Brendan Howlin: The State should set an example of paying well

Hyperbole is the order of the day for many but we have a moral duty to restore public sector pay to levels of 2007, says Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin

FEW things attract the same level of rhetoric as public service pay. From the economic commentators on the right, continuously decrying the cost (dare I say the mere existence) of the public service pay bill, to Sinn Féin’s plans to hack the salaries of higher-paid public servants at the last election, hyperbole is the order of the day.

The report of the public services pay commission makes a mockery of these myths.

There is a premium on pay at the lower levels in the public service over those in the private sector, though that doesn’t take into account private sector wage growth since 2014.

My answer to that is simple. So there should be. The State should reward those who work for it with a decent wage and the truth is that, for some grades, there is still some way to go to make a living wage a reality for all. The public services should be an exemplar of decent pay, not a laggard.

At the upper-higher level, the pay of senior public servants is probably behind private sector equivalents. So much for Sinn Féin populism.

In fairness, they did change some of their policies, when they realised they might denude the public service of all its doctors.

Much has been written about public service pay lately. The union demand to accelerate Lansdowne Road was presented as a huge pay demand. The reality is different. Scheduled pay increases under that agreement amount only to half the cost of the FEMPI reductions. The position of the public services committee of Congress is a reasonable one.

And, in an age in which politics isn’t trusted, I’d go further.

I think there is a moral duty to restore public-sector pay. I don’t regard the restoration of pay levels to those of a decade ago as extravagant.

Those salaries were cut, during the recession, on the de facto grounds that a financial emergency existed. The Minister for Public Expenditure, Paschal Donohoe, has to formally restate the existence of that emergency each year, or the legislation underpinning the cuts falls.

The implication of this approach is clear. Pay levels must be restored when the emergency has ended.

As of this year, we have been able to increase current and capital spending, reduce taxation, and balance the budget. It’s hard to call that an emergency.

Yes, challenges lie ahead and the report makes that clear. But dreaming up future horrors as a way of denying people fair play now is no long-term strategy.

I suspect that people’s fear that governments can no longer enhance their living standards is at the heart of the rise in populism, both in Europe and elsewhere. The idea that we face a similar meltdown as 10 years ago is scaremongering. Enough is enough.

Public service unions have both been quite reasonable and responsible about this.

But even from the State’s perspective, nine years after the first pay cuts, it is no great act of largesse to contemplate going to the next stage. Minister Donohoe’s reference to there being no ATM is gratuitous.

Pensions have also been to the fore of late. Again, much rhetoric. The pre-2013 scheme delivers a benefit to public sector pensions, while the post-2013 scheme is on a par with good, private sector schemes.

Labour will allow the public service unions to represent their members in this regard.

It is hardly possible that we will, after 10 years of austerity, see a successful pay round that reduces the terms and conditions of public servants. We will never put our recession behind us, or deal with the attractiveness of rank populism, if we don’t move on.

Instead of the mantra that resources are tight, the Government should be looking at ways, within reason, to release resources to better our society.

Elements of the report could be problematic. Fast accrual of pensions for judges, gardaí, and the defence forces is a long-standing feature and should be approached with caution. Nobody was more vocal on this, in my time, than the judges.

Again, I’m sure the representative bodies are well able to look after the interests of their members, in this regard.

I’d point out, too, the plethora of non-public servants that works delivering public services, like those in the Section 38 health charity bodies for example, whose salaries were hit in the difficult times.

The Government bears a responsibility to ensure they now gain, too.

The report is clear. Public servants took a major hit in the recession. The report says numbers weren’t reduced to the same extent as in the private sector. But as I’ve pointed out endlessly, that is because the demand for public services increases in a recession.

Those who refer to this recruitment as an additional pay cost are missing the point.

The reality is that, as our population ages, we will continue to need more public servants, not fewer.

Brendan Howlin is the leader of the Labour Party


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