More than £800,000 has been spent on hiring the services of highly-paid external consultants for an education body that has been in the pipeline for more than six years.
The Education and Skills Authority (ESA), which is still not in existence, has so far run up a bill of more than £872,246 in consultant fees — enough to pay for the salary of 40 newly-qualified teachers.
With the Education Bill, which needs to be rubber-stamped by the Assembly to bring ESA into creation, currently before Stormont’s education committee, that figure is set to keep rising.
Education committee vice-chairman Danny Kinahan told the Belfast Telegraph: “It is really shocking to see how much has been spent on an idea that has yet to get through the Assembly and which is meant to be saving us money.
“It is almost criminal to be spending so much on consultants when schools are all struggling to maintain their buildings, keep the number of teachers up, especially when their workloads are so high, and when so many other cuts have had to be made.”
It has emerged that the Department of Education has commissioned the services of no less than 22 consultants since 2006/07 in a bid to get ESA — the brainchild of former Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitriona Ruane — up and running.
A whopping £235,610 was paid to PA Consulting alone for programme management support in 2006/07. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on a total of 39 projects including providing HR support, communications, artwork, materials for workshops, workshops, seminars, training, audits and business cases.
More than £24,000 was given to Capita Resourcing for the recruitment of the ESA chief executive designate and another £17,585 has been spent on evaluating the remuneration of ESA’s directors.
The lucrative salary of ESA chief executive designate, Gavin Boyd, the former head of the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, has already sparked controversy after it emerged his pay packet is in the £155,000 to £160,000 bracket — more than Prime Minister David Cameron gets paid.
And ESA, which the Programme of Government has set as an operational deadline of December 2013, has cost more than £12m to date.
If the single education authority comes into existence — it exists in shadow form as the Education Skills Authority Implementation Team — it will replace eight education bodies including the five education and library boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools with an estimated saving of £20m per year in streamlined services.
The damning information has come to light after Mr Kinahan asked Education Minister John O’Dowd for a breakdown of consultancy costs for ESA.
The UUP MLA for South Antrim added: “I am told ESA has cost £12m until October. This is where Government can save money, cutting out such large wasted expenditure.
“I am also really concerned that we could be paying someone so much money when his job does not exist.”
Outside ‘expertise’ worth fortune
Stormont departments squandering public money on external consultants is not a new phenomenon.
Over the period 2005-6 to 2010-11, departments have spent more than £150m on external consultancy services.
It is a issue that has been challenged by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which described the spending as “significant”.
Last April the PAC revealed that the cost of external consultancy to Civil Service departments and related bodies had more than doubled in five years.
It said the cost “looked like it was out of control”. However, there has been a significant reduction in the amount of spending on external consultants. In the the last financial year spending was approximately £16m, compared with a peak of £42m in 2006-7.
South Antrim MLA Danny Kinahan, who has raised concerns about the Department of Education’s spending on consultants for the Education and Skills Authority, said: “There has been a move afoot to stop departments spending so much on consultants with some success. We have an Assembly which spends far too much time producing strategies and no actions and this sort of spend on consultants is a symptom of it, with consultants being believed to be the only specialists/experts in the field.
“It is actually decisions and calculated risk-taking we need from departments and using consultants often avoids this.”