NI Water: Isn’t it time we were told what’s really been going there?

The Belfast Telegraph have a special piece in yesterday’s paper, which notes at the end just how little the general public understand the Northern Ireland Water story. Hardly surprising, since it has become almost the definitive insider’s insider story.

Yet it is striking too that so few in the press appear able to convincingly explain the context for the first ever suspension of a Permanent Secretary in the history of Northern Ireland.

Nor why the Northern Ireland Consumer Council would withdraw from its partnership agreement, not simply with NI Water, but with all Water stakeholders. That includes the Minister and DRD.

The press’s current line is that it is those embarrassing, leaked emails is why the Northern Ireland Consumer Council withdrew from its water partnership agreement. But 1, their chief executive has already publicly stated they feel they might have been deliberately misled. And 2, NI Water is not the only partner to that agreement.

Fellow blogger, Belfast JJ has noted one way in which the NI Consumers Council was certainly misled by DRD. But do they have other, more serious suspicions? If the Consumer Council were to make the details of its concerns public it would leave fewer journalists in the dark as to what is really going on here.

Then there is the whole business of what the true state of governance was within NI Water. Information is currently pouring out of DRD. And any cursory examination of Northern Ireland Water’s performance in driving down costs to the taxpayer appear to be significantly better than other bodies in the hands of DRD.

Meanwhile we hear another executive is in trouble over at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Despite initiating several investigations, Northern Ireland Water has yet to find anyone they could fire on the executive side. Not that Mr MacKenzie hasn’t done his best to find fault.

It all goes to reinforce Jamie Delargy’s view that this has all been an elaborate charade to find a new Board for a CEO whose self confessed autocratic style tolerates none of the independence that all Non Executive Directors are obliged by law to bring to any business they are appointed to.

And we still have no account for why the only NED to survive was the only one who would have known whether there was a serious breach in the governance rules regarding procurement, since he sat on the Audit Committee.

If the public don’t know what this is all about, it is because at the heart of this matter is an internal and external reporting crisis.

Remember DRD – apparently – cannot (efficiently) track Water Service expenditure pre April 1997, and that no one knew about the procurement breaches affected contracts to the value of £28 million (translated by Slugger to about £0.5 million). This included the sacked Board.

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  • Minister peeved about ‘crony’ question on Monday past:

    “Miss McIlveen: Given the Minister’s appointment of like-minded individuals as interim non-executive members to the board of NIW, will he give us an assurance today that he will seek to encourage members from the private and business sector to apply when nominations are sought for permanent positions?

    The Minister for Regional Development: It is quite foolish of the Member to try to make some inference through the way in which she phrased her question.”

  • William Markfelt

    Oh yeah. He really left her with egg on her face over that one, didn’t he?

    Michelle, next time, ask if the special procedures for appointing NEDS are related to Special Needs issues at NIW board level.

  • gottasay

    I think we’re going to hear a whole lot more about procurement failings across the DRD portfolio.

    Translink are nearly in meltdown over Patsy McGlone’s AQ, Roads Services are the same(that was before Dawn Purvis’s surgical strike),and even more concerning are the stories emerging about wholesale loss of money due to incompetence acrossthe piece under Murphy,s and Priestley’s watch.

    We hear of a £10million settlement at NIW(before legal,consultancy,and other fees)
    An extraordinary testimony to the incompetence of McKenzie, as I believe the previous Board were expecting a sizeable return of money!
    So not not only a malign presence, but a waste of space as a Chief Executive.
    Does Murphy really believe this man is worth holding on to,rather than do what’s right and fire him?After all wasn’t it McKenzie who told the PAC that if there were any procurement breaches at N.I.E(there were) people “would have been shown the door ” under his regime.
    £10mill is an awful lot of procurement failing!

    Rumours abound about serious questions of “wrongdoing” at Roads Service, and potential Police Inquiry at THe Harbour Commissioners,we really are entering unprecedented territory in relation to exposing what has been going on in this Dept.

    I assume by now the penny may have dropped, that firing the four Non Execs wasn’t their finest hour?

    I wonder which they regret most-hiring Declan Gormley or firing him?

  • William Markfelt

    ‘even more concerning are the stories emerging about wholesale loss of money due to incompetence acrossthe piece under Murphy,s and Priestley’s watch.’

