Two of finance minister Sammy Wilson’s most senior officials yesterday claimed in public that they are being unfairly discriminated against by his department.

Senior civil servants Michael Brennan and Fiona Hamill allege that the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) is guilty of indirect age discrimination against younger senior civil servants who they claim have no hope of catching their better-earning older colleagues.

In an industrial tribunal hearing that began yesterday in Belfast, they claimed that a 2002 change to the pay structure for senior civil servants gave an unfair financial advantage to those senior staff already in the system.

Both Mr Brennan, an economist, and Fiona Hamill, an accountant, are grade five civil servants and Mr Brennan told the hearing that only the permanent secretary, Stephen Peover, and the public spending director, Richard Pengelly, are of a higher grade within DFP.

Mr Brennan, who started on £53,451 in 2004, made his claim after discovering that an older colleague, Jack Layberry, who had joined the civil service before him – but who is at the same grade – is being paid £13,400 more.

“Jack operates in the same business area as me and does a job which I previously did,” he said. Given that their claim alleges age discrimination, during the lunch break yesterday the News Letter asked both Miss Hamill and Mr Brennan their age. Both declined to say how old they are.

Mr Brennan said that the current grade five pay scale was massive, extending from £55,000 to £116,000, with no progression points. He added that a recent report by the senior salaries review body — which is currently with Mr Wilson — recommended changes and referred to “potential vulnerability” to an equality or age bias claim.

He said that under the current system he would have been about £6,000 better off if he had stayed at a lower grade rather than moving eight years ago, while Miss Hamill said that she would have been £4,000 better off.

Mr Brennan, who was cross-examined for several hours yesterday and will continue to be questioned today, agreed under questioning from counsel for the department that a balance had to be struck between budgetary restraint, particularly in the current economic climate, and a pay system that attracts and retains suitable senior civil servants.

Later in the cross-examination, counsel for the department referred to figures which show that the vast majority of those who leave the senior civil service do so to retire, rather than to take up private sector posts, something she said demonstrated that the current pay structure was doing its job of retaining staff.

The department’s lawyer also put it to Mr Brennan that the real issue was a lack of public money to increase senior civil servants’ salaries, rather than age discrimination, to which he replied that he had never said age discrimination was the sole issue.

The hearing heard portions of a witness statement from DFP’s head of human resources, Derek Baker, in which he defended the current system. The department’s lawyer said that Mr Baker wanted it to be made clear that he would “potentially benefit” from any change to the current system based on the case succeeding.

The case is scheduled to continue until the end of the week.

Article from News Letter