Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Profligacy of public body unacceptable

When the members of the Stormont Public Accounts Committee meet tomorrow to discuss the work of Northern Ireland Water they will have plenty of questions to pose.

For the body, financed by the taxpayer, stands accused of not following competitive tendering and value for money rules on 70 occasions. The contracts involved totalled more than £28m.

From the evidence in the public domain so far - much of it as a result of cases highlighted by this newspaper - there appears to be a prima facie case of sloppiness and failure on a totally unacceptable scale to adhere to normal rules of working for publicly funded bodies.

The latest instance involves a consultancy firm that was hired by Northern Ireland Water to help the body get out of an existing contract. No other firms were invited to tender for the work and approval for the hiring of the firm was not sought. There is no suggestion of any impropriety on the part of the consultants - who claim they saved NIW much more than their £500,000 for 10 months work - and they cannot be blamed for accepting the work. In another separate example of inefficiency a three-year technical contract awarded in 1999 was still running 11 years later.

In the warm afterglow of the restoration of devolution when public finances seemed plentiful, there was an undoubted lazy acceptance of the way public bodies worked in Northern Ireland among the general populace. But those days are long gone. Value for money is now the byword at a time when public services are under threat.

The only saving grace in the whole sorry history of NIW has been the prompt action by Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy and the body's new chief executive to set the body on a new footing and to initiate an investigation into what went on before. Taxpayers will expect the Public Accounts Committee to get to the bottom of the waste at NIW and to ensure that it is not repeated - ever.

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