Belfast Telegraph

Ombudsman row 'demoralised' staff

A massive row between the Police Ombudsman's chief executive and the head of investigations left staff demoralised, a new report has said.

The dispute over a pay review led to chief executive Sam Pollock resigning and senior director of investigations Jim Copeland taking long-term sick leave. An independent reviewer was later called in to probe Mr Pollock's departing claims that the office's independence had been undermined by meddling from senior civil servants in the Department of Justice (DoJ).

Reviewer Tony McCusker concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, there had been non-systemic but clear interference.

Mr Pollock alleged the office's independence had been undermined by meddling from senior civil servants. He resigned in April after making the claims. One of the allegations involved a job evaluation carried out last year by the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) into the pay grades of senior staff at the ombudsman's office. The DFP presented its findings to Mr Pollock and confirmed his pay grade but said that of his senior director of investigations should be higher.

The findings were not well-received and the DFP consultants complained that they were treated in a "wholly inappropriate" manner by the chief executive and in effect asked to leave the building. The DFP officials submitted a report on the affair to the DoJ and expressed concern about the health of the chief executive and the potential impact his alleged behaviour might have upon junior staff, if repeated.

The report was brought up by Mr Copeland in a grievance report before the Ombudsman's office was given a copy of it. Mr Copeland said he had been shown the DFP report by a DoJ official, but later denied seeing it.

Mr McCusker's report said: "I view the possibility that the senior director of investigations was made privy to the note from DFP officials by a DOJ official as disturbing and clearly interfering in the role of the office, though I don't believe this represented an example of systemic interference by DoJ. This was a disturbing event and represents clear interference in the role of the office and due process."

Other allegations made by Mr Pollock included: the suggestion that he was deliberately excluded by the Northern Ireland Office from any significant discussion about the basis of the appointment and the terms offered to new ombudsman Al Hutchinson; concerns about the travel expenses and hospitality costs of the Ombudsman; allegations that the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) rejected recommendations in a five-year review of the ombudsman's office because they would have strengthened the office's role and power; allegations that the DoJ had failed to progress a business case for more resources for historic cases expeditiously. The report found no evidence of this.

Mr McCusker made a series of conclusions. He said he was concerned that an agreement appeared to have been concluded between the senior director of investigations and a middle-ranking official of the NIO on the five-year review without the knowledge of the ombudsman's chief executive. He said he was surprised that the ombudsman was not informed about the outcome of the review or about the position attributed to him in a ministerial submission in October 2009.

Justice Minister David Ford said he was reassured by the finding that there was no evidence of systemic interference by DoJ officials. "However, the report does draw out governance issues which need to be resolved speedily. These are issues of concern to me that I have asked officials to address as a matter of urgency," he said.

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