That Seanad Éireann resolves that payment of the remaining phases of benchmarking be suspended pending the 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.
In just over three months, the Minister for Finance will arrange for the payment of the next instalment of the benchmarking award. The instalment was initially estimated to cost approximately €500 million, but figures obtained by way of parliamentary question by the Fine Gael Party leader, Deputy Kenny, indicate that it will cost considerably more, approximately €650 million. Huge as this payment will be, it forms only a small part of the overall package. The full cost of benchmarking will be a massive €1.2 billion each year because it is a recurring cost.
There is much to commend the concept of benchmarking. It is based on the principle of a quid pro quo, or a deal that in return for a substantial increase in pay for public servants, there would be a substantial increase in productivity by each of the sectors to benefit, leading to a substantial improvement in the quality of public services and greater public service efficiency. However, there was no quid pro quo for this deal and no productivity arrangement was agreed. For example, there was no attempt to negotiate with individual unions or sectoral groups clearly defined objective or targets, where existing work practices would be critically examined and agreement reached as to how, in return for a generous wage increase, the public would benefit from better services and greater productivity and efficiency. The whole exorcise undertaken by the Government simply involved additional increases for teachers, gardaí, prison officers and civil servants with nothing secured in return.
I wish to reiterate the Fine Gael position on this issue. The concept of benchmarking is sound, but the Government's management of it is deeply flawed. It is a bad deal for citizens and taxpayers. The cost is too high and the return is negligible. We do not call for the abandonment of the agreement but for the deferment of the payment of the next instalment until such time as detailed negotiations take place that will deliver genuine and measurable public sector and public service reforms and improvements. We want to see value for the money that is to be spent.
The Minister recently attempted to defend the Government's benchmarking agreement in the Irish Independent. He may as well have stood on a butter box on the corner of St. Stephen's Green with a megaphone shouting, “money for old rope”. The former president of the ICTU said some time ago that the agreement was the equivalent to withdrawing money from an ATM. The Minister's attempted defence has only served to underline the correctness of Fine Gael's position on the issue.
In his attempt to justify the deal, the Minister enumerated so-called reforms being, or to be, delivered by benchmarking. He linked benchmarking to the achievement of industrial peace within the public service. It has nothing to do with industrial peace, but is based on the concept of measurably improved productivity. Industrial peace forms part of the national wage or partnership agreements. The industrial relations peace of the last 15 or 16 years, which we all acknowledge to be a cornerstone of our economic recovery and success, was built into a succession of partnership agreements, starting with the rogramme for National Recovery and agreed in subsequent programmes, such as the Programme for Economic and Social Progress and the Programme for Competitiveness and Work.
We welcome the Government's conclusion of another, short-term partnership agreement with the unions. Industrial peace is an integral part of it, as it was with its predecessors. To suggest, therefore, that industrial peace in the public service is part and parcel of the benchmarking award is to suggest it must be paid for twice, once through benchmarking and once through a 7% pay increase across the board.
In the same article the Minister justifies benchmarking because it will lead to improvements in promotional arrangements in the Civil Service with, in his own words, "greater emphasis on merit". This is illuminating because the Minister is implying that the existing system of promotion within the Civil Service is not based on merit or ability. It also suggests that the Minister considers he must pay civil servants to get their agreement to achieve a "greater emphasis on merit." A real benchmarking process would reward those who perform well and deliver better services, whether as individuals or as part of teams. It should not, as it is doing at present, prop up a promotion system which is based not on merit but on seniority.
In his third justification of benchmarking, the Minister cites the example of teachers agreeing to hold half of parent-teacher meetings outside school hours. Has he a bad memory? Does he not recall that the Programme for Competitiveness and Work contained a clear commitment to achieve this? Does his argument mean that taxpayers again have to pay twice for this concession? If the Government believes that its so-called reforms are worth €1.2 billion of taxpayers' money each year for the foreseeable future, it is high time that someone called "stop".
In case anyone believes that Fine Gael's demand on 16 September for the suspension of the payment of benchmarking awards was an attempt to make controversial banner headlines during the autumn before either House resumed, I remind Members that on 1 July 2002 when the benchmarking report was released, we warned that the key to benchmarking was securing a value for money deal. We pointed out at the time that the cost of the deal was the equivalent of putting 2% onto the tax rate. We emphasised that the Government owed it to taxpayers and the public generally to ensure that the €1.2 billion was accompanied by real, tangible and visible improvements in productivity and services.
We highlighted the fact at that stage that the public was entitled to know exactly what it was getting in return for a recurring €1.2 billion payout. We queried, without receiving a satisfactory answer, the reason the Government had failed to make public the analysis of the benchmarking body, pointing out that, in the absence of publication, it was extremely difficult and almost impossible for anyone to conduct an evaluation of the benefits and improvements that were supposed to have been secured. We were left in a state of limbo waiting for the Government to publish the vital supporting material to justify to taxpayers the huge cost of the deal. We have made repeated calls in the interim but to no avail. I reiterate those calls in this debate – so much for Government accountability.
The first phase of benchmarking has cost taxpayers €600 million. This has had to be found somewhere and has been achieved by way of cutbacks. The surgical knife was used. These cutbacks have led to a queue of ambulances outside hospitals as they wait to retrieve their stretchers because there are not enough trolleys inside the hospitals to accommodate patients in the corridors or in the accident and emergency ward. These cutbacks have led to ward closures, to primary school children continuing to be condemned to sit daily in sub-standard, Dickensian hovels of primary schools, and a shortfall in revenue for the vocational education opportunities scheme which means that women hoping to re-enter the workforce cannot avail of the scheme because the child care allowance cannot be paid. I could continue to list areas that badly need services but where, unfortunately, cutbacks are the order of the day because €1.2 billion must be found to pay the benchmarking deal.
The Minister for Finance has already admitted that the opening Exchequer position for 2004 will be disastrous. We are talking about a €4 billion deficit. Those who depend on public services will be the main casualties if a further €650 million benchmarking instalment is paid in 2004. There is nothing wrong with the benchmarking process but, in the hands of the Government, it has become a gross parody of itself. I rest my case.