Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Rathlin Ferries - By Contraries


"This report* examines the issues involved in preventing and investigating suspected fraud in public sector contracts and points to what should be best practice. The key challenge to public sector bodies is to ensure genuine competition between contractors and to prevent collusion, either between groups of bidders or between bidders and officials who place orders."

Northern Ireland Audit Office Work in Progress

Declan O'Loan: " ... all is far from well in public procurement" - and yet all is hunky dory in the awarding of the public contract!!

The official report, in a non-user friendly format, has been tucked away in the Publications section of the DRD website. There's no customary press release and no front page coverage for this 'independent' report. Even the Minister has a hang-dog look.

Today at Dormant OOPS Stormont members of the Committee for Regional Development will be briefed, in a closed session, about the results of the three 'independent' investigations pertaining to the Rathlin ferry contract process.

But why the need for secrecy? What have Ministers and officials got to hide - from each other, the mainstream media and last, and by all means least, the public? What will be revealed, what has been concealed, that isn't already in the public domain?

In-house investigations will always smack of whitewash so why did the authorities follow this path, not least when several other procurement processes have ended up in the courts? Funnily enough, Steve Rowsell, who was brought in as one of the leaders of these investigations, has already acted as an expert witness in two major procurement court cases, cases which the authorities have subsequently lost.

Paul Priestly, DRD Permanent Secretary and, I understand, chief accounting officer, predicted that the investigations would be wrapped up by the end of September. Then he predicted that it would be the end of October and then - silence. Some friends and I confidently predicted that the report would be released just before the beginning of the Christmas recess ......

The prolonged delay has had consequences: the greater the delay the more information has flowed thanks to Freedom of Information legislation. It's interesting to note that the DRD website has been experiencing 'technical' difficulties:

The Department for Regional Development's website has been experiencing technical difficulties over the past number of weeks and we are currently only able to provide a limited service whilst we continue to resolve all of our difficulties.

That message went up, er, several months ago!! Some online information about the background to the Rathlin ferry contract was 'missing in action' from the DRD website but had been Google cached, a process that is apparently largely unfamiliar to senior civil servants, even to members of the Information Commissioner's office.

Ferry tender report set to reveal 'serious issues'

Rathlin Ferry Investigations Report, December 10, 2008

DRD Committee has serious concerns:

  • there was no clear and transparent evidence trail to support this procurement; and
  • the mistakes made and surrounding circumstances provided scope for misunderstanding and contributed to perceptions of wrongdoing.
How the saga unfolded

'Error of judgment' in ferry whistleblower case

Peer to raise whistleblowers' rights in Lords

Meanwhile in the courts an MLA is threatened with jail if he doesn't name a whistleblower.

Perhaps John Dowdall, NI Comptroller and Auditor General, should be playing a pro-active role when it comes to whistle blowing disclosures.

* Not the Rathlin ferry report ;)