Nelson McCausland answers BBC NI Spotlight allegations

Nelson McCausland Mr McCausland and his DUP party have denied any wrongdoing and said they will take legal action

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The Social Development Committee at Stormont has agreed to set up an inquiry into allegations broadcast in a BBC NI Spotlight programme.

The programme alleged there had been political interference in the running of the Housing Executive.

Committee chairperson, Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey, said the issues raised by Spotlight constituted a "major public issue".

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland denies the allegations.

The DUP MLA appeared before the committee on Thursday and described the Spotlight programme as a "botched job".

Mr McCausland told MLAs that he had never personally been involved in the awarding of Housing Executive contracts.

"I can assure you categorically that I have never sought to influence any contracts, neither this nor indeed any other contract. Indeed neither do I have any role in this," he said.

"This is, as I have always advised, an operational matter for the Housing Executive alone."

The minister said the Spotlight programme, which was broadcast on Wednesday evening, was a "huge fishing expedition and not much of a catch at the end of it".

Mr Maskey said the terms of the inquiry would have to be decided and would be subject to legal advice.

The DUP'S Gregory Campbell asked if those who produced and presented the BBC programme would appear and give evidence.

The assembly has been recalled to sit on Monday after a number of parties said they wanted to discuss the issue.

Allegations

BBC Spotlight broadcast an interview with DUP councillor and Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) board member, Jenny Palmer, who said she was put under pressure by her party to change her vote at a Housing Executive board meeting.

The meeting was called in July 2011, to discuss the Housing Executive's contract with the Red Sky maintenance company.

The £8m-a-year contract had been terminated four months earlier, amid allegations that the east Belfast firm had overcharged for carrying out work on NIHE properties.

The housing board was to vote on a request from Mr McCausland to extend the NIHE contract.

Ms Palmer told Spotlight that Mr McCausland's political special adviser, Stephen Brimstone, phoned her ahead of the meeting and asked her to vote against the board's decision to refuse Mr McCausland's request.

She said she was "shocked" and told Mr Brimstone that she did not think she could carry out what he was asking her to do, because of her concerns over Red Sky's performance.

Ms Palmer told the programme: "He (Mr Brimstone) said 'the party comes first, you do what you're told', otherwise there's no point in me being on the board, if I wasn't prepared to do what they asked me to do."

'Errors'

In response to her allegations, Mr Brimstone told Spotlight he did not accept the accuracy of the account of events the programme had put to him.

Red Sky, which employed 450 people, was later placed in administration.

Mr McCausland told the Social Development Committee he welcomed the opportunity to "set the record straight".

"There were errors in the programme, there were omissions, and it was largely based around insinuation, innuendo, and misrepresentation," he said.

"I think the opportunity will be there on Monday in the assembly to deal even more fully than I have dealt with it today and to put the record straight.

"I think it will show very clearly that both I, and my permanent secretary, and indeed my special adviser, have worked at all times to the highest standards to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland get value for money and that Housing Executive tenants are given the best possible accommodation."

In a statement, the DUP said it intended taking legal action against the BBC, over what it claims were inaccuracies and defamatory statements.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: "Given the nature of the allegations raised by the Spotlight programme a number of things now need to happen.

"Firstly there needs to be a fresh and thorough police investigation into the allegations made by those individuals on the programme.

"Within the political structure the statutory inquiry by the DSD committee under Alex Maskey needs to be given full support in its work.

"Also, Douglas Bain, the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, needs to investigate relevant matters raised in the programme, as a matter of urgency.

Alleged corruption

"These allegations have the potential to undermine public confidence in the political institutions."

TUV leader Jim Allister has written to the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service requesting an investigation into Mr Brimstone's conduct.

SDLP Environment Minister Alex Attwood said the assembly needed answers to both alleged corruption inside the Housing Executive and the conduct of the DUP.

Mr Attwood said: "There have been very serious allegations made last night (Wednesday) of a criminal nature and clearly the PSNI now must step in and have those matters exhaustively investigated.

"Secondly, there have been serious allegations about the conduct of a political party and more than one of their ministers, and that clearly is a matter of concern to the assembly and should be investigated," he added.

In its statement, the DUP said it made no apology for fighting to save the jobs of those they believe were singled out and unfairly treated by the Housing Executive at the time.

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