Belfast Telegraph

DUP Speaker was director of charity given £1m by social fund... and he also sat on body that made the award

By Victoria Leonard

The Assembly's Speaker was a director of an east Belfast charity awarded £1m by the Social Investment Fund (SIF) while he sat on a steering group that selected which projects would receive funding, it can be revealed.

DUP MLA Robin Newton is a former director of charity Landmark East, which owns the Bryson Street site on which the Bridges Family Practice doctor's surgery is now located.

The SIF handed over £1m for the redevelopment of the previously derelict site into a purpose-built community health centre, while Landmark East contributed around £200,000.

However, the funding arrangement was criticised by a Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report, after the GPs who operate from the site entered into a 25-year lease with Landmark East.

The Health and Social Care Board agreed to fund the annual lease costs of £90,000.

Over the life of the lease this will equate to £2.25m, which the NIAO report says "does not represent value for money" and means "the public purse paid to construct an asset for which it is now paying rent".

Yesterday UUP leader Robin Swann wrote to the chair of Westminster's Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier asking her to investigate the £93m SIF, which has been criticised by Northern Ireland's spending watchdog for "significant failings", including conflicts of interest.

The Executive Office said Mr Newton was one of four politicians on the east Belfast steering group, along with four from the voluntary and community sector and one statutory representative. They selected projects to be allocated funding.

The Executive Office confirmed that Mr Newton had "not declared any conflicts on the conflict of interest register when the final project selection was made for the area plan" in February 2013, and that he only declared a conflict of interest in respect of Bryson Street and Landmark East a year-and-a-half later, on August 28, 2014.

Earlier in the day Mr Newton appeared uncertain over whether he had been a director of Landmark East at the time the £1m funding was awarded, despite Companies House records showing he served as a director for a decade, from November 22, 2006 until November 30, 2016.

"Is that right? If I was, I was," he said.

Mr Newton also seemed unsure about whether he had been a member of the steering group involved in selecting Landmark East.

"I don't remember whether I was at that time or not," he said. "If I was I didn't see it as a conflict of interest at that time."

Asked if he believed the project represented value for money for the public purse, Mr Newton stated: "Whatever the arrangements were agreed with all the parties taking part in it, I'm sure that they were all well aware of what the arrangements were. I certainly know that the impact that project made within that area was an extremely positive impact."

Landmark East is owned by the EastSide Partnership.

Chief executive of EastSide Partnership and Landmark East Maurice Kinkead said that "no one who was on the steering group was there on behalf of the charity".

"We didn't have any direct contact with the steering group," he said.

Mr Kinkead said his group had initially "taken a decision as a partnership not to seek SIF funding" so other projects could benefit, but were approached by a consultant asking if they had any projects which might meet SIF criteria.

"I then said the doctor's surgery would absolutely meet that. They came back and said they might be prepared to offer £1m," he added.

"That surgery serves both communities, Short Strand and Lower Newtownards Road. You have an amazing facility right in one of the most disadvantaged parts of Belfast. The NIAO report isn't really looking at the end benefit to the community."

The HSCB said: "Under the General Medical Services contract arrangements, GP practices, which are independent contractors, are entitled to apply to the HSCB for reimbursement of recurring premises costs.

"This request is considered in line with the current GMS premises costs directions."

The DUP said SIF steering group membership was a "matter of public record" and Landmark East is a "not-for-profit company established to deliver similar aims to the Social Investment Fund; namely regeneration in areas of deprivation".

He added: "The NIAO report into the SIF has raised a number of issues and put forward recommendations which must be acted upon to ensure such problems do not arise in the future."

Mr Swann said the report into SIF and evidence given to the RHI Inquiry "paints a disgraceful picture of systemic failures in the DUP/Sinn Fein Executive".

"I have asked Meg Hillier MP to instigate an inquiry into the SIF as part of her committee's work schedule," he said.

UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt also called on Sinn Fein to apologise for their role in the SIF. "They were front and centre of it alongside their DUP partners in government," he said.

Last year BBC NI's Spotlight programme alleged Mr Newton misled the Assembly about the exact nature of his role within ex-prisoners' organisation Charter NI, whose former chief executive Dee Stitt has been linked to the UDA.

Mr Newton rejected the claims, but said he would not seek re-election as Speaker.

The east Belfast SIF steering group on which Mr Newton sat awarded Charter NI a £1.7m contract. In October 2016 he blocked an urgent Assembly question on the awarding of funding to the charity without revealing his role. He later apologised for this.

Belfast Telegraph

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