The National Audit office has criticised former Parliamentary Secretary for Local Councils Chris Said for 'unwarranted' intervention in the allocation of funds for works by the councils.

The criticism is made in a report issued today following a request by the Minister for Justice, Culture and Local Government to investigate operational aspects of local councils funding schemes between 2008 and 2013.

"At times, the National Audit office (NAO) deemed the intervention of the parliamentary secretary as unwarranted, encroaching on the remit of the Evaluation Committees and the Department of Local Government," the audit office said.

"This Office identified instances where the parliamentary secretary was involved in the shortlisting of applications received, the evaluation of submissions and the determination of funds to be allocated." 

"The NAO recognises that interventions by the policy coordinator at times emanated from her role as Chair or member of Evaluation Committees. Yet, the NAO identified instances that could not be understood in this context.

"On the other hand, the parliamentary secretary maintained that his role was mainly to provide general direction, oversight of the schemes and support in case of difficulties encountered.

"However, the parliamentary secretary insisted that his interventions never resulted in the withholding or redirection of funds to specific local councils, but were meant to facilitate the allocation of funds among local councils.

"Nevertheless, the NAO maintains an element of reservation, as documentation reviewed indicated that the parliamentary secretary's involvement occasionally impinged on the independence of the Evaluation Committees. This was evident in revisions to grants or in instances when funds were sourced through direct recourse to the parliamentary secretary.

"This Office is of the opinion that, in line with the principles of good governance, the parliamentary secretary should have ensured that the proper decision-making structures, reporting arrangements and systems of record keeping were in place rather than intervene in a direct manner through the allocation of grants to specific local councils."

CHRIS SAID ACCEPTS RESPONSIBILITY

In a reaction, Dr Said said he had noted the report and was shouldering responsibility for what he had done int he first four years of the last legislature. What he had done, he said, was to enable as many councils as possible to take initiatives and carry out projects for the good of their residents. 

Dr Said noted that the auditor had concluded that in a number of schemes he had intervened as parliamentary secretary.

"I can confirm this and assume responsibility for it," he said.

He said he never discriminated between the councils, and the auditor never said that he had. His aim was to help the councils, whichever they were.

Dr Said said it was true that administration could have been better handled, but, he said, there was no bad intent and this was the result of enthusiasm to get things done. Indeed, thanks to the schemes, the councils had been able to carry out hundreds of projects for the benefit of the people. 

REPORT

In its report, the audit office reported that with regard to the road resurfacing scheme through PPP agreements, local councils were to identify the roads that were to be resurfaced and submit corresponding cost estimates to the Department of Local Government.

Once approved by the department, the council was to issue a call for tenders based on the specific conditions. The department indicated its commitment towards supporting this initiative by matching the councils’ financial allocation for road maintenance for the first year of the PPP, effectively doubling the budget available for such works.

In the second year of the PPP, the department would increase the local councils’ road maintenance allocation by 25 per cent. Applications were to be processed in chronological order based on the date of receipt by the department. Overall, the scheme for the resurfacing of roads through PPP agreements resulted in a disbursement of €6,003,251, corresponding to 54 grants made to 48 councils.

In addition to the funds allocated for road resurfacing works, the department issued numerous funding schemes during the period 2008-2013 as part of the measures undertaken by central government for the development of sustainable localities.

The schemes varied significantly, from the cleaning of localities to the restoration of artefacts, the organisation of cultural activities and the installation of energy saving equipment. Of the 44 schemes indicated in the request, the audit office reviewed 24, which accounted for an aggregate disbursement of €5,516,161.

In all, the audit office reviewed 25 local council  funding schemes issued between 2008 and 2013. Of the 1,262 applications submitted in respect of these schemes, 779 were approved for funding. These resulted in an aggregate funding allocation of €11,519,388.  

In principle, the audit office said, it considered the local council funding schemes to constitute an effective means of support afforded to councils by central government, but it noted a number of shortcomings relating to their management and administration.

No budget was set for a number of schemes. This was particularly evident in the scheme for the resurfacing of roads, which resulted in a disbursement in excess of €6,000,000.

"This Office considered the failure to specify an overall limit as a shortcoming in terms of financial control. Other concerns relating to financial control applied to instances when budgets were set yet not adhered to. In the majority of cases, variations in this respect resulted in the allocation of additional funds; however, this Office was not provided with documentation indicating justification for the increased allocation and authorisation obtained.

"Notwithstanding this, the NAO established that the Parliamentary Secretary for Consumers, Fair Competition, Local Councils and Public Dialogue (PS LC) generally authorised the additional allocation of funds, citing the many valid applications made by LCs and the broad support that such funding afforded." 

The office said it had identified serious shortcomings in the retention of documentation relating to the funding schemes reviewed. Application forms submitted by the councils were not provided to the audit office, or deemed incomplete by this Office, in the majority of schemes reviewed.

Other missing documentation, albeit to varying degrees, related to the appointment of Evaluation Committee members, minutes of meetings, evaluation reports and letters of acceptance or refusal." 

LABOUR PARTY REACTS

The Labour Party said the audit office report amounted to harsh condemnation of the direct interference by Dr Said, one of the people who was closest to Opposition leader Simon Busuttil.

It asked how Dr Busuttil could present himself as some champion of good governance with such people around him. The fact was it said, that Dr Busuttil employed different standards for those around him and for others. 

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