Belfast Telegraph

Farry 'ducking key questions' over failure to limit claims on backdated holiday pay

Stephen Farry
Stephen Farry

By Gillian Halliday

A former Stormont Minister under fire for deciding not to introduce a two-year cap on claims for backdated holiday pay for Northern Ireland workers has more questions to answer, politicians have said.

Dr Stephen Farry was last night accused of "ducking key questions" after speaking publicly for the first time over his role in the affair as Department for Employment and Learning Minister.

The Alliance MLA defended his decision during an interview with Stephen Nolan on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday.

He insisted it would have been "fairly pointless, futile and counterproductive to proceed" with the limit.

He claimed it would have led to a huge rush of claims if Northern Ireland had been brought in line with Great Britain, where the two-year cap rule was introduced following a landmark 2014 ruling.

It determined that wages paid to workers while on annual leave should include overtime and other regular extra payments.

The ruling's implications for Northern Ireland emerged after a High Court ruling last week, dismissing a challenge to a 2018 tribunal decision that could cost the PSNI £40m in payouts to officers and civilian staff.

Questions are now being asked if the ruling will open a 'floodgate' of claims across the wider public sector - including the Fire and Rescue Service and Ambulance Service - dating back more than 20 years, potentially costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds.

How the ruling could affect other workers is now being addressed by the Department of Finance, which sets pay policy for all public sector bodies.

Mr Farry told The Nolan Show that any proposed cap would not have made it through what was an "extremely dysfunctional Executive".

The North Down MLA also defended not informing other ministers and senior civil servants about the matter, telling Nolan: "It was not my job to tell the Health Minister how to run hospitals."

The former minister also claimed the GB judgment was "well-known" and "seminal", insisting 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 also stressed it is the Department of Finance which has responsibility for human resources functions.

Although the final bill is yet to be calculated, Mr Farry told Nolan the cost to the Northern Ireland public purse would be less than £400m - the total cost of the RHI scandal.

Dr Farry also said he acted with "total integrity and in the public interest".

However, UUP finance spokesperson Steve Aiken said he was unconvinced that Mr Farry's comments had put the matter to bed.

"Mr Farry's comments raise more questions than answers," he said.

"It is still unclear as to why this issue wasn't brought before the Executive. If ever there was an issue that was demonstrably cross-cutting, this was it."

Mr Aiken added: "As a matter of urgency, the public need to know what the potential exposure is to the public purse."

TUV leader Jim Allister also gave a scathing indictment of Dr Farry's explanation, demanding more clarity.

"Stephen Farry ducked many of the key questions on Nolan," he said. Mr Farry had a ministerial duty to notify the Department of Finance and Personnel of the GB ruling, Mr Allister claimed.

"Any minister understands a role of the Finance Department is to be aware of upcoming challenges on the public finance front, and the collective responsibility of other departments is to alert them to any such issues in their knowledge," he said.

Mr Allister also queried if the Department of Finance's Public Spending Directorate/Central Spending Division, and ultimately the Minister of Finance, should have been informed at the time, saying the department needs to clear this up.

"Once more the dysfunctionality of our failed system of devolution is set to cost the public," he added.

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