Government takes harder line with unions on unpaid leave


THE GOVERNMENT took a much tougher line in its talks with trade unions yesterday following a strongly negative reaction from Fianna Fáil backbenchers to the emerging deal on unpaid leave for public servants, and reports that Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan was unhappy with the plan.

A number of Fianna Fáil backbenchers contacted by The Irish Timeslast night expressed their fury at suggestions that the target for savings of €1.3 billion in the public service pay bill next year could be dropped. The public service unions called off their planned one-day strike for today in response to a Government decision to negotiate on the basis of unpaid leave as an alternative to cuts in pay rates for next year.

“If the Taoiseach goes ahead with this there will be an almighty row in the party and his leadership will be questioned,” said one TD.

Others said that there had been hugely negative reactions within their constituencies to the proposals which were perceived as a capitulation by Government to the public sector unions. Speaking on the basis of anonymity, one deputy described the proposal as a “complete non-runner”. Another said it was a “Monty Python” suggestion.

“I have not spoken to one who is in support of it. Everyone is saying the leave-of-absence proposal is nonsense. Most of us are in shock, truthfully,” said the deputy.

Several confirmed they had voiced their opposition to the proposal to the party leadership. Others said they intend to raise the issue at a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting today, which is being especially convened to discuss the budget. The Cabinet met for four hours last night to discuss the details of the budget and will meet again this afternoon.

The harder Government line was in evidence yesterday morning when Taoiseach Brian Cowen emphasised in the Dáil that the target of savings of €1.3 billion had not been abandoned. He said while the Government would consider any further proposals emerging from the talks, a basis for agreement would only exist if the scale of the reduction in the public service pay bill was sufficient, if it was clearly seen to be permanent and if there was no negative impact on services.

Mr Lenihan insisted he would proceed with plans to cut spending by €4 billion. “There’s no agreement, that’s the position. Clearly, real and measurable savings in public sector pay will be required,” he said.

Under the terms of a document presented to the unions last night staff in the public service would face having 4.6 per cent of their income deducted next year under the proposed unpaid leave arrangement.

In a confidential document on the general principles for the operation of the proposed scheme, the Department of Finance said the deduction would be applied on all income. It also said that staff would be able to take leave over six years.

The introduction of 12 days of unpaid leave for public service staff next year represents the first stage of the alternative plan proposed by the unions for reducing the public sector pay bill without introducing across- the-board pay cuts. The Irish Times also understands that the parties in the talks have been examining the issue of paying overtime at a flat rate as part of savings measures.

Meanwhile, Colm McCarthy, the economist behind the Government’s plan to reform the public service, has poured cold water on the proposed deal with the public service unions saying that a one-year arrangement “is of no value”.