Farry: It was my call not to bring in two-year cap on holiday pay
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry has defended his decision not to introduce a cap on backdated pay claims which could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds.
Dr Farry, who was Stormont's Employment and Learning Minister at the time, yesterday admitted that it had been his call alone and the matter had not been brought to the Executive.
He said he believed that imposing a two-year cap on backdated holiday pay for civil servants would have been "counter-productive".
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) discussed a cap - which was imposed by England and Wales - but its Stormont counterpart decided not to follow suit. That decision means that public and private sector employers could face massive bills going back decades.
The Court of Appeal ruled last week that police holiday pay dating back 20 years should have taken overtime into account.
The PSNI is now facing a £40m claims bill from staff, and the ruling could entitle any employee who has worked overtime to make a claim.
Dr Farry, who was the Stormont minister responsible for public sector pay policy here, said he had consulted in 2015 with "key stakeholders" to ascertain their opinion on Northern Ireland introducing a similar cap to England and Wales.
"There were mixed views on that, with business organisations supportive, but NIPSA, NIC-ICTU and the Law Centre all strongly opposed," he said.
The MLA said he requested his officials draft a consultation paper about introducing a cap, but ultimately decided not to proceed after further discussions.
"Any steps that curtail people's rights or potential rights as employees are not to be undertaken lightly," he said. "In Britain, the two-year cap was rushed through in two weeks.
"That option did not apply in Northern Ireland, and with good reason, for example there could have been potential equality implications which must be explored.
"A potential legislative proposal such as this required a public consultation, followed by consideration of all responses, Executive approval and committee scrutiny of any decision to act.
"There was also legal advice that unlike in Great Britain, the measure may have needed to be advanced by primary legislation here. Indications were also given that the two-year cap was potentially illegal."
Dr Farry insisted it was unlikely that any consultation and subsequent draft legislation would have been cleared by the Executive and the Assembly.
"In employment law matters, some political parties were resolute in never acting contrary to the views of the trade union movement," he said.
"At that time, a wider Employment Law Bill had been stalled due to perceived opposition from the trade union movement for many months.
"Even with a fair wind politically, it would have taken three to four months before any legislation would have been passed by the Assembly.
"That would then be followed by a transitionary period of six months."
Dr Farry said there would have been a year-long window for claims to be made, creating an "artificial cliff-edge" and a "stampede to lodge claims", to the detriment of employers.
"By way of comparison, there was a significant upsurge in tribunal claims in Great Britain within the six-month transitionary period for the cap. A similar if not greater surge could have been anticipated in Northern Ireland," he said.
He added: "For context, tribunal fees as a hurdle to people protecting their rights had been in force in Britain for several years at that time.
"These were declared illegal by the UK Supreme Court in 2017. I had resisted such measures in Northern Ireland. Employment legislation in Great Britain was often rushed and not properly thought through.
"Ultimately, it was my judgment a two-year cap on payments in Northern Ireland was counter-productive."
Dr Farry added: "It is important not to jump to conclusions on the financial implications within Northern Ireland from the PSNI judgment and make extrapolations across the public sector.
"I understand the head of the Civil Service and the Department of Finance are exploring all of these issues. Furthermore, the PSNI may yet decide to appeal the Court of Appeal judgment to the UK Supreme Court."