Conflicts of interest man still at energy regulator five months after its deadline

Harry McCracken
Harry McCracken

A board member of the regulator which safeguards the interests of energy consumers in Northern Ireland remains in post almost a year after being appointed – despite an acceptance that he has two conflicts of interest.

Harry McCracken, a former managing director of Northern Ireland Electricity, was appointed to the board of the Utility Regulator last September.

But within weeks of his appointment by Finance Minister Simon Hamilton it emerged that he had two conflicts of interest, as he is the chairman of two companies which have an involvement in the Northern Ireland energy sector.

Mr McCracken is chairman of Belfast firm Simple Power, which installs wind turbines, and is also chairman of Winder Power – a company run by the controversial former Northern Ireland Water chairman Laurence MacKenzie – which does work for Northern Ireland Electricity.

Nine months ago the chairman of the Utility Regulator, Bill Emery, said that he set a “deadline” of March 2014 for Mr McCracken to divest himself of the conflicts of interest.

In a December 2013 letter to SDLP MLA John Dallat, who raised concerns about the appointment, Dr Emery said: “I have set a deadline for the divestment by March 2014 ... As an interim measure, Mr McCracken will not be participating in any board discussions on electricity matters nor will he receive papers in respect of same.”

But the News Letter has now established that five months after Dr Emery’s “deadline”, Mr McCracken remains on the board and also remains as chairman of the two energy firms.

Board members are paid almost £10,000 a year for the post, which involves about 20 days of work a year.

The News Letter asked the regulator whether Mr McCracken had been paid less due to the fact that he could not participate in any way in electricity discussions, but the regulator declined to answer the question.

There is no suggestion that Mr McCracken has acted improperly and he told the News Letter that he had made clear his conflicts of interest right from the start. Therefore, he said, it was for those who appointed him to decide about his suitability for the role.

He said: “The conflicts were fully disclosed at the time of the interview.

“My simple reason for applying was that I’d spent a lifetime in the industry and this was one of the very few areas where I was able to give something back to an industry that I’m particularly fond of and would like to see prosper.

“As it turned out, that wasn’t to be. But in relation to my interests, they were fully disclosed.”

The Utility Regulator said that it expects Mr McCracken’s role to be “resolved” by the autumn.

It said in a statement: “Harry McCracken’s interests continue to be managed carefully by the chairman and he does not participate in any Utility Regulator electricity decisions. He has however assisted with the progression of several significant additional non-electricity workstreams over the last few months. Specifically, he has devoted a considerable amount of time as chairman of the evaluation panel for the competitive licence application process for Gas to the West. The consultation on the preferred applicant for Gas to the West was published on August 12.

“Mr McCracken will therefore help us resource these workstreams in the meantime. We expect that his role as a board member will be fully resolved by the autumn.”