Northern Ireland

'Concerns' expressed over NI Water board appointments

Paul Priestly
Image caption Paul Priestly is currently suspended from his role at DRD

The NI Commissioner for Public Appointments has said she had concerns over how an interim board at NI Water was selected.

The Department of Regional Development appointed the new board after Minister Conor Murphy sacked the chairman and three other board members last spring.

Felicity Huston said: "I was a bit shocked about how chaotic it was considering the importance."

Mr Murphy said he had full confidence in the process.

'Unsatisfactory'

However, Ms Huston said it was one of several conducted by DRD she had found to be unsatisfactory.

The chairman of NI Water, Chris Mellor, and three other board members were dismissed after an independent review team found there had been major flaws in the company's procurement process.

Ms Huston told BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight programme her office had found an "enormous number of gaps" in the process of appointing replacements.

"We couldn't find out how people had ended up being interviewed," she said.

"There were missing records about submissions to ministers where advice is given to a minister on how we might proceed.

"I have to say that I have investigated other public appointment competitions in DRD and been very dissatisfied with them.

"The permanent secretary (Paul Priestly) and I had some full and frank exchange of views about how he was running his appointments."

Mr Priestly is currently on precautionary suspension after it emerged he drafted a letter critical of Stormont's Public Accounts Committee on behalf of one of the review panel.

His solictors told the programme he could not comment on any matters because of an ongoing disciplinary process.

Mr Murphy said that he had consulted with the Commissioner for Public Appointments while appointing the interim board.

"The Public Appointments Commissioner - and I understand this - wouldn't like an emergency or interim appointments process.

"(But) she understood that we were in an emergency situation where people had been dismissed."

'Surprised'

Former chief executive of NI Water, Laurence MacKenzie, who left his post following the recent water crisis, issued a statement to the Spotlight programme.

Image caption Laurence MacKenzie left his job as chief executive of NI Water following the recent water crisis

In it, he said he enjoyed working with the new board.

However, he added that he was surprised that two individuals who, he said, had very relevant utility experience and were recommended to the minister for the jobs, were not appointed.

He also stressed that he had "no role at all" in the sacking of the four directors.

Spotlight reporter Julian O'Neill said that he had had a private meeting with Mr MacKenzie.

"From his statement and what he told me, it's clear he believes that Minister Murphy used the affair as a convenient excuse for increasing his control and moving NI Water away from any move towards privatisation," our reporter said.

The Department of Regional Development said that the minister removed the directors "as result of serious procurement governance failures that involved more than 70 contracts worth £28.4m".

"The minister stands over this action.

"The minister's clear opposition to privatisation is on public record and has been consistent since taking office."

'Independent status'

In his statement, Mr MacKenzie also criticised the appointment of the utility regulator to carry out an investigation into NI Water's failings during the recent crisis.

"They (the utility regulator) set the financial agenda for NI Water which included a significant reduction in water mains replacement compared to what was needed and are now investigating the problem.

"It is a bit like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank and then wondering why there isn't enough to carry out the next transfusion."

The Utility Regulator said: "Our independent status means that our focus is strictly on protecting the interests of consumers."

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