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Storm rages over £7m of Northern Ireland taxpayers' money

By Noel McAdam

Published 06/07/2011

A row over the "squandering" of £7m of taxpayers' money in a Northern Ireland capital venture scheme - while the profits of private investors almost doubled - has escalated.

Economic development quango Invest NI has hit back that the subordination of public money - which means it is declared secondary to private investors making their profit - did not amount to a public handout or a write-off.

It insisted any write-off was the responsibility of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) rather than itself.

The jobs-hunting body admitted, however, it performed an "oversight and monitoring role" on behalf of DETI and there was ongoing dialogue between it, the former Industrial Development Board and the department.

Its strident defence came after Assembly questions from Jim Allister revealed private investors who matched the initial £7m investment received more than £13m back.

Mr Allister said Invest NI is a "wholly-owned subsidiary" of the department and there must have been internal contact over the write or not it was Invest NI themselves, who to all intents and purposes have common cause with DETI and are as one with the department as a wholly-owned subsidiary, it is public money which was squandered," the Traditional Unionist Voice leader said.

As the Belfast Telegraph reported yesterday, DETI poured £7m into a project called Crescent Capital 1 - which operated between 1995 and 2007 - which it ended up writing off, although the private investors had a return of £13.27m as the fund managers collected £3.6m in fees.

The agency, which has been praised in recent times for exceeding job creation targets, said: "It is an important part of Invest NI's role to create the conditions where our local small and medium-sized companies achieve sustainable growth.

"Historically, the ambition of many of our companies has been suppressed by an inability to access the finance needed to help them grow, succeed and create jobs.

"Subordination is not a 'public handout' or 'write-off' and Invest NI is only ever a subordinated investment partner where it is absolutely necessary to fill a void in the market."

That same status applies to the recently-announced Development Fund to which another £10m of public money is expected to be handed over with - Mr Allister predicts - the same result.

It has also been confirmed that a successor venture capital project was established in 2004 which also features the jobs agency as a subordinated investor.

There are varying views among economists about the probity of such schemes. Queen's University professor of finance Michael Moore said: "You have to have state funding of venture capital because it is so high risk, but, having said that, the way it is done in Northern Ireland is the worst possible way to do it."

Economist John Simpson argued that schemes such as Crescent Capital are a necessary evil in an economy as precariously placed as Northern Ireland.

But Mr Allister said: "On the experience of Crescent Capital funds it is a 'win win' for the private investor and fund managers and a 'lose lose' for the taxpayer."

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