Housing Executive: there was “a considerable degree of challenge” by management to the findings of inquiries

So to borrow the latest loan word to German (if it is good enough for Angela its good enough for me) as one shitschturm fades leaving virtually no trace of ever having existed, another one is blown up to take its place.

The rule in any public scandal, is follow the money. Today, a report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office firmly points the finger at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive:

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said estimated overpayments of £18m to four contractors were a matter of concern. Mr Donnelly said he was concerned at the potential loss of public money.

“I am very concerned the executive’s seemingly lax controls appear to have resulted in such a large potential loss of public money”. He said he was “disappointed” the issue was not addressed earlier by the Housing Executive, stating it had an opportunity to do so in 2010, but there was “a considerable degree of challenge” by management to the findings of inquiries.[emphasis added]

Let’s be clear about this. This is a concrete figure, not made up like the ones we were fed during the NI Water crisis. The NIHE have been repeatedly challenged on it, sufficient to draw this adverse remark from the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland.

If you ignore, for now, the unholy “shitschturm” surrounding Nelson McCausland and follow instead the money trail, it leads us right back to the NI Housing Executive, rather than the door of the ministerial office.

, ,

  • “it leads us right back to the NI Housing Executive”

    I’m not sure why the former NIHE chairman has been in the eye of the storm as he is working from information provided by NIHE officers.

    I’ve suggested to folks in the education sphere that they invite ELB officers and members to be present together when key questions are being asked in order to avoid different groups being told different stories.

    Quite recently some officers tried to convince friends of mine that certain minutes had been online some months ago when I knew they’d only been put up a few hours after questions were asked about their absence.

  • Morpheus

    I agree with you on this one Mick. The whole Nelson sideshow should not take away from the fact that £18m of taxpayer’s money was overcharged by the contractors and subsequently overpaid by NIHE. The end game here has to be a system that is full-proof, trustworthy and subject to regular, independent scrutiny.

    (Are there any systems here in Northern Ireland which aren’t broken?)

  • cynic2

    “The end game here has to be a system that is full-proof, trustworthy and subject to regular, independent scrutiny.”

    Cue hysterical laughter.

    If you really think that’s the real end game I fear that you need professional help

  • Alone and Easy Target

    Follow the money…..

    There is no doubt in my mind that NIHE are ultimately responsible for not having the right checks in place that would have identified what we now know was widespread abuse. The difficulty for the Minister is his dealings with the former Red Sky folks while they were in administration after the overcharging had become public knowledge.

    Then that ties in with the disputed phone call between Cllr Palmer and the Special Advisor.

    From what I heard in the Spotlight programme I think the double glazing contract is actually the more serious issue.

    Just heard the DUP have issued a Petition of Concern for Mondays debate and that is an absolute disgrace. In no way when a Minister is under pressure should a party abuse the PoC in that way.

  • Morpheus

    “If you really think that’s the real end game I fear that you need professional help”

    Care to illuminate rather than making condescending comments? You don’t think we need a system that is full-proof, trustworthy and subject to regular, independent scrutiny?

  • leonard

    New on here but have looked on as an observer in the past.

    Just wanted to take issue with Mick’s leading comments ie ‘this is a concrete figure not made up like during the water crisis’.

    This is simply wrong.. Read the auditors statement. He refers to ‘potential’ loss of money’. How can that be referred to as a concrete figure?

  • tacapall

    What a turnaround, like I said on the other thread, the housing executive is totally corrupt the truth will come to the fore and charges will follow, not just around the allocation of maintenance contracts but in housing allocation, too many housing executive employees are connected to political parties or looking after ex housing executive employees who know who the right people to speak to. An inquiry should be ordered into the allocation of housing also, how points are granted and how certain people can jump the queue and pick their house of choice yet own a number of houses that they rent out, so the housing executive not only pay their rent but also pay them rent via the houses they rent out – unbelievable but absolutely true.

  • Zig70

    Nelson McCausland has answers to give and his arrogance is inviting a fight. I hope the other parties force the petition of concern so that the DUP can suffer the consequence to the electorate of such an action. Have to laugh at Jim Allistar complaining about the petition of concern when his style of monocultural blinkered politics contributes to the reason for its existance.
    To follow the money, it’s not just the NIHE but bribes are rifled throughout government contracts which is probably why SF are quiet rather than being smart enough to let others weld the sword.

  • Alone and Easy Target

    Zig70

    The DUP have already confirmed they will be using a petition of concern, nothing to do with other parties forcing it. Makes Monday’s recall even more of a talking shop than usual.

  • “unbelievable but absolutely true”

    tacapal, a deep-dive audit is probably only scratching the surface. Where are the deep-dive investigative journalists?

