Belfast Telegraph

McCausland urged to 'step aside'

A minister in the power-sharing executive is facing calls to step aside over allegations of political interference in the allocation of public housing contracts.

Democratic Unionist Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland has denied personal involvement in the awarding of property maintenance deals by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) which runs low-cost social accommodation, despite claims his staff pressured a member of the organisation's governing board in an effort to extend one multimillion-pound agreement.

The NIHE has suffered a series of scathing reports about shoddy workmanship and financial irregularities involving contractors and the Northern Ireland Assembly held a special meeting on Monday to discuss the latest disclosures.

The DUP blocked a motion calling for an inquiry into allegations of wrongful political interference, which was defeated.

Sinn Fein member Caitriona Ruane told the legislative chamber: "I am calling on the minister to do the honourable thing and step aside from his role as Social Development Minister upon completion of inquiry and investigative processes."

Sinn Fein are the main powersharing partners of the DUP.

Ms Ruane said the precedent had been set by Mr McCausland's party leader Peter Robinson, who temporarily stood down from his role as First Minister over an unrelated issue.

"Anything less will leave our political system open to ridicule, because his actions and the actions of his political adviser have created the thought in people's minds that politicians are more concerned about boxing off their political supporters than they are about conducting themselves with probity and fairness," the South Down MLA claimed.

The special Stormont meeting was called following a BBC television documentary which aired claims of DUP interference in public housing contracts given by the NIHE. The minister's special adviser, Stephen Brimstone, has said he did not accept the accuracy of the account of events given in a Spotlight programme.

He made an eight-minute phone call to DUP councillor Jenny Palmer, an NIHE board member, who said she was pressured to change her vote at a board meeting called in July 2011 to discuss the Housing Executive's contract with the Red Sky maintenance company. Its £8 million-a-year deal had been terminated four months earlier amid allegations that the east Belfast firm had overcharged for work on NIHE properties.

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