Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
North-South Implementation Bodies
1. To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the reason the Ulster-Scots Agency spent more than €480,000 of public funds over 12 months without proper authority in 2010; the reason there is a delay of two years in the publication of the agency’s annual report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51571/13]
The question is posed in the context of our support for the Ulster-Scots Agency, but we are conscious of the fact that we have not seen the publication of the annual accounts since 2010 and of the report that over €400,000 of public money has been spent by the agency, which has joint funding from North and South of the Border, apparently without proper approval.
For the benefit of the Minister of State, under new Standing Orders the person proposing the question has 30 seconds to introduce the question and the Minister of State has two minutes for the initial reply, after which there is one minute each for the questioner and the Minister of State.
I thank the Acting Chairman for the explanation. The Ulster-Scots Agency is an agency of the North-South Language Body, An Foras Teanga, with responsibility for promoting the Ulster-Scots language and culture within Northern Ireland and throughout the island of Ireland. As a result of legislative requirements, the annual report and accounts of the Ulster-Scots Agency form part of the annual consolidated report and accounts of An Foras Teanga. In regard to the 2010 accounts, the certificate of the Comptrollers and Auditors General indicates that the agency incurred expenditure totalling £372,523, or €432,124, in connection with which the procedures employed did not comply with those laid down in the language body's financial memorandum.
The Comptrollers and Auditors General have noted the actions taken by the agency to improve its financial controls surrounding grants in general, which include additional staff training, revision of internal processes, revision of claim forms and enhanced requirements for documentation in support of claims for payment. I understand that the matters referred to in the 2010 accounts relate to legacy issues which have since been addressed by the agency.
In regard to the publication of annual reports and accounts, it is worth noting that the production of consolidated accounts is particularly complex in this case, arising from the unique organisational structure of An Foras Teanga as a North-South body comprising two distinct agencies, and from the particular legislative requirement that the annual report and accounts of the agencies be published as a single consolidated document. It is also important to note that the delays that have arisen in recent years in publishing the annual reports and accounts of An Foras Teanga may be seen, in many ways, to have their origin in issues that arose with regard to the 2000 and 2001 accounts, which were not published until 2005. In accordance with a direction from the North-South Ministerial Council, a high level of priority has been given to tackling the backlog in recent years, as a result of which 11 annual reports and accounts have been published since 2005 for An Foras Teanga. It is envisaged that the annual report and accounts for 2011 will be certified by the Comptrollers and Auditors General and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly in the very near future. Finally, I should point out that the Ulster-Scots Agency is up-to-date with the submission of its own individual draft annual reports and accounts up to and including 2012.
I welcome the Minister of State's response, to some extent. This is really unfortunate in the context of the valuable work that the organisation does, and we all wish it well as it faces fairly major challenges. The public, both North and South of the Border, want to be absolutely certain that every cent of public money being devoted to causes such as these is being properly expended, with proper approvals in place. The difficulty is that it appears the agency spent £126,000 on rent and service charges for its Great Victoria Street offices in Belfast city centre without getting formal business approval. In addition, the audit revealed that £176,000 was paid in 2009 and 2010 for the production and distribution of the agency's newspaper, The Ulster-Scot, again without the proper procedures being in place. The Minister of State told us the publication of the annual accounts was a complex issue, but we have not seen accounts since 2010. It is time, irrespective of the complexity of the issue, for the accounts to be published and dealt with in a normal and transparent manner, as is expected of these bodies.
As I stated, there are legacy issues, and the 2000 annual report was not published until 2005. I am sure the Deputy agrees that major progress has been made, and the 2011 report will be published in the very near future. It was discussed at a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council the week before last. I am glad the Deputy recognises the excellent work engaged in by the Ulster-Scots Agency, which is a significant part of our cultural history in Northern Ireland and the Border counties, including my own constituency. I have had the pleasure and privilege of attending a number of functions organised by the agency in recent weeks and as recently as last Saturday night.
There have been legacy issues. Ms Carál Ní Chuilín MLA, our opposite number in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, and I have given top priority to ensuring the accounts are brought up to date. Major progress has been made. The Deputy identified areas where procurement was not as it should have been in the past, including the office space and the newspaper. These matters have been addressed.
The draft report for 2012 has already been prepared by the Ulster-Scots Agency but we cannot have the 12th before the 11th.
The Minister of State said legacy problems exist which date back to 2001 and 2005. In 2013 we should not be talking about legacy issues from that period. If there were problems then they should have been solved by now. I am not trying to score political points because there are no political points to be scored in this situation. It is simply a requirement that the business would be transacted in a professional manner.
Could the Minister of State outline the engagement he has personally had with his Northern counterpart on the matter? Could he assure the public that the legacy issues to which he referred have been resolved and that in future the documents will be published in a smooth and effective manner on an annual basis?
I reiterate that major progress has been made. There were legacy issues but we are not dealing anymore with 2001 or 2005, we are dealing with 2011. The report will be published in the near future, certainly before the next round of ceisteanna in the House on this matter. We now have the utmost confidence in the approach taken to these matters. I do not deny there were problems in the past but I am satisfied that there is now adherence to acceptable and normal procedures.