Belfast Telegraph

Probe urged after DUP accused of meddling in housing contracts row

'Recall Assembly over BBC Spotlight claims'


The SDLP has called for the Assembly to be recalled after a BBC investigation claimed to have uncovered major political interference in the running of the Housing Executive.

The allegations surfaced after a DUP councillor and Housing Executive board member said she was put under pressure by the party to change a board vote in relation to the Red Sky maintenance company.

The Housing Executive's contract with east Belfast-based Red Sky was terminated in 2011. This followed claims of substandard work and financial irregularities.

DUP Social Development Minster Nelson McCausland then argued for the contract to be maintained pending further investigation, suggesting there had been a sectarian bias in ending the arrangement.

He raised the possibility the firm was being targeted because it had a largely Protestant workforce.

The allegations of political interference centre around Jenny Palmer, a Lisburn DUP councillor.

She said she received a phone call from the minister's special adviser, Stephen Brimstone, asking her to change her vote to terminate Red Sky’s contract, despite her own feeling the firm should have its contract cancelled.

On the BBC's Spotlight programme last night she said: “He told me that he needed me to go against the decision of the board... I said I do not think I can do that. I went into shock.

“He said ‘the party comes first. You do what you're told’. Otherwise there was no point on me being on the board if I wasn't prepared to do what they asked me to do.”

She said she felt she could not trust senior party figures and eventually reported the undue pressure. Mr Brimstone has so far refused to comment, saying he disputed the programme’s accuracy of reporting.

Foyle SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan said the allegations needed to be probed and the Assembly should be recalled. He said: “We can't wait two months to get answers on this.”

Mr McCausland rejected any suggestions of wrongdoing and claimed all his actions were aimed at trying to ensure a smooth and open transition process for Housing Executive work.

Former Housing Executive chairman Brian Rowntree rejected all charges that Red Sky was singled out among contractors working for the public body, and said there was no bias shown.

He said Red Sky was terminated because of the extent of the financial performance problems, such as overcharging and work not being carried out. He’s now called for a full police and Serious Fraud Office investigation, as well as an independent inquiry.

The DUP said last night that it had no comment at this stage.

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