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Health department chief Pengelly in dark over key appointment to watchdog

Appointment of top civil service post criticised in new independent report

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Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly

Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly

Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly

The appointment process for one of the most senior jobs in the Northern Ireland civil service has been called into question by the findings of an independent review.

The Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health said he did not appoint Dermot Parsons as interim chief executive of the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA).

However, in an astonishing development, it has emerged that Richard Pengelly did not know who appointed Mr Parsons to the high-profile post.

It is one of the findings of a scathing review, led by David Nicholl, into the mass resignation of the RQIA Board last year in a row over the official handling of the pandemic response.

It came after a “breakdown” in the relationship between the RQIA Board and the Department of Health and Mr Parsons.

The report, published yesterday, has raised concerns that Mr Pengelly breached official guidance from the Department of Finance on managing public money.

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According to an annex of the report, when Mr Pengelly received the draft version of the document, he said that “although he had designated” Mr Parsons as accounting officer for the RQIA, “he did not appoint him as the interim chief executive”.

The report continued: “However, he could not tell the review team who had appointed him.”

However, the review concluded that Mr Pengelly had “de facto” appointed Mr Parsons as interim chief executive of the RQIA when he wrote to him on March 30, 2020, appointing him as accounting officer.

It said: “The Permanent Secretary either appointed the interim chief executive or needed to have been presented with evidence of his appointment as such prior to designating him as accounting officer. If he did neither, as he is apparently arguing, this would mean that he has breached the provisions of Managing Public Money by appointing someone into the role of accounting officer without ensuring that he was the chief executive and therefore proper person to hold the position.

“Both the Department and the RQIA confirmed to the review team that no other letter of appointment was issued to the interim chief executive.

“The review team found that, throughout this whole period, there was a clear understanding on the part of departmental officials, the RQIA acting chair and board members, and RQIA officials that the letter of March 30 constituted the de facto letter of appointment as interim chief executive.”

The review report also said Mr Pengelly subsequently wrote to Mr Parsons on June 3, 2020, to tell him his appointment as interim chief executive was being extended until August.

Mr Pengelly also rang Olive Macleod, Mr Parsons’ predecessor, on March 26 asking her to take up the position of chief executive of the Public Health Agency the following day.

The report said the board of the RQIA was not consulted on this decision and only became aware of it after it happened, with Mr Pengelly explaining it happened when the department “was in firefighting mode” and the failure to tell the board chair was “an oversight on his part”.

The report also made an excoriating assessment of the relationship between the RQIA’s executive team and the Department of Health.

It found the relationship between the RQIA executive team and the Department of Health was “too close” and that there was a “lack of any real relationship” between the Health Minister and Department of Health and the RQIA board.

This meant that only Mr Parsons “had the ear” of senior departmental officials.

As a result, the board was effectively “invisible” to the Department of Health, while Mr Parsons was “eager to please” and the department “was persuaded” the board “was a nuisance and getting in the way”.

The report also said there were “several occasions” when Mr Parsons “sought to exclude or override the board”, which it said was “wrong”.

It continued: “The department appears to have been comfortable with the dysfunctional, one-sided relationship with the RQIA executive team and supported the interim chief executive in his disagreements with the RQIA board even when he was clearly in the wrong or was not giving a full and accurate account to the officials in the department.”

In a written statement to the Assembly yesterday, Minister Robin Swann said: "I deeply regret that the board members did not come to me and say they were on the brink of resigning. I would have taken that very seriously and I believe we could have worked together to resolve the difficulties.”

However, he said the review team was "also clear that the Department of Health cannot escape its share of responsibility for what occurred".

"It believes that, if better governance had been applied between the department and RQIA, this event may have been averted," he said.

"The recommendations put forward are aimed at providing the necessary clarity on roles and responsibilities and relationships for a minister, for his or her officials, and for the department's arm's-length body (ALB) boards, along with their executive teams, in accordance with legislation and best practice."


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