herald

Saturday 19 August 2017

Dan White: Why is the public sector partying on like it's still 2007?

Merrion Hotel in Dublin, one of the hotels expenses claims were filed for
Merrion Hotel in Dublin, one of the hotels expenses claims were filed for

Officials staying in €500 a night luxury hotels, "guests" travelling at taxpayers' expense, booze on expenses, former employees being rehired as "consultants" at excessive pay rates.

These are among a litany of waste and excess contained in a draft report on the HSE by the public spending watchdog, the Comptroller & Auditor General.

The draft report, accidentally leaked to Senators earlier this week, shows that, eight years after the Celtic Tiger bubble burst, much of the public sector is partying like it's 2007.

But what about Brendan Howlin's much ballyhooed "reform" of the public sector? Haven't we had not one, but two Haddington Road Agreements designed to get the public sector to do more with less?

excess

While I have no doubt but that some parts of the public sector are operating more efficiently, the new Gospel of reform has yet to penetrate the HSE.

Despite Minister Howlin's best efforts, it would appear that the HSE - which is responsible for spending more than €13bn of taxpayers' money this year - is still wedded to the bad old ways of waste and excess.

That can be the only rational explanation after reading the details of inappropriate spending contained in the draft C&AG's report.

It contained revelations which will boil the blood of hard-pressed taxpayers, including details of how a HSE manager travelling to a conference in New York brought a "personal guest" with them whose flight was also paid for by the HSE. The guest's portion of the hotel bill was also picked up by the HSE.

That wasn't even the half of it. Other beauties contained in the draft C&AG report include a former HSE manager being rehired as a "consultant".

However, instead of being placed on a pay scale paying the equivalent of "only" €109,000-per-year, the lucky person was instead put on an old scale paying the equivalent of €156,000-per-year. Nice work if you can get it!

Then there was the €500 per night paid for a hotel room in Milan and the €300 per night the HSE shelled out for a room in Dublin's Merrion Hotel.

"Claims for hotels appeared excessive", noted the C&AG's draft report with delicious understatement.

Throw in the €1.4m of salary overpayments which have yet to be refunded and the failure of Crumlin Children's Hospital to notify the HSE of cases of fraud, despite this being a condition of its service level agreement, and it's clear that the HSE has yet to get a grip on its massive budget.

So is the HSE merely a rogue agency or do the shortcomings pointed out in the draft C&AG report point to wider failings throughout the public sector?

Well, even if the HSE was an isolated example of the bad old habits persisting, the fact that Health is the second-largest spending department after Social Protection, means that its shortcomings can't be brushed under the carpet.

With close to one-third of all day-to-day public spending going on health, what does or doesn't happen in the HSE has significant implications for the public sector as a whole.

But of course, the suspicion has got to be that the HSE isn't an isolated example, but rather a typical case of bad habits persisting throughout most of the public sector.

PROOF

The Irish Water fiasco, where 33 municipal water providers were folded into one national utility with no-one losing their well-paid jobs, is proof that it is still business as usual.

Indeed, the failure to use the creation of Irish Water to achieve major cost-savings was almost a carbon copy of what happened when the HSE itself began operating a decade ago and layers of managers kept their jobs. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We have suffered the worst downturn in Irish economic history, during which 300,000 workers, mostly in the private sector, lost their jobs and the HSE, by far the largest organisation in the public sector, is carrying on as if absolutely nothing had happened.

Truly, like the former French royal family the Bourbons, the HSE has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.

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