30/06/2008

Public Accounts Committee Slams 'Scam'

The NI Executive's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has attacked the way a former employee of a 'shamed' trade body has since been appointed to public posts - despite outstanding questions over the way funding was handled.

The PAC report examined the Hospitality Association of Northern Ireland (HANI), which had been 'the voice' of the Province's hotel industry up to its financial collapse.

However, the organisation is alleged to have misappropriated taxpayers' money and ripped off the European Union, as an Assembly report released today revealed.

The report into the Hospitality Association of Northern Ireland (HANI) described the case as "scandalous".

HANI received some £860,000 in public funding between 1995 and 1998 to run training programmes.

The MLAs also said the organisation had over-claimed on an EU-backed training scheme.

"Given the nature of the shortcomings, the Committee must conclude that HANI was, in effect, 'ripping off' EU Peace and Reconciliation monies," it added.

However, police investigated the paperwork and concluded that no crime had been committed.

But one of the Province's most senior civil servants has been criticised in today's Assembly report on the Hospitality Association of Northern Ireland.

Dr Aideen McGinley, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Employment and Learning, gave evidence to the PAC earlier this year on HANI.

The committee has now castigated the Department on government oversight of the body and the public appointments of the ex-employee.

The MLAs' report also stated: "At times during the evidence session, the witnesses from DEL seemed more intent on obscuring the issues, than helping the Committee to highlight the many weaknesses involved in the case.

"This is unacceptable. The Committee expects the full co-operation of Departmental witnesses in its efforts to expose poor practice, not weak attempts to excuse behaviour and a failure to condemn behaviour that was clearly inappropriate."

The Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF) was itself facing an audit probe in 2004 by the Certification Officer, a regulator who had previously examined HANI.

However, the Federation fought a successful legal battle to establish that it was not covered by the Certification Officer's remit.

As well as fighting its protracted legal battle, the Hotels Federation has firmly denied any wrongdoing.

(BMcC)

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