Belfast Telegraph

Warning over public bodies' bills

Health trusts and education boards in Northern Ireland are failing to pay half their bills on time, auditors have found.

The record for many local councils is even worse, with less than a third of their invoices settled within an official ten-day target, according to the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO).

NIAO Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said the performance was "far from satisfactory" while business body CBI Northern Ireland expressed concern about the impact of delays on private contractors and suppliers.

The payment problem was only one of a number of issues of concern highlighted in the office's annual examination of the accounts of government departments and other public bodies.

Auditors have flagged up the accounts of five government departments for the last financial year. The departments of Agriculture and Regional Development; Social Development; Education; Culture, Arts and Leisure; and Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister all had qualifications attached to their annual accounts.

Concerns were also raised over the multimillion-pound deficit facing Belfast Metropolitan College.

In regard to the payment of bills, the NIAO found that central government departments actually performed quite well, with 89% of valid invoices paid within ten days in 2011/12. However, payment is not so timely in the health trusts, education boards and local councils.

For the trusts, only 48% were paid within ten days in 2011/12 - and that figure improved by 7% on the year previously. With the education and library boards, the ten day compliance dropped by one percentage point to 51. Each trust and board deal with six or seven times more invoices than central government bodies each year. For local councils, the proportion paid by the week and a half target was around 30%.

Mr Donnelly said more work was needed to improve payment timeframes. "Although prompt payment performance has improved over the last two years across all sectors of government there are still areas where performance is far from satisfactory," he said.

"Given the Assembly's commitment to prompt payment, in particular the 10-day target, it is essential that public bodies review their processes and procedures to increase the speed at which payments are made."

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