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Staff warned to keep files on Civil Service offices sale

Civil Service chiefs have warned staff to retain all documents linked to a controversial plans to sell off Northern Ireland Government buildings.

The instruction comes ahead of a court challenge to the Workplace 2010 privatisation scheme for a string of publicly-owned properties.

The blueprint involves some 80 civil service offices being sold to a private sector operator and then leased back to the Government over a 20-year period. Offices would also be refurbished and given open-plan settings.

Workplace 2010 is facing a Commercial Court challenge from a company which missed out in the race to land the lucrative contract.

In advance of the legal proceedings, civil servants have been advised that all documents held by staff about the sell-off should not be destroyed.

One internal Government circular, seen by the Belfast Telegraph, said: " This applies to paper documents and those held in any electronic system.

"In this context, the definition of 'documents' includes anything in which information of any description is recorded, including electronic documents, photographs, plans etc."

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The memo, from a departmental information manager, explained that the advice was being issued in line with the Government's obligations as a defendant in the forthcoming Commercial Court case.

It also said: "Any recipient who is holding any paper or electronic 'documents' relating to Workplace 2010 should inform me by return that they hold such information."

Government buildings earmarked for inclusion in the sale include the Dundonald House tower block within the Stormont estate, and the nearby Castle Buildings complex, where the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998.

The legal challenge is being taken by a consortium called Partenaire, which includes well-known Northern Ireland development company McAleer and Rushe.

Partenaire was one of four short-listed bidders for the purchase of the Government offices. But it lost out earlier this year when the shortlist was pared down to two companies.

The consortium recently sought leave for a High Court judicial review case. The judge in that hearing, Mr Justice Weatherup, said other courses were open to it and switched the case to the Commercial Court. Proceedings are due to begin next month.

The Workplace 2010 sale has been put on hold by the judge in the interim period.

However, Government lawyers are expected to battle against a long-term delay in the contractual process.

Partenaire's legal team has submitted that the rejection of its bid was " tainted by either actual or apparent bias".

The Department of Finance, which is in charge of the privatisation scheme, has vowed to vigorously defend its position.

A major delay in the sell-off could have significant financial implications for the devolved administration at Stormont.

According to its current timescale, the sale is due to be concluded next year. A payment - possibly in the region of £200m - could then come into the Executive's coffers.

Workplace 2010 critics argue that it will prove costly in the long-run by saddling the public purse with long-term payments for use of the buildings.

The cross-party Executive has yet to formally endorse the scheme, although Finance Minister Peter Robinson is believed to be on board.

A report on Workplace 2010 by the Assembly's Finance Committee in June concentrated primarily on technical points connected to the contract and did not call for the buildings sale to be scrapped.

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