Belfast Telegraph

MLA fury demoted civil servant still on full pay

By Noel McAdam

A senior Northern Ireland civil servant demoted after serious misconduct remains on full pay at his new level - even though he has not yet been assigned a new job, Stormont's public accounts watchdog has heard.

Angry MLAs voiced dismay over the comparative lack of punishment of former permanent secretary Paul Priestly, whose demotion came into effect last month after he was accused of interfering with the political process.

Members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) grilled the head of the Civil Service, Sir Bruce Robinson (right), over his decision to demote Mr Priestly to deputy secretary - the first time that has happened in Northern Ireland - rather than dismiss him.

But the Stormont hearing was told Mr Priestly also remains without a new role while still being paid £92,000 after almost a year on 'gardening leave'.

The ability of the PAC to hold civil servants to account was called into question as it emerged Mr Priestly's actions - helping to draft a stern letter of complaint to the PAC - did not amount to gross misconduct.

And it also emerged no disciplinary action was taken against three other civil servants investigated after a series of emails including important documents were deleted.

Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin said there was a high level of public disquiet over whether the outcome of the inquiry into Mr Priestly and others had been appropriate and proportionate.

"This was quite clearly an attempt by one of the most senior civil servants to interfere with the political process, and why that is not regarded as gross misconduct is beyond comprehension," he said.

Accusing Sir Bruce and senior Department of Finance official Derek Baker of being "deliberately vague" in their answers, Ulster Unionist Ross Hussey said: "Nobody is accountable to us as far as I can see. Nothing I have heard has reassured me there will not be a recurrence of this."

Sir Bruce said, however: "This has never happened before. He (Mr Priestly) has lost salary. (There has been) a severe impact on him personally apart from the damage suffered to his career and reputation." Mr Priestly would also not be eligible to apply for promotion again for three years.

Questioned by committee chair Paul Maskey, the Civil Service chief also said he was not happy with the length of time the inquiry process had taken.

SDLP member John Dallat, one of those criticised in the letter Mr Priestly helped draft, said he believed serious damage had been inflicted on the credibility of the PAC and the deletion of material was regarded by Freedom of Information chiefs as amounting to criminal activity. "We really need to know the system is now squeaky clean," he said.

Background

Paul Priestly was suspended from his position as permanent secretary of the Department for Regional Development over helping to draft a letter of complaint to the Public Accounts Committee. The letter was from Peter Dixon, who was carrying out an independent investigation into Northern Ireland Water. Mr Priestly had been involved in appointing Mr Dixon to the review and when four NIW directors were subsequently sacked for the improper awarding of contracts, the PAC began its own investigation. Mr Dixon was unhappy with his treatment and received help from Mr Priestly in drafting his letter.

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