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We liveblogged all the details as the government announced its plans to reduce the size of the public sector, and details of how it proposed to rationalise state agencies – the so-called ‘quangos’.

Good morning, and welcome to our live coverage of events from Government Buildings on Merrion Street in Dublin, where the cabinet is today outlining its plans to cut the numbers in the public sector.

The government is also set to confirm details of how it plans to cut the number of ‘state agencies’ – better known as quangos.

The announcement will be given by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and public expenditure minister Brendan Howlin, and is due to kick off any moment now…

So, what do we know already? Well, we know from earlier this week that the plans being published today will confirm that public sector employment is now below 300,000 for the first time in five years.

We also know from the Programme for Government that this was to be cut – but RTÉ this morning reported that the numbers would be cut to 282,500, which is slightly less than what had been originally planned in the programme for government.

It’s also reported today that some of the plans for public sector reform will include the scrapping of some parts of the decentralisation plan. We shall see…

In a completely unremarkable twist, the press conference is now officially starting late, but the details are beginning to hit our inboxes…

The government is to confirm that the number of public service employees will be reduced by a further 23,500 by 2015 - by which point the sector will have lost 37,500 staff (12 per cent) from its peak size in 2008. This will have reduced the public pay bill by €2.5bn overall.

We read that the government will rationalise (that means either scrap or merge) 48 state bodies by the end of 2012, and will review the status of another 46 by next June…

Among those bodies are the merger of HETAC, FETAC and NQAI – which is already underway in legislation before the Dáil – and the merger of 33 VECs to 16.

The Competition Authority and National Consumer Agency will be merged, as will the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology and The Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Science…

Here’s a giant one: the Labour Court, Labour Relations Commission, Employment Appeals Tribunal, National Employment Rights Authority, and Equality Tribunal are all being merged into a single agency

The Local Government Management Service Board and Local Government Computer Services Board will be merged…

The Library Council and Comhar will also be merged into existing bodies… the Dormant Accounts Board, as promised in legislation right now, will be scrapped… the Commission on Public Service Appointments will be merged with the Ombudsman…

Enda Kenny: Today’s launch of the reform plan is another key element of its budget strategy, and a “central pillar” of the plan to get Ireland working again. The government has made a start, but there is obviously much more to be done in the time ahead.

The 2012 budget will be “challenging, and will be tough for all our people” – but won’t ask people to make sacrifices without first showing that other things have been addressed. In this regard he makes reference to the cut in ministerial pay and a commitment to scrap the Seanad (which the Programme for Government doesn’t actually do…)

EK: We lay out our vision for “a new leaner, better and smarter public service”, which is better equipped to delivering services and creating jobs. It will play a central role in Ireland’s recovery.

For too long reform was sidelined – lack of political leadership was a barrier – but no longer will this be the case. The establishment of a new department for reform is a clear sign of intent that reform will be a priority across the government.

EK compliments and pays tribute to Howlin and his team for their work so far.

EK: Merging agencies together or back into departments will help us be “smarter with our scarce resources”.

(The councils for nursing and midwifery are being merged, as is underway, while the National Cancer Registry Board is being merged into the HSE…)

EK: “Today we draw a line under the decentralisation programme” – one of the most “ill thought-out” programmes of the last government, he says…

EK: Today’s plans are only the beginning of the mission to transform the public service… it will involve a great deal of hard work, the co-operation of everyone involved… in the months ahead, we will see radical changes across government: healthcare, local councils…

EK: Our ambition is to do far more reform in the next five years than in the previous 14.

Here comes Eamon Gilmore.

EG: The plans being laid out today are “another important building block” in the strategy for economic recovery. It’s a “real example of the government’s determination not to waste a crisis”, but they are more than cost-cutting: they are to reform and reinvigorate.

The Equality Authority and Human Rights Commission are being merged… into a Human Rights & Equality Commission.

