Belfast Telegraph

Council spending on agency staff in NI increased by almost a fifth last year

Nine of the 11 councils increased their spending.

Local council spending on agency staff in Northern Ireland increased by almost a fifth last year, a watchdog report said.

The bill rose by £3.9 million (19%) to £24.2 million in 2016/17. Nine of the 11 local authorities increased their spending.

Causeway Coast and Glens, Belfast City and Mid and East Antrim incurred more than half the rise, the local government auditor said.

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Belfast City Council had one of the highest levels of agency staff spending (Paul Faith/PA)

Auditor Pamela McCreedy said: “While I recognise that the use of agency staff may be necessary, particularly during a period of significant organisational change, their employment should deliver value for money.”

Her report noted significant variations between councils.

The auditor added: “I intend to keep the cost of agency staffing under review and, if I consider it appropriate, may examine expenditure in this area in greater detail in future audit work.”

During 2016-17, councils spent £878 million providing services – averaging £450 for every person in Northern Ireland.

The largest single area of expenditure remained on leisure and recreation, £341 million, followed by £300 million on environmental services.

Average sickness absence rate for the 11 councils increased by almost 7.3% to 15 days in 2016-17, up from nearly 14 days in 2015/16.

Absence levels varied significantly between councils.

Belfast City Council recorded the lowest number of days lost at 12 per employee while Mid & East Antrim Borough Council recorded the highest at 18.

Increases in absenteeism were attributed to a rise in long-term sickness absence because of conditions like severe depression and stress.

Sickness absence must be monitored closely and actively managed to ensure that staff welfare is protected and that the delivery of front-line services to the public is not adversely affected Local Government Auditor Pamela McCreedy

Ms McCreedy said: “Sickness absence must be monitored closely and actively managed to ensure that staff welfare is protected and that the delivery of front-line services to the public is not adversely affected.”

Two councils had not obtained annual returns from all councillors for their register of interests.

The auditor added: “In order to maintain public confidence, it is important that members and council staff are aware of their responsibility for managing the risk of a conflict of interest both real or perceived or, where this is not possible, for ensuring that it is declared and managed properly.”

Reorganisation of Northern Ireland local government in 2015 delivered a significant change from 26 to 11 new councils, with a voluntary exit scheme in place.

The auditor noted concerns over continuity and loss of experience. Further change is coming, with local elections due to be held in May 2019.

Ms McCreedy added: “The Review of Public Administration has resulted in significant changes within the councils with the subsequent rationalisation resulting in the loss of significant numbers of experienced personnel.

“In light of this, councillors may wish to consider measures to support continuity in key committees, particularly in the audit and risk and planning committees.”

A council spokeswoman said: “Belfast City Council is the largest in Northern Ireland.

“We work with our elected members and trade unions to review staff costs on a regular basis and to develop options to reduce these costs while ensuring the best use of ratepayers’ money, without adversely affecting essential services to the public.

“The council is currently undergoing structural change to ensure our organisation is the best fit for purpose to support our long-term proactive and innovative community development programme – the Belfast Agenda. This aims, by 2035, to create 50,000 new jobs through increased foreign investment, as well as attracting 70,000 new residents in Belfast.

“There may be a particular impact on frontline operational-type posts during this change and the use of agency resources is often the most effective – for example, when short-term cover is required without which frontline, customer-facing service delivery would be adversely affected; interim seasonal cover for agreed defined periods of time; and when there are short-term upsurges in workload.

“However, we expect that the use of agency workers covering these type of posts on a temporary basis will reduce when the new structures have been agreed and implemented.”

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