Education Board 'Fraud' Goes Before Assembly Committee

A NI Assembly committee is to hold discussions today about poor practices in awarding tenders for building work in Belfast Education and Library Board premises.

Although no criminal charges were brought, a Northern Ireland Audit Office report has strongly criticised the way building and maintenance jobs were being run by the Belfast Education and Library Board.

The report said the board failed to protect itself against the risk of fraud.

Practices in the board since the 1990s led to allegations of price-fixing, bribery and favouritism in the awarding of contracts to building firms.

They were investigated and some of the allegations found to be true - and some staff were disciplined.

Sinn Féin MLA Paul Maskey, who is Chair the Public Accounts Committee at the Stormont Assembly has welcomed the Audit Office report.

He said that this report will be taken by the Public Accounts Committee in the Senate Chamber today and noted: "It considers two cases in the BELB relating to property maintenance.

"This is an area which has long been regarded as carrying a high risk of fraud, corruption and other irregularity and there is particular guidance on the controls necessary to minimise the risk of fraud in building services.
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"The report highlights a number of issues that we as a Committee will want to investigate further, areas such as allegations of price-fixing and collusion in schools maintenance expenditure."

He also said that the key challenge in any tendering process is to ensure that there is genuine competition between contractors.

"Contracts need to be fairly awarded with value for money achieved.

"We will want to know why and how each of the bodies involved fell short in the handling of the contracts and what lessons they have learned for the future," he said.

"We will also want to ensure that both departments have pursued both cases to the full, given that we have always promoted zero tolerance on fraud."

Examples being highlighted include work in the Whitewell and Oldpark libraries, where alterations to comply with disability legislation were paid for but not carried out. According to the BBC, £80,000 was paid for work which was never done at two libraries.

The report also catalogues shoddy workmanship and overcharging at Whiterock and other library branches.

The Audit Office said the key to preventing fraud was to check invoices and physically examine the work done before paying for it.

However, investigators said the absence of documentation meant prosecutions were unlikely to succeed.


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