Published Wednesday, 20 March 2013
The Housing Executive has come under criticism for its handling of public money. (© Pacemaker)
The Department for Social Development was also criticised in the Public Accounts Committee report, which examined the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) management of £50m-a-year deals with contractors to carry out maintenance work on its 90,000 houses.
Speaking at the launch of the report, Michaela Boyle MLA, Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said: "The Committee recognises that the Housing Executive has played a pivotal role in the provision of social housing over the past 40 years, often in difficult and challenging circumstances."
She said that most Housing Executive staff overseeing those businesses contracted to respond to maintenance needs are diligent and hard working - but she was damning of management and oversight of these services.
We found that the management and oversight of this service has been abjectly poor - so poor that it calls into question the capability and competence of management within the Housing Executive over many years, particularly at a senior level.
SF MLA Michaela Boyle, PAC Chairperson
She added: "We would even go so far as to say that it would appear that some members of senior management actively undermined the systems of control that had been put in place."
The report follows a Northern Ireland Audit Office Report which also criticised the management of NIHE's services.
The new report has highlighted the fact the Committee raised concerns about the performance of the Housing Executive's management after issues were raised by a whistle-blower and that these reviews had been on-going since 2008.
It found that there was a culture within the Housing Executive that discouraged staff from raising concerns, including the use of IT to attempt to identify an anonymous whistle-blower.
The Sinn Féin MLA for West Tyrone said: "The practices we found give the impression that staff who raise concerns in the course of their work or in a whistle-blowing capacity will not be supported or protected. I want to put this on the record- discouraging whistle-blowing or creating the perception that whistle-blowers are not welcome is simply unacceptable."
The minister has for some time now been meeting regularly with the new chair and has ensured that his department has monthly accountability meetings with the senior team in NIHE to be assured that the necessary measures are being taken.
Issues with contractors were raised two years ago, when the NIHE cancelled a £7m-a-year contract with Red Sky construction after allegations of overcharging and subsequent investigations into the company's performance.
The Committee Chairperson said it was disconcerting that not only did it take the Housing Executive more than ten years to deal with the poor performance of Red Sky, but that "for most of this time the Department was completely unaware of the problems".
Ms Boyle said: "This places serious question marks over the Department's oversight of the Housing Executive.
"Even more worrying is our fear that the Housing Executive's weaknesses extend into other areas of their activity. We are particularly concerned that their Housing and Regeneration Division, which looks after maintenance and land purchases, had been out of control for many years."
The committee welcomed commitments from the department to make substantial changes to improve the way the NIHE is managed. In January, Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland outlined plans to restructure the organisation after the findings of the previous report.
Ms Boyle commented: "However, this does not mask the basic failures in governance and management which have exposed the Housing Executive to a very significant risk of fraud, impropriety and poor value for money over many years."
A DSD spokesperon said Minister McCausland had previously put his concerns about contract management practice within the NIHE on record and he would be working with the Department for Finance and Personnel to consider the committee's recommendations and make a formal response.