Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

A worrying abuse of public sector funds

Over-spending by government departments is not something unique to Northern Ireland’s administration.

It occurs virtually everywhere that normal democratic government exists. The most depressing thing from a taxpayer’s point of view is the lack of scrutiny which often goes hand-in-hand with the waste of valuable and scarce resources.

Yet the sheer scale of the overspending revealed by Housing Minister Nelson McCausland yesterday is astonishing. Just four contractors were overpaid by £18m in the last five years for carrying out maintenance contracts for the Housing Executive.

This, coming after the debacle of the Red Sky maintenance contracts two years ago which led to that company’s contract being terminated for allegedly overcharging, has been described, quite understandably, by Mr McCausland as a scandal.

How could an organisation which had assured the minister that scrutiny of contracts would be improved continue to allow this bill to rack up?

The £18m represents a significant proportion of the total bill of £172m for the renovation of 60,000 properties carried out by the four contractors.

Yet it went undetected until a new probe was carried out into how the Housing Executive handled contracts.

The cynics among us will not be expecting heads to roll over this latest example. We will also await with great interest how it is proposed to improve scrutiny of public sector contracts.

In the past we have been assured that lessons have been learned and new rigorous systems will ensure that whatever the scandal it will not be repeated.

But time after time these assurance have proved almost worthless. Lessons are not learned and scrutiny is not enforced with the zeal that it should be.

Bodies such as the Audit Office or the Public Accounts Committee seem to act too slowly to nip problems in the bud.

Perhaps we need some super audit organisation which can look at contracts, monitoring as they go along and seeing if the figures add up.

The only heartening thing to emerge from this scandal is that the Executive is to attempt to claw back the overspend. Let us hope that it succeeds.

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