Northern Ireland

MLA 'disappointed' at evidence from Civil Service chief

Paul Priestly
Image caption Paul Priestly was demoted earlier this month

A member of the Public Accounts Committee has said he was "extremely disappointed" at evidence given to it from the head of the Civil Service.

SDLP MLA John Dallat said that the handling of the inquiry into the suspension of Paul Priestly raised questions of accountability.

Mr Priestly was demoted for helping to draft a letter of complaint to the Pac.

Head of Civil Service, Sir Bruce Robinson, has defended his decision not to dismiss him.

He was downgraded from permanent secretary to deputy secretary earlier this month after a disciplinary process.

Sir Bruce appeared before the Pac on Wednesday.

Mr Dallat, who was at the meeting, said there seemed to be a "two-tier system of discipline operating within the Civil Service".

"If you're above a particular level you get the feather duster treatment, if you are at a lower level you can be punished very severely," he said.

"It's up to the head of the Civil Service to decide the future of anyone who has been in trouble, but certainly having someone suspended on full pay for a year, qualifying for his holidays and now on gardening leave sends a message that is not very positive."

'Untenable'

On Wednesday, the committee heard Mr Priestly had suffered loss to his salary, career and reputation.

The controversy surrounding Mr Priestly began after it was discovered he had helped draft a letter of complaint from Peter Dixon to the Pac in July 2010.

At the time Mr Dixon was carrying out an independent investigation into Northern Ireland Water.

The regional development minister at the time, Conor Murphy, said Mr Priestly's post was untenable.

On Wednesday, it emerged he had apologised to the Pac for his actions in a letter.

"I am writing to offer my sincere apologies to you and your colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee for my involvement in drafting the letter of complaint that Peter Dixon sent you on the 5th of July last year," Mr Priestly's letter said.

"I regret my lack of candour to you and your colleagues about the role I had played.

"My actions were not intended in any way to undermine, obstruct or interfere with the important work of the Public Accounts Committee."

But PAC member Mitchell McLaughlin said the fact that Mr Priestly's actions in drafting a letter of complaint to the committee were not regarded as gross misconduct was "beyond comprehension".

Sir Bruce said Mr Priestly, who lost his job as permanent secretary to the Department of Regional Development, had not yet been re-assigned to a new post even though he was still being paid.

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