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£10m in golden handshakes for Northern Ireland's council officials

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 18/01/2016

Council bosses who quit after a revamp of local government in Northern Ireland pocketed pay-offs of up to £350,000, it can be revealed
Council bosses who quit after a revamp of local government in Northern Ireland pocketed pay-offs of up to £350,000, it can be revealed

Council bosses who quit after a revamp of local government in Northern Ireland pocketed pay-offs of up to £350,000, it can be revealed.

A total of 150 senior staff have been awarded more than £10m to date.

It is on top of a £2.3m payout to 136 councillors who retired under a similar severance scheme.

At least two staff received packages worth more than £300,000 - double the salary of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Earlier this year the 26 councils were replaced by 11 larger 'super councils' as part of a public sector cost-cutting drive.

The number of councillors was slashed from 582 to 462. A series of senior staff posts were also abolished.

Severance packages were agreed for staff and councillors who departed.

In August this newspaper revealed how councillors had been awarded severance deals of more than £2m.

Now it can be disclosed that pay-offs to staff have totalled at least £10,229,935 to date. That figure will be higher because Belfast City Council refused to disclose how much it paid to the sole employee who received a severance.

The highest package is believed to have been awarded by the new Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.

It did not disclose the exact amount, but said it ranged between £300,000 and £350,000.

In December 2014 there was anger after it emerged that Sharon O'Connor would receive a £275,000 package following her departure as chief executive of Derry City Council.

She later became chair of the Education Authority, earning £50,000 plus expenses for the part-time role.

Ms O'Connor's severance was not included in the figures disclosed by Derry City Council, which relate to payments made only after April 2015.

Ards and North Down Borough Council confirmed its highest severance package totalled £317,127.

The highest package at Mid-Ulster District Council was more than £180,000.

Belfast City Council, which saw relatively little change compared to other councils, lost just one member of staff. It refused to state how much this person received, citing Data Protection exemptions.

The same exemption was applied by all councils to prevent the recipients being identified.

To put the figures in context, Prime Minister David Cameron's salary is £142,500. First Minister Arlene Foster earns £114,535 a year.

TUV leader Jim Allister said he was astonished by the size of the packages.

He said severance deals should have been capped at a significantly lower amount.

"There are two problems with these figures - the sheer quantum of them and the fact that they weren't capped at a reasonable level, and secondly the fact that people like Ms O'Connor were able to pick up their cheque on Friday and walk into another public sector job on Monday," said Mr Allister.

"If you are getting a handshake, and returning into the public service, that should be discounted out of the handshake.

"Patently it wasn't, and to have allowed that situation to develop without a reasonable cap was hugely irresponsible by the Executive, and has caused unjustified enrichment for these people, particularly if they are free and able to return to other public sector jobs."

Dia Chakravarty, the political director at the TaxPayers' Alliance, said the pay-offs were irresponsible.

"This will come as a shock to residents," she said.

"When necessary savings are having to be made across the public sector with colleagues having seen pay freezes or worse, these pay-outs to fat cats at taxpayers' expense are irresponsible and insensitive. Hard-pressed families expect their money to pay for essential services, not to line the pockets of already highly-paid public sector bosses."

The Review of Public Administration (RPA) Staff Severance Scheme for Local Government, published last February, followed negotiations between local government employers and trade union representatives.

It mirrored similar RPA schemes previously applied to staff in health and education in Northern Ireland.

Nipsa was the lead trade union in the negotiations.

Bumper Graham, Nipsa's assistant general secretary, explained that the severance scheme would save money in the long-term.

"While there was some use of the voluntary redundancy scheme, it was quite limited overall," he said.

"We lost 15 councils, so it was an average of 10 per council, which is not that big a number."

Mr Graham said a formula had been agreed by the Assembly, which included a maximum amount that could be paid out.

"There were claw-back provisions, which meant the value had to be made repayable in savings over a period of three years or so," he added.

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