BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal?

Housing Executive 2.jpg

BY Bellfast Plebian 

A little while ago (Jan 2013) this blog singled out Nelson MaCausland, a Minister in the stored Northern Ireland Executive, as a target for criticism.  This was no random selection of a minister in an improbable regional government that we happen to have little respect for. Nelson was a bit of a special case because he was the minister most likely to cause a commotion.

It was asserted that this neo-conservative Orangeman is about the least preferable person you could hope for in charge of managing the socially damaging CON-DEM policy of comprehensive welfare reform. We were sure his approach would be to offer minimum resistance to the drastic changes being proposed.  We were especially worried that he had been given overarching control over the Northern Ireland Housing Executive: the publicly funded organisation specifically mandated to allocate social housing on the basis of objective need rather than community and religious patronage.  The Minister we said was so ardent an evangelic Protestant and a strident Orangeman that he would be inclined to put the interest of promoting his own religious community above the important non-sectarian consideration that pertains to the neutral role required of a housing minister. Well it didn’t take very long for our worries about Nelson to be confirmed – the bomb exploded earlier than we anticipated – and a few days after we posted our account he began his political assault on the very existence of the Housing Executive.

At first Nelson’s spat with the Housing Executive was carefully phrased in the all too familiar neo-liberal one of saving the taxpayer money. The Housing Executive is managed and funded on the model of a department of the British Civil Service and because it is not classified as belonging to the private sector economy it is therefore almost by definition deemed to be inefficient and wasteful of taxpayer money by the major accountancy firms that aspire to set the standards for every social service. The new Housing Executive will work all the better if it is broken up and placed in the hands of Housing Associations that know the realities of private sector finance, so claimed Nelson.

Hardly anyone of influence objected to Nelson’s declared programme of privatisation barring a few union leaders that voiced worries over potential redundancies. To most tender minded folk (folk is the favoured term used by Nelson) the reasoning if not impeccable was at least normative for our current economic condition. More tough-minded types wondered if Nelson’s impeccable reasoning was merely a convenient cover to pursue an old style Orange vendetta against the Housing Executive. In certain quarters the Housing Executive is still thought of as an anti-Orange institution, something that was imposed on Orange society against its interest, a concession made in the past by a nervous Labour government running scared of the Northern Ireland civil rights campaign.

There is a certain type of Orangeman who resents the very existence of the Housing Executive, who would like to see it done too death.  I am certainly one of those dwindling number of suspicious types who still believe that there are plenty of unreformed Orangeman around, dreaming of taking back the little victories of the civil rights movement.  I suspected that Nelson was one of those unreformed Orangeman who was bent on returning to a long standing sectarian battle over the political control of social housing and I was aroused by the fact that Nelson was only into the job a few weeks when he began asking for the religious make up of the workforce, right down to the numbers in individual offices. Was he of the viewpoint that the Housing Executive had a pinko-management and a Catholic majority work force representing an earlier victory for the sectarian enemy?  Was he out to knock it of its previously set course?  I felt that he was one government minister that needed watching.

Last week the BBC Spotlight programme (3/7/2013) provided us with an insight into what Nelson’s real agenda had been since he became the social development minister.  Before the Spotlight programme was broadcast you could see the aura of hubris already taking shape around Nelson’s head.  On June 10 he had given the management of the Housing Executive a real roasting on the floor of the Assembly; all sorts of charges were flung against the former chairman Brian Rowntree.  He accused the Housing Executive of overspending on repair contracts to the tune of £18 MILLION on four contracts. He also said that one contractor Red Sky had been singled out by the Chairman for retribution for overcharging solely because it was perceived to be a Protestant firm. The unionist benches erupted with shouts of shame on the sectarian Housing Executive. What was also striking about Nelson’s performance was the pleasure he took in laying into the management of the Housing Executive and the satisfaction he got from seeing that the non-unionist parties offering only palliative opposition to his new plan to break up and privatise the public housing body.

Just four weeks later Nelson’s confidence took a punishing blow at the hands of a BBC television expose on what he had been doing out of plain sight.  It turns out that almost everything he said in the Assembly that day was so false that it might rightly called the opposite of the truth. He and his political adviser backed by his party leader had it seems been running a hate campaign against the ousted Chairman of the Housing Executive that smacked of venomous sectarianism. The BBC reporters provided more than enough evidence to allow for other Assembly members to demand his immediate resignation.

The story begins in April 2011 and a building maintenance company situated in the constituency of Peter Robinson goes into administration after a Housing Executive investigation into allegations of low standard work and overpayments. The Board of the Housing Executive felt it had no other option but to cancel the contract with Red Sky due to the facts put before them by inspectors pertaining to the poor quality of the work undertaken by the firm and also by the firms fraudulent charging of tasks not undertaken at all, estimated to be about £1.5 million. The decision of the cross community board was unanimous.

