Housing Executive to stick by Red Sky contract decision

Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland had asked for the Red Sky contract to be extended

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It is understood the Housing Executive has told Nelson McCausland it is sticking by its decision to end an £8m contract with Red Sky.

The housing minister had asked the executive to extend the contract with the Belfast maintenance company.

The housing body announced in April that the contract would end on 14 July due to allegations of overcharging.

Earlier, Mr McCausland denied Red Sky received preferential treatment from his party the DUP.

Last week, Mr McCausland asked for the contract to be extended until a new system for awarding contracts was put in place.

However, it is understood the Housing Executive has said it is sticking to the 14 July date for terminating the contract and has threatened the minister with judicial action if he issues a directive to the contrary.

In response to allegations about his party's links to Red Sky, Mr McCausland said: "There is no preferential treatment for anyone.

"I am clear on that and that is why I have asked the Housing Executive to initiate a new procurement process that would be open, transparent, carried out as quickly as possible and that every firm would have the opportunity to apply."

TUV leader Jim Allister has called on the minister to explain any history of involvement between the DUP and the owner of Red Sky.

He asked: "How many senior DUP personnel, including ministers, have attended private dinner parties in the home of the owner of Red Sky? Why the intense interest in the highest echelons of the DUP in Red Sky being reinstated with the Housing Executive?"

Mr McCausland said he knew "absolutely nothing" about dinner parties and that his challenge to the politician concerned was to "either put up or shut up".

Analysis

The Board of the Executive has now responded to the Minister's request for the Red Sky contract to be extended.

My understanding is that their position - which is set out clearly in their reply - is that they intend ending the contact and are not moving for their original position.

Others contractors are standing by to take over the maintenance of Housing Executive's properties.

The Minister can issue a directive forcing the Housing Executive to end its contract with Red Sky. If that happens its understood the executive is threatening to take a judicial review.

A stand off of this nature is a rare event in the public sector.

He rejected allegations that the DUP had any social connections with the owner of Red Sky.

"I would not be at all surprised if a politician at some time was to have a meeting with a businessman, just as I have been at dinners with people from the BBC," he said.

He said that Red Sky had not contributed financially to the DUP and he was certain that there was "no inappropriate relationship" with any of the contractors linked to the Housing Executive.

Mr McCausland also rejected claims that he had been acting under the instruction of DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson.

"I am the minister for social development, I run this department, I make my own decisions," he added.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the DUP said "its representatives, like other parties, have met with Red Sky and its administrators on several occasions and continue to meet representatives of the company".

"It would be negligent for any elected representative not to regularly engage with a major employer in their constituency," the statement said.

Earlier on Wednesday, members of the trade union Nipsa held a lunchtime protest outside the offices of the Department of Social Development.

The union has accused Mr McCausland of interfering with the Housing Executive.

Nipsa protest Nipsa workers staged a protest over Mr McCausland's comments about the Housing Executive

He had suggested either incompetence or what he called "collusion" had been going on in the executive.

But Nipsa assistant general secretary Bumper Graham said his comments were "very serious and derogatory".

Mr Graham accused the minister of implying that people at the executive were "on the make".

'Whistle-blowers'

Mr McCausland defended his decision to carry out a "forensic investigation" into maintenance contracts at the executive.

Shortly after the contract with the Housing Executive ended, Red Sky went into administration.

The minister said he stood by his decision to ask the executive to extend its contract with Red Sky, despite criticism from his predecessor Alex Attwood, who had terminated it.

Mr McCausland said a range of issues had been raised with regard to overcharging, double-charging and "even charging for work that could not have been carried out" by more than one contractor over a number of different districts.

He said "whistle-blowers" had helped to identify these irregularities and urged more people to come forward.

The chair of the social development committee, Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey discussed the issue with Mr McCausland on Wednesday.

"At the meeting I advised the minister that there were a number of issues of serious public concern that needed addressing," he said.

"The minister has stated that his intention is to ensure that contracts are fulfilled and properly managed and complied with. In this regard the minister would have the committee's full support.

"However, I did advise the minister that any observer would consider the reinstatement of Red Sky to fly in the face of this objective."

The Stormont executive is due to discuss the matter during a meeting on Thursday.

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