Was NI Water rolling back poor departmental compliance rates?

The PAC’s report into Northern Ireland Water has to be one of the most comprehensive pieces of research, not only into a publicly owned utility, but into an insider government culture that brooks no dissent and treats whistleblowers with contempt. There is more than enough to keep Slugger going for the next fortnight, and yet beyond this excellent summation of the story by Sam McBride at the News Letter, the press have, by and large, let it slide.

However, as one sharp-eyed reader notes, it is not quite as comprehensive as it might have been:

There were 75 procurement failures totalling £45.9 million between 2005 and 2010. However, 41 of those contracts originated during NI Water’s period within the department when it was known as Water Service.

Despite the comprehensive nature of the committee’s report, we don’t have an answer to this, but it’s a question well worth asking anyway. If the majority of these breaches originate when NI Water was the Water Service, what were the relative values of each set of contracts?

In other words, has Mr Murphy’s Deparment been wasting everybody’s time (and taxpayer’s money) investigating a problem that was actively being improved by the very Board he summarily sacked?

As a footnote, and just to keep things in perspective, these figures also suggests that NI Water have a 95-97% compliance rate on procurement, which if not perfect is significantly better than some other public sector targets we could mention.

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  • Cynic2

    We are clearly seeing the tip of a huge iceberg that goes straight into the heart of the Department, not NIW.

    A key question has always been, why was Priesltly so exercised by the impertinent questions of the PAC members. Why did it drive him to do what he did – which was total utter madness?

    It simply cannot have been to do with governance in NIW. He could easily palm that off and blame others. So what was it made him so concerned to keep PAC members from shining a little sunlight in on the issues? It can only be fear of what may lie buried in DRD’s procurement history.

    So isn’t it time this was opened up by PAC too? I believe some major contractors are worried that it might be and that cosy cartels might come under scrutiny

  • Pigeon Toes

    As Nevin has already pointed out on earlier threads, the same Mr Priestly spent an awful lot of energy in defending procurement practices which the NIAO in a draft report had the temerity to suggest was “unacceptably poor” and indeed wrote with suggested changes.

    His reasoning?

    “”Rather than creating a perception of favoritism, the impact of the lapses was that it was difficult, without a formal investigation, to refute the various allegations when they were picked up by politicians”
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/49858523/Rathlin-Ferry-Investigations-NIAO-Draft-Report-Early-2009

    Was it a case of genuine shock, therefore that he wasn’t been taken at his word.?
    After all they had carried out an “independent investigation”

    Or could it be that the convenient “coaching”/mock PAC that DRD and NIW staff had attended days before, didn’t provide the questions that were likely to be asked.
    http://applications.drdni.gov.uk/publications/document.asp?docid=20772

    We can only speculate as to why that might have been, but looking at the relationship with DRD and NIAO regarding such reports, public confidence is undoubtedly undermined in DRD and indeed the NIAO, (with all previous PAC reports thrown in for good measure).

  • Test – earlier post hasn’t appeared.

  • DC

    Why is Paul Priestly still in employment?

    He intervened in areas outside of his civil service remit (the emails prove that) – they prove he instructed an independent panel to dance inappropriately to his own tune – in my view in terms of employment and contract of employment his trust is shot and he should be fired.

    What is the civil service playing at – it’s as well this isn’t an emergency situation, Priestly should’ve been sacked long ago and asked to go back to the marketplace for other employment.

    Classic civil service tactic – kick the issue into the long grass and then appoint some clown to run a report into the handling of NI Water generally, rather than run a specific disciplinary on an employee – Paul Priestly.

    Where is HRConnect in all this?

    Priestly’s a goner in my view – you don’t go tinkering with independent panels – clear breach of confidence and trust, at least from an ’employers’ point of view, which is the taxpayer and not necessarily Conor Murphy nor his department.

  • “There is more than enough to keep Slugger going for the next fortnight”

    Nick Garbutt, PR consultant and News Letter columnist, has also been reflecting on the independence of investigations: Crisis Deepens for NI Water – News Letter March 3

  • DC

    I can’t be arsed seeing this thing run on any longer – honest to god why hasn’t this been dealt with already? It’s boring me to tears!

