THE Northern Ireland investigation unit charged with tackling fraud of European Union agricultural subsidies has been blasted in a report as being “fractured” and having a “lack of formal investigation procedures”.
In its damning conclusion, the confidential report – commissioned by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) – said: “The absence of such formal and comprehensive procedures has resulted in a lack of transparency and consistency around the conduct of the investigation process.”
The anti-fraud unit – entitled the Central Investigation Service (CIS) – is part of DARD. It also conducts fraud investigations for other government departments in Northern Ireland and the Special EU Programmes Body, which funds cross-border projects.
DARD commissioned Deloitte, the auditing and consultancy firm, to review the CIS and the conduct of its head, Tommy McCauley.
The EU imposed a fine on Northern Ireland of more than E39 million in September because of the Province’s failure to investigate fraud of agricultural subsidies properly between 2008 and 2010. It brings the total EU fines for Northern Ireland to around E77 million, which is ultimately met by UK taxpayers.
DARD distributes around £270 million a year in EU agricultural subsidies. EU regulators found several serious abuses, including subsidies being paid for arable land that did not exist.
DARD commissioned the “independent review” – codenamed Project Rainbow – into the CIS in 2010 after three of the unit’s five investigators made a series of “whistleblowing allegations”, according to the report.
The report was intended to be kept confidential, although a redacted version was released under the Freedom of Information Act.
However, investigative website Exaro has obtained a full, unredacted copy.
In one key finding, the review concluded: “In our opinion, the nature of the whistleblowing allegations indicated a severely fractured working relationship within the CIS team.
“We consider that a major contributing factor in this regard has been the lack of formal investigation procedures governing the assessment criteria and operational procedures to be followed in respect of receiving, assessing, allocating, conducting and closing cases.”
Among those interviewed during the review was the senior DARD official responsible for the CIS, Tom Rodgers, head of financial policy at the department. The report said that he did not have “a sufficiently detailed understanding of the investigation process to provide the necessary oversight”.
The review also identified a series of basic failings in investigative procedures by the CIS.
It found inadequate investigation of alleged fraud by one farmer who, CIS investigators claimed, used his political connections to have the case dropped.
The review – which was completed in July 2010 – made a series of recommendations. It added: “DARD’s senior management should consider whether the CIS should continue to provide [investigation] services to other departments.”
DARD said in a statement that the recommendations “were all accepted”, adding: “The recommendations have all been implemented.”
Mr McCauley and Mr Rodgers declined to comment.
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