Belfast Telegraph

NI Water chief slips up when asked 'who's in charge of water?'

By Chris Kikpatrick

It was a momentary slip - but one that didn't go unnoticed.

Asked who was running Northern Ireland's water supplies, the unions or NI Water, the utility's chief executive Sara Venning replied: "I think it's the company."

"You think it's the company?" was the immediate retort from an MLA.

"It's the company," she replied.

It's a fair assumption many of the general public have been asking the same question as the water crisis played out in recent weeks.

The Belfast Telegraph revealed on Tuesday that almost one-fifth of frontline staff salaries came from overtime. Those rates can be up to double the normal working pay if staff are called on outside hours.

We also revealed that the majority of NI Water's staff work rigid 8am to 6pm days - a system described as outdated and in urgent need of reform. The inquest into why the situation was allowed to deteriorate to the extent it had began yesterday with Ms Venning and the minister in charge, Danny Kennedy, summoned to an emergency meeting of the regional development committee.

They fielded questions from members for two hours while elsewhere talks continued behind the scenes to try and deliver a breakthrough and end the misery for the thousands suffering as a result of the stalemate.

Ukip MLA David McNarry, a former Ulster Unionist colleague of Mr Kennedy, said he should consider resigning,

Mr Kennedy hit back at the criticism: "At the end of the day the buck stops here. I'm clear about that. I have responsibilities. Others can be armchair generals if they want.

"Ultimately faced with the situation that we have, I believe that I have acted in a responsible way and I want to see this dispute resolved for the good of everybody."

Mr Kennedy said he was asking the utility regulator to investigate NI Water's handling of the crisis and said it was "intolerable" so many people had been affected.

It was suggested his department should also be subject of a similar probe.

SDLP MLA John Dallat described Mr Kennedy as being like a "rabbit in the headlights" in recent days and said he had heard nothing during the meeting that would resonate with the public.

When asked why NI Water relied so heavily on overtime work, members were told by Ms Venning that this was standard practice by utility operators.

She said had staff taken the same work-to-rule action at any water utility across the UK, there would be similar results to what had been seen here.

To run a shift system at NI Water would be more expensive, Ms Venning claimed.

The committee was told that out of NI Water's staff of 1,260, around 700 were involved in the industrial action.

Mr McNarry asked how quickly resources could have been pulled from elsewhere if an agreement wasn't struck with the unions.

Ms Venning said those enquiries had been ongoing and no timeframes had been agreed. Mr McNarry then added: "A family in the area contacted me last night and asked me to ask you: 'Who is now in charge of water today? Is it the company or the unions?'"

"I think it's the company," she replied.

"You think it's the company?" asked Mr McNarry.

"It's the company," Ms Venning said.

"It is the company?

"Okay, I'll be able to pass that on to them."

Mr McNarry asked if a deal was close due to concessions to workers, but his line of questioning was cut short by committee chair, Trevor Clarke.

The DUP chairman said: "I'm ruling we are not going to get into the detail of the negotiations."

"So you're protecting them," said Mr McNarry.

"No, I'm not," was the response.

"Yes, you are," countered Mr McNarry.

Ms Venning declined to comment after the meeting.

Belfast Telegraph

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