Report on the NIFRS: An Organisational Assessment and Review of Departmental Oversight and Report on Accounts 2011-2012

Committee: Public Accounts

Session: 2013/2014

Date: Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Reference: NIA 131/11-15

ISBN: 978-0-339-60493-3

Mandate Report Number: Mandate 2011/15 Sixteenth Report

Together with the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee relating to the Report, Minutes of Evidence, and Written Submissions

Powers

The Public Accounts Committee is a Standing Committee established in accordance with Standing Orders under Section 60(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is the statutory function of the Public Accounts Committee to consider the accounts, and reports on accounts laid before the Assembly.

The Public Accounts Committee is appointed under Assembly Standing Order No. 56 of the Standing Orders for the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has the power to send for persons, papers and records and to report from time to time. Neither the Chairperson nor Deputy Chairperson of the Committee shall be a member of the same political party as the Minister of Finance and Personnel or of any junior minister appointed to the Department of Finance and Personnel.

The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.

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Executive Summary

1. The Committee applauds the commitment and professionalism of our fire-fighters. It is the fire-fighters and the Service’s support staff who have suffered most from the extremely poor leadership provided by senior management in the past. The Committee wants to see the Department, the NIFRS Board and senior management work together to move the Service to a position where its main focus can be on improving performance rather than dealing with the legacy of past mismanagement.

2. In July 2011, a whistleblower, Ms Linda Ford, made a number of allegations of wrongdoing in Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) on a range of financial issues. In August 2011, Ms Ford was suspended by the then Chief Fire Officer Peter Craig, following an allegation that she had breached data security. Her suspension lasted almost a year and she has only recently returned to her former post. The Committee is in no doubt that the decision
by Mr Craig to suspend Ms Ford was directly related to her whistleblowing and it was clearly wrong. As a result of his actions Mr Craig has caused both reputational damage and financial loss to the Service, as well as injury to an individual who had properly raised her concerns.

3. It seems to the Committee that Mr Craig was, at best, indifferent as to whether the suspension was justified or in accordance with proper procedures, since he acted against legal advice to consult HR. The Committee finds that Mr Craig’s attempts to justify his decision to suspend Ms Ford are entirely unconvincing and reprehensible.

4. The NIFRS Chair was also involved in the appalling treatment of the whistleblower. He knew that Mr Craig had cited Ms Ford’s whistleblowing letter to the Accounting Officer of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (the Department) in the letter suspending her and should have been alert to the possibility of victimisation. Instead he wrongly decided that this was a purely operational matter in which he would not intervene.

5. The alleged data security breach was notified to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in July 2012, almost a year after Ms Ford’s suspension. The issue was not finally resolved until May 2013 when the ICO confirmed it would not be pursuing the investigation further. The Committee finds it completely unacceptable that NIFRS allowed the investigation into the alleged data protection breach to continue for as long as it did. The Committee considers that it is deplorable that a member of staff should have a potentially serious disciplinary matter hanging over their head for such a lengthy period: this would place anyone under intolerable pressure.

6. Ms Ford submitted two grievances against Mr Craig in July and August 2011. These were not heard by an independent person as would be expected. Instead Mr Craig personally responded to the first and was involved in responding to the second. The Committee considers that in responding in this way Mr Craig was setting aside due process to an extent that was totally improper. The Chair admitted he had discussed Ms Ford’s grievance with Mr Craig and that Mr Craig had told him that he intended to discuss the matter with her. The Chair should have known this was improper and should have ensured this contact did not take place. The Chair also decided to stall hearing Ms Ford’s grievances until the investigation into the alleged data security breach was concluded, contravening NIFRS Disciplinary Policies.

7. It was not only Ms Ford’s grievance that was badly handled. In October 2011 Dr Carol Ackah completed her independent external investigation of a separate complaint of harassment against a NIFRS director. Dr Ackah commented on unacceptable delays in concluding the investigation which had started in May 2010 and the impression she had of a lack of management momentum in driving the process forward. Dr Ackah also put on record her concern that Mr Craig, who had become CFO shortly after her appointment, had decided to deal with the report himself. Mr Craig had previously ruled himself out of hearing the grievance as he, and other senior officers, had knowledge of the allegations that “could potentially be seen as prejudicial”.

