Alarm bells rang day and hour that I got involved, says director of failed bio-tech venture
A former director of a failed bio-tech venture which cost taxpayers more than £2m has admitted he had serious concerns from the moment he got involved with the project.
Dick Milliken has become the first board member to publicly criticise the high-profile Bioscience and Technology Institute, which collapsed without delivering on any of its goals.
Mr Milliken was appointed as a director of BTI in August 2003, having been invited to join its board two years earlier.
He was acting on behalf of Sir Allen McClay, the late pharmaceutical millionaire who had invested £1.2m in the doomed project.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Milliken said it was quickly obvious that proper procedures were not being followed.
“We had some pretty serious concerns from the day and hour we got involved,” he said.
After being set up in 1998, the institute was officially launched two years later in a blaze of publicity amid promises it would “promote the development of world-class, leading-edge health technologies” and provide a major boost to the economy.
But it quickly ran into trouble and collapsed in 2002, leaving the taxpayer with a £2.2m bill.
The project has been severely criticised in a report by Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee, which branded it one of the worst examples of incompetence and mismanagement ever seen in Northern Ireland.
Mr Milliken — a former Irish rugby international who played on the triumphant Lions’ tour of South Africa in 1974 — was not one of the original group of directors. He was initially invited to join the board as an observer in December 2001, on behalf of Sir Allen.
According to BTI board minutes, he was proposed, and accepted, for board membership in July 2002.
Company documents record the date of his appointment as a BTI director as August 23, 2003.
By that stage the bio-tech venture was already in serious trouble, with agreement having been reached to dispose of Harbourgate — the £5m site which proved totally unfit for purpose.
The project later became the subject of a long-running and confidential inspection report — as revealed by the Telegraph in early 2006.
Last November a highly critical Audit Office report detailed how taxpayers’ cash was squandered on finder’s fees, double-billing and payments to companies linked to one BTI director.
Teresa Townsley and her husband Michael received a £25,000 share of a finder’s fee for Harbourgate while their company, MTF Chartered Accountants, received £127,000 for services provided to the board.
Mr Milliken said alarm bells began ringing as soon as he joined the board.
“Allen McClay had concerns about it very soon after he lent the money. I was his finance director and that’s why he asked me to get involved,” he said.
This week a damning PAC report turned the spotlight back on the fiasco.
It concluded there was “a catalogue of negligence and ineptitude” which could only be described as staggering.
Mr Milliken said he was not surprised by the committee’s verdict.
“It’s fairly evident that there weren’t the controls there from the outset that should have been there,” he added. “Allen McClay advanced his money in good faith and had an expectation that there would have been proper controls in the whole thing.
“The Public Accounts Committee are absolutely right to say what happened is unacceptable. The sad thing is that it’s a decade after it happened.”
Apart from Mr Milliken, five other directors were involved in BTI. Professor Paddy Johnston, Professor Roy Spence, Professor Peter Passmore and Mrs Townsley were on the board when BTI was established in 1998.
A fifth director, Will McKee, joined the board in December 2000 as chairman.
Board members were not paid for their work with BTI.
“These (Johnston, Spence and Passmore) were doctors who were very keen to put something back into Northern Ireland and create business,” Mr Milliken added.
“They relied upon business people, and that reliance was clearly misplaced. That was where the late Allen McClay got very concerned.”