Murphy: “The person who has responsibility for dealing with these things is me”*

Conor Murphy’s line today on the leaked PAC report is strangely reminiscent of his party colleague, the chair of the PAC, Paul Maskey. But it is also in line with his own original interview with Jamie Delargy in UTV’s Stormy Water special back in August, that this was all about procurement issues, not the misdirection of process at the most senior levels of his own department.

The draft report of the PAC agrees the breaches were serious, but that this was due to incompetent reporting by management, not a fault of the Board as the Minister has previously (and erroneously) asserted. Sam McBride in the News Letter has some additional points from the leaked report [emphasis added]:

It found that the review which Mr Murphy used to justify their sacking was “deficient” in apportioning blame for procurement faults at NI Water and found three potential conflicts of interest between members of the review team and senior figures in DRD and NI Water.

And it reveals that NI Water has paid out more than £13 million in settlements since 2008, but sought to prevent the public learning of the “embarrassing payments” by using confidentiality clauses in the settlement contracts.

The draft report has yet to be formally agreed by the committee following its long-running investigation into NI Water, but the tenor of the Audit Office report – much of it based on the independent body’s own investigations – is unmistakably condemnatory.

Amid a host of criticisms of the Department of Regional Development, the committee said it was “appalled” that Mr Murphy’s department had entered a contract with consultancy Deloitte which attempted to place important evidence outside the reach of both the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Office. Only a threat of legal action made Deloitte release the files requested by the committee.

It found the then NI Water boss Laurence MacKenzie’s evidence to the committee to be such that it was “not convinced by the veracity of Mr MacKenzie’s answers”.

The procurement problems at NI Water which Mr Murphy has blamed on the sacked non-executive directors were found to be serious, with “widespread abuse” of single tender awards, a large number of unapproved contract extensions and a circumvention of financial controls.

While no evidence of fraud was found, the committee said that it was never acceptable to circumvent procurement rules just to “get the job done”.

Yet the multi-million pound procurement problems were missed by consultancy PWC which awarded NI Water “exemplar” status as a “Centre of Procurement Excellence (COPE)”, something which the committee said called into question the point of the COPE process.

By way of reference, this is not the first time the misdirection of process by his most senior officials has been raised publicly. In the Stormy Water he was given an exclusive and lengthy 12 minute interview to respond to detailed questions from Delargy:

Jamie Delargy – I know you do not want to go into emails and all the communications but did you know that Paul Priestly was submitting actual wording to be incorporated in the IRT report?

Minister Murphy – I am not aware of whatever exchanges there were. I asked the IRT people, before I received their report were they satisfied that it was independent. That it was their work and that it was evidenced based and that they can stand over it and they told me yes and I accept that assurance from them.

Jamie Delargy – Do you know what was going on behind your back?

Minister Murphy – There was nothing going on behind my back.

Jamie Delargy – How do you know?

Minister Murphy – Let me say to you Jamie. The evidence was brought to my attention of wrong doing and I asked for that to be investigated. The IRT was put in place and investigated that. I spoke to them before they handed over the report to me to satisfy myself of the conduct of their inquiry and they did that. I then received their evidence and spoke to the chairman of NI Water at the time Chris Mellor. I then spoke to him and the other three directors and asked them for their view on the report and then I took my action. I am satisfied that it was the correct course of action.

Either the Minister genuinely did not now what was going on behind his back or he was deliberately misleading Delargy. Either way, within 48 hours his own Permanent Secretary had been suspended from duty for trying to interfere with the functioning of the PAC.

The problem the Minister now faces is that the PAC’s draft report utterly contradicts this position. The reports most significant concerns centre on the quality and the supposed independence of the official reporting. That leaves the Minster’s audacious sacking of the four NEDs looking precipitive and reckless.

In the last few days the Minister’s party has been kicking up smoke around Alex Attwood and the Housing Executive’s mishandling of the Christmas crisis, and we’ve even witnessed John O’Dowd calling for the resignation of the Health Minister for, well, it’s not really clear what for, other than missing an Executive meeting and, erm, having different politics from him.

But as we’ve previously noted, it all depends on who is occuying the Ministerial hot seat as to whether such calls are deemed legitimate or opportunistic. Nice attempt at spin lads.

The truth is if the Minister had not replaced an industry competent Board with an inexperienced one that supported his own political agenda, he might not have been so transparently holding the brown end of the stick when the distress signals went up over Christmas.

