The Civil Service is investigating a whistleblower’s allegations of a potential conflict of interest in an £80 million health project, it has confirmed.
The Fraud Investigation Services, a Civil Service-wide unit which examines serious allegations, is examining the claims which relate to two new £40 million health centres in Lisburn and Newry which were to be built using a form of public-private partnership.
The whistleblower came forward on December 20 – at the height of the RHI scandal, just five days after Jonathan Bell’s explosive television interview with Stephen Nolan.
The exact nature of the allegations, who they relate to or the seriousness with which they are being taken by investigators is not yet clear.
Details of the situation first emerged in InfraNews, a specialist business intelligence publication.
In a statement, the Department of Finance said: “In December 2016 whistleblower allegations were received by the Department of Finance’s Central Procurement Directorate.
“A team within the department are making inquiries into the allegations including that of a potential conflict of interest and the whistleblower has been made aware of this.”
However, the department went on to defend the process whereby the preferred bidder for the contracts had been selected.
It said: “The selection of the preferred bidder for each of the Lisburn and Newry projects was made on the basis of clear and transparent award criteria which were shared with all the bidders at the commencement of the procurement (this was a Competitive Dialogue Procurement process which followed the Contract Regulations relevant at the time of commencement of these competitions).”
In a statement, the Department of Health said: “The Department of Finance’s Central Procurement Directorate received a letter from a whistleblower containing allegations relating to the procurement of the Newry and Lisburn Primary Care centre projects on December 20 2016.
“The NICS Internal Audit and Fraud Investigation Services are currently investigating the allegations therein. The whistleblower has been informed of the investigation.
“The department does not comment on ongoing investigations.”
The initial decision to build the new health centres by involving the private sector was taken by the then DUP health minister Edwin Poots in 2013.
Mr Poots did so via what is known as ‘ministerial direction’ – a mechanism whereby ministers formally order their civil servants to pursue a certain course of action if the Civil Service has raised some objection.
Such directions are rare but have been issued multiple times over the decade of devolved government by ministers of all parties.
When asked what the Civil Service objection had been which had led to him using a ministerial direction, Mr Poots told the News Letter: “There wasn’t an objection per se.
“They just said it would be better if I did it because as accounting officer, using revenue funds for capital projects ... we were using revenue funds because we wanted to accelerate the TYC programme and ensure that we could move that on apace and we would actually make savings on the revenue side in due course.”
Mr Poots said that he “would have no idea how the preferred bidder was allocated, to be honest. That wasn’t something that I would have been directly involved in”.
And the former minister stressed that he had no link whatsoever to anyone who stood to gain financially from the decision.
The Lagan Valley MLA said: “I did what I did because I believed it was the right thing to do and that’s just it. I would have pushed things ahead and pushed things ahead quickly had I been allowed to on a whole lot of that stuff but obviously I left office and didn’t have the opportunity to finish the job. But I have absolute confidence in what I was doing and that I was doing the right thing.”