Belfast Telegraph

Publicly-funded company that brought stars to Stormont sank with £1.6m debts

...now a probe into it has already cost £1.2m

By Adrian Rutherford

A government probe into the collapse of a troubled quango has now run more than three years over deadline, leaving taxpayers with a £1.2m bill, it can be revealed.

The Northern Ireland Events Company folded with massive debts in 2007 — despite being funded to the tune of £2m to £3m a year by the public purse.

It was set up in the 1990s to boost Northern Ireland's profile on the international stage, and subsidised showpiece gigs at Stormont by artists such as Pavarotti, Rod Stewart and Elton John.

But it collapsed with debts of £1.6m after irregular loans and payments were uncovered in a confidential report.

It also found a breakdown in accountability between the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, which controlled the quango, and the board which ran it.

A separate investigation by auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers began in 2008.

Despite MLAs being told it had a two-year time limit, its report has still to be published. Now it has emerged the investigation, which has so far cost £1.2m, will not be completed until next March at the earliest.

The fresh delay was revealed by Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster (below) following an Assembly question from Ukip MLA David McNarry.

Mrs Foster said: “A draft report was received by the Department on July 1, 2013. A consultation process with those individuals referred to in the report is now necessary. A final signed report is expected before March 31, 2014.

“The costs incurred to June 30, 2013 are £1.168m.”

Mr McNarry said the long delay fuelled suspicions.

“We now have £3m of the taxpayer's money down the drain and a secret report which we're not going to know about until next March,” he said.

“We have a government department, DCAL, in the dock because a publicly-funded company, which received £2m to £3m annually, incurred £1.6m of debt, and also because of irregularities and a crucial breakdown between the company's board of directors and senior officials within DCAL.

“In other words, the charge is that the departmental officials who were meant to oversee the accountancy in this publicly-funded company did not oversee it, and they allowed this money to be squandered.

“Now we've spent over £1m trying to work out how we lost £1.6m.”

Mr McNarry said it was unacceptable that the probe had dragged on for so long.

“This has cost £1.2m to date and dragged on for five years,” he added. “It has been five years and it seems to be a case of ‘let's take as long as possible so it goes away or people forget about it'.”

In 2008 a confidential in-depth investigation by accountancy experts KPMG, seen by the BBC, revealed irregular loans and payments and a breakdown in accountability between DCAL and the board which ran the company.

KPMG also said there was a lack of supporting documentation to justify expenditure on official credit cards. One senior official used a credit card to hire a car in the United States. The cost was agreed at $237 but $1,260 was charged to the card.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment did not respond to a request for comment on the latest delay to PwC's report.

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