The extraordinarily small gene pool for NI Civil Service reviews

Here’s an interesting snippet. It’s an Assembly Question from Patsy McGlone to Tom Elliott regarding “the independent board of inquiry that was convened to consider the disciplinary charges” against Paul Priestly. It’s interesting for a number of reasons:

To ask the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in relation to the independent board of inquiry that was convened to consider the disciplinary charges against a senior civil servant, to detail (i) the terms of reference; (ii) the members on the panel; and (iii) the cost of the inquiry.

The independent board of inquiry was part of the disciplinary process which has been managed in accordance with the policy and procedures contained in the Northern Ireland Civil Service HR Handbook.

The terms of reference of the board of inquiry were set out in a letter from the Head of the NI Civil Service to each board of inquiry member as follows:

Sir John Shortridge has completed his investigation and following his report to me I have written setting out specific disciplinary charges and inviting Paul Priestly to reply in writing.

The role of the board of inquiry, which will consist of 3 members, is to consider the facts of the case, taking account of the investigation report, any written response to the disciplinary charges, other relevant documentation and representations made at hearing as appropriate and submit a report to the Head of the NICS which will set out the opinion of the board of enquiry as to whether the offence has been committed and a recommendation on what, if any, disciplinary penalties should be imposed in accordance with NICS disciplinary policy.

In conducting its proceedings the board will invite Paul Priestly to attend a hearing to answer the specific allegations of misconduct and to put forward any additional facts or information that he wishes to be taken into account.

On receipt of the board’s report it will be for me to decide whether disciplinary action is appropriate. Should disciplinary action be taken then the officer has the right of appeal. All these procedures are in accordance with the NICS Staff Handbook.

The board of inquiry was comprised of Margaret Elliott CBE, Sir Patrick Haren and Sir John Semple.

The cost of the board of inquiry was £9,027.

The first issue is the cost. This was the first version of the answer. In a second document released today, that last line now reads: “The cost of the board of inquiry was £12,672”.

More generally this is part of the backwash from the Northern Ireland Water story (copiously documented here). The relevant aspect is the issue of impartiality, which has been an extraordinary thread suggesting, once again, the Civil Service definition of independence is rather different from the way the word is more generally understood.

Note that the response to this AQ is the first we have been informed of the members of the team. The presence of the former Chair of NIE Sir Patrick Harron is interesting, not least because his connection to the now departed Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Water Lawrence MacKenzie; his former MD at the Electricity utility.

And back in January we noted that a former colleague of Peter Dixon, the person Mr Priestly wrote the offending text for, Phil Holder sat on a team set up to review Northern Ireland Water’s absymal response to the cold weather crisis over Christmas.

No one is suggesting that any of these individuals did anything wrong. But the civil service seems to be picking from an extraordinarily small group of people whose wider interests seem strangely to keep coinciding.

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