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John O’Dowd broke the rules on appointing people to public roles, audit finds

By Lindsay Fergus

A damning audit has found that Education Minister John O’Dowd breached the code for ministerial public appointments on multiple occasions.

The Commissioner for Public Appointments Northern Ireland (CPA NI) found seven breaches by the Department of Education and a further five examples of bad practice in relation to Mr O’ Dowd’s appointments in March to the General Teaching Council Northern Ireland.

It comes just two months after Mr O’Dowd came under fire when the Belfast Telegraph revealed that he appointed a convicted triple killer to the board of governors of a school.

And it is a further embarrassment to Sinn Fein whose former Regional Development Minister, Conor Murphy, was rapped over his controversial appointment of the chairman of NI Water.

Commissioner John Keanie said the competition process “failed to a substantial degree to comply with the code of practice for ministerial appointments”.

He also said that “the department did not initially provide all the necessary documentation”, with further documentation only “provided following emailed requests”.

The breaches included

  • No evidence to show that panel members had received appropriate training.
  • The department did not keep full contemporaneous records of all assessment procedures and outcomes.
  • The minister kept no record of the reason for selecting the three candidates.
  • The public announcement was not copied to the Commissioner for Public Appointments at the time of publication.
  • The department did not ensure a complete audit trail was readily available, including all pertinent records.

“It is the responsibility of departments to ensure the principles and practices contained in the commissioner’s code are upheld throughout the process,” the commissioner said in his findings.

A Department of Education spokesman said: “The Education Minister makes all public appointments on merit, ensuring a diverse range of skills and backgrounds. It will ensure any learnings are incorporated in future appointments processes.”

The audit further identified five issues which, whilst not being code breaches, fell short of what CPA NI regarded as best practice:

  • Planning future competitions to ensure continuity on boards.
  • Enhanced outreach to target, inform and encourage under-represented groups or individuals.
  • Improving rejection procedures.
  • Providing more reasonable application periods.
  • Handling of ministerial letters to candidates.

The report said: “The department should consider how it might handle these issues more effectively in future ... the commissioner should be appraised of its proposed actions as soon as is practicable, to enable follow-up.”

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