22 August 2010 | Angeline Albert
An investigation into the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) found it had had a “widespread culture” of accepting gifts and hospitality in the procurement team.
In one instance five years ago, former – now retired – head of procurement services Brian Lowry and the head of court operations George Keatley accepted a sailing holiday in August 2005 as guests of Richard Maybin, managing director of Maybin Support Services (MSS), a major contractor to NICTS, according to an independent inquiry.
The acceptance of this hospitality, which was initially reported in the media and occurred a year before the end of MSS’s contract for security provision at courthouses, sparked an independent inquiry and a criminal investigation.
The inquiry, carried out by retired civil servant David Watkins, took five years to complete because it had to first wait for the conclusion of a police investigation into the awarding of contracts.
Although the Watkins report found no concerns over how contracts were handled he did report an “absence of a procurement-specific statement of ethical standards”.
Four members of staff were investigated during the course of the Watkins inquiry – Keatley, Lowry and two others (whose names have never been disclosed). They were subject to internal disciplinary proceedings which “found their behaviour to constitute varying degrees of misconduct”, a spokesman for the courts services said.
He added that they were “subject to appropriate penalties imposed under the court service disciplinary policy and procedures”. None was dismissed.
Following a recommendation in the Watkins report, procurement is now handled within the Department of Finance and Personnel.
In addition, the NICTS now maintains a register of gifts and hospitality on its website and is updated annually, the spokesman said. “Staff are reminded routinely of the official guidance on acceptance of gifts and hospitality which is available for consultation at any time. All NICTS procurement is conducted through the central procurement directorate of the Department of Finance and Personnel,” he added.
The spokesman also said the original contract was awarded in 2001 to MSS (now called Resource). In 2006, a letter of award was issued but a challenge by a competitor resulted in legal proceedings in the High Court. The challenge was unsuccessful but a judicial review required that a fresh procurement exercise be undertaken, which NICTS is in the process of starting.