Belfast Telegraph

NI Water confident it can address issue of rising debt

By Rebecca Black

NI Water is battling spiralling debt along with plummeting profits, it can be revealed.

Top officials from the organisation are set to be questioned by members of the Department for Regional Development Committee (DRD) today.

The grilling follows a review of NI Water's annual report and accounts for 2014-15, carried out by the Public Finance Scrutiny Unit.

The report, seen by the Belfast Telegraph, questions a number of payments made off payroll, the £145,000-£150,000 pay packet of NI Water chief Sara Venning, an increase in loans and debts, a drop in profits and a low number of female workers.

A source close to the DRD Committee said NI Water appeared to be in a "shambolic state" and questioned its liquidity. A spokesman for NI Water said it was confident it can address the issues raised.

NI Water's debt has increased from £19m to £23m, its loans have increased by £33m and its profits are down by £50m since 2013-14.

The study found that NI Water's annual report failed to publish sickness absence data and personal data-related incidents. It also questions the salary of chief executive Venning (right).

She receives a salary in the band from £145,000 to £150,000 - almost six times the median remuneration of the workforce (£24,796).

NI Water said the drop in median salary compared to the chief executive was because of the payment of salary arrears to former employees and a reduction in the overtime payments made to employees during the year, along with increased numbers of apprentices and part-time employees. The report also highlights that just 21% of its workforce is female.

It concludes that there are a "number of areas where transparency could be enhanced".

NI Water is one of Northern Ireland's largest companies.

It was originally set up as a Government-owned company in April 2007. Following the Assembly's decision to defer the introduction of domestic water charges, it now receives the majority of its funding via subsidy. This subsidy means it is now designated as a Non-Departmental Public Body.

NI Water has experienced some turbulence in previous years, having had five chief executives in eight years.

In late 2010, some 450,000 people were left without supply after freezing weather caused chaos. More than 40,000 homes were off mains supply and at the height of the crisis, there were one million calls to NI Water. Some were left without water for more than a week.

Former NI Water chief executive Laurence MacKenzie resigned in the wake of the crisis.

The previous year, chairman and interim chief executive Chris Mellor and three other board members were sacked over controversy regarding the awarding of contracts.

Its first chief executive, Kathryn Bryan, left in 2008 in the wake of controversy surrounding the miscalculation of future revenue.

Ms Venning replaced Trevor Haslett, who stepped down in August 2013 citing "personal reasons".

A spokesman for NI Water said it was continuing to transform infrastructure.

"NI Water's annual report and accounts have been subject to a full audit from three perspectives - statutory accounts, regularity and the regulatory accounts," he added.

"In respect of all audits conducted, their accounts are confirmed as not subject to any qualifications, giving a true and fair view and are prepared in accordance with the company's licence conditions.

"It should be noted that the figures relating to the level of debt, remuneration and profit were contained in our annual report and accounts, which were published in September and which have been open to scrutiny since then.

"This report is reflective of a company which has continued to successfully transform delivery of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland.

"Since 2007/08, we have invested £1.7bn in Northern Ireland's water and wastewater infrastructure. This is helping us to improve our processes to deliver higher levels of service to our customers, become more efficient and see us better placed to prepare for the challenges which lie ahead."

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