Audior general Kieran Donnelly laments `conduct that falls short of the high standards expected from those in public life' in Northern Ireland

Auditor general Kieran Donnelly says `further work is needed to resolve weaknesses' by central government bodies

THE Auditor General has warned about the scale of "findings reflecting conduct that falls short of the high standards expected from those in public life" in Northern Ireland.

Kieran Donnelly has presented the results of last year's audits across government departments, other public sector bodies, contracts awarded without a tender process and voluntary exit schemes.

Mr Donnelly said "further work is needed to resolve weaknesses" by central government bodies.

"It is critical that bodies ensure basic controls are in place and operating effectively to prevent the misuse of public funds," he said.

Eleven departmental resource accounts were audited (compared to four in 2015-16) due to an increase in so-called `excess vote' cases, where budgetary limits approved by the assembly have been breached.

The Auditor General noted that in the majority of cases "the correct budgetary procedure had been followed but could not be concluded as normal, due to the dissolution of the Assembly in January 2017".

The mishandling of controls in the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme and other expenditure incurred without the necessary approvals in the Department for the Economy are included in the report.

He also highlights "insufficient evidence to support the eligibility of certain legal aid applications, the completeness and accuracy of payment to legal practitioners... and whether income from the recovery of defence costs is complete within the Legal Services Agency accounts".

Key findings from financial audit work include:

* A report on the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium and investigations into transactions initiated by a former accounting officer - including "purchases made outside of the body's procedures, the misuse of credit cards, the purchase of high value IT equipment and the receipt and recording of hospitality, including that received from a contractor for services not procured in line with proper procedures".

* A report on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service fines collection outlines concerns with the system for fine defaulters, with almost half - £10.9 million - of the £22.1 million debt outstanding at March 31 2017 "unlikely to be recovered". Auditor found fewer than one in four fine defaulters are being successfully served notice of fine default hearings.

* A report on Sport NI uncovered "poor quality accounts and supporting papers" being presented for audit.

* A report on the Land and Property Services' Rates Levy Account on the high level of fraud - £2.5 million - and error - £3.3 million - in housing benefit administered during 2016. There was also "an internal fraud".

* A report on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) which looked into "insufficient evidence of controls operating over planned maintenance expenditure and the level of housing benefit fraud and error (£25.3 million)". It was also found to have mishandled a whistleblower allegation.

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