"A bit of divide and rule"

"A bit of divide and rule" / Interview - Trevor Birney

Felicity Huston says she has called for the amalgamation of several quangos tasked with overseeing standards in public life – but that there appears to be little willingness to genuinely explore the idea.

In today’s interview with The Detail (www.thedetail.tv), she says it would create a system of oversight which is both more effective and less costly.

“One of my issues here in NI is that we are terribly fragmented in our regulatory makeup and we have a fondness for setting up another public body.

“There’s myself, as Commissioner for Public Appointments, there’s an Assembly Commissioner for Standards just about to be advertised and appointed, we have a Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, we have Civil Service Commissioners and we have a Financial Review body up in the Assembly now too.

“So they are ethical regulators, some which have more powers than others, the Civil Service Commissioners are really there to oversee appointments to senior Civil Service. The Ombudsman investigates maladministration, and then there’s the Standards Commissioner in the Assembly who will investigate MLAs behaviour.

“In England a Scotland there is a gradual move towards bringing these bodies together, there’s an ethics commission has been set up in Scotland with the Scottish appointments commissioner and one of the standards commissioners. In England, the newly appointed commissioner for public appointments has also been made the chief civil service commissioner, so those two posts are in one.”

Mrs Huston said she suspected the current set-up had the benefit – for some – of freezing the public out: “There probably is a bit of divide and rule and it’s also probably a bit like a rats in a maze.

“For somebody who wants to make a complaint, they don’t know where to go and when they go to one person to be told they can’t handle that and go to ‘x’ and then ‘x’ says ‘no sorry that’s not mine’ and so on and then they probably give up at that point.”

She added: “MLAs are always complaining that there are too many quangos, well here’s ones that’s offering itself up on a platter to be amalgamated, not abolished because we do need somebody to keep oversight, but it could be part of an ethics commission, something like in Scotland would be much better, a one stop shop.”