THE Stormont Social Development Committee has on Thursday agreed to set up an inquiry into allegations that there was DUP political interference in the running of the Housing Executive.
The allegations were broadcast in a BBC NI Spotlight programme screened on Wednesday night which have rocked the Assembly.
It alleged that Housing Minister Nelson McCausland’s special advisor (SPAD) rang up a DUP member of the Housing Executive board and ordered her to vote against a motion to end a contract with an east Belfast firm at the centre of fraud claims.
Committee chairperson Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein said the issues raised by Spotlight constituted a “major public issue”.
He said the terms of the inquiry would have to be decided and would be subject to legal advice.
Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland denies the allegations when he appeared on Thursday before the committee.
He described the Spotlight programme as a “botched job”.
The north Belfast DUP MLA told the committee he had never personally been involved in the awarding of Housing Executive contracts.
“I can assure you categorically that I have never sought to influence any contracts, neither this nor indeed any other contract. Indeed neither do I have any role in this,” he said.
“This is, as I have always advised, an operational matter for the Housing Executive alone.”
The minister said the Spotlight programme was a “huge fishing expedition and not much of a catch at the end of it”.
The DUP’S Gregory Campbell asked if those who produced and presented the BBC programme would appear and give evidence.
Following the airing of the programme on BBC1 Northern Ireland at 10.35 pm, a number of parties said they wanted the assembly recalled to discuss the issue.
Award-winning BBC Spotlight investigative report Mandy McAuley interviewed UP councillor and Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) board member, Jenny Palmer for the programme.
She said she was put under pressure by her party to change her vote at a Housing Executive board meeting.
The meeting was called in July 2011, to discuss the Housing Executive’s contract with the Red Sky maintenance company.
The £8m-a-year contract had been terminated four months earlier, amid allegations that the east Belfast firm had overcharged for carrying out work on NIHE properties.
The housing board was to vote on a request from Mr McCausland to extend the NIHE contract.
Ms Palmer told Spotlight that Mr McCausland’s political special adviser, Stephen Brimstone, phoned her ahead of the meeting and asked her to vote against the board’s decision to refuse Mr McCausland’s request.
She said she was “shocked” and told Mr Brimstone that she did not think she could carry out what he was asking her to do, because of her concerns over Red Sky’s performance.
Ms Palmer told the programme: “He (Mr Brimstone) said ‘the party comes first, you do what you’re told’, otherwise there’s no point in me being on the board, if I wasn’t prepared to do what they asked me to do.”
In response to her allegations, Mr Brimstone told Spotlight he did not accept the accuracy of the account of events the programme had put to him.
Red Sky, which employed 450 people, was later placed in administration.
Mr McCausland told the Social Development Committee he welcomed the opportunity to “set the record straight”.
“There were errors in the programme, there were omissions, and it was largely based around insinuation, innuendo, and misrepresentation,” he said.
“I think the opportunity will be there on Monday in the assembly to deal even more fully than I have dealt with it today and to put the record straight.
“I think it will show very clearly that both I, and my permanent secretary, and indeed my special adviser, have worked at all times to the highest standards to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland get value for money and that Housing Executive tenants are given the best possible accommodation.”
In a statement, the DUP said it intended taking legal action against the BBC, over what it claims were inaccuracies and defamatory statements.
Mr Maskey said the claims made in the Spotlight programme were potentially the most serious political scandal since the assembly came into operation in 1998.
Mr McCausland and his party deny any wrongdoing but Mr Maskey said the allegations will not simply go away and people in the assembly and the wider community will demand answers.
TUV leader Jim Allister has written to the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service requesting an investigation into Mr Brimstone’s conduct.
A number of other parties, including the UUP, SDLP and Alliance, have said they will seek the recall of the assembly to discuss the issues raised in the programme.
SDLP Environment Minister Alex Attwood said the assembly needs answers to both alleged corruption inside the Housing Executive and the conduct of the DUP.
Mr Attwood said: “There have been very serious allegations made last night (Wednesday) of a criminal nature and clearly the PSNI now must step in and have those matters exhaustively investigated.
“Secondly, there have been serious allegations about the conduct of a political party and more than one of their ministers, and that clearly is a matter of concern to the assembly and should be investigated,” he added.
In its statement, the DUP said it makes no apology for fighting to save the jobs of those they believe were singled out and unfairly treated by the Housing Executive at the time.