Wicklow TD attacks increments

21st December 2011

Wicklow-East Carlow TD Simon Harris made headlines in December as he launched an attack on public service pay increments, as the issue drew more focus in the aftermath of Budget 2012.

Deputy Harris was addressing Minister Brendan Howlin at the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee. He said that if the Croke Park agreement was to get the support it needed from the wider public, the issue of awarding incremental pay increases for staff next year would have to be addressed.

“The elephant in the room in this is next year and the increments. It’s being discussed in the media, it’s being discussed at kitchen tables throughout this country. Can you explain the rational behind the increments next year? Will there be anything given in return to the Irish taxpayer and to the consumer of the public service rather than somebody just being there for a certain number of years just getting a pay increase, which is effectively what it is” he said.

IMPACT made contact with Deputy Harris following the publication of his comments in the Irish Times. The union’s communications officer Niall Shanahan outlined the significant progress and savings already made and verified under the terms of the Croke Park agreement, and also addressed the issue of increments in the public service.

Niall explained to Deputy Harris that, in the context of those significant savings that have been made and the continuing commitment by public service workers to ensure that services are maintained an improved as part of the agreement, a freeze on pay increments would penalise the lowest paid in the public service, especially younger workers, who are struggling most.

“Lower paid public sector workers have much further to travel before reaching the top of their salary scale, while the higher paid reach the top of their scales after a much shorter period of service” he said.

He added, “It is highly likely that many in these higher posts already have reached the top of their scales and so would be unaffected by stopping increments. Any such measure would, therefore, have an immediate and disproportionate effect on younger public service workers, and lower paid workers with shorter service regardless of their age.

“For many of them, their next pay increment will, in all likelihood, be swallowed whole by this year’s budget. Future austerity budgets are likely to have the same effect each year. That’s because the cost of every tax increase, every spending cut and every new charge is also borne by every public service worker. Despite the language used to describe public service workers (‘protected’, ‘insulated’ etc.), they pay their way, the same as every other worker.

“These are the same workers who have committed themselves to the programme of change and improved service delivery under the Croke Park agreement. They are the workers who will face the challenge of making sure there are no gaps or shortfalls in our public services as the number of workers are reduced by tens of thousands.

“To lose their next increment would create a huge inequity as their more senior colleagues would be unaffected. And any such move would also have a further devastating effect on domestic demand, the real enemy in this time of economic turmoil.

“You will be aware that public service gross pay was cut by an average 14% (through direct pay cuts and the introduction of the so-called ‘pension levy’) before the Croke Park agreement came into force. Pay for new entrants has been reduced by an additional 10%, which means that new entrants to the public service are being paid almost a quarter less than in 2008. CSO figures show that average public service weekly earnings fell by a further 0.5% in the year to September 2011, while average private sector earnings increased by 2%.”

The letter concluded, “Reductions in public expenditure and staffing are difficult for those who use public services, as well as for public servants themselves. We are currently about half way through a difficult reduction in public service numbers from over 320,000 to less than 280,000. The Croke Park agreement acknowledges that this cannot be done without substantial reforms in the workplace and in the delivery of public services, and public servants and their unions are working daily to deliver those reforms.”

Deputy Harris responded to the letter, acknowledging the ‘considered comments’ on public sector increments. “To give you some background to the media coverage on this, I raised a number of issues with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform including the Croke Park agreement at yesterday’s Public Accounts Committee.

“I do feel that this is a legitimate exercise given that the PAC is tasked with oversight of public expenditure. During that exchange, I noted the positive results which had been delivered by the agreement and also concurred with the minister about the importance of recognising the excellent work done by many public servants.

“Please be assured that I am not against the concept of increments. I simply asked the minister to outline the narrative behind proposals to pay increments next year and the minister responded to that” he said.