You are viewing the content for Tuesday 8 December 2009

Government spurns major public sector change for short-term kudos

AT the end of the year 2000 the pay and pensions bill for the public service was about €9 billion.

By the end of this year it was scheduled to reach €20bn.

It has grown massively under the direction and guidance of the same people who now want to cut €1.3bn off it.

Had they been even a tiny bit more careful over the past few years, the confrontation that now seems inevitable would have been totally unnecessary.

But then, as Charlie McCreevy used to say, "when I have it I spend it". It’s a simple, fairly glib sentence that. What it really seems to mean is "when I have it, I throw money recklessly at every situation that comes my way. When it runs out, as it’s bound to in the end, I make everyone else pay for my profligacy". And that, if one is to judge by most of the editorials in last weekend’s papers, is called leadership.

I’ve known David Begg for years. Not well I have to say, but well enough to know he is as honest as the day is long. He takes the national interest to heart and he has led the Irish trade union movement in a progressive and even-handed way.

He measures his words carefully – he never advises people, like some of his less temperate colleagues, to back off and shut up. His style of negotiation is aimed at making agreements that stick – and the kind of agreements that stick are those where everyone feels they have been treated honourably.

It was very plain last week, from what he said and the way he said it, that David Begg felt totally betrayed by the way events unfolded. What he and the trade union leadership were trying to do wasn’t just misunderstood by the public, it was misrepresented. What they were trying to do was both simple and complex.

First, they were trying to generate immediate and short-term savings.

Second, they were trying to buy time for their employer.

Third, they were engaging in an attempt at a deep and wide-ranging transformation of the entire public service.

From any perspective, it was a high-risk enterprise. There was no guarantee that, had they succeeded in putting the transformation together, it would have been accepted by their own members. But anyone who knows the public service – both the people who work in it and those who value its contribution to the quality of life in Ireland – knows that change is essential. Now, an opportunity for radical change has been spurned.

And in the process, a huge chasm of misunderstanding and misrepresentation was created. I don’t know how many times I heard people saying it was daft and criminal for the unions to be suggesting that schools could be closed down for an extra 12 days, or that hospital beds or burning buildings could be left unattended because public servants were going to get extra holidays.

That was never proposed. In effect, what the union leaders said was that they would call on their members to give the Government 12 days pay next year to help bridge the financial gap. In return they would take a couple of extra days’ leave over each of the following number of years, to be done in ways that would guarantee no reduction in service.

And side by side with that they would reach agreement, sector by sector across the public service, to ensure an ongoing transformative effect, aimed at guaranteeing permanent savings.

Would it have worked? Who knows – and I suspect we’ll never know, at least while this Government is around. There is no doubt whatever in my mind that the trade union leaders had been suggesting a dialogue on these lines for a long time – David Begg has been calling for an approach based on mutual solidarity for at least a year.

But the idea was never taken seriously until after the first union day of strike. And now, at least if you’re a conspiracy theorist, it looks as if the Government’s only purpose was to persuade the unions to call off the second strike before they pulled the plug on the negotiations.

We haven’t seen the fruits of the sectoral negotiations that were taking place, and without that I find it hard to understand how so many people have been able to rush to condemnatory judgment. A statement from the IMPACT trade union lists some of the changes that were in the course of being agreed, and after reading it I find it even harder to understand why the Government didn’t get involved sooner and try to make it work.

Here are some of the things IMPACT claims would have been in the deal:

*No reduction in any services as a result of the temporary unpaid leave measure.

* A guarantee of "no impact on the length and structure of the school year or class contact" and an additional working hour by every teacher each week.

* Explicit agreement on the redeployment of civil and public servants within and between organisations to ensure better delivery of priority services as budgets and staffing declined.

* A process to deliver an extended 8am-8pm working day in the health services, leading to longer opening hours.

* The introduction of new rosters in health – including the introduction of new nursing rosters by January 2011 – leading to more flexible services and a further reduced overtime budget.

Perhaps the mistake was to allow the impression to get abroad that the entire thing was only about unpaid leave.

Every single employer in Ireland, if they were confronted with a major cash crisis next year, would be delighted if their employees offered them 12 days’ pay as an immediate contribution to meeting the shortfall.

IF that offer was accompanied by a commitment to work through a detailed restructuring agenda that would copperfasten the short-term savings into the future, they’d be thrilled. I don’t know any private sector employer in the country who’d turn that approach down.

But instead, we’ve decided to get tough, to reject an agreed approach that could have yielded major beneficial change and to go for the short-term kudos instead.

And at the same time we have put €3bn into the pension reserve fund this year, a fund that has steadily been losing money.

We have put €4bn into Anglo-Irish Bank, a bank that can never function properly again. We are getting ready to take money from some of the poorest people in Ireland, while we have apparently decided not to look for any contribution from some of the richest.

Leadership – government – is about making choices. Government holds the ring and has to resist pressure from vested interests when the public good is at stake. At times like this, no choice is an easy one and the best we can hope for is that the choices are coherent, that they make sense, that even if they’re tough they’re fair.

I’m sure someone will explain to me how the process we’ve been through, and the decisions to be announced tomorrow, meet all those tests.

Right now, for the life of me, I can’t see it.