Northern Ireland news

Auditor general says ineligible payments meant for struggling businesses could top £13 million

Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly

INELIGIBLE payments under the Stormont scheme to help struggling business affected by Covid restrictions could total more than £13 million, according to Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly.

The figure came to light as the audit office confirmed it is to carry out an investigation into the Small Business Grants Scheme.

Administered by Land and Property Services on behalf of the Department for the Economy, the scheme made individual payments of £10,000 to hundreds of businesses on the basis of rate payers' accounts.

Last week saw four Sinn Féin representatives, including West Tyrone MLA Catherine Kelly and former Foyle MP Elisha McCallion, resign over the failure to promptly return the money for which they and their offices were not entitled.

"The ineligible payments identified by my staff, if extrapolated across the total scheme, indicates the potential of up to £13.5 million of ineligible payments, which I believe to be material in the context of the scheme payments," Mr Donnelly told the BBC.

"Among the mistakes uncovered included businesses not operating from the property on which the grant was paid, and were therefore not entitled to receive the grant, despite in most cases completing an online declaration."

Mr Donnelly said he planned to examine how the Department for the Economy would to get the money back, including from recipients who may have received two payments.

SDLP economy spokeswoman Sinead McLaughlin welcomed the auditor general's probe.

She said her party had proposed that Mr Donnelly be invited to audit Covid-19 support schemes but that "other parties failed to support this proposal" last week.

"Thousands of workers and businesses across Northern Ireland have yet to receive a penny in financial assistance and they were rightly outraged when it emerged that ineligible businesses received thousands of pounds in public money," she said.

"While it is important these schemes are delivered at pace, it is vital that there are checks in place to ensure the money is getting to those in need, instead of those who are ineligible."

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