    Picking up on one local news story this morning :-

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-11440499

    The IDB paid out £1.8m for empty offices on 25 year leases. It’s pre-devolution and it’s DETI rather than DRD, but nonetheless let me cherry-pick a few quotes from the link from Paul Maskey (Chair of PAC).

    ‘Mr Maskey said the absence of risk management meant that the opportunity to break the Campsie lease after four years was never taken.’

    I naturally assume he will be asking NIW and DRD about their risk management strategies regarding the cancelled Steria contract (which cost us £7m, a figure that makes £1.8m of white elephant office space look like small beer). What were NIW’s risk management strategies? What input did DRD have on advising them about risk management of public money?

    ‘He (Maskey) said PAC was also concerned about poor project management and record keeping.’

    Yes, well perhaps the same question could be asked of DRD regarding both their repeated failures in the NIW saga and also the Rathlin Island ferry saga. Perhaps Mr Maskey would like to ask Mr. Murphy about DRD’s record keeping. An awful lot of information subject to FOI, and other documentation, seems to routinely go missing from their offices any time that documentation might implicate them in a series of failures.

    “Significantly, there was no inquiry into why the options to break the leases were missed. Such an inquiry would have allowed the department (of Enterprise, Trade and Investment) to determine whether any individual was culpable of negligence or misconduct and to learn valuable lessons,” he said.

    Inquiries. Maybe it’s time we had PAC instigate them on the matter of NIW, the DRD itself, Rathlin Island ferry, PAC’s performance and a raft of other matters that needed investigating in an open and transparent manner.

  • NIW statement from Press Office:

    “Following a publicly advertised competitive recruitment process, NI Water is pleased to announce that Paddy Cullen has been appointed to the post of Head of Communications. Paddy will head up NI Water’s Corporate Affairs team with effect from November 2010.”

    Strangely enough, it’s not (yet) on the NIW website – and it doesn’t mention his pedigree 😉

  • William Markfelt

    ‘it doesn’t mention his pedigree’

    Whenever I see the word ‘pedigree’, I think of ‘Chum’, on a couple of different levels.

    And what do you know, it’s pretty much apt in this case.

    Was there a recruitment process? I didn’t see it advertised anywhere. Was he appointed under emergency procedures?

  • William Markfelt

    ‘a publicly advertised competitive recruitment process’

    Funny that they should word it in such a manner.

  • Pigeon Toes

    William
    There was indeed an advertised recruitment process, though the time frame for receipt of applications was somewhat short.

    But shit, it makes you wonder about the emergency procedures for the interim NEDs that took over three months…

  • William Markfelt

    I’d been looking yesterday for cached advertisements, and couldn’t see it anywhere, hence me asking.

    Short time frames? It’s the usual process where people don’t want too many bothersome and awkward responses.

    And, maybe, because it was a fait accompli prior to being advertised anyway. Word reaches me of some NIW staff allegedly knowing who a next manager was going to be prior to interviews taking place.

  • William Markfelt

    Hastily adds: not related to the press job. This was at their Newry base, allegedly.

  • CCNI has passed judgement on the Steria confidentiality clause [UTV September 29]:

    “The Consumer Council branded the latest reports “shocking in terms of openness and value for money for NI Water customers and taxpayers.”

    “The Consumer Council has today written to the Chief Executive of NI Water and the Minister for Regional Development to ask how water customers have benefited from this contract and why NI Water has shown blatant disregard for its customers by keeping them in the dark”, Antoinette McKeown, Chief Executive of the Consumer Council, said.”

  • ” keeping them in the dark”

    7 days ago, CCNI expressed no fear of the dark:

    “The Consumer Council did not receive a briefing or minutes of the meeting but would not have expected to receive either as this was a meeting between the Minister and the new NI Water Chief Executive.”

    This was the September 2, 2009 business meeting in an informal setting that inter alia discussed Steria as well as PC10 and which was attended by Murphy, McGlade, Priestly, Patterson and MacKenzie.

    Perhaps CCNI will now encourage the big beasts to minute meetings in a professional manner, thereby providing an audit trail, and keep ALL stakeholders up to speed on key issues.

  • William Markfelt

    “The Consumer Council branded the latest reports “shocking in terms of openness and value for money for NI Water customers and taxpayers.”

