IMPACT members working in local authorities have been urged to resist moves to ‘erode local government by stealth’, and to prevent the further removal of quality services from local authority control.
Shane Lambert, chairperson of the union’s local government division, told delegates at the union’s local government biennial conference today that local authority services that had already been removed to other agencies or privatised, had run into difficulties.
Mr Lambert said “My concern now is that we are witnesses to a process that will see local government functions, in practical terms, eroded to the point of non-existence. This cannot be allowed to happen.”
Mr Lambert told delegates that European countries are currently debating the issues of sovereignty and local democratic control. “We need to have this debate in Ireland too, across all of civic society. The alternative is to let the entire country sleepwalk into a catastrophe of privatised and/or centralised services without accountability or oversights – certainly not at local level. We could end up being the only European country without a functioning local democracy and an accountability for local services. If that’s where we’re going – and the erosion of services to date suggests we are – then It’s time to shout ‘stop’” he said.
“Cuts to our library, housing and homeless services have continued, and we’ve witnessed the collapse of social housing projects in areas of disadvantage, such as O’Devaney Gardens in North inner city Dublin. Staff numbers continue to fall and central government has laid out its plans to reduce the scope of local government. But at what cost will this vision of a consolidated local government sector be achieved?
“Local government employees have a proven record of providing top quality services. As a member of the public who is also availing of those services, I value them. But the value we place on those services as consumers isn’t recognised. How else can you explain the removal of higher education grants and the transfer of driving licence processing to the Road Safety Authority?
“Both of these are good examples of excellent services that were valued by the public. But they were taken from us and re-routed with private sector suppliers inserted into the supply chain. Both have been beset by problems and delays ever since” he said.
Mr Lambert said that the transfer of waste collection in Dublin to private operators had led to a legacy of problems. “Dublin City Council ignored IMPACT’s warnings, and our advice, against the turning over of domestic waste collection to private operators. That decision has left a legacy of widespread fly-tipping and illegal incineration in suburban green spaces. It has also seen a deterioration of services in disadvantaged areas where waivers no longer apply. This has led to an increase in levels of illegal dumping, a crisis which Dublin City Council has itself acknowledged.”
Mr Lambert said that reductions in staffing and budgets had led to huge challenges in maintaining local authority services to the public. The local government sector has seen the biggest proportion of staff cuts in the public service. Numbers have reduced by more than 6,400 since 2008, 18% of the workforce.
On the creation of Irish Water, as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis, Mr Lambert said that the union was working hard to ensure that the jobs and expertise of existing water infrastructure staff is protected through service level agreements.
‘Croke Park II’ talks at the LRC
Mr Lambert said the union had insisted on improvements for IMPACT members when it emerged that the Government was willing to make further concessions to the original Croke Park proposals.
“Our first priority was to ensure that IMPACT members would not be subject to legislation that imposes a worse package than the LRC proposals we voted for in our ballot. We achieved that protection this week – just as the Government prepared legislation to impose permanent pay cuts, indefinite incremental freezes and other changes on public servants whose unions cannot reach a collective agreement.
“Our second priority was to make sure that, if there were any changes to the package, they would not erode the terms of the original LRC proposals. That has also been secured. Our third priority was to ensure that any improvements in the package agreed for members of other unions would also go to IMPACT members. That has been secured too. IMPACT then fought for further improvements specific to IMPACT members” he said.
The union’s civil service division is also meeting in Wexford. Chairperson Eugene Dunne told delegates “This continues to be the most challenging and difficult period in the union’s history – perhaps in the history of Irish trade unionism itself. An era of pay cuts and austerity budgets, which have hit the low paid hardest, while leaving the richest in society as comfortable as ever. Despite this, the efforts of activists like yourselves have ensured that our union is remaining – and can remain – relevant to our members in the civil service and beyond.”
The conference runs until Friday May 24th.