Newton Emerson: Why isn't the vet scandal a police matter?

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Whistleblower Dr Tamara Bronckaers has been awarded £1.25 million after an industrial tribunal found she had been constructively dismissed from her job at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Picture: Photopress Belfast PR
Whistleblower Dr Tamara Bronckaers has been awarded £1.25 million after an industrial tribunal found she had been constructively dismissed from her job at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Picture: Photopress Belfast PR

The whistleblowing scandal at the Department of Agriculture involves allegations of criminal offences. So why is it not considered of interest to the police?

Tamara Bronckaers, a senior vet in the department, raised concerns of animal cruelty and the deletion of livestock movement records in 2016. Both are offences for which people, usually farmers, are routinely taken to court.

Responsibility to inspect and prosecute these offences lies with the Department of Agriculture itself, so when Bronckaers got the brush-off from her superiors she was caught in something of a legal loophole.

Deleting movement records had the effect of raising livestock values but there is no suggestion any official benefited from this financially, so there is no suspicion of fraud.

However, turning a blind eye to the deletion due to cosiness with the livestock industry, which Bronckaers does allege, could be an offence of misconduct in public office, defined as wilful neglect of duty that abuses the public’s trust.

Misconduct cases are rare and the law on it is seen as imprecise and difficult to prosecute. Ironically, PSNI officers are the only public servants in Northern Ireland at any serious risk of the charge, as its catch-all nature makes it useful to the Police Ombudsman.

Nevertheless, our criminal justice system can pursue other misconduct cases when it is judged in the public interest to do so.

Allegations of witness coaching at a Stormont committee hearing in 2016 have resulted in charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office against loyalist activist Jamie Bryson and two former members of Sinn Féin. There are no specific laws on how a Stormont committee should operate, so this looks like a more creative prosecution than might be warranted at the Department of Agriculture.

While this case may still not have made it to trial after six years, Bronckaers endured an equally lengthy ordeal after going through her department’s internal whistleblowing procedure, as civil servants are expected to do. She was hounded out of her job, an industrial tribunal found she had been bullied and “the attitude to her went all the way to the top”, the department tried to appeal and only after being exposed in the media did it offer her £1.25 million last month and an “unreserved apology”, still with no admission of liability.

Stormont committees regularly investigate allegations of official wrongdoing but there have only been a handful of occasions over the past two decades when an MLA has had a moment of clarity and asked why they cannot simply dial 999. This tends to leave everyone briefly stunned by its obviousness, before recoiling in horror at the implications of Someone Like Us having their collar felt. The PSNI can be reluctant to wade in on complex matters of administration and he-said she-said civil service obfuscation, when it is far easier to say officials are dealing with it internally.

There is a wider cultural blind spot in the UK and Ireland to white collar crime, a term loaded with class prejudice. Finally, it appears completely impractical to expect Northern Ireland’s overloaded police, prosecutors and courts to take a deterrent lead against our vast, stonewalling bureaucracy. Any hope of doing so would require, at the very least, a specialist police team or long-term operation, as the PSNI has for organised crime or drugs offences.

But once you consider the cost of misconduct in public office, resourcing the police to investigate it looks like a bargain.

Bronckaers has pointed out the deletion of records jeopardises the £40m Stormont spends annually preventing bovine tuberculosis, as well as the crucial safety reputation of our entire £5.5 billion agrifood sector and the credibility of Brexit protocol mitigations.

The £1.25 million the Department of Agriculture has had to pay out, not including legal fees, would employ 35 police detectives for a year.

Journalist Sam McBride, who wrote the book on RHI and broke Bronckaers’ story, says both reveal the same fundamental problem of an unaccountable, irreformable civil service.

This was supposedly addressed in New Decade, New Approach with an “ambitious package” of transparency and governance changes. Clearly, they have not worked.

The RHI inquiry showed the mere possibility of being questioned by the police caused terror among senior officials. Would that work?

Scaring the civil service straight on a permanent basis might only require occasional prosecutions and modest policing resources - enough for the next person in Bronckaers’ position to know that when blowing the whistle fails, there is a team of officers to call.