The management of Red Sky decided not to go quietly. In the middle of the April 2011 Assembly Election campaign they approached the leader of the DUP and First Minister Peter Robinson and informed him that the Housing Executive held a sectarian i.e. anti-Protestant bias against the company. Peter was furious about what he had been told about the Housing Executive decision and nine days later led a delegation to meet with its chairman Brian Rowntree to lobby on behalf of the firm. The minutes of that meeting record the First Minister stating that the decision to terminate the contract ‘reflected a sectarian bias on behalf of the Housing Executive.’ He also warned the Chairman that he could expect an enquiry into the Housing Executive after the election of May 2011.

After the Assembly election he appointed his own sectarian attack dog Nelson MaCausland to the post of minister in charge of Social Development, which covers supervision over social housing. A strategy meeting was held in Stormont building on 27 June to find out what could be done to get Red Sky back in the contract game. In attendance where the First Minister Peter Robinson, the Minister of DSD Nelson MaCausland, his political adviser Stephen Brimstone and the DUP MLA Robert Newton.  Crucially, neither the Housing Executive nor the Administrator for Red Sky was invited to the meeting. Three days later Nelson McCausland met with the Chairman of the Housing Executive to insist that the termination of the Red Sky contract be suspended for at least six months.

A letter from Housing Executive chairman Mr Rowntree to DSD Permanent Secretary Will Haire dated July 1, expressed ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ about the way Mr McCausland and his department were attempting to overturn the Board’s decision. Expressing the thought that both Mr Robinson and Mr McCausland may have broken the ministerial code of office by lobbying in support of Red Sky, Mr Rowntree added ‘We understand that meetings have taken place with the senior management of Red Sky in administration and the minister, first minister and other DUP representatives…. This raises the question of did these meetings constitute canvassing and lobbying for government contracts and in breach, not only of public procurement principles but basic codes of conduct in public life.’

Nelson McCausland later said that he took the letter to be like a declaration of war. Having failed to pressure the Chairman of the Housing Executive into overturning the Red Sky decision once, the DUP turned to one of its own councillors who sat on the board of the Housing Executive for a second go. The minister’s special political adviser, one Stephen Brimstone, made an eight-minute phone call to DUP councillor Jenny Palmer and more or less commanded her to change her vote at the next Board meeting called in July 2011 to re-examine the Red Sky decision.

Just ahead of the board meeting Jenny Palmer told the Chairman of the Housing Board about the DUP attempt to make her change her vote and he advised her to declare an interest and absent herself from the vote, which she did. When he failed to get the vote overturned Nelson McCausland carried out Peter Robinson’s original threat and ordered a comprehensive review into how the Housing Executive awards contracts to be carried out by chartered accountants ASM Howarth.  Four days before the ASM report is due to be delivered the Chairman of the Housing Executive resigned citing personal stress and a challenging relationship with the DSD and the minister.  At this point Nelson sensed a retreat, and then went on the offensive accusing the Housing Executive of failing its tenants across many fronts. In January 2013 he announced he intended breaking up the Housing Executive and passing on the ownership of the housing stock to privately run Housing Associations.

Public Reaction:

We will cover this in two episodes. In the first episode we got a party political reaction and a media assessment of a similar temper. Sinn Fein was in the best position to drive the questioning of the credibility of Nelson McCausland and his party boss. Their leader at Stormont is Martin McGuiness the joint first minister with Peter Robinson and their senior policy maker Alex Maskey just happens to be the chairman of the Social Development committee that is supposed to make the Minister accountable.  The first thing to note about Sinn Fein is the party did not call for any immediate resignations from the DUP led government. Some starry-eyed pundits in the media praised this restraint as showing their newfound political maturity.

Martin McGuiness made just two points; that the ‘statutory inquiry led by the DSD under Alex Maskey needs to begiven full support in its work’ and that it was necessary for the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner ‘to investigate the relevant matters raised in the programme as a matter of urgency, these allegationshave the potential to undermine public confidence in the public institutions.’ Two days after the Spotlight programme was broadcast Alex Maskey convened his investigative committee and Nelson duly appeared to face the music. It was the failure of the DSD committee to pursue Nelson that provoked the first episode of widespread negative media reaction.

‘The Irish News’, the main morning newspaper read by nationalists, headlined the report on the committee meeting as; Minister shrugged off Teletubbie Mauling. The chief reporter wrote ‘Chairman Alex Maskey seemed at pains to highlight the good relationship the Minister enjoyed with his scrutiny committee and beyond asserting that the public would be demanding answers said little to cause the DUP rep any concern.’ He concluded the report by stating that ‘all round it was an opportunity missed not so much a grilling as a friendly invitation to the minister to come and warm his toes by the fire.’ 

