Public service unions have rejected Government proposals to cut sick leave entitlements for Government employees.

Sick leave costs the State €550m per year and the current system has been described by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin as "unsustainable".

The Government presented proposals earlier today to halve sick leave certified by a doctor and to reduce the entitlement to uncertified sick leave from seven days per year to three.

The largest public service union IMPACT said the unions' priority was to protect sick pay for staff with serious long-term illnesses and to maintain a facility for uncertified short-term sick leave.

ICTU Public Services Committee Chairman Shay Cody said the assertion that public servants treat sick leave as an additional holiday entitlement was well wide of the mark, with no evidence to support it.

Mr Cody said the management proposals would do little to address any abuse of the system, but would have a disastrous effect on those suffering catastrophic illness, regardless of their previous sick leave record.

He said comparisons with the private sector were not always reliable and pointed out that 40% of civil servants take no sick leave at all.

The Labour Relations Commission is expected to schedule a further meeting between the two sides shortly.

Workers are entitled to six months certified sick leave on full pay, followed by six months on half pay within any four-year period.

The Government is proposing to reduce each period to three months.

Speaking in the Dáil earlier, Minister Howlin said the total net cost of the public service bill will be cut between 2008 and 2014 by around €3.5bn, or €3.8bn from its peak in 2009.

However, he said the Government remained committed to cutting staff numbers, which would require continued implementation of the moratorium on recruitment, apart from essential posts.

He rejected suggestions that they were "pampering the rich" by protecting pay for top civil servants and said senior staff had seen the largest net reduction in pay.

Mr Howlin said ministers had experienced a net reduction of 40%, while secretaries general had seen a fall of 42%.

However, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald said she was not moved by Mr Howlin’s "ode" to highly-paid ranks.

Ms McDonald also criticised the minister for seeking a 39% increase in the financial allocation for his department compared to 2011.

She said it was ironic that the “minister for cutbacks” was looking for such an increase.