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Consumer champion’s business emails to company she policed

By David Gordon

Details of a consumer champion's efforts to secure a business deal with a company she was also policing on behalf of customers can today be made public for the first time.

The Belfast Telegraph revealed last week that Eleanor Gill entered into talks with NI Water about consultancy work in her final months as chief executive of the Consumer Council.

Internal emails have now been officially released, detailing her contacts with the company's most senior figure via her Consumer Council email address.

In one of the emails to NI Water boss Chris Mellor last year, Ms Gill spoke of wanting to “nail down” private consultancy work ahead of her departure as Consumer Council chief executive.

The consumer body is a taxpayer-funded organisation with a remit that includes ensuring NI Water customers get value for money.

Ms Gill left the Council in April last year to set up her own consultancy firm. She agreed a consultancy contract with NI Water the following month, but in the event this was not activated.

She has made clear that she sought and received Government approval for accepting the contract once it was agreed.

It has also been stressed that her discussions with NI Water only began after she had tendered her resignation from the consumer body in early January 2009.

Her emails with Mr Mellor on the subject have now been released by NIW under the Freedom of Information Act. He was the company's chairman and acting chief executive at that time.

Mr Mellor was sacked from the company's board by minister Conor Murphy in March, after a report showed contracts had been awarded without competitive processes.

This report did not include the contract offered to Ms Gill. However, NI Water has confirmed no other firms were given the opportunity to bid for the consultancy work that was lined up for her. The contract would have covered advice on customer relations strategy.

The released email exchanges between the then Consumer Council chief and Mr Mellor began on January 29, 2009.

The first message from Ms Gill refers to a meeting between them, with her adding that they “agreed that there was an opportunity for us to work together in my new consultancy role”.

The email concluded: “I would appreciate the opportunity to ‘nail' areas of work down as quickly as is possible and ahead of my departure date from the Consumer Council.”

Ms Gill emailed Mr Mellor again the following month, enclosing a draft strategy document detailing what she could provide.

A further email was sent by the then Consumer Council head in March 2009, following a meeting with Mr Mellor.

It outlined in detail what she was offering NI Water. In his reply, he endorsed her assessment.

On April 9, eight days before stepping down as the Council's chief executive, Ms Gill emailed Mr Mellor again, attaching a contract document.

In early May she submitted an agreement proposal to NI Water, including details of her proposed costs and services.

Her covering letter stated: “I would like to thank you for the opportunity to make this proposal to work alongside NI Water.”

An agreement was signed later that month.

In a subsequent email in June, Ms Gill stated that “paid services will not commence with NI Water unless and until I receive approval from the NI Civil Service in line with their guidelines for exiting senior civil servants”.

In her recent statement to this newspaper, Ms Gill said this approval was granted in September.

“I wish to confirm that no personal business ever took place between me and NI Water before or after leaving the Consumer Council.

“I have never received any money from them at any time. I did not agree to provide contracted services to the company until one month after I left the Consumer Council and, even then, these services were never provided despite my getting Government approval,” she added.

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