Belfast Telegraph

Ex-Northern Ireland civil servants could be asked to repay cash from redundancy after 'error'

By Brett Campbell

Thousands of former civil servants could be asked to pay back money from redundancy payments they received under a Voluntary Exit Scheme launched almost three years ago.

All 3,701 redundancy awards, which cost the taxpayer nearly £109m, are being reviewed after it emerged that some civil servants were paid too much back in 2015 and 2016.

The Department of Finance (DoF) has already started issuing written requests for those affected asking them to make arrangements for the money to be repaid. Those who cashed in their pensions upon leaving could have their monthly payments cut.

A DoF spokesperson denied overpayments occurred as a result of any error, but one letter seen by the Belfast Telegraph clearly states that "the old computer system miscalculated" an award.

The spokesperson said: "As the data up to each tranche's leaving date was not available on the new computer system, Civil Service Pensions used the data held as at March 31, 2015 and projected forward using the same salary and working pattern to process the members' awards.

"This is part of normal practice to ensure that the most up to date data is held for each individual."

The discrepancies came to light once the new computer system was implemented, which included a new built-in "employer electronic interface" for data from April 1, 2015.

The department has defended its decision to issue letters asking individuals to repay money - which in some cases exceeds £1,000 - saying the department "is obliged to seek recovery" in accordance with the manual for Managing Public Money.

But Jim Allister MLA has expressed serious doubts as to whether or not the letters are legally enforceable and accused government officials of trying to punish former employees for their own mistake.

"That is unconscionable as far as I am concerned and makes you wonder if this civil service can get any worse," he said.

"I suspect the ongoing RHI revelations have only given us a snapshot into what every department is like."

The TUV leader urged those in receipt of a letter to be slow to respond.

"The department should be forced to go after people through the courts because this is in essence a contract dispute and you can't just change the conditions of a contract once it is finalised."

Mr Allister said the calculation given to staff in early 2015 would have been a fundamental component of the decision-making process for those who opted to leave.

However, a DoF spokesperson said that while the department appreciated that individuals based decisions on calculations it provided, staff were informed it was subject to change.

But Mr Allister said no one would have expected a drastic readjustment after the payment was actually made. "I doubt very much that the small print covers that," he added.

The confusion could cost the department even more money, as it is possible that some individuals may have received less than their entitlement and will need to be paid arrears.

"The full financial cost and number of people affected will not be known until the review is completed," the spokesperson said.

Former NIPSA union chief Bumper Graham said the government should write off the debt as all money paid out was "spent in good faith".

"I appreciate these calculations are complex, but people expect their actual award to at least closely match the estimate they were given," he said. "I think that those people who chose to leave on the basis of the calculation will have a very stout defence for not repaying this money."

He encouraged anyone who has received a letter to complain.

"We can't have a situation where some people pay the money back and others avoid having to," he said.

"If the blame rests with maladministration or technical faults then everyone should be treated fairly, but there is not very much anyone in receipt of monthly pension can do about future payments being reduced."

Belfast Telegraph

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