Northern Ireland news

Watchdog voices concern over agency staff spending by councils

Suspended Mid & East Antrim Council chief executive Anne Donaghy outside the local authority's Ballymena offices. Picture by Peter Morrison

THE local government spending watchdog has spoken of her “concern” at the reliance of agency staff in two councils.

Colette Kane's annual audit report revealed that one-third of Causeway Coast and Glens total salary budget is spent on agency workers, while at Mid and East Antrim Council, where trade unions have highlighted poor morale, one-fifth of the wage bill goes on non-contracted staff.

Ms Kane said that while the 11 councils' overall increase in spending on agency staff in the financial year 2019-20 was “modest at £474,000” – and most had reduced temporary staff costs – two local authorities were urged “to recruit and permanently fill posts”.

It is understood some councils have been employing agency staff in the same role for up to a decade.

Mid and East Antrim Council has been plagued by a series of controversial episodes, including the suspension of its chief executive Anne Donaghy.

The council has been under increasing scrutiny following its decision in February to remove staff from Larne port over fears of a loyalist paramilitary threat against workers carrying out protocol checks.

A survey of members of trade union Nipsa at the council found 61 per cent of respondents had experienced bullying.

The local government financial watchdog's report also reveals that Causeway Coast and Glens spent £2.4 million on 34 redundancy payments in one year – an average of £70,000 each – while Lisburn and Castlereagh paid out £2.2m on 36 exit packages.

Between them, the north's 11 local authorities paid out £10.2m on 166 redundancy packages in 2019-20 – an average of £61,000 per person.

"The continuing trend of exit packages, coupled with a reliance on agency staff, indicates that staffing is still not in a steady state in some councils five years on since the councils were formed," Ms Kane said in her report.

"I would therefore strongly encourage councils to progress work to stabilise staffing structures, ensuring the necessary capacity and capabilities are secured."

Her audit also revealed that councils continue to spend more than their income and that borrowing has increased by £53m to a total £580m.

The north's councils paid £24m in interest costs alone in the year up to the end of March 2020, the report said.

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