NI Department of Education launches procurement fraud probe

26 November 2010
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26 November 2010 | Angeline Albert

Northern Ireland’s Department of Education has launched fraud investigations into buying practices at two education authorities after discovering procurement irregularities in school contracts.

Launching the inquiries, education minister Caitríona Ruane informed the NorthernIreland Assembly of serious concerns surrounding procurement activities at the North EasternEducation and Library Board (NEELB) and the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB).

The external investigation into the NEELB, County Antrim’s local education authority, follows its purchase of a £8.2 million school building for Magherafelt High school. This involved an agreement with a contractor without the full approval of the Department of Education. Despite lacking approval, the board paid the contractor for work. In a written statement,  to the assembly, Ruane said her department has identified irregular spending by the board in 2010/11.

The minister also expressed “serious concerns” around procurement practices at SEELB, which covers most of County Down and a small part of Country Antrim. She described a “suspected fraud” concerning the installation of heating equipment in a school, where second-hand burners were put in. Additional procurement irregularities linked to a maintenance contract led Ruane to commission an investigation into the contract and procurement practices at the SEELB. The result of this earlier internal audit by the department has now been passed on to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), and Ruane has launched a broader investigation into the SEELB.

Ruane has also instructed her department to create a Centre of Procurement Expertise for the education sector. It will carry out an assessment of the region’s capacity to manage contracts and procurement practices across the education sector.

She said: “In the light of these events I have determined that further action is needed to provide assurance to me as minister and to the executive that procurement practices across the education sector are professional.”

A NEELB statement said: “The [NEELB] will co-operate fully with the minister’s external investigation of all the circumstances around the procurement and work associated with the contract for Magherafelt High school. The board has already conducted an internal enquiry into the circumstances of this contract and has made a detailed report available to the Department of Educationand the Northern Ireland Audit Office.”

The SEELB said in a statement it will continue to co-operate fully. It added: “The chief executive and officers are working closely with the department to explore the ramifications of a specific instance of suspected fraud, which involved a sum of under £7,000. A report on the investigation of this suspected fraud, carried out by the board, has already been forwarded to the PSNI. This investigation work led by the department of education’s internal audit unit will check whether correct procedures have been followed in a range of other procurement actions in the same general area of activity over a number of years.”

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