Northern Ireland

PwC report on whistle-blowing case finds senior civil servants failed to heed lessons of RHI

Dr Tamara Bronckaers. Picture by Photopress
Dr Tamara Bronckaers. Picture by Photopress

SENIOR civil servants failed to heed the RHI inquiry's key recommendations about record-keeping, an independent report has revealed.

The report by business advisers PwC into a whistle-blowing case that ended up costing the taxpayer more than £1.5m highlights that failings exposed by the cash for ash probe were still commonplace at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) less than two years ago.

It reveals that "uncertainty" remains around who in the department ordered a potentially costly appeal against an industrial tribunal's award to senior vet Tamara Bronckaers, who took a constructive dismissal case against Daera after resigning over how colleagues handled concerns about animal welfare at Ballymena Livestock Market.

In relation to discussions among senior officials about a proposed appeal in March 2022, the report states: "...there appears to be a gap in notes of key meetings/consultations, or written follow-up notes by way of an alternative record of the meetings/consultations, which we would expect as a means of keeping an audit trail of key discussions."

Dr Bronckaers was awarded £1.25m in damages, while the legal bill amounted to at least £310,000. The department ultimately chose not to appeal the case.

Dr Tamara Bronckaers. Picture by Photopress
Dr Tamara Bronckaers. Picture by Photopress

The external review highlighted failings in the manner the vet's concerns were handled and how the tribunal case was dealt with by senior officials.

Alliance MLA John Blair said the report raised questions over "whether lessons have been learnt from RHI".

"Public concerns were rightly raised by the series of events leading up to the publication of this report,” he said.

“It has once again raised the need for good governance across departments, and openness and transparency relating to that – proper process should always be followed and assurances given that is the case."

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone said there was a need to address the "atmosphere that allowed this situation to happen and drag on for years".

"Despite the clear failings when dealing with this matter it’s disappointing that Daera fought it every step of the way, rather than hold their hands up and accept the failings that have been identified in this review," he said.

The head of the regional civil service yesterday unveiled a series of measures, including a new code of ethics and obligations around record-keeping, aimed at addressing the culture exposed in the PwC report.

Jayne Brady said the civil service was "committed to learning from this review and addressing the issues identified".

“We remain on a journey of continuous improvement and the action plan sets out our response to the review recommendations," she said.

Regional civil service head Jayne Brady. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Regional civil service head Jayne Brady. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

“We will implement each of the 33 actions so that there is greater confidence that we are delivering the best possible service for the public and our workforce.”

In relation to dealing with future cases similar to Dr Bronckaers', Ms Brady said: "Concerns must always be raised, listened to and acted upon in the proper manner.

"It is critical that every civil servant maintains proper records and that all policies are up-to-date – these are the foundations of good governance."

The civil service head also conceded that some of the issues identified in this report, particularly in relation to record-keeping, had been highlighted three years ago in the RHI inquiry's report.

"This is not good enough and as leaders of the NI Civil Service, we will rigorously pursue progress against the recommendations," she said.