Ministers squeeze out more spin, not savings

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Less than two weeks ago, the Taoiseach was confidently telling us that his Government was going to “squeeze the maximum” amount in savings from the Croke Park Agreement.

His assurance came on the back of a week of indecision and confusion from his Health Minister. There was to be no hesitation or confusion about this, though. The Taoiseach was serious about saving money and the centrepiece of his big squeeze was to be a massive overhaul of public service workers’ allowances.

This overhaul had been announced at last year’s Budget. So too were the targeted savings of €75m this year and €150m for next year. Since that announcement, his ministers (led by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin) have been scanning and examining the 1,100-plus allowances, squeezing them for savings.

Last Tuesday, we saw the fruits of their labours. After months of examining allowances worth €1.5bn, we were told that the most they could cut or change now is one. Their best attempt to “squeeze the maximum” will yield €3.5m this year. It is a derisory amount in the greater scheme of things. It is a shortfall of €71.5m on their own target announced less than a year ago.

If the man from Del Monte squeezed like this crowd, then orange juice would be the scarcest commodity on Earth.

The only surprise is that there is any surprise. This has been the Government’s modus operandi since even before taking office: promise big and hope no one notices how little you follow through on.

Cutting special allowances has been a long-time Fine Gael commitment so, surely, it is not as if they did not know what they were attempting. It was an unambiguous promise (Paragraph 18.8 on Public Sector Numbers and Payroll) in Fine Gael’s February 2011 manifesto.

It may be unfair to remind them of the FG manifesto as it also promised, in the area of health spending, that: “Significant savings will be found by reducing the cost of agency staff, taxis, absenteeism and non-core pay such as overtime and allowances … ” As we heard during the debate on Minister Reilly; rather than achieving “significant savings”, spending on most of these areas has increased since he took office.

But I digress. When the plan to overhaul allowances was announced at the Budget, we were told that this would effect a transformation of the system. It was one of Minister Howlin’s big ideas designed to achieve savings of €75m this year and €150m next year.

As recently as Thursday week back, he was still promoting it. On RTE’s Prime Time, Howlin was still talking about his plans to achieve savings for the Exchequer and the taxpayer.

The minister was eager to dismiss the media speculation that changes would only affect new entrants. He, too, was squeezing the Croke Park deal to deliver the maximum. While he would not commit to actual figures; he did hint that there would be sizeable savings. He mentioned a figure of €21m for what he called “ancillary things” that had built up over time. The viewer was left with the impression that was just part of the planned savings.

Looking back from the perspective of what we now know, you can see how he uses language to prepare for his ignominious climbdown. But what happened to the €21m between that Thursday and the following Tuesday? Was it lost? Did it ever exist?

Why was Minister Howlin talking publicly of cuts of at least €21m only a few days before he went to Cabinet with proposals for one cut for only €3.5m?

As we see more clearly with every passing week, about the only thing this Government squeezes successfully is every last ounce of spin and publicity from every announcement. It is a talent we can expect to see employed more, though I predict with decreasing effect, over the coming months.

The publication last week of more grim unemployment numbers and CSO figures highlighting the weakness of the domestic economy will not be wished away with any amount of spin and rhetoric.

Ministers in this Government are expert at telling us what they plan to do — 18 months on, isn’t it time they started to show us?

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