Belfast Telegraph

Consumer Council: we may have been misled on NI Water

By David Gordon

The Consumer Council has claimed it has been left wondering if it was “misled” over the NI Water contracts debacle that led to four directors of the company being sacked.

And the consumer body has called for assurances over the Government's handling of the |controversy.

In a statement, the council said it had put a number of questions to Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy yesterday in relation to the dismissals.

These included whether actions taken “were in the public interest, rather than as result of a power struggle within NI Water”.

The four part-time directors were removed after an independent review team highlighted repeated failures by NI Water (NIW) to put contracts out to tender.

Consumer Council chief executive Antoinette McKeown yesterday said: “The Consumer Council has retained a very clear focus on the misspent millions by NI Water and its lack of accountability when spending public money.

“We have always supported the action of bringing to light a situation where contracts were being issued without going out to competitive tender.

“However, recent revelations left us questioning whether we had been misled. We need to assure ourselves that actions were taken and will be taken in the public interest.”

Mr Murphy meanwhile defended his actions again yesterday, rejecting criticisms over the independence of the review team.

He reiterated that the facts had not been challenged, with over 70 contracts worth £28.5m allocated in breach of rules on ensuring competition.

Mr Murphy was speaking to MLAs at the Assembly's regional development committee.

He also gave his clearest signal yet that NIW was facing a major shake-up, with its current status as a Government-owned company (GoCo) likely to be axed.

Different reform options are being considered and a statement on the way ahead is planned for later this month. The move could lead to NIW being taken back into direct departmental control.

Mr Murphy told the committee: “I do think it has been quite clear that the GoCo idea has not served us well (and) has left us in a hybrid situation which I don't think is acceptable going forward.”

The fallout from the contracts saga led to the top official in the minister's department being suspended last month.

Permanent Secretary Paul Priestly was suspended for helping to write a furious letter to the Assembly Public Accounts Committee for a business chief, objecting to questions raised at a hearing.

The letter came from Peter Dixon from Phoenix Natural Gas, who had been on the review team that examined NIW contracts.

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