Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Revealed: how our councils wasted ratepayers’ money

The watchdog for town hall spending has exposed wasteful spending and fraud suspicions — just as Northern Ireland is coming to terms with Chancellor George Osborne's “austerity Budget”.

The province's Chief Local Government Auditor John Buchanan today published his annual report, examining an array of council expenditure issues.

These included a council that wasted an estimated £350,000 buying too many trailers that were also the wrong size.

A fraud probe into a tendering process involving another council is also detailed, along with questions raised on mayoral and chief executive expenses.

Mr Buchanan's report noted that a number of Northern Ireland councils dismissed staff for “fraudulent/inappropriate activity” in the course of the financial year 2008/09.

His document also contained a form to be used by ‘whistleblowers”’— employees who wish to report wrongdoing.

“During the year we received a number of whistleblowing letters, including some of anonymous source,” Mr Buchanan stated.

“A number of these have highlighted important issues, some of which we were able to include in our audit work.”

Meanwhile, the Chief Local Government Auditor also noted how, in one council, travel expense claims by councillors were paid without checking whether the politicians had attended meetings.

Book-keeping was also found to be inadequate in some instances.

Today's report stopped short of naming the councils in most cases.

Case study 1: £350,000 on the wrong trailers

Disastrous deal: North Down Council bought the wrong trailers for the new waste transfer station

North Down Council has blown an estimated £350,000 of ratepayers' money on a disastrous deal for trailers that turned out to have the wrong design, Mr Buchanan revealed.

The council paid £529,000 in 2007 for 14 trailers for use in removing waste from a new waste transfer station, he stated.

They did not match up to requirements, leading the council to spend a further £124,000 reducing nine of them from 84 cubic metres to 72 cubic metres.

Mr Buchanan's newly-published annual report continued: “The council could have purchased nine ejection trailers with a capacity of 72 cubic metres at a total cost of £307,000.

“In the event, the council was unable to secure any compensation from the supplier, or find a use for the unmodified trailers.

“Consequently the cost to the council of failing to purchase the correct number of trailers with a usable design specification could be over £350,000.”

Case study 2: £200,000 at risk over boiler scheme

A taxpayer-funded Northern Ireland scheme to promote environmentally-friendly boilers is the subject of a fraud probe.

Government officials have estimated that over £200,000 of public money is at risk and it's been confirmed that police are investigating.

The probe involves a scheme backed by Craigavon Borough Council and Stormont's Department of Enterprise (DETI), with grants available for the installation of renewable energy boilers.

The fraud suspicions centre on the tendering process for the award of contracts to install the boilers. A Craigavon Council spokeswoman said: “There is an ongoing police investigation into this matter. We are therefore unable to make any further comment at this time.”

The installation of the boilers was largely completed between 2004 and 2005.

Case study 3: questionable expenses practices

The annual report on town hall spending also cited examples of questionable practices involving a number of unnamed councils.

These included a mayor who repaid £350 in taxi expenses “without prejudice”. An audit had queried whether “certain taxi expenses were more of a personal nature rather than an expense of the office of mayor”.

In another case, a chief executive and director of an unnamed council were approving some of their credit card expenses payments.

“It was observed that while credit card expenditure over £1,000 was approved appropriately by the senior management team, bills below £1,000 were authorised by the user.

“There is a risk that unauthorised or irregular expenditure will not be identified in the absence of appropriate authorisation.”

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