£400k spend by Northern Ireland Housing Executive to keep land it doesn't own
Nearly £400,000 of taxpayers' money was squandered by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive on 'ghost gardening' - paying for ground maintenance on land it no longer owned or which had changed use.
A damning report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office revealed that if it were not for whistleblowers, the overpayments would have been at least £1.3m.
TUV leader Jim Allister labelled it a "careless approach to the squander of public money" and praised the people who exposed it.
A total of £377,000 was paid out - £280,000 to one contractor and £97,000 to the NIHE's own in-house outfit - for grounds maintenance services that they confirmed would include "grass cutting, planting and the cutting of hedges and trees and also ensuring that our sites are free from waste".
Kieran Donnelly, Comptroller and Auditor General, said the NIHE concerns were first raised more than four years ago and a probe into them was completed last November.
He said: "I noted in my report last year that NIHE continued to investigate whistleblowing allegations received in May 2015 and April 2016.
"The whistleblowers had concerns about payments being made to grounds' maintenance contractors for land that was no longer owned by NIHE or had a change of use.
"The investigation finished in November 2018 and concluded that information on land owned by NIHE had not been kept up to date.
"The IT system NIHE used for land records was also used to generate grounds maintenance payments to contractors. Land that had been disposed of by NIHE, or had a change of use, had not been recorded, resulting in overpayments to grounds maintenance contractors.
"The current contract for grounds maintenance was let in April 2016 and runs to April 2024. Under this contract, work is provided by two contractors, one of which is the Direct Labour Organisation (DLO), part of NIHE.
"NIHE's Counter Fraud and Security Unit (CFSU) calculated over the period May 2016 to September 2018 that a total of £377,000 had been overpaid to the two grounds maintenance contractors over and above the total £9.4m which was due to be paid. Of the £377,000, DLO was overpaid £97,000 and the other contractor £280,000.
"NIHE is content that the grounds' maintenance overpayments do not indicate fraud on the part of the contractors involved."
The report said the Housing Executive is exploring whether the money can be clawed back and that the figure would have exceeded a million pounds had the alarm not been raised.
Mr Donnelly said: "NIHE is considering its recovery option. The current grounds maintenance contract runs to April 2024. I asked NIHE if it had assessed how much will have been saved between the point when overpayments were stopped, and April 2024.
"NIHE told me that it could not provide a sufficiently accurate figure to include in this report.
"However, I believe it can be inferred, from a very simple straight line extrapolation, which, if the level of overpayment on this contract had continued due to similar circumstance, it could have been at least £1.3m.
"It is appreciated this does not take into account the impact on payments arising from any future transfers/disposals of land.
"NIHE told me CFSU has made a number of recommendations to address the matters raised through its investigation to ensure this type of issue does not recur.
"This case clearly demonstrates the potential value to the public sector of information provided by whistleblowers."
TUV leader Jim Allister (left) praised those who alerted the authorities but was scathing about the NIHE overspend.
He said: "Almost £400,000 paid to maintain land it no longer owns demonstrates woeful oversight and contract audit procedures by NIHE.
"The delay in tackling the issue has compounded this careless approach to the squander of public money."
He added: "The whistleblowers who exposed this incredible practice of paying to maintain land they didn't own deserves full credit, but they deserved a more expeditious and proactive response by NIHE." A spokesperson for the Housing Executive said: "We maintain over 60,000 open spaces across Northern Ireland. These vary in size.
"We have recently carried out an investigation into allegations of payments being made to contractors for work on land which we no longer own or which had a change of use.
"Our investigation found that we had not kept some of the information on our land ownership up to date on our IT systems. The investigation found there was no fraud on the part of the contractors involved.
"Following on from the investigation, we have addressed each of the issues raised to ensure that this will not occur again.
"We are also currently considering recovery options in terms of payments."