Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute’s £270k bill for rehiring paid-off former staff
A publicly-funded scientific research body has been criticised for rehiring staff who left under a lucrative severance scheme.
Some were back working at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) within a week.
They returned on an agency basis at a cost of over £270,000, an investigation found.
The issue was detailed in a report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO), which said the rehiring of staff was "not good practice and presents a poor picture of AFBI's practices".
AFBI provides high-level scientific services to customers in the agri-food sector. It employs around 650 staff who are involved in research, development and testing for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and other Government departments.
The NIAO examined the rehiring of staff in a report completed by Auditor General Kieran Donnelly on March 29 this year.
The report refers to "significant matters" arising from an audit of AFBI's financial statements for 2017/18 and says: "These matters reflect a failure in governance and involve the rehiring of former staff who left AFBI under its Voluntary Exit Scheme (VES)."
The Voluntary Exit Scheme was launched in 2015 by AFBI.
Under its terms, 152 staff left the organisation and received compensation based on their salary and length of service. The scheme cost AFBI £4.8m, or an average of £31,500 per employee.
Acting on information from an anonymous source, auditors identified 11 individuals who left AFBI and later returned as temporary agency workers. Earnings from these engagements ranged from £3,363 to £68,436. While some appointments were to posts requiring scientific skills, others were of a general nature.
Re-engaging former staff on agency contracts is not against the rules of the VES.
However, 'retiring and rehiring' in the public sector has been the subject of sustained criticism from public watchdogs.
Mr Donnelly cited a report by Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in November 2010 on the management of substitution cover for teachers. It said: "Previous PAC sessions have recommended stricter controls over the re-employment of [staff] who have benefited from premature retirement terms."
The Audit Office report says there is "little evidence" that AFBI considered the committee's view when the decisions to re-engage former staff were taken, although in one case reservations were expressed by an interim head of human resources.
AFBI confirmed to auditors that, through the 2015 VES, 152 staff members left over a 12 month period.
Since then, eight staff who met the criteria for a post were re-engaged through recruitment agencies for scientific projects. Three other non-scientific posts were filled by former staff who had left under the scheme.
In his conclusion, Mr Donnelly notes this is his second report in six months on AFBI's annual financial statements.
A report last November found some financial practices at AFBI showed "a fundamental disregard for the principles of public sector accounting".
In his latest report, Mr Donnelly says: "My report raises a significant issue of governance within AFBI. Rehiring former staff in these circumstances, in some cases only shortly after their departure under the VES, is not good practice and presents a very poor picture of AFBI's ethics and employment practices."
An AFBI spokesman said: "AFBI accepts the findings of the report regarding the re-engagement of former staff. We... have already strengthened a number of controls and processes to ensure that we meet the standards required in the future."