Belfast Telegraph

Belfast's Waterfront Hall catering fees went unpaid for years after oversight

By John Mulgrew

A probe into a major catering contract for the Waterfront Hall has blamed an "administrative oversight" which "highlighted weaknesses in the management of the contract" over several years of unpaid fees, it can be revealed.

Mount Charles Group held the catering contract for the Belfast City Council building from 2002 up until this year.

A probe into the deal was launched after the Northern Ireland Audit Office was contacted and Belfast City Council conducted a review, as revealed by this newspaper in May.

It is understood that fees due to be paid by Mount Charles to the Waterfront were not received over five years.

The council said the main allegations were that the "contractor did not provide a portion of their income to the council as required under the terms of the contract and that, when an issue of non-recovery of income was recognised, only part of the income due was recovered".

The council added that the review highlighted that an "administrative oversight had resulted in a delay in invoicing the contractor but, once this was identified, the franchise fee and sales commission were invoiced in full and all income due was received.

It is understood the money was subsequently paid back after the issue was identified in November 2013.

"The review found that all invoices as calculated on the basis of the contract terms were paid in full by the contractor," the council said. "All income due from the contractor in respect of the franchise fee was also received in full."

The council said that a "further allegation regarding an alleged conflict of interest was not substantiated".

Mount Charles held the lucrative catering contract with the Waterfront Hall until earlier this year, when it was revealed that the multimillion-pound deal had been awarded to a firm with headquarters in England.

Amadeus won the contract for the conference and concert venue this year as the Waterfront unveiled its long-awaited new extension.

A spokeswoman for Belfast City Council said that "following an open and competitive process that was compliant with the EU and public procurement regulations, the current catering concession for both Belfast Waterfront and Ulster Hall venues was awarded to a new company in early 2016."

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Audit office said: "We can confirm that a number of issues were brought to our attention in March 2016 by a whistleblower regarding a catering contract for services at the Waterfront Hall.

"We referred these issues on to Belfast City Council for investigation.

"The review of the issues raised has now been concluded and we have shared the findings with the whistleblower.

"This review highlighted weaknesses in the management of the contract, which we have discussed with Belfast City Council, following which we have made a number of recommendations for improvement."

A spokesman for Mount Charles said: "As far as we are aware, this audit remains under way and so it would be inappropriate to make any comment at this point other than that we do not believe there is cause for concern regarding the outcome and we look forward to the conclusion of this matter."

The Belfast company was named the UK's fastest growing independent food service firm last year, and the business continues to expand.

Belfast Telegraph