NI Water: DRD kept their ‘demonstrable independence’ hidden from Commissioner

Yesterday’s written answer from the Minister of DRD to Patsy McGlone’s AQW will bring some disquiet, particularly in light of the aribitrary manner by which his department dealt with the last Board at NI Water.

What DRD understands by the word ‘independent’ is not something many people in business or the wider world would recognise. But this is DRD world, where ‘independence’ – it seems – is just a state of mind…

For example the minister tells us he received an agreement from Commission of public appointments to use ‘an emergency process’ to appoint an interim board on 24th March of this year. However, Slugger understands that that’s the last the Commissioner heard of it and the Department has been keeping her out of the loop ever since.

Here’s Murphy’s full response:

Mr Patsy McGlone (Mid Ulster): To ask the Minister for Regional Development whether procedures in relation to the Code of Practice for public appointments were followed in the appointment of the new interim Board of NI Water.

(AQW 8472/10)

Minister for Regional Development: In circumstances where the Department had to move quickly pending the running of a full public appointments process I agreed to the Department using an emergency process to fill the four non-executive positions. The Department then discussed the proposed process with the Commissioner for Public Appointments (Felicity Huston) to seek her support to deviate from the normal appointments process.

The Commissioner gave her consent on 24 March 2010 to the Department’s proposed arrangements for the interim appointments, on the basis that there would be a demonstrable element of independent participation in the assessment process. Selection criteria for the four interim appointments were based on business and stakeholder needs. A ‘long list’ of potential candidates was drawn up and these individuals were contacted to gauge their level of interest. Potential candidates were asked to submit CV’s if they wished to be considered. Interviews or “conversations with a purpose” were then held by a panel which included an Independent Assessor. Recommendations were then made to me for consideration. [Emphasis added]

Yet, despite such assurances to the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Slugger understands that the Minister subsequently kept her in the dark in respect of all stages of the process he has used to appoint the four new interim Non Executives to the Board.

And what of the ‘independent assessor’ on the interview panel? Well, who were they? And how can a process be demonstrably independent if no one who is genuinely independent can actually see (never mind oversee) the process?

So, who was in charge of the process? Who was on the long list? Who was shortlisted? Your FOI questions on a postcard/email to the by now overworked bods at the FOI office at DRD.

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  • Similar FOI in other appointments to other commissions might be similarly interesting.

  • Mick Fealty

    We might also ask how a ‘conversation with a purpose’ is defined in the senior civil servants *unexpurgated* handbook?

  • Cynic

    Not just who was on the long list….why were they on the long list and who recommended that they be there? Where did the long list come from and how come so many people politically sympathetic to the Minister and opposed to water privatisation made the cut?

    This stinks worse than the new Belfast sewer system

  • Cynic

    Also, that was March…this is July almost 4 months later. So where is the advert for the permanent Board members? They have the criteria and job and person specs so what is the delay?

  • Pigeon Toes

    Ye beat me to it!!

  • Pigeon Toes

    “It certainly gives rise to a perception” that DRD civil servants are riding roughshod over due process, be it to facilitate their own “old boys network” or that of the Ministers…

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Felicity Huston (née McCormick I believe) was a big noise in the NI Conservative Party a few years back.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    and Womens Coalition too.
    With a share of 1.1% in East Belfast in 1996, this qualifies her to be “appointed” as Commissioner for Public Appointments. Now that would be an interesting FOI request.
    Former Inland Revenue Inspector and now a tax consultant and also on House of Lords Appointments Commission.
    The girl dun good.

  • “I agreed to the Department using an emergency process”

    Can we see the exchange of correspondence? Just in case the Minister is being less than candid.

  • Pigeon Toes

    One imagines that even Ms Huston will have had previous dealings with both Mr Mc Kenzie and Mr Dixon in some of her other roles

  • Pigeon Toes

    You are aware that the response to such an FOI might well be along the lines of “FOI only entitles you to *information*, and not copies of documents”

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I couldnt possibly say.

  • Cynic


    Drafting the request is everything. The act says that:

    “information” (subject to sections 51(8) and 75(2)) means information recorded in any form;”

    so they cannot escape but you may have to grind them down

    I suggest and initial request asking for a copy of the documents then if they try the line ‘ you are only entitled to information not copies’ ask for

    “all text and other information in whatever form contained within the document including any annotations, notes or other manuscript additions to the original document”

    If they don’t deliver it complain. When they reject the complain complain to the ICO

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Murphy’s reponse :

    “The Department then discussed the proposed process with the Commissioner for Public Appointments (Felicity Huston) to seek her support to deviate from the normal appointments process.”