The full PDF of the government’s plans is now here to download for your perusal…

EG: Debate on reform has come down to the idea that “public sector is bad, private sector is good”… some people thought public service would be improved by naively copying the private sector. Some private ideas are in this document, but most public sector organisations are fundamentally different from private ones.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Ireland and the Crawford Art Gallery are being merged, but will keep separate identities.

The National Archives and Irish Manuscripts Commission are being merged into the National Library.

The Coimisinéir Teanga is being merged into the Ombudsman’s Office.

Brendan Howlin: This government is a reforming government.

National Roads Authority to merge into Railway Procurement Agency… Irish Sports Council and National Sports Council Development Authority to merge…

Civil Defence Board to merge into Dept of Defence…

Digital Hub Development Authority to merge into Enterprise Ireland/IDA…

The Ombudsman for Children will now merge its back-office functions into the Ombudsman/Information Commissioner’s Office.

BH: We have redeployed 850 surplus primary teachers, and are working to merge 700 FÁS staff to the department, and hundreds within the HSE… there are a myriad of smaller reforms too.

BH: Today I announce that the public service employees will be reduced by 23,500 by 2015… at which point they will have fallen from their 2008 peak, by 37,500 (12%). That’s “an extraordinary reduction.”

BH: This will reduce the public service pay bill by €2.5bn (15%), he affirms… if you add in the pension levy, which raises €1bn, this becomes €3.5bn.

Immediately 48 bodies will be rationalised (as we mentioned), and 46 more are to be reviewed (they’re on Page 46 of the PDF).

BH: 40 decentralisation projects will be cancelled. 22 being reviewed, 36 (which are complete) will be left in place.

BH: I have approved proposals to standardise annual leave across the public service, and am confident that public service unions will agree.

These will abolish ‘festival days’ and ‘race days’ and other local agreements, and end anomalies in current arrangements, which will allow for uniformity and easier movement between public bodies for staff.

BH: To move people across the public services, we need integrated pay and leave arrangements.

BH: In and of itself, today’s biggest announcement is public sector reform… the plan contains almost 70 recommendations, and 200 timelined actions to be taken.

The plan includes “radical restructuring” of how we do business… shared HRM and payroll facilities; better use of technology to put the citizen “at the heart” of public service; reform of procurement; property rationalisation; reducing costs through getting rid of waste and duplication…

BH: Five main areas of reform.

1) Customer service at the core of everything we do

2) Reform of service delivery channels

3) Cost reduction

4) Leading, organisating and working in different ways

5) Strong focus on implementation and delivery.

BH mentions the use of the ‘public services card’ which will now be used for more functions across the sector.

Public access to all public services needs to be developed over time.

There’ll be a single awarding authority for student grants and an online application (this has already begun, albeit under legislation left by the previous government). Gov.ie has been reformed, and the public is invited to submit suggestions for more services to put online.

Here, by way of sideline, is something to note… many of the rationalisations announced today were part of Brian Lenihan’s first Budget in October 2008. Here’s the document from then.

BH: The new public sector will work from a common plan to achieve certain results. Government departments and major offices will develop “their own high-level performance plans”.

BH: Public servants have responded well to the challenges put in front of them. All have made, and continue to make, an “enormous contribution” to the recovery.

BH: We are open to new ideas. With this in mind, I intend to discuss the reform plan with the Oireachtas committee on Public Expenditure & Reform, and the Public Accounts Committee.

The coming years will not be easy – but reform must be central to economic growth. Ireland will have a public service that all of us will be proud of, he concludes.

The three will now take questions, alongside junior finance minister Brian Hayes…

What are the annual cost savings? It’ll be difficult to quantify that specifically, Howlin says, but we’ll give examples over time as we can offer them.  terms of the quangos, the net savings will be “modest enough” but the focus there is to reduce duplication. It’ll save €20m in the first year.

Howlin: We’ve downsized radically in the last few years already… as far as practicable, we’ve tried to reduce frontline impact. I don’t want to pretend that our radical reform agenda won’t cause problems.

