DETI Minister refuses to reply to audit report for another seven weeks

BTI under the microscope

BTI under the microscope

TWO government agencies are refusing to address criticisms contained in a Northern Ireland Audit Office report which reveals how their failure to monitor grant aid funding led to millions of pounds of public money being squandered.

Earlier this week the Northern Ireland Audit Office published a report setting out a litany of failures on the part of the Department of Enterprise Trade and Industry (DETI) in its venture with a biotech support company.

Neither DETI nor its agency, Invest NI, would disclose how the staff concerned were being held to account.

Despite the audit report criticism both agencies said it would be inappropriate for officials or the Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster to speak publicly about the Bioscience and Technology Institute/Harbourgate affair until the report has been discussed by the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee – which is not due to discuss the issue for another seven weeks.

On Tuesday Auditor General Kieran Donnelly was highly critical of DETI and Invest Northern Ireland’s handling of how £2.2m pound was grant funded to BTI over a seven year period.

Between 2001 and 2005 BTI received millions of pounds in public funding to establish a state-of-the-art laboratory to help boost Northern Ireland’s bio-tech industry.

However, auditors uncovered evidence that millions was wasted after the government bodies failed to take proper steps to protect public money, despite significant and potentially fraudulent irregularities in the BTI development, including:

BTI `double charging’ government departments for £500,000 funding;

• One director, Teresa Townsley, being paid a £25,000 `finders fee’ for BTI’s failed laboratory, which other directors claimed they knew nothing about;

• £370,000 of equipment bought for BTI going instead to other companies owned by directors;

• Paying out £1m in unapproved contracts to companies associated with Mrs Townsley’s husband;

Key files which were supposed to have been retained by Invest NI, went missing when requested by auditors.

It was later established that one report had been destroyed after auditors had sought its disclosure.

The audit report further revealed that the majority of those involved in the affair went unpunished.

In February 2011 two unnamed Invest NI officials became the first people to be disciplined for their part in the affair, despite six years of investigation.

An Invest NI spokeswoman yesterday refused the Detail’s request for information on the rank of the officials concerned, the nature of the offences for which they were disciplined and whether they are still employed by the agency.

Despite being severely criticised in the audit report, both DETI and Invest NI insist they will not provide any public response to the criticisms for another seven weeks.

Even though it has had detailed knowledge of the BTI scandal for six years, an Invest NI spokeswoman said it would be “inappropriate” to publicly respond to the audit report criticism until it is discussed by the Public Accounts Committee on January 18.

And despite the audit office’s major criticism of DETI’s failures in the BTI/Harbourgate affair, DETI minister Arlene Foster said she would also be refusing to respond to the audit report for another seven weeks.