Northern Ireland

Edwin Poots 'biased over appointing trades unionists'

Heath minister Edwin Poots' alleged opposition to appointing trade unionists to public bodies is an abuse of power, the High Court has heard.

A judge heard claims that Mr Poots was irrational and biased in not considering John Corey for the Northern Ireland Social Care Council.

Mr Corey had been interviewed for the position advertised as a trade union representative on the regulatory body.

He is a former general secretary of NIPSA.

His lawyers claim Mr Poots vetoed his appointment after he became Health Minister in May last year.

Two other processes started under his ministerial predecessor, Michael McGimpey, for the Blood Transfusion Service and a Council for Nursing and Midwifery had also sought trade union members.

But none were appointed by the time Mr Poots came to consider candidates, the court was told.

David McMillen QC, for Mr Corey, claimed: "The minister did not want trade union representatives on any public bodies."

Mr Corey served as general secretary of NIPSA, Northern Ireland's largest public sector union, from 2003-2010.

Judicial review

He has also been on the boards of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, the Training and Employment Agency and the Staff Commission for Education and Library Boards. In July 2011 he was appointed a member of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

Earlier last year he was put forward by NIPSA for a trade union post the NISCC, which regulates the conduct of social care workers.

The department was also seeking to appoint a lay member to the body. Only this position has been filled.

Mr Corey and NIPSA are now jointly seeking a judicial review of the minister's decision not to appoint a trade unionist onto the NISCC.

During the hearing Mr McMillen went through an email trail which, according to him, showed Mr Poots "didn't appear to know what he was doing".

He questioned an explanation that the minister instead wanted to draw from the widest possible pool of candidates.

The barrister said: "There may not be a smoking gun in this case, but there is certainly a whiff of gunpowder in the air."

Questioned by Mr Justice Treacy, he said the reason given "lacks credibility".

Mr McMillen added: "In my submission... this amounts to the respondent acting so unfairly as to perpetrate an abuse of power."

'Artificial'

But Tony McGleenan QC, responding for the minister, argued that it was unfair to label reasons set out by Mr Poots' diary secretary as "gobbledygook".

He said that the posts were advertised when a different minister and different administration was in power.

"It cannot be right that ministers are bound to follow the practices of their predecessors following a properly democratic election which has put someone else in office," Mr McGleenan said.

"It's fairly clear that Mr McGimpsey had a certain affinity for the trade union movement. Mr Poots didn't share that view when he came to office."

The current minister did not want to restrict the pool of candidates by maintaining "artificial ring-fencing", according to his barrister.

Mr McGleenan added: "His view was Mr McGimpsey was creating a more favourable treatment for a certain category of applicants."

The judge has suggested Mr Poots should consider filing an affidavit to explain his reasoning further. He pointed out: "The only person who really knows what he did and why he did it is the minister."