    If Murphy did ‘deviate’ with agreement then the statment below needs to clarified/confirmed as to what exactly is meant by not using ‘normal appointment process’ – her statment seems at odds with Murphy’s that she was given ‘assurances’. It would be interesting to know if Murphy is denying this.

    “Yet, despite such assurances to the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Slugger understands that the Minister subsequently kept her in the dark in respect of all stages of the process he has used to appoint the four new interim Non Executives to the Board.”

  • Pigeon Toes

    “Interviews or “conversations with a purpose”

    That’s just brilliant…

  • Mick Fealty

    What statement would that be Sammy?

  • Granni Trixie

    Men, men, men. Again.

  • Some of these relationships are to be a little bit, er, incestuous. NIEH is now called Mutual Energy [pdf file]. Huston is a ME NED where one of her roles is to sit on membership selection panel.

    “The Membership Selections Committee procures candidates through two routes:
    (a) requests to key stakeholders and consumer groups determined by the Membership Selections Committee to put forward candidates for consideration; and
    (b) an open and transparent recruitment process similar to that used for public appointments.”

    Should the Commissioner for Public Appointments be intimately involved in this MSC process?

  • Granni, Ms Huston is a woman 🙂

  • Pigeon Toea

    NIW Board Members
    Lian advised WBR that the legislation requirements for appointing Board members, would be examined more fully after the temporary Board appointees had completed their term. Guidance would issue in due course.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    I was simply referring to your statement below and whether Murphy thought that ‘devitating’ from the normal process meant he was not under obligation to involve the Commissioner.

    “Yet, despite such assurances to the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Slugger understands that the Minister subsequently kept her in the dark in respect of all stages of the process he has used to appoint the four new interim Non Executives to the Board.”

  • Mick Fealty

    And you are counting trees again when you should be after wood Nev… 😉

  • Mick Fealty

    You messin’ with my Gender man?

  • William Markfelt

    ‘this is DRD world, where ‘independence’ – it seems – is just a state of mind…’

    Not just the DRD. The entire NI Assembly and Civil Serve, and all government agencies within NI are rotten and corrupt to the core.

    As for ‘independence’, you need to look at the NI Audit Office’s incestuous relationships with certain government bodies. It makes the NIW saga look like good, wholesome sex.

  • Pigeon Toes

    This gave me a chuckle in light of some very obvious gaps…

  • Pigeon Toes

    In all of this I cannot actually believe there would exist a documented contingency plan for just such an “emergency procedure”.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “would not”

  • Hogan

    See schedule 3:

    Can someone please tell me what the f*ck ‘whole brain thinking’ is? but perhaps more importantly why anyone in DRD would have even considered that the public should pay for such balleex.

    I know the public sector need to be more open than most when it comes to employment & equality but surely we can draw the line at ameba with incomplete brains?

  • Pigeon Toes

    How to use the other cell?

  • Granni Trixie

    Nevin,sorry I ought to clarify, whatever the flawed process involved, it ended up with 4 men appointed.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘How to use the other cell?;

    Priestly gets to use it Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

    McKenzie on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

    There’s a custody battle for Sundays, but they’ll probably be able to sort that out following a conversation with a purpose.

  • William Markfelt

    Perhaps a focus group to think outside the box and indulge in some blue sky thinking would be the best way to touch base on that issue and get our ducks in a row on a few idea showers.

    A couple of paradigm shifts for the stakeholders and we can downsize twats like P******y and Mc******.

    (names withheld to protect the not so innocent).

  • Mick, I think you may have hit the wrong ‘reply’ . What do wood and trees have to do with gender? 😉

  • Hello WM

    Are you suggesting that NIAO too has conflicts of interest
    and by extension an “agenda” other than its duties and responsibilities as laid down in legislation? And how might this manifest itself?


  • William, the NIW saga is the Rathlin ferry saga for slow learners 😉

  • Drumlin Rock

    I should have joined the Womens Coalition, guarnteed way to a cushy Quango job.

  • Drumlin Rock

    has the Womens Coalition ran out of former members already?

  • William Markfelt


    The NIAO has, shall we say, a very close working relationship with certain bodies and some of its officers even closer relationships with certain figures in public life, to the extent that this NIW issue is really quite small beer. Nevin refers to the Rathlin Island ferry matter, for one.

    But there are other instances of dubious practices. This is not, probably, the forum on which to outline these, certainly not without being able to support them with ‘evidence’ of an agenda, and more to the point, the veracity of this ‘evidence’.

