Belfast Telegraph

Not fit for purpose: rights body raps police watchdog

By Lesley-Anne Henry

The Police Ombudsman’s Office is facing questions over its independence and transparency following the publication of a scathing report by a human rights body.

The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) said the watchdog set up in 2000 to ensure public confidence in the PSNI was “not fit for purpose”; alleged NIO interference in the recruitment process of current Ombudsman Al Hutchinson, and highlighted irregularities in his financial package.

However, the CAJ fell short of calling for the Ombudsman to resign.

“The research identified a number of irregularities in the appointment process of the current Police Ombudsman which in turn raise serious questions about the independence of the office,” said Dr Mick Beyers, a policing programme officer with CAJ. “These irregularities occurred in three areas — financial, security vetting and the recruitment process.

“The evidence points clearly to interference by the NIO in the recruitment process for the current Police Ombudsman,” she added.

CAJ, established in 1981 as a human rights and civil liberties organisation which lobbies and campaigns on a broad range of human rights issues, began its investigations last summer after complaints from families.

Researchers say they spoke to two “high calibre” candidates who, despite being head-hunted, were told after the application deadline the Government had changed the rules.

CAJ declined to be drawn on whether it believed Al Hutchinson was the preferred candidate, but Dr Beyers added: “Because the NIO was in charge of the appointment and chaired the appointment body, we would have to assume that a move like that would advantage some candidates and disadvantage others.”

The NIO has denied any wrongdoing.

Yesterday’s CAJ report also criticises a failure to define the term ‘collusion’.

The research compiled from Freedom of Information requests identified irregularities surrounding the “significantly” enhanced financial package offered to Mr Hutchinson.

Yesterday’s report comes after the Ombudsman's Office chief executive stood down alleging Government meddling.

Sam Pollock told the CAJ he was effectively stripped of responsibility for accounting for Mr Hutchinson's salary and benefits, which it is said are higher than those of his predecessor. Mr Pollock said that when he raised the issue with the NIO, his concerns were dismissed.

The “agonisingly slow” investigation process was also slated with the seven-year probe into the Claudy bombing and withdrawal of the McGurk’s Bar massacre report highlighted as examples of poor practice.

While the report is highly critical of the Ombudsman’s Office, CAJ said it was not a “personal attack” on Mr Hutchinson.

In a statement the Ombudsman’s Office hit back, branding the CAJ publication “unbalanced”.

A spokesman said: “It is clear that the report does not include a balanced view of the issues surrounding the investigation of historical matters, nor reflect the structural changes implemented to allow the office to deal with the doubling of historic cases in the past three years.”

Five key findings

1. Failure on the part of the office to define and consistently apply the term collusion.

2. Investigations are agonisingly slow.

3. Perception that police are able to exercise undue influence on the reports.

4. Irregularities in the appointment process of the current Police Ombudsman.

5. Does not meet the standards required, particularly in relation to historic cases.

Belfast Telegraph


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