Top civil servant suspended over NI Water review

18 August 2010

18 August 2010 | Angeline Albert

A senior Northern Ireland civil servant who led an investigation into procurement practices at NI Water has been suspended after new information came to light.   

Paul Priestly, the permanent secretary for the Department for Regional Development (DRD), was suspended last night pending an investigation into events following the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing on NI Water (NIW).

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Bruce Robinson, suspended Priestly.

The statement said: “The suspension, in accordance with Northern Ireland Civil Service personnel procedures, is for the purpose of facilitating the investigation and is not a disciplinary penalty.”

However, DRD minister Conor Murphy issued his own statement yesterday which said Priestly’s position was “untenable”. Only 24 hours earlier Murphy had been defending Priestly.

Murphy’s statement and Priestly’s suspension came a day after the broadcast of a UTV investigation, screened on Monday night, which examined Priestly’s role in relation to the sackings of four NIW board members.

NIW chairman Chris Mellor and three other non-executive directors – John Ballard, Ruth Thompson and Declan Gormley – were sacked earlier this year for failures in procurement governance around contract awards. Murphy dismissed the three in March after an independent review, which was jointly commissioned by Priestly, found they were culpable for a breakdown in procedures that meant £28.5 million of contracts was awarded without being correctly tendered.

Sinn Féin assembly member Paul Maskey said: “Clearly Conor Murphy has received information of a significant nature. His decision that the position of the permanent secretary within his department was no longer tenable would not have been taken lightly.

“The information he [Conor Murphy] received was from Mr Priestly himself, which presumably is why he was able to come to a speedy conclusion regarding Mr Priestly’s position. It is quite proper that those who presided over the failures within NI Water which allowed 73 contracts worth over £28 million to be awarded without public tender to be held responsible and removed from their positions.”

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