8. Dr Ackah upheld the complaint of harassment and provided her report to Mr Craig. A copy was also received by the NIFRS Chair, but he regarded any action arising from the report to be an executive matter and accepted that Mr Craig would deal with it. It appears that little has happened since that point. There are still ongoing discussions about how to deal with the Ackah report.

9. The Committee finds the handling of this case to have been totally unacceptable. It is now over three years since the complaint was made and over 18 months since the investigator’s report was received. It is disgraceful that a member of staff who has had a complaint of harassment upheld should have had to wait so long for the matter to be resolved. The Committee finds it concerning that both Mr Craig and the Chair had not acted on Dr Ackah’s
questioning of Mr Craig’s involvement.

10. In 2001 the Public Accounts Committee reported on NIFRS’s predecessor body, the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland. The Committee made specific recommendations on maintenance and checking of vehicle logs and best practice in recruitment. This was an extremely critical and hard-hitting report and it is shocking that many of the concerns the Committee had at that time have been raised again in the recent investigations into NIFRS. The Committee can only express its exasperation that 12 years’ on it is again addressing these same issues.

11. The Committee welcomes the Department’s admission that oversight of NIFRS was deficient. The Committee considers that oversight by the Department seems to have done little to bring about necessary change in NIFRS. All the usual accountability mechanisms were in place, and it may have appeared they were working. However, in reality, this was far from the case. The Audit Office’s 2011 recommendations 1 to improve oversight by appointing a specialist fire service adviser and develop key performance indicators (KPIs) to allow for systematic monitoring and reporting of NIFRS performance against comparable fire and rescue services have yet to be implemented.

12. The Committee considers that the Department failed to intervene to address the extremely high turnover in NIFRS at senior management level and prolonged absences of key staff members. As a result of these vacancies, important work was put on hold including introducing key strategies to develop the workforce and to implement the recommendations of external reviews. In 2010, all four senior operational (uniformed) officers were in acting positions. In an organisation with as many significant personnel issues as NIFRS, the failure to substantively fill the HR Director post for more than two years amounts to negligence on the part of all involved.

13. The Committee considers that the Board and its sub-Committees were extremely weak: they failed to challenge senior management and were slow to act. The Committee’s view is that where Board members are found to lack the skills and the resourcefulness required to properly challenge management and escalate problems to the parent department, the solution is that they should be removed. The Chair has acknowledged past mistakes. He has also provided assurances that the Board is now providing a proper challenge to the Corporate Management Team.

14. Internal Audit in NIFRS has been under-resourced and under-performing. The responsibility for this lies initially with management and to an extent with the Department, which has a specific oversight role in relation to internal audit. But it is the Audit Committee which is charged with oversight of the audit strategy and audit plans, confirming internal audit is adequately resourced and addressing the key areas of risk. It is clear to the Committee that the NIFRS Audit Committee has not been performing these functions effectively.

15. In November 2009, Mr Craig, then Assistant Chief Fire Officer, accepted a Land Rover under a sponsorship arrangement. When the then Chief Fire Officer, Colin Lammey, became aware of the arrangement, he instructed Mr Craig to return the vehicle to the supplier. Despite Mr Lammey’s instructions, Mr Craig did not return the vehicle to the supplier. Instead it was stored at the premises of NIFRS’s media supplier and brought back to NIFRS premises when Mr Craig became Chief Fire Officer. It is clear to the Committee that Mr Craig defied the instructions of the Chief Fire Officer and undermined his authority. The Committee finds it worrying that Mr Craig maintains that accepting the vehicle was the right thing to do despite it being clear to others, from the outset, that this action would create a perception of wrongdoing that was likely to be extremely damaging to NIFRS. The Committee considers that
Mr Craig’s behaviour demonstrated a lack of understanding of the responsibilities of an Accounting Officer and the standard of conduct expected of someone in that role.

16. The Committee considered a number of cases where very senior officers in NIFRS failed to recognise and properly handle significant conflicts of interest in relation to procurement and recruitment. During the 2011 NIFRS recruitment exercise an appeals process was introduced which resulted in the unfair treatment of some candidates and, potentially, the advantageous treatment of others. The Assistant Chief Fire Officer, who introduced the process without the approval of the Chief Fire Officer or Board, was also a member of the appeals panel, and his son was one of the initially unsuccessful candidates appointed following a successful appeal. In addition, overtime and subsistence payments were made to NIFRS staff involved in the recruitment without regard for safeguarding public funds.

