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Belfast Metropolitan College given black mark over financial failings

By David Gordon

A Northern Ireland college has still to fill senior posts as it bids to correct financial management failings exposed in a report.

The running of Belfast Metropolitan College (BMC) — which has more than 50,000 students — has been under the microscope after it recorded a £6.2m deficit in its first year of operation.

Management shortcomings identified in a Government-ordered efficiency review last year were spelt out this week, along with details of a massive overspend on consultancy costs.

The information was included in a report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office, which also voiced concern that key college posts remained unfilled.

In response, a BMC spokeswoman said: “The college is currently in the process of recruiting key finance posts namely a chief operating officer and a head of finance. Interviews have taken place for the post of chief operating officer and the college is finalising post interview formalities.”

She added that progress was being made in addressing last year’s efficiency report findings.

Its problems were among issues tackled in a report this week on Government-funded bodies by the head of the Audit Office, Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly.

He gave BMC’s financial statements a qualification — the audit equivalent of a black mark.

The report highlighted:

  • A deficit of £6.2m in its first year of operation, 2007/08, with further project deficits forecast.
  • The efficiency review was ordered after a “lack of clarity” over its financial position and after forecasts were “significantly revised” on a number of occasions.
  • The review report, issued last year, detailed “weaknesses in the performance of the senior management team” and a “significant number of weaknesses in financial controls”, including bank accounts not reconciled and “a lack of proper control over staff costs”.

Mr Donnelly described the failings as “unacceptable”.

In a statement responding to this week’s report, BMC said it was addressing the financial management issues raised in the 2007/08 audit.

“The efficiency review published in February 2009 made a number of specific recommendations.

“The college fully accepted the efficiency review findings. All of the recommendations have been implemented and approved by the Department for Employment and Learning.”

‘Appropriate controls are now in place’

Belfast Metropolitan College has sought to explain how its consultancy costs on a showpiece development climbed from £300,000 to £1.5m.

The advisory bills were incurred in relation to plans for a major new college building in the city’s Titanic Quarter.

It said the timescale of the project was significantly extended due to “the introduction of new legislative requirements and specific project issues”.

“Additional time and tasks were therefore required to be allocated and completed by the consultants,” the college stated.

“The consultants submitted a claim for payment of £2.2m which was rejected by the BMC Project Board.

“The BMC Project Board scrutinised the claim and negotiated a reduction of £700,000 resulting in a final agreed sum of £1.5m.

“The matter has been fully examined by college management and appropriate controls are now in place.”

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