High-profile investigations into projects such as the Vitals hospital concession and Electrogas are carried out by a team of just five people, according to the National Audit Office's annual report.

The report flags the lack of human resources as the biggest challenge faced by the NAO’s Special Audits and Investigations Section, the team that deals with requests made by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee or the finance minister.

In recent times, these have included a series of investigations into the Vitals deal, the Electrogas power station, and Rosianne Cutajar’s “irregular” ITS consultancy, amongst others.

This year, the report says, the unit plans to conclude investigations into the Marsa junction project and the American University of Malta.

The “complex and extensive audits” that fall under the unit’s responsibility “strain the Section’s resources, albeit for good reason” the report argues, pointing to the fact that it “remains a small unit, accounting for no more than five full-time equivalent employees”.

Last year Auditor General Charles Deguara told a parliamentary committee that the unit’s work is frequently hindered by uncooperative public entities which are reluctant to hand over information needed for an investigation.

Deguara had also told the committee of the NAO’s struggles to recruit local talent and to compete with big four firms, many of whom offer higher salaries.

NAO’s staff complement has remained roughly unchanged over the past seven years, the report reveals, with a total of 62 staff members (equivalent to 57 full-timers) across the office’s various departments.

In his introduction to the report, published on Tuesday, Deputy Auditor General Noel Camilleri says that the office’s staff complement “may need to increase” as part of a strategy to strengthen the NAO’s institutional capacity.

Uncooperative local councils

NAO’s report also points to the “lack of co-operation” from several local councils making it difficult for auditors to carry out their work.

The “untimely submission of financial statements” by some councils remains a problem, the report says, while other councils don’t appear to have “substantiating documentation” that records their expenditure.

These issues cause “delays and hindrances in the audit process,” the report says.

Previous reports by the auditor general have frequently flagged shortcomings across several local councils, finding that some actively try to bypass procurement regulations by splitting procurement into separate lots.

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