Head of communications and corporate services at Irish Water, Elizabeth Arnett and Managing Director of Irish Water John Tierney leaving Leinster House on December 22, top, and the front page story on the Sunday Business Post on January 4
Elizabeth Arnett, of Irish Water, spoke with Marian Finucane yesterday on RTÉ Radio One in relation to a story that appeared in the Sunday Business Post on January 4 – claiming that the story was untrue.
Marian Finucane: “Last Sunday, the Sunday Business Post led with the story, ‘Secret deal with unions over Irish Water jobs’, and went on to say that documents seen by the Business Post showed that union leaders secured a guarantee from the Government not to fill positions in the water utility without the oversight of the Irish Water consultative group which composed of civil servants, council officials and up to 10 union representatives. And the other essence of the story was a secret deal to automatically fill vacancies among council staff working for Irish Water effectively removing a major weapon in the utility’s efforts to reduce costs. Now we got, we were approached by Irish Water and Elizabeth Arnett is here at last, might I say.”
Elizabeth Arnett: “My pleasure to be here, Marian.”
Finucane: “I’m delighted it’s your pleasure. Now you took exception to, the Business Post actually put the documents up on their website on Monday.”
Arnett: “Well I think that there’s two aspects to the story that I’d like to deal with. The first is that there was some kind of secret process or secret deal with unions and that simply isn’t the case. There is a process in place whereby, and it’s facilitated by the Labour Relations Commission, whereby all the parties are involved. This is a major transformation project that we’re involved in and there hasn’t been a project as large as this undertaken in the public sector before so it’s…”
Finucane: “We know all that stuff.”
Arnett: “So that’s the first point I want to make. The second point that I want to make is that the impression was given that we have some kind of deal that ties us in to elevated levels of staff within the local authority and that simply isn’t the case.”
Finucane: “Yes it does, yes it does. Because when you say, you know, that this is the most important thing and the most important that openness and transparency and accountability, it came as a dreadful surprise to an awful lot of people, that all the council workers had been moved over with contracts going to 2024.”
Arnett: “Well, that’s not the case, Marian.
Finucane: “It’s not the case.”
Arnett: “If I can just clarify and finish the point I was making firstly. The staff numbers that we started with, at the start of 2014 was 4,320. Today we have, that staff has been reduced by 10% through 2014. So we start 2015 with 3,919 there or there abouts, which constitutes about a 10% reduction in staff which is 8% off the salary bill there. So this notion that there was a secret deal to keep staff numbers in place simply isn’t the case. We have to…”
Finucane: “Well now, I’ll just quote again from last week’s one where, and I’m quoting Lucinda Creighton here, and she said that ‘the idea that when vacancies arise that there’s a cast-iron guarantee that they really replace, to be replaced, is really outrageous. That means that not only is Irish Water overstaffed from day one, it’s going to continue to be overstaffed for the forseeable future’ and she was the one who got the documents under Freedom of Information.”
Arnett: “Well she actually didn’t, she asked for the documents and they were given to her. I think if we have…”
Finucane: “I beg your pardon, I thought it was Freedom of Information.”
Arnett: “If we have, if I wasn’t here today saying, “we have reduced staff numbers by 10%, we’ve taken 8% out of the costs in relation to that”, then perhaps there might be some truth to that statement but the facts fly completely contrary to that. We have an arrangement in place to deliver substantial change which will see us taken €1.6billion out of the costs of delivering water services between now and 2021 and to think that you would..”
Finucane: “Sorry, you’re going to take €1.6billion out?”
Arnett: “Yes, we’re going to reduce the costs of providing water services by €1.6billion – €1.1billion in operating costs and €500million in delivery..”
Finucane: “Because I thought the whole thing is that we had to pay these charges so that you would have money to put in.”
Arnett: “Well there’s two things there, one is in terms of the investment into the network but we have to reduce the costs that we have, that we incur in delivering the services. As a regulated utility, the Regulator composes cost reduction targets…”
Finucane: “See, I know that politicians, particularly, and indeed your good self love talking about the Regulator. And there were lots of rows and arguments about electricity and the cost of electricity and all of that and it’s a beautiful way to offload responsibility to say, ‘it’s not me, Guv, it’s the Regulator’. Politicians say it, ‘the Regulator’, you say it’s the Regulator, so that basically means, like, that nobody can be giving out to you.”
Arnett: “Well no what I’m saying in relation to the Regulator is that they’ve imposed cost reduction targets on us and reducing staff numbers is one of those aspects that we would look at. Reducing all of our costs, across the board, is what we have to focus on and year-on-year.”
Finucane: “And so can I ask you, about this thing about not to fill positions in the water utility without the oversight of this consultative group and the consultative group is composed of civil servants, council officials, and up to 10 representatives.”
Arnett: “So in normal..”
Finucane: “Is that..”
Arnett: “That’s absolutely correct, so in normal industrial relations, you’d have management and unions represented. Just to be very clear the number of staff that we agree at the start of the year, is the ceiling in terms of the staff, it’s not the floor. So we can’t go above this certain level of staff. But in, during the year, and you could imagine with a staffing level of almost 4,000, you would have people leaving and you would have people retiring and you can’t leave frontline services unattended. You cannot leave frontline services not delivered.”
Finucane: “So they will be replaced?”
Arnett: “Of course, you would..”
Finucane: “And that will be done by this IWCG.”
Arnett: “It can be done within the local authorities themselves but it’s to the end of the year and then we agree a new staffing level for the next year.”
Arnett: “The central point is staff are down 10% so the story just isn’t true.”
Finucane: “Well no, you can’t say the story isn’t true. You’ve just said that that is actually true so interpretated and I have noticed your skill, when asked before why we have to give our PPS numbers, you said, ‘in order to get your allowance’ but you never explained why a PPS number should be necessary in order to get an allowance.”
Arnett: “Well, PPS numbers are off the table so I won’t go back over that territory.”
Finucane: “It’s a question of how the information is delivered is what I’m really saying. ”
Meanwhile, yesterday’s Sunday Business Post reported:
New documents have provided further evidence of the secret deal with unions to fill vacancies among the council staff working for Irish Water. It comes despite attempts by Irish Water and the Department of the Environment to downplay the existence of the deal when it was revealed by The Sunday Business Post last week.
The agreement provided for the filling of vacancies to maintain the agreed headcount figure of 4,300 council staff positions in the water services sector last year. And it states that planned retirements of water service staff during the year will be automatically replaced.
Irish Water managing director John Tierney confirmed the existence of this agreement in an interview with The Sunday Business Post. There could be an internal transfer in the local authority itself, there could be a temporary filling up to the end of the year or it could be a post that is definitively required long term and you might fill it on a permanent basis, he said.
Listen back to Marian Finucane interview in full here
(Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland)