Belfast Telegraph

Now it's the workings of NI Water that need repair

By Adrian Rutherford and Chris Kilpatrick

NI Water's outdated pension and overtime arrangements have been blasted by senior officials within the crisis-hit company.

Practices at the state-owned utility belong to "a different age", sources said.

The admission came as agreement was finally reached to end the stand-off which has left thousands of homes without water.

Staff returned to out-of-hours repair duties after union officials said they had secured a better deal.

It is understood to go beyond pensions and involves a pay rise for workers.

However, last night questions were continuing to pile up about how the company is run.

In a day of fast-moving developments:

• Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy ordered an investigation into NI Water's handling of the crisis;

• Its chairman faced criticism after ducking out of a committee meeting - hours after it emerged he has landed a plum job with Irish Water;

• Concerns were raised over what it means for pension agreements involving other public sector workers.

The crisis centres on a dispute over changes to pensions, which led to more than 1,000 NI Water staff taking work-to-rule action.

Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph revealed how most frontline staff are employed on shifts covering a 10-hour window from 8am to 6pm.

It means NI Water has to shell out almost £2million a year on overtime to cover emergencies outside these hours.

That arrangement has drawn criticism even from within NI Water's leadership.

One senior source said: "An overtime ban should never cripple a company. If you run a 24-7 utility, you must have cover to deal with emergencies and not depend on the goodwill of people.

"Once an overtime ban was put on, it crippled the organisation. I don't know any other organisation where overtime would cause this level of impact."

Another attacked NI Water's pension scheme, which had seen workers contribute just 1-3% while the company paid in 26%.

"For workers to be putting in between one and three per cent - we're in a different age," they said.

"Look at any other public organisation: they all pay more and they have all had to introduce a scheme broadly parallel to the Civil Service scheme."

NI Water staff began withdrawing on-call and emergency services on December 22, leading to misery for thousands of customers.

The dispute reached crisis point over the past week as some homes were left for up to six days without supply, forcing families to melt snow and ferry water from rivers.

At the height of the crisis 9,000 homes across three counties were hit.

The stand-off only ended yesterday when a deal was hammered out after lengthy negotiations.

Although no details of the deal were revealed, it is understood to involve a pay rise for workers.

Ryan McKinney of Nipsa said the "deal on offer had improved". He said workers would return to work immediately to restore supplies to customers.

Unions will now ballot their members, but that is expected to be a formality.

However, there were accusations that NI Water had caved in to union demands.

Ukip MLA David McNarry also warned of wider implications for pension reform.

"Should the unions have won a pay increase from NI Water, paid for by taxpayers' money, does this settlement have any ramifications for the hundreds of public sector workers who have already settled their new pension agreements?" he said.

Earlier, Mr Kennedy pledged an investigation into the debacle when he appeared before Stormont's regional development committee.

Mr Kennedy said he was asking the utility regulator to probe NI Water's handling of the crisis, adding it was "intolerable" that so many had been affected.

There was also criticism after NI Water chairman Sean Hogan - who hasn't been seen during the crisis - did not appear before the committee.

SDLP MLA John Dallat asked: "Is he hiding under the table?"

Mr Hogan, who earns a £40,000 basic salary for three to four days' work a month, steps down in March. He will shortly take up a position with Irish Water.

‘It’s just ridiculous that rural people have had to suffer’

Stricken householders left without water for days remain angry about how the crisis was handled.

Eilish Doyle, whose home in the Sperrin Mountains was without water for six days, likened her situation to that of a “Third World country”. The mother-of-three had to collect snow from the roof of her car and boil it for tea and cooking.

Her husband carried water from a nearby river to flush the family’s toilets.

Last night, Mrs Doyle said nobody from NI Water or DRD had been to see her.

“It’s not just one person is to blame for all of this,” she said. “The concerns were raised before and they should have been prepared. It’s just ridiculous rural people have had to suffer.”

Mrs Doyle also hit out at what she said was a lack of communication from NI Water when she tried to contact them for information.

East Londonderry MLA John Dallat, who also sits on the DRD committee, added: “It is deeply regrettable that this consensus was not reached before thousands of homes and businesses were left without water. This dispute has been a disaster that has plunged NI Water to a new low and it is fortunate that common sense eventually prevailed.”

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