Dáil Éireann - Volume 571 - 01 October, 2003
Private Members' Business. - Benchmarking Pay Award: Motion (Resumed).
The following motion was moved by Deputy Allen on 30 September 2003:
That Dáil Éireann resolves that payment of the remaining phases of benchmarking be suspended pending implementation of a serious reform package which would yield improvements in the quality of services delivered to the public, commensurate with the extra cost involved.
Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “Dail Éireann” and to substitute the following:
– the benchmarking exercise under the PPF was an important initiative in developing a better system of pay determination in the public service;
– payment of the second and third phases of the increases recommended by the Public Service Benchmarking Body and of the general round increases under Sustaining Progress is conditional on the maintenance of industrial relations peace and on progress on modernisation in the public service; and
– effective verification processes have been put in place to ensure that these conditions are met.”
–(Minister for Finance).
Mr. Cullen Mr. Cullen
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Cullen): I wish to share time with Deputies Callanan, Killeen, O'Connor and Tony Dempsey.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. Cullen Mr. Cullen
Mr. Cullen: In my contribution I intend to concentrate on two issues, the issue of equity, and the need to secure modernisation and flexibility in the public service with particular emphasis on the local government sector.
The fundamental principle governing public service pay policy must be that public service workers are entitled to be paid a fair reward for their work relative to people in the private sector who are doing similar work. People must not be treated differently or less favourably because they work for the State. It is not and never was the intention  in the benchmarking process that the public sector would lead the private sector in matters of reward. The public service benchmarking body was established to secure equity between employees in the public and private sectors and in effect this was being done on a catch up basis. This was recognised as eminently fair and reasonable at the time. What has happened since is that the payments arising from the report of the benchmarking body are falling to be made in more difficult economic circumstances. The Fine Gael motion therefore is grossly opportunistic and if acted on would be inequitable to all those public servants who submitted their case for adjudication by the benchmarking body.
The history of pay determination in the public service was one based on comparators with the private sector. However, the reality was that there were a small number of grades where a comparison was made and the majority of grades had their pay determined by means of long established and rigid relativities with these few grades. This relativity approach was not what was envisaged in a direct comparator pay determination system and created ongoing problems in the determination of public service pay. In this context the Government, other public service employers, the private sector and trade unions recognised in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness that the traditional approach to pay determination in the public service based on analogues and relativities gave rise to serious difficulties. They, therefore, committed themselves to a more modern and flexible benchmarking approach which would encourage and reward higher productivity and flexibility in the public sector.
The benchmarking exercise was a serious and thorough one. The benchmarking body collected evidence and information in respect of almost 140 public service grades; examined almost 4,000 individual jobs and interviewed almost 350 public servants. They also collected data from private sector employments in respect of almost 3,600 jobs covering over 46,000 employees.
The body considered a wide variety of issues such as public service recruitment and retention, equity between public service and private sector employees, the impact of pay on national competitiveness, the over-riding need for modernisation and change in the public service consistent with commitments in the PPF, the value of public service pensions relative to those in the private sector, and differences in conditions and benefits such as security of tenure and benefit in kind.
From a pay determination basis, the major effect on the remuneration of the benchmarked grades has been the severing of all previous pay links and establishing new absolute levels of pay for each of those grades. I am satisified that benchmarking is a better system of pay determi nation for public service workers. It meets all the criteria in relation to equity and fairness which were missing under the old arrangements.
In its report the body recognised that the flexibility and modernisation apparent in the private sector was not always replicated in the public sector. It also strongly recommended that implementation of the pay awards should be made conditional upon agreement on relevant modernisation and change issues at the appropriate local bargaining level. In the local government sector, real commitments have been given that will strengthen the process of quality public service delivery. Among the commitments given is the introduction of an agreed code of practice for maintenance of essential services during industrial unrest. This is an important development as the local government sector provides crucial services such as water and waste water facilities and the fire service. The commitment to extended opening hours for offices and other public facilities is also important where longer opening hours for facilities such as motor tax offices, libraries and public offices generally will improve the quality of public service delivered. A further commitment will allow for a cross sectoral review of issues relevant to recruitment at clerical-administrative level, including the introduction of recruitment of administrative staff to local authorities at graduate level. These commitments are tangible examples of the type of modernisation and flexibility required, evidence of which will be needed to secure the benchmarking payments.
An appropriate verification process has been established to ensure that benchmarking agreements are implemented. The latest social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, provides for the establishment of performance verification groups in the key sectors of the public service as recommended by the benchmarking body.
Each phase of the pay agreement together with the increases recommended by the benchmarking body is conditional on the performance verification process. Under this process each sectoral performance verification group has an equal number of management, trade union and independent members. The independent members have relevant expertise and include, where appropriate, representatives of the customers of the sector. The chair of the local government performance verification group has emphasised to management and unions the importance of tangible and measurable progress being achieved in advance of each agreed payment date as specified in Sustaining Progress.
This is the key element of the entire process. For too long we have had agreements which were not subject to specific verification and which were open to criticism against either side for less than full delivery of commitments. Payment is now conditional on the performance verification pro cess. Payments will not be made where commitments entered into have not been carried out.
In line with other sectors, action plans have been drawn up which detail the specific actions the local government sector will undertake to achieve each of the modernisation commitments agreed. Copies of the local government sector's action plan are in the Oireachtas Library. Commitments in the action plan will be verified by the performance verification groups before payment is made.
I turn to the question of funding for local authorities in respect of benchmarking. It is a matter for each local authority to determine its current expenditure levels for any year in the context of its annual budgetary process. Such expenditure is funded from a variety of sources including specific State grants, commercial rates, rents, fees and charges for services and general purpose grants from the local government fund. The issue of benchmarking as with all other current expenditure demands must be dealt with by local authorities in the context of this process.
The amount of funding made available to local authorities through the general purpose grants from the local government fund has grown to record levels in recent years. In 2003 a total of €626 million was allocated for such grants. To give an example of how the fund has grown, this amount represented an increase of 6.4% over the 2002 allocation and, to put it into perspective, is some 85% higher than the corresponding allocation for 1997. I intend that allocations from the local government fund to local authorities will, as far as possible, take into account both the costs facing authorities and the ability of authorities to meet such costs from local sources. The amount available for grants from the local government fund for 2004 has yet to be determined. However, I will notify authorities of their individual allocations as soon as possible.
The key challenge for the public sector generally, including the local government sector, is to demonstrate clearly that the benchmarking process is providing real benefits to the tax paying public who are meeting the cost. I will continue to press with managers and local elected members the necessity for real improvements in local government services in terms of efficiency, flexibility and access to be clearly seen on the ground.
Mr. Callanan Mr. Callanan
Mr. Callanan: It is strange that any party should ask the Government to break the agreement on benchmarking reached only last January with the social partners. This will probably put an end to the social partnership process which has served the country well since the late 1980s. Social partnership and industrial peace have helped to bring the country to where it is today. Benchmarking was decided by an independent body, chaired by a High Court judge, which took  submissions from all sides and decided on a rate of pay which was fair to employees of the public sector.
