Watchdog criticises culture department over financial fiasco of events company
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) fell asleep at the wheel in overseeing a financial fiasco at an organisation charged with attracting star performers, a watchdog said.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) examined the Northern Ireland Events Company's demise after an auditor's report found its chief executive covered up losses with misleading and sometimes fabricated records while racking up £1.6 million debts.
The PAC report said the chief executive, Janice McAleese, did not meet the job requirements.
"In the committee's opinion this was the first of many instances at which DCAL appeared to be asleep at the wheel."
The publicly-funded organisation tasked with luring A-list performers like Sir Elton John to a post-conflict Northern Ireland lost £400,000 promoting two motocross events. In response, it sought £200,000 extra borrowing. This was supposed to be overseen by its executive sponsor, DCAL.
The PAC heard evidence that Ms McAleese did not meet the essential criteria for the post to which she was appointed.
There was no evidence that the organisation's governing board raised any concerns and they endorsed Ms McAleese's appointment, the report from Stormont MLAs said.
"DCAL was informed that Janice McAleese and two other candidates had been selected for final interview, but was not aware that Ms McAleese did not appear to meet the essential criteria for the post despite there being a DCAL representative present on the final selection panel."
The PAC made 11 recommendations including that sponsorship of arms length bodies by the department be reviewed to ensure it was proportionate and risk-based.
It said major structural change to government could have important consequences for public bodies' work.
The committee recommended that detailed work be carried out beforehand to ensure bodies had the right staff with the right skills and adequate support.
Chairwoman Michaela Boyle said: "This debacle makes uncomfortable reading for the public service in Northern Ireland - this may have been a small company but the scale of the mismanagement was massive.
"Unfortunately, it is the taxpayer who has ultimately footed the £1.6 million bill to pay the outstanding creditors and associated fees and costs."
She added: "This is one of the biggest scandals that has arisen in the history of the committee under devolution; the level of scandal involved is completely shocking."
The company was established in 1997 as a by-product of the peace process and in its early years was instrumental in bringing star names to perform in the grounds of the Stormont Assembly, including Sir Elton and Luciano Pavarotti.
But its success was short-lived and just over a decade later, having received £18 million in public funds, it effectively folded amid the financial scandal.
A DCAL spokesman said: "The department welcomes the recommendations in the report and is pleased that the committee has agreed with the department's analysis and acknowledged the important lessons for all chief executives, boards and departmental accounting officers.
"The department will consider the PAC report in full and provide a formal response in due course."