Northern Ireland news

Communities minister Deirdre Hargey says 'there are lessons that can be learnt' after audit office criticism

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey

COMMUNITIES minister Deirdre Hargey has said lessons will be learned after a scathing audit office report criticised the delivery of a £23 million hardship scheme for sporting organisations during the pandemic.

Speaking in the assembly, Ms Hargey said financial assistance had been offered "under extreme time pressures and time scales", but issues raised were "being taken onboard".

A report by Auditor General Kieran Donnelly criticised the Covid-19 hardship fund for sporting organisations for not taking bank balances and reserves held by applicants into account, and in some cases, profits were underwritten by the grants.

The Sports Sustainability Fund opened in December 2020 and was designed to help organisations to survive the financial implications of the pandemic, with Sport NI working with the Department for Communities to run it.

Some 430 sports clubs received grants.

The Audit Office report highlighted how the largest grant of £1.5m was paid to Royal County Down Golf Club, which had a "very significant bank balance and a high level of reserves".

It said that was "not an appropriate use of public spending" and found that the scheme "particularly benefited the golf sector".

Mr Donnelly said while he appreciated it had to be delivered in a "very short period of time and under considerable pressure", he urged that lessons be learned by the department and Sport NI.

Ms Hargey was quizzed about it during question time in the assembly yesterday.

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan asked the Sinn Féin minister whether she felt the scheme was an appropriate and prudent use of public money.

"I think the delivery of all the Covid financial assistance including the Sports Sustainability Fund was obviously undertaken in a really fluid situation and under extreme time pressures and time scales in which organisations and elected members were saying there was urgent issues that needed to be addressed," she said.

"Of course there are lessons that can be learnt from the development and delivery of Covid funding schemes across the board and obviously that is something that is already underway in terms of a review of those.

"There are learnings and of course they are being taken on board.

Responding to further questioning by SDLP MLA Sinead Bradley, Ms Hargey said she recognised the need to make improvements.

"We were moving at pace and indeed I have recognised that, I know the Audit Office has also recognised that, that we were moving at pace in terms of how decisions were being taken so of course there are always lessons learned in all of these schemes," she said.

"But I do believe, in terms of the administration of the scheme that we kept to the guidance that was paid out, and I know that that was confirmed by the (communities) committee at their meeting back in April."

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