Belfast Telegraph

PSNI agency staff cost 'excessive'

Police commanders took their eye off the ball in allowing an "excessive" £106 million to be spent hiring agency staff, a Stormont committee has found.

A lack of central control and monitoring in the PSNI led to the considerable financial outlay on temporary workers, many of whom were retired officers who had only recently left service, the Public Accounts Committee concluded.

Committee members said they were not opposed to the PSNI's policy of bringing in agency staff when appropriate but said the organisation had relied on the option too much in the last decade.

They also expressed concern there had been a lack of competitive tendering for the contract to fill the short-term posts.

The PAC committee today published its own assessment of the findings of an NI Audit Office probe of the PSNI's use of agency staff carried out in 2012.

The policy has been mired in controversy due to the fact many of the temporary workers employed with the PSNI were former officers who had retired from the organisation with hefty peace process pension payouts.

Auditors, in revealing the £106 million bill for the period 2004 to 2012, found that more than 1,000 officers who retired to make way for new recruits returned as temporary staff.

That accounted for almost a fifth of retirees under Lord Chris Patten's scheme to overhaul the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) .

Some started days after leaving with inflated retirement payouts granted as part of the Patten reforms.

Many of those rehired as agency staff had specialist skills in areas such as intelligence, built up over years of dealing with republican and loyalist violence.

Some provided specific policing skills but others did not, including work by former officers as drivers or English language transcribers.

Commenting on the committee's investigation of the issue, PAC chair Michaela Boyle said: "This report has identified a number of issues that concerned the committee. Proper competitive arrangements, which would have ensured value for money, were not put in place until 2008. The current supplier has been in place since 2002, establishing a virtual monopoly in the supply of temporary staff to the PSNI. Moving forward, any new contracts awarded by the PSNI must be subject to proper options appraisal and business cases and have the approval and authority of the Policing Board."

The Sinn Fein MLA added: "By taking its eye off the ball, the PSNI has spent considerably more than was necessary on agency workers. The committee received the PSNI's assurance that there is now a 'robust, centrally monitored process' for appointing temporary staff.

"The committee expects an update report from the Department of Justice to demonstrate that improvements in governance have been delivered, due to processes put into place in 2011."

The committee criticised what it described as a lack of accountability of agency workers filling policing roles, noting that the Police Ombudsman had limited power to regulate their conduct.

Members also acknowledged there were concerns over equality issues arising from the PSNI's reliance on its former officers.

Ms Boyle added: "The implementation of Patten and the introduction of a radical new structure for policing over the last 10 years represented an enormous challenge. The committee does not underestimate the difficulties faced by the PSNI but we also must ensure that the use of agency staff must be well managed and appropriate.

"We welcome the PSNI's assurance that it has plans to both reduce the use of agency staff and manage all temporary contracts more rigorously."

Over the period between 2001 and 2011 around 8,000 officers and 2,323 police staff left the PSNI.

A police statement said: "This change is without parallel in world policing.

"The PSNI welcomes the fact that the Committee 'accepts that temporary staff were and will from time to time continue to be required and that some of these people will need to bring policing experience and expertise'."

The Chief Constable noted 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 accepted that there should have been greater scrutiny and oversight of the arrangements in past years.

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