Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Former Northern Ireland Water chief launches forceful attack on his accusers

Sacked NI Water boss Chris Mellor

Axed NI Water chief Chris Mellor has spoken out for the first time about his sacking, rounding on the Stormont department that dismissed him.

Mr Mellor strongly challenged assertions made at an Assembly hearing last week into the contracts saga that led to his ousting as NIW chairman.

He maintained that he and fellow board members could have sorted out the problems, but were left “disenfranchised” by the Department for Regional Development (DRD).

He rejected as “nonsense” a senior civil servant's suggestion that he and his colleagues did not take the situation seriously.

Mr Mellor and three fellow part-time non-executive board members were dismissed from their posts in March by DRD Minister Conor Murphy.

That followed audit reports and an independent report on NIW contractual practices.

The reports detailed a series of contracts being awarded without competitive tendering — and without required senior-level approvals being obtained. NIW's practices were castigated at an Assembly Public Accounts Committee hearing last week.

DRD permanent secretary Paul Priestly told MLAs he was unable to persuade Mr Mellor and other board members of the importance of the issues.

But Mr Mellor told the Belfast Telegraph yesterday: “Mr Priestly's comments are nonsense.”

The ex-NIW chairman added that the company board had “fully supported” its chief executive in conducting an investigation on procurement.

“We took it very seriously and had we have been given the opportunity would have sorted it out, as indeed we had sorted many other issues we inherited. However the action taken by DRD in mid/late January effectively disenfranchised the board.”

Mr Mellor defended the NIW board’s record since 2007.

“We achieved the efficiency targets set by the minister, improved health and safety and delivered the best drinking water and waste water quality ever in Northern Ireland.

“Financial control was good each year, with annual budgets well-managed and the three-year, £750m capital programme delivered on time and within budget. This clearly does not imply any overall lack of governance and control.”

Mr Mellor said problems in NIW were inherited from its predecessor, the Water Service.

“That was, of course, run as part of the NI Civil Service,” he added.

He also said there was no question the irregularities in contracting should not have happened.

“However, in any balanced analysis scale and perspective are required,” Mr Mellor added.

“As indicated overall financial control was good and the company was delivering the required outputs.

“I would be surprised if any organisation of the size and complexity of NIW, even a mature one, would be 100% compliant with its procedures if subjected to the forensic level of scrutiny NIW subsequently was.

“It is reasonable to expect a board to put in place the necessary framework of controls, and ensure capability and audit etc, processes etc, are appropriate, but it is totally unreasonable to expect non-executive directors who are only asked to do two days a month to be sacked for this level of detailed non-compliance — which was, of course, revealed by a review they commissioned.”

The ex-chairman said that if there was a failure of governance and control, then DRD had also failed in its supervision responsibilities.