Wexford People
March 14 2012

Alleged misconduct by ex-police officers rehired by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) as civilian staff could be investigated by the police ombudsman under proposed changes to the watchdog’s powers.

Retired officers involved in historic incidents being probed by the ombudsman could also be compelled to face questions if the Department of Justice’s new proposals are introduced.

The potential reforms outlined by Justice Minister David Ford may also rule out the possibility of a future ombudsman having a past background in policing, with the term of office reduced to five years as well.

Current ombudsman Al Hutchinson is leaving his post at the end of this month. His departure was hastened after questions were raised about working practices within his office.

The PSNI spends around £16 million a year employing agency workers, so-called “associate staff”, many of whom are former officers. At present, there are more than 300 ex-policemen and women working in the PSNI.

The policy has provoked controversy, with critics claiming agency staff were not subject to the same levels of accountability and scrutiny as serving officers, such as ombudsman’s probes.

In another matter of contention, past ombudsman investigations into incidents during the Troubles have been hindered by the inability to compel retired officers to attend an interview. Both issues are among a series Mr Ford hopes to address in the reforms, which were put out to public consultation on Wednesday.

“This consultation outlines the potential for significant changes to the legislative framework and governance arrangements for the ombudsman’s office,” said the minister. “I am keen to ensure that we have the best operating model for the office going forward and I would ask people to consider the proposals and recommendations very carefully.

“The existence of an effective and independent complaints system is something that the public and police have a right to expect. It is a key part of the policing architecture in Northern Ireland intended to secure public confidence in their police service.

“I want to ensure that flowing from this consultation process we have an office that delivers significant benefit to the people of Northern Ireland and contributes to public confidence in the policing arrangements more widely.”