Northern Ireland

DRD oversight of NI Water 'worst possible' report says

Image caption Northern Ireland Water has been through a torrid time

The BBC has learned that an assembly committee's draft report into Northern Ireland Water is sharply critical of the Department of Regional Development.

The report described the department's arrangements for overseeing NI Water as "the worst of all possible worlds."

It called for a major overhaul of procedures around procurement practice.

There is also criticism of DRD permanent secretary Paul Priestly, who is currently suspended, and former NI Water chief Laurence MacKenzie.

Loose oversight

The Public Accounts Committee has been carrying out an inquiry into performance and governance issues at NI Water.

The review was prompted after another report found that millions of pounds of contracts were being awarded without proper competitive tendering.

The PAC probe has criticised DRD's overall handling of NI Water, hitting out at how its governance arrangements were designed for a commercial company despite it effectively remaining in public hands.

It says the oversight of NIW, established in 2007, was looser than it was for other non-departmental public bodies.

On procurement procedure, the review says the "inexcusable" mistakes were part of a "deeply embedded culture" and called for root and branch reform of policy.

A previous review into procurement, which led to the sacking of NIW four directors, was curtailed by Mr Priestly too quickly, the PAC found.

It added that all those who were on the independent review team had potential conflicts of interest.

'Utterly disgraceful'

It criticised evidence given to it by Mr Priestly, and said it was "utterly disgraceful" that he drafted a letter of complaint to it on behalf of one of the review team.

Mr MacKenzie's evidence to the committee was also criticised.

Both NI Water and the Department of Regional Development said they would not comment on a leaked draft report.

The chairman of the PAC, Sinn Fein MLA Paul Maskey, said that he was disappointed the draft had been leaked and he would seek to get to the bottom of how it happened.

SDLP member of Stormont's regional development committee Conall McDevitt said that the report raised "serious questions" and that Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy was responsible for the alleged failings detailed.

He added: "The only senior figure who has been in a leadership position throughout the period covered by the report is Conor Murphy.

Image caption Paul Priestly has been suspended from his post at the Department for Regional Development

"The buck stops at his desk. He is the head of the Department of Regional Development which has now been found to have fallen below the standard of good government."

Mr McDevitt said the minister would have been responsible for the "vast majority" of decisions criticised in the report.

"It begs the following questions: either the minister was asleep on the watch for over two years, or he did not understand the implications of the decisions he was approving or he was aware of the consequences of his actions?"

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