Northern Ireland

Audit Office RUC rehiring report stark reading for PSNI

PSNI passing out parade
Image caption The PSNI says the policy of employing agency staff is both essential and cost-effective

"Out of control". That is how the government's spending watchdog describes the recruitment of temporary agency staff by the PSNI in 2007.

In that year, the Audit Office says more than 800 agency staff were employed, the majority of them former RUC officers who retired with generous redundancy packages.

The report makes stark reading for the police, as the sheer scale of the rehiring of retired officers is revealed for the first time.

About 5,500 officers took advantage of what was the most generous redundancy scheme anywhere in the world. The total cost was about £500m.

Critics have described the policy of rehiring those retired officers as a revolving door which they claim produced "jobs for the boys".

The Audit Office report published on Wednesday reveals that 1,071 of those who were paid off were later rehired on temporary contracts. That represents 19% of the total, or almost one in five.

The report reveals that:

  • 256 retired officers were rehired with three months of leaving
  • Of those, 127 were rehired within a month, 54 within a week, and 21 were back within a day
  • Two were even employed as agency staff before they had officially left the PSNI

The PSNI has spent £106m employing agency staff since 2004.

The police say the policy is both essential and cost-effective.

They say the cost of employing a temporary worker is £4,770 a year less than the cost of a permanent member of staff and that the policy resulted in savings of at least £22m during the past seven years.

The audit report acknowledges that there is a business need for temporary staff "given the unprecedented loss of skilled and experienced officers" as a result of the Patten scheme, which encouraged those officers to retire to make room for new recruits.

It also accepts that employing temporary staff offers value for money.

But then comes the sting in the tail. The report says the use of temporary staff needs to be "properly managed and controlled".

It adds: "The way the PSNI has gone about procuring, appointing and managing temporary staff has not always met with the high standards of governance and accountability expected of public bodies in Northern Ireland."

The report also raises questions about corporate governance.

Image caption Chief Constable Matt Baggott is the chief accounting officer for the PSNI

It reveals that in 2004, the PSNI awarded a contract for hiring agency staff worth £44m to a local company, Grafton Recruitment, without a competitive tendering process.

That means no other company was able to bid for the contract. As a result, the Audit Office says "the PSNI cannot demonstrate that best value was obtained".

In 2008, a four-year contract for the provision of temporary staff was awarded to Grafton following a competitive tendering exercise.

But the report states: "As the business case did not include the salary costs of temporary workers (which comprised over 90% of the contract value), the full costs were never properly assessed."

Before January 2011, there was no corporate policy or procedure governing the engagement of agency staff, and decisions were taken at the discretion of local police commanders.

The report says the PSNI "did not always have sufficient management information to understand the extent and costs of using temporary staff".

'Greater control'

Since January last year, new procedures have been introduced, including the need for a business case explaining why a temporary worker is needed.

Image caption The total cost of the RUC redundancy scheme was around £500m

The Audit Office welcomes this development, saying it gives the PSNI "greater control over the recruitment and termination of temporary staff".

Almost 40% of all temporary agency staff were former police officers, but they account for 56% of all agency days procured by the PSNI during the past 10 years.

The average length of assignment was 223 days, almost twice as long as an agency worker who had not previously been employed by the police.

Details on the duration of the "temporary" contracts also makes interesting reading. The report reveals that:

  • 166 "temporary" staff were employed for more than three years
  • 37 for more than five years
  • Four were employed for more than seven years.

Agency staff filled a variety of roles, many requiring specific policing skills.

The highest concentration of former officers in post in March this year was within the Crime Operations Department, where they account for 92% of all agency staff.

This is the department responsible for investigating all serious crime, including terrorism.

But the report also notes that many former officers have been employed in posts that do not require policing experience.

For example, 85% of agency days for the post of driver were provided by former officers.

Limited companies

The Audit Office also raises concerns about how some of the former officers are paid.

It says 63 agency staff employed by the Historical Enquiries Team and one in Crime Operations are paid through limited companies, which can be a means of minimising personal tax obligations.

While the practice is legal, the report notes that similar arrangements have attracted criticism both from the Treasury and the Westminster Public Accounts Committee.

It adds that the Audit Office "is unaware of any other public sector body in Northern Ireland engaging in this practice".

This report reveals details of what has happened in terms of the recruitment of former police officers as temporary agency staff, but many questions remain.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott is the chief accounting officer for the PSNI.

He is now likely to face questions about how and why the process operated in this way, and who was responsible for the failings identified.

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