The Audit Office has been asked to investigate procurement practices at Stormont’s most senior government department amid claims it has “systematically defied” spending rules.
TUV leader Jim Allister said he has contacted the public spending watchdog after discovering more than £370,000 was handed over to suppliers by the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) without competitive tendering processes.
The controversy centres on awarding contracts through “single tender actions”, where other potential suppliers have not been given the opportunity to compete for work.
Eight such actions have been signed off during the last |four years, including one where |expenditure topped £270,000. OFMDFM has blamed “an oversight” for the discrepancies.
However, Mr Allister, who discovered the details through an Assembly question, said it |exposed a “gross contempt” for public money.
“I am referring this matter to the Audit Office for a full inquiry and I will also pursue it by further questions,” he said.
Public sector bodies are expected to invite rival bids to ensure value for money. Any departure from the competitive tendering requires the express permission |of the department’s accounting officer. Yet OFMDFM has confirmed that it secured eight suppliers since May 2007 through single tender action — and before the authorisation of the accounting officer was secured.
“This included £270,000 on a play and leisure policy and £24,500 on an investigation into NI Water.
Mr Allister said it was a “flagrant breach” of the rules. However, in response to the Assembly question, the OFMDFM said two of the single tender actions had been specifically appointed.
“Failure to obtain prior accounting officer approval in the remaining cases was an oversight,” it said. “Retrospective departmental accounting officer approval has been obtained in each case.
“Guidelines on single tender actions have been re-issued to all staff in the department and its arm’s-length bodies.”