Belfast Telegraph

Pay restraint vital at this time

Editor's Viewpoint

If anyone wanted to make a case for rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy they simply need to put forward the statistics on public sector pay, which have just been released. This is not an exercise in public servant bashing - they perform vital roles in a whole range of services which are the lifeblood of this society.

However, the figures released by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency show that public sector pay continues to outstrip that in the private sector and the gap, according to some analysts, is growing.

It has to be remembered that some 57% of public expenditure goes on salaries and there needs to be a sense of realism at a time when most Government departments are facing large budget cuts and are reducing services.

What is a hard-pressed public expected to think when it sees civil servants getting an average pay rise of three per cent, yet vital institutions like schools and hospitals are struggling to provide the education standards and health care that ordinary people expect?

The draft budget for the coming year does mention pay restraint, but that could mean anything.

Indeed, the province's economy is in such a parlous state that many civil servants could lose their jobs. That does not smack of prudent planning, and certainly makes recent pay awards look at odds with reality.

It could even be argued, as some have done, that the higher wages in the public sector are damaging to the local economy. They make the salaries available in the private sector look less attractive and therefore make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to attract staff.

One astonishing statistic to emerge from the pay report is that junior civil servants in Northern Ireland are better paid than their counterparts in any other part of the UK. That is an anomaly that simply cannot be justified.

Northern Ireland's politicians - or whoever is in charge of the region if the current talks flounder and the administration crashes - need to take a long, hard look at public sector pay levels.

In private enterprise if a business is struggling it makes no sense to continue to spend more and more on wages. The public sector needs to adopt a similar approach. Admittedly, pay freezes were imposed on the Civil Service here in 2010 and 2011 but then lifted. The budgetary situation has deteriorated since then and that must have serious implications for public sector wages.

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