Belfast Telegraph

Stampede now begins to get out of the Civil Service: Over 700 people express interest in exit scheme

By Noel McAdam

A stampede of staff wanting to quit the Civil Service has begun - but questions remain over the impact the scheme will have on public services.

Just two hours after an exit scheme was launched, more than 730 people had voiced an interest in leaving - a big step towards the third of all posts to be axed. Applications close on March 27.

Ministers, including First Minister Peter Robinson, believe the severance scheme will be well over-subscribed.

However, Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (Nipsa) official Bumper Graham said the initial rush was misleading.

"This is just people finding out what the scheme thinks they are worth; it may not translate into people actually wanting to go," the trade unionist added.

"There is an online calculator involved and people are just dipping in."

Overall a total of 20,000 jobs in the public sector - including teachers and health service staff - are to be shed over the next four years.

The programme, designed to cut Stormont's wage bill, is a consequence of the Stormont House Agreement hammered out by the five main parties - the DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP, SDLP and Alliance Party - just before Christmas.

Yesterday the first detailed scheme allowing for "voluntary exits" was unveiled for the NI Civil Service.

Others will now follow for the Departments of Education and for Health and Social Services.

Over the next year a total of 2,400 civil servants will be 'selected' under the scheme, which involves average pay-outs of £58,000-£60,000, but which can in theory go up to a maximum of £101,000.

Those who leave under the scheme will get one month's pay per year of service up to a maximum of 21 months.

The first £30,000 of any compensation will be tax free.

Civil servants up to the very top level of permanent secretary can apply for severance by the end of this month - and the first of them will then be allowed to leave by the middle or end of September.

All those who are selected under the scheme can expect to work at least three months notice.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said: "The scope and speed of this Voluntary Exit Scheme is unprecedented in the history of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and it is necessary to deliver the pay bill reductions for departments in line with the 2015/16 budget allocations agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2015."

The last civil servants to leave should be able to do so by the end of next March.

Mr Hamilton yesterday emphasised there is no suggestion the scheme is part of a process which will lead to compulsory redundancies.

The aim is to lose the equivalent of 2,400 full-time civil service posts, therefore saving around £90m from the civil service's annual pay bill.

In addition, around 1,100 full-time posts have already gone as a result of a freeze on recruitment and substantive promotion.

Mr Hamilton conceded a range of measures will have to be put in place to ensure continuity and business delivery.

These he said would include "redeployment arrangements to move staff into essential posts left vacant by staff who leave".

Factfile: Details behind the scheme

Q. Why is this scheme needed ?

A. Financial necessity, Stormont Ministers would say. Reductions to the Block Grant from Westminster have put departments under severe financial pressure. The easiest cut to make is the wage bill. But it also forms part of the Executive's vision of 'rebalancing' the province's economy, which has long been viewed as too dependent on the public sector.

Q. How many staff are being allowed to go ?

A. Departments have estimated that within the civil service around 2,400 full time equivalent posts can be - in the jargon - "suppressed" across all grades by the end of the next financial year, March 2016. Taking part-timers into account, the actual numbers is likely to be higher.

Q. Who is eligible to apply ?

A. Every civil servant up to but not including Permanent Secretaries, regardless of length of service or seniority - including staff on secondment and transfers and those on long-term sick leave. Even those working their probationary year can apply.

Q. Is there anyone who cannot apply?

A. Staff who already have an agreed exit date due to resignation or ill-health cannot apply, along with casual staff and those on fixed-terms plus staff already notified they are being transferred to another employer.

Q. How is it being funded?

A. Around £110m will be borrowed by the Executive to make some £90m of savings - but that £90m will then be saved every year. The Stormont House Agreement gave Ministers access to up to £700m over four years, with £200m available in each of the first three years.

Q. Do civil servants on sickness leave have to return to work before they can apply?

A. No. But the 'exit' scheme will not apply if they have already been granted retirement on medical grounds.

Q. Will all civil servants who apply be allowed to go?

A. No. It will depend on the operational needs of the departments but the scheme admits that there will be a significant number of people redeployed as a result of the "considerable" numbers being let go through the scheme in a short space of time.

Q. Do those who are redeployed have a choice?

A. No. "There is no guarantee that you will be able to remain in your current post" whether or not you apply for exit.

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