Does Fine Gael feel that our nurses, who work so hard treating higher numbers of patients than ever before, should not be paid the increases agreed under benchmarking? Does it feel that our teachers should not be paid benchmarking awards although we have the best educated workforce in the world? Should the Garda and civil servants, who are doing a fine job, not be paid the benchmarking awards? Is this what Fine Gael wants? I compliment the Government on keeping all agreements made under benchmarking and for making payments, as agreed, to all workers in the public service.
Now that benchmarking is agreed and every worker is on a proper level of pay, there is a case for doing away with percentage increases. In future, if the cost of living rises by €5 per week, everybody should get a €5 increase. Under a system of percentage increases, if there is an increase of 5%, the person on a €10,000 salary gets €500 of an increase while the person on €100,000 gets €5,000. This widens the gap and makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. I ask the Minister and those involved to look at this issue. To continue granting percentage increases after benchmarking is implemented is morally wrong.
I compliment the Minister for Finance on his stance and commitment to paying benchmarking awards to all our public sector workers as agreed. The best way forward is for Government and the public sector to work together in a strike-free environment to make the country a better place in which to live.
Mr. Killeen Mr. Killeen
Mr. Killeen: The social partnership agreements dating back to the 1980s have made a considerable contribution to the financial and economic well-being of the country. However, in recent times one could be forgiven for concluding that they had done enormous damage and were single handedly responsible for all kinds of economic ills, real and imagined.
The current partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, has at its heart clear modernisation provisions for the public sector. Nobody, particularly in public life, could deny the great need for a fundamental examination of this aspect of the performance of the public sector back over a number of years and particularly facing into the future. The benchmarking process which has emerged under the current agreement embraces a full commitment to further development and accelerated implementation of frameworks in each sector of the public service. It will also play an important role in fostering stable industrial relations. Nobody can deny the importance of that nor can anybody underestimate the benefits which have flowed from the relatively stable  industrial environment here over the past 20 years.
As Deputy Callanan said, one of the effects of this motion would be to have the Government break an agreement which was only entered into in January. That would be a serious matter and would, inevitably, have the consequence of spelling the end of the social partnership process. It has become fashionable to deride this model but until such time as we have adequate alternatives we should cling dearly to it. It has served us well.
It is important to realise that the pay rises were recommended by an independent, highly qualified body which was chaired by a High Court judge. There has been some criticism because some of the material used by the body in reaching its conclusions was not published. Anybody who has taken the trouble to have even a cursory look at what was involved must realise that the information which was not published could not be published because it was given on the basis that it would remain confidential. It must remain so because of where it came from in the private sector.
There is also a failure to acknowledge that strict conditions are attached to payments of the benchmarking awards. More importantly, as the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, said, there is a verification process with an overseeing body. This body has quite a difficult job to do but it is an integral part of the agreement and will make the agreement worthwhile and significant. The verification process will constitute a modernisation of the partnership process which will de facto remove some of the deficiencies claimed in regard to it by its detractors.
The benchmarking body was set up in 2000 mainly to address the ongoing disruptive disputes in the public service area. At the time there had been quite serious difficulties in regard to nurses, the Garda and one of the teacher unions. Anybody who has looked carefully at industrial relations here would have said that this was inevitable since we had such a complicated system of relativities. This system inevitably led to leap-frogging and claims for catch-up pay rises. Many people would say that the real surprise was not that there were difficulties but that there were not even more. The system of relativities which had grown up was a recipe for disaster and it placed enormous pressure on the social partnership model. It also had a consequent negative impact on the delivery of services to the public. There were numerous calls for a better system from all interests and most commentators.
Benchmarking was the agreed system which emerged from the 1998-2000 negotiations. As part of the benchmarking initiatives, the unions agreed that the old relativities would be history. This is one of the most important elements of  benchmarking and at least as important as the verification process. The job of measuring wages in the public service by comparison with the private sector was undertaken in a professional independent manner over the two year period from the year 2000. I do not believe any politician can reasonably suggest we should revert to the practices of the bad old days. Inevitably, the result would be that public services would be disrupted and the pay increases negotiated for thousands of public servants, including health service employees, local authority workers, gardaí, teachers and civil servants, would not be paid.
Some commentators and interest groups like to bash the public service. Some do so for ideological reasons while others do so to advance their own financial interests. Political leaders must be willing and able to recognise the agenda of these powerful interests and must have the courage to support the work of the independent body which emerged with the agreement of all sides from this process. The body was chaired by a High Court judge and reached its recommendations in a professional and independent manner. Unfortunately, the Fine Gael proposal comes from the same school of economic management as the Eircom shareholder promise and the taxi compensation proposal.
The verification process has been outlined in considerable detail by the Minister. There is a considerable job involved which will require co-operation from participants on all sides and which would benefit from the support of political parties.
Finally, I will make a comment on the review body on higher remuneration in the public sector, which for 30 years or so has been charged with making recommendations in regard to the pay of Oireachtas Members. This body would not be popular with some elements of the media. Judging by the comments one would hear from some Members and people outside, there is a view that Oireachtas Members should be paid by butter vouchers and similar pieces of paper, whether negotiable or otherwise. It is not in our interest to allow ourselves go down that road.
Mr. O'Connor Mr. O'Connor
Mr. O'Connor: The best line of the night has gone to Deputy Killeen and I will not try to compete with it. Once again in Private Members' time our colleagues opposite are engaging in predictable public relations point-scoring. The only difference on this occasion is that the entire public service is at the receiving end. I grew up with the simple view that a deal made is a deal done and I hope that the business before us is not an exercise in talking about breaking partnerships or agreements or abandoning low grade workers in the public service.
I have mentioned on a number of occasions that I come to the Dáil from Tallaght every single day. Each day I meet public servants who work  in Tallaght Hospital, South Dublin County Council, the various health boards, Jobstown and Millbrook Lawns health centres and the social welfare office in the Square, all of whom do tremendous jobs and are worthy of our support. Did many of the Members opposite read the action plans from the various Departments in regard to benchmarking before bringing this motion before the House and engaging in their public relations exercise? Each report is 30 pages long on average. As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committees on Social and Family Affairs and Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, I have read the respective Departments' plans and noted a number of actions and performance commitments which will improve the level of service and efficiency within Departments. To deliver on both, the management and staff in many Departments will have to take steps forward together that were considered impossible before these action plans were drafted.
As the verification groups set up by this process are now taking initial update reports from the Secretaries General of the various Departments, their first report will show the benefits of the agreement. I remind Members opposite that opportunism at the expense of trust is a dangerous card for anyone to play and the people will not thank the Members of this House if we attempt to undo commitments, whether on income tax rates or wage increases for the public sector. Instead, Opposition Members should use their membership of the many Oireachtas committees to engage Departments, put forward our constituents' expectations and ensure the responsibilities of the public sector are met.
Benchmarking was initiated as a result of the drain on the public service and the inability to recruit employees into the public sector in the wild days of the late 1990s. It was meant to act as a one-off rebalance of earnings between the private and public sectors. Instead of accepting the offer when the State coffers could afford it, the unions bickered over the rates offered, the deal was delayed, times changed and it was rolled over into Sustaining Progress as a productivity package. As it has reached that point, the workers should be left to assist in the modernisation process and be judged on its results.
