Belfast Telegraph

Agency workers brought into Civil Service to cover redundancies cost £10m

By Adrian Rutherford

More than £10 million was spent drafting in temporary staff to plug gaps in the Civil Service after a controversial redundancy drive began.

In some cases people were paid off from their jobs only to return days later as an agency worker, it has been claimed.

The number of agency staff increased by a third in 14 months - from 372 to 497, Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir said.

A system offering voluntary exit from the Northern Ireland Civil Service, as well as a separate mechanism for releasing members of the wider public sector, was established following the 2014 Stormont House talks.

The Executive has borrowed up to £700m to meet the costs.

More than 3,000 civil servants have left their posts under the NICS voluntary exit scheme.

However, it has now emerged that, at the same time, millions of pounds were spent drafting in staff to boost the workforce.

The cost of agency workers in the Civil Service during and since the voluntary exit scheme topped £10.6m, Mr O Muilleoir revealed. He was responding to an Assembly question from TUV leader Jim Allister.

Bumper Graham from the Nipsa trade union branded the scheme "economic suicide".

"Our view from day one is that the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements were absolute nonsense," he said.

"To borrow £700m to make people effectively redundant, no matter how they seek to dress it up, is economic suicide."

The exit scheme formed a key element of the Stormont House Agreement. It gave the Executive flexibility to use £700m of capital borrowing to fund a voluntary exit scheme over four years.

Then Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said he expected the size of the public service to shrink by 20,000 over the next four years.

Mr O Muilleoir said the Civil Service headcount had reduced by more than 3,300, generating annual savings of around £100m.

However, Mr Graham said the scheme was not properly thought through.

"It was a crude scheme aimed merely at attempting to reduce the headcount of public servants," he added.

"No thought was given to the services they provide. We have also been very critical of the Civil Service's use of agency staff and fixed term workers.

"It is quite clear from anecdotal information that people are leaving under VES and they are having major difficulties delivering the services.

"In some cases, people have gone back in within a matter of days as agency staff, virtually into the same jobs that they left."

Mr Graham said there had been an unnecessary overspend on agency staff.

"We have been saying for a number of years that far too much work is being given to employment agencies," he added.

"They should be running proper recruitment and promotion competitions to fill the vacancies that exist across the service."

Mr O Muilleoir said the number of civil servants who exited under the scheme and then returned as agency staff was not held.

He said it was permissible for staff to leave via the voluntary exit scheme and take up employment subsequently as an agency worker.

Mr Allister said: "The 30% increase in agency staff is surprising. But even more surprising is the fact the Executive doesn't know or care how many of the civil servants who left under the exit scheme with a large payout walked back in as agency staff. VES should not have allowed this."

Mr Allister had questioned the Finance Minister on the cost of agency workers since the exit scheme started.

Mr O Muilleoir responded: "The NICS voluntary exit scheme was launched on March 2, 2015 and the final tranche exited at May 31, 2016.

"The number of agency workers engaged in the Civil Service at April 1, 2015 was 372, and at June 1, 2016 was 497.

"By way of some comparison, headcount in the Civil Service reduced by 3,327 in the period April 1, 2015 to July 1, 2016, which in itself will generate an annual pay bill saving of approximately £100m.

"The cost of agency workers engaged in the Civil Service during and since the voluntary exit scheme is £10,634,853.80.

"This represents the total expenditure on agency staff during the period April 1, 2015 to June 1, 2016."

Belfast Telegraph

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