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Aaron McKenna: Our government squanders money while cutting funding to charities

They might make all the right noises about “difficult choices” but this is the truth: our government would rather tell disabled children to go without than tackle overpaid bureaucrats, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

GOVERNMENT IS A funny old business. On the one hand, it takes them months and years to reform departments and quangos and make substantial change to working practices. Croke Park is a multi year gig, with annual reports and massive union negotiation to achieve any change.

The very same government, meanwhile, will ring up charities like St Michael’s House and Sunbeam House, who serve people with some of the hardest shifts in life, and make drastic cuts with only a few weeks notice – necessitating immediate cutbacks in service.

Retroactive budget cuts for charities

The mindset required to exist in this world is baffling. The cuts made to disability charities are leading to service cutbacks and job losses. Sunbeam House has been told it is losing €190k from its budget, just like that. The charity, which provides services to adults with intellectual disabilities, is having to cut back on transport to try and keep their direct services in operation. This will make life more difficult for the families of the individuals who make use of the charity, and it may well see people cut off from attending at all.

St Michael’s House was told in August that its budget cuts were actually retroactive to 1 July, so that by the time they found out they had already been spending the budgeted for monies. That’s government efficiency in a nutshell: we won’t even do you the courtesy of having our budgets together in time for you to plan. Retroactive budget cuts means deeper service cutbacks to make up for the money already spent.

The arrogance and the malice required to inflict this on a charity by a bunch of bureaucrats well-protected by their unions is staggering.

Charities have no choice but to live within their means

Charities like these and others are soldiering on. They have no choice but to adapt, improvise and overcome. St Michael’s House is trying to put its latest €1m in cuts into action on an individual basis, using triage to make the difficult choices for each client individually. They are living within their means because they have to.

They are, in other words, doing what the government itself cannot seem to bring itself to. Bear in mind that government spending overall this year is down about 2 per cent versus where it was in 2007. Of course, spending areas have changed drastically. But rather than perform triage and sit down in front of families and individuals on a more triaged basis, as it forces charities to do, government sends in swinging cuts designed to allow them to avoid making the really politically sensitive cuts.

1,500 unnecessary HSE bureaucratic posts

Brendan Howlin was on Pat Kenny’s first new show last Monday, and said that the government has identified at least 1,500 unnecessary bureaucratic posts in the HSE, which has been delivering the budget cuts to charities. I didn’t see him saying that they were going to immediately sit down with these 1,500 people and tell them about the difficult choice – back-dated to 1 July by the way – to terminate their apparently redundant position.

Indeed, these 1,500 extraneous employees are sitting and collecting their increments – with a total bill of over €200m a year in pay increases across the public sector – without any fear of facing “difficult choices” from managers. For all we know, the extraneous employees might have had put a hand to some of the paperwork required to deliver budget cuts to charities.

“Protecting the most vulnerable”

One of the sickeningly amusing things about watching politicians and special interests like the unions colluding to ring fence their enviably secure positions in life is that they speak so much about “protecting the most vulnerable” while they’re at it.

Stopping €200m in increments during a suppose pay freeze would hurt the most vulnerable in the public employ, we’re told. It wouldn’t be fair to shut down a quango, we’re told, because office workers and receptionists and all the rest who had nothing to do with the crisis would suffer the most.

Be that as if may, that’s not the standard that government is happy to hold physically and mentally disabled children. Unions haven’t said more than a passing word about service cutbacks and even job losses in the sector, and they certainly haven’t called any national strikes as they have over reducing bus driver salaries from an average at the top of the European pile.

Government squanders money while cutting charitable funding

The amounts of money that it takes to run a charity, often some of the most lean and efficient organisations you’ll find, are pitiful compared to the amounts squandered by an on politicians and public administration. While Sunbeam was being told about their €200k cut, Senators were looking for another €300k to fund constituency offices for themselves, despite not actually having any constituencies.

Another relatable number is the €300k dropped in the Dáil bars last year, and the same again the previous year. I wonder if we need to wonder how much of that was expensed back to the taxpayer?

Overpaid and unnecessary

The Mayor of South Dublin has set up a fund with part of his salary, €10k in all and with more coming from other council members to provide for social programmes. It’s a laudable effort, and he points out that there is a case for paying TDs the same as Ministers. After all, don’t most politicians want to be Ministers? Why do you need to incentivise them further with money?

Of course, the Mayor doesn’t point out that his role is mostly ceremonial and that he and his peers throughout the county simply dance to the tune of a County Manager. We might just get rid of one role or the other… But the politician is unlikely to suggest the abolition of his post, and the civil servant is protected from any downsizing. Good talk, but not much in the way of savings in the grand scheme of things.

Cutting politicians pay won’t fund every charity that needs money. But there is plenty of headroom in waste and inefficiency and bureaucracy that we don’t really need, such as in our multitude of quangos.

It’s telling to what government and “social partner” thinking really is, however, to see that they’d rather some charity have to tell a disabled kid they can go without than tell some overpaid bureaucrat to go find another calling in life.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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