NI Water: Why did MacKenzie break up NIW’s commercial review team?

With the inclusion of a submission to the PAC from Contracting Out, the NI Audit Office team will almost certainly spotlight NI Water’s customer service and IT contract with Steria Ltd.

Not least since this is the only part of the initial controversy that substantially touches on the value for money issue.

For all the accusations flowing in the direction of the sacked NEDs, it is important to note that Mr MacKenzie was given a detailed briefing on his arrival in post by previous acting CEO and then Chair Chris Mellor on a number of failures and over payments the company’s commercial review team believed they had identified in this Contract.

Mellor also informed him of a court action, NI Water vs Steria, that had recently been initiated through the Court of Chancery (Case 09/069974). However, once Laurence McKenzie took over the reins of the company he abandoned this aggressive tack. Shortly after, this action was dropped.

Now, Steria is suing NI Water for monies which Steria alleges were improperly withheld from it under a separate action in the Queens Bench (Case 09/102351). This case is subject to the laws of sub judice, so that the issues directly at play there cannot be discussed.

Further, MacKenzie thereafter retrenched the Commercial Director, David Gilmour, who had been leading a wider investigation into procurement issues (and had in the process exceeded a DRD-set savings target of £15.3 million by £10 million), out of the business.

He also then dispersed Gilmour’s investigation team (led by Contracting Out) who had been conducting a commercial review of the Steria Contract.

Now, whilst it may not affect the final outcome, defending the Steria action, as opposed to leading an NI Water action, may have the rather convenient effect of narrowing the amount of detailed information that is likely to come to light. Perhaps this was the intention?

But the Public Accounts Committee and the NI Audit Office’s investigative team should look for a great deal more contextual information from the papers lodged with the court in respect of the first, now completed, action begun in June 2009.

Our current understanding is that these can be got hold of by those with a sufficient interest (fee of £150) through application to the Judge Master.

Now there’s an interesting twist in this constantly twisting tale. In the course of our research, we discovered that the Managing Director for Steria Ltd was a local boy called Paul Wickens (LinkedIn profile here).

By January 2009, NI Water was informed that Mr Wickens was no longer with Steria Ltd. And by August 2009 (around the same time MacKenzie started at NI Water) he took up a post as under Secretary at DFP.

Steria’s action against Northern Ireland Water began on September 18th 2009. Intriguingly, the company’s writ lists a ‘P Wickens’ as the contact for Steria.

Now, let me be clear. I am not suggesting for a moment there is a causal link here (and nor should anyone else). But I think we should be told exactly what was going on…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty