Belfast Telegraph

Contractors 'overpaid by £500,000'

Contractors carrying out kitchen replacement schemes for the Housing Executive were overpaid by an estimated £500,000, a report has revealed.

But the Audit Office said the overspend was detected in a review of only five of 112 such projects, suggesting the final figure could be much higher. The finding is contested by the Housing Executive, but it is only one of a litany of concerns raised over the organisation and its handling of huge sums of public cash.

The Audit Office's report questioned the levels of fraud and error in housing benefit, putting the cost to the taxpayer at £10.2 million over the last year.

Major problems were identified in the handling of multimillion-pound maintenance contracts, with one company given £250,000 for uninspected work at a time when it was already subject to claims it had been wrongly overpaid by £240,000.

Housing associations suspended from developing projects were found to have nevertheless received grants totalling £25.6 million in 2011-12. The report also questioned lucrative land deals, which in some cases have sparked police investigations.

The audit highlighted how a major kitchen replacement project rolled out across Northern Ireland was queried by the Schemes Inspection Unit (SIU), which operates independently in the Housing Executive.

"In November 2011 the SIU reviewed five kitchen replacement schemes, one from each geographical area. This was out of a total of 112 schemes covering over 8,000 individual dwellings," the report said.

"The SIU identified potential overpayments to contractors in those five schemes of approximately £500,000. Issues identified by this inspection included: cupboards being attached to walls before the new plaster was fully dried out; meter boxes not adequately fire lined; and metal trims not properly fitted to worktops with protruding edges."

It said the extent of overpayments was disputed by the Housing Executive and investigations were continuing at the time of the audit.

But the report added: "No action has yet been taken to recover the potential overpayment nor have other similar schemes been examined to determine if there is further potential for overpayments."

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