Wednesday 21 February 2018

Minister at centre of public housing row in North urged to step aside

Michael McHugh

A minister in Northern Ireland's powersharing executive faced calls to step aside today over allegations of political interference in the allocation of public housing contracts.

Democratic Unionist Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland has denied personal involvement in the awarding of property maintenance deals by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) which runs low-cost social accommodation, despite claims his staff pressured a member of the organisation's governing board in an effort to extend one multimillion-pound agreement.

The NIHE has suffered a series of scathing reports about shoddy workmanship and financial irregularities involving contractors and the Northern Ireland Assembly held a special meeting on Monday to discuss the latest disclosures.

The DUP blocked a motion calling for an inquiry into allegations of wrongful political interference, which was defeated.

Sinn Fein member Caitriona Ruane told the legislative chamber: "I am calling on the minister to do the honourable thing and step aside from his role as Social Development Minister upon completion of inquiry and investigative processes."

Sinn Fein are the main powersharing partners of the DUP.

Ms Ruane said the precedent had been set by Mr McCausland's party leader Peter Robinson, who temporarily stood down from his role as First Minister over an unrelated issue.

"Anything less will leave our political system open to ridicule, because his actions and the actions of his political adviser have created the thought in people's minds that politicians are more concerned about boxing off their political supporters than they are about conducting themselves with probity and fairness," the South Down MLA claimed.

The special Stormont meeting was called following a BBC television documentary which aired claims of DUP interference in public housing contracts given by the NIHE.

The minister's special adviser, Stephen Brimstone, has said he did not accept the accuracy of the account of events given in a Spotlight programme.

He made an eight-minute phone call to DUP councillor Jenny Palmer, an NIHE board member, who said she was pressured to change her vote at a board meeting called in July 2011 to discuss the Housing Executive's contract with the Red Sky maintenance company. Its £8 million-a-year deal had been terminated four months earlier amid allegations that the east Belfast firm had overcharged for work on NIHE properties.

The Executive was to vote on a request from Mr McCausland to extend Red Sky's contract, which the minister said was so arrangements could be put in place for a proper re-tendering process.

Ms Ruane asked the DUP if two firms at the centre of claims of political interference were party donors and alleged the minister had shown, at best, poor political judgment and at worst boxed off party supporters.

"There is no place for a brown envelope culture anywhere on this island and the DUP and Nelson McCausland have major questions to answer," she told the Assembly.

Red Sky which employed 450 people, was ultimately placed in administration and the DUP has defended what it said were efforts to protect jobs.

Mr McCausland pointed to overcharging within the wider public housing maintenance sector at the time of Mr Brimstone's phone call.

"It was endemic within the structures and within the systems, it was right and proper that that sort of information was imparted to a member of the (Housing Executive) Board," he said.

Red Sky has admitted that it mistakenly charged the NIHE for work on two apartment blocks that no longer exist.

But the minister said Red Sky's contract was given to another company named as part of a report into £18 million worth of maintenance overcharging. He told MLAs his preference was to wait until a full and open re-tender could be launched.

Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) MLA Jim Allister highlighted what he claimed was the desperation of the DUP to cover its tracks over "unhealthy" arrangements with commercial interests.

"We have seen it in the past, they did not learn from it in the past and it is clear that they are not prepared to learn from it now," he said.

"If it is in the party interest to court developers then the party comes first."

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan called for a police investigation into allegations of criminality contained in the programme, which are not connected to the DUP.

"While the DUP may invoke political chicanery to evade accountability to this Assembly for their ministerial actions, those accused of wrongdoing must not be able to side-step the rigours of the law," he said.

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