    Put it like this: I have strong suspicions of wrong doing by officers of the NIAO, and I am in receipt of some some emails to that effect, but the last body I would whistle-blow this information to is the likes of the NIAO, who have a track record regarding whistleblowing.

    And given the performances of some members of the PAC in the Water Board video on ‘Democracy Live’, I’m unconvinced that they have the necessary intelligence to deal with this information accordingly, particularly as some of them appear to be involved in a very public ‘old boys club’ regarding apointees.

  • Thanks WM

    Mind how you go.

  • drumlins rock

    I see another set of NEDs have been appointed by the OFMDFM, the two ladys look like strong community based workers, but the 2 gentlemen once again looks like the “usual suspects” with multiple quango posts and civil service or banking background. Quangoland seems to be as incestuious as a hillbilly wedding.

  • Cynic

    So people with business background are the usual suspects and community workers aren’t?

  • William Markfelt

    ‘So people with business background are the usual suspects and community workers aren’t?’

    Of course.

    How many ordinary Joes are involved in these things?

    It’s amazing that A knows B via their involvement in C, which subsequently leads B to invite A to participate in D on such a regular basis.

    Old boys network and old school/church/sports club/Rotarians/Golf Club tie at work.

  • drumlins rock

    no Cynic, business background is what you want, but it seems to be mainly bankers and former civil servants (particularly from the former IDB) who fill these roles on multiple boards. As for community workers they are a mixed bag! many are saints but some are spongers, and others quasi civil servants, each one needs looked at on their record.

  • Big Maggie

    Och, why is anybody surprised by this nepotism? It isn’t as though we lead the field in Northern Ireland. You only have to look at Italy to see how things are done in much of the world beyond our shores.

    And I have to concede that it took me all of 50 years to figure out how the world works. There I was in my innocence imagining that the best man/woman always won! Little did I know that it’s usually mediocrity that begets mediocrity – which goes some way towards explaining why a cancer patient in the North must wait nine months before being seen by the doctor who could save her life.

    What I’m saying is that we’re not the worst. We get by. I’ve long given up the hope that we can have qualified people directing our public services. We won’t. They’ll be terribly inferior. But not so inferior as elsewhere in the world. Somalia, anyone?

    All that said, let’s hold these wankers to account. One of my sons had to undergo a grilling in order to qualify as a candidate for a public-sector job, and he’s actually over qualified. He tells me that his interviewers left much to be desired and came across as being – how shall I put this? – as thick as pigshite.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘What I’m saying is that we’re not the worst.;

    I’m not about to disagree with you on anything you’ve said, Big Maggie, but while our lot may not be the worst globally, they’re certainly OUR worst, and we have a right to demand that they are put under the magnifying glass and held to account for crimes against the great unwashed.

    I don’t think, in this entire NIW saga, with claims of contracts allegedly being ‘bad value for money’, that we should be disallowed the opportunity to poke and poke and poke at public servants who, equally, appear to be ‘bad value for money’.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘DRD civil servants are riding roughshod over due process, be it to facilitate their own “old boys network” or that of the Ministers…’

    What due process? It appears that in many of these cases a kangaroo court convenes to undertake what John Dallat correctly identified as ‘show trials’.

    Apart from NIW, there are other cases that have slipped under the radar. Were it not for the likes of Nevin’s excellent work as a privateer blogger (I’ve read his blog) I suspect that the Rathlin Island ferry farce would also have slipped beneath the waves, at least as far as our ‘government’ was concerned.

    In that, there were as many lies told as there are in the Water saga, but it largely remains outside the public consciousness.

    Where are our investigative reporters? Are they being bought and sold by the politicians? Certainly, the Stormont Village mentality was apparent -and stage managed- when Peter Robinson did his nauseating ‘Iris’s indiscretions’ thing on TV with a bunch of trusted hacks.

    Are certain journalists being ‘bought’ by the promise of being kept in the loop, as opposed to being ostracised?

  • William Markfelt

    ‘a big noise in the NI Conservative Party’

    A big noise in the NI Tories?

    I can’t be the only one thinking that that reads like a Spinal Tap-ism.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘Are you suggesting that NIAO too has conflicts of interest’

    Priestly has already admitted running crying to them for ‘support’.

    Now, either they ignored him to maintain an independent stance on this, or else they talked to him sympathetically, in which case their ‘independence’ (they have none) is up for debate, and we need to know from NIAO what was said. There must be minutes of meetings (unless it was merely a conversation with a purpose).

    I think Priestly’s statement very much makes apparent a conflict of interest.