I do not support the motion before us tonight and urge the Members opposite to use this time in a constructive way by proposing to question the action plans and debate the verification groups' reports at committee level. I read somewhere that a man or woman once said that the train has left the station and is speeding down the track, but it is our duty to keep it on track rather than destabilise it. I look forward to backing public sector workers in Tallaght, Dublin South-West, Dublin city and county and throughout the rest of the country. I propose to do just that at  8.30 p.m. when I vote with the Government and oppose this motion.
Mr. R. Bruton Mr. R. Bruton
Mr. R. Bruton: I hope the Deputy listens to the debate rather than scurrying out of the House like his colleagues.
Mr. O'Connor Mr. O'Connor
Mr. O'Connor: The Deputy knows that in the year and a half I have been in the House, I have never interrupted my colleagues, nor will I. I will listen to the Deputy because I am one of his admirers, although I hope he will not tell anyone.
Mr. R. Bruton Mr. R. Bruton
Mr. R. Bruton: The admiration is mutual.
Mr. O'Connor Mr. O'Connor
Mr. O'Connor: There are many people whom I admire on the Opposition benches and I will continue to listen to these debates and admire the work Members do. Whatever our party allegiances, we ought to admire colleagues who stand up for what is good and right. The Deputy makes the odd good speech and I am happy to listen to him and look forward to more.
Mr. T. Dempsey Mr. T. Dempsey
Mr. T. Dempsey: I am overwhelmed by the mutuality of admiration between Deputies Richard Bruton and O'Connor.
Mr. O'Connor Mr. O'Connor
Mr. O'Connor: I admire the Deputy too.
Mr. T. Dempsey Mr. T. Dempsey
Mr. T. Dempsey: I read recently that an OECD survey rated Irish workers as the third most productive in the world. It is reasonable to assume that our workers in the public service are equally productive since they come from the same planet, environment and background. Another statistic in the same survey listed Ireland as having an unemployment rate of less than 5%, which economists regard as full employment, since anything below 6% is regarded as such. This is another healthy economic indicator.
These indicators and others, such as that of Ireland having the lowest tax wedge in Europe, have not been achieved because of any unilateral performance by IBEC, employees or any one player. Rather, all the main players have been brought together, mainly through social partnership. As a former teacher, I believe that the work of public servants has too often been unrecognised and I am glad the benchmarking body has recognised that public servants play an important role in economic growth and have contributed equally to recent healthy economic performance when compared to other players.
All our economic progress has been based on social partnership and the most recent agreement, Sustaining Progress, recognises that significant progress has been made in modernising the public service. Those of us who have worked in the public service at different levels agree that such modernisation was needed. A cornerstone of Sustaining Progress is a commitment to achieving a healthy industrial relations envir onment, ongoing flexibility and commitment to change, improved performance and accountability, revised recruitment arrangements and a continued partnership approach. The achievement of any one of these aims would be tremendous. I have no doubt but that benchmarking action plans will include the achievement of all the above and other measurements of advancement and modernisation.
Let us look at benchmarking as an opportunity to buy industrial peace and recognise the value of the public service and, above all, use it as an opportunity to modernise our public service. The Government is a huge employer with 300,000 employees and it is also the watchdog of the taxpayers' money. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Government to get value for money. That will be achieved through the performance verification groups. For the first time in a realistic way, public service performance will be measurable. To renege on a freely entered-into agreement would be an unprecedented breach of good faith and would spell the end of social partnership since employees would never again trust the Government. Therefore, it is inconceivable that we would consider it at this time.
Mr. O'Connor Mr. O'Connor
Mr. O'Connor: Hear, hear.
Mr. T. Dempsey Mr. T. Dempsey
Mr. T. Dempsey: It is interesting to note the role of the Minister for Finance in the benchmarking process. I have often heard him vilified by Opposition Members as a friend and promoter of the rich. However, it now appears he is the promoter of fair play for public servants. His global approach has typified his sense of fair play in the economy.
The performance verification groups will be the measure of the benchmarking awards. The groups will verify, analyse and scrutinise areas such as customer service. This might well be a chance for consumers who will be guaranteed a level of customer service commensurate with what we are entitled to. There must be efficient use of resources, better regulation, stable industrial relations, performance management systems, modernisation and flexibility, new technology in Government, strengthening recruitment practices, improving promotion systems, partnership and equality. Anything that enhances equality in a democracy must be admired rather than avoided.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I wish to share my time with Deputies Boyle, Harkin and Finian McGrath.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: While Sinn Féin totally disagrees with the Fine Gael motion, it welcomes  the opportunity it offers to speak on the need for a new alignment in Irish politics. There is a myth that all of us on this side of the House are united against the Government. Sinn Féin has never subscribed to that. We make our judgment based on the policy and record of the parties both in and out of Government. Fine Gael is clearly going back to its ultra-conservative roots. This motion is in line with Fine Gael's calls for the wholesale privatisation of public services and the selling off of State assets. Regrettably, it is taking its rightful place, and the right in Irish politics, alongside the Progressive Democrats and the leadership of Fianna Fáil today.
This motion indicates that real opposition to the Government's right wing policies is not led by the conservative views in Fine Gael, the so-called leading party in opposition. The potential, therefore, for real and effective opposition clearly resides in the parties of the broad left and the alternatives expressed in this House. These include Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, the Green Party and the progressive Independent Deputies. Together they outnumber the Fine Gael Deputies and led the opposition to Irish Government collusion in the invasion of Iraq earlier this year. They have a strong common line between them. They have also strongly opposed Government cutbacks and the right wing thinking behind them. I want to repeat a call I made last week for closer co-operation between the broad left in this and future Dáil terms. This motion clearly demonstrates how important that is.
This is an extraordinary motion. It calls on the Government to renege on an agreement made with tens of thousands of Irish workers in the public service. If the Government were to adopt this approach it would be tearing up the Sustaining Progress agreement reached with the trades unions and employers earlier this year. Workers would quite rightly be up in arms at such an attack on their living standards. It must be remembered that the pay increases in the agreement, and in its predecessors, were in many instances quite modest, particularly for already low paid workers. Despite all the hostile propaganda about the public service, many people still receive pay which is low in comparison to similar jobs in the private sector. Now Fine Gael wants to deny these workers the hard won gains they have belatedly made after all the years of economic upturn.
I agree that we need better services from all who work in the public sector, including TDs – perhaps especially TDs. We need value for money and we need to stamp out the kind of woeful organisation, bad decision making and mismanagement highlighted in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. Real improvement in public services will be based on a strategic decision by Government that the State must lead the way to a fairer economy and a fairer society.  Instead we have the total reliance on the market to address housing needs, the favouritism towards the private health business and the health sector and the creeping privatisation of public transport to which all these parties adhere.
Sustaining Progress and its predecessor agreements have been rightly criticised for focusing on pay above all else. The reality is that the process of so-called social partnership has delivered on pay for some sectors of the workforce but it has been a failure in terms of bringing about real social inclusion and real improvement in vital public services such as health, education and housing. This motion will make a bad deal and a bad situation much worse and I strongly urge its absolute rejection.
