Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Northern Ireland Water boss linked to contracts furore

Trevor Haslett

The man appointed to lead the crisis-hit Northern Ireland Water company has now been linked to a controversy that saw four of its board members sacked last year.

Acting chief executive Trevor Haslett was asked to take charge after his predecessor Laurence MacKenzie resigned last month over the water leaks emergency that saw 40,000 homes left without supply.

The damaging episode came after Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy sacked four board members last March following a damning report on how millions of pounds of contracts were allocated.

But now, in a further potentially embarrassing development, Northern Ireland Water (NIW) has confirmed Mr Haslett was also reprimanded as a result of the same probe.

A spokesman for NIW said: "Mr Haslett co-operated fully with the Internal Review Team investigation on procurement irregularities and took responsibility for a water mains Consultancy Services contract which was originally approved for extension by staff in his Directorate almost nine years ago in 2002, shortly before he came into post.

"The amount involved was originally assessed at under £4 million, out of an overall investment since he took up the post of Director in 2003 of almost £1.6 billion.

"Value for money was not proven because the work was not subject to tender, but involved accelerating work for the water mains rehabilitation programme, work which arguably mitigated the affect of the recent freeze thaw incident.

"The irregularity was subsequently the subject of a disciplinary hearing which resulted in a six month written warning, the first such warning Mr Haslett had ever received in a career extending to almost 38 years in the Industry."

NIW, which had already been rocked by a series of controversies, was plunged into crisis when record low temperatures around Christmas were followed by a rapid thaw, causing hundreds of leaks that crippled the public water supply system.

There were calls for the minister, who has ultimate responsibility for the company, to resign as thousands of people queued for bottled water and others went to leisure centres to shower.

At the height of the crisis, supplies of bottled water were shipped from Scotland, while water also came in tankers from the Irish Republic.

The chaotic scenes made news headlines across Britain and Ireland.

Northern Ireland ministers promised that those responsible would be held to account. Senior staff at NIW subsequently said they had been overwhelmed by an unprecedented crisis.

They were criticised for the collapse of their communications system which left vulnerable members of the public unable to find out if or when their running water would return.

And despite the company's ultimate claims that it had successfully repaired the leaks within two weeks, the damage to its reputation forced the resignation of Chief Executive Laurence Mackenzie.

In March last year Minister Murphy sacked the company's then chairman, Chris Mellor, and three other board members Declan Gormley, Ruth Thompson and John Ballard.

This followed a report that criticised the overseeing of how millions of pounds worth of contracts had been awarded.

Mr Murphy said he had acted in the public interest, but some of the senior executives who were forced out have been critical of how the episode was handled.

The minister has continued to be the target of criticism from political opponents over his handling of NIW which has staggered from one controversy to another:

  • In May 2008 the company's chief executive Katharine Bryan left her post after a multimillion-pound blunder threatened to force a hike in water bills;
  • In March 2010 NIW leaders were hit by the probe into the handling of lucrative contracts. Mr Murphy then dismissed the four board members;
  • The following August, the minister's Permanent Secretary Paul Priestly was suspended pending an investigation into how the probe was handled.

In the recent fallout following Mr MacKenzie's resignation the Executive also had to fight off criticisms of the inquiry that it has established to investigate the affair.

Mr Haslett appeared before a sitting of the Assembly's Regional Development Committee in January where he was unveiled as Mr MacKenzie's immediate replacement.

He apologised for the company's handling of the leaks.

He said at the time: "On behalf of Northern Ireland Water can I first apologise to all of our customers who were inconvenienced, seriously inconvenienced over a lengthy period.

"I don't think anyone at Northern Ireland Water, the board, the executive team, is happy about that."

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