Belfast Telegraph

Ford defeated over top cop criteria

The Policing Board has formally rejected a controversial proposal from Stormont's Justice Minister to alter the recruitment criteria for the next chief constable.

A majority of members voted to maintain the current framework for selecting the region's top officer when Matt Baggott retires in the autumn.

Minister David Ford faced a storm of criticism from political rivals last month when he announced his intention to remove the mandatory requirement for Mr Baggott's successor to have served two years at senior rank outside Northern Ireland.

In its formal response to the minister's statutory consultation on his draft proposal, the board, which is responsible for the recruitment exercise, will now reject the move.

The final decision on whether to change the criteria rests with the Executive - but given a majority of politicians on the board have now dismissed the idea, coming only days after Mr Ford was criticised by a range of Assembly Members on Stormont's Justice committee, it seems inevitable that the suggestion will be voted down when it is tabled before ministers in Stormont Castle.

The Justice minister had originally argued the decision should have been his to make, but DUP First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness intervened and used their powers to refer it to the Executive.

Mr Ford had undertaken to complete the consultation exercise on the proposal with the relevant public bodies before bringing a final recommendation to the Executive and today board members replied with an emphatic no. Only the minister's Alliance party colleague Chris Lyttle voted for the proposal.

DUP board member Jonathan Craig said it was the correct decision to reject the idea.

"It was entirely inappropriate and dictatorial of the Justice Minister to attempt to alter the criteria for candidates applying for the post of chief constable in the way that he did," he said.

"To then stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that what he did was inappropriate further compounded his error.

"I am pleased that the Policing Board has today rejected the Minister of Justice's attempt to meddle in such a sensitive public recruitment process."

Mr Baggott, who was appointed in 2009, last month informed the board that he will not be seeking a contract extension when his term of employment ends in September.

In the past, only senior officers who had served for at least two years at assistant chief constable rank in a police force outside Northern Ireland would have been eligible to apply to replace him.

The minister claims changing the mandatory requirement to a "desirable" one would mean he ended up with less power over the appointment, and the board with more.

He has said it would still be up to the board to set its own criteria for the post, and members could decide that service elsewhere was still an essential element on the CV of any candidate.

Mr Ford also said advice from the Equality Commission indicated that the current legislation was indirectly discriminatory as it impacted unfairly on certain groups, such as women or people who had dependants living in Northern Ireland.

But critics questioned the timing of the proposal, given that Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie announced her retirement only weeks ago. Under the status quo at the time of her announcement she was unable to go for the chief's post as she had not served two years elsewhere.

Mr Lyttle accused fellow elected board members of "playing politics" with the appointment of a new chief.

"The Minister for Justice is discharging his statutory responsibility to set the minimum criteria available to the Policing Board when setting the actual criteria for appointing the chief constable," he said.

He added: "It has been proposed in advance of any appointment process, with the aim of enhancing the capacity of the Policing Board and in compliance with equality advice that the existing minimum criteria may be discriminatory."

Mr Lyttle said there had been no objective case made in opposition to the proposed change.

In the private session of today's monthly meeting of the board, members decided that the recruitment process for the appointment of a new chief constable would take place before beginning the search for a new deputy chief - even though Mrs Gillespie is due to leave six months before Mr Baggott.

A board spokeswoman said the consensus decision had been taken to "ensure continuity in the leadership of the PSNI".

Mr Baggott was appearing before the board for the first time since he informed members of his decision to retire, however he declined to publicly elaborate on his move, insisting his priority was leading the PSNI for his remaining time in office.

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