Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

A new anti-fraud squad adds up

The bad news just keeps coming for Northern Ireland Water.

Four years on from the height of its troubles which resulted in part from its poor response to a winter freeze which left thousands of consumers without water supplies and partly allegations of financial irregularities, it is still the subject of scathing criticism. This time the Audit Office damned it for not properly investigating payments to one of its major contractors.

The Audit Office said an inexperienced team had been established by former chief executive Laurence MacKenzie to look into instances of invoice slicing. This involved a company sending in a large number of bills for amounts under £20,000 as these would not be subjected to thorough checks by senior management. While NI Water was right to conduct the probe – invoice slicing can be a sign of fraud – it was botched, says the Audit Office.

This is the second time in a month that the Audit Office has criticised the way allegations of financial impropriety in the public sector have been investigated. It says that anti-fraud expertise may often be missing from internal investigation teams and they should seek advice from the PSNI and other experts when conducting probes.

That is a sound recommendation, but there is even greater merit in the Audit Office's suggestion that a public sector fraud investigation service should be established. Given the huge financial sums involved in public sector contracts and the complexity of services delivered by the sector either directly or through agencies, there is always the potential, for fraudulent behaviour.

In these austere times it is ever more important that public spending accountability is as transparent as possible and that every effort is made to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent wisely and honestly. The public needs to have confidence in its public representatives and public servants. A public sector anti-fraud squad makes sense on every level.

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