Privatisation at heart of NI Water scandal

Contracting Out is a company headed by Sue Holmes, a senior consultant adviser to NI Water. This outsourcing company was awarded a contract by NI Water without any competition from other firms involving 130 days work by the firm at £775 a day, amounting to £100,000 of public money. On top of this, Holmes’ company had a 6% “success fee” for “savings identified” (not actual savings) of which she had claimed to have identified savings of £23m!

However, this was not a once-off. Contracts signed with private companies with close links to senior managers at NI Water were often repeatedly renewed without review. Consultants also received lucrative payments. As previously reported in The Socialist, a Public Accounts Committee review has shown NI Water has been riddled with corruption. The review identified 73 contracts awarded by NI Water where rules regarding competitive tendering were not followed, worth £28.4 million in total. This included one consultancy item over £750,000 which was not checked by the NI Water board or the Department for Regional Development.

This resulted in the firing of four non-executive members of NI water board who received a massive £500,000 in bonus and fees in three years! However, as Jamie Delargy’s report on UTV Live Tonight makes clear, the firing of these non-executive directors were “fall guys” for what is a systematic problem. This trail of corruption has led to the suspension of DRD Permanent Secretary Paul Priestly. Priestly was removed for suspected interfering into an ongoing “independent” investigation including drafting a letter for Phoenix Energy chief executive Peter Dixon threatening MLAs with legal action.

Although the full picture of this sordid affair has yet to be revealed (it is thought much more is to come out), it is an absolute vindication of what the Socialist Party and the anti-water charges We Won’t Pay Campaign warned when NI Water was established in 2007. We warned that water charges and the creation of NI Water was part of a process towards the privatisation of the water service. Bosses from private companies were given huge salaries to takeover our water service –who then began to hand out contracts to their profit-hungry business friends.

The newly appointed non-executive directors have largely remained silent about the recent scandals with the exception of Mairtin O’Muilleoir who has been vocal on his blog defending his colleagues. O’Muilleoir is a Belfast businessman, Chief Executive of Andersonstown News Group and a former Sinn Fein councillor. Instead of dealing with the scandals he has ranted about the SDLP controlled media having an agenda and harks back to the days when “self-styled Catholic elite teamed up with the Brits to freeze out republicans from jobs and community posts.” Writing while on holidays in Hawaii, he concluded his blog post by saying “Nowadays, thank God, those appointed to public office have to prove their worth”. One has to ask how exactly is he proving his worth or has O’Muilleoir become part of the “self-styled Catholic elite” he claims to despise?

Many trade union and anti-water charges activists have followed with interest the appointment of ICTU Assistant General Secretary Peter Bunting as one of the non-executive directors of NI Water. The only statement Bunting has made (as a member of the new board of directors) has been to back the current Chief Executive Lawrence McKenzie, a former boss of Phoenix Gas.

Instead of taking director positions, the trade union leadership should be demanding that NI Water be immediately brought back into public hands, and run democratically by elected bodies representing workers and local communities and public representatives. The profiteers should be removed from our water service, with all workers directly employed in the public sector.

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