A Government department has forked out almost £300,000 of taxpayers' money on staff away days and team building exercises in the past three years, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
The Department for Social Development (DSD), which is responsible for social security benefits, child support and social housing, has spent a whopping £276,318.75 sending staff to seminars, workshops and a host of other team building exercises since March 2004.
The figures also show that the costs have spiralled year-on- year.
During the period March 2006 to March 2007 the total spent on away days and team building exercises topped £123,843.52 - almost double the amount spent in 2004-05.
Broken down, the figures show the DSD spent £63,511.18 funding away days and £60,332.34 on team building during 2006-07.
In 2005-06 the total was £88,654.77 - £63,076.63 for away days and £25,578.14 on team building exercises.
During 2004-05 a total of £63,820.46 was spent - £59,015.46 on away days and £4,805 on team building exercises.
The figures were released after DUP MLA Stephen Moutray tabled a written question to Minister for Social Development Margaret Ritchie.
Mr Moutray said the costings did not add up to value for money.
He said: "I would call upon the Minister to move without delay to take a firm grip of her department's spending. Over a quarter of a million pounds spent on what could only be described as junkets is not value for money.
"At a time when public finances are tight, the fact that so much money has been squandered makes for very sorry reading.
"It may be that her department has developed a spending culture, all the more need then to rein in that inclination."
Mervyn Storey, deputy chairman of the Assembly's Finance Committee said the DSD should look for cheaper ways of improving service.
"The big thing we have to ask is have we got our value for money? Have there been tangible increase production and output of those members of the department who went to those particular exercises?
"Obviously I believe that there has to be an element of every budget that allows for the development of staff. No staff structures should stay static. However, the sheer size of our public service means we have to look at cheaper ways of getting a better service."
Tony McMullan, assistant secretary for civil servants union Nipsa, said that while training was essential there was no benefit in junkets.
"It depends on the nature of the event. Generally speaking we would be of the opinion that staff training is absolutely essential.
"But we would be concerned when you hear about staff going on residentials or having canoe races. We don't see the benefit of that."
In a statement the DSD said away days and team building exercises were essential to developing services.
"The department has been involved in a high level of change during this period. Organisational development has played an important role in helping management and staff to implement change. Team-building/away days have been used to enhance leadership skills, improve communications and team-working mainly for staff directly involved in the delivery of services to the public.
"This expenditure makes an important contribution to both staff and organisational development. The costs incurred across the three year period amount to approximately £36 per head of staff, which is not an excessive investment.
"As a large organisation with approximately 7,600 staff, the department provides learning and development interventions similar to any Government department."
The department said most of the sessions were workshops and seminars for staff information or organisational development purposes.