By Mark Thompson
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has withdrawn a commitment to fund investigative work into conflict related killings from the Police Ombudsman. Alarmingly the DOJ also imposed severe cuts to existing funding critically affecting this area of work.
Initially the Police Ombudsman had sought £1.2 million from the DOJ in order to conduct inquiries. This was as part of a 6-year plan to address 340 conflict related cases involving killings currently within their complaints system and with the Historic Directorate department of the Police Ombudsman.
The Criminal Justice Inspectorate NI (CJI) had suspended the Historic Directorate, which examines killings and related complaints where police involvement is suspected, under the previous Ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, following an inspection in 2011. That inspection found serious flaws including interference by police officers in overturning findings that criticised the police leading to claims of investigative bias.
The office restructured it Historic Directorate under a new Ombudsman, Dr. Michael Maguire, and was only given the green light to resume its investigations after thorough inspections by both the CJINI and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies (HMIC).
Under the current Ombudsman the office also increased the number of complaints effectively doubling the historic caseload such was the confidence of families and the public in the new Ombudsman.
This obviously necessitated the request for £1.2 million from the DOJ in order to fulfill the need, and keep within a reasonable timeframe. This funding would allow investigations already lodged by for families to be completed within six years.
Under Dr. Maguire’s leadership cases are also examined around multiple killings, forensics; ballistics; suspects and geographical areas in a thematic linked approach. For families this is particularly important, as well as being the best investigative method, given what are limited funds even at the best of times.
The CJINI report today further underlined the good practice and standards of the Historic Directorate. The decision to cut funding therefore flies in the face of all reason.
RFJ understand that in respect of the £1.2 million bid the Ombudsman was instead offered £400k, but that recently even this offer has been withdrawn. Worse, further cuts representing 8% of the office’s overall budget were imposed by the DOJ. This has led to 15 staff been made redundant. Shockingly 10 of these staff are from the Historic Directorate, effectively doubling the current timeframe from six to 12 years for completing investigations. The impact on families’ expectations is incalculable and will undoubtedly cause even further distress. Bereaved relatives are ageing. Many will now not see investigative outcomes. This is unacceptable.
This news comes not long after Dr. Maguire issued legal proceedings against the Chief Constable of the PSNI having been denied access to both intelligence and police premises in order to conduct investigations into some of the most controversial killings during the conflict. This unprecedented legal action was only recently withdrawn with the change of Chief Constable and agreement that access to intelligence would now be facilitated.
The Police Ombudsman’s entire budget represents only 1% of the total budget at the control of the DOJ. Understandably the impact is all the more severe in this context, representing as it is a 25% cut to legacy work. Obviously from an RFJ point of view the outcomes of the work of this office for families, and society more broadly, by far outweigh budgetary considerations. In terms of the outputs to date it is an office that when left alone to conduct its work far exceeds value for money for its 1% of Justice budget, surpassing even the ability of the PSNI and the HET in terms of public confidence on legacy work, which will raise further questions from families. The PSNI receive £825 million pounds and prisons £185 million.
£1.2 million is not a significant amount of money in terms of the working budget of the DOJ and with the announcement of winding down the HET one would have expected the savings here to be carried over into this area of legacy work. It’s believed savings around the HET significantly exceed the amount sought by the Police Ombudsman.
We also have the matter of the British government, NIO, and the Secretary of State using the office of the Police Ombudsman to tell the Committee of Ministers to the Council of Europe that the office represents their legal compliance with Article 2 investigations. This follows severe criticisms and judgments from the European Courts. The irony is that whilst Europe is told one thing, families again witness further attempts at a hollowing out the effectiveness of Ombudsman, this time round under the guise of ‘a lack of resources’, that has become the mantra across all aspects of legacy. Families simply see this as shorthand for cover-up.
RFJ points to the fact that the vast majority of complaints by families relate to a period during the conflict when there was direct rule from London and that the British Treasury must therefore carry the cost of legacy investigations instead of these costs having to come from the block grant.
It is also disingenuous for the PSNI, and MoD, to cite a lack of resources as one of the main reasons that they are unable to provide disclosures to inquests yet at the same time we have a situation that if political agreement existed on a mechanism to address the past, i.e. Haass/O’Sullivan – Eames/Bradley, then the British government would provide the necessary finances. It can’t be a case that there are no resources on one hand and that there would be on the other. This exposes the notion of resources that has become a convenient vehicle from which to shield scrutiny of state killings and collusion. To families this represents continuing impunity and it is in this context that we must again view not only the withholding and withdrawing of funding from the Ombudsman but also what clearly represents a significant blow to the potential effectiveness of the Historic Directorate in which families have most confidence compared to other processes.
Simply put; the amount promised to the Police Ombudsman to investigate 340 cases is less than the hospitality budget of the NIO for the last financial year.
Finally, politicians continually say that victims and survivors are a priority and that they too support their efforts to resolve their cases. One way to demonstrate that commitment would be by ensuring that this goes beyond rhetoric and that the funds required by the Police Ombudsman are provided – urgently.