Is the Head of the NI Civil Service defending the indefensible?

So to start with we have an empassioned plea from John Dallat, the Northern Ireland Public Accounts Committee’s longest serving member that, according to the News Letter:

“that Sir Bruce Robinson be forced to appear before it to explain his decision and said that he wanted an assurance that the committee could scrutinise public spending without senior civil servants covertly attacking it.”

Interestingly none of the other parties in that committee wanted to proceed without taking further advice. Although beyond taking action, Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin did not mince his words:

“I think that the key issue that has emerged here – over and above the Paul Priestly affair – is this question of who the senior civil service is accountable to.”

He said that he had “a significant problem” with Sir Bruce deciding what was appropriate as punishment for another senior civil servant and added:

“I have a grave difficulty with him telling us that’s the end of the matter and that effectively that’s the end of the business. We don’t even know what disciplinary breach Mr Priestly has been found guilty of – it’s a bit ridiculous.”

Mr McLaughlin was pushing at exactly the problem outlined here on Slugger on the same day. Only, contrary to Mitchel’s protests of ignorance, we know exactly what the breach was. And his own party’s Minister was in no doubt (within 24 hours of that UTV documentary) what the problem was either.

Tonight, Bruce Robinson has made his own response to the discussion and stated the following:

“There is an important distinction between the performance of civil servants and the role of the Civil Service as an employer.

“Quite rightly civil servants are accountable to Ministers for the performance of their duties and, in the case of Accounting Officers such as Permanent Secretaries, there is a direct and personal accountability to the Assembly for the proper use of resources. 

There is, however, an important distinction between that accountability and the role of the Civil Service as an employer and in particular in this case in dealing with disciplinary matters.

“In regard to the issues raised about conduct in the NI Water PAC Hearing, I have formally responded to the Public Accounts Committee just as DRD and DFP have responded on matters relating to their departments.

“In regard to the suspension and investigation of Paul Priestly, the NICS is acting in its role as an employer.   Mr Priestly’s case was managed strictly in accordance with the disciplinary policy and procedures contained in the NICS HR Handbook, which is published on the website of the Department of Finance and Personnel.  This makes clear that the Head of the NICS deals with disciplinary cases involving Permanent Secretaries.

The process that resulted in Mr Priestly’s downgrading was both thorough and, where appropriate, independent.  Mr Priestly was suspended pending an independent investigation carried out by Sir Jon Shortridge to establish the facts of the case.  On receipt of his report I decided to initiate disciplinary action against Mr Priestly. 

In accordance with NICS disciplinary policy, an independent board of inquiry was convened to consider the disciplinary charges against Mr Priestly and to recommend to me what, if any, disciplinary penalties should be imposed.  The board’s recommendation to me resulted in my decision to downgrade Mr Priestly. 

Under NICS procedures Mr Priestly was entitled to appeal the decision to downgrade him and his appeal was considered by an independent person with no prior involvement in the case.  The appeal was not upheld and my decision stood.  I had no involvement in the appeal stage of the process.

“All of this took place under NICS HR policies and procedures and is in accordance with employment legislation which protects employees’ legal rights and their right to confidentiality.  To breach the right of employee confidentiality would undermine the integrity of our disciplinary processes and the ability of the NICS to manage future HR related casework in respect of staff in the NICS.”

Now here’s the unvarnished rub. Mr Priestly breached a line between his role as an employee of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and his “direct direct and personal accountability to the Assembly for the proper use of resources”.

To whit, he used those resources to vicariously attack the right of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee to hold himself and others to proper account for the conduct of certain affairs in their department.

This is, on the face of it, a major breach of confidence in the general compact that protects both the independence of the civil service and the right of elected representatives to hold their executive functionaries to account.

So the Head of the Civil Service, no less, is resiling to HR regulations to cover a serious misconduct which was singleminded aimed at undermining his own organisation’s relations with those people elected to provide him with democratic oversight.

We shall be listening to GMU tomorrow morning with especial interest!

Adds: Here’s Eamonn’s take on the matter:

“On reinstated civil servant Paul Priestly: what if he fails to find home in department? Will settlement pension package logically follow?”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty