Belfast Telegraph

No contract interference - minister

By Michael McHugh

A minister in Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration has emphatically rejected allegations of political interference in the handling of public housing contracts.

Democratic Unionist Housing Minister Nelson McCausland said he had never been personally involved in the awarding of Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) property maintenance deals, despite claims his staff pressured a member of the organisation's governing board in an effort to extend one multimillion-pound agreement.

The Housing Executive's future is in doubt following a series of scathing reports about shoddy workmanship and financial irregularities involving contractors for the troubled 40-year-old body, and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers faces calls to oversee an inquiry.

Mr McCausland said: "I can assure you categorically that I have never sought to influence any contracts, neither this nor any other contract, indeed neither do I have any role in this. This is, as I have always advised, an operational matter for the Housing Executive alone, they make the decisions."

The police faced calls to launch an investigation after separate allegations of corruption at the Executive, not related to Mr McCausland or any of his DUP colleagues, were broadcast in a television programme.

The BBC's Spotlight team conducted an interview with DUP councillor and NIHE board member Jenny Palmer, who said she was put under pressure by her party to change her vote at a board meeting. It was called in July 2011 to discuss the Housing Executive's contract with the Red Sky maintenance company.

The £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. Red Sky has admitted that it mistakenly charged the Housing Executive for work on two apartment blocks that no longer exist. The firm, which employed 450 people, was ultimately placed in administration.

The Executive was to vote on a request from Mr McCausland to extend the NIHE contract, which he said was so arrangements could be put in place for a proper retendering process.

Ms Palmer told Spotlight that Mr McCausland's political special adviser, Stephen Brimstone, phoned her ahead of the meeting and asked her to vote against the board's decision to refuse Mr McCausland's request.

Mr McCausland told a committee of Stormont MLAs that the phone call lasted a very short time. "I had no confidence that we were not in a situation of taking one contract off one company and handing it across to another company that might be just as bad," he said.

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