  • Delphin

    I think some of us are hoping for a shitstorm of the magnitude that engulfed NIW. I know I am. I need that feeling of schadenfreude. It makes the SF/DUP cabal marginally more bearable.
    Anyway, the NIAO report points to systemic failures in the governance of NIHE over a period of time. This is the responsibility of the DSD minister and the department. The NIHE is a non-departmental government body under the control of DSD. The department, its ministers and officers should be held to account.
    As Nevin says, this needs deep-dive investigative journalism

  • tacapall

    “Where are the deep-dive investigative journalists”

    Exactly Nevin, hopefully they come my way. Its getting to the point where some people are thinking of bringing judicial reviews over their treatment by housing officers. Single men getting allocated brand new houses while mothers with children are denied or like I said above ex housing executive officers who are landlords pretending to be separated from their wives being given preference over those waiting years. I even know of one case where a couple were allocated a house one hour and an hour later informed that it was off only for the house to be given to a leading Sinn Fein member.

  • Neil

    Delphin,

    I believe and (like yourself) hope that this goes bigger. NIW was a scandal where the tangible effects are only felt in Sammy Wilson’s office (or possibly the Westminster Chancellor). The water kept coming out of the taps and our non existent bills stayed non existent. The average person in a working class area probably doesn’t give too much of a monkeys (especially in Nationalist areas as it was Murphy getting the heat).

    Now we have this which involves tangible results for many NIHE tenents, the money angle makes it more interesting as a story, and Nelson who has nixed badly needed housing in North Belfast (for purely noble reasons) and has an interesting history in the executive with his kooky beliefs and his penchant for having them displayed in places where people don’t want them.

    The demand for an inquiry, I reckon will get the cross community support it needs and we’ll find out what they seem very desperate to prevent us finding out. If the UUP support the DUP’s bid to prevent us finding out what the people we pay have been up to they may as well just announce their subsumption into the DUP and get it over with.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, quite guys. The DSD was almost certainly failing in its duty in its failure to act effectively from when the whistleblower put these allegations to the Stormont PAC in 2009.

    The failure comprises its determination to narrow its focus on one company and not follow through on clear information subsequently provided by the NIAO and others to the effect that the NIHE systems were either not being enforced or were inadequate.

    Here’s the NIAO’s report from September 2012:

    Today’s report also concludes that the weaknesses in the Housing Executive’s assessment, reporting and oversight of response maintenance contracts left it exposed to impropriety and fraud. While concerns about response maintenance contracts had been evident within NIHE over a long period, it failed to effectively address these. For example, poor contractor performance was not robustly challenged and as a result has been difficult to pursue against contractors. In addition, overpayments were identified but the action to address these issues was inadequate and the risk to fraud was not adequately assessed. This has resulted in a loss of public funds and poor standard of work carried out for tenants.”

    In respect of the NIHE’s cosy relationship, last year’s report goes back a long long way:

    In 2000 and 2005, there were allegations of NIHE maintenance officers accepting excessive hospitality from the company;
    In 2005 NIHE found that £264,000 had been overpaid to Red Sky. However, following investigations, NIHE decided not to penalise the contractor as responsibility for some of the overpayment lay with NIHE staff. Following negotiations, NIHE recovered £20,000 from the company;
    In April 2009, following whistleblower allegations made to the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, investigations carried out by NIHE identified significant overpayments to the company. NIHE has since recovered some £650,000. However, in March 2012, additional problems with the quality of electrical work undertaken by the company were found. It anticipated that testing for these defects will cost at least £150,000 with further expenditure required to remedy them.
    Following the termination of the Red Sky contracts the Department commissioned a wider investigation into the performance of a number of contractors; the investigation is expected to be finalised by autumn 2012.

    All of these breaches long predate the DUP minister taking office. In fact they take place under SDLP and Direct Rule Ministers who seemed happy to take the NIHE’s word that everything was okay. Well, it turns out it wasn’t.

  • cynic2

    There is no doubt that the Executive was rotten to the core in some areas and some staff seem to have done very well out of it and above all some contractors profited handsomely.

    All the more reason to ask why a Minister wanted one of the Companies who were PROVEN to be ripping the arse out of it to be reinstated. Aside from the legitimate concern of course that 350 protestant jobs in his party leaders constituency were about to be lost WHY WAS HE NOT PRESSING FOR THE REST TO BE AXED TOO

  • cynic2

    accepting excessive hospitality

    What hospitality from a contractor is acceptable?

  • cynic2

    Let the DUP use a petition of concern

    That very act shows how scared they are of the truth being exposed.

    This is exactly why we need an opposition – but the trough is just too attractive

  • Neil

    That’s the key Cynic. What was the motivation. Would a businessman keep a light fingered employee in his post ’til he found a replacement? Is that really supposed to be the answer?

  • Mick Fealty

    Neil/cynic2,

    It should go wider. Much wider. But the motion in Stormont wants to keep it all tightly within the frame of the Spotlight programme. The DUP will want to lodge much broader terms, which may prove more damaging to the previous incumbents than the DUP.

