MLAs go into closed session to receive briefing after Exaro exposes damning report
By Fiona O’Cleirigh | 12 December 2012
“This leaked report has a number of allegations that must be addressed”
– Robin Swann, member, Northern Ireland Assembly’s agriculture and rural development committee
Stormont summoned senior civil servants to explain basic failings by Northern Ireland’s investigations unit in tackling fraud of European Union agricultural subsidies.
The private briefing came a month after Exaro exposed a confidential report commissioned by the province’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) that blasted the anti-fraud unit as “fractured” and having a “lack of formal investigation procedures”.
Exaro published extracts from the official report in a series of pieces last month after obtaining a leaked copy.
The Northern Ireland Assembly’s agriculture and rural development committee took the unusual step of going into “closed session” on Tuesday last week to question three senior DARD officials about the department’s anti-fraud unit, the Central Investigation Service (CIS).
DARD had commissioned Deloitte, the auditing and consultancy firm, to “review” the CIS and “the conduct of” its head, Tommy McCauley.
The “independent review” – codenamed “Project Rainbow” – was carried out in 2010 after three of the unit’s five investigators made a series of “whistleblowing allegations”, according to the report.
The committee, which oversees DARD, met behind closed doors for 45 minutes during part of a regular meeting. The private session was for members to “receive a briefing on Central Investigation Service.”
Some members of Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly (MLAs) who sit on the committee declined to give details about what took place, with one saying that they had been “sworn to secrecy”.
However, one MLA confirmed to Exaro that the DARD officials who gave the briefing included two executive members of the department’s board. The two were Wendy Jonhston, one of the department’s deputy secretaries and its senior finance director, and Graeme Wilkinson, assistant secretary and finance director. The third DARD official at the briefing was Valerie Bell, head of the department’s policy division.
Each committee member was given a copy of the report revealed by Exaro.
The briefing came after Robin Swann, a member of the committee and chief whip of Ulster Unionist Party, demanded that the CIS explain the failings outlined in the report.
Swann said that he was “incredulous” that the report was completed more than two years ago but no one had told the committee of its findings.
Swann said: “I made the call for CIS to appear before the committee because it has responsibility for oversight and scrutiny of not just the minister, but also the working of the department.
“This leaked report has a number of allegations that must be addressed, and if there is uncertainty of the operations of this unit within the department, the committee has not only the right, but the duty to scrutinise the operation of the unit to ensure that any failings are challenged and addressed.”
“The committee’s role is to scrutinise, and to hold to account when necessary, the actions of the department or minister.”
He added: “When 60 per cent of the staff involved in one department find it necessary to use whistleblowing protocols to report concerns. It shows, as the report states, ‘a severely fractured working relationship within the CIS team’.”
In the event, Swann was unable to attend the hearing because of a clash of meetings.
The report was sharply critical of the senior DARD official responsible for the CIS, Tom Rodgers, head of financial policy at the department. The report said that he did not have “a sufficiently detailed understanding of the investigation process to provide the necessary oversight.”
Deloitte carried out a “detailed review” of the four sets of case files, and found inadequate investigation of alleged fraud by one farmer who, CIS investigators claimed, used his political connections to have the case dropped.
The EU imposed a fine on Northern Ireland of more than €39 million in September because of the province’s failure to investigate fraud of agricultural subsidies properly between 2008 and 2010. It brought the total EU fines for Northern Ireland to around €77 million, which is ultimately met by UK taxpayers.
The review was sent to Gerry Lavery, then senior finance director of DARD, and the department’s permanent secretary since August 2010.
DARD says that the report’s recommendations were implemented.
McCauley and Rodgers declined to comment to Exaro.
daily work-related activity and information that may be required as evidence in legal proceedings, and we would therefore expect such procedures to be in place in a body such as the CIS.”
The review reported similar concerns about ‘action sheets’, which are used to plot the course of investigations: “There appears to be some confusion within the CIS as to the purpose of these.”
“While the investigators consider these to be a record of activity that is integral to the investigation, the head of the CIS considers these to be a time-management and supervisory tool.”
The report recommended that a “formal and comprehensive set of procedures be developed covering all aspects of the investigation process, such as: case receipt and assessment; case allocation; case investigation; record keeping and information management; compliance with legislation, such as Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA); case closure and reporting.”
RIPA sets out the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance, such as the interception of communications.
The report continued: “We acknowledge that some procedural documentation (eg prosecutions and case-closure policies) does exist, and we consider that this should be incorporated into a comprehensive set of investigation procedures to provide clarity and direction to all members of the team as to the operational requirement to be followed when conducting day-to-day investigatory work.”
In a section headed, “Excessive monitoring of one member of staff and bullying of others by the head of the CIS,” the report said: “While such issues were alluded to by four of the five investigators interviewed, the evidence provided by them to support this allegation, although consistent, was anecdotal in nature.
“Therefore, while these allegations have been noted, there was no formal evidence available that would enable us to conclude on this issue. However, this is a serious allegation that DARD senior management may wish to reflect on.”
The report also questioned how the investigations unit produced statistics for DARD. “There needs to be clear statistical reporting produced by the CIS to capture the activities of the team and to inform DARD senior management and other interested parties accordingly. This should show the number of cases referred, the number of cases then investigated, and the outcome and financial value of these.”
The review examined fraud figures supplied by the CIS over the previous seven years. While it was unable to assess the accuracy of the figures, it noted that in the more recent reports, “the fraud statistics are reported in a rather disjointed way, such that meaningful analysis would require significant cross-referencing across various sections of each report.”
“Furthermore, in reviewing the more recent reports, we were left confused by the statistics quoted.”
DARD said in a statement: “There were, as a result of this review, a number of changes to internal policies and procedures and these have now been implemented in full.”
“The department’s internal audit branch has recently completed a further review of the Central Investigation Service. This subsequent audit recommended a small number of process-related actions, which are in the process of being implemented. The department is content that all appropriate actions have been taken.”
Deloitte’s review of case files also found inadequate investigation of alleged fraud by one farmer who, CIS investigators claimed, used his political connections to have the case dropped.