NI Water overwhelmed by 1m contacts from customers

Laurence MacKenzie Laurence MacKenzie said he believed firmly in the principles of responsibility and accountability

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Northern Ireland Water (NIW) has apologised to customers for its handling of the recent water shortage.

The company's director of customer service, Liam Mulholland, told a Stormont committee that the scale of the problem had taken them by surprise.

He said more than one million contacts were received from members of the public at the height of the crisis.

Former chief executive Laurence Mackenzie resigned after mounting criticism of the company's response.

He officially leaves office on Friday and was due to appear before the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Regional Development which is hearing evidence about the crisis.

His decision not to attend has been criticised by the chair of the committee Fred Cobain.

"This is a huge issue, not just for this committee and the Assembly, but for the thousands of people who have suffered," he said.

Golden handshake

Analysis

The resignation of Laurence MacKenzie was widely predicted. As chief executive of Northern Ireland Water, he was the man in charge when the water began to run out.

After Stormont ministers last week described the company's performance as "shambolic", it was clear his days in the job were numbered.

But Northern Ireland Water is a state-owned company, and the minister in charge of water, Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, is still facing calls for his own resignation.

Unionists say they intend putting down a motion of no confidence in him in the Assembly. But the move is unlikely to have any impact.

The complicated rules at Stormont mean that Mr Murphy's job is safe unless his own party turns on him. In effect, only Gerry Adams can sack Conor Murphy. And with an Assembly election only four months away, that is not likely to happen.

"He has a responsibility to those people. As far as we are concerned he should have been and he is not."

Officials from the government-owned company have been giving evidence to the committee about the handling of the crisis.

The Stormont minister responsible for NIW has said the former chief executive will not receive a "golden handshake" package.

Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy said he is seeking legal advice over Mr MacKenzie's minimum entitlement terms.

Mr Murphy estimated the figure to be under £100,000 and said it would be made public.

Mr Murphy said he was yet to receive full details of the severance package for Mr MacKenzie but said estimates of a payout of £500,000 were massively "over-inflated".

"I haven't been given the actual figure yet but I believe it is lower than £100,000 and it is my understanding that the minimum legal requirement does not include pensions contributions, golden-handshakes or bonuses," the minister said.

Complaints

Northern Ireland Water apologised to customers for its handling of the recent water shortage.

Mr Murphy also stressed that he wanted assurances that Mr Mackenzie would remain "available to assist the review" into the crisis.

The review which is being carried out by the Utilities Regulator is due in February, and its terms of reference are expected to be made public at an assembly committee meeting on Thursday.

Mr MacKenzie's resignation had been widely predicted after NI Water was criticised for failing to prepare properly for disruption following December's heavy snowfall.

Half-a-million litres of water had to be sent from Scotland to Belfast as supplies began to run out.

There were complaints from the public about a lack of information from Northern Ireland Water as 40,000 homes and businesses were without supplies at one stage.

Phone lines were jammed and the company website lacked up-to-date information.

After more than 10 days of disruption, just 33 households in Northern Ireland are now without a full water supply.

Confirming his resignation Mr MacKenzie said: "This is entirely my own decision. I believe firmly in the principles of responsibility and accountability. It is for that fundamental reason I have decided to pursue this course of action.

A spokeswoman for Northern Ireland Water said: "Following discussion, the board has accepted his (Mr MacKenzie's) resignation as CEO and agreed terms of settlement consistent with his contractual entitlement.

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