Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

He's the BBC's chief inquisitor ... but as Lyric chairman, Mark Carruthers ducks questions on 'rigged' tender process claims

Actors Simon Callow and Adrian Dunbar help Lyric chairman Mark Carruthers cut the ribbon on the rebuilt theatre back in April 2011

The chairman of the Lyric Theatre – one of the BBC's chief inquisitors – has refused to answer questions on a damning Stormont report into the awarding of a contract to rebuild the flagship arts venue.

Mark Carruthers, the man who puts tough questions to others, declined to be interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph when we contacted him seeking answers on the Public Accounts Committee's claims that the tendering process had been rigged and manipulated.

A PAC report raised serious concerns about the way an £11m contract to refurbish the theatre was awarded, concluding that the process was significantly flawed and did not follow good practice.

Its criticism is directed at the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Arts Council and the Central Procurement Directorate, which advises on tendering issues.

It concluded: "Taking all of the points in the round, the committee is left with a very strong impression that the outcome of the tender process was both rigged and manipulated."

We asked the Lyric to put forward one of its board members for interview, but no-one was available.

We then directly contacted Mr Carruthers, a BBC presenter for 24 years and the author of a recent book in which he interviews 30 public figures from across Ireland. He is also well known for grilling MLAs and public figures on TV and radio.

But when we asked him for an interview over the PAC's findings, Mr Carruthers said it would not be appropriate for him to comment, adding: "I'm not going to say anything."

A Lyric spokesperson, having earlier told us no-one would be available for interview, later issued a statement from its vice-chairman, Sid McDowell.

He said there was no foundation to the report's "outrageous allegations".

Mr McDowell said: "The rebuild of the Lyric is an exemplar project which exceeded our specifications and has won numerous awards. We delivered the building on time and within budget.

"The claims made by the PAC are unfair and unjustified.

"There is no evidence to support the outrageous allegations it has made about the procurement process.

"People will remember this theatre and the first-class drama it stages long after this PAC report."

The committee's report examined seven capital projects which were delivered – and mainly funded – by DCAL.

Collectively the projects ran 32% over budget, costing £103.4m compared to the initial £78.5m estimate.

The PAC found flaws with all seven, claiming that business cases were not robust and were based on "completely unrealistic cost estimates".

Its most serious criticism centres on the Lyric, which reopened in 2011 after a major facelift costing £18m.

The report concludes that the outcome of the tender process for the £11m contract was rigged and manipulated.

DCAL Permanent Secretary Peter May appeared as a witness to the PAC hearing in the summer, telling the committee: "I do not believe that there is evidence to support the fact that it had been rigged".

The Arts Council has also declined to comment.

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