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Confidence in NI Water drips away following dismissals

Campaigners have said public confidence in one of Northern Ireland's most high profile Government bodies is in shreds after half its board was sacked over the mishandling of lucrative contracts.

Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy dismissed the chairman and three non-executive directors on the board of Northern Ireland Water after a damning report on the organisation.

The Belfast Telegraph yesterday revealed that four members of the NI Water board had been sacked following the critical independent report into the awarding of lucrative contracts by the quango.

The scandal is thought to relate to some 21 contracts worth in total more than £8m.

Chairman Chris Mellor as well as non-executive directors Declan Gormley, Ruth Thompson and John Ballard were dismissed by Mr Murphy following what he described as a “serious breakdown in the governance and control network of NI Water in relation to contract approvals”.

A further internal probe will now investigate if senior staff at NI Water should face disciplinary action after confirmation that major contracts were awarded without competitive tendering.

Last night, organisations from the General Consumer Council and trade unions to political parties voiced their disgust at the latest revelations.

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Antoinette McKeown, Consumer Council chief executive, said she was “appalled” and commended Mr Murphy for his swift action.

“Consumers will be demanding answers and have the right to know the financial implications of this mismanagement,” she said.

“They need to know that they are getting the best possible value for their money and the reality is now they don’t know.”

Ms McKeown said she wants to scrutinise the full detail of the report and backed an investigation into senior management at the body. The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said the news was “disturbing”.

Peter Bunting, its Assistant General Secretary, said: “These revelations would not have come to light had NI Water remained a Government company. If it was not for the principled stand of the trade unions in 2007, these revelations would not have come to light and the disturbing trends of how NI Water spends public money would continue.

“The bigger picture is that the Executive and local government spends over £2.5bn each year on public procurement. This case makes clear the essential need for greater independent oversight of how the public’s money is spent on procuring services from the private sector.”

Deputy chair of the Assembly's regional development committee, DUP MLA Michelle McIlveen, said: “This is a publicly-funded company, paid for with huge amounts of taxpayers' money, and there is a quite justifiable expectation that the public should have confidence in how that money is spent. The award of contracts needs to be clear, transparent and above all fair.”

Sinn Fein MLA and member of the regional development committee Raymond McCartney welcomed the sackings as “a move to redress serious failings in the governance of the body”.

SDLP regional development spokesperson Tommy Gallagher called for Mr Murphy to brief his committee on the situation.

Meanwhile Ulster Unionist MLA Fred Cobain queried how things had been allowed to develop to this point.

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