Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

How so much of our money is being washed down the drain

Pay up for water or the old folks get it!

That seems to be the message from the Department for Regional Development which let it be known this week that it may not have the money after all to deliver free travel to the over-60s.

Before proceeding with any plan to boot old ladies off the buses, Minister Conor Murphy might consider the recent experience of political lookalike Brian Lenihan down South who is believed still to be whimpering under a table in the Department of Finance as pensioners prowl the streets outside seeking revenge for his attempt to snatch their medical cards back. Don’t do it, Conor. Not worth it.

One of the reasons for the DRD shortfall, apparently, is that deferring water charges until 2010 will cost the Department £420m. At any rate, that’s the figure in a leaked document quoted on Newsline on Tuesday. It doesn’t conform to any previous estimate of a two-year take from water charges.

But trying to tease out the truth of this particular point would be an exercise in abstraction, there being no possibility of the DRD or anybody else brow-beating the mass of the people into coughing up for water charges over the next two years. Or, the two after that, either. Or, looking at the lie of the land, ever.

Meanwhile, a further suggestion, that DRD difficulties might be eased by trashing the rail service, is unlikely to find favour with the growing proportion of the population which sees the sense of letting the train take the strain.

The annual number of rail passengers has increased from six million to 10 million over recent years. Many will find it hard to understand how cutting back on a service putting in that sort of performance could help solve a problem of resources.

But then, management of resources at the DRD and its semi-detached agencies constitutes a mystery wrapped in an enigma designed by a consultant.

In November 2006, the Department defended having paid consultants £18m for advice on water service ‘reform’ on the basis that the ‘reforms’ would ‘free up £300m by the end of the decade for health, education and transport’. Anybody at the DRD care to defend that statement now?

The extent of evasion and depth of confusion within the Department was clear in the response to a series of questions posed to the Minister last July by unions representing water workers. The questions included: why are so many outside contractors being used on jobs which Northern Ireland Water (NIW) staff are more than capable of doing?

Why was no pilot study carried out before the introduction of a £26m Mobile Work Management System which is not working — just as the unions had warned? Why, in the current pay and grading review, are senior managers being bench-marked against cross-channel water companies, while industrial staff are being benchmarked against companies like Asda: particularly when Asda does have senior managers, but has no equivalent of water-service industrial workers?

How much has been spent by NIW management on corporate events since the inception of the company? How much are the consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) currently being paid for “advising” NIW? Will the Minister give an assurance that NIW won’t be privatised?

The response came on September 29 in a document signed by Mr Murphy’s private secretary, Lynne McElhinney. Here’s the answer to the query on the use of outside contractors: “Use of contractors has been part of NIW and Water Service’s activity for over 15 years. Over recent months there has been a significant rationalisation of the Company network of operations contractors to reduce cost, improve services to customers and compliance.”

Why were union warnings ignored and no pilot scheme undertaken before the £26m ‘toughbook’ project was introduced? “There have inevitably been a number of ‘teething problems’ associated with the roll-out of this technology, but NIW has expressed confidence that the feedback and improvement process will address these.”

Why the different bases for setting managers’ pay and ‘ordinary’ workers’ pay? No answer.

How much is PwC costing the Department? Question ignored.

How much has been spent on corporate events? No answer.

Would the Minister give an assurance that NIW won’t be privatised? Question ignored.

In fairness to Conor Murphy, he won’t have drafted any of these answers and non-answers. And that’s the problem. Our public services are not being run by ministers accountable to elected representatives entitled to straight answers but, increasingly, by a consortium of business interests concerned only for profit, vastly overpaid ‘consultants’ and the brigade of pin-stripes in the upper ranks of the civil service.

Earlier this year, the Independent Water Panel headed by Professor Paddy Hillyard rejected the idea of winding up NI Water and bringing the service back within the Department: to do so “would cost our public expenditure budget over £90m per year and increasing”. In light of all the above, sounds cheap at half the price.

And incidentally, recalling the many assurances from the Minister and others that privatisation of water has been entirely ruled out, note the non-answer to the unions’ request for a repeat of this assurance.

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