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£5m consultancy bill for education ‘is unjustifiable’

By Kathryn Torney

The Department of Education has been called on to justify its spending of nearly £5m on consultants in eight years.

The call comes from Mid-Ulster MLA Billy Armstrong after he received figures in response to an Assembly question.

Two years ago the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) warned multi-million-pound spending by departments on consultants appeared to be "out of control".

Mr Armstrong, an Ulster Unionist MLA, said: "The statistics show that in 2001-02 the Department of Education spent £140,869 on consultants. Two years later this had risen to £510,432 and by the following year — 2004-05 — it was £765,799. There was a slight dip in 2005-06 which was followed by a huge leap to £905,600 the following year, and in 2007-08 it topped the million pound mark at £1,067,704. 2008-09 saw £850,000 spent, meaning that just short of £5m was spent by the department on consultants in eight years. At a time when the (Education) minister (Caitriona Ruane) is claiming she is unable to come up with funds to rebuild crumbling schools, people are entitled to ask what exactly have we got for our £5m?"

In 2008, the PAC also voiced fears of civil servants being "left behind" as advisers increasingly took charge of public services.

The committee’s investigation into consultancy use within Government found annual expenditure by the 11 Northern Ireland departments and offshoot bodies soared to over £40m in 2007.

The big two in the consultancy world — PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Deloitte — received a large chunk of the taxpayer-funded business.

The PAC recommended that the Department of Finance and Personnel should work with departments and produce a formal strategy to reduce their dependency on external consulting.

The Belfast Telegraph asked the Department of Education for a comment but it did not respond.

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