Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Abuse of public purse has to end

Yesterday this newspaper revealed how legal aid costs here have almost trebled the past decade without a corresponding rise in the number of cases involved.

Lawyers were able to claim increases in payments simply by saying their original fees were not enough and higher remuneration rates in Very High Cost Cases - those expected to last more than 25 days - were paid out even if the trials ended sooner. The controls on dispensing legal aid seemed minimal at best.

A similar gravy train appears to have been calling at examinations body, the CCEA, where a plane was hired to take staff to a conference in Galway and lavish entertainment in luxury hotels in Ireland and France was paid for out of the public purse. And now it has been revealed that senior executives at the body were awarded pay increases without approval from the Department of Education. Why did those in charge at the CCEA at that time think that was either acceptable practice or that it would not be discovered?

Both these stories come under the often-used banner of 'you couldn't make it up'. It seems incredible that public funds could be squandered - or at least given out - with seemingly very little scrutiny. Even when the waste is uncovered, no-one is held accountable for it. There are ritual apologies and assurances that new measures have been put in place to prevent any repetition of the waste - until the next time.

There is seemingly a culture of spending public funds as if the pot was bottomless. The level of scrutiny and oversight is severely lacking and problems are only discovered later by watchdogs like the Audit Office or the Public Accounts Committee. Rarely, if ever, is the overspending recouped. With a devolved administration now firmly established at Stormont it is imperative politicians put in place legislation and scrutiny measures which will make it easier to discover any misuse or waste of public funds as early as possible and hold those responsible to account.

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