Brian Hayes: The full figure for costs on procurement will be down by more than €115m last year – as a result of better procurement and putting in “frameworks” where all of the public sector uses contracts centrally negotiated. The OPW has dozens of these already.

Hayes needs a “carrot and stick approach” where organisations who don’t use central frameworks explain why they’re not. That will help savings.

Q2: Will these public cuts come from voluntary schemes? Do we know how many will be through natural turnover?

Howlin: We’ll do individual plans for each sector closer to the Budget, and a timeline for how we think we can do it. We expect to downsize to this volume without breaching Croke Park – so no compulsory redundancies.

Q3 is to do with the ‘vilification’ of public sector workers – who’s behind that, and will they be shocked by these plans?

Gilmore: A lot of the abuse to public workers came from the last government and newspapers. “I felt there was a lot of sometimes very vulgar commentary about the public sector, and the people who work in it.” This government values and respects its public servants.

Q4: The Programme for Government wanted 25,000 public servants to go… this is back to 23,500. Is this a compromise? Also, the rationalisation of quangos seems to be modest based on plans already announced.

Howlin: The figures today are well within the Programme for Government commitment. The programme set a target for 2014, and then a specific addition for 2015. “Smack within the middle”, he says.

It’s true that the previous government announced many rationalisation plans – but they made many announcements that never happened. We’re saying today that 48 bodies, we’re announcing today, WILL be gone by the end of 2012.

Howlin: There will be a robust service agreement between parent departments and agencies… there will be some agencies that offer services more efficiently than departments, and that will be the measure by which we decide what to scrap and what not to scrap.

Gilmore: There are things the private sector can learn from the public, but we need to appreciate that there is a “public service ethic” which is very strong: teachers who are satisfied by success of students, Gardaí who are satisfied by beating crime… working for the public and serving the public good is a very strong part of our thinking, Gilmore says.

Apologies for sound interference just now – there seems to have been some interruptions at Government Press Centre.

Q: Why have some agencies, like an Bord Bia and the HEA, escaped the chop?

Howlin: We’ve put agencies into two categories – some to be definitely scrapped, and others to be reviewed within six months. They haven’t escaped, but the rationalisation has yet to be decided on.

Q: The plans for reducing public jobs seems to be an exercise in trying to avoid simply cutting public pay…

A: Howlin: I am charged with minding the money. If I can reduce the public sector pay bill by €2,500,000,000 I would examine it. If we can reduce that, and keep functioning services, and avoid industrial strife, that’s a desirable objective.

“Am I trying to avoid industrial unrest? I’m certainly not looking for it.” He adds that this reform plan is not merely about saving money, though financial concerns have triggered it.

Question for the Taoiseach, who is asked to summarise the plans as Gaeilge, specifically with regard to the plan to merge the Coimisinéir Teanga with the Ombudsman’s Office. He duly obliges.

The Taoiseach’s summation as Gaeilge doesn’t say much other than what he has already outlined in English summaries.

Question on how many jobs which are being lost and then replaced by agency workers…

Howlin: It makes no sense, by and large, to replace public jobs with agencies. There might be some times where we need to look at “models of service delivery”.

What about the towns which will now not get their decentralised departments? “Of course people thought there would be an economic benefit” to getting an agency in their town… but the previous government saw the public service as “something to be carved up and divvied out,” he says. That goes against the whole point of the public service in the first place.

Brian Hayes: There’s clarity now. This has been on ice since 2008, and at least people now know where they stand. People in those provincial towns knew to expect that things couldn’t go as they already were.

“This is a mess that was handed to us to sort out… there’s now clarity on this issue. People can now plan in their local communities.”

Enda Kenny: It’s eight years since this was announced. Nothing has happened in the vast majority of these. Public servants themselves may have moved ‘closer to home’, and where things are in situ, they’ll be left in situ. We’ll review the ones in between, but at least we now have finality, and we’re not buying acres of land and doing planning and everything else.

