Karen Bradley wrongly advised on NI probation board roles
NI Secretary Karen Bradley was wrongly advised over appointments to Northern Ireland's probation board, according to an investigation.
The criticism was made by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Judena Leslie.
She said the selection process exposed "a number of serious flaws" and breached the privacy of candidates.
Last year, 13 candidates were appointed in a process managed by the Department of Justice (DoJ).
The commission's role is to regulate and advise on the way appointments are made to boards of public bodies in Northern Ireland.
It was the role of the Northern Ireland Office to present the candidate information to the secretary of state for final appointment decisions.
In its 24-page report, released on Thursday, the commission stated that the most significant flaw was that information on the candidates' religion, community background and gender was a "prominent insertion" into "the briefing documentation for the secretary of state in the final stages of the appointment process".
It added: "The advice from officials to the secretary of state could be read that it was permissible to take this information into account.
"Moreover, it could also be read that it was desirable to do so in order to achieve 'a balanced board'.
"The inclusion of the monitoring information and the accompanying advice constitute fundamental breaches of the Public Appointments Code."
The report states that on 12 November 2018, the religion or community background and gender of all the candidates was requested by an NIO official.
It was then provided in an email by a Department of Justice official, after it was gathered from the candidates' monitoring forms.
The report states that the "monitoring forms had not been detached from application process as required".
"At one stage, when preparing the submission to the secretary of state, an NIO official queried with a DoJ official whether the use of personal data in this way was appropriate," the report said.
"The response from DoJ indicated that the gender and religion/community background information could be provided."
The report added that "this advice was wrong and was a substantial breach of the Public Appointments Code".
'Breach of privacy'
The report also stated that "the use of monitoring data in this way was a clear breach of privacy undertaken by the Department of Justice to each candidate" and noted "poor record-keeping during the process".
However, it added that there is "no evidence to suggest that the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, sought information on candidates' religion or community background".
It said that Mrs Karen Bradley was "wrongly advised on the use of information by officials seemingly with the aim of achieving a balanced board".
The report does not call into question the suitability of those appointed to the Probation Board during the course of this process.
Both the Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Office have "acknowledged the mistakes made", according to the commission's report.
A UK Government spokesperson said:
"The Government has read the Commissioner's report carefully and accepted all of the recommendations. We have moved quickly to ensure that these administrative errors do not happen again."