16. The investigation report commissioned by the Department recommended that disciplinary action be considered in this case. However, no disciplinary action was initiated even though the Health Minister told the Assembly that “it would be a travesty” if disciplinary procedures were avoided. The Assistant Chief Fire Officer managing the recruitment exercise retired on ill-health grounds in May 2013. The Committee finds the decision to allow this individual to leave the organisation without having been held to account via a disciplinary process to be negligent.

17. In October 2012, the NIFRS Interim Chief Executive commissioned an overview of the investigation reports published by DHSSPS. This found little evidence to support disciplinary action against individuals referred to in the reports. This Committee considers that any report which considers disciplinary action must be credible and demonstrably independent.

Summary of Recommendations

Recommendation 1

The Committee recommends that Departments ensure that, if whistleblowing concerns are passed on to an Arm’s-Length Body (ALB), these are properly and promptly investigated. Departments should establish clear protocols in such cases, setting fixed deadlines (20 days would be appropriate) for a meaningful response. The quality of the ALB response and the appropriateness of any recommendations should be reviewed at a senior level in the Department. The outcome of the investigation should be reported back to the individual who raised the initial concerns explaining, where appropriate, what action has been taken as a result. However, where the whistleblowing allegations relate to senior members of staff in the ALB the Department should retain ownership of the investigation.

Recommendation 2

The Committee recommends that public sector guidance on the conduct of investigations into whistleblower allegations should require Departments to maintain frequent contact with the whistleblower throughout the course of the resulting investigation unless there are compelling reasons not to do so.

Recommendation 3

The Committee recommends that all outstanding grievance cases are brought to a conclusion as soon as possible. A timeline for this to happen should be provided to the Committee.

Recommendation 4

The Committee recommends that the Department oversee more effectively by bringing people into its team who have the necessary skills and seniority to properly challenge NIFRS senior management and provide effective support to the NIFRS board. In particular, it should implement the recommendation of the NIAO’s December 2011 report and appoint a specialist fire service adviser.

Recommendation 5

The Committee considers that proper succession planning in NIFRS has been completely ignored for too long. The Committee recommends that the Department, the Board and NIFRS senior management work together to identify barriers to recruitment and draw up anaction plan to ensure the organisation is well placed to attract quality internal and external candidates for future senior management vacancies. The Committee would like to see a progress report on this in six months’ time.

Recommendation 6

The Committee recommends that the investigation into charity vehicles is completed as soon as possible and reported to the Committee. A copy of the report should also be provided to the Assembly’s Health Committee.

Recommendation 7

The Committee recommends that the Department undertake an assessment of the Board and its sub-Committees, with a view to ensuring that only those who comprehend their responsibilities and are equipped to fulfil them continue in that role.

Recommendation 8

The Committee considers that the Internal Audit function within NIFRS must be strengthened and that it is the responsibility of the Department to ensure this happens. The Committee recommends that, as a matter of urgency, NIFRS internal audit is fully resourced and utilised, if necessary using departmental resources as an interim measure. The full internal audit programme must be completed for 2013-14 together with any audits deferred from previous years. Longer-term arrangements for internal audit in NIFRS are under consideration. As an interim measure, audits completed by NIFRS internal auditors should be subject to quality control by the departmental internal audit function.

Recommendation 9

The Committee recommends that, as a point of principle, no public body should accept sponsorship from a company with whom it has a commercial relationship.

Recommendation 10

The Committee recommends that NIFRS and other public bodies ensure that all staff who are involved in procurement and recruitment decisions, or other sensitive posts, are required to declare any potential conflicts of interest. Management must ensure that appropriate action is taken to manage or avoid potential conflicts when these are recorded. It is for DFP to ensure that this is reflected in guidance.

Recommendation 11

The Committee recommends that the question of further action against senior officers is revisited. A review should be undertaken which is professional, independent, properly supported by HR and legal expertise, and free from any perception of a conflict of interest.

1 ‘Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service: An Organisational Assessment and Review of Departmental Oversight’, Northern Ireland Audit Office, 20 December 2011

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