A clinical commissioning group which is under directions from NHS England spent £500,000 on two “off payroll” interim executives last year.

One leader has been working for East Surrey CCG off payroll for over three years, despite longstanding guidance that interim board members and others with significant financial responsibility should only be off payroll in exceptional cases for a maximum of six months.

A freedom of information request has revealed that Elaine Jackson, the current interim accountable officer, cost the CCG £235,000 in 2015-16. She took on this role, which is a full time position, in July 2015, having been promoted from her previous position of interim chief operating officer.

Ms Jackson worked part time as director of transformation as 0.68 of a full time equivalent in 2013-14 at a cost of £120,000. In 2014-15 she spent seven and a half months as director of transformation before becoming chief operating officer – also a part time role at 0.71 FTE. The CCG paid £125,000 for her services that year, meaning the CCG spent nearly half a million pounds employing her over three years.

However, the cost of employing Ms Jackson in 2015-16 is eclipsed by that of the trust’s interim chief finance officer Richard Bates. Mr Bates took up the role on 1 April 2015 and cost £265,000 in 2015-16. He remains in the full time role and is also off payroll.

East Surrey CCG was subject to legal directions by NHS England in December 2015. At the end of 2015-16, its cumulative deficit was close to £25m and was struggling to achieve its planned QIPP savings. However, it had met the financial plan it agreed with NHS England for that financial year.

It is not known whether Ms Jackson and Mr Bates were employed through an agency or a private limited company. However, interim roles do not attract employer pension contributions, paid holidays, sick pay and other benefits – although CCGs do have to pay VAT on them, which is included in the overall figures. Once these are stripped out, Mr Bates’ payments are equivalent to a salary of around £172,000 and Ms Jackson’s around £153,000 in 2015-16.

A statement from the CCG said that it had inherited significant debt when it started and had one of the highest structural deficit to revenue ratios in the country at 16 per cent. As a small CCG, it had considerably lower running cost allowances than many others, and needed to meet statutory responsibilities with a lean staff team.

A spokesman said: “In practice, this means that the roles currently filled by interim accountable officer Elaine Jackson and interim chief finance officer Richard Bates are extremely demanding. They are carrying out a range of work which, in other CCGs, would be undertaken by a number of people.”

The spokesman said both Ms Jackson and Mr Bates were keen to hand over to suitable permanent employees, and are agreeing a plan for this with NHS England and the East Surrey CCG governing body.

The CCG has conducted three rounds of recruitment in an attempt to find a permanent finance chief. However, the spokesman said, although several hundred potential candidates were approached, “very few” chose to apply.

“The main reason for this was concern that they had insufficient experience in delivering transformation on the scale that is needed locally in order to improve services.”

The spokesman added that NHS England authorised Elaine Jackson’s appointment. The central body “is resolved to appoint permanent candidates as soon as possible as formally set out in the 2015 East Surrey CCG legal directions,” he added.