Mid and East Antrim Council self-referral rejected by Public Services Ombudsman

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The  Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) has dismissed a self-referral by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council over a report by the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) amid claims that an inquiry into the withdrawal of council staff from the Port of Larne last February had been “misled by MEA representatives”.

The AERA report said that it “considers that there was limited justification for suspending staff from undertaking checks and did not identify any evidence to indicate that this decision was proportionate to the full range of information available to DAERA and MEABC officials at the time in relation to the potential threats”.

However, NIPSO  has told the borough council that “this matter is outside the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman”.

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NIPSO has advised the council that the Ombudsman can investigate a complaint made by a member of the public, either an individual or a body, other than a listed authority.


A letter to the council explained that it is a listed authority within the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction and in making this self-referral, the council is acting in its capacity as such.

“In this case, it is clear, there is no person aggrieved and the council has referred itself as a public body to the Ombudsman,” the letter stated.

The council was also told that there is “no mechanism within the provision of the 2016 Act for a listed authority to refer a member of its own staff to the Ombudsman for investigation”.

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In September, Bannside TUV Councillor Timothy Gaston proposed that the council “forward on” the investigation to NIPSO to investigate the AERA report and the “failings” that were highlighted, seconded by party colleague Alderman Stewart McDonald, also a Bannside representative.

Knockagh DUP Councillor Peter Johnston described the proposal at the time as “a bit of a political point-scoring exercise”.

Also at a meeting on Thursday evening, councillors were informed of correspondence received from AERA seeking an assurance from  Mid and East Antrim Borough Council that recommendations from a hearing into the controversial withdrawal of staff from Larne Port have been implemented.

The findings and recommendations were agreed by the majority of AERA committee members following its investigation into the decision made by DAERA and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (MEABC) to withdraw staff from undertaking checks on goods entering Larne and Belfast ports on a temporary basis on February 1.

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The Northern Ireland Protocol requires the completion of checks on certain goods shipped from GB into the province’s ports in advance of onward transit to the Republic of Ireland, and into the EU. The responsibility for undertaking these checks is shared between DAERA and local councils.

Twelve environmental health officers employed by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council were temporarily withdrawn from inspection duties at the Port of Larne where they had been assisting with checks post Brexit.

Commenting at last week’s meeting, Larne Lough Alliance Councillor Danny Donnelly said that the recommendations should be been applied in full.

Larne Lough DUP Councillor Gregg McKeen stated he was “more than happy to stand over that we have taken on board.”

Cllr Gaston said he hoped that there will be “lessons learned” by council and called for “openness and transparency”.

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter