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£50m: Stormont’s bill for consultants

The full scale of how millions of pounds of public money is being paid out on outside consultants by Stormont departments can today be revealed by the Belfast Telegraph.

A staggering £50m of taxpayers' money has been spent over the last three years by the 11 Executive departments on hundreds of projects in Northern Ireland.

This newspaper has obtained item-by-item details of each department’s spending — revealing huge bills for activities outsourced to external experts.

Serious questions have now been asked over whether the executive can afford the huge bill for advisers.

These private sector experts, often sourced from management consultancy companies, are hired by departments to provide advice on a range of issues.

Taken over a five-year period, the costs are even higher, with the total bill since 2005 topping the £100m mark.

The figures are revealed as Northern Ireland braces itself for crippling public sector cuts. Yesterday Finance Minister Sammy Wilson warned some departments faced “fairly massive” cutbacks.

The details, obtained in documents released by the Executive under Freedom of Information laws, reveal how:

  • £2,614,000 was spent in just one year on planning and design for the failed Maze sports stadium project
  • the Department of Agriculture spent £250,000 on a red meat strategy for Northern Ireland
  • some £5,100,000 was spent on “strategic management” by the Department of Finance and Personnel

The total bill from 2007 to 2010 stands at £47m, with the finance department accounting for more than £12m of that total.

Its expenditure on consultants has fallen in the last three years, in line with most of the other departments.

In three cases, however, spending has risen — with the department of agriculture, department of trade and industry, and also the department of social development paying out more now compared to three years ago.

SDLP Assembly member Patsy McGlone, who sits on the Public Accounts Committee at Stormont, said current levels of consultancy expenditure could not be sustained.

“This needs reviewing, and urgently,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

“Departments are being told to tighten their belts and the first thing to cut back on is the stuff that is not required.

“As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have seen tens of millions of pounds spent on consultancy fees that I seriously question.

“This money would be much more wisely spent on frontline services and trying to deliver something productive for the community.”

Yesterday it was confirmed the Northern Ireland budget could be cut by more than £2bn over the next four years.

Fiona McEvoy from the Taxpayers’ Alliance pressure group said public money must be used more efficiently.

“Not only is this bill extortionate, some of the projects tackled also sound fairly dubious,” she said.

“With upcoming cuts threatening to impact on frontline services, it’s vital that these consultancy costs are addressed first and any fat is trimmed.

“For many years now we’ve seen the public sector payroll grow and the top brass salaries increase steadily, so we’ve every right to ask why these well paid executives need to defer to external consultants on such a regular basis.

“The public sector must stop throwing money at problems and source skills internally rather than raiding the coffers in order to ask for help.”

Belfast Telegraph