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Editor's Viewpoint

£40m overcharge is due to flawed system

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'This time an astute whistleblower pointed out that people were being overcharged to register land and property sales here.'

'This time an astute whistleblower pointed out that people were being overcharged to register land and property sales here.'

PA Wire/Press Association Images

'This time an astute whistleblower pointed out that people were being overcharged to register land and property sales here.'

Hands up anyone who is surprised that a deal negotiated between a public body and a commercial concern has not delivered value for money. Not a year goes by without the Northern Ireland Audit Office flagging up some problem involving public money.

This time an astute whistleblower pointed out that people were being overcharged to register land and property sales here. The problem was discovered when the anonymous whistleblower raised the alarm, just as happened in the ill-fated RHI cash-for-ash scandal, although thankfully this time the reaction was swifter and the outstanding bill much less.

However, it is still a significant amount of money which is involved - £40 million - and that was taken from both ordinary individuals involved in land and property sales as well as developers.

The root of the problem, according to the comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly, was the terms of the deal signed between Land and Property Services and BT, which was to computerise and modernise the registry system through a project called Landweb. It has been concluded that fees extracted from people using the system were too high, accounting for a £40m overcharge, with another £9m likely to accrue.


Bad enough that poor strategic planning by the Department of Finance allowed this situation to evolve, but what is really galling is that those overcharged will not see a penny of that money back. They have had their pockets picked.

Could it have been avoided? Ten years ago the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at Stormont flagged concerns over value for money. Surely that should have been sufficient to ensure that the deal was kept under the tightest scrutiny and that excessive surpluses were avoided, as the PAC recommended.

Essentially, customers of the service were subjected to a form of tax for which they obtained no additional benefit.

The public service, for all its experience in procurement, seems unable to grasp the fundamentals of clinching deals. As Mr Donnelly said, measures such as benchmarking, market testing and open book accounting should have been part of the agreement to ensure greater transparency and competitiveness. The question now must be why these measures were not included.

He wants the urgent introduction of revised fees. Paying back the overcharge should also be considered.

Belfast Telegraph