Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on NIFRS
The Comptroller and Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly, today issued a report on the accounts of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS). The report summarises the findings of the investigations of NIFRS undertaken by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and identifies key strategic issues which NIFRS and the Department need to address in moving forward. These investigations concerned a firefighter recruitment exercise in 2011 and various whistleblowing allegations.
Mr Donnelly said “Going forward, NIFRS’s Board needs to have in place a consistent, fully-staffed and cohesive senior management team sending strongly ethical messages throughout the organisation. In addition, senior managers need to make sure they have arrangements in place to make clear what is and is not acceptable, to ensure those standards are policed and to identify and deal with breaches. “
The Public Accounts Committee will be considering this report in detail on Wednesday 24 April 2013.
Many of these issues have been raised in the investigation reports published by the Department in October 2012.
NIFRS has lacked consistent leadership in recent years
The lack of continuity in the top job in NIFRS in recent years has inhibited consistent leadership and reduced personal accountability. The report also highlights the history of senior management posts in NIFRS remaining unfilled for long periods of time. Commenting on this Mr Donnelly said “An organisation of the size and complexity of NIFRS, and facing considerable challenges, needs senior posts to be filled on a long term basis as soon as possible.”
The report calls on the NIFRS Board to review its skills to ensure it has the necessary depth of financial and other skills to fulfil its scrutiny and challenge role.
Whistleblowing has been badly handled
Concerns are raised about how NIFRS handled whistleblowing allegations. Time after time, the value to the public interest of whistleblowing has been proven. Whistleblowing procedures were in place in NIFRS but they did not work well. The report warns that the lengthy suspension from work of one of the NIFRS whistleblowers will discourage other potential whistleblowers.
Ethical standards in NIFRS Headquarters need to be developed
There have been problems in handling pay increases for senior staff in recent years and issues around the handling of sponsorship of a Landrover and inadequate financial control over a major firefighter recruitment exercise.
Management of conflicts of interest needs to be improved
A whistleblower alleged that a former NIFRS Stores Manager ran his own company selling protective clothing to other organisations. NIFRS had not managed this potential conflict of interest well. Mr Donnelly commented “if senior NIFRS officials did not know that this conflict of interest existed, it is evidence of a poor standard of supervision. If they did know, then it would appear they failed to address the issue”.
A major firefighter recruitment exercise was badly handled
The report is also critical of the way the firefighter recruitment exercise was handled. Mr Donnelly said that to “introduce an appeals process part way through a recruitment exercise clearly was not good practice. No public body should leave itself so open to a perception of unfair treatment of applicants.”
At one stage payments to staff for overtime and subsistence connected with the recruitment exercise had to be stopped because the arrangements were so unclear.
The senior management at NIFRS have developed a detailed action plan to implement the various recommendations arising.