Belfast Telegraph

Executive gets say over PSNI chief

Justice Minister David Ford has been told by Executive colleagues that they will have the final say on his controversial plan to alter the recruitment criteria for the PSNI's next chief constable.

Mr Ford has faced criticism from political rivals since announcing his intention to remove the mandatory requirement for Matt Baggott's successor to have served two years at senior rank outside Northern Ireland.

The minister was accused of mounting a "solo run" without the backing of the NI Policing Board, the body responsible for selecting the new chief.

DUP First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness intervened and referred his decision to the Executive for review this afternoon.

At the meeting at Stormont Castle, fellow ministers told Mr Ford that any decisions on whether to alter the criteria and, if changes were agreed, when to implement them, would have to be taken on an Executive-wide basis.

Mr Ford was asked to complete the final steps in his consultation with stakeholders before bringing the matter back to the Executive. That process is expected to take two weeks.

"For whatever reasons, and I fear they are only political reasons, the DUP and Sinn Fein have determined that I must bring my final decision to the Executive for it to consider," he said.

"I will do so. But I trust that the Executive will recognise that it is the right decision, and that I was right to make it.

"The Executive must ensure that it does not allow politics to be dragged into the recruitment of a Chief Constable, nor the role of a Justice Minister."

The Executive take collective decisions on matters deemed to be significant or potentially contentious. Mr Ford has argued the issue of recruitment criteria for chief constable falls within his remit and is not one that needed wider Executive approval.

Mr Baggott, who was appointed in 2009, last week informed the Policing Board that he will not be seeking a contract extension when his term of employment ends in September.

In the past, only senior officers who had served for at least two years at assistant chief constable rank in a police force outside Northern Ireland would have been eligible to apply to replace him.

But earlier this week Mr Ford announced he intended to change that from mandatory to "desirable".

Critics questioned the timing of the minister's move, given that deputy chief constable Judith Gillespie announced her retirement only weeks ago. Under the status quo at the time of her announcement she was unable to go for the chief's post as she had not served two years elsewhere.

He has denied claims that he did not consult the board, noting that the issue of changing criteria was raised with him by the board last May.

The minister has insisted he subsequently consulted a number of other relevant bodies.

He said when it became evident that a political consensus had not been reached on the matter, he had to make the decision himself.

The minister claims removing the mandatory requirement would mean he ended up with less power over the appointment, and the board with more.

He said it was still up to the board to set its own criteria for the post, and members could decide that service elsewhere was still an essential element on the CV of any candidate.

Mr Ford also said advice from the Equality Commission indicated that the current legislation was indirectly discriminatory as it impacted unfairly on certain groups, such as women or people who had dependants living in Northern Ireland.

"I went to the Executive today to set out the facts - about my powers, about the process that I have undertaken, and about the reasons for my decision," the minister said at the conclusion of the Executive meeting.

"The reality is that I have not interfered in the role of the Policing Board - I have enhanced it. I have consulted deeper and wider than I was required to do. I have tackled an issue of potential inequality, on the advice of the Equality Commission.

"I will now continue down the road that I have embarked on."

The final stage of the consultation process will require Mr Ford to issue a draft determination to organisations such as the board, await their responses and then issue a final determination.

The board is due to discuss the issue of replacing the chief constable at its next public meeting in a week's time.

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