  • Lionel Hutz

    In all seriousness, is there actually a conspiracy with the MSM and Sinn Fein/DUP these days. They seem to have just given up on all notions of integrity.

    Murphy may not have done anything worth resigning over, but he has been allowed to say that the reports demonstrate how he went above and beyond what he had to do. There doesn’t appear to be any challenge to that and there doesn’t appear to be any mention of this PAC report.

    It seems that NI, you can just wait a few months, stall and everything will be OK. Look at Peter Robinson – he may ahve done nothing wrong but he was allowed to escape scrutiny. Has there been any investigation into that scandal. Why has it also been allowed to slide???

  • Mick, Sam and you have had a much better grounding on earlier procurement issues pertaining to DRD. Reliable and well informed sources are also very important.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘Look at Peter Robinson – he may ahve done nothing wrong but he was allowed to escape scrutiny.’

    Nonesense. He was subjected to the full rigours of a bloke he appointed and who reported back, but didn’t publish, the findings that Peter was ‘clean’.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Inevitably there will have to come a point when the previous “independent investigations” *instigated by Paul Priestly* come under scrutiny.

    The minister, his party, the PAC has painted him as recreant.

    This cannot therefore be his first such act, and deserves greater evaluation.

    Though it is interesting that the Minister is basing his “vindication” on the work of such an individual.

    Do we, as the public, take this as an isolated case of such interference, or now cast a very cynical eye on past reports, reviews and investigations ?

    It would indeed be foolish for those charged with oversight, not to look for similar patterns of behaviour in the past, especially when there is evidence already in the public domain, which suggest that indeed similar “crimes” have been committed before.

    Malfeasance/misfeasance?

  • Crubeen

    Malfeasance/misfeasance?

    Probably both … or neither! The true and real government is that of the Civil Service. Ministers become dependent on their officials and become sufficiently house-trained as to do exactly and precisely what their officials desire. Interference by Parliament … never mind a mere Assembly … is to be entirely disregarded and discounted. Ministers exist to get the budget allocation that their officials want … and independent reviews exist only to absolve officials and ministers of all blame and responsibility.

    There is huge waste in Government because of the wanton ways of the Civil Service and the supine attitude of politicians who lack the expertise to tackle officials and are wary of doing so … because one day, they hope, those officials will be covering their asses when they get to be Ministers.

    No politician will ever take the steps that are needed to curb the Civil Service. Public service provision will further deteriorate … with all sorts of red herrings and garden paths called upon to lull the voters. there could however come a time when that critical mass might emerge (as we see it in the Middle East and, to a lesser extent in the Riven Vincent affair) that will compel a fundamental reform of government.

    I’m a newbie hereabouts … hope to get to know you all better in future.

  • Lionel Hutz

    William Markfelt (profile) 7 March 2011 at 5:00 pm
    ‘Look at Peter Robinson – he may ahve done nothing wrong but he was allowed to escape scrutiny.’
    Nonesense. He was subjected to the full rigours of a bloke he appointed and who reported back, but didn’t publish, the findings that Peter was ‘clean’

    —————–

    Is all seriousness, is there ever going to be an investigation into that. It’s been over a year.

  • Mr Angry

    “Is all seriousness, is there ever going to be an investigation into that. It’s been over a year.”

    No.

  • Lionel Hutz

    No?

    Thats it? It’s amazing. We are all being duped

  • Crubeen you may have outlined the Yes Minister version of the relationship between Ministers and senior Civil Servants but it doesn’t necessarily apply to all ministries at Stormont. It’s quite possible that when some Ministers shout ‘Jump’ their Permanent Secretaries are too afraid to ask ‘How high?’.

  • Crubeen

    Nevin,
    I do recall that Hacker did triumph on one or two occasions but that, for the most part, Humpy got what he wanted. When I look at Stormont I see little evidence that any of the ministers have got the deft touch to outwit the Civil Service and a deal of evidence to suggest that everything from regulators to the humblest office cleaner is geared to protect the public servant and not the service to the public. There’s a history of direct rule and ministers remote from decision making. The Civil Service had things its own way, did what it wanted and still, I think, wants this way of working to prevail or thinks it can prevail if the political master are advised appropriately. Shall I just say that in certain sectors, of which I have direct experience, there is a culture that perpetually acts to cover up wrongdoing and there are politicians who seem not to have the slightest interest, or perhaps the requisite knowledge, to disturb that. Is this latter a consequence of continued sectarian politics or a lack of maturity in devolved government? Or is it fear of the Civil Service that is as over-manned as the electorate is over-represented?

