Head of civil service ‘saved Priestly’s job’

SIR Bruce Robinson, the head of the civil service, personally decided that Paul Priestly should not be sacked, a leaked letter has revealed.

Sir Bruce decided that the former permanent secretary at the department of regional development should return to work after being demoted one level rather than be removed after it emerged that he had written a letter attacking members of

Stormont’s public accounts committee.

His decision came almost 10 months after Mr Priestly had been suspended on full pay.

The office of the first minister and deputy first minister has refused to give any details about why Mr Priestly has been allowed to return and, in a letter to the public accounts committee, Sir Bruce made clear that he felt under no compulsion to explain his decision.

But yesterday a meeting of the committee heard angry calls by its longest-serving member, John Dallat, that Sir Bruce be forced to appear before it to explain his decision and said that he wanted an assurance that the committee could scrutinise public spending without senior civil servants covertly attacking it.

Mr Dallat’s suggestion was deferred after the DUP, Sinn Fein and UUP members decided to take further advice on the issue.

Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin said that he had “significant concerns about the tone and content” of Sir Bruce’s letter.

“I think that the key issue that has emerged here – over and above the Paul Priestly affair – is this question of who the senior civil service is accountable to.”

He said that he had “a significant problem” with Sir Bruce deciding what was appropriate as punishment for another senior civil servant and added: “I have a grave difficulty with him telling us that’s the end of the matter and that effectively that’s the end of the business.”

He told members: “We don’t even know what disciplinary breach Mr Priestly has been found guilty of – it’s a bit ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, the case has focused attention on when the head of the civil service will retire.

Sir Bruce is still in post two months after he had initially indicated he would retire.

Sir Bruce, who joined the civil service in 1982, was initially set to resign in March but that was delayed, it is understood in an attempt to ensure continuity over the election period.

However, there has been no announcement as to his departure or whether there has been agreement on his successor,

despite a new and seemingly stable executive being in place.

Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the office of the first minister and deputy first minister said that she did not know when Sir Bruce would be retiring.