Budget tensions between Rabbitte and Howlin

Department of Communications said to be ‘dangerously’ under-resourced

 Brendan Howlin:   he was warned by Pat Rabbitte last July that his department would be unable to execute the policy agenda set for him by the Government due to budget constraints. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Brendan Howlin: he was warned by Pat Rabbitte last July that his department would be unable to execute the policy agenda set for him by the Government due to budget constraints. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Tue, Jan 21, 2014, 01:00


New information has come to light about serious tension over budget allocations between Ministers Pat Rabbitte and Brendan Howlin, two of the most senior Labour members of the Cabinet.

In private discussions last year on the Coalition’s financial plan, Mr Rabbitte claimed his department would be unable to execute the policy agenda set for him by the Government if he kept within the spending ceilings Mr Howlin proposed.

“Real policy and operational risks are emerging as a result of this situation,” Mr Rabbitte warned last July.

The correspondence on the mooted budget for the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources was released under the Freedom of Information Act by the Department of Public Expenditure, where Mr Howlin is Minister.

The Irish Times sought access to all correspondence on the budget between Mr Howlin and other Cabinet members and Ministers of State, and any associated records or reports, but access to almost all records was denied. Although Mr Howlin’s department refused to release a total of 54 items of correspondence, a single letter from Mr Rabbitte last summer was the only item of any substance to be disclosed.

Seven further letters between Mr Howlin and other Ministers were released, but they merely acknowledged receipt of other detailed submissions.

Pay provisions
The correspondence from Mr Rabbitte shows he complained that pay provisions implicit in early budget proposals set out by Mr Howlin were “simply inadequate”.

The Minister for Communications further complained that there was no provision for a new national digital strategy, which was soon to be published. He also complained to his Cabinet and party colleague that the mooted provision would call into question the capacity of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland to deliver existing schemes. In addition, he said significant cuts to other agency budgets would call into question their viability to discharge the services they were responsible for.

This letter to Mr Howlin from Mr Rabbitte, dated July 2nd, cited a net current expenditure provision of €82.4 million for the Department of Communications in 2014, down from €88.4 million in 2013. Mr Rabbitte ultimately received €84.5 million in the October budget but not before a series of forthright claims for more money.

Separate correspondence seen by The Irish Times shows that Mr Rabbitte complained last May to Mr Howlin that the Department of Communications was “dangerously” under-resourced. “In saying this I should emphasise that similar to so much of the rest of the public service, my department has certainly embraced the ‘more with less’ imperative of recent years and this has enabled much progress to be made,” Mr Rabbitte wrote on May 31st.

Reliant on staff
Citing the work of his department in projects highlighted by powerful Cabinet committees on the economy, he complained of being reliant on staff “borrowed” from other agencies.

“What is required is a planned, structured and urgent process and action to permanently address the deficits in the department’s capacity to enable it deliver its huge agenda.”

Mr Rabbitte was still arguing for more money five weeks later, saying “very modest upward adjustments” for 2014 and retained for a further two years could address the problems he faced.