If we are going to have cuts, let’s start at the top…

Time to reduce MLA's?Photo by: Dom0803
Time to reduce MLA’s? Photo by: Dom0803

We received this letter from a Senior Civil Servant, we are republishing it in full.

There has been significant talk over these past few days on the budget cuts and the impact these will have on the public sector. However before we all jump to our usual stereotypical conclusions I would like to present my views on the issues we now, as a community or society, face as a consequence of the cuts. As a lifelong civil servant I recognise that the public sector in N Ireland is over staffed, and has been for some time now. This is a hangover from direct rule and the “troubles” where successive governments had a policy of “bulking” out the public sector, in all its forms, as a substitute for not attracting or establishing sufficient private sector jobs. So we had our multiple health boards established, along with education and library boards, various agencies and enough quangos to shake several sticks at.

The direct rule government at the time also had a policy of ensuring the public sector offices were, for the most part, used to prop up city centre locations. All of the organisations established needed to be supported, policies for each developed, Service Level Agreements established and maintained, memorandum of understanding developed, supported and reported on. So the public sector, civil service, call it what you like were employed to fulfil these support functions.  Add to this our 26 councils and we have one heck of a public sector to maintain. Then there is the “lie” propagated by parents across N Ireland that public sector jobs were the best jobs to have, and they encouraged their children, particularly those with high levels of educational attainment to join the public sector. “It is a good job and a job for life”. And while our loving parents were not wrong, it seen a constant stream of our top talent moving to the public sector rather than take a “chance” in the private sector and develop their own career and business.

Then along came the Assembly. 108 MLAs, 11 governments departments, the policy giant that is OFMDFM and, as they are all elected representatives of the people of N Ireland, all have to be supported. The 108 MLAs in themselves generate enough assembly questions, oral questions, formal invitations and correspondence to keep a small army of civil servants gainfully occupied.  A significant portion of the public sector is employed just to respond to our MLAs. Several thousand man hours are required each year to support the needs and requests of our elected representatives. The questions they demand responses to are designated as being a priority with deadlines for responses set. However most questions asked could easily be answered by the MLAs themselves, if they bothered to read the legislation they passed, the debates that occurred in the Assembly or the use of the army of researchers at their disposal.

A huge public sector has been created, percentage wise more than Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales, thus providing an imbalance between public and private sector. None of this should be new to our Executive. For years they have known about the public sector/private sector imbalance and they have chosen to do nothing about it, to ignore it, to “kick the can down the road” as some pundits have stated. If they had developed a strategy to reduce public sector posts year on year, while at the same time developed or encouraged private sector employment we would not be in the position we are now. Pressure from the Treasury, who have forgotten that they helped create and support the monster that is now the N Ireland public sector, has been so great the Executive are now faced with only one alternative. To implement the austerity plans that will result in thousands of redundancies.

So what will thousands of redundancies look like? They will not all be civil servants, they will include the likes of teaching staff and health staff. But the cuts won’t end there. They will affect the arts, sports, community development, the young, the old and the vulnerable in society. It will also have a direct and indirect impact on the private sector. Contracts for new builds, such as roads, schools, hospitals will not proceed. When the sums are done and government departments assess the rental cost of city centre locations compared to relocation to Stormont or out of town locations you will see thousands of staff moving from the likes of Belfast city centre. This will impact on the sandwich bars, shops and city centre business that depend on these office workers for survival.

Then there is the thousands of redundant staff, which, by N Ireland standards have a good income. While most will have a decent pension so they won’t be hitting the poverty trap, we are taking about thousands of well-paid jobs out of the economy not to be replaced. Families, who won’t be changing their car or cars, won’t be building that new extension or putting in their new kitchen. They won’t be able to afford to eat out buy the clothes they have been used to. And while that presents small hardships to those made redundant, the likely impact on the private sector will be the closure of businesses and the laying off of staff. There will also be a huge impact on our school leavers, our future workforce.

As I said, I have recognised for some time now the imbalance between public and private sector needs to be addressed. And if we are, as a community, prepared to address this properly we need to take public sector reform seriously.

Do we need 108 MLAs and the machinery of government that has to be in place to support them?

Do we need 11 government departments with the accountants, HR officers, IT staff etc to support each one?

Our 26 councils are soon to reduce to 11, can we expect to see efficiencies in councils.

Do we need 6 Health Trusts?

Do we need 6 education and library boards?

Do we need to the amount of quangos we have, figures from OFMDFM show that in 2011 they cost us £7b per year.

We can make public sector savings and do so in a way that should not impact directly on health, education or learning. However to do so and tackle public sector reform and target our reduced budget into front line services might we need to have a more holistic approach to reform?

If we are going to do this let’s do it right.

 What do you think? Tell us your views in the comments below. We are especially keen to hear from Civil Servants.  Are you fed up of being accused of getting an easy life? Do you see waste in your department? Tell us your stories below. If you want to write a post for us to consider publishing, email it to brian@sluggerotoole.com

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.