*This quote is from the Minister in interview with Jamie Delargy speaking about matters pertaining to the sacking of the four NEDs in August.

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  • Cynic2

    its simple. Murphy needs to go

  • It’s not the main issue here, but the Shinners current obsession with blaming Attwood for everything is bordering on the unhealthy. It’s almost enough to make you feel some sympathy for someone who doesn’t normally inspire any. At all.

    Over the new year, virtually every single press release or tweet from SF reps was directed at Attwood. The thing is, they may have had a point, but because it was so obvious that their main aim was diverting attention from Murphy, the propaganda was counter-productive. The issue got an appropriate level of media coverage (ie, not as much as SF needed to swing blame) – and then was largely ignored. That’s the thing about crying wolf too loudly.

    As our own Mallie noted last night: “Fascinating watching SF trying to goad media to put Alex Atwood in dock over Housing Executive performance in bad weather. Not happening.”

    On the main topic, Murphy won’t go until he becomes a liability to the party. It seems unlikely Adams would sack him, but when you consider the unadulterated desperation of Murphy with his ‘Irish road signs’ diversion, maybe it’s not as far away as I assume.

  • Cynic2

    With this new evidence, will you now change your mind on this Mick?

  • Pete Baker

    The Chairman of the PAC, Sinn Féin’s Paul Maskey, is at it again

    Paul Maskey said those behind the leaking of the Audit Office document, which is scathingly critical of Minister Conor Murphy, are “playing silly politics”.

    “I think it’s cheap of whoever leaked this and the question now needs to be asked why,” Mr Maskey said. “This is cheap politics.

    “What we are seeing here is the leaking of a draft report which is not an agreed report by the PAC by far. It is very foolish of people and it’s shameful that people have leaked this report.”

    But does he disagree with what the draft report says?

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2007mandate/writtenans/2010/110114.htm
    “Chairperson of NI Water’s Audit Committee

    Mr J Dallat asked the Minister for Regional Development (i) to clarify what was meant by the term ‘different attitude’ which was applied to the Chairperson of NI Water’s Audit Committee as a reason for not dismissing him; (ii) which members of the Independent Review Team were involved in coming to this ‘different attitude’ conclusion; and (iii) how this conclusion was communicated to the Minister.

    Minister for Regional Development: I did not apply the term ‘different attitude’ to the Chairperson of NI Water’s Audit Committee as a reason for not dismissing him from the Board of NI Water. In my letter to him I noted that the Independent Review Team report praised the work he had done to sharpen the NIW Audit Committee’s focus since he took on responsibility as its Chairperson.”

    No, but Mr Priestly gave it as a reason. So who made the decisions?

    http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/record/committees2009/PAC/100701_GovernanceNIWater.htm

    “Mr Priestly:

    In considering and advising the Minister on the action to be taken against the non-executive directors, we were required by law to treat each of them as individuals. I have to tell you that Don Price’s attitude and approach were different to those of the other non-executive directors. He recognised the seriousness of the situation, and he wanted to be part of addressing it. He is also recognised in the independent review team’s report as having done good work on the audit committee, where he flagged up such issues. He made it clear that he wanted to be part of putting the situation right, and the Minister judged that he should stay as a non-executive director.”

    Mr Dallat:

  • Mick Fealty

    The other thing worth noting is that this draft came from the audit office. If only half of things reported are true, they’ve done a thorough-going job that is going to be difficult for the Minister to duck.

    In some respects, the calls for his resignation just queer the pitch. The Minister just needs to do what he should have done last summer, ie, the right thing and admit he was wrong about sacking the NEDs and offer them an apology and let them walk off the field of battle.

    Or he can leave that to a successor to make some hay with.

  • Cynic2

    Just another point. How can a Minister now adjudicateon the NIW issues when he is so heavily criticised and his Department (which is his responsibility) is so culpable?

  • Cynic2

    He can opf course, with some justification, blame it on the Civil Service.

    And with that and all the over shambles this begs the question of who will replace Bruce when he goes. So far they haven’t even advertised it I think.

    Poor Paul Priestly must be spitting nails as he must have seen himself as a runner. But will it just be the old reshuffling of the existing pack? Or will they dare to encourage in some new blood to shake up the system.

