The Northern Ireland Audit Office has slammed the Economy Department for ‘irregular’ spending on Covid relief programmes.
Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said he found “completely unacceptable” after reviewing the accounts of the ministry and Invest NI.
He also said it was “extremely disappointing” that the Depa rtment does not appear to have learned from the well-documented failures of incentivizing renewable heating.
Mr Donnelly’s findings indicated the Department’s net spend was £1.6bn in 2020/21, up significantly from £1.1bn in 2019/20.
Invest NI’s net spend also jumped to £422m, from £38.6m in 2019/20.
The much higher numbers followed a series of emergency relief programs during the pandemic.
The audit report focused on four programs costing a total of £140million, including grants for small businesses, retail and tourism.
Although the payments were recorded on the books of Invest NI, they were still controlled by the Department.
Mr Donnelly said Invest NI was asked to include the payments in its accounts because the agency had the legal authority to make the payments which the department lacked.
The auditor said this should have been included in the department’s accounts.
He added that the expenses assumed by the Department lacked proper legal authority.
Mr Donnelly then called both sets of accounts “irregular” and said Invest NI’s financial statements did not show the complete picture.
He said the Department and Invest NI were given the opportunity to adjust their accounts but declined to do so.
Although he accepted the pressure under which the schemes were put in place, he said the shortcomings related to “fundamental principles and standards” of accounting.
‘It is completely unacceptable for a department to fail to meet the requirements of the primary legislation on which it relies to make payments,’ he said.
“This is a basic requirement, and it is extremely disappointing that the ministry has not learned from its past failure to obtain the required approvals for the Renewable Heat Incentive Program.”
The Economy Department has since disputed Mr Donnelly’s claims.
A spokesperson said and arm’s length bodies responded immediately to the Covid crisis with 30 programs costing £951m.
“These programs have helped tens of thousands of local businesses at a time when no one knew what to expect. It is therefore disappointing, and not for the first time, that the department is forced to clarify its position following a report of the NIAO,” they said. noted.
“The Department’s accounts were submitted to the NIAO in May 2021 as agreed. A delay arose due to NIAO’s interpretation of an accounting issue it had not raised the previous year when the same diets have been delivered.”
Despite extensive legal advice, they said the department was “unable to persuade the NIAO of its position”.