The report into an extraordinary audit carried out on Causeway Coast and Glens Council could still be a number of months away from being released with the cost of the audit and legal advice council’s responsibility.
Colette Kane from the Northern Ireland Audit Office told members of the Audit Committee that a number of processes have yet to be completed.
“I can appreciate that this audit has been going on for some considerable time,” she told committee members. “I can therefore advise members that the audit fieldwork has been completed at this stage and we are continuing to liaise with our legal advisors on the processes and findings from the audit.
“We hope to finalise the audit as soon as the proper quality and review processes have been completed.
“It is likely the publication of the report from this audit will take some months to complete, unfortunately I cannot be more precise than that.”
PUP Councillor Russell Watton said he was under the impression ‘it would have been cleared up a long time ago’, adding: “Now we are being told it is going to run into a few more months.
“You could end up running into the end of the current mandate of this council at this rate. Is there no specific date or approximate dates to give us a bit of a guide?
Ms Kane explained she was unable to because of the ‘ongoing discussions with the legal advisors’
She added: “There is much more in this audit than we thought at the outset in terms of legislation required to meet, so we have had to take extensive legal advice so I can’t be any more precise at this stage unfortunately.”
Also concerned about the length of time the extraordinary audit is taking, Independent Councillor Padraig McShane said: “I understand that there are significant factors in terms of legal factors and stuff to look at.
“What is significant tonight is that we are being presented with a risk matrix later on in the meeting that suggests that the extraordinary audit is something that could be a significant risk to the council, in fact it is highlighted in red.
“That very fact suggests to me that people know that there is significant wrongdoing or significant findings that are going to be contained within this report.
“Miss Kane, I want to be clear I’m not pre-empting anything, but somebody is pre-empting it with this significant risk which is attached to the council risk register.
“It’s a PR exercise and that’s the first thing I’m going to respond with. I think that’s phenomenal that a PR exercise is going to be the response.
“The last part of that list is to take control of the policies and procedures and start to implement them properly. I would have thought that would be the first thing that would have been done and I would have thought that would have been done a significant time ago but it wouldn’t appear to be the case.
“The extraordinary audit, I’m very concerned, not that it would be timed out of this mandate because there is still a year left in the mandate, I’m concerned it will be timed out after elections and significant heat will come off the audit whilst prior to the elections that maybe wouldn’t. It would have been far more significant and something people, politicians in particular, would have taken far more cognisance of.”
DUP Councillor Adrian McQuillan agreed with Cllr Watton stating: “I think it is taking a ridiculous amount of time to come back to us and I don’t see it coming back this year.”
He continued: “At the last Audit Committee meeting I had asked you about it and you said you hoped to have it done and dusted for this meeting. Now we are back on the long finger again and you say you can’t say when it’s going to be ready.
“Can I ask what the legal opinion is about, what are you waiting on or what is the hold up with it? You have said legal opinion but you haven’t told us anything else.”
Responding, Ms Kane said: “I have to be quite guarded about what I say Cllr McQuillan. We sought legal opinion at the outset to ensure we were complying with the legislation.
“The legislation we are working to is legislation which is not in place anywhere else in these islands. It did take some time for our legal advisors to get to grips with it as well.
“We are a bit clearer as to where we are going now so I would be very hopeful that we should be able to wrap it up as soon as possible.
“We do have quality processes which we have to go through. It is quite a sensitive report as you can imagine therefore we must make sure it is properly written and gone through proper scrutiny.”
Cllr McQuillan queried who would be liable for the legal fees for the advice required for the audit.
“I don’t have the crystal ball that Cllr McShane has because he knows it’s going to be a bad audit,” said the Bann DEA councillor. “I’m waiting to get the audit and then I will make my mind up about what’s in it.
“Who is paying for this audit and who is paying for the legal opinion and will this be charged back to the council or will the Department be paying for it?”
Ms Kane explained that legislation requires that council pay for the audit including the legal opinion. When asked by Cllr McQuillan if the cost of the audit was available, Ms Kane said ‘hopefully at the next meeting’ which is scheduled to take place on June 8.
The DUP responded: “Maybe at the next meeting we might have the audit as well but I wouldn’t be too hopeful of that.”