    Hoots mon. There’s a meetin’ pencilled in at her place next week and Ah’m reet keekin my breeches at the very thought of that one/.Ah luk tae have pissed her off big style. Wher’es me Irn Bru? I’m nae drinkin’ that water pish’.

  • William Markfelt

    Just picked this up off the BBC pages

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-11443514

    ‘Transport Minister Conor Murphy has launched a consultation process for a traffic master plan for Belfast city centre.’

    A Master Plan. The DRD.

    Gridlock beckons then.

  • William Markfelt

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-11428568

    Health Minister apologises for Donagh error.

    Now that a Blairite culture of apology has entered Stormont, can we expect a Minister to apologise for the fuck-ups a department has made in relation to the likes of NIW and the Rathlin ferry debacle?

  • Here’s the CCNI statement in full:

    Antoinette McKeown, Chief Executive of the Consumer Council said:

    “The Consumer Council is alarmed to learn through the media that NI Water has been involved in an out of court settlement with Steria for the termination of its multimillion pound contract. This is a shocking revelation in terms of openness and value for money for NI Water customers and taxpayers.

    “The Consumer Council was first briefed on this issue in January 2009 and since then we have continually sought clarification on the amount of the termination fee and its impact on consumers. Briefings provided by NI Water to the Consumer Council suggested that despite a termination fee of £3 million being written into the contract with Steria, it would not have to pay this amount due to other contractual clauses and money already paid.

    “The Consumer Council was not advised of legal proceedings and we are now demanding to know how much was paid out to Steria. The Consumer Council has today written to the Chief Executive of NI Water and the Minister for Regional Development to ask how water customers have benefited from this contract and why NI Water has shown blatant disregard for its customers by keeping them in the dark”.

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://sluggerotoole.com/2010/09/10/ni-water-why-did-mackenzie-break-up-niws-commercial-review-team/

    Gosh I hope that they kept notes, minutes and all documents pertaining to the “restructuring” exercise.
    Not having those can lead to all sorts of bother for an employer,
    especially if it goes to tribunal.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘Not having those can lead to all sorts of bother for an employer,
    especially if it goes to tribunal.;

    I’m sure that DRD kept NIW right on this aspect of it, being as experienced as they are in the not-having-things-like-emails arena.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Don’t know about that William. Digging around some old papers lately, it seems that DRD were aware of certain regulatory requirements, which were later either ignored or forgotten about.

    This particular piece of paper has been scanned and is now in quite a few hands…

    Oh and BTW , the NIAO are now claiming that in order to answer an FOI for correspondence between DRD, IIRT and NIAO
    “We have completed the search of our records and have reviewed the information we hold in relation to your request. In accordance with S45(2)(c) of the Freedom of Information Act we are required to consult with persons to whom the information requested relates or persons whose interests are likely to be affected by the disclosure of the information. Furthermore, the guidance issued by the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs pursuant to section 45(5) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requires that “No decision to release information which has been supplied by one government department to another should be taken without first notifying, and where appropriate consulting, the department from which the information originated”. As part of the information we hold originates from another department, we must, therefore, enter into a consultation exercise before a final decision can be reached on our response to your request.”

    However every press release from the NIAO reads in “notes to Editors”
    The Comptroller and Auditor General is Head of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (the Audit Office). He, and the NIAO, are totally independent of Government”

    So either they are totally independent, and should be able to answer the FOI request without such consultation, or they aren’t and do indeed work “hand in glove” with the departments as per *that* infamous email from Paul Priestly.

    I’m going with the latter (which as DRD are so fond of saying) is evidence based.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘every press release from the NIAO reads in “notes to Editors”
    The Comptroller and Auditor General is Head of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (the Audit Office). He, and the NIAO, are totally independent of Government”’

    They’ve some neck on them, that’s for sure.

    Since when were NIAO totally independent of government?

    There have been some amusing statements by several of the key players in the NIW saga along the way, but that one’s a killer.

    If they’re claiming this then it isn’t so much a need for NIAO to go into NIW, as a psychiatrist needing to go into NIAO, as they’re obviously delusional.

  • William Markfelt

    “The Consumer Council is alarmed to learn through the media that NI Water has been involved in an out of court settlement with Steria for the termination of its multimillion pound contract. This is a shocking revelation in terms of openness and value for money for NI Water customers and taxpayers.’