    Dont hold your breath,

  • vanhelsing

    Conor Murphy ‘the person who has responsibility for dealing with these things is me’

    It’s an interesting line and also use of grammar. It seems to me to be spin speak [which the Shinners should be giving short courses on in cash strapped Colleges] – nonetheless CM is saying that he now
    has the responsibility to deal with these things rather than
    “I am responsible for these things” ,

    To me there is a massive difference in those two statements. It all happened on his watch and as Mick points out admit he was wrong about sacking the NEDs and replacing them with duh!!

    Anyway SF aggressive spin towards other Ministers is poor show – chance of said Minister going [insert Family Fortunes wrong answer sound] as required.
    VH

  • MichaelMac

    Mick,

    you wrote,

    “The truth is if the Minister had not replaced an industry competent Board with an inexperienced one that supported his own political agenda,”

    Of the four members appointed by Murphy. Mairtin O’Muilleoir is a SF member. Could you explain what evidence you have that Lawson Mc Donald, Peter Bunting and Kevin Steele support Murphy’s own political agenda? Also, what exactly is the agenda they are supporting?

  • MichaelMac, you’ve left out a key appointee, the chairman, Padraic White, who is a close associate of Máirtín O Muilleoir. The latter was also slipped in as an additional NED during the course of a questionable selection process.

    Murphy’s agenda has been to oppose additional water charges via metering but AFAIK he hasn’t produced a blueprint for the future operation of our water service. His political inclination would presumably be to initiate the formation of a single water management system for the island of ireland.

  • “Do you know what was going on behind your back?”

    Surely the questions Delargy should have asked were, “On what occasions, Minister, have you been involved in the micromanagement of NI Water since you came into office. What directions have you given to Paul Priestly and to NIW Chief Executives?”

  • Mick Fealty

    Michael,

    You’ve narrowed the terms of reference nicely Michael (ever tried pitching for a job as a senior civil servant?), but I suspect you know only too well what I am referring to.

    Let me start by stating that there’s nothing wrong with the Minister’s anti privatisation agenda. It has a lot of merit, not least because whichever company got a hold of NI Water would get a hold of a lot of disposable assets.

    In England the privately owned companies have also cut operational costs to well below sub optimum, but since they’ve spent a lot of cash on bringing up to the network to modern standards you only find out how crap they are when you have a singular problem.

    The problem is that in sacking the old Board, and in making these sympathetic new appointments (sadly we’re not privy to the long list of candidates offered him by Mr Priestly, which the Minister turned down), he utterly failed to cover NI Water’s operational bottom line.

    In the end he had to pay the former CEO to go. He does not seem to have been willing or able to sack him the way he did the NEDs, despite the huge contrast in the scale of the relative problems concerned.

  • Mick Fealty

    Cynic, play the ball, not the man!!

  • MichaelMac

    Mick,

    you’ve dodged answering a direct question (ever thought of standing for election).

  • Lionel Hutz

    Sinn Fein must be really worried about this scandal. I’m not sure most people have the first clue what is wrong with NI Water or the DRDs actions in recent months. Had Conor Murphy given an unambiguous apology last month, this would have disappeared by now. Just another example of backwater politics.

    However, Murphy’s stubborn refusal to hold his hands up, together with his parties increasingly desperate attempts to deflect attention to in particular Alex Attwood but also the recent ‘funeral absence’ nonsense are backfiring. People may not know the ins and outs of the civil service and arms length bodies but they know bullshit when they hear it. When Sinn Fein start to look like sly power hungry politicians in the eyes of their adoring voters, a big part of their appeal will start to go.

    Will the whiff of this still be around in May? Are the tables slowly turning on SF/DUPs control of Stormont?

  • Lionel Hutz

    Lol. Who am I kidding!

  • Mick Fealty

    mIchael,

    I have sealed instructions given to a good friend on what to do should I ever act upon that thought. But he’s sworn to secrecy.

    I thought I had made clear that the ‘political’ agenda was anti privatisation, not the SF manifesto. In filling the political needs the Minister left the company vulnerable to an inexperienced CEO.

    The proof of just how poorly his decisions were is demonstrated by the fact even the dFM had to get involved and knock the Board’s inexperienced heads together just after Christmas.

    Fair play to Martin (who seems to be the only front bench SFer who understands his business), but it was a bit like formidable head going in to sort out a bunch of boys who’ve been willfully ignoring a weakling teacher.

