Northern Ireland news

Continuing public appointments in the absence of watchdog 'undermines governance'

Public appointments commissioner Judena Leslie stepped down in May2021
John Manley

STORMONT ministers are continuing to make appointments to a range of quangos in the absence of a watchdog to oversee the recruitment process.

Dozens of people have been selected to sit on a range of arm's length bodies despite the fact that the north has been without a commissioner for public appointments for the past 14 months.

A former independent assessor of public appointments has told The Irish News that the current circumstances "undermines governance".

The commissioner's role is to monitor appointments to ensure the recruitment process is fair and that appointees are representative of the wider population.

However, since Judena Leslie stepped down from the role in May last year, the north has been without a watchdog for public appointments.

In recent weeks appointments made to quangos include a new head of Tourism NI and seven new members of the Invest NI board.

The Executive Office, which has responsibility for the appointment of Ms Leslie's successor, has yet to respond to The Irish News. However, in November last year it said the recruitment process was "ongoing".

Dermot Feenan, a Co Down-born barrister, academic and former independent assessor of public appointments based in England, said the protracted process of recruiting Ms Leslie's successor appeared to have "stalled" since Paul Givan resigned in February.

"The commissioner is an office created under legislation, which sets out duties and powers regarding public appointments, including audit and inquiry into departments’ policies and practices," he said.

"The ongoing delay in appointing a commissioner frustrates those duties and powers regarding an important aspect of governance in Northern Ireland – the delay also frustrates the public’s legitimate interest in this regulatory oversight."

Mr Feenan said the absence of a commissioner potentially increases the risk that appointments will not comply with the code of practice governing ministerial public appointments, especially around the principles of merit, equality, and diversity.

"There remains a perception among some people that appointments are subject to favouritism and provide an opportunity for appointees simply to milk the public purse," he said.

"The absence of a commissioner also means that such perceptions are not being tackled properly – this, too, undermines governance."

SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin, former chair of Stormont's Executive Office committee, said it was "beyond a joke" that the commissioner's role had lay vacant for more than year.

"When I first raised this issue last year, the first and deputy first ministers were at pains to point out that a recruitment process was ongoing – the position was vacant for nine months before Paul Givan walked out of office and here we are almost a year later still left without an individual responsible for ensuring that appointments adhere to stringent standards and principles of good governance," she said.

"This is about making sure that ministers appoint the best people for the job and are held accountable for their decisions."

The Foyle MLA said the absence of an executive, due to the DUP's boycott of the institutions, meant there was little prospect of a new commissioner being appointed in the near future.

"This is by no means the most important issue facing our society but it sends a clear message that those at the top don’t care about high standards in government," she said.

"People deserve far better than this lazy approach to important positions where people take decisions that impact health, infrastructure, education and every aspect of our lives."