The UTV late news programme should return tonight with a hour long special report on Northern Ireland Water. It’s scheduled for after the Ten O’Clock News, and will feature a documentary piece with an extended interview with the Minister and a panel discussion in which I hope to take part.
We should have the video available here on Slugger by tomorrow am, if you miss it. In the meantime, I am hoping they will produce material that will put Slugger’s coverage over the summer into a more meaningful context.
To recap, there are serious problems with procurement in NI Water. But Slugger is not convinced the case presented to the Public Accounts Committee even touched the real problem; which is more likely to revolve around industry contractors running rings around non industry civil servants than mere ‘breaches of procedure’.
In this case, the so-called ‘independent’ reporting appears to have been tightly controlled by the people most directly responsible for the real difficulties in procurement.
And remember here that the £28 million the PAC was invited to consider was not money lost, it was simply money that was spent in ways that breached a number of departmental policies. As confirmed to the PAC,there was no fraud, and there are no criminal actions arising.
And yet, on foot of a very expensive report (outsourced to a close friend of the CEO) that makes no case that the board was in any way responsible for these breaches, the Board was effectively sacked. Why?
And why did the CEO feel compelled to resign over such a minor issue?
The MLAs of course can be forgiven for taking these actions as proportionate and relative, since that is precisely how it was presented them by the Permanent Secretary, the CEO and the NI Audit Office’s ‘associated memorandum’.
So what was Laurence McKenzie’s actual motive for resigning? And why, two days later, did he withdraw that resignation?
Whilst the sacked NEDs have every right to pursue their own legitimate case over their flagrant mistreatment by the Department by any and all means available to them, we believe their case could merely be the tip of the iceberg.
Through our investigations over the summer it has become obvious to us that almost everyone in this story can be made accountable for their actions and the quality of their decisions (MPs, MLAs, Ministers, and those appointed to public boards). All, that is except senior career civil servants (and, it seems, some of their preferred suppliers).
It is also obvious that the MLAs on the Public Accounts Committee are generally poorly served in the quality of information provided them by the very people they are hoping to call to account.
Given what we know (and judging by the Minister’s remarks we must now be in possession of more information than he has been provided him), our elected officials are being treated by their senior civil servant on a strictly need to know basis.
Which gives rise to a more concerning question: how wide does this culture spread across government, which is secondary only to the question of how deep this mess actually goes inside DRD/NI Water?
Which reminds me, over three weeks after Patsy McGlone wrote to him, the Head of the Civil Service has yet to acknowledge receipt of those letters outlining Mr Priestley’s offer of help to the Audit Office in shaping the PAC’s final report on NI Water.
Let me say too there are good people working hard and smart inside NI Water to improve matters, and in particular trying to bring otherwise expensive expertise back inhouse… But they are not helped by the kinds of power playing and distraction that seem to have characterised this story.
Is there a prima facae case here for beefing up the investigative powers of parliamentary committees? If not, then how can a committee whose prime responsibility is to keep an eye on how public money is spent rely for their source information on the very people they are set up to investigate?
I’ll be on a panel discussing the content of the programme. Please use the space below for questions you’d like to see raised. I cannot promise to use them, since I suspect I’ll only have time for a few items. But then I won’t be the only one reading it (so keep it legal and decent!!).
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