    When you appoint a board to a public utility you need diversity of industry and commercial experience. The Minister forwent all of those considerations.

    If in asking your question you actually believe it was not for political motives, then why did no one on the Board the Minister appointed have any substantial experience of running a utility?

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://sluggerotoole.com/2010/08/17/ni-water-utv-finger-mr-priestleys-problem/paul-priestleys-changes/

    Well worth reading Paul Priestly’s “suggestions” to the IRT again.

  • William Markfelt

    So, responsibility for McKenzies £97k pay off (six months salary)

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-12265668

    McKenzie also gets £3k towards legal fees and an additional £3k towards tax advisot’s fees/

    WTF??????

    Tax advisor’s fees? Does that mean tex avoidance advisor’s fees????

    Resign now, Minister. You carry the can for protecting the user’s and tax payer’s interests. You have failed to do so. Resign now.

  • “a bit like formidable head”

    I suspect even a formidable head would cower in Martin McGuinness’ presence, especially when the Minister is on a mission. The DFM is one of the former and possibly present heads of SF ‘management’ ie the Army Council.

  • H/T to a friend

    Fiona Hamill, one of the stars of the Priestly PAC show back in July 2010, has just transferred to DRD as Finance Director under that other PAC star, Lian Patterson, the Senior FD.

  • DFP or are there two Fiona Hamills

  • Drumlins Rock

    think we need a “family tree” drawn up, just to see where all the overlaps are.

  • Pigeon Toes

    19. Mr P McGlone (Mid Ulster):
    http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2007mandate/writtenqfora/drd/drdwq2.htm

    To ask the Minister for Regional Development, pursuant to AQW 3212/11, to detail about which two Assembly Questions the Permanent Secretary wrote to the Treasury Office of Accounts on 7 December 2010.
    http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2007mandate/writtenans/2010/110107.htm#11
    (AQW 3212/11)

    Minister for Regional Development: On 5 July 2010, the then Permanent Secretary wrote to the Treasury Officer of Accounts in the Department of Finance and Personnel advising of a letter to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) from the Group Chief Executive of Phoenix Energy Holdings.

    On 15 October 2010 the Permanent Secretary of my Department wrote to the Treasury Officer of Accounts seeking advice on handling issues around some of the information that was requested by the PAC. Furthermore, the Permanent Secretary wrote to the Treasury Officer of Accounts on 7 December 2010 advising of two Assembly Questions received by my Department in relation to the PAC inquiry into NI Water

  • articles, one and the same. I’m told she has since returned to DFP. The previous DRD FD departed shortly after the suspension of his then PS, Paul Priestly.

  • There’s only one Fiona Hamill, one Fiona Hamill etc

  • There are quite a few Fiona Hamills, articles, but I wasn’t referring to the others.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “DEPARTMENT FOR REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT DEPARTMENTAL BOARD
    PROVISION OF HOSPITALITY

    1 APRIL – 30 SEPTEMBER 2010
    http://applications.drdni.gov.uk/publications/document.asp?docid=20772
    Mock PAC Hearing

    28 June 2010

    Paul Priestly
    Stewart Matthews
    Deaglan Coleman
    Ciaran Crosbie
    Lian Patterson
    Gary Fair
    Barbara Faloona
    Linda Drysdale
    Laurence MacKenzie
    Nicola Brennan
    Paddy Hoey ” jULY pac meeting

    Was this a * coaching* session ?

    In light of the 1st July PAC, it appears to be rather more than a “routine Mock PAC”, especially with the inclusion of Mackenzie and Brennan et al.

    Would the participants, which cost the public purse some £50 odd in this conveniently timed session, have advance notice by the NIAO of the questions likely to be asked by PAC?

    Does this session explain why they were so wrong-footed by the subsequent line of questioning, which in reality steered away from the script, and, the subsequent letters and fall-out from that?

    Also interesting from around the same time, Lian Patterson had been invited for “Summer Drinks” by Deloitte to “renew old acquaintances”.

    I’m sure she’s glad that it was officially declined.
    http://applications.drdni.gov.uk/publications/document.asp?docid=20771

  • Thanks, PT, I’ve added this information to the NIW chronology on the Picasaweb album.

    I wonder how PAC members will react to this ‘rehearsal’. I don’t see how such behaviour improves accountability.