Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Public needs to be reassured on NIW

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.

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