Top Department for the Economy official says health of staff is suffering due to 25 per cent vacancy rate

The Department for the Economy has a staff vacancy rate of 25 per cent, its top civil servant has revealed.
Ryan McAleer

THE Department for the Economy's top civil servant has said the health of his officials is suffering due to a 25 per cent vacancy rate and the pressure of running multiple Covid-19 grant support schemes.

Permanent secretary Mike Brennan told the Assembly's Economy Committee on Wednesday that a senior official within his department had been admitted to hospital in an emergency situation on Tuesday night. He said it was as a direct consequence of the pressure experienced in delivering a scheme last week.

“That's not unique, I can give you other instances of that, where staff are under significant pressure to deliver because of public and political expectation,” the top civil servant told MLAs.

Mr Brennan said staff shortages were widespread across the Northern Ireland Civil Service, partly due to recruitment challenges during Covid-19. He said around 4,500 positions out of 23,000 are vacant.

But he said the picture was more acute in the Department for the Economy (DfE).

He told MLAs that staff from less pressurized Stormont departments should be diverted to those at “the real sharp edge of staff shortage”, including in health, communities and economy,

The permanent secretary linked the shortage in DfE to challenges and delays in delivering cash grant schemes to businesses during the pandemic.

He said DfE officials had been tasked with spending between £600-700 million of grant assistance, with the expectation that routine functions continue as normal.

Mr Brennan said that despite the shortages and absence of structures in place, the performance of staff with little experience of delivering large funding schemes had been “a marvellous achievement”.

He also revealed a significant degree of frustration among officials: “On the one hand, we've found ways to get schemes up and running and get payments to the various hard pressed sectors.

“But the minute an error is identified, officials get hammered,” he said.

“There is a perception that they can't win.

“There needs to be a recognition that these guys are doing their best to do this as quickly, as professionally as possible,” added Mr Brennan.

He said the situation is unlikely to improve in the year ahead.

“The worry I have is that when you look ahead to what 2021/22 holds, I think it is probably inevitable that we are going to have a further raft of either new or existing grants schemes extended.

“That poses two problems: How do you resource that and deliver to public expectations? And what does it mean for the routine work programme the department is expected to deliver in 2021/22?”

SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin said the economy committee owe DfE officials a duty of care.

“They are working over and above their time and I realise there is a lot of pressure from the public,” she said.

“And we as public representative s are also putting a lot of pressure on the department and I accept that.

“But it is right across society, the stress levels are so high because people are wondering how they are going to put food on the table, how they are going to make ends meet.”

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