Belfast Telegraph

£40,000 a day bill for civil service overtime in Northern Ireland

 

Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

More than £40,000 a day is being spent on overtime by government departments in Northern Ireland.

Civil servants worked around 804,000 extra hours in the last year at a cost of over £16m. That is a 9% increase on the previous year's expenditure, and 53% since 2010. 

Four out of the nine Stormont departments had costs running above £1m.

The highest bill was at the Department for Communities, which spent £5.9m on overtime - up 34% in a single year.

The Department of Finance, which released the figures, said the expenditure was the result of staff undertaking essential work.

However, SDLP MLA John Dallat, a long-serving member of Stormont's Public Accounts Committee, voiced concern at the cost.

"Overtime should be the exception, but these figures suggest differently," he said.

"There is a danger that overtime is becoming part of the norm.

"It is very poor management of the most valuable resource - the staff.

"Overtime can lead to people being overworked and overstretched."

Mr Dallat called for auditors to look into the rising expenditure.

"This does need to be investigated," he added.

"I would like the Audit Office to look at this, I would also like to see the Assembly up and running, with the procedures to carry out an inquiry to establish how we arrive at figures like these."

Overtime costs were disclosed by the Department of Finance following a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph.

According to the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) handbook, Saturday overtime premiums can be time and a half. Staff can get double time for working Sundays.

In the 2018/19 financial year, a total of 804,068 extra hours were worked across the nine departments, costing a total of £16,394,217.

That works out at £44,915 per day - or £20.38 for each of the 804,068 extra hours worked.

That compares to 762,556 additional hours in the previous financial year (2017/18), costing £14,973,078.

In 2016/17, some 721,823 additional hours were worked, costing £14,209,175.

The figures have risen steadily since 2010//11, when overtime costs for the then 11 Stormont departments topped £10,663,738.

Right-wing lobby group The TaxPayers' Alliance voiced concern at the rising expenditure.

The organisation's Harry Fone said: "Taxpayers will wonder why this bill has risen so high in such a short amount of time.

"Staff should be paid for the hours that they work, but if there's so much overtime being claimed, then perhaps there may be some issues around their workload."

Analysis of the expenditure shows the Department for Communities (DfC) had 282,127 hours of overtime in 2018/19, costing £5,898,236.

Spending on overtime has risen 34% on the previous year, when staff worked 215,035 extra hours at a cost of £4,398,217.

It said: "DfC is the largest NICS department employing over 8,000 staff, approximately one-third of the NICS.

"The majority of overtime in DfC is carried out in the operational delivery of social security benefits and overtime is approved to meet business need in providing an effective service to our customers."

The second highest spend was at the Department for Infrastructure (DfI).

Staff worked 266,092 extra hours in 2018/19 at a cost of £4,875,208.

Its spend on overtime has fallen by 6% on the previous year (£5,180,938 for 292,057 hours).

It said: "Due to DfI's particular responsibilities, a considerable amount of work has to be completed out of normal business hours.

"The amount of overtime required varies from year to year, depending on such factors as the severity of the winter, the number of other weather related events that require an out-of-hours response and the nature and extent of the works programmes delivered each year."

Two other departments had overtime costs in excess of £1m in 2018/19 - the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA, £2,956,508, up 7%) and the Department of Finance (£2,204,647, up 4%).

DAERA's work also includes out-of-hours services such as animal disease testing.

Five of the nine departments reported a year-on-year rise in overtime expenditure.

Responding to the overall overtime cost, the Department of Finance said it represented just 2% of the whole Civil Service pay bill.

"Like many organisations, the NI Civil Service uses overtime to meet business needs," it explained.

"The overtime costs for 2018/19 represent just 2.04% of the total pay bill for the NICS.

"Overtime payments were made to staff undertaking essential work and delivering a wide range of services to the public across Northern Ireland."

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