Civil servants retire early and keep jobs: Audit office inquiry into blunder that allowed 27 TEC officials to cash in on lump-sum payment scheme

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The Independent Online
TWENTY-SEVEN senior civil servants from the Department of Employment have been allowed to take early retirement - but still keep their jobs.

The National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, is investigating the blunder - apparently caused by a classic case of Whitehall paper-shuffling - which enabled the 27 to receive lump-sum payments and pensions, while remaining on their present salaries.

Three years ago, they were seconded by the Department of Employment to help set up Training and Enterprise Councils in Wales. Shortly after they were formed, responsibility for the Welsh TECs was transferred to the Welsh Office.

However, secondees were not included in the move: they technically stayed on the books of the employment department and were able, therefore, to cash in on a retirement scheme, introduced last year, in an effort to cut down staff numbers. The benefits package was aimed at people who were genuinely retiring and surplus to requirements.

Aware of the special problems posed by secondees, officials in England insisted that staff working in TECs return to their old jobs in the department before retiring. But, by an extraordinary oversight, that did not happen in Wales: the TEC secondees there were able to escape the net.

Of the 34 secondees in Wales who took advantage of the scheme, 'about 27 are still employed by 5 TECs in Wales', Ann Widdecombe, Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Employment, admitted in a letter obtained by the Independent.

The 34 ranged from grade G7 on pounds 30,000 a year to executive officers on pounds 15,000. They all received a lump sum and 30 also received a pension. Many now work for Gwent TEC, based in Newport - among them its chief executive, David Evans.

In the letter last month, Ms Widdecombe made clear her annoyance at the error: 'We did not intend that TEC secondees should be eligible for our early retirement schemes if they were likely to be re- employed by their TEC.' Checks were put in place to ensure that did not happen.

'It is clear, however,' Ms Widdecombe wrote, 'that not all our procedures operated effectively and, as a result, some former TEC secondees have taken early retirement and accepted re-employment with their TEC.'

Department officials have written to the TECs reminding them of the purposes of the scheme but, otherwise, admitted Ms Widdecombe, there was little they could do: 'Our legal advice is that we are not able to take action . . .' That is not good enough for Rhodri Morgan, Labour MP for Cardiff West, who has tabled a Commons motion expressing dismay at the 'disastrous maladministration', and inviting Mr Evans and others to 'reconsider their positions in light of this gravy-train scheme'.

At the very minimum, says Mr Morgan, they should repay their lump sums and pensions. Mr Evans refused to comment. However, a spokeswoman said in a statement that no regulations had been broken: 'Any allegation of wrongdoing is vehemently denied and independent legal advice has confirmed the propriety of our actions.' In a letter, Sir John Bourn, Comptroller and Auditor General, has confirmed that the NAO is investigating the affair.