More pay for nurses means less investment in the health service

One of the more interesting posts I saw on social media was from a nurse travelling under the nom de guerre of Polly Molotov.

It’s a wonderful handle, and I appreciate the pizazz. Nurse Molotov says that when she qualified, in 2011, she was subject to across-the-board salary cuts applied to all new entrants into the public service. It was “demoralising” for her to work alongside the rest of the nursing community, while being paid far less. I heartily understand.

New entrants were shafted by incumbent colleagues during the economic crisis that began in 2008. This is the sourness that has soiled industrial relations with gardaí, teachers, and nurses since. It wasn’t a new development, however. Since the 1990s, and a series of astonishingly generous pay increases, the new arrival was repeatedly, but discreetly, shafted.

There was more pay for all then, but there was less pension. The platinum-plated pensions of the ’90s were replaced for new entrants in the noughties with gold-plated pensions, and after 2013 with something akin to brass.

If the pension entitlement since is base metal, it is highly advantageous compared to what the much larger private sector usually gets. That must be paid from taxes, before any private pension can be paid for. And, yes, I do know public servants pay a contribution towards a pension and that new entrants pay significantly more for a far less attractive outcome. But there is a long-entrenched pattern of those on the inside pulling up the drawbridge to protect their entitlement, at the expense of those coming after. The devil takes the hindmost.

That’s the true story behind the sloganeering about equal pay and patients’ rights and whatever you’re having yourself.

Nurse Molotov put it plainly when she posted a comparison of pay scales for incumbents in 2010 and new entrants in 2011. At point one, the new arrival was on €27,211, compared to the incumbent on €30,234, and so it went on, up the scale. Demoralising, indeed. And you can replicate the feeling across the public service. But this is what was tacitly agreed to by the incumbents.

Since then, pay restoration has eroded much of the difference. But whatever the outcome of the nurses’ strike, even if it results in more pay for all, there will be a deepening difference on pensions that will ultimately be more important over a lifetime.

Since 2013, public service pensions, based on average earnings rather than final salary and not until you are 68, are a big step down.

It’s a world away from what’s enjoyed by those in-service since 1996, when the state pension was integrated with the public service pension, and full PRSI asked for, as well. Nurse Molotov, in situ since 2011, hopefully escaped the ravaging of her colleagues’ pension entitlement since 2013. Timing is everything, you see. It changes perspective.

Let me be absolutely clear. Though I doubt the eventual outcome, it is essential that government stand up, in the public interest, for public services generally and for patients especially, against the special interests of nurses. The fact that any increase will spawn a raft of similar claims across the public sector is reason enough. There is the fact of Brexit, too.

A reckless abandoning of public sector pay discipline is the equivalent of fiscal drink-driving. The dearth of some services now will be as nothing compared to then. Among the most vulnerable will be patients generally and public patients especially.

Many of those most affected today, and those most defenceless against lack of investment in public services generally, are the less-well-off. They must listen in utter amazement to talk about different types of pensions. Most don’t have one. The Irish story over the last generation is that in the decision-making process, public servants have trumped public services every time.

This is all about political muscle. Producer groups nearly always outflank consumers, unless there is a disruptive technological breakthrough that allows another source of service to the market. In health, especially, that isn’t possible. In the classroom, on the beat, and on the wards, our people are the service, or the essential part of it.

And it has to be paid for. The fact of unfairness between the then and now is, I do understand, demoralising. But I want to be clear. Taxpayers generally and those who depend on public services most, cannot be used to extract ransom money to assuage the anger of some, or the guilt of other public servants.

This begs the question of who will stand up for the public interest. In theory, it should be the government and particularly the departments of health and public expenditure. Therein lies the problem. The track record isn’t good. Gardaí effectively threatened mutiny, which is what refusing lawful orders amounts to, and were rewarded with €50m.

Teachers have corralled something bizarrely called equal pay. This means that new entrants, who were required to start on point one of the pay scale, instead of point three, as previously, have closed the gap. What the word ‘equal’ means in the parallel universe where those who must pay have no pay scales at all, and where any pension they may have makes the denuded post-2013 public service offering look princely, is beyond me. But there is such a parallel universe. There is a make-believe, where, regardless of whether you subscribe, you must pay for. There is a Ponzi-style pyramid, where those last in get less, and those on the outside must pay all of the rest.

The point on which nurses are most entitled to public sympathy matches exactly what out selfish concern should be

Some, but by no means all, have incredibly stressful jobs in a dysfunctional, sick system, leaving aside the fact that more pay across the board leaves less money for investment to make the changes that are fundamentally required.

Remember, that if you are seriously ill, you need people there for you who are at their best. The solutions to the stress and dysfunction some nurses and health professionals suffer are systemic. It requires, as an essential first step, more investment in primary care. Regrettably, some of the hope for that is now buried in the foundations of the National Children’s Hospital.

The worst-case scenario is that because of that, there is less from already allocated resources to invest. Then, Brexit means that in an imminent future, there is less again.

One is already spilt milk, and the other is largely beyond our control. The variable factor, the one nurses are banking on, is that faced with local and European elections, and the political consequences of a drubbing, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and Minister for Health, Simon Harris, will appease rather than risk chaos, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe, will roll over. Polly Molotov is to be reckoned with.

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