  • Crubeen, I agree with your sentiments about cover-up and political incompetency; I’ve written about them on NALIL blog. I’ve also indicated that regulators and other watchdogs are failing to act in the public interest.

    Conor Murphy doesn’t strike me as a man with a deft touch. Yet the correspondence surrounding the appointment of the interim NI Water NEDs portrays public servants as submissive creatures, anxious to do their master’s bidding. None appears to have challenged the appointment of the additional NED or his access to Belfast Harbour funding.

    The PAC report is extensive but we sometimes need to seek out the material that has been omitted. I’ve noted that the PAC chair and vice-chair must not be from the party which holds the DFP ministry. Why then did the SF chair not stand aside when PAC was investigating the activities of a department and linked GoCo headed by a SF minister?

    Several of the recommendations relate to the DFP and its CPD off-shoot. Procurement is often a joint CPD-Government department venture. Minister Murphy appears to have been micro-managing NI Water since September 2, 2009 at least. Why then didn’t PAC request the presence in open session of the two Ministers: Conor Murphy and Sammy Wilson, the Minister for Procurement – as well as the DFP Permanent Secretary, Stephen Peover?

  • Pigeon Toes

    “Malfeasance/misfeasance?

    Probably both … or neither! The true and real government is that of the Civil Service. ”

    Crubeen,
    I mentioned this in relation to the Permanent Secretary, I agree entirely with your thoughts regarding our “permanent government”. One official was heard to state “politicians may come and go, but the civil service remains”

    Though it would seem the same official was blessed with the extraordinary power of time travelling, bring able to sight correspondence to an individual, about a month before the Department were supposedly in receipt of it.

    That correspondence was not an email, as one might imagine, but a personally addressed letter sent to the individuals workplace through the post.

    The department in question had not been copied into it at the time.

  • Mallie: “Members of the Public Accounts Committee are now in possession of a ‘restricted’ document probing leaking of Audit Office report on NIW.”

    How long before this document is ‘leaked’?

  • William Markfelt

    I was taken by the following link on a BBC page

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12696470

    ‘Whistle blowing in India can nearly destroy you in India’.

    As most of us know, whistle-blowing under the NIA’s ‘regime’ can do the same, requiring family movements, 180 degree career shifts and the destruction of reputations to satisfy the public servant’s brand new, shiny, career-enhancing toy, the ‘investigation’. PAC’s efforts are bullshit, as usual, and hardly worth the paper they’re written on. But I assume they, too, will have indulged somewhere along the line in a hatchet-job on some poor sap whose future now looks grim, on the flimsiest of, or no, evidence.

    Plus c’est change, plus c’est la meme chose.

  • Well said, William. The MSM is nearly as impotent as a Stormont committee. The revelation of shenanigans, however, can seemingly be more lethal in India. The following quote from the BBC link has a certain resonance here:

    The problem is that the people who run the governments are the people who are most threatened by the whistle-blowers. Indian politics is in the hands of a mafia now. Whistle-blowers are being left to fend for themselves.

  • Mick Fealty

    William,

    Consider this. The Minister says he is ‘vindicated’ by this report. The Minister’s statement is then passively reported by the press without reference even to the recommendations of the PAC report.

    I think you do the PAC a disservice. Poor reporting (and I don’t just mean the press when I say that), has been endemic in this whole story.

    Comparatively speaking, this was a good piece of work. But if no one is going to read it, then you have to ask what’s the point of having such accountability mechanisms in the first place?

  • William Markfelt

    Mick,

    We both know that PAC have a chequered history in their tackling of these sort of matters, and hisotrically haven’t even been capable of hearing both sides of the story. Hitherto, the methodology has been to suck up whatever old nonsense the likes of the NIAO has fed them. And in this instance, the NIAO are very much part of the problem.

    Coaching the key players through cross examinations, weren’t they?

    Yes, PAC grew teeth on this one, but they were milk teeth and in the end most of the players were pretty much savaged by a dead sheep, as the saying goes, and as usual there’s a sense of people ‘getting away with it’.