The Belfast Telegraph, a newspaper traditionally supportive of Unionism, was equally dismissive of the DSD questioning of the DUP minister.  The headline it ran on the 5/7/2013 was ‘Watchdog lets McCausland off the hook.’  The Telegraph reporter was struck by the deference shown to McCausland – ‘He spoke for 54 minutes without one interruption’, something that rarely happens in the equivalent British committees.  He suggested the members were discouraged by Nelson’s verbal dexterity in comparison to their own lack of education. Nelson walked away from the committee asserting that the BBC Spotlight broadcast was just a ‘hotchpotch of speculation, insinuation andinnuendo.’ He threatened the BBC with legal action, as did his boss Peter Robinson, and it should be said that we referred to Nelson’s animus against the local BBC news reporting in our previous blog – Nelson reckons it is moved by a strong anti-British bias.

Because of the general negative media reaction, Sinn Fein decided to take another step and asked for a summer recall of the Stormont Assembly for a one day debate.  It looked as if they felt they needed to perform a bit better than they did at the DSD committee meeting.  However there was still no demand for resignations, only for an investigation about standards of conduct.

It is important to note at this stage what the press and assorted pundits were saying was potentially wrong with what the DUP had been doing. One view was that there was a potential ‘corruption charge’ being levelled at the minister.  What this actually amounted to was difficult to pin down, there was no suggestion that Nelson had sought to make any personal financial gain from the Red Sky advocacy.  Then there was the Sinn Fein procedural charge of breaching the ministerial code of office by lobbying on behalf of a private firm for business contracts.  Peter Robinson felt able to dodge the ministerial code charge by a nimble use of procedural semantics.

On the 5th July he gave an interview to the Irish News claiming that he had attended the strategy meeting with Red Sky in his capacity as elected MP for East Belfast and not in his capacity as the First Minister ; ‘Could anybody expect that the elected representative of east Belfast would do anything other than get exercised about the loss of jobs andseek to do something about it’.  He also declared his annoyance at the BBC saying ‘ I’m no longer going to tolerate this kind of accusations that Spotlight throw out in the hope that nobody takes any action against them for it.’

So within two days of the programme the BBC Spotlight team were facing four legal threats, one from the First Minister, one from Social Development minister Nelson McCausland, one from the management of Red Sky and one from special adviser Stephen Brimstone. A couple of media pundits pointed out that the Executive had recently rejected British Government proposals to change the libel and defamation laws to lessen restrictions and now we know why.

The third area for media concern was about bullying – the attempted bullying of Jenny Palmer by male thugs.  Jenny Palmer was talked about in terms of being a whistleblower, a heroine in the making and she became the must have interviewee.  This was the theme of  ‘The Irish News’ political column by Fionnuala O’Connor – ‘DUP’s whistleblower gives cause for cheer’. The opposition Unionist party in particular made the bullying charge the big issue and their Ross Hussey appeared on the original Spotlight programme to decry the bullying.  Then in the DSD committee meeting Michael Copeland, another Unionist Party member, made the terrible treatment of Jenny Palmer the core of the issue.    

What was remarkable at this point was the fact that the elephant in the room of the evidently sectarian inspired onslaught on the Housing Executive went largely unspoken. This was so much the case that the critics of the media elevated the ultra right wing TUV leader Jim Allister to the role of champion of public morals.  Every time the media wanted a quote about the ‘scandal’ they looked first for one from Jim Allister.

‘The Irish News’ ran the next big story on the Red Sky affair on the 9th July under the front-page banner ‘Allister rounds on the DUP’ accompanied with a picture of him.  On the same day the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ ran their lead with ‘Corruption claims rock Assembly.’  Jim Allister had framed the criticism solely in terms of financial corruption and party political favouritism, and for now most of the political class and media were happy to let it all rest at that.  Jim Allister was afforded a guest column in the Telegraph on July 11th to present us with the heart of the matter: ‘while the party ‘s treatment of Jenny Palmer  is shocking, the most  damning portion of the programme was that which dealt with the glazing contracts after representations from a DUP-friendly contractor, Mr McCausland put on hold the glazing contracts.’

He also argued for a judge led inquiry under the 2005 Inquires Act because 10 of the 11 members of the DSD committee belonged to parties of the Executive.  Another media pundit Alec Kane actually found some comfort in the scandal writing in the Telegraph; ‘This is also the first major political story which hasn’t centred on a spat between unionism and republicanism or between the DUP/Sinn Fein and the smaller Executive parties. And again that is what makes it interesting, because it’s as close as we have come to a normal so called scandal.’ (5/7/2013)

to be continued.

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