Mr. Boyle Mr. Boyle
Mr. Boyle: The report of the review body on benchmarking was one of the more interesting publications released in recent years. In some respects it could almost be classified as a thriller, not of the “who done it” variety but of the “how done it” variety, because the worthy people of the review group produced comparisons with jobs in the private sector that were not identified and were not justified in terms of how the comparisons were made. It is deeply flawed as a process and questions could be asked as to how the decisions were arrived at.
Its entrenchment in the Sustaining Progress document means it is an agreement that must be honoured and cannot be reneged on. In questioning benchmarking, there should be a recognition that benchmarking was the result of an attempt to bring about fairness within public sector pay. The vast majority of public sector workers earn below the average industrial wage and a mechanism had to be devised to bring these wages up to speed. Unfortunately, many of the mechanisms used in successive wage agreements and national partnership agreements have always concentrated on percentage rises. This meant that whatever those at the bottom of the scale were getting, those at the top were getting proportionately more because their income was already higher. If an argument can be made on benchmarking, those few in the public service who are already achieving prominent salaries – I include many in this House – would need to justify it by way of a number of mechanisms which we certainly have been unable to identify. While this matter has been referred to by other Members and the media in recent times, I cannot understand why those of us in the public sector who get paid a commensurate wage should be involved in a process from which we benefit most and to which we do not contribute in a significant way.
The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General indicates a need for some relationship between either performance related pay or a degree of responsibility for decisions made by highly paid people who take risks with the public  purse. However, for the vast majority of public sector workers who have been badly paid and need to have their wages brought up to speed, there can be no argument that this type of broad brushstroke approach cannot be accepted. I understand why Fine Gael feels the need to take this approach. Its members feel they are returning to their roots but some roots should be left to wither and die. The roots that produced the Ernest Blythe budget of one shilling off the pension, the 1981 budget of the tax on children's shoes, shoes being worn by women, should be left behind. There are better vines that can prosper and still give the impression that it is possible to be more prudent with the public finances than this Government has been.
The Government knows how to spend public money. It spends vast amounts but the return on that expenditure is poor. The debate on public spending should cover issues such as the cuts the Government introduced this year and those which are likely to be introduced in a more stringent form next year. If the Government and Fine Gael have taken solace from the recent MRBI poll which indicated the public would much prefer cuts in public services to increases in taxes and more borrowing, they should follow that advice and outline which public services should be cut. They should identify the cuts in the health service, education and social welfare and see the public's reaction. The opinion poll highlights that if a silly question is asked, a silly answer will be provided. People will not say they want to pay more taxes but they will want better public services. The Government should learn from its current lack of popularity that it has failed to provide adequate infrastructure for public services. This is a commentary on mismanagement by a Government that is not prepared to deliver services to the standards expected by the public.
This debate needs to cover another issue. Public expenditure needs to be controlled and public money needs to be expended properly. The Government wants to change the agenda by providing less money for vital services. The benchmarking commitment should be honoured to make sure low and poorly paid public sector workers are given proper recognition.
Mr. F. McGrath Mr. F. McGrath
Mr. F. McGrath: I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I have major concerns about the motion and I will fight any attempt to suspend payments to thousands of public sector workers. I do not accept the tone of the motion as I have witnessed at first hand the massive changes taking place in our public services. Public servants deserve every cent of the proposed increase and, given the increased cost of living generally, they are only catching up. We all support reform of our public services and increased efficiency but punishing workers is not the way to deal with this issue. I resent the new  anti-public service mentality in society, which I call the “Ryanair syndrome”.
I remind Members of the primary school teachers who train teams after school, look after the choir, work with children with disabilities and give grinds in Irish outside regular hours; the cleaning department workers who clean our streets in the middle of the night and often work anti-social hours; and the nurse in the firing line of an accident and emergency department on a Saturday night. Those are examples of productivity and top quality public service.
I refer to the teaching profession. Teachers deserve every cent they have been awarded under benchmarking based on my experience as a primary school teacher in the inner city for more than 20 years. I support their interests in the debate because it is in the interest of the wider community and that is why I oppose the motion. The first phase of benchmarking, backdated to 1 December 2001, was paid to teachers on 5 June 2003. The INTO pressed for early payment of the benchmarking award and primary teachers were the first major group in the public service to receive it. The allowance for supervision duties was paid to most teachers on 14 August 2003. This is against a 100 year background of teachers working through lunch breaks and supervising children, and was well deserved. On 1 January 2004 the next phase of benchmarking, 6.5%, and the first payment under the new national agreement, 3%, are due to be paid. Does Fine Gael want to suspend these payments? This needs to be clarified, given the anger among thousands of public sector workers.
I strongly support the position of my union, the INTO, which rejects recent attacks on the benchmarking award. The motion is ill-judged and ill-informed. A leading Opposition party is taking the IBEC line on this issue. Right of centre economic policies never work and it is up to all Opposition Members to say this and stand up for our public servants. The recent OECD report demonstrated that Irish teachers are performing well in spite of inadequate funding, large classes and a lack of support for the 90,000 pupils living in poverty. However, the Government now wants to hammer children with disabilities by removing their special needs assistants. These issues should be debated and not the threat of suspension of a wage deal agreed by all the social partners. I had major reservations about the agreement, as Senator O'Toole, who is present, will confirm. However, negotiators reached an agreement and the vast majority of trade union members supported it. I have concerns about the exclusion of the poor but there was a ballot and public servants accepted the deal. We cannot tear up this agreement and refuse to pay workers.
These are the realities of the benchmarking debate. Let us make sure we look after our public  servants while ensuring quality public services. I urge the House to reject the motion.
Ms Harkin Ms Harkin
Ms Harkin: Yesterday, the Comptroller and Auditor General published his annual report, which outlined the financial implications of a number of different schemes and the workings of Departments. However, neither the House, the Department of Finance nor, more than likely, the Comptroller and Auditor General will ever be able to examine the rationale behind the benchmarking recommendations because the information is not available. During the last session, we witnessed the gutting and emasculation of the Freedom of Information Act 1997 and we moved to a position where freedom of information was no longer seen as an integral part of the business of Government but rather as a nuisance and something to be barely tolerated. As a consequence, some Government business is no longer open to public scrutiny and we are presented with a fait accompli. We were not presented with the rationale underpinning the decision reached on the benchmarking award. This is an important issue in its own right, aside from the rights or wrongs of benchmarking, but the lack of transparency and accountability in this process must be addressed.
While I do not agree the payment of benchmarking awards should be suspended, the recommendations of the public service benchmarking body should be strictly adhered to, particularly where the body recommends that the payment of the awards, apart from the first 25%, be made conditional on relevant modernisation and change issues at the appropriate local bargaining level. The body asserts its firm expectation that outputs will be delivered and if they are, then benchmarking will deliver value for money.
It is important to broaden the debate. While money and availability of resources are at its core, the maintenance of industrial peace and the importance of sustaining the partnership process, as expressed in the new national agreement, are also critical. Employees are not only units receiving a salary and they should not be viewed merely as a cost to the Exchequer. They are partners in ensuring a better delivery of services to the public. If the benchmarking process delivers that outcome, it will have been a success.
