Belfast Telegraph

Sacking Northern Ireland Water bosses was the right thing to do, says Conor Murphy

By David Gordon

Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy is firmly standing by his sacking of four NI Water directors over the contracts debacle at the company.

In his first interview following the suspension of his department's top civil servant, Mr Murphy said the facts that prompted the NIW boardroom shake-up were not in question. These involved over 70 contracts — worth some £28m — being awarded without competitive tendering rules being followed.

Speaking last night from Germany, the minister told the Belfast Telegraph:

  • The decision to order an independent investigation into NIW contracts and axe the directors over the findings remained correct.
  • The suspension of his department's permanent secretary Paul Priestly on Tuesday was due to information only learned that day.
  • The outside review team that examined the NIW contracts issued had personally assured him their report was independent and backed up by clear evidence.

He did not comment on the specific details of the Priestly suspension, which followed a telephone conversation between him and the senior civil servant on Tuesday.

This newspaper revealed yesterday that the suspension stems from an angry letter sent to the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee last month.

It was from a member of the review team that examined the NI Water contracts, Peter Dixon, and objected to questions asked by MLAs about his independence.

It was learned within the civil service on Tuesday that Mr Priestly had helped draft the letter — and this led to his suspension.

Mr Murphy last night said: “I had a phone call from Paul Priestly. I considered what he told me to be quite serious. As a consequence of that, I phoned the Head of the Civil Service Bruce Robinson and made clear my feelings.

“Paul Priestly has been suspended pending an inquiry. So it's difficult for me to say in the middle of that what the detail of the conversation was.

“Suffice to say, I thought it was a serious issue. It was the first I had become aware of it.”

The minister said the matter that led to the suspension was “nothing to do with” a TV documentary on Monday night, airing criticism of Mr Priestly.

Mr Murphy said there had been a “whispering campaign” against the inquiry conducted by the independent review team.

“None of that changes what was actually the issue here. The issue here was that there were 78 odd contracts going out of NIW worth £28.5m that could not be stood over. The people charged by me with protecting the public interest in NIW's affairs were held by me to be accountable and I took appropriate action.”

How events unfolded

October 2009

NI Water contracts audit is ordered by new chief executive Laurence MacKenzie. This followed concerns over the way a big contract was awarded — without other firms being invited to tender.

January 2010

With the audit pinpointing wider problems, the |Department for Regional Development (DRD) — NI Water’s paymaster — sets up an independent team to examine the situation.

February 2010

The panel points the main blame at NIW board and |senior management. It also reports that the relationship |between the board and new chief |executive has |broken down.

March 2010

Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy axes four NI Water board members, including its chairman Chris Mellor. One of |those sacked, |businessman Declan Gormley, hits out.

July 2010

The Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee prepares to investigate the NI Water saga. It is confirmed that £28m in NIW contracts were awarded outside of rules on competition.

July 2010

PAC members condemn the water company’s procurement practices. Committee vice-chair Roy Beggs Jnr praises the NIW chief executive for uncovering the contract problems.

July 2010

MLAs sympathetic to Declan Gormley question the independence of the review team during the PAC hearing. Questions focus on whether team member Peter Dixon is a friend of Mr MacKenzie.

July 2010

Mr Dixon — head of gas company Phoenix — fires an angry letter to the PAC, denying the suggestions and threatening legal action. Phoenix publicly disowns the letter, which is withdrawn.

August 2010

UTV broadcasts a documentary, alleging that top DRD official Paul Priestly sought to influence the review panel’s conclusions. That is based on his |suggested changes to its draft report.

August 2010

On the day after the broadcast, Minister Conor Murphy is told Mr Priestly was involved in penning the controversial Peter Dixon letter to the PAC. This leads to the DRD official being suspended.

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