April 19 2012

Controversy surrounding the Police Ombudsman’s office has created a “confidence issue” for the justice system, a senior civil servant has said.

Nick Perry is Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice and former director-general of criminal justice and policing in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

His new department, which was formed after the devolution of justice, inherited the law and order powers previously held by the NIO and also took on large numbers of experienced NIO staff.

But both organisations became embroiled in the long-running controversy over the independence of the Police Ombudsman’s Office, which saw a freeze on its handling of historic cases from the Troubles.

Asked if the dispute had eroded public confidence in the justice system, Mr Perry said allegations of major Government interference in the policing watchdog had been proved “fundamentally incorrect”, but he added: “More broadly, there is an issue that 90% of the Department of Justice used to work in the NIO and that’s an issue that we just need to deal with, because, I am absolutely clear that there is no member of my department that is not absolutely committed to making devolution work.

“And an absolute majority of staff in the department worked in other departments. As we get further into devolution, the make-up of the department will change naturally as those things happen. Clearly there is a confidence issue, we have to deal with. I don’t want to get it out of proportion. We work hard to address it.”

Mr Perry was speaking at a conference on the justice system, and shared a platform with a number of experts. These included the inspector of criminal justice, and the person who is to become the next police ombudsman, Michael Maguire.

A number of damning reports, including a review by Mr Maguire’s current organisation, criticised the work of the police ombudsman’s office which until recently was led by former senior Canadian police officer, Al Hutchinson.

There was major controversy around a finding that ombudsman office reports into police misconduct had been redrafted with criticism of officers reduced, without explanation. The ombudsman’s office then agreed to halt the investigation of all historic cases from the Troubles.

The NIO was also accused of interfering in Mr Hutchinson’s appointment – though this was denied by the Northern Ireland Office. An independent report by former civil servant Tony McCusker later examined disputes inside the Ombudsman’s office, and while it raised some concerns, it found no systematic interference.