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My free breakfast

Mark Devenport | 16:02 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010

Flattery, they claim, will get you anywhere. But my flattering remarks about Ms Purdy and Sex In The City (noted in this weekend's Sunday Times) didn't get me anywhere as my colleagues fixed the rota so I started my first working day back from leave at the La Mon hotel 7.30 a.m.

At least I did get a free fried egg, before broadcasting on Good Morning Ulster about the headlines from the DUP economic document "Rising to the Challenge".

The proposed public sector pay freeze provided the headline. Although they follow George Osborne's example in suggesting a freeze for all those earning more than £21,000, the DUP go further, supporting an end to the annual increments by which civil servants have clambered up their pay grades.

Civil servants interviewed by the BBC in Belfast city centre this afternoon were generally unimpressed (one thought, given the changes in pay and pensions, that she'd be 107 before she could retire). Sinn Fein's version of the pay freeze (which would only apply to those earning more than £43,000) would be more politically palatable. But would it generate the kind of savings needed to make a dent in the Executive's "black hole"?

And is it worth having a freeze which would apply to 23,000 civil servants, but not to more than 100,000 other public sector workers? The DUP thinks the health service and the education system should follow the example they want to set in the civil service. However, that involves taking on sceptical trade unions and revisiting cross UK pay arrangements.

DUP politicians acknowledge they can't suggest such painful options without being prepared to take their own medicine. Mr Robinson says his ministers should take a 5 - 10% voluntary pay cut - he says he will himself take a 10% reduction (over at Social Development Alex Attwood has already taken his own unilateral cut).

Other aspects of the DUP document are worth noting. They haven't gone with Sinn Fein's mobile phone mast tax. But both parties think assets locked within the Housing Executive and housing associations could generate much needed cash. Instead of agreeing to sell Belfast port (something the Treasury favoured back in the days when Gordon Brown was Chancellor) the DUP propose levying a dividend which they think could be worth tens of millions of pounds over the next four years.

And with Citi expected to confirm 400 new jobs later this week, there's an admission that Invest NI may have to lower its sights. The DUP say that instead of concentrating on high value jobs, we may have to try to attract lower wage options like call centres. The message: in the current climate any job will do.

Conspicuous by its absence from both the recent Sinn Fein and DUP economic papers is the controversial option of levying water charges. With an election due next May, both parties appear to have decided this remains politically unacceptable.


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