Belfast Telegraph

Union claims millions spent on public sector agency staff in Northern Ireland

Crisis: Alison Millar
Crisis: Alison Millar

By Allan Preston

Reliance on agency workers in the public sector is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions in Northern Ireland, a major trade union has claimed.

Nipsa, the public service union, said their research showed that huge sums were being spent on the “overpriced sticking plaster” of agency staff every year in the absence of proper workforce planning.

General secretary, Alison Millar, said this flew in the face of claims there was no money to invest in public services.

“This fails to deal with the real crisis in our public services — low pay, staff shortages and job insecurity,” she said.

“These flow from a consistent failure of central and devolved governments to undertake the appropriate long-term approach to planning and investment.”

Nipsa claims that in the health and social care sector — where “there are hundreds of long-term vacancies” — £200m was spent on non-medical agency staff between 2010/11 and 2015/16. They add that more than £50m has been spent by local government on agency staff since 2014, despite the number of councils being reduced from 26 to 11.

The Civil Service is also said to spend £11m a year on agency staff, despite reducing the number of government departments and a voluntary exit scheme for staff. Ms Millar said the “vast amount of public money” being spent on agency staff included “exorbitant management fees” to private sector employment agencies.

“This is a failure of manpower planning and an indictment of the failure to address severe staffing shortages across the public sector,” she said.

“This is shown most clearly in those areas that have supposedly come through their latest reform phase.” She said the “scandal of under-investment” meant our public services were now built on “employment insecurity, low pay and reduced employment rights”.

Ms Millar said Nipsa would be challenging the “ideologically driven casualisation” of public services, as well as calling for changes to labour laws for greater employment protection for all public service workers, both full-time and agency.

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance said:“The use of agency staff is a legitimate and necessary way to manage some aspects of temporary work and meet particular business needs. This is normal practice in any modern large organisation providing a range of services to the public.”

Derek McCallan is chief executive for the Nilga, the organisation that represents local government in Northern Ireland.

He said that four years after changes to local government, using agency staff was often still an “operational necessity”.

“The four years since the Review of Public Administration has been a period of substantial change, with 26 councils transforming into 11, taking on new powers like planning, agreeing new organisational design, yet continuing to deliver high-quality services at affordable costs to ratepayers,” he said. 

“It acknowledges that the use of agency staff, whilst often not ideal, can on occasions be an operational necessity, once other options have been worked through, due to short-term workforce vacancies, long-term absenteeism, periods of paid and unpaid leave and similar.”

The Northern Ireland Civil Service and the Department for Health were contacted, but have yet to respond.

Belfast Telegraph

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