Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland Water accused of mishandling £46m in tenders

By Steven McCaffery

A damning report on Northern Ireland Water (NIW) has sparked fresh calls for Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy to rethink his handling of the crisis-hit company.

The report by the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) slammed the mishandling and abuse of tender procedures on projects worth a total of £46m.

But the PAC also hit out at Mr Murphy's Department for Regional Development (DRD), linking it to a litany of failures, and criticising a key official it accused of influencing a probe into NIW.

PAC chairman Paul Maskey highlighted the inadequate safeguards in place at NIW and said: “The arrangements established by DRD for NI Water represented the worst of all worlds.”

Committee member John Dallat said the review of NIW had compiled the “most damning report ever produced” in his time on the PAC.

The investigation pre-dates the winter crisis that saw thousands of homes left without water. That controversial episode is now the subject of a separate investigation.

The report — Performance, Procurement and Governance In NI Water — is highly critical of the Government-owned company's failure to properly tender projects worth millions, but it also finds failings on the part of |the department.

The committee criticised DRD permanent secretary Paul Priestly, who was suspended pending an investigation of his handling of a review into NIW. The review's findings on the mishandling of procurement led Mr Murphy to sack four board members last year. Mr Dallat said the independent review team “comes out of the report very badly” and claimed the impartiality of its findings had been undermined.

Mr Maskey said: “Between December 2005 and August 2010, procurement failures totalled £46m. Abuse of single tender awards was widespread; a large number of contract extensions went unapproved; and financial controls were not adhered to.”

Mr Murphy welcomed the report, saying it confirmed there was “a culture of disregard for procurement processes in the company which led to serious failings in procurement procedures”.

“These findings vindicate the actions I took to address this, including the removal of four non-executive directors at NI Water,” he added.

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