Belfast Telegraph

Legal advice over fire staff urged

Criminal proceedings could be pursued against former members of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS), Stormont's health committee has heard.

Sinn Fein MLA Sue Ramsey asked Department of Health officials to take legal advice on the possibility of prosecuting people who left NIFRS after a series of inquiries into allegations of financial wrongdoing.

"We need to be sending out a clear message," Ms Ramsey, who chairs the scrutiny committee, said. "If people need to be disciplined then they need to be disciplined. And, if criminal proceedings need to be brought, that should be looked at too. We are guarantors of public money."

Last week, health minister Edwin Poots called for a culture change at NIFRS after a number of whistle-blowing allegations centred on fraud, unapproved bonuses and failing to deal with staff grievances. The minister stopped short of calling for an inquiry but said that changes must be led from the top.

Civil servants from the Department of Health Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and senior representatives from the NIFRS were summoned to address MLAs.

Julie Thompson from DHSSPS said the department was well aware lessons had to be learned. She added: "Criminal proceedings are something you can do when someone has left."

During the debate it was also claimed that the health minister may have to consider his position over the failings of Fire Service senior management.

Alliance Party MLA Kieran McCarthy described three reports on NIFRS practises over the past decade as horrendous.

He said: "Bonuses, LandRovers, equipment, stores - all of this is very, very serious. I suggest at the end of this process the minister is responsible. The buck stops there with him. He will have to perhaps look at his position. It is as serious as that."

Meanwhile, Jim Wallace who was appointed NIFRS interim chief executive in August to address corporate governance issues, said he was committed to delivering the necessary changes.

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