‘Coppers Couples’ may be in peril but public sector Secret Santa is better than the anarchy in the UK
As Secret Santas go, Michael McGrath is pretty much up there with Old St Nicholas. The now Finance Minister left a welcome gift in every public sector worker’s Christmas stockings in his final act as Public Expenditure Minister. His backdated wage rise hitting pay packets in the run-in to the holidays landed an extra few hundred quid at a handy time of the year.
he bonus payment for 370,000 public sector workers came with acceptance of a 6.5pc pay rise in the public sector over the next year. The first 3pc kicked in at the end of the year, but the benefit was backdated to February. Then there’s another 2pc coming in March, followed by 1.5pc in October.
Year on year, public sector workers will see their pay packets increase by 6.5pc, on top of whatever happens on the taxation side in two budgets.
Given the staggering rise in inflation, driving the increase in the cost of living, and spiralling housing costs, the increases will be swallowed up pretty quickly. Members of the largest public-sector trade unions, Fórsa and Siptu, grabbed the deal with both hands with endorsements of over 90pc. Apparently, in the talks on the deal, the backdating wasn’t even a dealbreaker, more an added sweetener from the Government. The negotiations went through the traditional collapse when the offer wasn’t big enough and had to restart.
The Coalition had the added advantage of burgeoning coffers and a demand for measures that could alleviate the cost-of-living crisis for cohorts in society. The backdating can be written off as a once-off hit at the tail end of a year where corporation tax revenues went through the roof. The wage hikes, though, go on the bottom line forever.
Taking a leaf out of the book of his first leader, Bertie Ahern, McGrath sees the merit in hammering out a protracted deal with the unions. It’s a feather in the cap.
Certainly, there will be criticism that it doesn’t go far enough and the Coalition must address underlying societal problems in housing, health and childcare in particular. The providers of public services are equally affected when those services fall short of the levels required in a properly functioning society.
The fabled ‘Coppers Couples’ – the guard and nurse or civil servant and teacher whose romance began in Copper Face Jacks nightclub – now can’t afford to live in the capital because of the high rents. Attempting to chase housing inflation with pay rises is not a sustainable solution.
The Government also made a seismic leap on reform of the health sector with agreement on a public-only consultants’ contract, paving the way for a wave of recruitment of hospital doctors. The basic salary range of between €210,000 and €252,000 for new entrants and existing consultants is well beyond the ordinary public sector worker. Next year will tell a lot about whether the Sláintecare proposals can actually provide an end point to the established two-tier health service.
Across the threshold in the private sector, the old Celtic Tiger days of the agreed social partnership model are gone, but individual deals are still being struck. Unions are being advised to chase pay rises in the region of 4pc to 7.5pc next year, where the company can afford it. Again, these figures are largely just keeping touch with inflation.
The investment of capital, time and money in achieving industrial peace is not just a political imperative to buy public-sector votes. Look across the water to see what happens when a government is incapable of, or disinterested in, maintaining social solidarity and avoiding industrial chaos.
The raft of strikes sweeping the UK is threatening to bring it to a standstill as workers across the health service, transport network, mail and civil service take industrial action in various rows over pay and conditions.
The winter of discontent will continue into 2023 with further unrest across the board. The results of strike ballots for firefighters and teachers are due in January, with junior doctors also scheduled to vote. London Underground workers have approved another six months of industrial action.
Rather than engaging, the Tory government is digging in. The latest British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has threatened to bring in tough new laws to limit strike action. The British voting public is divided on where the fault lies, with the pointing of fingers at the union leadership not having the intended effect.
A poll last week says more people blame the British government than unions for the winter wave of strikes. The survey for the Compassion in Politics think tank found 41pc believe the Tories are responsible, 35pc say unions and 11pc blame employers. The poll also revealed a split among Tory and Labour voters over who they believed was to blame. It goes along predictable capitalist and socialist lines.
The malaise within British politics since the vote on Brexit has extended across the entire system, creating a country where dysfunction becomes the norm.
There are few plaudits in grinding out the hard yards of engaging with workers’ representatives to resolve, intercept and anticipate potential disputes. Industrial relations anarchy doesn’t suddenly happen overnight. It takes years of neglect, lack of communication and a singular failure to recognise a problem is building up.
The third prime minister of 2022 has added a semblance of stability to UK politics, but his lack of connection with the lives of ordinary people is glaring. Sunak’s awkward exchange with a homeless person last week while volunteering at a soup kitchen in front of TV cameras was a case in point.
After a brief exchange, the prime minister asked the man whether he worked in business. The man replied that he was homeless. Sunak then discussed his background in the finance industry and asked if it would be something the man would “like to get in to”. The man replied: “I wouldn’t mind, but I don’t know, I’d like to get through Christmas first.”
It’s gone down as one of the great political cringe moments.
And to think the British political system was once looked upon with reverence throughout the world.
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