    To stick with your analogy Neil: Sack a light fingered employee thief to employ another?

    PS, the more the Petition of Concern gets invoked, the more it falls into disrepute. Which may prove to be a good thing in the long run.

  • Master McGrath

    You are on the money here Cynic2 – why would a company proven to be on the rip be re-instated for any work of any sort where public money is paying?

    The money trail to be following here could be political benefit in kind as the payment – there is still so much yet to come on this whole business.
    The notion that Peter Robinson will help by asking some of those involved from the Spotlight programme to come and see him to sort things out – (he really does not do the kindly old Headmaster act very well as he certainly no Mr Chips) is an almost bizarre development and just a bit creepy.

  • Gopher

    Can’t stand Nelson McCausland but it is looking very much like the housing executive themselves have created a monster. It seem that contracts have been awarded subject to extraneous payment or gratuity and this has given the contractors a license to play fast and loose with quality and billing. There needs to be arrests, convictions, assets confiscated and pensions cancelled.

  • “not just around the allocation of maintenance contracts but in housing allocation”

    tacapal, you’ll be interested in this NIAO quote:

    the Audit Commission2 considers housing tenancy fraud to be the largest category of fraud affecting local government services. Tenancy fraud is the possession of a social housing tenancy by someone who is not entitled to it. This deprives those on housing waiting lists of the chance of a permanent home and gives rise to additional costs for temporary accommodation and additional house building. It is estimated that tenancy fraud costs the public purse £1 billion a year in England and Wales. To date NIHE’s counter fraud work has not addressed this irregular activity and its implications for those in need.

    Presumably there will also be a paramilitary dimension not only to housing allocation but also to the costs of maintenance and other contracts.

  • leonard

    A lot of of references have been made to the job losses by Red Sky employees. Most of you are probably unaware that TUPE rights apply in these circumstances.

    The new contractor(s) taking on the contract has a legal obligation to take on the former Red Sky staff. In essence, there were no job losses

  • Delphin

    I’m sure this question has occurred to others too Leonard, but unless the Red Sky maintenance contract was a job creation scheme(which it may well have been) there would have been no net loss of jobs, so what was the FM talking about. Has Red Sky contributed to the DUP coffers? I think we need to know.
    Another question, why has ex Chairman Rowantree, someone who had completely lost the confidence of his minister now head of the Civil Service Commission?
    Owen Patterson’s take on this is

    Announcing the new appointment, the Secretary of State said:
    Civil service commissioners play an extremely important role, guarding the merit principle in civil service selection, and upholding the civil service’s core values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.”  
    I am confident that Brian Rowntree will make a valuable contribution to the work of the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland and I wish him well in his new role.
    Ho hum

  • Mick Fealty

    Leonard,

    According to Rowantree the decision to use TUPE was the NIHE boards and made in advance of his first meeting with McCausland. He argued then that the NIHE’s problem was with the management not the workers.

    http://www.thedetail.tv/system/uploads/files/163/original/Meeting%20at%20NIHE%20HQ%20April%2028%202011.pdf?1347381155

  • leonard

    His name is actually Rowntree.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks. And welcome to Slugger!

  • Comrade Stalin

    I don’t see how the NIHE has any say over whether TUPE is used or not.

    TUPE is designed to protect a company’s employees when it is bought out or merged and it is legal requirement, not some sort of optional extra. If a new company bought the assets of Red Sky from the administrators, then TUPE applies. If they didn’t, then TUPE does not apply. The Housing Executive are nothing to do with it.

    The minutes quoted above are damning, in my view. Every step of the way, Peter Robinson appears to have been fully briefed by Red Sky prior to arriving at the meeting and gives the impression of acting as a proxy, especially at the point where he actually blames the Housing Executive for failing to catch Red Sky overcharging. Robin Newton interjects at one point with an assurance that Red Sky were using materials for their work of a suitable quality. How on earth would Newton have been in a position to give this assurance ?

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, okay, they had already sought legal opinion before that first meeting that TUPE would apply in this particular case…

  • Comrade Stalin

    Re-reading the minutes it appears that NIHE’s concern here was to ensure continuity of service to HE tenants.

    BTW whoever was redacting parts of those minutes didn’t do a very good job. A few minutes with Photoshop and it’s contrast adjustment tools would make short work of the hidden content ..

  • Lionel Hutz

    There is a distinction between TUPE applying to employees of the Red Sky to mean that they keep their job with the buyers of the company as a going concern and in another sense to mean that a different company which takes over the contract has to employ those employees.

  • Barnshee

    “A lot of of references have been made to the job losses by Red Sky employees. Most of you are probably unaware that TUPE rights apply in these circumstances.

    The new contractor(s) taking on the contract has a legal obligation to take on the former Red Sky staff. In essence, there were no job losses”

    I suggest you revisit the TUPE legislation. A new company = new contract = no obligation to Red Sky staff