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22 February 2011 | Angeline Albert
Investigations into buying practices at two of Northern
Ireland’s education authorities have found procurement failures linked to
The findings have prompted Northern Ireland’s
education-minister Caitríona Ruane to announce investigations into procurement
at the Belfast Education and LibraryBoard, the Western Education and Library Board and
the Southern Education and Library Board.
Ruane was reporting back to the Northern Ireland Assembly on the
conclusions of reviews into buying at the SouthEastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) and the North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB).
She said an external investigation into buying at SEELB, a
board which covers most of County Down and a small part of County Antrim, began
on 6 December and uncovered a “fragmented approach in the governance and
control arrangements for procurement and management of contracts”.
She said it found “no evidence of any proactive scrutiny by
the board of procurement risks and issues” and that SEELB had only “partial
oversight of procurement activities” and no real buying strategy in place. The
review also reported an absence of skills and resources within the board and a
failure to use existing professionally qualified staff.
“Serious weaknesses in governance and internal control were
identified and these have left the systems vulnerable to error, fraud or
exploitation. As a result the board is unable to clearly demonstrate that fraud
and loss were prevented and value for money achieved,” she said.
In addition, the Police Service of Northern Ireland is
investigating a suspected fraud at SEELB, which concerns the installation of
heating equipment in a school where second-hand burners were put in.
The external investigation into NEELB, County Antrim’s local
education authority, follows its purchase of a £8.2 million school building
which involved an agreement with a contractor and payment for work without the
approval of the Department of Education.
NEELB’s failure to seek approval for spending on Magherafelt High School’s new
building “resulted in a serious breach of financial control”, the minister
She has called for an independent review into procurement at
NEELB as a whole and asked her department’s internal auditors to conduct a
separate review of governance and control at NEELB.
Ruane told SEELB and NEELB they must develop
procurement action plans to tackle purchasing failures.