If the Government were to suspend the payment of the benchmarking awards, it would break its agreement with the social partners and that would lead to unnecessary and damaging industrial unrest. It would devalue, if not preclude, further agreements between the Government and the social partners. That would be a serious outcome, which should not be contemplated. Benchmarking came about because salaries in the public sector had fallen behind the private sector. One of its objectives was to close that gap and this issue is important to public sector workers. If  such workers were to see the increases promised under benchmarking disappear in front of their eyes, there would be a great deal of anger. While I fully appreciate the financial imperatives behind the motion, I do not consider that public sector workers should bear the burden alone because that is untenable. We are facing a tight fiscal regime and savings will have to be found. A good place to start is with some of the recommendations in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General which details serious overruns, massive overspending and huge waste of public money.
There has been much talk about benchmarking for politicians. We too must be subjected to that regime. However, to some extent benchmarking is already built into our work. When we stand for election we are, to some extent at least, benchmarked.
Ms Enright Ms Enright
Ms Enright: I propose to share my time with Deputies Stanton and Timmins.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Ms Enright Ms Enright
Ms Enright: In recent years the taxpayer has increasingly become the victim of a rip-off culture where individuals pay through the nose for basic goods and services, where value for money is not part of how the Government does things and where the waste of public moneys is endemic. This waste cuts across all sectors, public and private, and all Departments. The report issued yesterday demonstrates how the Government has squandered money in recent years. I will give three examples. The State is exposed to a possible liability of €1 billion in a deal with the religious congregations conducted behind closed doors and without adequate advice. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform acquired five buildings and sites at a cost of €19 million which subsequently it could not use. One third of fines imposed by the courts on tax dodgers have never been collected. These random examples clearly show that value for money is not a priority for the Government. This is why we must look seriously at all expenditure to see if it meets real and transparent value-for-money criteria.
Benchmarking offered the Government a golden opportunity to bring about clear and quantifiable improvement in public services and efficiencies in the public sector. This opportunity was missed and we are now facing the huge benchmarking bill without the necessary and quantifiable improvements. The Government has linked the benchmarking process to the achievement of industrial peace in the public service. However, this peace has been the objective of all previous pay and partnership agreements. The Government seems now to be suggesting that this time peace in the public service has to be paid for  twice, once through the 7% increase across the board and a second time through benchmarking.
One of the stated objectives of the benchmarking body was the need to ensure equity between employees in the public service and the private sector. However, the absence of a performance-related pay element in the awards creates an obvious inequity between both sectors. Additionally, the absence of performance-related pay creates an inequity within the public sector where the increases are awarded to every individual in the relevant grade, regardless of individual performance.
We have seen the publication of some benchmarking action plans within the public service. Broadly speaking, these action plans have clarified only the definition of vagueness and make the benchmarking increases unjustifiable based on the outputs suggested. Many of the plans simply list job descriptions without a focus on improvements in efficiency or in service. There are also specific examples of where commitments in earlier wage agreements are now included as part of the justification for the payment of benchmarking.
For example, the commitment to hold half of all parent-teacher meetings outside school hours to facilitate parents has not been implemented as expected. Five pages of Sustaining Progress (Social Partnership Agreement) 2003-2005 are devoted to the modernisation of the education sector. Many of these recommendations are not excessive but here, as in earlier agreements, are proposals concerning the holding of parent-teacher meetings. A commitment was given to hold parent-teacher meetings half within, half outside normal school hours, and this is agreed. I have heard that this is not being delivered in the spirit expected. Holding meetings half within and half outside normal school hours must mean, in any reasonable reading of the agreement, that every second parent-teacher meeting will take place at night. It is apparent that an arrangement of this type could facilitate working parents who are not always available to meet teachers during the day and would be of great assistance to many thousands of parents around the country who have work commitments during school hours. However, I have already heard of cases where teachers have plans to introduce this arrangement in a way which will not mean holding meetings at night and will result in little or no reduction in the inconvenience suffered by parents.
Take, for example the situation in a primary school that usually closes at 3 p.m. I have heard of one case where parent-teacher meetings are being held between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. This is within the letter of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work, but any meeting held at 4 p.m. is of no great advantage to parents. I do not accept that this is within the spirit of the agreement. I spoke to one teacher during the week at  12 p.m. I asked him how he could answer his mobile telephone. He told me he had a day off in lieu for holding parent-teacher meetings outside school hours. I do not believe that is in the spirit of the agreement either.
Deputy Finian McGrath, who has left the Chamber, has expressed major reservations about this agreement. However, to express major reservations and want nothing done is total hypocrisy. He and others have strongly criticised the deal the Government negotiated with the religious orders and have advocated that the Government renegotiate it and do a better job of it. Why do they not want to do a better job on this? That question clearly has to be answered.
Mr. Stanton Mr. Stanton
Mr. Stanton: I support this motion that Dáil Éireann resolve that the payment of the remaining phase of the benchmarking be suspended pending implementation of a serious reform package which will lead to improvements in the quality of services delivered to the public, consonant with the extra costs involved. It is important that we debate this matter and I am glad it is being debated in the Chamber because this is the place to debate it. I am glad people are saying that the public service is important. It is not only important, it is vital to the future success of our economy and our society. It is right that members of the public service are adequately paid for the work they do. It is also right that we know what is going on, that the verification procedures are clear.
Last night the Minister for Finance spoke about the action plans on his Department's website. I examined them today and it seems that many of the issues involved in the action plans relate to work in progress. On the website there is reference to historical improvements that have been put in place. There are also certain aspirations. However, the aspirations for the future are woolly. It appears that a circular was sent around to various Departments which were asked to submit their plans to the Department of Finance, and they did that. However, much of the language is difficult to understand. I would like the Minister to outline in clear English what is being delivered in every area. I do not want to see convoluted legal language, I want to see sentences that are easily understood. If that is put on the website or published, that would be fair to people who probably deserve the benchmarking payments.
Many commentators inside and outside the country have alluded to the fact that we live in different times than we did two, three or even six years ago when this Government took over from the rainbow coalition. The economy was in good order then. After six years of this coalition's rule, it is no longer in good order. We are now experiencing high inflation, high wages and very high  costs. People cannot afford housing and child care. They cannot travel from place to place. The question for everybody in society is whether we can afford to pay ourselves high wages. We did that in the past and ended up in an economic mess. This useful debate is urging caution. It is saying, “let us have clarity and let the public see what it is getting for its money.”
In regard to parent-teacher meetings, when I first began teaching these were held at night on a voluntary basis and teachers were not paid in respect of them. That changed and meetings began to be held during the day. As a teacher of almost 20 years' standing, I found it extraordinarily disruptive to have to break or miss classes during the day to meet parents, and parents found it difficult to leave their place of employment. I welcome the change whereby teachers will hold such meetings at night and be paid for doing so. I would like to see all parent-teacher meetings scheduled outside class times and at times that suit both teachers and parents.
