Northern Ireland Water – the plot thickens

We featured this story here a while ago - it all started you may remember with a contract for a consultant to look for procurement savings in Northern Ireland Water.  That contract ended up costing a lot more than expected because the payment was based on a share of identified savings, and was awarded without proper competition, as were a number of other contracts.  But that was just the trigger for a series of increasingly interesting events...

Four non executives were fired, for failings of corporate governance, and that seemed to be it.  But Ulster Television (UTV) have investigated further, and claim that the report that led to the  non-executives going was not independent.  Rather it was (they say) a stitch up to allow the Chief Executive to stay, avoid the Department of Regional Development (which had oversight of NI Water) taking blame, and position the non-executives as the fall-guys.  The Permanent Secretary at the DRD  suggested changes to the 'independent' report, including changing some references to the DRD''s role. Now further investigations into the role of the Perm Sec are underway, and as Slugger O'Toole reports,

For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland and only the second time in the history of the British Civil Service a Permanent Secretary has been suspended.

All this has come out through one of the non-executives defending his reputation, FOI requests and excellent investigative work from blogs like Slugger O'Toole and UTV.  (It's hard to see ITV in England or Wales even attempting this sort of story by the way).  It does strike me that the political situation in Northern Ireland with devolution is leading to a very healthy scrutiny on issues such as the role of government Departments and the nature of 'indepdendence'.  I wonder how many 'independent' Whitehall reviews get published without officials or Ministers having some 'input'?  Would the English media take the same interest as UTV if this had all happened in London?

But remember, it all started with poor procurement policies and practices.  So:

  • Who authorised the single tender 'share of savings' contract that paid out on the basis of 'identified savings' (would have been better practice if it had been implemented savings) and has ended up with a consulting firm charging £1.5 million for their work (according to the independent report)?
  • Why did the independent report not identify who signed off that contract? (It wasn't the non-execs, that's for sure).
  • Did anyone realise that the value of the contract (way over the EU OJEU limit of course) might be so large because of the share of savings basis ?
  • How many days of consulting work were actually done for that payment?
  • Why was that firm selected?  (The Head of the firm according to the Belfast Telegraph was previously on the management board of the Water Service, NIW's predecessor organisation).
  • How much of the £23 million 'identified' procurement savings proposed by the consultant have actually been realised by NI Water?
  • And has the "further invoice for £888,000 based on Contractor A’s calculation of the savings and interest to date on the claims identified" (quote from the independent report) been paid yet?

I would stress there is no suggestion of any impropriety by the consulting firm,  but it's all got very high level and political while these fundamental procurement questions are still unanswered as far as I can see.

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