Committee condemns NI Fire and Rescue Service leadership
Date: Wednesday, 16 October 2013
Reference: PAC 01/13/14
The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee has today condemned the poor leadership provided by the senior management in the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) in its report, NI Fire and Rescue Service: An Organisational Assessment and Review of Departmental Oversight, and Report on Accounts 2011-12.
The Committee conducted its inquiry following the publication of an Audit Office Report, which examined a series of investigations by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety into whistleblower allegations into financial irregularities in the NIFRS. The whistleblower, who was first suspended by the NIFRS, received both an apology from the Department and financial compensation after a case taken through the Industrial Tribunal.
Speaking about the report, Committee Chairperson, Michaela Boyle, MLA, said: "The decision to suspend the whistleblower has caused both reputational damage and financial loss to NIFRS, as well as injury to an individual who had properly raised her concerns.
"As a Committee we particularly wanted to commend Ms Ford, the whistleblower, for bringing serious failings in the NIFRS to light, at great personal cost. We are in no doubt that her suspension from the NIFRS was directly related to her whistleblowing and it was clearly wrong."
The Committee report found that the Department's oversight of the NIFRS was deficient. For example, the Department failed to intervene to address the extremely high staff turnover and lengthy vacancies at senior management level, including not filling the important post of Human Resources Director substantively for two years.
Deputy Chairperson John Dallat, MLA continued: "The Committee applauds the commitment and professionalism of our fire-fighters. It is the fire fighters and NIFRS's support staff who have suffered most from the extremely poor leadership provided by senior management and the Board in the past.
"In order to address the dysfunctional culture in NIFRS, three things must happen: there must be effective leadership to drive up standards; good management to ensure that the right procedures are in place and are applied; and appropriate disciplinary action when failures occur."
Chairperson Boyle concluded: "We believe that the Board of the NIFRS and its sub-Committees were dangerously weak: they failed to challenge senior management and were slow to act on allegations. With the current Chairperson standing down at the end of the year and two Board posts needing to be filled shortly, we are calling on the Department to use these appointments to address areas of weakness. In particular, we are calling for the Internal Audit in NIFRS, which has been under-resourced and under-performing, to be strengthened, and fully resourced and utilised."
The Committee is particularly critical of the way that the then Chief Fire Officer Peter Craig accepted a sponsored vehicle for use in a road safety education programme which contravened guidance on sponsorship issued by the Department of Finance and Personnel. The report also notes that Mr Craig did not return the vehicle when instructed to and that he brought the vehicle back to the NIFRS when he subsequently took up the post of Chief Fire Officer. This behaviour, the Committee believes, demonstrated a lack of understanding of the responsibilities of an Accounting Officer and the standard of conduct expected of someone in that role.
Notes to Editors:
1. The C&AG’s Report on the 2011-12 Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Accounts summarised the findings of four investigations into NIFRS published by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in October 2012. The reports covered an investigation into Ms Ford’s allegations; an investigation into Stores Management arising from allegations made by a second whistleblower; and two reports covering aspects of the 2011 firefighter recruitment campaign.
2. The chronology of the events at the NIFRS, examined in these reports was as follows. In July 2011, a whistleblower, Ms Linda Ford, made a number of allegations of wrongdoing in 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. Ms Ford returned to work in NIFRS in July 2012, but she did not take up her former position until June 2013. Ms Ford received an apology from the Department for Health, Social Services and Public Safety Accounting Officer for the poor treatment she received. She also received financial compensation of £20,000 from NIFRS through an Industrial Tribunal case.
3. The Committee has recommended that NIFRS and other public bodies ensure all staff 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.