Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Answers needed over Civil Service jobs gap

Every day seems to bring an example of an issue that should be tackled by our MLAs if they were at work. And in today's paper, we make another disturbing revelation
Every day seems to bring an example of an issue that should be tackled by our MLAs if they were at work. And in today's paper, we make another disturbing revelation

Editor's Viewpoint

Every day seems to bring an example of an issue that should be tackled by our MLAs if they were at work. And in today's paper, we make another disturbing revelation.

It appears that nearly £30 million has been spent over two years in bringing in temporary staff to plug the gaps in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) - just years after an expensive voluntary exit scheme was put in place.

Of course the use of agency staff is a fact of life for any large-scale enterprise, but this is particularly concerning because of the scale of the commitment by the NICS, which raises certain questions.

Why, for example, were people allowed to leave the service and were too many allowed to go? If in fact too many people were indeed allowed to take voluntary severance, only for their work to be done by agency staff, it was undoubtedly a false economy.

It would also be valuable to know how many of the agency staff subsequently employed to fill vacancies are former civil servants who took voluntary severance earlier?

The Department of Finance, which is responsible for hiring agency staff, has declined to release this information, and has given the bland reply that it is the role of agencies to supply the best people for the job.

Even if this may be the case, and quite a number of people are still eating their cake and having it, the unions point out that temporary agency workers do not have the same benefits as others on employment contracts, and can be dismissed "at the drop of a hat".

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While agency staff hired on this basis can, and do, fill a vacancy quickly and efficiently, this is the kind of short-term arrangement which cannot be conducive to the correct development of public services and to ensure continuity for the future.

In normal political circumstances, this matter should have been subjected to proper scrutiny by MLAs at Stormont.

Sadly, as we all know, they are not there, and they do not look like being back at Stormont again for quite some time, if ever.

Last week the Secretary of State made her latest attempt to revive the talks process, but there did not seem to much cause for optimism. The climate will not be improved as Brexit festers and parties go onto election footing.

In the meantime, civil servants are left to step reluctantly into the power vacuum and proper democratic accountability is lost.

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