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.”

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  • Pigeon Toes

    I’ve been struggling to recall the Minister’s actual words all day…
    However, I believe that he said that he became aware of allegations from NIW Board regarding the relationship between Dixon and MacKenzie, yet id not call the IRT in to question them re this until he had received the report itself, and in private…

    Why did he not insist on written assurances, and why not halt the “investigation” as soon as he was aware of these allegations?

    Is that not what an “officious bystander” would demand, especially of a Minister?

  • Drumlin Rock

    I think we (and possibly others) have put the wind up somebody, or somebody’s board to be more precise, it is good to see at least one group of public servants break ranks and start to ask the difficult questions, the Consumer Council might retain some cedibilty if they carry through with this course, I just wonder how much guidance the Council have given Ms McKeown on this change of view.

  • PT, perhaps the Minister’s antennae are not as sensitive as those of Laurence MacKenzie.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Don’t know whether it’s part of Murphy’s Law ( someone had to say it) but it might come in threes..

    A very reassured by his and his Party colleagues statements about impropriety in procurement

    Now that it is in the Public Domain of course:-)

  • “Consumer Council ‘appalled’ By Ni Water Breach” .. 12 March 2010:

    “We have sought and received assurances from [the new Chief Executive] that there will be open and honest communication from NI Water with consumers and an immediate plan of action to address these failures. The Consumer Council also wants to see the right people appointed at Board level who will ensure that consumers are at the heart of every decision taken by NI Water from now on regarding this vital, public service. The Consumer Council will scrutinise NI Water even more closely to ensure it is delivering a high quality, safe public service and that it is fully answerable for public money.”

    CCNI was so appalled that the next press release on the NIW fiasco that I can find is – August 18.

    The June 30 naming of all but one of the interim NEDs, the July 1 PAC session and the subsequent debate apparently hadn’t set off any alarm bells.

  • Sean Og

    It looks like recent revelations regarding E Mails flying between Ms McKeown and Mr McKenzie have put the wind up NICC. I wonder was this press release discussed with McKenzie before it was issued?

    Minister Murphy will ignore the questions from another useless Qango. The sooner they are shut down as part of the cuts the better.

  • Sean Og, the Consumer Council has been slow to react to ‘events’ and now finds itself under pressure from several directions.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘It looks like recent revelations regarding E Mails flying between Ms McKeown and Mr McKenzie have put the wind up NICC.’

    Observed from afar, this now strikes me as being pure Machiavellianism in action. The capacity to manipulate others for personal gain, in its psychological definition.

    Antennae twitch, and Priestly leaps into action to create the circumstances in which a board ‘against me’ are quickly dismantled.

    And as events further unfold, the NICC are now under the impression they were being ‘misled’.

    Has anyone here read ‘The Prince’?

  • wild turkey

    questions
    1. when does NICC expect answers to ALL the questions put to the minister?
    2. will they be publically disseminated?
    by NICC?
    by the minister
    3. what mechanisms are in place to monitor and report on the actions requested by NICC
    4. who does one write to get answers to the above
    NICC
    The ministers office
    DRD stormont committee
    5. Who is taking the lead responsibility in all this?

    without clear and unambiguous answers to the above, the meeting with minister amounts to no more than a PR exercise; meaningless window dressing so the main players can look good. And do nothing of substance? .

  • Mick asks the question

    “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?”

    And the straight answer is YES

    Letter obtained by http://politicsni.wordpress.com/ from NI Consumer Council CEO Antoinette McKeown to Paul Priestly on the 22nd June

    http://politicsni.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/img_0068-e1280774198355.jpg

    In a email from Paul Priestly to Lian Patterson about the letter he says “I suggest we just hold off until we make the announcement. Do you agree ? ” signed Paul

    We now know that on the 16th of June Conor Murphy had signed 3 letters appointing 3 new NED’s – with their appointments starting from the 21st June

    http://politicsni.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/img_0100.jpg

