Northern Ireland

Fire Service: management must embrace change, says Poots

Management at the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service must embrace change at all levels, Health Minister Edwin Poots has said.

Mr Poots, addressing MLAs following three investigations into NIFRS, said change needed to be led "from the top".

The investigations followed whistle-blowing allegations which centred on fraud, unapproved bonuses and failings to deal with staff grievances.

He said existing grievances had to be concluded as soon as possible.

Mr Poots was speaking to the assembly following what he called a damning report into the management of the service.

He thanked the whistle-blowers for coming forward and called for a culture where it was safe and acceptable for staff to raise concerns at any level at any time.

He told assembly members that a new interim chief executive was appointed in a series of measures to strengthen the management of the NIFRS.

He said there had been an "unacceptable management culture" which stretched back for more than a decade.

"Our firefighters need to work in an organisation that commands the respect of all - an organisation that is managed effectively and efficiently, with integrity and transparency, with a clear sense of accountability to the public," he said.

"Unfortunately, there have been instances where the management and governance of the Fire and Rescue Service have been called into question."

The report was sparked by allegations of financial wrongdoing made by accountant Linda Ford, who was subsequently suspended for a year.

She said she felt vindicated by her actions but said she had suffered a "huge personal cost".

"It has taken two years of my life and I've suffered severe stress levels," she said.

"I appreciated the apology but it's difficult for me to understand why no-one is being held to account."

A number of assembly members, including the UUP's Roy Beggs and Sinn Fein's Oliver McMullan, were concerned that no disciplinary action was being taken as a result of the irregularities identified in the reviews.

The minister rejected Mr McMullan's call for a public inquiry, but said he believed there would be "a general message that a slap on the wrist approach is not enough".

Jim Allister of the TUV referred to previous reports on NIFRS which he said had resulted in "matters being brushed under the carpet".

The minister replied that "the proof of the pudding will be in the eating", and that in 10 years time they would not be referring to NIFRS as "still being a shambles".

The chief executive of the NIFRS, Jim Wallace, said individuals would be held to account.

"Accountability is a fundamental principle of how we operate in the public sector and that hasn't changed and will not change," he said.

"What we have to do is actually reinforce that accountability, both individually and collectively, and the knock-on effect of that to the organisation is that there will be greater transparency and better decision making.

"Individuals and the organisation will be held accountable that goes without saying."

He said earlier that the reports did not reflect on the front-line work of firefighters and that people should remain confident in the service.

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