Invest NI: Failure by senior figures to act on 'serious' whistleblower case "extraordinary" - Sir Michael Lyons

Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the independent review of Invest Northern Ireland, holds a copy of the report at the Dunadry Hotel, Antrim. Picture by Peter Morrison

THE chair of the independent review into Invest NI has said it is “extraordinary” that the two most senior figures within the organisation failed to act on a potentially serious whistleblowing case.

Sir Michael Lyons said two specific whistleblowing cases were brought to the attention of the the review panel through the course of its work last year.

The panel, which did not have the remit to explore individual complaints, said the cases were of such “significant concern” that they were escalated directly to the most senior civil servant at the Department for the Economy (DfE) to be investigated by its 'raising concerns' unit.

In its report published on Wednesday, the review panel revealed that one complainant had raised their concerns directly with both the chief executive and chair of Invest NI in November 2021.

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“Worryingly, we understand, from information provided by the DfE Raising Concerns unit, that a formal investigation only commenced in September 2022 following our escalation of this issue to the department,” said the panel.

“Of particular concern to us in this instance is the fact that such a delay appears to have occurred when issues were escalated to the most senior levels in the organisation.”

Kevin Holland announced his decision to step down at Invest NI’s chief executive at the end of November 2021. He was succeeded a month later by Mel Chittock, who remains in post on an interim basis.

Rose Mary Stalker has been chair of the Invest NI board since August 2019.

While he could not disclose details of the case, Sir Michael Lyons told The Irish News: “We were surprised to find that an apparently serious whistleblowing case had been referred to the chair and chief executive and no action had been taken, which is extraordinary.”

He said DfE’s investigations have not yet been completed.

“There is no doubt that the agency needs to be altogether sharper about taking cautionary concern cases seriously and sharpening up its processes.”

The review panel also heard evidence from Invest NI staff who described a culture and operating environment within Invest NI that appeared to discourage individuals from raising concerns.

The report said staff spoke of fears of potential consequences from speaking out or fears that no action would be taken.

The panel recommended a review of how whistleblowing is dealt with within the organisation. It said investigations need to be dealt with more timely and information sharing with DfE needed to improve.

It said staff also needed to be encouraged to come forward with their concerns.

In a general statement welcoming the publication of the review, the board of Invest NI said it would need time to consider the recommendations in detail alongside DfE.