Justified anger over big salaries
The same rationale is trotted out every time the high pay given to a public official is questioned. They deserve their huge salaries because we have to pay big money to attract the best people for the job. It is an argument that would be more credible if all these publicly funded bodies performed well. Sadly, that is not the case.
The problems of Northern Ireland Water have been well chronicled over the years and last January its reputation reached a new low when consumers in the west of the province were left without supplies.
Incredibly, householders were forced to boil snow or ferry water from rivers at the height of the crisis, which saw 10,000 homes left without supplies. At the time, around 1,000 employees of the publicly funded body were engaged in a work-to-rule.
Little wonder that many people will feel annoyed that the head of NI Water, Sara Venning, received a pay rise during the year ended last March, bringing her salary to £147,000.
The company argues that she really only received a 1% increase in pay and argues that her salary is value for money and is comparable to others of her rank in utilities.
But that is missing the point. The public, who fund people like Sara Venning, expect the companies under their control to deliver value for money and a first-class service. They will point out that many consumers did not receive that service last January.
In effect, they were the only people penalised for the failings of the company. Certainly, Ms Venning did not suffer any penalty for events that happened on her watch.
Northern Ireland has scores of quangos, arm's-length bodies and agencies engaged in delivering important services to the public. They invariably offer senior executives very handsome rewards, but not all fulfil the expectations of the public they are supposed to serve.
Earlier this week, we had a damning report on the conduct of the head of the NI Events Company which was funded by the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure and which folded in 2007 with debts of £1.5m. The Audit Office also pointed out failures in supervision by the body's board of directors and by the department.
If big rewards in public bodies are to be justified, then they should be accompanied by penalties when things go wrong.