Al Hutchinson's 'weak leadership' criticised in report

Al Hutchinson Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson has denied the work of his office has been interfered with

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The Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson has been criticised in an independent report.

It said his weak leadership has undermined the effectiveness of the office.

The report was ordered by the justice minister after a senior aide to the ombudsman, Sam Pollock, claimed government officials had interfered with the work of the office.

The report found some interference but no systemic meddling.

It also uncovered toxic office politics at the highest levels of the organisation.

Justice minister David Ford received the final report of an independent review of the Police Ombudsman's Office on 20 June.

The review was commissioned following allegations made by the office's former chief executive.

Resignation

Sam Pollock alleged the office's independence had been undermined by meddling from senior civil servants.

He resigned in April after making the claims.

The chair of the Community Relations Council, Tony McCusker, was tasked with leading the review.

He was asked to decide whether officials interfered in the governance of the office and whether officials made false or malicious allegations against Mr Pollock.

Mr Ford said: "I am reassured that Tony McCusker's report has concluded that there was no evidence of systemic interference or meddling by department of justice officials in the governance and functioning of the office of the Police Ombudsman.

"However the report does draw out governance issues which need to be resolved speedily. These are issues of concern to me that I have asked officials to address as a matter of urgency."

Mr McCusker found that the roles, responsibilities and grading of the two senior managers in the Police Ombudsman's Office need to be clarified, as do the accountability arrangements in relation to the accounting officer role.

David Ford said: "Work will be undertaken between the Ombudsman's Office and the department to address these governance issues.

Debate

"I also intend to establish a process to look at any longer-term changes needed to the establishment and governance of the ombudsman's office.

"There is also a debate to be had about whether it is appropriate for any future appointee to the role of ombudsman to have a policing background. I would plan to take views on this matter and offer a recommendation for future competitions."

The minister accepted the department could have performed more effectively during a grading review of senior managers.

The department's permanent secretary has set in place a preliminary investigation to establish the facts surrounding the potential unauthorised disclosure of significant correspondence in relation to the grading review exercise.

David Ford said: "The report states that the department should have been more interventionist when the office was facing internal difficulties.

"While I accept that comment, the debate which has taken place since these allegations were made highlights the real difficulties in officials taking such action in respect of an organisation that has independence as a cornerstone.

"That does not remove from the department the need to sponsor the office effectively and the actions I have put in place to address the governance issues, alongside the existing sponsorship arrangements, should address this area."

Mr McCusker appeared before the Stormont justice committee on Thursday.

Ulster Unionist member Basil McCrea said: "This report and your evidence has completely and utterly and totally shredded the credibility of the office of ombudsman.

"It has completely destroyed 10 years work."

A second report is also due by the end of June after the Police Ombudsman's Office asked the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) to review its independence from the PSNI.

It will be completed by CJI Chief Inspector Michael Maguire.

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