Denial as committee concludes it was misled

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Not for the first time, a Social Development Committee inquiry into allegations arising from a BBCNI Spotlight programme - in which Lisburn DUP Councillor Jenny Palmer played a central part - has been condemned as a “witch-hunt”.

It follows Wednesday’s publication of the inquiry report, in which the committee concluded, by majority vote on the motion, that Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland had deliberately misled it regarding meetings he attended in relation to the NI Housing Executive’s double-glazing programme.

(Councillor Palmer separately claimed in the Spotlight programme examining allegations surrounding public housing maintenance contracts, that she was put under pressure to change her vote at a key Housing Executive board meeting).

In an addendum to this week’s report the minister denied misleading his department’s oversight committee and described the report as “fundamentally flawed and weak”.

Mr McCausland had writtten to the committee to say he had met Glass and Glazing Federation representatives to discuss the specifications of a major double-glazing programme, a meeting revealed by Spotlight to have been in fact with representatives of Turkington Holdings, a firm that has had links with the DUP.

Last year, the minister said he had inadvertently misinformed the committee, having believed the Turkington representatives were in fact representing the GGF.

Responding to its report, he wrote to the committee earlier this month to argue it should “not be published in its current form”.

Social Development Committee chair, Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey, said Mr McCausland had serious questions to answer, having met not with representatives of the GGF but with representatives of an individual company, only for the record of that meeting to be later changed. According to Mr Maskey all parties but the DUP concluded from the evidence that the minister deliberately misled the committee.

SDLP MLA and committee member Dolores Kelly said the minister should consider his position.

Fellow committee member, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, however, dismissed the report as a “discredited political witch-hunt and a waste of time and money”.

He said: “The civil servants who gave evidence to the committee indicated that there was nothing untoward about his meetings. They were explicit in their judgement that they would have advised the minister to do the meetings regardless of who it was with.

“Indeed, rather than trying to mislead the assembly or the committee the minister gave an assembly answer in 2012 where he said: ‘In relation to the Glass and Glazing Federation I met with the managing director and the general manager of Turkington Holdings on 16 April 2012’.

“Rather than misleading the assembly or committee in letters, meetings or assembly answers, the minister frequently made reference to who those meetings were with.”

Among other things Mr Wilson highlighted that the report itself noted - ‘Furthermore, the outcome of these discussions contributed to the ongoing review of the NIHE double-glazing programme which it is estimated will result in an average saving of around 21.5% when compared to the average costs in the previous contract. Claims that the Minister sought to remove Turkington’s from the record do not therefore stand up to scrutiny.’

The report will be debated by MLAs in September.