CHANGES to a voluntary early retirement scheme, which Conservatives claimed would have ended "mega-golden handshakes" within Fife Council, have been postponed.

The review of discretionary benefits, which would have removed some of the "add-ons" paid to employees when they leave, has been delayed until September 2021 with co-leader David Ross saying it would be "unfair" to go ahead until they knew more about the impact of COVID-19 on services.

The council has spent more on severance and redundancy packages than any other local authority in Scotland in recent years: between 2016/17 and 2018/19, the total cost of exit packages was £23.9 MILLION.

After the decision at the policy and co-ordination committee, the Conservative group said they were "deeply disappointed" as the proposal "would have put an end to the mega-golden handshakes that have seen close to £500,000 set aside to boost the pension of a senior council officer".

Tory group leader, Councillor Dave Dempsey, said: “Having pushed for this change for over a decade and finally achieved some sort of traction, it was disappointing to see Labour, backed by the SNP, add an extra year’s delay.

"While some related proposals round redundancy pay do need time to work out, a straightforward cap – something now advocated by both our governments – needn’t wait till every dot and comma is in place.

"The recommended level was £95,000. It’s hard to see why it’s necessary or desirable to assign more than that to someone who already has a guaranteed index-linked pension the likes of which most folk can only dream of.

“Labour and the SNP are forever on about reducing inequality but what can be more unequal than transferring the Council Tax paid by ordinary folk, with limited or no works pension, to gold-plate the already gold-plated.

"Council pension schemes are top-notch. That’s good and we’re not suggesting they should be cut back in any way but enough is enough."

Council co-leader, SNP councillor David Alexander, dismissed the criticism and said: "Dave Dempsey moved an amendment and it was ruled out of order.

"It wasn’t a decision taken by politicians. It was taken by the committee legal team. That was the end of the matter.

"The introduction of the new scheme has only been delayed.

"To call the benefits to people who leave the council early as 'mega' just highlights how much the Conservatives have a deep disdain for public services."

The current early retirement schemes, which a report to the committee acknowledged was "amongst the most generous" compared to other Scottish councils, include the discretion to award additional benefits in the form of a lump sum payment.

The new voluntary redundancy scheme proposes a Scottish Government-recommended cap of £95,000 to mitigate against issues of over-paying senior council workers.

It includes a flat rate payment of £3,000 in addition to the usual redundancy/retirement payments, with the aim of limiting the impact of the changes on lower-paid staff.

The changes only apply to voluntary redundancy and early retirement; the terms for compulsory redundancy will remain the same.

Co-leader and Labour councillor David Ross said it was "a way of helping retain jobs and services".

He explained: "It is a choice between continuing to pay out for people to leave the council or investing that money to retain jobs within the council to help stop the cuts in services we have seen over the past 13 years and more.

"If people leave under the voluntary early redundancy policy, then their jobs cannot be replaced. That means a cut in services and extra strain on our remaining workforce."

He added: "The COVID crisis will have a major impact on our budget for next year, and with health restrictions likely to stay in place for months, if not years, the council may be forced to undertake some restructuring.

"In that context, it would be unfair on our workforce to implement these changes until we know what the impact of COVID on our services is going to be in the longer term.

"That’s why we agreed a delay in implementation until the end of September 2021."

Head of the council’s human resources service, Sharon McKenzie, commented: “We’ll continue to try to manage changes to our services without the need for redundancies.

"We’re careful about managing vacancies and we’ve seen the flexibility of our workforce throughout the pandemic so we’ll be seeking to redeploy staff wherever possible."