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£1.5m bill for taxpayer over 'fundamental failings' of governance at Sport NI

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Antoinette McKeown at Sport NI headquarters

Antoinette McKeown at Sport NI headquarters

Kieran Donnelly

Kieran Donnelly

Antoinette McKeown at Sport NI headquarters

The cost of dealing with governance issues at a troubled sports quango has reached almost £1.5m, a report reveals today.

Sport NI has been hit by a series of controversies over the last five years.

These include the high-profile dismissal and subsequent reinstatement of its chief executive Antoinette McKeown. Nine board members also resigned in 2015.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office found that there was a serious breakdown in relationships at the top of the organisation.

Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said: "This report reflects fundamental failings in the governance of Sport NI over a sustained period, failings which cost an estimated £1.5m.

"It is unacceptable that the resolution of issues arising from relationship breakdowns within Sport NI were allowed to drift for four years, distracting Sport NI from its core business of promoting sport and physical recreation."

Sport NI is a publicly funded body set up to encourage sport development and participation. It has an annual budget of about £30m.

Ms McKeown was appointed chief executive in September 2013. In March 2015 the Sport NI board suspended Ms McKeown to undertake an investigation into leadership issues.

Following completion of the investigation and subsequent disciplinary action, she was dismissed by the board in November 2016.

Ms McKeown lodged an appeal and the board subsequently overturned its dismissal decision. She returned to work as chief executive on July 31, 2017.

She took a claim against Sport NI for discrimination on the grounds of gender and religious belief or political opinion.

In November 2018 Sport NI settled Ms McKeown's discrimination case for £25,000.

The report details how membership of the Sport NI board has changed significantly in recent years, ranging from 14 members at the start of 2015 to five in July 2015, following the resignation of nine members.

While advisers and additional members were subsequently recruited, numbers reduced again to eight following the resignation of the chair and vice-chair in March 2016.

Currently the board has nine members, including a chair, George Lucas, and vice-chair, Jay Colville.

Today's report details how Sport NI and its oversight department at Stormont, the Department for Communities, incurred significant costs in dealing with the governance issues arising within the quango.

It states: "Whilst it is not possible to quantify all costs incurred, we estimate that the additional cost to the public purse is almost £1.5m up to March 31, 2019.

"The costs incurred by Sport NI were borne from the organisation's existing budget, thus consuming resources which should have been addressing Sport NI's corporate objectives."

It notes Sport NI paid the legal adviser a total of £492,000 to March 31, 2019. Of this, £352,000 relates to advice in respect of grievance cases and HR issues and for sourcing specialist HR practitioners on Sport NI's behalf.

The report states relationships between Ms McKeown and the directors and the then board chair, Brian Henning, broke down within 18 months of her appointment.

Mr Donnelly expresses concern that Sport NI has not been able to return its preparation of financial statements "to the expected standards and timetable since the return of the chief executive officer".

As of 2018, the Sport NI financial statements for 2014/15, 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18 were all in a backlog position. However, these financial statements have now been certified and the financial statements for 2018/19 will be certified in the next few months. Mr Donnelly states: "The preparation of financial statements to an acceptable standard and on a timely basis is a key governance requirement, providing accountability for the funds made available to a body."

Concerns were also raised by auditors about record-keeping at Sport NI.

The report states: "Complete and accurate records should be retained by all bodies, recording decisions made and actions taken.

"However, Sport NI fell far below the accepted standard of public record keeping and the NIAO noted significant gaps in documentation around key areas of governance."

This included the setting of agreed objectives for Ms McKeown when she took up post.

The report notes that the board of Sport NI would normally meet at least six times a year.

However, it had to hold additional meetings to consider the personnel and governance issues arising - 22 meetings involving board members took place in 2016/17 alone. Sport NI welcomed the report and said it is committed to ensuring that its recommendations are fully implemented.

A spokesperson said Sport NI has invested considerable time and resources into a transformation programme, improving good governance, culture and strategy, which has already brought "significant improvements" over the past three years.

Mr Lucas, the chair of Sport NI, added: "We have worked closely with our sponsor department, Department for Communities, and the NIAO to diligently address the issues of the past, and I would acknowledge their support."

A Department for Communities spokesperson said the department's officials will "carefully consider" the report's findings.

"There are important lessons to be learned which have been highlighted in the report, not just for Sport NI and the department, but for the wider public sector," they said.

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