Northern Ireland

NI Water conduct 'was shocking and indefensible '

The contract procedures of NI Water which led to the sackings of four board members were "shocking and indefensible" a top civil servant has told the Public Accounts Committee.

Paul Priestly, the accounting officer with the Department of Regional Development, said NIW refused him access to its internal audit reports.

He said the company's awarding of 73 contracts valued at £28m, without competition, was "rightly to be condemned".

"We have been let down by those charged with the stewardship of Northern Ireland Water," he said.

However, Mr Priestly insisted he took "swift and appropriate action" when the failings came to light and it was regrettable that the situation was not unearthed earlier.

He said the failures had been going on for three years but that "no red flag" had been raised to him as the department's accounting officer.

Ethics

"We were let down by the board and executives of Northern Ireland Water," Mr Priestly added.

Committee chairman Paul Maskey said members had not come across a more serious case of "complete disregard for public sector ethics".

NIW's chief executive Laurence MacKenzie told the committee there was a reticence among its staff to tell the department anything.

The company's chairman, Chris Mellor, and three other board members were sacked earlier this year following an independent report.

The report found that there had been a "serious breakdown in the governance and control framework" of the company.

Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy said the company could be open to legal action over the way contracts were awarded.

Four new interim directors were appointed this week.

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