The Stormont Public Account Committee's conclusion that PSNI commanders took their eyes off the ball during the recruitment of agency staff in the period after the winding up of the old RUC, is a generous one. The number of failings in the process was legion, according to the PAC's report – and much stronger language could have been used.
One-in-five of the RUC officers who left the force during the Patten reforms were rehired as agency workers, some even in jobs which did not require any policing skills. Contracts were awarded without any competition, some agency workers were paid through limited companies, a ploy used to minimise tax returns, and a contract change running into millions was signed off by someone without the proper authority. Little wonder that the PAC is baffled at the lack of response by the PSNI to these blatant faults in the process. It does lead to suggestions that former RUC officers were favoured for jobs, even if the tasks did not require their special skills. And the PAC wonders if there was any favouritism towards some contractors by the force.
Yet these are the sort of faults that we see repeatedly in government or government agency contracts. The lack of oversight in the spending of scarce public money is quite shocking and it is simply not good enough for transgressors to promise to do better in the future – a promise which often fails to materialise.
However, it has to be said that in this instance the PSNI faced the loss of 5,500 officers following the Patten recommendations and that included very many hugely experienced officers. It was natural that the new force would have liked to offer these officers other posts when they became available and indeed, if the process had been properly organised, they may well have obtained many of the jobs on offer without any doubt being cast on their hiring. Nevertheless, the force and its recruiters have difficult questions to answer and it will be interesting to hear their replies, when – and if – they give them.