Croke Park II is an unjust targeting of public sector

Opinion: Government sees civil servants as collateral damage


In June 2010, the members of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants voted an 85 per cent Yes to the first Croke Park agreement. We did so in a spirit of good faith and social solidarity. As a union we wished to play our part in the painful process of adjustment and recovery.

However, last month less than two years later, members of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants (AHCPS) voted 85 per cent No to Croke Park’s successor, a diametrically opposite vote to the previous result.

The strength of this result from a union that had hitherto been broadly supportive tells its own story. Following a talks process that, in retrospect, manages to look both clumsy and cynical, our members came to the conclusion that what was on the table was both unfair and unjust. The level of cuts demanded on top of earlier cuts and levies was simply unsustainable.

There are several reasons why an organisation such as the AHCPS would reject the Government’s proposals so comprehensively. First, to describe tax as the elephant in the room of this debate is to underestimate the case. A blue whale might be a more appropriate analogy. A fairer system of taxation allowing for additional taxation for higher earners across the board would be considerably more fair and equitable.

There has been some myth-making in recent times regarding the progressive nature of our taxation system. The EU Statistical Agency (Eurostat) shows that Ireland’s tax take as a percentage of gross domestic product is 35 per cent, while the EU27 average is 42 per cent.

Work carried out by the Nevin Economic Research Institute reveals that approximately 270,000 taxpayers earn more than €65,000. However, according to the Government, the only people in this bracket to shoulder the burden are the 39,000 men and women who work in the public sector.

For its own reasons the Government remains ideologically shackled on the matter of tax. In doing so it penalises the public sector.

Salary disparity
It is also timely to take an overview of the disparity between public sector and private sector pay at senior management levels. Research commissioned by the AHCPS and carried out by the Public Policy Advisers Network has concluded that there is a two-speed economy in regard to pay in the private sector.

Larger companies and those in the technology sector are awarding modest pay rates. Smaller, more traditional industries are in many cases still experiencing a pay freeze. Pay in the private sector would now appear to be at 2008 levels while pay in the public sector is at 2004 levels. For example, the pay of a principal officer has fallen 26 per cent behind that of their comparator in the private sector.

These findings highlight the disproportionate burden being carried by the public sector. How can the Civil Service retain and attract the brightest and best for its senior management positions at these pay levels? Indeed the Government has had to breach its own pay guidelines when appointing ministerial advisers as the pay on offer was too low.

To compound the matter, the Government intends to cut pay further. A race to the bottom is not the solution.

We also take particular exception to the proposed abolition of flexitime arrangements. These measures would not save money. More to the point, they are anti-family and, most depressingly, seek to roll back progressive measures designed to make senior management positions more attractive for women.

The most recent iteration of the talks process has been the meetings between the Labour Relations Commission and the various trade unions. This has essentially been a take-it-or-leave-it approach, with AHCPS members being gifted the equivalent of a bottle of whisky and a revolver.

Proposals include permanent cuts, increment abolition, compulsory redundancy, the ramping-up of outsourcing, and much more. This dialogue has confirmed the AHCPS’s view of the Government’s approach as predetermined and profoundly unfair.

Devalued identity
Given this scenario, my members face into our annual delegate conference this weekend asking ourselves what real value is placed on the work we carry out. Too often the men and women of the Civil Service are dismissed as faceless bureaucrats. But we are the people who keep the essential services of the State running. We help to collect taxes and administer justice. We work to keep social services running efficiently. We work every day to support and administer the ship of state.

However, now we discover that, in the broader play of these talks, the Government sees us as inevitable collateral damage, eminently expendable. There is surely a better, fairer way and that way is to address the Government deficit through the taxation system instead of repeatedly targeting public servants.

Dave Thomas is general secretary of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants

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