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MORE than £500,000 has been paid out by Worcestershire County Council for staff to 'act up' while their bosses were off work over the last three years.

Your Worcester News can reveal how most of the rewards have taken place during a period when the workforce has had to endure pay freezes.

Under council policy, if staff carry out work "outside the scope" of their normal roles for more than four weeks they can get extra payments on top of their standard salary.

In 2013/14, 241 people got a total of £168,417 in the so-called 'honorarium' payments, with the average sum being £699.

The previous year 178 people got it, with £146,694 being handed out, an average of £824.

In 2011/12, 156 staff got a total of £185,320, with the average sum £1,188.

In 2011 and 2012 workers had to suffer pay freezes and widespread job cuts.

The rewards included staff who took on extra duties to work on particular projects, and those doing additional tasks while vacancies were unfilled.

The council says the only alternative way of managing the workload would have been to hire more expensive agency staff.

Councillor Peter McDonald, the leader of the county's Labour group, has called for an in-house investigation into phasing it out.

"While hundreds of employees have faced the axe, existing employees have had their hours and job descriptions changed with no increases in salaries," he said.

"Services have slashed to the bone and in some instances have gone altogether yet the council has spent over £500,000 in three years on honorariums for the chosen few.

"It's money that would have been better spent on much-need services.

"It is outrageous that a council could be so out of touch with reality."

A spokesman for the Taxpayers Alliance said: "During the recession many private sector workers had to take on extra responsibilities and work harder for the same pay to help their companies survive."

The council says the payments are a "perfectly reasonable" way of compensating staff who do extra work.

A bid to stage an investigation into it failed after a Labour motion was rejected during a full council meeting by 30 votes to 15 earlier this month.

Councillor Adrian Hardman, the leader, said: "These 'honoraria' are a very efficient way of managing staff, they are temporary payments for additional duties.

"We use our staff because they are readily available, familiar with the work, need very little extra training and can start immediately.

"The alternative is to pay agency staff, which actually would have cost us considerably more than the £500,000."

A spokesman for the council said: "It is important to emphasise the payment of honorariums is subject to a robust authorisation process and requires them to be reviewed on a regular basis.

"The council believes its use of honorariums is proportionate and can help to reduce expenditure on other staffing costs such as agency workers."