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Lack of 'cooling off' period for former head of civil service raises questions, MLA says

Former interim head of the regional civil service Jenny Pyper

THE absence of any ‘cooling off’ period for a former head of the civil service before taking up a boardroom role with a private company raises questions that need to be addressed, an MLA has said.

The Irish News can reveal that the former temporary head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service's move into the private sector is not subject to any conditions – because she was not a civil servant.

Jenny Pyper's 10-month tenure as head of the regional civil service ended in September but in her new role as a non-executive director of Firmus Energy she is not required to adhere to rules that would have applied to predecessors.

The Executive Office said Ms Pyper was "engaged through the Strategic Investment Board and as such, was not an employee of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS)”.

However, due to her previous role as chief executive of the Utility Regulator, whose employees are part of the civil service, she is prevented under guidelines from lobbying on behalf of Firmus for 12 months.

Ms Pyper worked in a number of Stormont departments, including a stint as director of energy at the economy department, before joining the north's gas, electricity and water regulator in 2013.

She left that role at the end of October 2020 and the following month was recruited as interim head of the civil service, earning up to £150,000 over 10 months, plus an "amount equivalent to usual NICS employer’s pension contribution".

Ms Pyper was appointed to the temporary job after a 2019 recruitment drive ended inconclusively, with the first and deputy first minister unable to agree a candidate from a shortlist of three.

Jayne Brady, who previously worked for Belfast City Council, was subsequently appointed as the new permanent head of the civil service in June this year.

While senior civil servants usually undergo a ‘cooling off' period when they leave the public sector, which can prevent them taking roles with private companies for up to two years, no such restrictions will apply to Ms Pyper in relation to her last NICS role.

A spokesperson for Firmus, which is one of the north's two domestic gas suppliers, said she "followed due process, sought and secured all the necessary approvals" before joining the company board at the beginning of this month.

The Utility Regulator has also stipulated that its former chief executive must seek further approval "should there be any proposal to amend the nature of her Firmus Energy appointment from that which was originally advised”.

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said there are “many troubling questions that need to be addressed”.

“Precisely what are the rules for departing senior officials accepting business appointments? And is there any meaningful restriction on officials with highly commercially sensitive material moving straight into commercial roles without any cooling off period,” the South Belfast representative said.

“But perhaps most striking, are any rules applicable to a head of the civil service who apparently wasn't actually a civil servant.”

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