Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Flaws in social fund truly beggar belief

Editor's Viewpoint

Most people were astonished when they heard some of the evidence given during the RHI Inquiry. Senior civil servants said no notes were taken at meetings with ministers because the dominant parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, were sensitive to criticism. The competence of civil servants implementing that financial debacle was also brought into question.

Devolution, it appeared, was government but not as the public knew it or even would approve.

But, as former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt says today as another damning report into another scheme is released, RHI may not have been an exceptional blip in the governance of Northern Ireland, but just another example of strange practice.

This time the scheme under the microscope of the Auditor General is the controversial Social Investment Fund, which was given a whopping £92m to administer.

The stated aim of the fund was laudable - to help disadvantaged areas. But there was a least one fatal flaw in the scheme that was the brainchild of the Executive Office at Stormont when power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein was working.

The Auditor General has found a lack of transparency in the administration of the fund. Astonishingly, there is no audit trail to show how the money was spent, making it incredibly difficult to determine its value in meeting its stated aims. Other problems identified included conflicts of interest in the initial stages of the scheme and documentation around project selection and prioritisation was poor.

The award of £1.7m to a charity headed by convicted armed robber Dee Stitt, who has alleged links with the UDA which he denies, caused controversy in 2016 when it was revealed. Obviously there was some public disquiet over this revelation.

It beggars belief that £92m of taxpayers' money could be given out without any sure way of tracing how it was going to be spent. Yet again the Auditor General has identified glaring deficiencies in the governance of a public funded scheme. The only glimmer of hope is that governance improved as the project developed but there are fears that faults in the way Northern Ireland was run during devolution were systemic rather than isolated examples.

At the very least the recommendations made by the Auditor General on improving governance should be implemented as soon as possible.

Belfast Telegraph

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