    He really has pissed her off, hasn’t he?

    Still, after months of inertia it’s good to see the CCNI earning their corn.

    So that’s Patsy and Antoinette and us all asking the same questions. So just when will DRD or NIW ‘fess up the actual amount?

    And will someone’s antennae twitch at the apparent ineptitude being demonstrated on what now feels like daily occurrence each time either DRD or NIW speak?

  • Pigeon Toes

    Anyone else think it’s high time there was some scrutiny (and yes WM, I am a are you have been stating this for some considerable time) into the precise role that NIAO plays in relation to such “independent” reports?

    “Running with the fox and chasing with the hounds” springs to mind.

    NIAO, should also make it perfectly clear (in the public interest of course) whether they are indeed another government department, or “totally independent” as advertised.

  • Here is a quote what I wrote in June 2008:

    “Presumably the report from the NIAO will indicate whether or not the DFP and DRD ministries are fit for purpose.”

    It was written before NIAO rolled over and permitted DRD to carry out some ‘independent’ investigations.

  • Dr Concitor

    I think ‘independent’ has taken on a new meaning within government, it really means they(an enquiry) say what ever suits those in charge. Individuals will get blamed but the system ie senior civil servants and politicians are left smelling of roses.This is because they have designed the system to be so, so complex and convoluted that it makes blaming those in charge very difficult indeed. Eg the NIW fiasco.
    Anyway none of you in this quiet little corner of Slugger have commented on the answer to the parliamentary question Mick alludes to in this link at the top of this blog
    “Then there is the whole business of what the true state of governance was within NI Water. Information is currently pouring out of DRD. And any cursory examination of Northern Ireland Water’s performance in driving down costs to the taxpayer appear to be significantly better than other bodies in the hands of DRD”.
    It appears to show Road Service running costs spiralling out of control and NIW’s costs going down, yet it is NIW that CM and the NICS wants to change! why? what is their agenda, What do you think?

  • wild turkey

    “whenever i see the word pedigree, I think of chum’

    could this be the same Paddy Cullen who was DRD Principal Information Officer in 2006?

    see notes of 18 September 2006 DRD weekly business meeting below

    http://applications.drdni.gov.uk/publications/document.asp?docid=9660

  • William Markfelt

    ‘NIAO, should also make it perfectly clear (in the public interest of course) whether they are indeed another government department, or “totally independent” as advertised.’

    Would anyone have a case against them under the Trades Description Act?

  • William Markfelt

    ‘none of you in this quiet little corner of Slugger have commented on the answer to the parliamentary question Mick alludes to in this link at the top of this blog’

    I’ve had a bash, Doc, but we’re reaching a stage where it’s difficult to know whether or not to confine answers to DRD/NIW (and NICC, and NIAO) or to start to expand it to all sections of the Potemkin Village that is the Stormont machine.

    At least NICC appear to have taken the hump and grown some ‘nads in their recent press releases, which must make very uncomfortable reading for their, ah, ‘partners’.

    The issue of NIW’s ‘better than average’ performances has been discussed in the context of the disappearance of the man who appears to have been largely responsible, David Gilmour. Was he another one who, like the NEDs, didn’t have a face that fitted?

    Is it an NICS agenda? Or a ‘solo run’ by a very clearly dysfunctional DRD?

  • Noted that yesterday, WT. Malcolm McKibbin, the interim PS, was a colleague at the time.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘Meanwhile we hear another executive is in trouble over at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. ‘

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-11443511

    Oops!

    NIHE Chief Executive to retire. But not related to internal investigations.

    Is there ANY element of government (in the broadest sense of the word) in NI that IS working properly?

  • malairt

    NIW pulled the plug on Steria. A business case was put together identifying the savings to be made and presented to the full NIW Board in November 2008. The contract was terminated in Dec 2008.

    The waffle above from Minister Murphy was written when Steria had already committed themselves to abandoning the contract in July 2009 so there was no decision making as such at Ministerial level. Much of what he says reflects the content of the Nov Board presentation ie that Stormont had gone past the deadline for the introduction of water charges in April 2009 and therefore the earliest introduction could be was April 2010. Thus there was a great window of opportunity to take out Steria as a managing contractor and put in a far cheaper alternative.