An article by Mr. Seán O'Reagáin of the European Commission states:
Benchmarking is a tool for improving performance by learning from best practice and understanding the processes by which they are achieved. . . . Application of benchmarking involves four basic steps:
1. Firstly, understand in detail your own processes.
2. Next analyse the processes of others.
3. Then compare your own performance with that of others analysed.
4. Finally, implement the steps necessary to close the performance gap.
That is important because it applies in particular to Members of this House.
We need to benchmark how we do our work in this House. I do not refer to increasing the number of sitting hours, but to improving the quality of the work we do. When the Government decided that the Dáil should sit on Fridays before the summer recess, the Friday sittings involved many days of Second Stage speeches. Ministers were falling asleep as Members on this side struggled to come up with material to read into the record. It was absolutely pointless. Today's sitting included many hours of statements on the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and about 40 minutes of questions. Less than half of the time that is needed is provided for Question Time. With great respect, I guess that the Ceann Comhairle would like reform of the way we do our business in this House. I respectfully suggest that he hinted at this on more than one occasion when he said that Members should examine the way they do their business and change it if they are unhappy.
 I agree that we should benchmark our work to that of other Parliaments. If we change the way we do business in this House, perhaps we will be in a position to accept our benchmarking awards. I am interested in how one can compare oneself with others doing the same kind of work. Other Parliaments do not have the long breaks we have in this House and conduct themselves in a far more lively manner.
Mr. Timmins Mr. Timmins
Mr. Timmins: Having heard or read the speeches of Members from other parties, I am somewhat confused. It is strange that all speakers seem to have made the same point that is being made by Fine Gael. Most Deputies have sought a way out at the end of their speeches by saying that they favour the payment of the benchmarking awards. Deputy Ó Caoláin spoke of shortcomings in the health and education sectors, but my party put down this motion to highlight such issues.
Deputy Boyle spoke of Fine Gael's return to its roots. If I was asked to mention the one thing that distinguishes Fine Gael from other political parties, I would say that we do the right thing. People have asked why we have proposed this motion. I congratulate my party leader, Deputy Kenny, and our finance spokesman, Deputy Richard Bruton, for pushing out the boat on this issue. We have brought forward this motion because it is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do because we have no evidence of what the process of benchmarking entails. I am no wiser having read the Minister for Finance's speech than I was before I read it.
I have listened to a certain hypocrisy on this side of the House in recent months as regards the Government's secret deal with the religious orders. Members on this side claimed that it would cost about €300 million, then €500 million and now €1 billion. Most of the parties that have contributed to this debate support the benchmarking deal, which was also done in secret and which will cost €1.1 or €1.2 billion each year. When compared to the deal with the religious orders, this deal seems like the third secret of Fatima, whatever that may be. It may be the third secret of Fatima as we cannot find out its details.
Deputy Harkin said that she does not understand the benchmarking agreement, as it is not transparent. She is willing to support the benchmarking process, however.
It needs to be pointed out that we do not have enough money for the benchmarking deal. I could spend all night outlining a litany of things that we will not be able to afford as a result of the payment of the benchmarking award, but I will not bore people by doing so. Certain shortcomings would remain even if we did not pay the benchmarking moneys. Regardless of the fact that they have indicated that they do not support this motion, I believe that most Members of the  House, deep down, do not believe in the stance they are taking. I refer to Members on the Government side and of other parties on the Opposition side.
I am glad Deputy Ó Caoláin distinguished Fine Gael from other Opposition parties. The Minister for Finance has stated that benchmarking could have come at a better time. Before he became Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy built his reputation on his financial prudence, but his actions ever since have been anything but financially prudent.
Benchmarking originated during the boom times. Public servants felt that they were not being paid enough at a time when the cost of living was increasing. The Government did not do anything to address the cost of living issues, however. Rather than addressing the price of houses, the Government pursued a policy, after the second Bacon report, that drove housing investors out of the country. Billions of euro that was spent in the south of Spain and France at that time was lost to this country. Rental incomes went through the roof and there was a hugely negative impact on the construction industry at a time when it was cranking up to provide houses that would have gone a long way to solving our supply and demand issues.
One of the arguments used in support of benchmarking is that many people were leaving the public service to take up jobs in the private sector at the time to which I refer. Things have changed, however, and the employment opportunities that existed in the private sector are no longer there. We have to examine the phenomenon of public sector workers leaving their jobs to take up positions in the private sector, where they use the contacts they had built up in the public service to the advantage of their new employers, for example when lobbying. A former director of services with a local authority or a former departmental official, for example, may use his or her contacts when employed in the private sector. We have to consider prohibiting people from taking up a job in the private sector that could compromise the previous position they held.
I strongly believe that people have not yet digested the detail of the benchmarking scheme, but they will over time. Senator O'Toole compared the benchmarking system to an ATM, but he never mentioned who will put the money into the machine. About 7% of people work in the public service and it is the other 93% who are filling the ATM. When they realise that they are putting money in for public servants to take out at the other end, they will digest the detail of the benchmarking scheme.
The Minister for Finance mentioned that the benchmarking body is independent and distinguished, and I do not doubt that is the case. No reference has been made, however, to the fact  that one of the most distinguished members of the body resigned before the final report was published. I do not know why he resigned, but if I can make a presumption, I imagine that he resigned because he did not agree with the process or with the body's findings.
Some 21,000 public servants were recruited in the year preceding the general election. I have heard the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, speak about the fact that the number of staff employed by the Department of Agriculture and Food increased from 4,500 to 5,000 at a time when farm numbers were decreasing. I know that a former colleague of the Minister of State in the ICMSA has raised the issue in recent times. It is strange that the number of people employed in the public service is increasing as the number of people working in the agriculture sector is decreasing.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government spoke about local government. I discussed the forthcoming Estimates today with the county manager in a nearby local authority, which is not in a city. He told me he will need €5 million in the Estimates to be able to afford the pay increases that will result from benchmarking. The sad thing is that Deputies in Sinn Féin, the Green Party, the Labour Party and what Deputy Finian McGrath referred to as the “progressive socialists” – I did not know that such an animal existed – will be the very people who will not support the Estimates when they are produced. They will speak about the public being screwed to pay for certain services. It will be Fine Gael members, generally speaking, who will do the right thing once more by working within the system and supporting the process. Time will tell.
Performance verification groups will receive a great deal of scrutiny if the benchmarking scheme goes ahead. I do not know how they will be judged, but I am concerned. I spoke to many public servants who work in the health and education sectors in the weeks before my party discussed this policy and I was surprised that many of those to whom I spoke favoured the withholding of benchmarking payments as they were conscious of their impact on front-line services. The verification groups are in such a panic to justify their systems in many cases that they have pointed out that teachers have been there for 100 years. Surely one would have perfected the art of delivering a service after 100 years. Some of the work practices that may be introduced may hinder the delivery of services.
The Minister, Deputy McCreevy, spoke about putting payments to good use. One of the weaknesses in Fine Gael's policy of not making benchmarking payments is evident when one examines the other areas in which the money can be spent. It appears from the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General that giving money to the Government is the equivalent of giving money to  a drunken sailor going into Claude's amusements in Salthill. The only difficulty I have with my party's policy is that the Government might waste the money that would be saved.
