Belfast Telegraph

Water chairman ‘blocked contracts probe evidence’

By David Gordon

Northern Ireland Water’s ex-chairman has been accused of trying to block key evidence from the investigation into the company’s contract practices.

The allegation, made in a submission to MLAs, involves audit findings on the full scale of contract rule breaches.

The ex-chairman, Chris Mellor, has defended his actions, insisting that the emerging evidence should have been a matter for the NIW board “in the first instance”.

MLAs have been told the investigation team only obtained the audit findings after the Department for Regional Development stepped in.

Mr Mellor was among the NI Water directors subsequently dismissed by minister Conor Murphy in March, over the company's failure to follow rules on ensuring competition for contracts.

The investigation panel — the IRT (independent review team) — has stayed silent amid intense controversy in recent weeks.

But it has made a detailed submission to the Assembly Public Accounts Committee, strongly defending its work.

The IRT was appointed by Mr Murphy's department in January to investigate contract practices. This followed an internal NIW audit report flagging up concerns.

A wider-reaching “deep dive” examination of contracts by NI Water's auditors was also initiated.

The independent review team asked for access to the emerging “deep dive” findings, before completing the first draft of its report. That request was blocked by Mr Mellor, prompting the department’s intervention.

In its submission to MLAs, the review team stated: “The IRT was aware of the deep dive audit and its early findings from its fact finding interviews.

“This work was progressing in parallel to the IRT fieldwork and the IRT had requested to be updated on the emerging findings on a number of occasions prior to the issue of draft one.

“However, the material evidence had been withheld from the IRT upon the instruction of the chair of NIW to the head of NIW Internal Audit designate.”

The submission to the committee also said the deep dive findings “increased substantially” the significance of the contract rule breaches.

Responding to the review team's comments, Mr Mellor issued a detailed statement to the Belfast Telegraph.

He said: “The IRT terms of reference said that they were to confine their review to the original Internal Audit (IA) report.

“The Board were very clear from the outset that the issues identified in the IA report (which lets not forget the Board commissioned) should not have happened.

“When the first draft of the IRT report failed to find what DRD seemed to be looking for, there was then it seemed a desperate scramble to find more ‘evidence’ hence the so called 'deep dive exercise'.

“As this was outside the terms of reference of the IRT and given the lack of due process around the first IA report I told Internal Audit that in the first instance the “deep dive” was a matter for the Board to deal with — ie establish the facts first.

“In the event this attempt to bring some order in to the chaos this was all causing in the business proved futile as DRD set aside the original terms of reference and the emerging raw data was given to the IRT.”

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