Northern Ireland

Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson to stand down in January

Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson
Image caption Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson has offered to stand down in January

The police ombudsman has written to the first and deputy first ministers offering to step down in January.

In the letter, Al Hutchinson said he would like the process of selecting a new ombudsman to be speeded up.

He said it is his desire to leave his position by the end of January 2012 but he acknowledged that practical and legal issues may need to be addressed.

He also accepted that recent criticism of him and calls for his resignation were damaging the office.

Mr Hutchinson was due to leave his job in June 2012.

A statement from the ombudsman's office said Mr Hutchinson had advised the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on Friday that he would like the process of selecting a new police ombudsman to be expedited.

It added that he had said that his desire was to leave his position by the end of January, but acknowledged that practical and legal issues had to be addressed before that could happen.

It quoted Mr Hutchinson as saying that: "While I have received expressions of support from a number of quarters, it is clear that there remains a focused campaign to have me resign immediately.

"This continues to damage the office, affect its independence and impact on its daily work."

The statement said that Mr Hutchinson has met with Justice Minister David Ford and expressed his commitment to continuing the changes to his office proposed by the McCusker and Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) reports.

"It is important that there is a sound platform for the changes to support the exercise of the police ombudsman's functions and I want to do what I can to help deliver those changes," Mr Hutchinson added.

Justice Minister David Ford said Mr Hutchinson had recognised there are difficulties within the ombudsman's office.

"He is concerned to ensure that there is a functioning ombudsman's office," he said.

Hunt for successor

"He is certainly not seeking, as I understand it, to prolong his stay if there are ways in which the ombudsman's office can function to provide the important oversight that the office is charged with."

First Minister Peter Robinson said the process to find Mr Hutchinson's successor will start as soon as possible.

"The Spotlight programme was superficial but that does not mean that there were never any mistakes made in the office," said Mr Robinson.

"It is quite clear from other reports that there were some unsatisfactory ways in which the office was operating.

"But when there are areas where there are improvements necessary you seek to make those changes rather than calling foul and trying to get rid of somebody, so I think he has taken his decision, we are acting on that decision and we will do that as quickly as we can."

Sinn Fein had called for the ombudsman to step down as soon as possible but were happy with the announcement.

Gerry Kelly said: "While we would prefer if he left the position immediately this is certainly an improvement on his previous position.

"Obviously the pressure brought by the victims' families, the three previous damning reports, the media and political sources has made him reconsider his position.

"The next step is to begin the appointments process. It is obvious that there are good people in the ombudsman's office who want genuine and effective leadership."

On Wednesday, Deputy First Minister John O'Dowd called on Mr Hutchinson to resign immediately.

He was echoing a call made by the former chief executive of the ombudsman's office, Sam Pollock, in the BBC Spotlight documentary on Tuesday.

Discussions about future

The programme revealed details of tensions within the office which led to Mr Pollock's resignation.

It also uncovered failings in a number of historical investigations by the ombudsman.

Mr O'Dowd revealed he had discussions about Mr Hutchinson's future with First Minister Peter Robinson on Wednesday.

However, on Thursday Mr Robinson criticised the Spotlight programme as "superficial".

He said he was not convinced by "hearsay" and claims by someone "who has an axe to grind" and would rely on facts where Mr Hutchinson was concerned rather than "trial by media."

In September, a report by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate said the office's operational independence had been lowered, and that Mr Hutchinson had lost the trust of senior colleagues.

Following the report's publication, Mr Hutchinson announced he would be stepping down as Police Ombudsman earlier than planned, next June.

It was the third highly critical report to be published into the work of the organisation.

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