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

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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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  • MYtwocents

    one can only agree , with the gist of this, as one is s great believer is small gov, simon Hamilton should do as he said he would, but he will be accused of targeting the one gravy train that Trevor has managed not to mention, the parades commission.

  • cynic2

    Interesting piece.

    The Ombudsman office is a good example.While it trumpets and headlines investigations into the past I am not sure how thorough they really are. For the headline grabbing conclusions there is sometimes little substance published to evidence or justify the conclusion

    The latest one on the death of Sgt Campbell is a good example – the former Chief Constable Kenneth Newman gets a roasting for failing to protect Joe Campbell but we were not presented with any real evidence that he ever saw the intelligence in question. Still never mind evidence, he was given a chance to answer the allegations and we were left with the bare statement that he said he had no recollection of the case. Not surprising when he retired around 1980, is almost 90, ill and it was all 40 years ago!

    If we were to call up the Ombudsman in 2054 and quiz him on his investigation, I am sure he will be able to give us chapter and verse.

    But the bigger issue is how well is the Ombudsman’s office doing on its bread and butter work of addressing police misconduct and incompetence today. The figures are extraordinary and carefully hidden. Less than 1% of cases – yes 1% – result in a formal sanction on an officer. That is a far worse % than the evil RUC managed when they ran the system themselves

    On any measure the Ombudsman is utterly failing in its core business but there is no mechanism to hold this quango to account

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com John Mooney

    There are a lot of gravy trains with well heeled passengers.
    But Trevor Ringland is right.
    Something has to be done. Too many oversight bodies seem intent on going for the point of least resistance and self preservation rather than doing what is right.
    Once we had Creative Ambiguity.
    Now we have Ambiguous Creativity.
    But the PSNI are at the heart of it.
    They remove a Ku Klux Klan Flag and cant get around to the illegal flags.
    We have institutionalised Sectarianism and get worked up about Homophobia, Racism and Sexism.
    We dont deserve to succeed.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    I agree that we have too many bodies but which ones do we remove and who if anyone will suffer?

  • Turgon

    This is a deeply sensible article. We have a vast Quangocracy in Northern Ireland. Frequently it seem to exist in large measure to perpetuate its own existence.

    The most relevant bit is this: “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?”

    Not only the Quagnos but as Ringland notes the assorted “third sector” organisations which feed of tax payers money. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the likes of Healing Through Remembering which is essentially a “charity” yet gets most of its money from EU etc. which is at the end of the day tax payers money.

    Then we come to the but:

    There is, however, one problem. Ringland has in the past supported exactly this sort of situation. He has advocated very similar sort of Quango / non elected non judicial concepts himself. On slugger in 2012 he proposed a Quango for dealing with the past. This Quango would according to Ringland draw up “A Statement of Wrongs” and then this group proposed by Ringland would have had a say in the continuance or otherwise of prosecutions and be involved in “story telling”

    Then we have Mr. Ringland’s “One small step campaign” which is supported by Healing Through Remembering – a classic third sector group.

    All that sounds remarkably similar to what Ringland rales against in the piece above.

    Maybe Ringland has now had a Damascus Road conversion to realising that we have far too many Quangos, highly politicised charities etc. etc. and need to get back to proper systems of governance. If so that is great but he should explain his conversion.

    Alternatively he wants Quangos and third sector organisations composed of people of whom he approves.

    So which is it Mr. Ringland have you seen the light or is this simple hypocrisy?

  • Son of Strongbow

    PONI is a very unimpressive organisation. It is supposed to be an investigative body producing reports based on evidence, yet in many cases the only ‘evidence’ that is produced is that the evidence, if indeed there had been any to begin with, has proved too elusive for PONI investigators.

    PONI gives the impression that it starts out on the premise that the cops are guilty and tries ever so hard to find something to prove it. When the gun turns out to be sans smoke we get reports littered with ‘could’, ‘might’, ‘perhaps’ etc.

    The Sergeant Campbell murder, already mentioned, is a PONI classic. An example of PONI at its ‘best’ relates to the Chief Constable at the time of the murder.

