Northern Ireland

Uncertain future for NI prison watchdog roles

Brendan McGuigan is currently carrying out two roles
Image caption Brendan McGuigan is currently carrying out two roles

Two of Northern Ireland's most senior prison watchdog roles could be left vacant within months because of the deadlock at Stormont.

The chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland is set to leave office in November.

Brendan McGuigan was appointed to the role in 2012, but he has also been overseeing the work of the prisoner ombudsman's office in recent months.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since January 2017.

It means there is currently no justice minister to appoint someone in either role.

The chief inspector of criminal justice is responsible for reviewing standards at Northern Ireland's prisons, while the prisoner ombudsman investigates prisoner deaths, incidents of serious harm and complaints.

Both offices have published reports in recent years criticising the Northern Ireland Prison Service for how it has dealt with serious incidents in which inmates have died or committed serious self harm.

The previous prisoner ombudsman, Tom McGonigle, retired in August last year - and Mr McGuigan has been overseeing the work of that office in the interim.

Image caption Recent inspections at Maghaberry Prison indicated some "fragile" progress

However, neither a temporary nor permanent appointment can be made in in the absence of a justice minister.

In a statement, the Department of Justice said: "The appointment of the chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland is vested in the department, though in practice it has previously been made by the minister of justice.

"Should there still be a need for an interim prisoner ombudsman following Mr McGuigan's departure, the department will consider what options are open to it at that time."

'Not acceptable'

In order to make an appointment in the absence of a minister, the Department of Justice would have to consult with the Commissioner for Public Appointments so that an appointment could be made by the permanent secretary.

The office of Commissioner for Public Appointments for Northern Ireland confirmed that the Department of Justice had initiated discussions in relation to the post of the chief inspector of criminal justice.

In a statement the commissioner's office said: "The lack of ministers means that the number of public appointments has fallen dramatically.

"This backlog of new appointments has negative consequences for the governance of our public bodies and the effective delivery of our public services. The commissioner wishes to support departments in unlocking this log jam where legally permissible."

Image copyright Darren Kidd
Image caption Former Prisoner Ombudsman Pauline McCabe

Pauline McCabe was Northern Ireland's prisoner ombudsman between 2008 and 2013.

She has raised concerns about the current uncertainty surrounding both offices.

"The criminal justice inspector and the prisoner ombudsman have played an important role in building public confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland," Mrs McCabe said.

"Each organisation needs and deserves a substantive appointment to ensure that the rigour and integrity of their functions is protected.

"An extended period of temporary appointments and job sharing, in the absence of a justice minister and assembly, is not acceptable and does not suggest the necessary commitment to the work of the two offices. A solution needs to be found."

In recent years the chief inspector of criminal justice has published a number of critical reports into Maghaberry prison, Northern Ireland's only high-security jail.

In 2015, the prison was labelled as the most dangerous prison ever inspected by England and Wales' chief prisons inspector.

The ombudsman's office has published a number of death-in-custody investigations in recent years and, in 2016, published a report which detailed how staff watched but failed to intervene as a mentally-ill prisoner, Sean Lynch, blinded himself.

Follow-up inspections at Maghaberry Prison in the last two years have indicated some "fragile" progress but concerns remain about vulnerable prisoners.

BBC News NI recently reported on the concerns of two former prison officers who had to help care for fellow inmates due to staff shortages at the jail.

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