herald

Friday 22 November 2019

'We've been made scapegoats', says builder caught in school safety row

Minister Joe McHugh
Minister Joe McHugh

The company that built schools where safety concerns have been raised has accused a government department of "distraction and secrecy" over an ongoing review.

Western Building Systems (WBS) said it has "serious concerns" over how long the independent review will take.

On Thursday, Education Minister Joe McHugh confirmed that structural flaws were identified at 17 schools and could require further work to be carried out.

Forty-two schools built by WBS across Ireland have been at the centre of a safety probe.

Flagging its serious concerns over the length of the review, the company said that, 10 months on, it has "little understanding" of the process and has had no input into it.

In a series of queries put to the department, the Co Tyrone-based firm asked what criteria was adopted for the remedial assessments and subsequent works at the schools.

It also questioned why the schools identified, which were certified by the department's own professional assessors, were "suddenly" deemed to have defects.

"What were the department's officials and employed professionals looking at when they were regularly on our school sites and every other non-WBS school site, and originally when evaluating tender proposals?" the company said in a statement.

Remedial

"We were told that a clerk of works appointed by the department was on-site at each school from 2017, yet schools completed in 2017 and 2018 are now the subject of remedial works. How has this situation come about?"

The firm also queried how many other schools have been assessed by the department under the same audit.

"Until we get independent, expert answers to these and other questions, the damage done to the schools building programme throughout this process may be irrevocable," it added.

"Instead of decisiveness and openness, we have distraction and secrecy.

"The approach appears to publicly scapegoat WBS and hide behind the cloak of potential legal prejudice when it is beneficial.

"In response to the department's press release, we will again write to the minister for education and skills seeking a firm deadline for the pub- lication of the independent report."

A spokesman for the Department of Education said a report will be finalised towards the end of the year.

"The minister has commissioned an independent review of current use and practices in the design and build procurement/construction model for the delivery of school buildings (or other similar public buildings) internationally," he added.

"The procurement process for the organisation to carry out this work is at an advanced stage."

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