Belfast Telegraph

Water company 'could be scrapped'

A troubled water company at the heart of a long-running investigation into the awarding of contracts could be scrapped, Northern Ireland's regional development minister has warned.

Conor Murphy said Northern Ireland Water's (NIW) hybrid status as a government-owned company had not served the public well. One option would be to incorporate it back into the department.

At an evidence session at Stormont, the minister defended his decision last March to sack four members of the under-scrutiny business. An investigation team found that £28.5 million in contracts were issued without the work being properly tendered.

Mr Murphy said: "I do think it has been quite clear that the Goco (government-owned, contractor-operated) idea has not served us well, has left us in a hybrid situation which I don't think is acceptable going forward."

He is in discussions with his officials about how legislation could be passed to bring about the change within the tight framework imposed by next year's Assembly elections. He would need agreement from his ministerial Executive colleagues and there could be funding changes linked to Treasury rules.

The Sinn Fein minister told the regional development committee at Stormont the company had done a good job in upgrading Northern Ireland's ageing water and sewerage systems.

It was announced that Sir Jon Shortridge, the former permanent secretary of the Cardiff administration, will examine the events that led to the suspension of Paul Priestly from the Department of Regional Development last month.

The action against Mr Priestly came after claims he drafted a letter of complaint to a powerful Stormont scrutiny committee that was sent by one of a team of independent investigators probing the business of NIW.

The incident that prompted Mr Priestly's suspension related to later exchanges between one of the investigators and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which was also investigating the NIW affair.

Phoenix Gas chief executive Peter Dixon was unhappy with the tone and direction of some of the questions he faced from PAC members in July and wrote a letter of complaint.

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