Thursday, 3 March 2011

Rathlin Ferry Saga and the Northern Ireland Audit Office

Who Watches the Watchdogs?
Are They All Too Close To Government?

One task of the Northern Ireland Audit Office is to hold 'Departments and their Agencies to account for their use of public money'. The Rathlin ferry saga and several other projects involving the use of public funds have made some folks wonder if the NIAO has allowed itself to be used as a barrier to the exposure of misgovernment.

Queries about the quality of the Rathlin ferry tendering process appeared on the webpages of Slugger O'Toole in mid-December 2007 and these queries were subsequently brought to the attention of several elected representatives from different political parties. I noted Calmac's apparent unease when the new ferry contract was awarded and shortly afterwards a NALIL reader drew my attention to the aforementioned queries. I updated this blog on June 5, 2008 and numerous blogs have appeared since as the saga has unfolded.

Jim Allister, the then MEP, asked NIAO to carry out an investigation. However, the DRD's Permanent Secretary, Paul Priestly, commissioned a series of 'independent' investigations instead and these culminated in the publication of a report in December 2008, a report that the Committee for Regional Development has yet to scrutinise.

NIAO published its brief review of the DRD report in its Annual Report [pdf file] in May 2009. Following a Freedom of Information request it's now been revealed that Paul Priestly requested alterations to the review while it was being drafted.

Priestly [20 Feb 2009]: "Rather than creating a perception of favouritism the impact of the lapses [in basic good practice]  was that it was difficult, without a formal investigation, to refute the various allegations when they were picked up by politicians."

Was it not the duty of Government to examine the allegations and make good whatever lapses were identified rather than go to whatever lengths were necessary to refute the allegations? The DRD investigation cost £55,000 yet evidence was subsequently found that the new operator had operated the MV Canna without a valid passenger certificate, evidence the investigators failed to detect or report.

Draft deletion: NIAO noted that there were a number of instances identified in the case where there were no paper records of meetings or discussions involving officials. This is unacceptably poor practice.

Surely it's in the public interest that such unacceptable practice should be highlighted by the NIAO, not hidden at the behest of a senior civil servant/Government minister. Failure to speak out permits such practices to continue.

It reminds me of that meeting on September 2, 2009 where NI Water business was discussed by Minister Conor Murphy, Paul Priestly and Lawrence MacKenzie, NIW CEO; Lian Patterson DRD and Stephen McGlade SpAd were also present. A DRD spokesman claims that no minutes/notes were kept and the Public Accounts Committee appears to have been unaware that the meeting took place.

Draft deletion: Three allegations relating to personnel issues were upheld.

This statement weakened DRD's case so it was hardly surprising that its removal was requested. Why did NIAO acquiesce?

Priestly: "You asked for comments on the [NIAO draft] report's factual accuracy."

Were the 'complainants' extended the same courtesy by NIAO? If not**, surely this skews the report in favour of those whom the NIAO accused of 'unacceptably poor practice'. These ‘independent’ reports, flawed as I believe some of them to be, may be used as ‘evidence’ in other contexts.

** They weren't.