Belfast Telegraph

Blame game puts department in the firing line

By David Gordon

This is not the Department of Employment and Learning's finest moment.

A lot of time could be spent arguing about how businesswoman Catherine Williamson behaved 11 years ago, when she worked for the Hospitality Association of Northern Ireland.

But that would risk missing the key point of today's report - the situation created by the Training and Employment Agency (T&EA) and DEL, the Government body that took over its functions.

It was the T&EA which named Mrs Williamson in two "irregularity" reports to Europe in the late 1990s.

The T&EA and then DEL subsequently appointed her to public posts - including the Agency's own board.

This put the Department in a contradictory position, when details of the HANI saga were made public. It also did not do Mrs Williamson any favours.

The HANI story broke in January 2003, when a forensic audit report on the organisation was obtained by this newspaper.

The irregularity allegations were not just about obscure and relatively small transactions dating back a number of years.

They involved an individual in a number of public posts. It now transpires she had been appointed by a Department responsible for audit and irregularity reports which blamed her personally. DEL subsequently tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to step down from one public position.

The businesswoman argued - and continues to maintain - that the reports to Europe and the fraud accusation were grossly unfair and inaccurate.

But DEL could hardly rush to her defence, given the past official findings.

The Department had some inkling of the potential problems, when it appointed Mrs Williamson to its Learning and Skills Advisory Board in 2002.

DEL papers from May of that year pondered about delaying the Advisory Board appointments as "there is a possibility that one of these candidates may attract some adverse publicity in the press in the next week or two".

That was a reference to Mrs Williamson, today's Audit Office report said.

The appointment went ahead and, while "adverse publicity" took a little longer than predicted, it arrived all the same.

Given the passage of time, it seems unlikely that today's Audit Office report would have been produced had another more recent controversy not occurred. That involved an alleged conflict of interest during Mrs Williamson's time on the board of the Northern Ireland Events Company, which is funded by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL).

In 2004, she secured the PR contract for the Senior British Open Golf Championship, a tournament receiving sponsorship from the Events Company.

According to Mrs Williamson, DCAL agreed that there was no conflict with her tendering for and securing this work, as the funding had already been granted by that stage.

The then chairman of the Events Company backed her account in his evidence to the Audit Office. But DCAL denied any such approval or acquiescence.

It said it obtained legal advice that the arrangement did constitute a conflict of interest.

DCAL also expressed strong criticism of her conduct at a May 2004 press launch she organised as event promoter.

She used Events Company folders to package the information and included personal business cards in the packs, the Audit Office stated.

"DCAL's view at the time was that this not only represented the perception of a conflict of interest which would harm the Events Company but, more importantly, a serious error of judgment which called into question her suitability for service on a public body," it added.

Twelve months later, the Department of Culture extended Mrs Williamson's term on the Events Company board for a further year. In 2006, she turned down an invitation to serve for another two years.

Belfast Telegraph


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