A fifth of officers who retired under a scheme to overhaul Northern Ireland's police service were rehired as agency staff – some of them returning just days after leaving with generous payoffs.
The details emerged in a critical report which accuses PSNI commanders of taking their "eye off the ball" in allowing a £106m bill to be amassed for temporary workers in the post-Patten era.
The use of agency staff was poorly managed and in some cases abused, Stormont's Public Accounts Committee concluded.
Some jobs were given to former police officers where policing skills were not required, fuelling perceptions of favouritism, its report said.
Today's report also reveals:
e The number of temporary staff spiralled from 100 in 2002 to 800 by 2007.
e By March 2012, 73% of all agency staff in posts were former officers.
e Contracts were awarded without proper competition, leading to suspicions of "a cosy relationship" between the PSNI and some contractors.
e The current supplier, Grafton Recruitment, has been in place continually since 2002, having won just one contract competition in 2008 which, the committee said, was not without flaw.
e A change to a contract that increased spending by £4.6m was authorised by a PSNI recruitment manager who had a delegated approval limit of just £100,000.
e Some staff engaged via Grafton are paid through limited companies, which can be a means of minimising personal tax.
e Some posts were overgraded and overpaid, and not properly evaluated.
PAC chair Michaela Boyle said: "It appears to the committee that, from a corporate perspective, PSNI took its eye of the ball around this time and became far too hands-off."
The Patten Report, which reshaped policing in Northern Ireland, led to around 5,500 officers leaving the force between 2001 and 2011.
It led to increasing reliance on agency staff. Numbers increased following Lord Patten's report in 2001, reaching a peak of around 800 in 2007, before falling back to their current level of about 400.
As a result, since 2004 the PSNI has spent around £106m on agency staff. Of the 2,740 temporary staff hired, almost 1,100 were former police officers, representing nearly one in five of all Patten retirees. In some cases staff returned weeks and even days after being paid off.
The PAC criticised the excessive use of temporary staff over the last decade, deficiencies in governance and weaknesses in contract awards.
Some posts were given to former police officers where policing skills were not required, leading the PAC to warn this could lead "to a perception of favouritism".
The procurement of staff from a single agency, Grafton, began in 2004 when the PSNI signed a variation to a contract it already held to provide permanent staff.
The value of the existing contract was around £2m a year, but the variation increased spending by £44m over the next four years.
Despite having the authority to approve spending of up to only £100,000, a PSNI staff member authorised the variation that increased the spend by £4.6m.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott (below) told the committee the authorisation was "a simple mistake" and accepted it should have been signed off at a higher level.
A statement issued by the PSNI said: "The Chief Constable notes a number of concerns which the committee has raised in relation to the accountability arrangements and governance of the use of agency staff and fully accepts that there should have been greater scrutiny and oversight of the arrangements in past years."
A spokesman for Grafton Recruitment said the agency would study the committee's report but had no comment to make at this stage.
The PAC found that 37 assignments of supposedly temporary staff lasted more than five years and four lasted longer than seven years.
It said this made the term 'temporary' meaningless and suggested a significant drift from any original plan there may have been.
It concluded that evidence temporary workers were in post for several years should have rung alarm bells.
This officer retired from the PSNI in 2001. Three years later, in 2004, he was temporarily re-employed by the force as a porter and driver. Duties in his new post included tasks such as moving furniture from office to office, disposing of rubbish and salting the outside areas of the complex during periods of cold weather. Constable A's temporary assignment in this position lasted more than seven years.
Constable B retired in October 2001 under the voluntary severance scheme after more than 20 years' service. In 2004 he was rehired by the PSNI through Grafton as a civilian staff member to act as a transport assistant. It was initially a 12-week placement which was described as 'casual' on the requisition form. The assignment concluded almost seven-and-a-half years later in June 2011, when the PSNI undertook a review of its use of agency staff.
The officer was rehired shortly after his retirement as a result of the voluntary severance scheme. His skills were deemed vital to the continuity of the department in which he worked and as a result he returned as a consultant on the same project that he had worked on prior to his severance, at a daily rate of £275. There was no open competition for the consultancy post. The PSNI cited national security concerns as the reason for the lack of competition.
Left the PSNI under voluntary severance in 2005 and was re-engaged a week later. As systems and records manager, he was responsible for the integrity of the information on an HR system. The PSNI told auditors that the complexity of the system meant it was essential to retain the highest level of expertise at management level. The former officer's assignment lasted over five-and-a-half years.
*Cases taken from 2012 Audit Office report
Troubled relations made information difficult to obtain
Strained relations between the Policing Board and the PSNI meant that concerns over the use of agency staff were not exposed for 10 years.
Today's report notes that the board was seeking information on the matter as far back as 2002.
However, members had difficulty obtaining sufficient accurate and relevant information to inform their scrutiny.
It was not until the Audit Office published a critical report in late 2012 that the matter was drawn into the public spotlight.
The Policing Board is an independent public body comprising 19 political and independent members, and holds the PSNI and its Chief Constable to account.
Relations between the two have often been strained.
Today's report says the relationship needs to be improved.
It states: "There is a fine balance to be struck in the relationship and it is not always an easy one.
"The Chief Constable has acknowledged that 'the relationship should be constructive, but never comfortable'. The committee considers it clear that the relationship has not functioned effectively to support the board's scrutiny."
The report notes how the board had difficulty in accessing relevant information on the PSNI's use of agency staff.
"There is much evidence of the Policing Board seeking information on the PSNI's use of agency staff consistently from 2002 to the present," it adds.
"There is also much evidence of information being provided by PSNI, although it was not always of good quality nor necessarily the right information at the right time.
"Undoubtedly the Policing Board has had difficulty in obtaining sufficient accurate and relevant information to inform its scrutiny."
The Public Accounts Committee said it recognised the situation "only too well".
"The quality of evidence that (the committee) received during this inquiry has not met consistently the standards of accuracy and openness that it expects," the report added.
"Such evidence does not serve the interests of public accountability.
"Whatever difficulties may exist, the Policing Board remains central to the accountability arrangements for the PSNI.
"The committee expects the Chief Constable to work closely with the Policing Board to achieve a demonstrable improvement in this vital relationship."
Reforms cost £500m in golden handshakes
The Good Friday Agreement formed the basis for a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland.
In 1999 the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, chaired by former Conservative MP Chris Patten, set out proposals for the future structures and arrangements for policing here. This became known as the Patten Report.
It acknowledged the need for change in policing and made 175 recommendations.
These included cutting the force from 13,000 to 8,000 officers and increasing the level of Catholic recruits. To encourage the required number of full-time officers to leave the PSNI, an early severance scheme was offered to those aged 50 and over who were serving officers prior to 1995.
Simultaneously, a compulsory severance scheme was introduced for full-time reserve officers. This led to around 5,500 officers leaving the PSNI between 2001 and 2011, at a cost of £500m.
With some years to go before reaching State pension age, the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust was established and funded to provide support services to help retiring officers find alternative future employment.
However, up to March 2012, 19% of these retired officers secured employment via recruitment agencies as civilians. Alternatively, if they rejoined the PSNI as police officers, the legislation required them to repay their severance lump sum.
The departure of so many experienced officers over a relatively short period inevitably led to a skills gap and the PSNI spent over £106m since 2004 on temporary staff. Nearly 40% of those employed through recruitment agency Grafton had previously left the PSNI with a severance package. The NI Audit Office investigated the use of agency staff and reported in October 2012, with the matter later examined by the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee.