Mr Kieran Donnelly CB, Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), has issued a report on the results of his audit of the annual report and accounts of the Victims and Survivors Service Limited (VSS) for 2020-21. While the audit opinion on the financial statements is not qualified, the report raises concerns over the eligibility criteria for a VSS education and training programme, as well as concerns over the robustness of the organisation’s governance arrangements.
Education and Training Scheme
The Education and Training Scheme aims to improve the health and wellbeing of victims and survivors whose education and development opportunities have been impacted by Troubles / conflict-related incidents. In 2020-21, total spend on the Scheme was £298k. This spend included 27 payments, totalling £125k and each above £4k, which related to the payment of University and other Educational Fees for clients (in 2019-20, there were a total of 13 such payments totalling £62k).
Of these 27 payments, 22 were to victims whose eligibility was based on trans-generational trauma. Of these 22 payments:
- 18 were to victims impacted by trans-generational trauma as a result of the death of a relative in the Troubles/conflict;
- 17 were to victims not yet born when the conflict related incident took place. In one case the victim was born 26 years after the incident took place; and
- 17 were to victims impacted by trauma whose bereavement would not be considered a close relationship. In the majority of cases, the trans-generational relationship was outside of the scope of the client’s close family, with many being bereaved of an Uncle/Aunt.
A review of case files also found that VSS relied primarily on referral letters and consultation documents from funded groups as confirmation of victims’ eligibility, with no evidence of a full and proper review having been carried out by VSS staff.
In addition, most victims in receipt of support were already enrolled on or had commenced degree courses (some in their final year), having availed of the opportunity to undertake a degree course without VSS support. The report notes that this appears contrary to eligibility outlined in the scheme guidance, which focuses on victims and survivors whose education and development opportunities have been impacted by Troubles/conflict-related incidents.
Mr Donnelly commented:
“While I completely accept the impact of conflict-related incidents can be trans-generational, I am concerned that VSS does not appear to have clearly defined criteria in place to determine eligibility to the Education and Training Scheme. Currently there are no set parameters with regard to how far or wide down the generations the impact of a conflict-related incident can apply. That being the case, it would appear that VSS support for victims may be open ended long term commitment, which will naturally have implications for the total cost of delivering the Scheme.
“It is important for everyone involved that eligibility rules are clear and robust, and that VSS ensures fair and equal opportunity for all victims and survivors in how it administers and promotes this Scheme.”
Mr Donnelly’s report also raises concerns over governance arrangements within VSS. Currently, the VSS Board is operating with a Chair and four non-executive members, well below its normal complement of Chair plus seven members. Some of these positions have been vacant for some time, with a further two Board resignations having been tendered in recent weeks. The report concludes that this situation is unsustainable and impacts on the ability of the Board and it’s sub-committees to function effectively and to be quorate.
In addition, the report highlights issues of concern around the VSS Audit and Risk Committee. The Chair and two of the committee members, whilst considered by VSS to be independent, are employees within the Northern Ireland Civil Service and, in Mr Donnelly’s view, are not truly independent. Furthermore two members of the committee also work in the same organisation.
Mr Donnelly’s report recommends that The Executive Office, which is responsible for the appointment of Board members, progresses recruitment as a matter of urgency. The report also recommends that the composition and independence of the VSS Audit and Risk Committee is reviewed.
Notes for Editors
- The Comptroller and Auditor General is Head of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (the Audit Office). He, and the NIAO, are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of Government Departments and a range of other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to report to the Assembly on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and public bodies use their resources. His reports are published as Assembly papers.
- This report is available on the Northern Ireland Audit Office website. The report is embargoed until 00.01 hrs on Wednesday 18 May 2022.
- The Victims and Survivors Service Limited (VSS) delivers support and services to improve the health and wellbeing of victims and survivors on behalf of The Executive Office.
- Victims and survivors are those as defined by the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, as amended by the Commission for Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Act 2008 as any of the following:
- someone who is or has been physically or psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident;
- someone who provides a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for an individual mentioned in paragraph (a); or
- someone who has been bereaved as a result of or in consequence of a conflict related incident.
- Background briefing can be obtained from the Audit Office by contacting Suzanne Walsh (028 9025 1021).