    It was “probable” that Sir Kenneth Newman had sight of evidence that the Sergeant was under threat but when questioned about it he had “no recollection” of the case.

    You can almost hear the Ombudsman’s righteous confirmatory ‘ta dah!’ echoing on the page.

    A belief has built up amongst the constituency that is the subject of much of PONI’s attention, i.e former RUC officers, that PONI has an agenda that is biased against them and they will not be treated fairly.

    As we have already witnessed even when evidence of wrongdoing is not found PONI reports are innuendo-heavy against former officers.

    The failure to cooperate with PONI of course plays into the hands of those who set out with a belief that the cops are guilty, they must have something to hide wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

    However it is a disgrace that PONI, through its own approach, has allowed this situation to develop. All officers, both retired and serving, should have confidence that they will be treated in an equitable manner that fully respects their rights. Guilt must be proved with evidence. Supposition doesn’t cut it.

    Historical, and equally if not more importantly contemporary, malpractice by the police should be the subject of professional and effective investigation. Regretfully PONI in its current form seem unable to provide it.

  • Son of Strongbow

    ……and on the wider question of quangodom, perhaps Mr Ringland is advocating for another oversight quango to keep the others on their metal?

    We now have ‘super councils’, why not a ‘super quango’ (with suitably enhanced salaries and benefits for its members) to look after the rest? ;)

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com John Mooney

    Turgon is…as usual …right.
    I suggest the problem is not just the DUP-SF dominated Executive but those (who would not normally give DUP or SF the time of day) who feed off the Executive.
    Quangos and the mysterious Third Sector….the academics who get selfies with Robbo and Marty (hard to imagine them actually voting DUP or SF).
    A lot of people in this community are bought and paid for.
    And they are not all DUP and SF members.
    Indeed disproportionately they might be members or “close to the thinking” of UUP, Alliance or SDLP.
    They …including the ones who self -describe as “progressive” are the ones who seem to want to have it both ways.
    There would be boats rocked within those parties if any one of them pulled the plug in co-operation ….disproportionately UUP, Alliance and SDLP might be responsible for the gridlock.

    Rightly or wrongly The Old Regime did not have the support of a large section of the population.
    The DUP-SF sham….and the Toothless Bodies ….can actually be brought down.
    Nobody seems to have the will to do it.

  • cynic2

    “we have too many bodies but which ones do we remove ”

    Start with all of them and then rebase it. But that will never happen. There are too many snouts in the trough who have family or party political connections

  • Framer

    Is it not the case that the Conservative Secretary of State controls or legislates for many of these bodies? Indeed only last week she appointed a new Chief Commissioner for NIHRC and re-appointed a squad of Equality Commissioners.
    Were there any Conservatives, let alone, Unionists amongst them?
    Of course not. Instead the dead hand of the Communist Party of Ireland and other fellow travellers remains dominant.
    Did Trevor apply or is his and other’s problem the fact that they don’t really approve of the quangocracy in general or the individual body’s remits/thrusts in particular?
    In other words, things can never change short of money starvation.
    Although a super-quango sounds an attractive method of deflecting criticism.

  • MYtwocents

    quangos exist for the unelectable, asking the elected to do away with them will not fly, their by the grace of god go they.

  • MYtwocents

    their again, bad twocents!.

  • Roy Walsh

    Trevor, you seem to avoid the recent history which gives rise to the need for ombudsman’, in a variety of oversight roles.
    On the other hand, there is a need to regulate what they’re all doing.
    The Human rights Commission could easily be merged with the equality Commission so reducing administration and duplications.
    Police is necessary, if only to maintain some confidence in the impartiality of the Police, though the recent cock up with the other Irish Gardá ombudsman shows the need for public oversight of such bodies.
    Prison’s could fall under the police ombudsman as the role of monitoring conduct of such state employee’s has similarities, they are all paid to protect us,.
    This said, do you really think you, or anyone else, can topple the wee empires these civil servants have built for themselves?
    If you do, good luck, honestly.