Flawed Social Investment Fund reflects badly on Stormont administration

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the Audit Office's damning assessment of the Social Investment Fund (SIF) is that it does not come as a huge surprise.

Concerns had been raised about this scheme virtually since its inception with the UUP and SDLP warning it could become a 'slush fund' while Alliance said the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister had been 'anything but clear and transparent'.

As it has transpired, the smaller parties and others who expressed scepticism or raised questions about this initiative were justified in doing so.

This was even before the controversy that surrounded alleged senior UDA figure Dee Stitt who was formerly chief executive of Charter NI, a charity awarded a contract to manage £1.7 million from the Social Investment Fund.

The Audit Office's comprehensive report lays out in stark detail the deep flaws in this fund, which finds parallels in the RHI debacle, currently the subject of a public inquiry.

SIF, which was set up to allocate money to disadvantaged areas, has awarded £79 million to 68 projects across Northern Ireland. That money was intended to be spent in the three years to March 2015 but many projects have been delayed and the delivery period has been extended until 2019-20. The budget has also increased by more than £13 million bringing the overall fund to £93 million.

This is a substantial amount of public money and the management of it should have been rooted in firm foundations, with spending properly accounted for at every level to ensure it was helping people in areas of deprivation.

Furthermore, all such publicly-funded schemes need to be completely open and transparent in their administration and spending decisions.

However, the Audit Office said the Executive Office, which administers the fund, did not have a clear audit trail in relation to the award of public funding from SIF.

There were also problems with the design of the scheme, which meant that conflicts of interest were inevitable.

Steering groups, comprised of volunteers, selected the projects that would be allocated funding but auditors identified three instances where steering group members did not declare conflicts of interest.

Concerns are raised over management fees paid to lead partners with links to the steering groups which appointed them, while documentation around project selection and prioritisation was 'poor'.

While governance has improved and there are some positive outcomes, there are other projects that do not represent value for money.

No one disputes that government should be trying to improve the lives of people who need extra support but spending must be subject to rigorous controls.

What this report will do is further erode public confidence in the administration of government and reinforce the view that when Stormont returns, it cannot be the same as before.