I re-emphasise the reason Fine Gael brought forward this motion, which I commend to the House. We did it because it is the right thing to do. No one questions the difficult job done by public servants and we appreciate the service they deliver. However, this is the wrong thing to do and it is the wrong time.
Mr. Parlon Mr. Parlon
Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon): The motion proposed by the Minister for Finance reflects the reasoned and considered approach of the Government.
There has been much disinformation and confusion about benchmarking and about the increases awarded under the process. I heard some of this disinformation in the House this evening. Last evening the Minister for Finance quoted Deputy Enright calling, at the time of the the publication of the report of the benchmarking body, for the immediate payment of these increases to teachers.
Ms Enright Ms Enright
Ms Enright: Deputy Parlon should have have listened to the Minister's second sentence
Mr. Parlon Mr. Parlon
Mr. Parlon: Deputy Enright told us a little story about her friend, a teacher, who was given a day off in lieu of attending a parent teacher meeting. I am told on the very best authority that this is untrue and impossible. I recommend that she cite absolute and clear facts.
Ms Enright Ms Enright
Ms Enright: How did the Minister of State check that out?
Mr. Parlon Mr. Parlon
Mr. Parlon: I have my own information sources. I ask the Deputy to check her sources. It cannot happen.
Ms Enright Ms Enright
Ms Enright: My source is impeccable.
An Ceann Comhairle An Ceann Comhairle
An Ceann Comhairle: Opposition Deputies were allowed make their contributions without interruption. The Chair will insist in future that all Members, no matter which side they are on, are allowed make their contributions without interruption.
Mr. Parlon Mr. Parlon
Mr. Parlon: The benchmarking process was set up in 2000 under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. At that time we had come through a number of disputes. The causes of the disputes were not just the rising pay rates in the private sector but also the old system of pay determination in the public service. Under this old system pay increases were often based on pay relativities between different public service groups. This new system grew out of a problem that was always at the heart of the matter – how does one decide  pay levels in the public service? How, for example, does one decide the level of pay for a teacher or a soldier when the private sector comparators are not obvious? Consequently, over many years a system of pay relativities grew up. This system meant that groups were linked to other public service groups, sometimes where there was no work relationship. There was also leapfrogging of pay claims with groups trying to pull ahead of other groups, which in turn claimed for catch-up increases. This sometimes led to irrational pay increases where there was no linkage to the private sector and negotiating any changes in work practices was tortuous.
It was crystal clear to all who looked at the issue that this system could not and should not continue to determine the pay of public servants. Therefore a new and better way had to be found to resolve this problem. Following on from the initiative in 1998 the Government and the unions agreed that benchmarking could be such a way.
The body was set up under a High Court judge in 2000 and reported in 2002. It looked at a wide selection of jobs in the private and public sectors and compared pay rates, taking account of the differences between the two sectors. The average increase across the public sector was 8.9%. In the negotiations on the national agreement, Sustaining Progress, it was agreed that the payment would be phased in over a number of years, so lessening the impact on any one budget. In addition, payment was made conditional on the achievement of certain conditions. These conditions were industrial peace and meeting modernisation targets.
Some commentators have suggested that the conditions are not transparent or that they are not beneficial to the public. However, the first condition – industrial peace – is transparent. If there is industrial action it will be clearly seen and would, on the face of it, be in breach of the agreement. It also benefits the public since, as we all know, disruptions to hospital or school services impact on the users of the service and the community generally.
In previous national agreements we had provisions on industrial peace. However, these had only a limited effect in preventing industrial action. The provisions in Sustaining Progress are more categorical, the commitment by the public service unions on this issue are clear-cut and the machinery to ensure compliance is straightforward and simple. In terms of modernisation and flexibility, objectives are set out, both in the agreement and in the action plans that are required to be drawn up in each sector. These range from specific requirements to more general commitments by the unions to co-operate with ongoing change and give flexibility.
Mr. English Mr. English
Mr. English: What are they?
Mr. Parlon Mr. Parlon
 Mr. Parlon: These are not empty words. They are practical actions and they are written down. The general commitment to ongoing change will enable managers in the public service to improve services, either through technology or otherwise. This should lead to improvements in services to the public.
To ensure that the commitments are adhered to, a verification process has been set up. This requires that performance verification groups be set up in each main sector. These PVGs will represent employers and unions but will have a strong independent representation and an independent chair. They will continuously oversee the attainment of the commitments entered into by the unions.
The system will give value for money and improve public services. Benchmarking allows for a better approach to public pay determination. Once the conditions are met the Government will meet its end of the bargain. We cannot unaliterally break this agreement but we can ensure that it is successfully implemented, and we will.
Mr. R. Bruton Mr. R. Bruton
Mr. R. Bruton: Fine Gael's demand for the renegotiation of the benchmarking agreement has a number of origins. Benchmarking was a deplorable deal. The €1.1 billion cost will not be matched by any commensurate improvement in services. There will not be any value return to the taxpayer for the money involved. Ministers have not addressed this issue.
The Minister of State knows better than most that the economy is now under serious pressure. We have seen a serious deficit emerge in the public finances and we know the resources are not there to meet a dead weight deal such as this. The Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, knows this because he has been involved in the framing of the budget booklets that show the figures for next year. Neither he nor his colleague, the Minister for Finance, has addressed the question of how this deal is to be paid for.
In the present environment, the pay out of this deal will have two effects. First, it will inflict further pain on those who depend exlusively on public services to provide for them. Second, we will see an accelerated pattern of stealth taxes, service charge increases and so on. The Government will tax everything that moves in order to recoup this money. Public servants, as well as everyone else, will find this money filtered out of their pockets in all sorts of new charges before they even see it.
Sinn Féin Deputies, ostrich-like, chanted their old slogans about the right wing being anti-public service and wanting to bust the social partnership. That is not what Fine Gael is about. We are concerned with addressing serious issues about the nature of this deal, the way it was put together, how we are going to cope with the outfall and who is to pay for it.  These are the issues that should be debated and not the cant we have heard in the predigested Government scripts.
Benchmarking was to end historical relativities. This is almost the only line of the Minister of State's script with which I agree. That was only the starting point of benchmarking. The critical principles as to how benchmarking was going to be different were staked out. None of the Government speakers has addressed these in any way. The first of these critical changes was that co-operation with change and modernisation is not a basis for any pay increase. This is written in black and white in the terms of reference of the benchmarking agreement. Listening to Ministers one hears nothing but talk of change and modernisation being offered as justification for these increases. Maybe I should repeat this for slow learners. Change and modernisation and co-operation with them were not to be the basis of pay increases under benchmarking.
The extra payments were to be based on hard evidence. Deputy Harkin was right when she spoke about lack of transparency. Hard evidence was to be produced of recruitment difficulties experienced in the public service and of gaps in pay and performance requirements between the public and private sectors.
