Belfast Telegraph

Report queries police watchdog role

A major report on Northern Ireland's policing watchdog has raised questions over its independence and the Government's role in appointing its figurehead.

Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson's office is also accused of failing to hold police to account over controversial cases from the Troubles and of using procedures that have left it open to accusations of bias.

The review by human rights group the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) also reveals how two senior figures applied for the post of ombudsman, but missed out amid claims the Government altered the job requirements after they had applied.

The Police Ombudsman's office, a key building block in the peace process, was established in 2000 to boost public confidence by providing independent investigation of complaints against the police.

Aideen Gilmore, deputy director of CAJ, said the report had "uncovered a range of very serious concerns and questions in relation to the efficiency, effectiveness, independence and transparency of the current office, which lead us to question whether the office is fit for purpose in relation to historic investigations".

Chief executive of the ombudsman's office Sam Pollock, who recently resigned alleging Government interference in the organisation, told the CAJ he was effectively stripped of responsibility for accounting for Mr Hutchinson's salary and benefits, which it is said are higher than those of the ombudsman's predecessor. Mr Pollock said that when he raised the issue with the Government's Northern Ireland Office (NIO), his concerns were dismissed.

In a response, the ombudsman said: "After an initial review, it is clear that the report does not include a balanced view of the issues surrounding the investigation of historical matters, nor reflect the structural changes implemented to allow the office to deal with the doubling of historic cases in the past three years.

"The Police Ombudsman does welcome the CAJ discussion around collusion, even though they do not provide a definition. Last year he said it was time for society to begin a discussion about what collusion is and is not."

A Northern Ireland Office spokesman said: "We will look at the report. But we are clear that the competition to appoint the Police Ombudsman in 2007 was fully compliant with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments (Ocpa) code of practice.

"An Ocpa representative was involved at each stage of the process and signed a certificate confirming it was fully compliant. No additional criteria were added during the appointment process."

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