Northern Ireland Auditor Collette Kane says that she has “continued to recommend that progress needs to be made to permanently fill posts in councils affected”.
“Whilst I recognise that there will always be a need for agency staff to cover temporary posts and absences, during my financial audits I noted with concern the continued reliance on agency staff in two councils during 2019/20.
“In Mid and East Antrim, agency staff accounted for over 20 per cent of total salary costs.”
In 2020, 212 council staff were placed on furlough due to the Covid pandemic. The local authority said that it was able to save £75,000 per week by furloughing staff.
Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council’s agency costs have doubled. The council’s Policy and Governance Committee was told last week that this cost has risen from April 1, 2021 until November 30 from 4.28 per cent for the same period during the previous year to 8%.
Agency expenditure was significantly reduced last year following the release of agency workers in May 2020.
Meanwhile, Mid and East Antrim had the lowest level of absenteeism of councils in Northern Ireland at an average of 10.6 days per employee, down from 14.05 in 2018/19.
The report also noted that councils are required to disclose the number and cost of staff exit packages. The costs include compulsory and voluntary redundancy costs, pension contributions and other departure costs.
Larne Lough Alliance Councillor Danny Donnelly recently tabled a question regarding the number of non-disclosure of information agreements in place for former or current employees of Mid and East Antrim Council.
He was informed that the local authority has no non-disclosure of information agreements in place for current or former employees.
He was advised that during the past three years, 37 former employees have signed Labour Relations Agency conciliation agreements to facilitate enchanted redundancy payments to staff in redundancy situations, according to council minutes.
“The continuing trend of exit packages coupled with a reliance on agency staff indicates that staffing is still not in a steady states in some councils, five years since the councils were formed,” the auditor continued.
The report also showed that capital expenditure in Md and East Antrim doubled from £4m in 2018/19 to £8.1m, in 2019/20.
Borrowing by the local authority increased from £62.8m in 2018/19 to £65.m in 2019/20.
The auditor noted that “usable reserves play an important role in councils’ financial management”.
Mid and East Antrim’s dropped from £16.2m to £13.8m. By comparison, Antrim and Newtownabbey’s fell from £12.3m to £10.1m and Ards and North Down, from £10.4m to £9m.
The auditor stated: “Usable reserves should be managed carefully and will be an important resources as councils recover from the financial impact of Covid-19. Councils should have a clear plan setting out how these resources will be used.”
She added: “I am content that the preparation of accounts was appropriate and that sufficient disclosures had been made in accounts regarding councils’ financial position.”
With regard to Mid and East Antrim, she also noted:”MEA council has discharged its performance improvement reporting duties by publishing its assessment of performance for 2019/20 and his acted in accordance with the guidance in this regard.
Commenting on the report at a meeting of the local authority on Thursday evening, Larne Lough DUP Alderman Paul Reid said: “In light of the PR we are getting in the media, is it not good the Northern Ireland Audit Office is saying we are a good performing council.”
Mid and East Antrim Mayor Councillor William McCaughey said he was “particularly pleased” that the council’s Rapid Redundancy Response Programme was highlighted by the auditor.
Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter