Leading article

Public appointments need independent scrutiny

There can only be considerable concern that Stormont ministers are continuing to select candidates for well paid posts with key semi-public organisations without an independent watchdog in place to oversee the recruitment process.

As we reported yesterday, dozens of people have been chosen to sit on the administrative bodies known as quangos even though a commissioner for public appointments has not been in place for the past 14 months.

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

However, since Judena Leslie stepped down as commissioner for public appointments in May of last year, the important role has been vacant.

The turmoil at Stormont is a complicating factor, as is the case with so many other issues, but it needs to be stressed that little urgency appeared to be attached to the search for a new commissioner even when a functioning Executive was in place.

It is alarming that a successor for Ms Leslie had not been found for fully nine months before the DUP's Paul Givan resigned as first minister in February of this year, and it is equally unacceptable that the entire process seems to have stalled since then.

There will be widespread agreement with the view of the former assessor of public appointments in England, the Co Down-born barrister and academic Dermot Feenan, who told this newspaper that the present circumstances `undermines governance.'

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

Among the senior quango positions confirmed in recent weeks are a new head of Tourism NI and seven new members of the Invest NI board, all of which clearly have a significant contribution to make in vital areas.

There is no suggestion that capable and qualified candidates were not chosen at any stage since the loss of Ms Leslie but the lack of independent scrutiny for such a prolonged period deserves to be urgently addressed by the authorities.

Decisions with far reaching consequences are being taken by quangos on a regular basis and the public needs to have full confidence that all appointments are made in line with the highest possible standards.