Belfast Action Teams: Investigations into Suspected Fraud within the Former Suffolk Action Team

This review is a follow-up to a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 1996 which highlighted serious inadequacies in the administration of the Belfast Action Teams1 initiative. The activities of one team in particular, Suffolk Action Team, raised very serious doubts about the propriety and regularity of expenditure.

Following that report, the Department's own investigation highlighted serious matters relating to a team leader including unauthorised absences, travel to Romania, excessive hospitality, purchases in relation to photographic equipment and films, currency exchange irregularities and acceptance of expensive gifts. In the light of these findings the team leader was dismissed from the Civil Service in June 1997. The RUC's investigation centred around the European trips and the activities of, and relationships between, the team leader and a local businessman whose companies had received financial support from Suffolk Action Team. However, following the investigation the Director of Public Prosecutions advised that there should be no prosecution in either case.

This latest report by the C&AG highlights the lessons to be learned from the Department's handling of these problems. It emphasises that the establishment and documentation of proper systems of administration and the provision of proper training for staff are vital components of securing high standards of administration to safeguard public money. It notes that the Department has taken action to implement 106 of the 111 recommendations for improvement stemming from its internal investigation.

The internal review found that allegations made against the team leader by another officer had not been taken seriously enough. Mr Dowdall's report emphasises that where staff have concerns that positions of authority or systems of administration are being abused, it is important that there are systems and procedures in place to protect the person making the allegations and to conduct timely and thorough investigations. The Public Interest Disclosures (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, which came into effect on 31st October 1999, now provides protection to employees who "blow the whistle".

Mr Dowdall says it is important that all staff involved with fraud investigations should be fully aware of the rigorous requirements with regard to the collection of evidence. It is also important that all bodies which operate with a significant risk of internal or external fraud consider whether or not they need to enhance their investigative capacity. The Department has advised that it has arranged for trained staff to manage and co-ordinate future investigations and it is drawing up a fraud response.

1 At the time of the 1996 report the Department of the Environment was responsible for the administration of Belfast Action Teams expenditure but in December 1999 responsibility transferred to the Department for Social Development.