Belfast Telegraph

Ex-minister Farry would have 'leaned heavily toward' 20-year workers' holiday pay claim

Stephen Farry
Stephen Farry
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Former Stormont minister Stephen Farry said he would have "leaned heavily toward" allowing Northern Ireland workers to claim for up to 20 years of backdated holiday pay.

However, he also stated he could have been persuaded to implement a limit on the amount of time claims could go back to while in his position.

"It would be the easiest thing to say I am on the side of the workers, I am. But I am not prepared to give a black or white answer," he said.

He described the issue of not implementing a two-year limit on claims while he could have done so as a "complete and utter red herring" saying a change in the law would have led to a rush of claims before the legislation could come into place thus making any law "counter-productive".

The Alliance MLA also defended not informing other ministers and senior civil servants about the matter which could have wide-ranging implications for the Northern Ireland taxpayer as the Executive at the time was "extremely dysfunctional" with a silo mentality pervading.

The former employment and learning minister said many other businesses would have resolved the issue themselves back in 2014 and would have put their "house in order" and reached an agreement with their employees on potential claims.

He also scotched a suggestion the financial exposure to the public purse was "his RHI" saying he acted at all times with "total integrity and in the public interest" and with "extreme caution".

"Any action I would have taken in relation to a cap would not have prevented that [PSNI] judgement and that liability," he told the BBC's Stephen Nolan explaining how the timescale of the case being lodged in 2015 meant his actions would have had no impact.

"The job in terms of assessing risks to the public purse in Northern Ireland and emerging changes to the law that impact on that lies with the corporate HR function in the Department of Finance."

In a landmark ruling, the Court of Appeal found police holiday pay dating back 20 years should have taken overtime into account leaving the force with a potential £40million bill.

The ruling could affect any worker in the public or private sectors who regularly works overtime and that does not get that work factored into holiday pay.

The Department of Finance, which sets pay policy for all public sector bodies, is considering how the ruling would affect other workers - potentially leading to hundreds of millions in claims.

The same issue was facing the UK Government back in 2014 following a court ruling similar to that made in Belfast. It led to the introduction of a two-year cap on backdate claims in order to stem the huge costs of the ruling.

Stephen Farry was the Minister for Employment and Learning at the time and therefore responsible for public sector pay policy in Northern Ireland, however he decided not to introduce a two-year cap.

In a wide-ranging interview with the BBC's Stephen Nolan on Monday he said the initial 2014 ruling which led to the matter with the PSNI was "widely known" and "seminal".

The Alliance MLA said his department wrote to those in the business community and others around introducing laws similar to a cap brought in other parts of the UK.

He said the response indicated the matter would be "politically sensitive" and that not everyone was going to be in agreement. He pointed to the Department of Finance as having responsibility for human resources functions.

He said a public consultation exercise was drafted but he felt the introduction of a cap to limit claims would not have changed what could happen.

"The issue of a cap is a complete and utter red herring," he said.

Mr Farry said the cost to the Northern Ireland public purse would be less than the £400m once raised about the projected cost of the RHI scandal.

He said that while costing were still be calculated it was not the norm elsewhere in the public sector that overtime was used as heavily as it was in the PSNI and it would be wrong to project the police bill out across other areas. Pointing to the ruling he said the police chief constable should have been aware of the matter in 2014.

"The key point is the human resource functions lies with the Department of Finance and other human resource departments at arm's length bodies.

"Anyone working in the human resource field in the Department of Finance would have been aware."

Asked why he didn't tell other minister, he added: "It was not my job to tell the health minister how to run hospitals."

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