Northern Ireland’s comfort days over?

Peter Hain points to the huge public expenditure in Northern Ireland and suggests his government mantra in relation to Northern Ireland is ‘Bureacracy, bureacracy, bureacracy!”:

“Reform is vital. “By the 2007/08 financial year, we will be spending in excess of £16bn (€23.4bn) in regional public services in Northern Ireland. “That is 50% greater in real terms than when our Government came to power in May 1997, with health spending up by around 80 per cent and education by more than 60%. “Yet public service performance, in some areas, is among the worst in the UK with, for example, the longest hospital waiting lists only now starting to come down under our new policy levers.”

Which only begs the question of whether such potentially unpopular levers could be pushed by locally elected administrators?

  • A week or two back I mentioned a few money saving tips for Mr Hain if he’s worried about the public purse being a little too loose when it comes to NI:

    * £100m+ for a sports stadium none of the 3 major sports really wants
    * £400k for sacking a university employee
    * £155m on an enquiry to answer questions everyone had made their minds up on anyway
    * £100m on a suspended Assembly including £40m+ in salaries to MLAs who aren’t doing their jobs

    And of course the next day the Children’s Commissioner kindly raised his head above the parapet to raise the question of how much money is going to pay for some whining loony to tell the government to lock up anyone with the nerve to physically discipline their own children.

  • mark

    If this involves the removal of senior civil servants who ran and run this place as a unaccountable fiefdom then it can be good.

    Start at the top Peter, the overpaid wasters that sit at the top of the Civil Service need radically pruned.

  • Crataegus

    More bluster. To deliver on savings requires both determination and a real knowledge of how the structures of the civil service work and the inter relationship of tasks and departments. You would need to rationalise to be able to cut or reduce some of the tasks the government itself requires.

    Do government ministers have the knowledge required to make drastic cuts and would the senior civil servants see assisting in these matters as being in their best interest.

  • slug

    Two steps that can easily be taken to reduce % in govt employment by substantial amount:

    1. Privatise water – its currently being organised in a way that makes a sale possible.

    2. Privatise translink and liberalise the bus market.

  • Nestor Makhno

    slug: ‘Privatise Translink’

    Not sure that’s such a great idea, slug – Translink with a monopoly currently makes no money and can’t offer a decent level of service across Northern Ireland. God only knows what a private operator would do – cherry pick the best routes in and around Belfast and leave the rest of the country to get on their bikes?

    You only have to look at towns in England with privately operated bus services to see the mess than results.

  • slug

    Nestor

    The rail and bus companies in England are private but operate with public subsidy, that is they don’t need to make a profit before subsidy. I believe that in many cases private bus services are well provided in many English towns. And I do not regard the public transport provision in England to be, in general, worse than in NI.

  • susan

    I agree that the upper layers of the civil service need review.

    One way of doing this would be to simplify the number of departments for example why have the Department of Learning and Employment and the Department of Education. Both deal with education but the duplication leads to computer systems which can’t interact and which will be expensive to link.

    Each department has its own Private Secretary and Senior civil servants. However there is a huge gulf between what the higher grades of civil servants earn and those at the bottom of the scale. Recently those at the very bottom of the scale had to have a pay rise because they were earning less than the minimum wage.

    Previous reviews have led to increases of 2% for lower grades, effectively a pay cut, but large increases for senior grades. Lower grades are also more likely to be made redundant. The review needs to carried out independently, not by the civil service and to examine the current structure of the civil service.

  • spartacus

    mark, susan:

    i doubt seriously that hain or anyone in new labour is open to suggestions about where to start with the cuts, and have no faith whatsoever that they will start at the top. this is the export of privatisation to the north, which given the high levels of poverty here and the number of people who depend on employment in the public sector to pay their bills, will have devastating results, one of which may well be further sectarian polarization.

    slug proposes a solution touted far and wide several years ago, but whose selling time is well past. its hard to believe, given the litany of serious complaints about rail privatisation in britain (and its lethal consequences as corporate owners try to cut corners with safety) that anyone would even seriously entertain it here. ditto with the health service. the only people who continue to defend handing over public services to the private sector are those committed to it ideologically, and their numbers are dwindling, not only here but across the world. there ar esigns even that new labour has had enough. and water charges? we already know public sentiment on that; no mystery there.

    every major party on both sides of the ‘divide’ seems on board the slash and burn approach to public services. if the electorate here cannot organize to defend them, and the most integrated workforce in the north, against cuts, then they should be prepared to absorb the social costs, including enduring sectarianism and poverty. what was all that crap about deprivation in protestant working-class communities last summer? is it the lowly taigs that are responsible or the government?

    some peace dividend.

  • Crataegus

    Spartacus

    I agree the idea that private means good is to place faith in dogma. What is important is not who runs the service but that it is run efficiently and in the interest of the customer. I have severe misgivings about privatising any monopoly or essential service such as water. Also we really don’t want to copy the American Health Service.

    If you are to cut the civil service (and council functions) you need to rationalise how they are organised and reduce the number of departments. For example why not aim for a one stop shop to apply for Planning and Building Control Approval and relocate responsibility for Health and Safety to Building Control. We need to throw this open to the public to forward ideas.

    You also must reduce what the public sector does, but in the end there will be a limit to what can be cut as many of the jobs are essential.

    In my experience there is absolutely no prospect of senior civil servants being overly enthusiastic with this sort of review. It must be independent and far reaching or you can bet that the reductions will fall on everyone but not the senior civil servants and there will be endless delays and stalling.