Three quarters of the award was to be conditional on real outputs that achieved delivery of improved public services as a result of a reform agenda. That was a radical departure. It was a process with very real potential and, as Deputy Stanton has said, it was about striving to achieve best practice and rewarding those involved in that achievement. It was to be extremely exciting and a great opportunity for the State to radically reform its public services. However, the Government completely blew this opportunity. The hard evidence which was supposed to be the basis of the awards was buried, shredded and never released. No taxpayer who will pay for the process will have seen a shred of evidence to support it. We are told about how independent the benchmarking group was, but the independent economist whose job it was to vet the way in which the evidence was used resigned. He did so precisely because he realised it was not being used in the way it was expected to be used when the benchmarking process was set up.
The second thing that happened was that the Government completely reneged on its responsibility to put in place a serious reform agenda that would make benchmarking worthwhile. There was no effort to advocate reform. Anyone who examines the action plans will note that not a single group involved in any of the negotiations was pushed beyond any of its established positions. The Government pulled back in respect of its responsibility and did not rock the boat. We are now paying for this.
 The Government totally capitulated on the principle that co-operation with change and modernisation would be the justification for pay awards. Instead of honouring the principle, it agreed to a hollow list of minor changes dressed up as the so-called action plans, which Deputy Stanton has admirably described as full of pious hopes and offering objectives for every existing activity but involving no serious change or commitment that things would be different in the delivery of health and education services such that we would see value for money. Value for money was to be the hallmark of the benchmarking process.
Every Minister has come into the House to state why the €1.1 billion payment is justified. It is not for the new public services for which we had hoped. The Ministers refer to industrial peace clauses knowing that these have featured in every single agreement under social partnership. We did not need to pay for the process twice. Everything that has been cited by Ministers – one can examine the record – is about timid moves towards promotion on merit, co-operating with new technology and pushing ahead with modernisation programmes. These are precisely the matters for which we were not to see payments made under the terms of reference. Breaking away from these was to be the distinctive element of what benchmarking was to be about.
The greatest laugh of all was to see the Minister for Education and Science herald in the House that parent-teacher meetings would be held half within and half without normal school hours. He did not advert to the very simple fact that this commitment was made not in the PPF or Sustaining Progress but in the PCW. This latter commitment is in the first of the agreements but still has not been delivered upon. The Minister offered the commitment as a reason benchmarking should be paid. Has one ever seen anything so threadbare? I do not know how he can stand over it.
Not one Minister has sought to demonstrate any tangible public service improvement that would be delivered through the process, nor has any Minister put any value on what would be on the other side of the balance sheet. We know the €1.1 billion will be paid out. Not one Minister identified the new services that we would see or stated what they would be worth. They did not do so because they know they cannot do so.
It galls me to hear Ministers hanging tough outside the House stating that they will end the endemic overtime in our prison system. These Ministers did not put that on the table when benchmarking and reform of the public service was to be negotiated and payments were to be made. There was not a word from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that he would put it on the table and make it conditional. Now we see Ministers scurrying for reform when they have no  money in the kitty, having blown the great opportunity that benchmarking offered them.
Who will carry the cost? This is the question that no Member on the Government benches addressed. We know that the €1.1 billion will not be matched by commensurate savings. Therefore, it will have to be found. The Minister for Finance has already published in his Budget Statement for 2003 the position in 2004. The Minister of State knows that we will have an opening Exchequer deficit of €3.5 billion. That is before the Minister will make any provision for phase II of benchmarking and therefore we are already dealing with a deficit figure of approximately €4 billion. He and his Department admits that we are half a billion euro off in terms of tax, bringing the deficit that has to be closed up to €4.5 billion. I would have expected a Minister for Finance faced with paying out part of this amount to state how he would handle the emerging deficit. I would have expected him to say, “Here is a serious problem facing an economy that is struggling to compete and in which families are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet as they face an explosion in the cost of living across a range of services.” However, there was not a single word about how the Minister proposes to close the deficit he says he will have.
These are not just arcane subjects of interest only to economists and students of public finance. They are critical because they will determine the job security of ordinary workers. If the Government reverts again to stealth taxation to close the deficit, as undoubtedly it will, it will undermine the competitiveness of jobs and put families to the pin of their collars to survive.
Last year 90% of the extra resources the Minister had available to spend on budget day were used to fund public pay after one excludes social welfare payments. This left only 10% for non-pay elements. What happened? The bureaucracy pre-empted all the money and therefore there were cuts in home help services and respite services, grants for the disabled were abandoned and beds were closed while people continued to be paid. There was an inability to deliver services because of the way the budget was put together. Next year, we will see that in spades.
Next year, according to the Minister's estimates, he will have €1.6 billion extra to spend. Assuming that he will allocate €0.5 billion for social welfare increases – it is not generous but the same as last year – he will be left with €1.1 billion to meet all the pay and non-pay elements. The pay round to which he is committed amounts to €0.54 billion and the benchmarking commitment amounts to €0.55, totalling €1.1 billion. The whole amount available for spending on new services next year is now committed to these public service pay increases. There is not a brass farthing available to fund services, open new beds, hire new home help staff, offer more respite care or  top-up grants for people with disabilities who need to adapt their homes. Not a Member who will enter the Chamber to oppose this motion has addressed this.
The same cycle will repeat itself. The Minister, who blew €5 billion on a reckless election binge, will make the most vulnerable pay for the pay deals in his next budget. It is a national imperative that we seek to renegotiate the agreements. Members have entered the House and said that Fine Gael is reneging on its commitments – even the Minister of State used this term. We are not, but we are seeking to renegotiate, just as the trade union movement renegotiated its deal and reached a new agreement when inflation was higher than it had expected.
We must renegotiate because the Government has failed the people by failing to have any serious reform agenda that would allow our public servants achieve, deliver and earn the pay they rightly deserve. To say this is some sort of assault on social partnership, as many have said, is wrong. It should be a feature of social partnership that one has the capacity to renegotiate when circumstances change. My party will not genuflect before the holy grail of social partnership and pretend that it is beyond question. Social partnership is an organic body like any other. It has faults and it is our duty to question it when it exhibits them. It is also our duty to question it if it sells short those who depend on social services, if it tries to shroud in secrecy deals that should be transparent, if it satisfies itself with reform at the pace of the slowest, if it sides with producers when the needs of consumers are clamouring to be met and if it concentrates on getting resources from the taxpayers and paying no heed to the return.
Social partnership will only continue to be a robust element of the Irish economic and social scene if it avoids being sucked into a false consensus and if it refuses to bury its head in the sand on these issues. The Government has been quick to shelter from strong political accountability by hiding behind the coat-tails of social partnership, but this Dáil must be the forum where genuine conflicts about how competing resources and interests are to be dealt with.
For us to question the benchmarking deal and the return being made on it is not to undermine social partnership, it may challenge it, but social partnership will only be worthwhile if it can face challenges and emerge with a deal that better serves the people, delivers better services and makes public service a more rewarding and ambitious place to be, where people go for a dynamic public sector where they can achieve the professional expertise for which they were trained. That is our vision.
Mr. Parlon Mr. Parlon
Mr. Parlon: What about the real world?
Mr. R. Bruton Mr. R. Bruton
Mr. R. Bruton: That is the real world.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Hanafin and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Durkan and Kehoe.
Amendment declared carried.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.
Dáil Éireann 571 Private Members' Business. Benchmarking Pay Award: Motion (Resumed).