Obsession with public service allowances overlooks salary cuts already achieved


OPINION:Beyond critics’ eyes, civil servants have had their pay slashed twice to the total tune of 14 per cent, writes TOM GERAGHTY

AMID THE white noise in the media over the issue of public service allowances, little coverage was given to the reply by Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin to Labour TD Joanna Tuffy’s parliamentary question on public servants’ earnings.

In summary, fewer than 2 per cent of public servants earn above €100,000 per annum, fewer than 10 per cent earn above €70,000 per annum and 82.2 per cent earn below €60,000 per annum.

These figures exclude the pension levy imposed on public servants, of an average value of 7 per cent, a levy which delivers close to €1 billion per annum to the exchequer.

A comparison with an answer given late last year to an identical series of questions from Tuffy shows that the percentage of public servants earning below €60,000 per annum is up from 75 per cent.

This is, in large part, due to the fact that, proportionately, the number of higher earners who availed of the “grace period” departures before the end of February was, almost inevitably, greater than that of lower earners. As a consequence, there has been a 10 per cent reduction in average earnings of public servants.

These figures need to be seen in the context of the report of the implementation body of the Croke Park agreement, issued in June. This showed that the public service pay bill will drop by €3.8 billion by 2015, from its 2009 level, (a net drop of €3.3 billion when extra pension costs are added). This is a fall of 20 per cent in pay costs over that period.

None of this is without pain for public servants. They have taken what are effectively two pay cuts, averaging a total of 14 per cent. Many additional earnings such as overtime have more or less disappeared and, of course, public servants are as affected as the rest of our community by increased taxes and charges.

They are also co-operating, under the terms of the Croke Park agreement on public service pay and reform, with a programme that will reduce the number of public servants from 320,000 in 2008 to 282,000 by 2015. To minimise the disruptive effects of such a reduction, it is necessary for significant reorganisation to take place.

The reports of the Croke Park implementation body list the more significant of these. Its report in June included a four-page summary of the key changes made in the year up to then. These included the redeployment of thousands of public servants, roster changes and extended working-day agreements, the merging of prison structures to cope with higher prison numbers with reduced staff, civilianisation of some Garda work, reductions in processing times due to reorganisation by the Department of Social Protection (despite increased volumes), rationalisation of back-office support services, shared services and shared procurement initiatives, to name just some.

This administrative efficiency achieved a further €406 million in annualised non-pay savings to the exchequer, in addition to the pay savings outlined.

Reduced sick-leave arrangements are being put in place – service-wide annual leave arrangements having been agreed already – removing the more generous pre-existing arrangements.

The Garda Síochána has, for the first time in 40 years, reorganised its roster to ensure a Garda presence when and where it is most needed.

Major organisational changes are also taking place in the Defence Forces, and there is the prospect of entirely new work arrangements and future reduced salaries for hospital consultants as a result of the use of the Croke Park agreement machinery.

When Brendan Howlin referred to people concentrating on chopping down a tree when he has to look at the entire forest, in the context of the allowances review, he was derided.

The above gives a small flavour of a forest that is providing healthy benefits for our citizens.

It will be interesting to see if the media shows as much interest in these facts as it does regarding the issue of allowances. By the most optimistic estimate, savings in these would have been worth a maximum of €75 million to the exchequer.

That needs to be seen in the context of the potential offered by the Croke Park agreement to save €3.3 billion per annum and to do so while delivering quality public services with the active help of those employed to deliver these services.

I, for one, will not be holding my breath.

Tom Geraghty is general secretary of the Public Service Executive Union and a member of the Croke Park agreement implementation body

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