Northern Ireland

Temporary staff was seen a 'short-term fix', former senior police say

The PSNI says it needs the highly-specialised skills and experience of the former officers
Image caption The PSNI says it needs the highly-specialised skills and experience of the former officers

The PSNI started rehiring retired officers shortly after it replaced the RUC as part of the Patten reforms of policing.

Generous redundancy packages resulted in many of the most experienced officers leaving over a short period of time, creating a serious skills gap.

Eleven years on, the PSNI says it has had no alternative but to rehire former officers on temporary contracts because they have the skills and experience it needs to investigate crime and combat terrorism.

For years, the PSNI claimed it could not provide a detailed breakdown of the number of officers re-employed after retiring under the Patten scheme.

But that changed earlier this month. The PSNI revealed that, from a total of 399 agency staff it currently employs, 304 of them are former members of the RUC who left with generous redundancy packages.

That represents more than three quarters of agency staff.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have criticised the policy, while the DUP and Ulster Unionists support the PSNI argument that it needs the experience and skills of these former officers.

Now two former senior officers have entered the debate and spoken exclusively to the BBC about their concerns about the process.

Alan McQuillan spent almost all of his 27 years in the police as a member of the RUC and rose to the rank of Assistant Chief Constable.

Short-term fix

He is currently a member of the independent panel assessing the salaries of members of the assembly, and a member of the Boundary Commission in England.

Norman Baxter was one of the PSNI's most senior detectives when he retired in 2008. He was involved in some of its most high profile cases, including the Omagh bomb investigation.

Both are highly respected within policing, and their comments will cause concern for the police.

Alan McQuillan said he accepts that the recruitment of temporary staff was needed in the immediate aftermath of the Patten reforms.

He said it was supposed to be a short-term fix to fill a skills gap created when large numbers of experienced officers retired under the Patten redundancy scheme.

"I never recall it being seen as a long term solution, but it seems to have morphed into a permanent way of doing business," he said.

"I don't know any other police force that uses this sort of approach in the long term. It has a number of major management problems, above all, major cost problems."

Alan McQuillan accepted that retired officers could have a role to play because of the skills and experience they possess.

However, he said police skills are not essential for many of the temporary jobs the PSNI needs to fill.

He wants the process to be more open to all, not just a closed pool of former officers who have registered with an employment agency.

"I think for the vast majority of these posts this should be subject to some sort of open competition," he said.

"It's not just about a short term fix, it's about building a police service with the skills base for the future.

"Unless you start to build up the skills base within the organisation, in 5 or ten years time you will have exactly the same problem."

The former Assistant Chief Constable says he believes the government's spending watchdog, the audit office, should investigate the process.

Terrorist threat

So too does Norman Baxter. He said the Patten redundancy scheme damaged policing because it encouraged too many senior officers to leave over a short period of time.

"The Patten process created serious problems for policing as it stripped out most of the senior detectives within the investigations branch and the intelligence branch and that created difficulties in managing investigations and addressing the terrorist threat," he said.

"At that stage the only way to fill those gaps was to bring people many on temporary contracts."

But he has a number of concerns about the way the process has been implemented.

This includes, what he said was a lack of transparency, and suggestions that some officers knew before they retired with large redundancy payments that they were to be brought back very shortly afterwards.

"One of the biggest issues is transparency and the fact that there doesn't seem to be an open competition for some of these roles," he added.

"It also strikes me that to get some of these roles there has to be knowledge that there is a vacancy and knowledge of the person who is appointing the individual.

"There are some indications that some, particularly senior staff within the PSNI, could influence the creation of positions that they themselves subsequently were able to fill after they retired," he said.

Mr Baxter said the audit office should investigate the practice, to separate myth from reality and determine whether best practice had been followed.

"I think it would be a very positive move if the audit office were to, at this stage, look at the policy and how it is being implemented to provide reassurance to the public that the use of agency staff has been proper and value for money," he said.

The PSNI said all recruitment was in accordance with European and UK employment law.

It said it needs the skills and experience of former officers who have retired and that the most cost effective way is to hire them in on temporary contracts from an employment agency.

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