Belfast Telegraph

Policing Board legal work given 'out on the nod'

Publicly-funded watchdog faces official criticism over appointment of lawyers

By Deborah McAleese

The process used by the Policing Board to award contracts worth almost £700,000 to three human rights lawyers for consultancy advice has been criticised by the Audit Office, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

A probe by auditors has found that the competition process used to appoint consultants for advice about the PSNI's performance and policies was non-competitive, unfair and lacking in transparency.

The lawyers were all awarded contracts without entering into any tendering competition.

A document from the Audit Office seen by the Belfast Telegraph said this was not in line with best practice or consistent with EU procurement principles.

Auditors have also raised concern over thousands of pounds spent by the board to appoint an external consultant to scrutinise the work of its former chief executive.

There is no suggestion of any improper conduct on the part of any of the lawyers. The Policing Board said yesterday that steps have been taken "to ensure the audit observations are fully addressed".

Almost £700,000 of public funds were spent in the past five years for human rights advice from the three lawyers about the PSNI's compliance with the Human Rights Act.

The board's most recent human rights adviser, Alyson Kilpatrick - who was brought in as a consultant in 2008 - received more than £250,000 in her first two years. She also received £21,000 in consultancy costs over a two-month period last year.

Before Ms Kilpatrick was appointed, lawyers Keir Starmer QC, now the Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales, and Jane Gordon, provided the human rights advice on a consultancy basis at a cost of £372,000 from 2005/06 to 2007/08.

All three were appointed under a single tender action, which is when a quote is invited from a single supplier and the contract awarded without competition.

The Audit Office said that such a process should only be permitted "in very limited circumstances involving unforeseen events".

A summary of the audit report adds that there is a "requirement for a competitive process to be undertaken and for EU procurement principles, such as transparency and fairness of competition to be applied".

The report continues: "The use of non-competitive means of procuring these services was not in line with best practice and does not appear to be consistent with EU procurement principles."

Another appointment is soon to be made for the provision of human rights advice and the board said that a "competitive process" will shortly be launched.

Auditors decided to investigate the process after concern was raised by former board member Jimmy Spratt.

"I could never understand how, given the amount of people within the legal profession here who could have applied for this position, there was not an open competition. There was clearly a lack of fairness and transparency and I want to know where the recommendations came from for these appointments," Mr Spratt said.

Auditors also raised concern over money spent to hire a consultant last year to scrutinise the work of Adrian Donaldson when he was chief executive.

Consultant Dr Alan Lennon was hired by senior board figures last August. Over £12,000 was paid out to him.

Auditors said that the Justice Department advised the Audit Office that it considered the expenditure to be "novel and contentious".

A spokeswoman for the Policing Board said: "The board's work is subject to scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Audit Office. The Audit Office has made a number of recommendations in respect of board processes and the board has taken steps to ensure the audit observations are fully addressed."

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