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Northern Ireland Water: Questions the committee still needs answered

It took the Public Accounts Committee almost three-and-a-half hours to wade through its long list of questions on the NI Water contracts fiasco.

Drawing its draining session to a close yesterday evening, chairman Paul Maskey joked that an “articulated lorry” might be needed for all the follow-up information already requested by Members.

The MLAs have asked for further details on issues involving a list of individuals and companies, including:

Chris Mellor - the sacked chairman of the NIW Board who also served as its stand-in chief executive for 14 months.

Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin asked for information on other public body positions held by Mr Mellor. He was told by top Department for Regional Development official Paul Priestly that none of these other roles are in Northern Ireland.

Mr Mellor sits on the board of Monitor, a Government-appointed body that oversees NHS trusts in England. Mr McLaughlin pointed to media reports that Mr Mellor was dismissed as head of an English water company, Anglian Water, in 2003.

Contracting Out - a company headed by a senior consultant adviser to NI Water, Sue Holmes.

The PAC has asked for a 2009 internal audit report on a contract awarded to this firm without competition.

It was this audit that led to a wider review of contractual practices, leading eventually to the NI Water boardroom sackings and yesterday's hearing.

NI Water chief executive |Laurence MacKenzie told |MLAs that he received an |email last August — a fortnight into his job — on a proposed continuation of a contract with Contracting Out.

He said this involved 130 days’ work by the firm at £775 per day.

“When I did the arithmetic, at over £100,000 it didn't seem to me to be good value for money,” he stated.

Mr MacKenzie said the head of Contracting Out had been on the management board of the Water Service — NIW's predecessor body — and had a director's title.

She was not an employee as she had been on secondment, but she “carried all the influence an employee might have had”, he said.

Mr Priestly added: “It gives rise to a perception.”

Ms Holmes has defended her firm Contracting Out's work |for NIW, telling the Belfast Telegraph its fees were funded “many times over” by savings achieved.

Mr MacKenzie told yesterday's hearing the contract with Ms Holmes also had a 6% “success fee” for savings “identified” rather than “delivered” on another contract.

“At that point in time, this individual was saying to us ‘I've identified savings of £23m’,” he added.

Board members - It was clear at yesterday's hearing |that some PAC members had |serious concerns over the decision in March to sack four of the five non-executive board members.

Mr Priestly told the hearing that the fifth non-executive board member - senior banker Don Price - was not dismissed as his attitude to the contract issues was different to the other directors.

He said Mr Price recognised the seriousness of the issues |and had been praised by the independent review panel that reviewed the situation.

PAC member Patsy McGlone read from an NI Water email, which he said had been sent by Mr Price in February.

This email criticised the review panel, claiming it “from the outset has seemed determined to find governance failures by the board rather than working with the board to ensure the necessary corrective actions”, the PAC was told.

Belfast Telegraph