Call for police to probe failed bid
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has been urged to call in police to investigate the scandal of a failed bid involving senior Northern Ireland civil servants to set up a bioscience and technology institute, a report has revealed.
The Public Accounts Committee accused staff of astonishing levels of ineptitude, apathy and mismanagement as well as improper behaviour which they suspected was fraudulent in intent.
Members said they found it hard to accept why disciplinary action was not taken against the former Industrial Development Board (IDB) chief executive Sir Bruce Robinson, who went on to become head of the Northern Ireland civil service and retired last year.
At least one file was destroyed four months after it was requested for examination by company inspectors - leaving unease and concern there may have been a deliberate cover-up, according to the report.
The committee said some of the most senior officials in both the Department, the IDB and Invest Northern Ireland were complicit in many of the failings surrounding providing biotechnology incubator facilities through the development of a special building at Belfast City Hospital in 1998.
Apart from £2.2 million funding which was wasted on a project which never got off the ground, taxpayers were also left owing the Inland Revenue £400,000 and another £1 million to the estate of a private donor.
The Bioscience and Technology Institute Limited (BTI) was established as a not-for-profit company in November 1998 to provide biotechnology incubator facilities at Belfast City Hospital. It was to be commercially sustained by the rent charged to tenant organisations like biotechnology companies.
The project secured funding worth £2.2 million from the Department, its agencies the IDB and Industrial Research and Technology Unit and the International Fund for Ireland. An initial loan of £1.5 million was provided by the bank and another of £1.2 million by a private donor.
Difficulties completing the project at Belfast City Hospital within the timeframe led to the company buying a building, Harbourgate, in the Belfast Harbour Estate but it did not have enough money to complete the fit-out, the cost of which was substantially underestimated. The building was never used and did not generate any income.
In November 2005, with the company unable to service its loans, the bank took possession of Harbourgate and sold it for £4.55 million. The money was used to pay the debt to the bank, and the private donor received some money but nothing was paid to other creditors, including the public sector funding bodies. The BTI company remains technically insolvent and is being wound up.