    But withholding the information from the Consumer Council was just part of Conor’s plan

    To quote Mr Fair who i now know set on the interview panel –

    “He accepted this but stressed thats its Conor’s preference to make the announcement just before the Governance PAC to be helpful to the Department”

    http://politicsni.wordpress.com/2010/08/20/why-did-drd-mislead-the-consumer-council-over-niwater-appointments/

  • Mick Fealty

    PR maybe. But consider that the PAC are meeting today to decide what they are going to do. If the Minister thought he had dealt with the CRD well yesterday, his party colleague will face a committee that has some very pertinent questions ringing in their ears, and not from ‘tubes’ in cyberspace. But from real folk with real responsibilities.

    I would suggest that their PR people concerned fully earned their fee, and more.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘recent revelations left us questioning whether we had been misled.’

    In what sense is Ms McKeown using the word ‘we’?

    I’m afraid this demonstrates the folly of an allegedly independent body, supposed to be acting in consumers’ interests, getting too chummy with the bodies she’s supposed to be watch-dogging on our behalf.

    A more detached, jaundiced and cynical eye to the machinations of others might be a more appropriate jumping on point.

  • Mick Fealty

    Of course William. But I think the significance of this move is that ‘the machine’ is no longer acting in concert. There is so much dirt lying around, individuals are going to have to start shifting some of it away from them onto former friends.

    Ms McKeown is the first (outside the discussions on Slugger) to point a public finger at Gary Fair, for instance, who thus far has got away with no scrutiny whatsoever.

    And we should hear more about this power struggle she’s pointing to inside NI Water, which as I understand it is still going on as we speak.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “The Consumer Council emphasises the need for openness and transparency and welcomes the Department for Regional Development’s report into the procurement …The Consumer Council is aware certain disparities exist between the report’s findings ”

    Another wee Independent review that NICC might have been “misled” on

  • William Markfelt

    The ‘authorities’ always choose from the same pool, that means they always know the members of the quangos, especially in an area like the north. In order to be completely unbiased they need to spread the net much wider. It is not rocket science, the ability to read and understand the reports etc is something most people could deal with easily.

    Sadly even this scandal is unlikely to change the system.

  • Jj

    All previous NEDs were appointed by a panel on which DRD were represented at Deputy Secretary (e.g., Lian Patterson) or Perm. Sec level. (Paul Priestly).

  • Mick Fealty

    Given the seriousness of the rest of the content of that Presser, I think she may be talking about something more significant than the dates of an official announcement JJ.

  • interested

    mabye thats the problem

  • interested

    ” ‘tubes’ in cyberspace”
    should we just huff

  • Oracle

    This is nothing more than a cynical skin saving exercise by the NICC chief; her emails damned her beyond repair.
    She has to go and the NICC must face a complete overhaul so that the “matey mate” emails never again stain the credibility of the organization.

    “Resign McKeown”

  • Mick Fealty

    You are utterly missing the point.

  • Oracle

    Don’t think I am Mick,

    They have all been shown to be underhanded, unconcerned or inept,

    The muck throwing and ducking and diving to avoid the same has started in earnest, but that will only continue whilst there is an on going interest in the story and that there are actual casualties of the affair, with no actual head rolling the story dies and all investigation and public interest with it!

    If this story fails to take a body count within Government circles then effectively that would mean in future it would take an even bigger smoking gun and an even greater unholy mess to generate any concern from the public or media and thus the Civil Service and the Government funded Quango’s would be putting up the “normal service has resumed” signs

    The NICC have been shown to be tainted with emails from its chief to one of the players in the affair were it was plainly clear that the public were not her main concern!
    If the public were not her main concern then she has negated her responsibilities and must go, if the first victim of this affair is a side player so be it, but to get to the middle of the scrum you have to pull the fringe players out of the way first.

