The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) has been criticised for re-hiring former staff on an agency basis after they had taken voluntary redundancy from the organisation.
A report by the NI Audit Office states that 152 staff, equating to around 20% of the workforce, left AFBI under Voluntary Exit Scheme from 2015. Redundancy packages were based on each staff member’s salary and length of service and cost £4.8m overall.
The audit found that 11 individuals who left under the scheme later returned as temporary agency workers at an overall cost of over £270,000.
“The time between voluntary exit and re-engagement by AFBI varies from 28 months to one week. Individual earnings from these engagements vary between £3,363 and £68,436.”
“While some appointments were to posts requiring scientific skills, others were of a general nature which did not require any particular specialism,” the report reads.
AFBI is a non-departmental public body which carries out research and diagnostic work in the agriculture, food and marine sectors in NI.
Whilst re-enaging with former staff is not against the rules of the Voluntary Exit Scheme, the practice within the public sector has been criticised by the NI Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee in the past.
According to the report, AFBI told auditors that it had received funding for a number of new scientific projects which created staffing demands and gaps within in-house skills and subsequently required the use of agency workers.
The NI Audit Office said that AFBI acknowledges the criticism of re-hiring former staff and agrees tighter controls should have been established.
In his concluding remarks in the report, comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly said that the audit “raises a significant issue of governance” within AFBI.
“Re-hiring former staff in these circumstances, in some cases only shortly after their departure under the VES, is not good practice and presents a very poor picture of AFBI’s ethics and employment practices,” Donnelly said.
It is the second time in six months that AFBI has been criticised by the NI Audit Office. In November 2018, a separate investigation found that AFBI issued invoices without most of the expenditure having been incurred, in order to facilitate the drawdown of government money.
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