MLAs call for resignation of Fire Service chairman

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Members of the Public Accounts Committee called for the resignation of the chairman of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS), on 24 April 2013.

The SDLP's John Dallat called for "a further deep-dive investigation" into the affairs of NIFRS and said he thought the chairman, Dr Joe McKee, "should go".

Trevor Clarke of the DUP echoed Mr Dallat's call, saying he was left with "little or no confidence in that person".

Three investigations were carried out into NIFRS following allegations about fraud, unapproved bonuses and failures to deal with staff grievances in the organisation.

Whistleblower Linda Ford won £20,000 compensation after she took a case against the service.

Committee members criticised an appointment made to an external review of the NIFRS.

Steven Torrie, HM Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Authorities (Scotland), and Brian Sweeney, Chief Fire Officer of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service, were appointed by NIFRS interim chief executive Jim Wallace to carry out an external overview of the reports.

Mr Wallace was questioned by members of the Public Accounts Committee about his appointment of Mr Sweeney in particular.

Mr Dallat asked Mr Wallace if he was aware "that one of these two people was the subject of an investigation himself relating to conflicts of interest sitting on a panel that influenced his own salary".

"I think Mr Sweeney by his own admission has been the subject of many, many accusations and deliberations over the years none of which have necessarily actually been founded to be, should I say, substantiated," Mr Wallace replied.

Mr Clarke referred to a 32-page report from Audit Scotland and suggested that Andrew McCormick, the permanent secretary at the Department of Health, who was also appearing before the committee, should read it.

"I would suggest that this person (Mr Sweeney) isn't best-placed to come and review this organisation in Northern Ireland," Mr Clarke said.

On the subject of the Department of Health's treatment of the whistleblower, Ms Ford, Mr McCormick said: "Our response was not fully appropriate."

Committee members questioned the former Chief Fire Officer, Peter Craig, on the reasons for Ms Ford's suspension.

Mr Craig said he was very clear why Linda Ford had been suspended.

"It had nothing to do with whistleblowing," he said, adding that the suspension had been due to an alleged breach of data protection regulations.

Ms Ford had initially raised her concerns, or "whistleblown", to Mr McCormick.

Later in the question session, Mr McCormick read from a letter addressed to Linda Ford from Mr Craig in which he said he was "disappointed and concerned that you have not raised these matters directly with me as accounting officer nor via NIFRS whistleblowing policy".

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