28/06/2002

Executive under-spend criticised by MLAs

Following reports that government departments were under-spending budgets to the tune of £1 million a day, Finance Committee members have launched a scathing attack on executive spending practices.

Mr Molloy, chairman of the assembly's finance and personnel committee, said that departments are guilty of bidding for more money than they need, and he blamed poor management by the finance department in allocating resources.

"Instead of the minister, Sean Farren, dealing with the issue of priority needs, which are health, education and infrastructure, he has been allocating money to departments that do not have clear plans of how they are going to use that," he said.

Fellow Finance and Personnel Committee – and Public Accounts Committee – member Seamus Close MLA said that while the figure was "shocking", he was not surprised by it.

"What we need is carefully structured management to target priorities and allow the executive to prioritise resources, for example on important issues such as health," he said.

"There is a culture of short-termism in the assembly and the under-spend is further evidence of poor financial management. Those in charge should be able to get their sums right.

"Is the public getting value for money? I don't think it is," he added.

Mr Close said that there was an attitude within the "top echelons of the civil service" that as they are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as elected officials, and "questionable" financial practices go unchecked.

However, a department of finance spokesman stressed that any money not spent by the executive would stay within regional government – and would not be wasted. The unspent money will be held by the department of finance for re-distribution as bids from the various departments come in during the quarterly financial spending review.

The spokesman added that the under-spend could have occurred for a number of reasons, chiefly that the civil service tended to be "cautious" in terms of finance and so avoid over-spending budgets.

During the last financial monitoring round in February, Finance Minister Sean Farren ordered a review of the under-spend across all departments. The minister is expected to answer questions on the matter in the assembly on Tuesday, and will publish the report some time in the autumn.

The under-spend follows on the back of reports regarding the distribution of funding and the accountability of funding organisers.

A recent series of finance question marks, highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee, persist over the management of funds at bodies like the NIEC, former investment agencies and the NITB.

(GMcG)

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