EACH year, the publication of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report is an occasion for despair, frustration, anger, and growing bewilderment.
Despair in that the incredible waste and excess uncovered could do so much to help those struggling each and every day to cling to the very fringes of this society; frustration that the waste and excess seem unchallengeable, permanent failings in our public life; anger that those responsible for this sinful waste are utterly insulated from anything that might be recognised as accountability or sanction; and bewilderment that we, like the proverbial rabbits permanently frozen in the headlights, put up with such immoral squandering as if it was entirely normal.
The business lobby, true to form, complains loudly about unacceptable inefficiencies and the obvious lack of professionalism. They, rightly, point out that huge, hard-won resources are wasted. They argue that taxes should not be increased until these issues — such as the fact that health insurance companies owed the HSE €290m for private patient income at the end of 2014 partially because the HSE can’t organise a proper billing service — are resolved.
This year, that lobby may point to the fact that the State spent more than €50m on the super-prison planned for Thorton Hall but that the C&AG said the estimated construction cost, an incredible €525m, is more than treble the bill anticipated when the site was purchased in 2005. Those lobbyists, however, might be less forthcoming about how bumper-harvest fees sought by their colleagues in the private sector might have contributed to those breathtaking figures.
Public sector unions will, as they always do, say the waste and inefficiency are just symptoms of an under-resourced, understaffed, and unloved system. Late-night radio will glow with assurances from union leaders that they are as offended as anyone and are anxious to help confront the waste — but only if they get more staff, more legislation, more resources, and are part of a “stakeholders’ consultation” like the one on junior cycle reform in our schools, which might well drag on for years and years. They will, naturally, dismiss as “an unwarranted attack on the public service” any suggestion that they are a part of the problem.
Government politicians will talk about anything else under the sun, but even so, it must be a coincidence that the €27bn capital plan was published yesterday.
Opposition politicians will sound grave and touchy-feely concerned, despite the fact that they, in a former life, were the very people who fostered the culture of immutable employment and unaccountability in our public service. They will hope that no-one points to the fact that the additional State borrowing undertaken as part of the bank bailout has cost us almost €9bn and more or less cancels all the State’s income generated by the bank guarantee — another legacy detail of the crisis they planted, germinated, and harvested.
But, believe it or not, change is in the air. Health Minister Leo Varadkar has warned HSE managers that, unless they resolve the hospital trolley crisis, some of them will lose their jobs. What a novel, convincing, and transformative idea.
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