Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Rot in the Fire Service must end

It is not uncommon for government departments, agencies or arms-length bodies in Northern Ireland to be the subject of severe criticism. But the Public Accounts Committee report into the operations of the Fire Service is breathtaking in the range of unacceptable practices it has uncovered over quite a protracted period of time.

Failures of management, disgraceful treatment of a whistleblower who acted to protect public money, and unauthorised payments of public money were among the concerns raised. The public has great confidence in the service and the very many officers, male and female, who work in it and potentially lay their lives on the line every day.

Nothing in this report should impact negatively on those officers. The failures outlined were at senior management level and begs the question of who was supposed to oversee how the Service was run.

These were not minor issues. Large sums of money were involved, and there is a clear inference that the service's paymasters at Stormont were treated with something approaching contempt.

Health Minister Edwin Poots earlier this year said he expected disciplinary action to be taken against a senior officer, but that never happened and the person involved was allowed to leave the service due to ill-health.

Mr Poots says that the culture and practices within the Fire Service headquarters did not encourage openness, transparency and trust. As ever we are promised that the report will be carefully considered.

Such is the scale of the failings there must be a clear undertaking that a full inquiry – beyond the remit of the PAC – is undertaken into how the Fire Service operated.

The lamentable lack of control and leadership was a betrayal of the hardworking and loyal officers who respond to emergency calls and could erode public confidence if allowed to continue unchecked.

This is not a time for careful consideration of the report, but a time for action. Stormont needs to send out a clear signal that such behaviour in any body under its control will not be tolerated or allowed to go unpunished.

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