    Comparitively speaking, a 4-0 defeat is a good piece of work after a 7-0 and 8-0 drubbing, and I’m sure that the manager of that team would effuse on an ‘improving defence’. And that’s what this feels like: the fans, the spectators left to wonder where their team is going. Conceding fewer goals still feels like a defeat. That’s what PAC’s report is, a defeat for the taxpayer dressed up as an improving performance.

    To further flog the footballing analogy, if the NIA are the Manchester United of local politics, then their Howard Webb is the NIAO.

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://www.niwater.com/niw_news.asp

    “New Chair appointed to the Board of NI Water
    23 March 2011

    The Minister for Regional Development Conor Murphy, today announced the appointment of Seán Hogan as non-executive Chair to the Board of NI Water.

    Mr Hogan will replace the outgoing interim Chair Mr Padraic White and his appointment will be for a period of three years and will take effect from 24 March 2011.

    The Minister said: “I welcome the appointment of Seán Hogan who has considerable experience across a range of public bodies and will bring a great wealth and breadth of expertise which should equip him well for the challenges of this demanding role.

    “This important appointment comes at a critical time for the organisation. Mr Hogan will be expected to provide strategic direction and leadership to NI Water. He will be expected to play a key role in restoring public confidence in the company and in ensuring the delivery of effective and efficient water and sewerage services, including improved customer care.

    “I would also like to use this opportunity to put on record my thanks and appreciation to the outgoing Chair, Mr Padraic White, who only agreed to take on the Chair role on an interim basis during what can only be described as a very uncertain and challenging time for the company. I commend him for his commitment and leadership during this period of time. He will remain in post for a further month to provide an appropriate handover period.

    “One of Mr Hogan’s first tasks will be to participate in the selection process for the appointment of four new non-executive directors to the Board as well as the appointment of a new Chief Executive.”

    Seán Hogan is a Masters Graduate in Organisational Management from Queens University Belfast and also Chair of the Agri Food & Bioscience’s Institute here. He is currently Chair Designate of the Education & Skills Authority and Board Member of the NI Transport Holding Company. He currently holds Fellowships with the Institute of Directors, the Chartered Management Institute, the Institute of Marketing Management, and the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce. He is a former Chair of Newry & Mourne Health & Social Services Trust, a former director of the Southern Health & Social Services Board and the Warrenpoint Harbour Authority.”

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/8224301.stm

    Consultant to chair schools body

    Sean Hogan is the new Education and Skills Authority chairman
    Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has appointed Sean Hogan to be chairman of the new Education and Skills Authority (ESA).
    The ESA is the body which will take over the functions of the education and library boards and other education bodies like the CCMS.
    Mr Hogan is a management consultant from Newry. His new job attracts a salary of £33,000 for a three day week.
    The minister said the appointment was “a significant step” in her reforms….
    The chairmanship of the ESA is a three year appointment.
    Mr Hogan said: “I am very pleased to have been appointed. I believe education has the power to open doors at every stage in life.
    “We need to ensure the highest standards in education are available to all and I look forward to contributing as we begin a new chapter in the future of our schools.”
    The minister said: “The ESA will play a key role in improving the delivery of education to our children and young people and raising standards at all levels.
    “I know that Sean’s skills and experience will enable him to make a valuable contribution to education.”

  • William Markfelt

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-13094137

    Sorry to drag our old friend NIW up again, but the above link (Red Sky construction in administration) seems to resonate across to the NIW tale.

    As sure as NIW’s travails had a deeply ‘political contracting’ agenda, and possibly bolted on sectarian politics and agenda involved, so does the Red Sky story.

    As sure as eggs are eggs, there is a ‘political contracting’ angle at work here, and a fairly obvious whiff of sectarianism running through it.

  • William Markfelt

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-13148654

    I’m quite surprised that Slugger’s correspondents haven’t tried to analyse and compare the political tactics in the ‘Red Sky’ story as they did the NIW story, because there are valid comparisons, and it seems that there is an element of ‘political contracting’ going on here, with some anonymous little ‘investigation’ resulting in a conclusion without there apparently being any sort of valid system of ‘justice’ in place. Not that we should be surprised that the NIA operates in this manner.