NI procurement failures prompt further reviews

22 February 2011
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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 school contracts.    

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 said.

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.

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