NI Water: “Recent revelations left us questioning whether we had been misled”

That quotation is from a rather more bullish statement from the NI Consumer Council CEO Antoinette McKeown than we have been accustomed to hearing as of late. The whole statement is posted below (courtesy of Nevin who chased them up on this), but several other things stand out.

They pick out the Stakeholder Unit for special attention.  This was the lynchpin for the relationship between the Department and NI Water, but given the immense degree to which people at Board level inside NI Water have been put under pressure,  this key department (which held 82 meetings a year with NI Water, as opposed to the 10 the Board had) seems thus far to have escaped the rather ferocious and forensic (but after six months, still unproductive) disciplinary proceedings arising.

Time to look again at Mr Priestly’s list of wants from the IRT… It effectively asks for the blame to be switched decisively away from the Department and towards NI Water. After months of resolute fence sitting (or more accurately, silence) the NICC now seems unconvinced that all blame attaches solely to NI Water as the Department would have us believe.

I was particularly struck by her reference to things being done inside NI Water as a result of a power struggle rather than in the public interest. There is already some documentary evidence in the public domain to support this view.

Laurence McKenzie suggests (within weeks of taking up his employment as CEO ) ‘the Board would not be missed’ (how was he in a position to objectively know?), and suggesting Mellor could be replaced by one of his ex chairmen from NIE. He was later to appoint an Operations Director from his old manor, even taking the precaution of having dinner with her just eight days before the interview.

Let’s not forget that sacking the Board was Mr McKenzie’s very own ‘radical suggestion’….

But of much greater and more immediate concern to the Minister (who by all accounts put in a decent performance today at the Committee for Regional Development), will be her rather pointed question:

Why was information purposefully withheld from the Consumer Council in direct breach of the Partnership Agreement that exists between the Department, NI Water and the Consumer Council?

The question for the Minister and/or the CEO of NI Water obviously being: what information? And for what reasons was it withheld? Did his department and/or the senior management of NI Water in fact mislead the NICC?

We await his/their answers with considerable interest.

Statement from the Consumer Council below:

The Consumer Council Chief Executive and Chair met today (1 September) with Minister Conor Murphy to put their questions, concerns and demands to him following recent revelations about the handling of an independent review of Northern Ireland Water’s (NI Water) contracts issuing practices.

Among the Consumer Council’s questions were:
*       How can the Minister convince consumers that actions taken were in the public interest, rather than as result of a power struggle within NI Water?
*       Why did DRD’s shareholder unit – which has responsibility for making sure NI Water spends public money appropriately – not spot issues with NI Water’s awarding of contracts?
*       Has the confused, hybrid status (NDPB/GoCo) of NI Water contributed to the procurement failures?
*       What are the Minister’s intentions now regarding the status, governance, accountability and regulation of NI Water and how will he guarantee there is adequate, independent challenge on behalf of consumers?
*       What criteria does the Minister intend to use in the appointment of Board members to ensure they are focussed on building consumer confidence?
*       Why was information purposefully withheld from the Consumer Council in direct breach of the Partnership Agreement that exists between the Department, NI Water and the Consumer Council?
*       What actions will the Department take to restore consumer trust and confidence?

Consumer Council Chief Executive, Antoinette McKeown said: “The Consumer Council has retained a very clear focus on the misspent millions by NI Water and its lack of accountability when spending public money. We have always supported the action of bringing to light a situation where contracts were being issued without going out to competitive tender. However, recent revelations left us questioning whether we had been misled. We need to assure ourselves that actions were taken and will be taken in the public interest.

“The Consumer Council has been fulfilling our role in representing water consumers in Northern Ireland since 2002. We raised issues in 2007, through the Independent Water Review Panel (IWRP), which are relevant to this investigation, namely the level of scrutiny in place for transactions made by NI Water under £1million and that we were concerned too that there was no indication of the process DRD would follow in making a decision to approve or reject procurement proposals by NI Water. These concerns were clearly legitimate and now need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

“Other actions we have asked the Minister now to take include:
*       Make public the NI Water action plan which has been agreed to address recent procurement and accountability breaches;
*       Proceed to a full, open public appointment process for non executive directors and include a clear requirement for each director to protect consumers’ interests and ensure public confidence;
*       Immediately clarify the role and functions of NI Water and DRD so that the breaches in governance that we have witnessed unfolding, never happen again. As part of this we want to see an urgent review of the role and functions of DRD’s Shareholder Unit;
*       Fundamental review of the Partnership Agreement between the Consumer Council, the Department, NI Water, the Utility Regulator and others, so that the Consumer Council’s statutory role is fully realised at all times;
*       Ensure that the Consumer Council is fully involved – as appropriate with our remit – when considering the options for the future of NI Water; and
*       Ensure that consumers’ interests are protected and consumers have fully independent representation regardless of the final structure or status of NI Water.”

Consumer Council Chair, Rick Hill added: “There has been a serious breach of trust. However, the Consumer Council remains focused on working in consumers’ interests. We will continue to provide a robust challenge function to all those involved in delivering water services for people in Northern Ireland.”

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