Serious flaws in the Northern Ireland Office’s process for appointing Probation Board members have been criticised by an independent watchdog.
Karen Bradley was “wrongly advised” by officials with the aim of achieving a balanced board, the Commissioner for Public Appointments said.
A reasonable person could infer that religion or community background played a role in her decision-making, the public scrutiny body reported.
Commissioner Judena Leslie’s investigation said: “Furthermore, if that happened the evidence suggests this may possibly have been to the detriment of one or more candidates.”
The commissioner’s report said the use of monitoring data in this way was a clear breach of the privacy undertaking given to each candidate by the Stormont department which organised the process.
It added: “While it was the responsibility of the Secretary of State to ensure her decision-making was lawful and compliant with the Public Appointments Code, there is no evidence to suggest that she sought information on candidates’ religion or community background.
“Rather, the Secretary of State was presented with the information and wrongly advised on its use by officials seemingly with the aim of achieving a balanced board.”
The commissioner regulates how public appointments are made.
In the absence of power-sharing ministers at Stormont the Northern Ireland Secretary has taken a more active role in decision-making.
Last year, 13 candidates were appointed to the board, which works with offenders, in a process managed for Ms Bradley by the Justice Department.
The commissioner said: “The audit of the public appointments competition for a chair and independent members for the Northern Ireland Probation Board exposed a number of serious flaws in the competition processes.
“The most significant of these was the prominent insertion of equality monitoring information on candidates’ religion/community background and gender into the briefing documentation for the Secretary of State in the final stages of the appointment process.”
It said advice from officials to the Northern Ireland Secretary 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.”
A UK Government spokesman 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.”