Sir Joe Bossano last week again highlighted the need for greater efficiencies to ensure the long-term sustainability of Gibraltar’s civil service, in comments that again stoked anger in the public sector.
In an interview on GBC’s Viewpoint programme, Sir Joe said the disparity between civil service salaries and the private sector was saddling Gibraltar with a long-term problem that needed to be resolved.
“If what you get is a situation where the lowest paid worker in the Government gets paid more than the highest paid worker in the private sector and the private sector guy is the one that pays the taxes to pay the other one, do you think that can be sustained economically or defended socially?” he asked.
“I don’t think it can. And what I am saying is that we have to address this problem.”
Sir Joe said it was not a question of reducing salaries but rather ensuring the best use of resources, including through improved use of IT.
He was being quizzed by GBC’s Jonathan Scott after recent criticism from the white collar union GGCA, whose president Wendy Cumming had accused Sir Joe of “breaking the civil service”.
In a hard-hitting opinion piece, Ms Cummings had questioned assumptions made by Sir Joe about the performance of the public sector, adding that more focus was needed on training and succession planning for a “demoralised and despondent” civil service.
The GGCA president said the government had not put in place any “independent or objective mechanisms” to measure the efficiency of government departments, and had turned a blind eye to the union’s efforts to identify where processes could be streamlined.
In a tough rebuttal, Sir Joe levelled scathing criticism at Ms Cumming, a senior crown counsel who is currently employed as the full-time chairwoman of the GGCA but whose wages are still paid by the public purse under an agreement with the Gibraltar Government.
“I can tell you that when I was union leader I wasn’t lucky enough to have a Government who was willing to pay a head of the department to run the union and they pay the bill,” Sir Joe said.
And he insisted that despite the GGCA’s resistance to the way in which the government was handling its efficiency drive, this was not an issue that could be ducked because the pay gap between public and private was getting wider every year.
“All I am saying is that this is a problem that has been ignored and every year it is getting worse and we have to understand that this is a problem which, if it explodes, will create a situation which has no solution,” he said.
“Already we have a situation where in the private sector people will lose their best people to the Government because logically, if people have a chance, they will work for the Government where they feel there is greater security, better working conditions and higher pay.”
“We need to understand that this cannot carry on.”
Sir Joe’s comments come just days ahead of a demonstration in which Gibraltar’s unions will march together against what they say is the exploitation of agency workers both in the private and public sectors.
The unions have accused the government of freezing recruitment and using agency workers to cover gaps in the public sector, depriving those workers of the benefits and stability of full time employment.
But Sir Joe rejected that position and said there were 650 more civil servants now than in 2011 when the GSLP/Liberals were elected. He said agency workers were used to provide cover, something that had not been the case in the past.
But he added that not everyone could be employed in the civil service.
“So we have a bigger civil service and we have got cover which didn’t exist before, [but] what the union wants is that we should employ everyone in Gibraltar in the Government..,” he said.
“It’s a natural aspiration, but we have to be honest.”
“I believe in telling people the truth as it is, whether it is what they like to hear or not, and the answer is…the public sector is at risk if it is not sustainable.”
“If it is sustainable, it is not at risk.”
Sir Joe also accused Ms Cumming of politically-loaded criticism after she called on the government to be more transport on its handling of public finances, the sort of criticism “that the opposition brings”.
But Ms Cumming dismissed his attack and said the union’s position was justified given that in order to evaluate how much Gibraltar should be spending on the public sector, it was necessary to have a clear picture of the public finances.
She dismissed too the personal nature of some of Sir Joe’s criticism of her, adding that it was proof that the union’s stance was valid.
“His personal attack shows he’s run out of logical arguments,” she said, adding that “he should address the civil service issues instead of attacking me”.
“He’s not answered the points that we’ve raised,” she said, adding that personalised attacks on union leaders “put people off this kind of work”.
Sir Joe’s comments also drew an intervention from independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon, who said his attack on Ms Cumming was “…at best inelegant and unbecoming of a government minister, and at worst deeply concerning for the democratic credentials of our community.”
Ms Hassan Nahaon also slammed Sir Joe’s comments on the pay disparity between the public and private sectors.
“This comment is totally broad brush and does not apply across the spectrum, leaving us all with a completely misleading picture of the way things really are,” she said.
She backed too the GGCA’s insistence on the need for proper succession planning within the civil service, adding that failure to prepare candidates for senior posts and career progression undermined morale in the sector.
“It is this factor that also contributes to talk of unsustainability within the public sector because when the capable workers of our civil service are not being prepared to aspire to high level appointments, the result will be a highly demoralised and unproductive workforce, and that is unsustainable, and this is something which this administration has the duty to analyse and rectify instead of constantly passing the buck,” she said.
She was critical too of his position on agency workers, adding that people who had worked for years on zero hour contracts did not see themselves as plugging holes for temporarily absent full-time employees.
“They have lives and families and they naturally start feeling and integrating as part of a normal workforce, yet they go without any of the due rights they merit,” she said.
This leads to the lack of morale, which in turn leads to a natural decline in productivity, and overall malaise in the public sector.”