Time for an urgent review of all Northern Ireland’s oversight bodies

When the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland (PONI) recently accused the PSNI of refusing to provide his office with information relating to certain investigations, he acted on his interpretation of a set of facts.

The police had their own, alternative interpretation, insisting that they have a legal responsibility for the care and management of all the information they hold, some of which is extremely sensitive.

Although they gave careful consideration to every separate request from the Ombudsman, they were constrained by law, when it came to handing information over.

The disagreement is based on a series of complicated issues, stemming from the competing legal responsibilities of the PSNI and the PONI. Some of the information in question is potentially fatal if it falls into the wrong hands, because it could relate to informers, who have an unhappy history of being murdered in Northern Ireland, when their identity is revealed.

The police say they are working to agree a framework with PONI, so that there is a ‘shared understanding’ of the requirements in each case, where information is requested. Nonetheless the Police Ombudsman decided to publicise his personal interpretation of the dispute, threatening a Judicial Review, before issuing a press statement to back up his arguments.

There are a number of Ombudsmen based in Northern Ireland or operating here, besides the PONI. There is a Northern Ireland Ombudsman, who looks into complaints against the various government departments at Stormont. There is a Prisoner Ombudsman, who looks into complaints by prisoners. There are health, finance and European Ombudsmen.

There is even an Ombudsman for estate agents.

The number of Commissions and Commissioners is greater still. Their duties are set out in specific pieces of legislation, but, as a rule, they are expected to assess how government impacts upon certain groups in society – like children, old people and victims – or certain important concepts – like human rights and equality.

All of these organisations, at considerable cost, are paid for out of the public purse. Northern Ireland’s government is generally acknowledged to be far too large, but it is surrounded by an even larger ecosystem of independent and quasi-independent bodies, quangoes, commissions and councils. That’s before we begin to consider the dizzying array of non-governmental and third sector organisations, also drawing down public funding.

As a society, of course, we need to subject public life to a degree of scrutiny and oversight. We need champions for certain groups, who may be particularly vulnerable, and we need officials who can assess whether government is fulfilling universal aims, like equality or human rights.

Problems arise when the purpose and scope of such bodies is misunderstood, or when they deliberately extend their remit, either to push a political agenda or simply to justify their own existence.

Take the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), consistently one of the worst offenders. It was set up, to advise both the Secretary of State and the Executive on human rights issues in Northern Ireland.

It was also asked, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, to consult and advise on the scope for a Bill of Rights, containing rights supplementary to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) which would reflect Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances.

The NIHRC quickly set aside its remit, producing a series of recommendations for a Bill of Rights which completely ignored Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances, the basic definition of a human right and the content of the ECHR.

When its work was decisively rejected by two governments, the Commission continued to champion the contents, as zealously as any single issue lobby group.

The Police Ombudsman’s position is different, but there are some important similarities. For instance, the authority and powers of the office are often exaggerated and misunderstood. The PONI is not a judicial post.

When the Ombudsman issues a report, it contains an interpretation of a set of facts, based on an investigation which his office directs and carries out. The important point is that the Ombudsman’s opinion is not definitive or legally binding and it has not been arrived at by a thorough and regulated process, where interpretations and assumptions are scrutinised and challenged, as in a court of law.

It is simply his interpretation of the information he has before him.

There seems to be a common perception, particularly, it must be said, among nationalist politicians, that the PONI’s role is to challenge and confront the police as often and as robustly as possible. It is a perception that will be encouraged by Michael Maguire’s decision to issue hostile statements about the way in which the PSNI manages its information.

This attitude only serves to undermine the rule of law. There is also a perception that the Ombudsman is an ultimate authority, to whom the police are answerable. That is another notion which is misplaced and is likely to undermine confidence in the PSNI, without a shred of justification.

In Northern Ireland, it’s time that we had a thorough examination of how effective various independent and quasi-independent organisations are at overseeing aspects of government and public services. There are a multitude of opportunities for reform.

The Police Ombudsman’s office, for instance, could be required to take a more judicial approach to the matters it investigates. It could operate more like a tribunal, with a mechanism for both parties to put their views and subject them to arbitration, albeit that powers of discipline within the PSNI would still rest squarely with the Chief Constable.

Many of the Commissions and Commissioners which have taken on quasi-political characteristics could more appropriately be known as ‘champions’. It would be a more honest description of their function and it would remind the public that they are pressing a certain agenda on behalf of a particular group of people, and that their opinion is only part of a more complicated picture.

Most of all, we need urgently to look at the size of the industry which surrounds our devolved government. Is it really necessary or appropriate for such a small region? Could many of these functions not be merged or abolished altogether?

Why is it possible for some people to carve out entire careers, outside the auspices of proper electoral politics, pushing a particular political agenda through commissions, councils and quangoes, at the taxpayer’s expense?

When the Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, took up his post, he said that one of his chief aims was to reform and streamline the public sector. So far, this process has not yielded any results.

I would suggest that, as a useful start, he should implement an urgent review of the functions of all Northern Ireland’s oversight bodies, commissions, commissioners and quangoes, to examine whether they are doing a good job and, indeed, whether many of them are necessary at all.

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