Burton condemns 'slash and burn' cuts


THE GOVERNMENT has been accused of adopting a "slash and burn" approach to curbing expenditure, with an "arbitrary" 3 per cent cut in payroll costs and a selective, politically motivated approach to the rationalisation of public bodies.

Commenting on the contents of a letter from the Department of Finance to senior civil servants, reported in The Irish Times yesterday, Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton said it appeared Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan was "going to adopt the worst type of slash and burn approach to reducing public expenditure".

"To impose an arbitrary cut of 3 per cent in payroll costs for all public bodies, without taking any account of either the efficiency of the body or the value of the work it does, is simply going to create further serious social problems down the line," she said.

She continued: "It is also a matter of concern that with a reported 800 State agencies in existence, the only ones being targeted for closure or merger are those such as the Combat Poverty Agency, the Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission, all of which play a key role in protecting the interests of the vulnerable and acting as a watchdog on the Government.

"It is not clear what process of evaluation, if any, is to take place before cuts of this type are imposed.

"The experience in the past in regard to cuts is that no proper evaluation has been done and that, while important public services are cut, public bodies or projects that enjoy either political or bureaucratic patronage are often allowed to escape, even if they serve no particular public purpose," Ms Burton said in a statement.

Minister of State for Finance Martin Mansergh told Today FM's The Last Word the 3 per cent payroll cut may mean, "in certain circumstances a pause in recruitment, certain vacancies may not be immediately filled". He continued: "You have to look at this in the broader context where there has been a huge expansion in Government services pretty much across the board over at least the past 10-12 years.

"There is room to rein in spending a bit without inflicting significant damage on either services or employment in the wider economy."

Dr Mansergh added: "We have to try and keep our economy and our budget on the rails. If we don't take measures in a timely fashion, then we could find ourselves, particularly if international difficulties are prolonged, having to do something much more drastic, that we wouldn't like to do."

He said the objective as far as possible will be to provide the same and even, in certain cases, improved services more efficiently.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at Oneprogramme, Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea said there was an "explosion" of agencies operating under the aegis of Government departments although most of them were doing "a very good job, a very necessary job".

"We aim to save a minimum of €20 million from rationalisation of those agencies," he said. "The number of those agencies has grown from 130 in 2000 to about 240 now, which means literally there's an explosion of those agencies.

"The number of people employed has gone from about 9,500 to almost 17,000 and expenditure has doubled. Most of them, let me say, are doing a very good job, a very necessary job, but there is room for rationalisation, for avoidance of duplication."

Responding to suggestions that it would be illegal to merge the Irish Human Rights Commission with other bodies because it was set up under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, Mr O'Dea said that, while he did not wish to comment on any specific proposals, "the Government have no intention whatsoever of doing anything that's illegal."