  • Pigeon Toes

    The News Letter has a piece on this today.

    http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/NIW-watchdog-turns-up-heat.6510663.jp

    “The Consumer Council heaped further pressure on Mr Murphy by asking why the DRD ‘Shareholder Unit’ – which is headed by senior civil servant Gary Fair and oversaw NI Water on behalf of the public – had failed to spot any of the problems which Mr Murphy now says meant that the non-executive directors had to be dismissed.

    “Leaked e-mails obtained by the News Letter reveal that after the Independent Review Team delivered its draft report on NI Water in February, DRD permanent secretary Paul Priestly e-mailed Mr Fair to tell of his dissatisfaction with the report.

    The first draft copy of the review team’s report appeared to suggest that many of the procurement problems at NI Water could be traced back to it being both a government-owned company and a non-departmental public body.”

  • William Markfelt

    ‘The first draft copy of the review team’s report appeared to suggest that many of the procurement problems at NI Water’

    What ARE these procurement problems?

    I think we’ve more or less established that many of these single tenders can probably be regarded as entirely legit and have nothing untoward attached to them, and the various agencies CAN’T continue to cling to the idea that it’s ’73’ worth ‘£28.4m’.

    We need an absolutely clear indication of what these contracts entailed, so that the ‘no issue’ ones can be sifted out and a more accurate figure as to the size and extent of the problem can be established.

    We also need to deliberate on how many of the single tenders did indeed represent good value for money. Some analysis of past work and costs by single tender contract winners might help establish the truth of this figure too.

    The fact that there is no public domain breakdown to this, and nary a whisper that anyone is trying to collate those figures suggests, to me, that many, most and maybe all of the single contracts are above board.

    We can’t allow what is quite simply a lie to perpetuate that it’s ’73’ worth ‘£28.4m’.

  • interested

    donk know the answer but has anyone been able to examine the internal workings of the bigger 25 year contracts with an investment component, like Glen Water and Dalriada?

  • malairt

    I have and would be delighted to answer your queries on both. Other than it’s a disgrace that HMG decided to finance at higer private rates than public in order to keep the PSBR lower.

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/features/planesbanks-water-electricity-gas-shops-scams-your-cash-your-rights-your–consumer-champion-14944612.html

    Living and working in what used to be one of the poorest boroughs in Britain made Antoinette McKeown realise what she wanted to do with her life — help people get a fair deal.

    A year into her job as CEO of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, one of the most powerful voices speaking out for the local community here, Antoinette is as passionate as ever about her aims.

    Antoinette first went to the tough inner London borough of Tower Hamlets London as a fresh-faced young graduate who had grown up in rural Co Armagh and gone to school in Newry. ….Her early experiences proved to be a sound basis for her future career and eventually, after seven years, she took up a post with PlayBoard in Belfast, which works for the rights of children to play. She later became its chief executive, liaising with the likes of Cherie Booth, and the group established 100 high quality play clubs across Northern Ireland.

    Next, she became head of policy and public affairs with the Equal Opportunities Commission.

    “It’s kind of no surprise that I came into the Consumer Council because I strongly believe when you are delivering a service the public are paying for, you have to listen to the views of the people,” says Antoinette, who lives in Co Antrim and has two sons, aged 13 and 10.”

    And this piece coming so soon after her role in the NIW fiasco has been questioned …

  • This style of writing reminds me of Press Puff the Magic Dragon as in “a. An approving or flattering recommendation; b. A piece of writing, as on the jacket of a book, containing often exaggerated praise, used for promotional purposes.”

    In light of her experience at the Equality Commission it begs the question: “Why remain silent about the composition of the NEDs on the interim NIW Board?”

  • interested

    there are many good and talented people throughout all of this-perhaps especially those that operate the water service-as someone who came from a background where we carried water from a well and used an outside drop toilet I am most conscious of the achievement as well as the complexity and investment required for an ongoing service-but the issue here is the set of relationships in and around Government that are unhealthy and must be called to account.

  • The Consumer Council Chair must continue working in consumers’ interests. The people in Northern Ireland have been subjected to a serious breach of trust. This should not happen again.