Top civil servant suspended over Northern Ireland Water probe
One of Northern Ireland's most senior civil servants has been suspended from his job pending an investigation into an angry letter sent to an Assembly committee.
Paul Priestly, permanent secretary of the Department for Regional Development, is understood to have drafted the letter for a business chief, objecting to questions raised by MLAs.
The strongly-worded correspondence from Phoenix Energy chief executive Peter Dixon was sent last month to Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
It followed a PAC hearing covering Mr Dixon's role in investigating a contracts debacle at Northern Ireland Water.
The tone of his letter — and the fact that it had been written on Phoenix-headed paper — led to it being swiftly disowned by the company.
Mr Dixon withdrew the hostile correspondence, which had contained a threat of legal action against MLAs.
It is understood evidence emerged yesterday indicating that Mr Priestly was involved in drafting the letter.
That would be a serious matter, as permanent secretaries — departmental heads — are obliged to respect and fully co-operate with PAC inquiries.
Sinn Fein Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy issued a statement yesterday evening, saying he had been in contact with the Head of the Civil Service Bruce Robinson.
Mr Murphy said he had done so “in light of new information received by me today in a phone call from Paul Priestly”.
The minister added: “I have urged the Head of the Civil Service to properly address this matter and with urgency.”
A brief statement issued by the Stormont Executive's Press office stated: “The Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Bruce Robinson has suspended Paul Priestly, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Regional Department pending an investigation into events following the PAC hearing on NI Water.
“The investigation will consider information which has just emerged today.
“The suspension, in accordance with Northern Ireland Civil Service personnel procedures, is for the purpose of facilitating the investigation and is not a disciplinary penalty.”
Above: how the Belfast Telegraph reported the drama
The suspension is the latest extraordinary development from the ongoing NI Water contracts saga.
Mr Dixon was part of a three-person panel appointed by Mr Priestly in January to investigate contract awards at NI Water.
Their report led to four NI Water board members — including its chairman Christopher Mellor — being axed by the Regional Development Minister in March.
The review found that contracts had been repeatedly awarded without the use of competitive tendering — in breach of long-standing Government rules aimed at ensuring value for money for taxpayers.
The case came before the Stormont Public Accounts Committee in July, with Mr Priestly giving evidence to MLAs.
There was general agreement within the committee that the NI Water contractual practices had been unacceptable. But three MLAs — the SDLP’s John Dallat and Patsy McGlone and independent unionist Dawn Purvis — questioned Mr Dixon’s independence.
The Phoenix boss, who was not involved in the hearing, took exception to their remarks and described them in his letter as “disgraceful”.
The gas company's chairman, Sir Gerry Loughran, then wrote to the PAC, dismissing his chief executive's remarks.
Sir Gerry, a former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, stated that the questions raised by the three MLAs had been “reasonable and evidence-based”.
The Dixon letter was immediately withdrawn, but is now back in focus as a result of the suspension of Mr Priestly.
Mr Murphy has been defending thepermanent secretary in |recent weeks over the findings of the NI Water contracts investigation.
But the drafting of an aggressive letter to an Assembly committee has changed the situation drastically.
Task facing the PAC just got harder
Analysis by David Gordon
One thing can be concluded from the latest dramatic twist to the NI Water saga.
The task facing the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is now even more difficult.
Its work had already been diverted into claims and counter-claims.
Now the fall-out has also reached the top echelons of the civil service.
But, as the PAC seeks to plot its course through the debris, one key fact still stands out.
Contractual practices at NI Water were unacceptable.
Some 70 contracts with a combined value of £28m were handed out in breach of clearly established procedures.
That fact has not been shifted a single inch by any of the propaganda battles over the process by which the case was investigated by a review team.
The rules demanding competitive tendering are there for good reasons. They are designed to safeguard accountability and value for money for taxpayers.
And they also protect public bodies from legal action from aggrieved contractors.
The PAC's central task remains spelling out the failings at NI Water, demanding better in future and making sure lessons are learned across the public sector.
Criticisms have been flung at the process by which DRD axed NI Water board members.
But the much-maligned independent review team also directed some sharp criticisms at the Department.
That is hardly surprising, given DRD's oversight role.
But is it really being seriously suggested that the primary responsibility for NI Water operations did not lie with its top brass?
It has been claimed by some that the whole contracts issue is a lot of fuss about very little. That view is not shared by leading Department critic John Dallat, SDLP PAC member.
He said last month: “With £28m involved, it's not Northern Ireland Water that's damned. Every Government department is smeared by news like this.”
Public needs to be reassured
Northern Ireland Water just cannot escape from the headlines. The utility is at the centre of further controversy with the suspension of a senior civil servant for |alleged improper conduct.
Paul Priestly, permanent secretary at the Department for Regional Development has rightly been stood down from his job until an investigation is held into whether or not he had a hand in an angry letter sent to the watchdog Public Accounts Committee which was looking into the affairs of NIW.
Although Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy said Mr Priestly’s job is untenable following information disclosed between the |two men, it would be wrong to jump to any |conclusions at this stage until the matter is properly investigated.
While this is a serious matter, it should not be allowed to muddy the waters, as it were. The main issue remains, as it always has been, whether the Northern Ireland public got value for money for the millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money pumped into NIW.
Four non-executive directors were sacked after it was discovered that the utility had not followed |the long-standing rules on competitive tendering.
What is not clear, however, is whether this was to the financial disadvantage of the public |purse or merely a breach of practice, albeit an |unforgiveable one.
This newspaper has consistently been at the forefront of revelations of bad practice by NIW and maintains that the utility’s performance in all areas of operation must be examined in detail.
Mr Priestly’s suspension — which, it is being stressed, is not a disciplinary measure but merely to allow investigations to take place — does not have a direct bearing on how NIW went about its business and should not be allowed to distract from that issue.
The public needs to be assured that a proper system of governance is now in place in NIW, especially since water charges seem both inevitable and imminent.
That continues to be the real story in this whole sorry saga.