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Downpatrick school in contract fraud claim probe

Police are investigating suspected maintenance fraud at a Catholic school in Co Down, the Education Minister said today.

De La Salle High School in Downpatrick is understood to be at the centre of the investigation into suspected wrongdoing involving the installation of heating.

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane told the Assembly that investigatory work by the local education board's audit team turned up problems with its maintenance work contract.

"I believe the public will expect no less than full and comprehensive investigations of the facts in this case and this is what my investigation will ensure," she said.

"It will focus on the operation of this particular measured-term contract and will investigate whether any irregularities in the management of the contract have occurred. As such, it will involve trained specialist fraud investigation staff.

"It will involve also a review of procurement practice and procedures within the board to identify whether the operation of this particular measured-term contract is an isolated case."

Installation of secondhand burners is being scrutinised. The department was alerted by the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) last month.

An oversight team chaired by the minister's permanent secretary will coordinate an investigation into wider procurement. The minister also announced plans to create a unified centre for procurement for education.

A spokesman for the board said the sum involved was under £7,000. He added that the board welcomes the investigation and fully shares the department's view that all procurement activities should be undertaken on the basis of the highest possible professional standards.

"The board will be co-operating fully with the review in order to identify as soon as possible any further steps that may be necessary," he said.

Meanwhile, the minister also announced details of an investigation into the approval and procurement of a new Magherafelt High School.

A new 500-place school was agreed by the department but tendered by the North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB) before an economic plan was fully cleared, causing delay before the contract could be finalised.

In the interim, the board submitted a further economic plan making the case for a 600-place school. Rather than retender the project, the board decided to proceed with the 500-place school with departmental approval for £8.2 million. Construction began in January.

The chief executive of the board has admitted construction work took place without all the necessary approvals being in place. Payment has been made which has not been approved by the department. The chief executive said irregular spending had taken place.

Ms Ruane said: "The issues emerging around the Magherafelt High School are serious and worrying and as Minister of Education I have a duty - one I take very seriously - to ensure transparency, good governance and value for money for the taxpayer."

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