UL probe to examine severance pay

The use of severance payments is to be included in the independent review of governance, human resources, and financial issues at University of Limerick (UL) ordered by Education Minister Richard Bruton.

Details of the inquiry, to be carried out by former Institute of Technology Sligo president Richard Thorn, were announced by the Department of Education last night.

Mr Bruton said he and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) want issues raised by whistleblowers addressed and to ensure robust policies are put in place.

He said it is being carried out at the request of UL, but a review was being considered for months by his department before new UL president Des Fitzgerald asked for such an exercise last week. The HEA spent almost two years trying to sort out internal difficulties at UL over allegations of expenses abuses, and how the university dealt with the whistleblowers’ claims.

As well as those issues, Mr Thorn will examine practices and governance around severance payments, as part of a review of UL’s wider human resources policies and processes. It is understood details given by UL officials to the Dáil’s public accounts committee six weeks ago were at odds with the department’s understanding of severance payments.

The committee heard that a former financial controller at UL got a severance payment of over €220,000 when he retired early in 2012, one of two severance payments of similar size that did not have the necessary Department of Education approval. He was then rehired on a consultancy basis for three years until the middle of 2015.

One of three women who made claims retired on ill health from UL in 2010 and two others have been suspended since mid-2015, subsequent to making protected disclosures about their concerns to the HEA. All three worked in the university’s finance department.

The HEA spent over €80,000 on a consultants’ report on how their claims were investigated, and a mediator who determined that a facilitation process was unlikely to resolve the associated disputes.

Mr Thorn will have four to five weeks to conduct his investigation, and must report to the HEA by the end of September. In addition to dealing directly with those who made protected disclosures or other complaints, he can receive allegations from anyone else raising issues of concern or of public interest relating to UL.

As well as determining if the allegations made by the three women are well-founded and require further examination, Mr Thorn may make findings or recommendations on steps that UL should take around governance, HR, financial, administrative processes, or the overall organisation culture at the university.

The public accounts committee asked the department on Thursday for input into terms of reference, but the Department of Education told the Irish Examiner last night it will ask Mr Thorn to consult with the committee during his review.

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