  • slug

    Yeah but the water companies in England were a success – the water charges are regulated by the regulator and it works pretty well. They shed lots of extra labour when they were privatised, because in state ownership they didn’t have the will to do so. And the NI water service is the worst of NI civil service inefficiency. I have no doubt they should privatise water.

  • la dee dah

    Did anyone catch Boris Johnston on Sunday evening on his programme examining the romans system of government. The vast empire stretching across europe and beyond was succesfully run by about 150 roman officials, using local government officials when they were found efficient. The romans taxed those who could afford it. Of course there was no welfare provision but if you were a worker / businessman it was a fairly stable business environment. He was comparing this to the modern european government with 1000s of officials and taxes levied on everything to pay for it. Second part on this sunday.

  • Crataegus

    Slug

    It can be a Company owned by us all with a management team with incentives. Problem with water is you are handing over a monopoly and not all in England is rosy. What you need to do is free it from interference of the state, but I think it should remain in our ownership.

    la dee dah

    Excellent programme but what the Romans relied on was the local administration. But still it was fairly persuasive. I am not sure I would entirely agree with his analysis of the fall of the Empire being due to military expenditure and the Germanic problem.

    From what I could see, following his logic, he was arguing for a common coherent image, common currency, common defence force, centralised administration, a European President, and standardisation of tax regimes etc. I would tend in that direction myself and can’t see the point in most of the national governments (regional admins yes) councils of ministers and all the resulting crap and bureaucracy. Either there is a European Parliament that has a real function or you end up with a body with nothing to do but produce silliness.

  • mnob

    Susan, the reason for the number of departments was to ensure enough ministerial portfolios for the Stormont assembly and to make sure that there would be ‘fair’ allocation. So its a Labour goverment creation.

    Mark, I dont think you can blame the civil servants for bein unaccountable perhaps you should be blaming the people who dont or wont hold them to account (the politicians). The only course of action I could think that civil servants could take to address your criticism would be to do absolutely nothing.

  • Jo

    “I have no doubt they should privatise water.”

    …despite the fact that only the local CBI supported this option.

    Are you the CBI rep, Slug? Your cover is blown.

    Currently, 600 jobs are to go in Water Service, mostly industrials, paid approx £21,000 pa. Cull of the fat cats, it aint!

    Watch out for a JOBLOG exclusive on water charges shortly.

    This at least would be consistent with not implementing the Agreement: (71% NI support)

    “the reason for the number of departments was to ensure enough ministerial portfolios for the Stormont assembly and to make sure that there would be ‘fair’ allocation.”

    True, but no senior civil servants objected to the creation of 11 Permanent Secretary positions @ £90,000 each. Still, you cant blame them.

  • Jo

    “the NI water service is the worst of NI civil service inefficiency.”

    Absolute, unsupportable, uninformed nonsense.
    Try posting this on ATW instead.

  • idunnomeself

    since did earning 90k a year make you a fat cat?

    wise up

    I have plenty of mates who earn that and they are far from the top of their companies and in their late twenties.

    Permament Secretaries are responsible for billions of pounds of tax payers money and thousands of staff. Unless you pay them something vaguely close to a decent salary you won’t get anything like the skills needed to meet the (high) expectations of the politicians

    Most public sector waste isn’t in the civil service, it’s in the rest of the public sector

    Incidentally my experience of the NICS (and what I hear from people in the USA, Ireland and the rest of the UK) is that it is extremely accountable and open. The politicians pretned it isn’t to let them sirk their own responsibilities..

  • Crataegus

    Providing they are doing a sound job the problem is not the salary but the number. Having the structures of an administration based on political considerations is to put the cart before the horse, and it is not just the direct cost of a multiplicity of departments but the resulting confusion and duplication that it causes both in the administration and in the general public that has to deal with it. In some areas it is so bad that it is virtually dysfunctional.

  • Jo

    To critics of civil servants:

    Do you know what percentage of public expenditure in NI is actually made up of civil servants salaries?

    How much does government spend in NI supporting private consultants who borrow a civil servant’s watch, tell her the time and then try and sell it back to her?

    Idunno:
    Who were you telling to wise up? Just out of interest.

  • susan

    To go back to Peter Hain’s point. “That is 50% greater in real terms than when our Government came to power in May 1997, with health spending up by around 80 per cent and education by more than 60%. “Yet public service performance, in some areas, is among the worst in the UK with, for example, the longest hospital waiting lists only now starting to come down under our new policy levers.”

    Arguing about civil servant salaries and water privatisation only ignores the real facts that despite an increase in public spending; hospitals are understaffed with closed wards and unacceptable rates of infection. We are going to get less money therefore services have to be re-focussed with an emphasis on protecting front line services such as hospitals and schools.

  • IJP

    Correct, Susan.

    New Labour is very good when talking about inputs, but not so good when talking about outcomes.

    NI as a society is a prime example that you solve nothing by just throwing money at it.

    Besides, with all these public-sector cut backs (supposedly therefore the objective is to boost the private sector), would it not be an idea to introduce politicies that offer practical help to businesses, rather than hitting them with yet another blitz of rates hikes, price increases and extra charges?

  • IJP

    How much does government spend in NI supporting private consultants who borrow a civil servant’s watch, tell her the time and then try and sell it back to her?

    Who decides to appoint these consultants?

    Ah, the civil servants…

    If civil servants need people to borrow their watch to tell them the time, then maybe…

    But let’s not miss the point: it’s not that the public sector is too large, but rather that the private sector is too small. And Government is doing nothing to address the latter.