Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Debt advice service funding at risk

Government funding for a debt advice service in Northern Ireland is at risk, due to a delay in a contract award and a subsequent legal challenge.

The High Court heard yesterday that time was tight for the retention of the public money allocated to the project.

The major Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) contract for face-to-face debt advice to the public was to have taken effect from April this year. However, the timetable slipped to the beginning of this month. It has now been further delayed by a court challenge from the Northern Ireland Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).

The charity's bid for the contract was unsuccessful, with DETI opting instead for Advice NI, an umbrella body for a number of groups.

A preliminary hearing in the case was held yesterday, dealing with the CAB's request for the disclosure of documents from the Government's tendering process.

The barrister for the department, David McMillen, warned against the full hearing being moved from the set date of October 29. He said the funding for the advice service had to be spent by the end of March next year.

“We are holding on by our finger nails,” Mr McMillen said.

“We have to start the contract and expend the monies this financial year. Every day we go on we have one day less of money to spend.”

The CAB is requesting documents relating to DETI's consideration of issues within the contract tendering process, including data protection and quality assurance.

Brett Lockhart QC, representing Citizens Advice, said Advice NI's list of members included specialist organisations who deal with specific sectors like disability, one-parent families and mental health.

He said, by their nature, such bodies would be restricted on the people they could advise on debt.

Mr McMillen said DETI's tendering process included a “good governance” stage which had still to take place. It would check data protection and quality assurance matters to “make sure the wool has not been pulled over the Department's eyes”.

The judge hearing the case, Mr Justice Deeny, is to inspect the documents being sought by CAB before ruling next week on the disclosure issues.

The contract could be worth as much as £2.5m if its is extended beyond its initial period.

The case continues.

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