At a time when the public sector is being asked to tighten its belt and make the best possible use of taxpayers' money, it comes as a surprise – and a disappointment – to learn that civil servants have racked up a £14.7m overtime bill in the last 12 months. How could this have happened when public spending is under ever increasing scrutiny and when civil servants have been subjected to pay freezes for the last three years?
There are two obvious answers. Cuts to employment levels in the public sector have been too deep and the remaining staff are having to work longer hours to perform the duties necessary in each government department. That is not the case since the level of cuts here are only half those in Great Britain. If the same winds of austerity had swept through the public sector here, another 10,000 workers would now be out of a job.
The more plausible explanation is that controls over overtime are simply not robust enough. There have been some mitigating reasons, such as the heavy snowfall and flooding which meant some staff having to work overtime, but most of the other reasons advanced by departments are simply ongoing working arrangements which should not result in such high overtime payments.
The public sector has always had a reputation in Northern Ireland of being less efficient, although better paid, than the private sector. While there is some evidence that the work culture is changing, obviously the pace of change is not fast enough. It also seems clear that oversight of spending remains a problem.
New Finance Minister Simon Hamilton should examine this issue as soon as possible.
Taxpayers in the private sector can justifiably feel aggrieved if they are being asked to work longer and harder without any recompense and then see their public sector counterparts earning significant overtime. Mr Hamilton must impress on his ministerial colleagues the need for greater efficiency by staff and a more frugal approach to spending the public's money. The public purse like the public's patience is not limitless.