On Wednesday the Public Accounts Committee at Stormont considered an Audit Office report on Northern Ireland Housing Executive maintenance contracts. It is a damning report and highlights a number of major issues.
The chief executive of the Housing Executive, John McPeake, and Will Haire, the permanent secretary in DSD, appeared before the PAC and Newton Emerson commented as follows:
John McPeake, head of the Housing Executive, says an Audit Office report into bogus repair work by contractors is 'a stain on the record' of his organisation. However the stain spreads wider than that. Documents obtained by The Detail website show that when the Hosuing Executive cancelled a £7 million deal with one of the contractors, east Belfast-based Red Sky, DUP politicians including housing minister Nelson McCausland and first minister Peter Robinson accused it of 'sectarian bias' and lobbied frantically to have the contract restored.
Will Haire, the top civil servant in Mr McCausland's department, took his minister's side and relations soured so completely that Mr McPeake's predecessor resigned.
We await stain-removing remarks from the DUP, the Department of Social Development and the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Under my SDLP predecessor, Alex Attwood, there was a thorough investigation into one maintenance contractor, Red Sky. As a result and just as I came into DSD, the Housing Executive terminated their contracts and transferred them to other contractors.
However there was no investigation into other contractors, including those to whom the contracts were transferred, to see if similar problems existed in relation to those companies.
I wanted to be assured that other contractors were not acting improperly and so I commissioned the consultants who had already investigated Red Sky to investigate other adjacent contractors. Just before the summer recess I received the initial report from that investigation and the final report will follow in due course. However it is already clear that the issues identified in Red Sky were not restricted to Red Sky. They existed in a number of other contractors. That is something I have placed on record in the Assembly on several occasions. The concerns that I raised last summer have therefore been fully vindicated.
The penultimate sentence of the article by Newton Emerson states that 'relations soured so completely that Mr McPeake's predecessor resigned.' However it was not Mr McPeake's presdecessor who resigned. John McPeake is the chief executive and his predecessor was an acting chief executive, whose temporary tenure ended naturally after the appointment of the new chief executive. The person to whom he is referring is probably the former chair, Brian Rowntree, who resigned at the end of June. That is a pretty fundamental error and such a fundamental error totally undermines the credibility of Newton Emerson's article. It also exposes the shallowness of his understanding.
John McPeake was right when he told the PAC that the Housing Executive's management and monitoring of maintenance contracts was 'a stain on the record' of his organisation. Not only were false claims made by some contractors but those false claims were approved by Housing Executive staff. There was indeed a breakdown within the Housing Executive in relation to the management and monitoring of maintenance contracts.
I have a double responsibility in this matter - a responsibility to tenants, who deserve a good quality service, and a responsibility to the tax payer, to ensure that money is not wasted. Moreover money that is paid out for work that has not been done is money that is not available for other maintenance work.
We now have a new contracts system in place and that system will be monitored carefully but it is important to get to the bottom of what went wrong, as far as that is possible, because that is the right thing to do and it is what the general public will expect.