to overtime and premium pay rates, which Minister for Health James Reilly suggested could be explored. These cost about €800 million in the health service.
* A longer working week for public servants. The Health Service Executive has floated the idea of staff working an additional two hours per week for no additional pay for a two- to three-year period.
* Scrapping of some overtime payments. The HSE has pointed to the payment of time and a sixth to some staff for working between 6pm and 8pm.
* Pension increases in future could be linked to inflation rather than pay rises for serving staff.