EK: Practically, retaining the headquarters of departments in Dublin, has now been cleared, but for the two which have moved. It’s been “completely impractical” in those cases to have staff travelling across the country, every day, bringing stuff from Dublin to local offices.

Q: How much is decentralisation going to cost?

Howlin: No specific cost to hand. I suggest that an Oireachtas committee have a look at it. Obviously we bought rural properties at the height of the market but likewise we sold Dublin ones at similar times.

Howlin also discusses the institutional knowledge that is not disrupted or lost by splitting up agencies and merging other ones.

Apologies again for the sound quality. It’s not at our end, we promise…

Howlin: Nobody who is already on the public payroll should be paid to be a board member, but there will be other agencies where there won’t be a “board” but rather a “line manager” who answers to a department.

Q: What about your predecessors? We got a list last week of pensions to former ministers who may have helped cause the crisis. Is this government willing – or legally able – to cut those?

Kenny: The government has changed regulations entirely for the future. Some of the old ones are “quite enormous” and some of those who receive them should maybe reflect on the value of their work. Can’t tell you whether it’s legally possible to change them.

Q on the “sunset clause” – where agencies are only established for a certain period of time – in some legislation.

Howlin: This will be explicitly legislated in each case. The clear mandate and function of each agency will be set out in legislation, and this will be the pattern for some agencies.

Previously ministers have been able to set up agencies by order, but now we want to establish clearly where an agency has “a clear contract” with a department that it answers to.

Q. Some of this plan goes beyond the lifetime of the Croke Park agreement… will there be a Croke Park 2, and has the first one been a hindrance to these plans?

Gilmore: Our approach is to progress this in cooperation with public staff. Croke Park “is working and is delivering”. There were discussions with unions last night about what was being presented today. Our objective is to have ongoing dialogue with unions. Croke Park governments pay and reduction in numbers, and it is the government’s intention to honour the agreement.

Kenny: Howlin has had lengthy talks with the Croke Park implementation group… “We all value what the public service do.” He hopes there will be enthusiasm that the staff will have the enthusiasm to bring in a better service.

Q: What of social partnership? And what is the status of the agencies where review is ongoing? Are they on ice, postponed, or what exactly?

Gilmore: Social Partnership in its previous format is now over. We have a process of discussion with unions and other bodies where we meet directly, and the Taoiseach and senior officials meet with ICTU, IBEC, IFA… “the main organisations”… and they will have access to line ministers. We have already had some meetings with ICTU and IFA.

Howlin: The list of agencies still under review will be worked through in six months. There are explicit terms for each proposal listed – such as BIM, which is proposed explicitly to be merged into the Department of Agriculture. There are “distinct, scheduled” proposals for each but the decisions have not yet been reached.

Q. You said 23,500 workers will come out of the overall public system… how many in health? In the HSE, there are monthly increases in layoffs being replaced by agency staff.

Your most high-profile body to scrap was the HSE… it’s not in this document. Where is that plan?

Howlin: It’s 23,500 between the end-2010 level and by 2015. The exact impact on each impact [including health] is currently being finalised.

Hayes: One of the first decisions taken by Minister James Reilly was to abolish the HSE’s board… to dismantle the agency as a whole, goes hand in hand with primary healthcare and hospital reform.

And that’s the end of our proceedings… so, in summary:

  • Public sector staffing will be reduced by 23,500 between the end of 2010 and by 2015.
  • 48 public and state agencies – quangos - are being rationalised, either through merger or being rolled back into their parent departments.
  • Decentralisation is effectively scrapped with 40 projects (yet t0 begin) being cancelled, and 22 others being reviewed. 36 such projects are already finished and will be left in place.

That’s our lot – my colleague Hugh O’Connell has put together a full report on what’s in and what’s out.

This is Gavan Reilly signing off – thanks for joining us, see you again soon.

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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