Civil servants could be asked to work as debt collectors


Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor – 17 May 2013 (Irish Independent)

PUBLIC sector staff face being sent to work in private debt collection firms to claw back up to €500m owed to the State.

The Government is considering outsourcing the debt collection work in several key sectors to boost its finances.

These include €300m in social welfare overpayments, farm grant overpayments, unpaid €100 A&E charges, unpaid court fines and arrears in council rents and commercial rates.

Junior Minister for Public Expenditure Brian Hayes said that in total, the State was owed between €300m and €500m at a time when the public finances were still in difficulty.

Safeguards

He revealed that sending public sector workers to work in private debt collection agencies would be considered as part of the debt management project.

"I think there are ways you can do this which safeguards people's positions but improves the service ultimately to the State," he said.

If the Government approves such a move when the debt management study is completed, it would be the first time that public sector workers would be under the supervision of private sector management. The workers would retain their same pay and conditions.

Mr Hayes pointed to how this type of "hybrid" approach had worked for the official government website in the North, NI Direct.

"In Northern Ireland they had NI Direct as a one-stop shop, where BT have the contract, but the majority of people who work on the contract are public sector employees," he said.

But he was warned at a 'Stubbs Gazette' debt collection conference in Dublin that debt collection work was "not for the faint hearted" – and that it would be very difficult to retrain public sector staff to do it.

Mr Hayes said the appropriate training could be provided to staff.

He also said that there could have to be significant debt "write downs" if people genuinely could not afford to pay or if businesses would be at risk of closure.

"That's a very tricky issue to sort out because to keep people employed, you have to be flexible," he said.

Although some bodies, such as the University of Limerick, have begun to employ debt collectors to recover unpaid student fees, there is no uniform approach across the public service. And the whole sector is completely unregulated.

Mr Hayes said that there would have to be codes of conduct put in place to ensure that any private debt collection companies hired by the State were limited in the number of emails and phone calls they could make to debtors.

He said the fact that €400m was owed to local authorities and another €300m owed in social welfare overpayments showed the need for urgent and effective action.

"Particularly when, every month, the Government is spending €1bn more than it is taking in in revenues," he said.

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