Lyric Theatre: 'Astounding' catalogue of failings found
The cost of rebuilding the Lyric Theatre ran £5m over budget, with the project hit by "unacceptable" errors and mistakes, an official report claims.
Situated on the banks of the Lagan, the Lyric reopened in 2011 after an £18m facelift which lasted two years.
However, Government spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee said there had been "completely unacceptable departures from long-established principles of good practice" during the awarding of the rebuild contract.
* Unexplained adjustments to the tender submissions, which officials admitted was not normal practice.
* A £413,000 bill paid in full even though it had been stripped out from one of the tenders.
* Documents destroyed by consultants who produced the tender evaluation report "very promptly" after the tender evaluation meeting.
* The sponsoring bodies (the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Arts Council) or their technical advisers failed to attend the tender evaluation meeting.
* DCAL, the Arts Council and Central Procurement Department (CPD) received copies of the tender evaluation report but did not raise concerns.
* The preferred bidder, Gilbert Ash, provided a donation of £150,000 to the Lyric.
Today's report concludes: "Taking all of the points in the round, the committee is left with a very strong impression that the outcome of the tender process was both rigged and manipulated."
The Lyric was built in 1968 but by the 1990s it was in need of urgent repair.
The rebuild was originally estimated to cost £12.4m, but the final cost soared to £17.8m.
In total, DCAL provided £12.2m to the project.
Despite substantial public funding, DCAL acknowledged that errors and mistakes were made.
During the evidence session, department officials confirmed they were aware that tendering documentation should be kept for at least seven years.
However, DCAL and the Arts Council failed to either take ownership of the documentation or advise the private sector consultants responsible for preparing the tender evaluation report that they should retain the original documents.
Although the original tender submissions are unavailable, the tender evaluation report indicates three adjustments were made to the submissions.
These resulted in the most costly tender submission becoming the most "economically advantageous", and the contractor, Gilbert Ash, was selected as the preferred bidder on that basis.
Despite stripping a £413,000 scaffolding bill from the successful tender, DCAL was unable to provide any reason why it was later paid in full.
The report also questioned why, having being appointed by DCAL to provide advice on the Lyric project, CPD did not attend a key meeting.
Although the Central Procurement Department is employed to protect the public sector interest, officials were absent from the tender evaluation meeting for the awarding of the £11m contract.
It also failed to ensure that it received the appropriate documentation that would have enabled it to provide assurance that the tender evaluation process had been managed appropriately.
The PAC states: "As a result, CPD failed to provide any oversight of the tender evaluation process, and in view of the scale and value of this project, the committee believes that CPD was totally negligent."
The tender evaluation report was made available to DCAL, the Arts Council and CPD.
All three read and reviewed it, but failed to raise any concerns.
"Either officials failed to recognise the issues that it presented, or they understood the issues but chose to turn a blind eye," the PAC added.
At the same meeting at which the project board approved the fixed-price contract with the preferred bidder – Gilbert Ash – it was agreed that the firm would become patrons of the Lyric Theatre with a £150,000 donation.
This effectively meant the Lyric's fundraising team was pursuing patronage from the preferred bidder at the same time that contract negotiations were ongoing.
There is no suggestion Gilbert Ash did anything wrong, nor is it criticised anywhere in today's report.
However, the Public Accounts Committee said: "The committee agrees with the department's observation that conflict of interest arrangements were not adequate in this case and that a better conflict of interest process should have been in place in a third-party organisation in receipt of Government money."
It concluded it was "astounded" by the catalogue of failings.