    As a side issue, who audits the NIAO? If I, like McKenzie, had ‘concerns’ about them not providing ‘value for money’, who would I go to?

  • Pigeon Toes

    And as Mr Priestly pointed out, Northern Ireland is a small place…

    Some of the criticisms that have been levelled at the NAO include the following:

    It is not sufficiently accountable. Although the NAO publicly scrutinises other public bodies, the scrutiny that it is subjected to is not fully transparent. Its reports are subject to external review both before and after publication by teams of academics from Oxford University and the London School of Economics. These reviews consider whether the methods, findings and conclusions of the reports are sound, and have on occasion found the intellectual basis of the reports to be thin. The results of the reviews are not, however, made public.
    Its reports are neutral and cautious. This criticism stems from the normal way in which the reports are written. Initial drafts of reports are shared with the department(s) about which they are written. This begins a process of ‘clearance’, during which all facts are agreed between the NAO and departments. The reason for this is to give the PAC a mutually agreed report on which to base its later hearing; the hearing would be pointless if the departmental witnesses were able to disagree with the findings of the report. In practice, the clearance process is said to lead to a watering down of the initial draft, with the most contentious early findings removed at the behest of the department (and never, therefore, made public).
    Failure to publish. In extreme cases where information is too politically sensitive, a report is not published. The often quoted case is their 1992 investigation into the Al Yamamah arms deal where due to ongoing legal investigations the report has not been released. It refused to release a copy to investigators during the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the Al Yamamah corruption allegations in 2006 as to do so would have required a special vote by the House of Commons.
    Its savings are not robustly calculated. The NAO claims to save the taxpayer £9 for every £1 it costs to run. These savings include reductions in public expenditure and quantifications of non-financial impacts of the NAO’s work. The latter includes expenditure being better targeted and, in some cases, increased expenditure. (For example, the NAO published a report on how the Department for Work and Pensions was making the general public aware of state benefits to which they might be entitled. Any increase in the take-up of benefits that could be shown to be directly attributable to the report would be counted as a ‘saving’ by the NAO.) If the definition of ‘savings’ were restricted to reductions in public expenditure, the amount of savings that the NAO could claim to have made on behalf of the taxpayer would be significantly reduced. The argument used to support this practice is that the NAO’s remit is to examine the effectiveness and efficiency of public spending as well as the economy.
    Some of its reports are insufficiently strategic. The NAO produces a wide range of reports on all aspects of central government expenditure, but many of these deal with marginal topics like government leaflets, countryside rights of way and railway stations. As David Walker notes, [3] the NAO does not and cannot examine major strategic issues such as the underlying principles of the Private Finance Initiative and the effect of class sizes on educational attainment.
    Its reports do not deal adequately with the issue of value for money. The NAO uses a broad brush definition of ‘value for money’ to plan and carry out its reports. The reports do not, as might be expected, focus purely on detailed financial analysis of whether or not a particular scheme or initiative is value for money. Instead, they include qualitative analysis of costs and benefits in order to give a more comprehensive assessment. In 2005, an NAO report on NHS Local Investment Finance Trust (LIFT) was criticised by one of the PAC members at the time, Jon Trickett, for its focus on qualitative analysis of the benefits of LIFT schemes and the paucity of its financial analysis. [4] The NAO has recently published a report about the use of consultants in the public sector. [5] Critics identify that this report did not directly answer the question of whether consultants employed by the public sector give good value for money. However, as the report highlights as one of its findings, this was not possible because insufficient information is gathered by departments. Furthemore, the report did not consider the quality of the advice given to departments by consultants.
    Sir John Bourn’s Expenses In May 2007, Private Eye released information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act detailing the travel expenses of the then head of the NAO, Sir John Bourn. These included tickets on Concorde and stops at luxury hotels. [6] In one instance, Sir John and his wife attended a three day audit conference in The Bahamas. The conference was Wednesday to Friday. Sir John arrived on the Friday and he and his wife stayed on the island Saturday and Sunday.
    Al Yamamah The NAO was also accused of hampering a police investigation into the Al Yamamah deal by The Guardian newspaper in July 2006. It would however have been a breach of parliamentary privilege, and hence illegal, for the NAO to have handed over the requested information. [7]

  • William Markfelt

    A useful link for those involved in those difficult issues regarding independence and relationships.

  • William Markfelt

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  • William Markfelt

    Only two or three meetings…and the relationship’s under strain!

    He’s running to Kieran Donnelly for some emotional support.

    And he’s on the verge of walking out, or not, or maybe!

    All the ingredients of a good soap except that, in this case, it’s more like soft-soaping going on.