Belfast Telegraph

NI Water must shoulder blame

Editor's Viewpoint

The longer the dispute which has left thousands of people without water goes on, the greater will be public anger in the affected areas and with great justification. For they have been badly let down by an essential public utility.

As we said yesterday, the work-to-rule by staff of Northern Ireland Water, which means essential repairs or maintenance cannot be done out of normal working hours, is now intolerable. Consumers are suffering great hardship, in some cases even melting snow or carrying water from rivers to perform household chores.

But, as we reveal elsewhere in this newspaper today, management must also take its share of the blame.

Its work practices are not fit for purpose in an utility on which consumers place such reliance. The overwhelming majority of its staff work between the hours of 8am and 6pm, meaning that any problems outside those hours have to be dealt with on an overtime basis.

That left the company wide open to this industrial action by the unions who are objecting to changes in their pension plans.

But what is even more galling for consumers who have been hit by the industrial action is that people in the east of Northern Ireland have not been affected and are unlikely to be so. Four main water treatment plants in the east are operated by a private company whose staff are not involved in the overtime ban.

There are even suggestions that consumers are pawns in a who-blinks-first stand-off between staff and management at NI Water, with management hoping that public anger will force the unions to call off their action. That would be an unforgivable scenario, putting customers through quite unnecessary hardship.

While Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has called on the two sides to continue talking to resolve the dispute, many people would like him to take a more hands-on approach. NI Water's proposed changes to staff pensions are merely following Stormont Executive policy on public sector pensions, so Mr Kennedy has a duty to help bring this dispute to an end.

When the dispute does end, NI Water must look at its working practices and devise systems which ensure that consumers are protected as far as possible at all times. Currently its structures are simply not up to scratch.

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