Accountants, drinks, gigs and outsourcing

The constant topic of political discussion in the North is how to get a power-sharing Assembly up and running again so that local politicians can have a say in government decisions. But if they really want their hands on the levers of power, they should forget the Assembly and apply for jobs with Price Waterhouse Coopers. The pay's better. There's no need to tramp the laneways and dangerous boreens looking for endorsement from the public. Plus, there's lashings and leavings of food and drink, trips to the opera and tickets to concerts by the Corrs.

The Belfast Telegraph recently listed some of the gigs to which leading private companies have brought top Stormont civil servants while the Assembly has been in suspension. No outfit was more active on this front than Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC). Pat Toal, Permanent Secretary (PS) at the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development, will have enjoyed himself at a PWC drinks reception in January 2005. Under Secretary Roy McClenaghan attended, too, and also turned up with his wife later as guests of PWC at a Corrs concert at the Belfast's gleaming Odyssey arena. Aideen McGinley, PS at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, was on PWC's guestlist at the Intertrade Ireland awards dinner in June 2004, and again at the Institute of Directors (IoD) annual dinner at the Europa in February last year. Gerry McGinn, PS at the Department of Education, was at the same Europa dinner on PWC's tab, and enjoyed the company's hospitality again at a dinner in their offices in September 2005.

Will Haire, PS at the Department for Employment and Learning, attended a dinner and opera with his wife in June 2004, a reception at the Waterfront Plaza in January 2005 and that IoD bash in the Europa the following month, all as guest of PWC. Bruce Robinson, PS at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, joined PWC at the IoD dinner and at a Dance Theatre performance at Grand Opera House, Belfast. Stephen Peover, of the Department of the Environment, Linda Brown and John McMillen of Finance and Personnel, Andrew McCormick of the Department of Health, Greg McConnell and Edgar Jardine from the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Stephen Quinn of the Department for Regional Development and Alan Shannon of the Department of Social Development have also been among the recipients of PWC's generosity.

All was on the up-and-up. The Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), which ensures that nobody steps out of line in this area, told the Telegraph it was "satisfied that the current arrangements should prevent any perception by colleagues, members of the public, or official contacts that a civil servant has been or might be unduly influenced in the performance of official duties by accepting a gift or hospitality".

So that's alright, then.

What, some might wonder, do the local bosses of a global consultancy firm and senior Northern Ireland government officials find to talk about through these long hours of relaxed entertainment? A clue emerged in the Commons on 5 December last, when Northern Ireland Office minister Angela Smith answered a question from SDLP leader Mark Durkan.

Maybe some of the senior civil servants took the opportunity for an informal chat about New Labour's plan to axe the jobs of hundreds of lower-level civil servants by ripping personnel functions out from the NI public service and bringing in a lean, mean, profit-driven company to run human resources instead.

Possibly, McGinley, Peover, Quinn, McConnell, Jardine, Browne, McMillen, Robinson and/or McGinn will have touched on this topic: in her Commons answer, Smith identified their departments as (a) being represented on the Project Board for the Northern Ireland Civil Service Electronic Human Resources contract, and (b) as having all "worked with Price Waterhouse Coopers on their e-business strategies and e-government requirements". She'd scarcely sat down when she dashed off to issue a statement that, as of 1 January, "Stephen Kingon has agreed to accept the post of Invest NI chairman."

Invest NI is the official body supervising and shaping the future of the NI economy. Kingon is managing partner of Price Waterhouse Coopers (NI). He remains boss of PWC (NI) at the same time as taking over as chair of Invest NI. He has been on the board of Invest NI for three years. The INI website says that he "is expected to devote at least four days per month to Invest NI business". For this, he will receive £38,355 a year on top of his PWC salary – around £800 a day.

"PWC regularly undertakes consultancy work on behalf on Invest NI," according to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry. "The department and PWC put arrangements in place at the time of Kingon's appointment to the board in 2002 to prevent conflicts of interest, or the potential for conflicts of interest. During consideration of Kingon's application for the chair, these arrangements were fully reviewed and found to be satisfactory."

So that's alright, too, then.