Publicly-funded consumer watchdog overpaid staff by £230,000
A watchdog set up to represent the public on consumer issues overpaid its own employees by £230,000, it has emerged.
Chief executive of the Consumer Council Antoinette McKeown last night admitted that 29 staff members were paid the cash over a six-year period leading up to 2010.
The consumer chief ordered an independent investigation after a 2009 audit alerted senior staff to the “irregular salary payments”.
A second audit was then ordered and carried out by consultants ASM Howarth.
This investigation revealed that 29 of the council’s 48 staff members had been paid too much in the previous six years.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that only those staff members who were in post on March 21, 2010 were included in the audit. It is not known if any former staff of the consumer body were overpaid.
It is also believed that while outgoing Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster was briefed on the issue, no decision has been made in relation to affected staff members being forced to repay the overpaid cash.
It is expected that decision won’t be made until May at the earliest.
A spokeswoman for the Consumer Council confirmed that its boss McKeown is not one of the 29 staff members who received extra cash.
Former Assembly Public Accounts Committee member John Dallat said he was disappointed by the development.
The SDLP man added: “The Consumer Council has a critical role to play in Northern Ireland and doesn't need to be steeped in controversy, especially when it relates to money. I am disappointed by this because at the present time the public are looking to the consumer council for leadership.”
Ms McKeown said: “The Consumer Council can confirm that irregular salary payments were made to some staff.
“I want to apologise to consumers that this situation has happened.
“It shouldn’t have happened and as chief accounting officer I am fully committed to resolving this matter promptly and ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.
“We know that Northern Ireland citizens expect us to manage their money well, and we didn’t on this specific issue.
“The Consumer Council is totally focused on managing public money effectively across all areas of our remit on behalf of consumers and we will work to rebuild confidence amongst the Northern Ireland public.
“We are also working with our sponsoring Government department, Enterprise, Trade and |Investment, to address these |issues.
“Because of this and our duty of care as an employer, the Consumer Council is mindful of contractual and legal implications for staff involved — therefore, we cannot say more at this time.
“However, I can give an absolute commitment that whilst we work to resolve this current issue, we will not be deflected in our core mission to represent and speak up for consumers in Northern Ireland.”
The Consumer Council was set up in 1985 by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI). Its primary role is to represent the interests of members of the public and attempts to influence policy-makers. The organisation, headed by Antoinette McKeown (right), helps consumers with complaints and helps educate members of the public about their rights.