C&AG report: €1.4m overpaid to six schools under government-funded meals initiative

Inflated pupil numbers and spending on non-food items were behind overpayments of €1.4m to six schools under a government-funded school meals programme.

But the Department of Social Protection still had loose checks on how funds were being spent three years after irregularities first showed up.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s (C&AG) office reports overpayments of €402,873 to one school in 2011, mainly due to spending on non-food items and inadequate records of either participating pupils or supplies. Almost €130,000 had yet to be paid back in summer 2014.

C&AG report: €1.4m overpaid to six schools under government-funded meals initiative

Another €268,572 was outstanding from a school which the department’s internal audit team found was overpaid almost €400,000 under the non-statutory scheme. The factors were a mix of inflated pupil numbers or false returns; non-food spending; failure to disclose a surplus or other income sources; and inadequate records.

The school was not able to repay lump sums sought by the department, which instead has a recovery plan in place.

These cases — and three out of four others where irregularities were found — were reported to gardaí but a prosecution has only been sought in one.

It was found in 2013 to have been overpaid €73,320 due to inflated pupil numbers or false returns.

The entire amounts have only been repaid by three other schools which were overpaid between €57,713 and €368,727.

The scheme is run by about 1,000 local organisations, some of which provide services to a number of schools.

C&AG report: €1.4m overpaid to six schools under government-funded meals initiative

The C&AG audited 23 organisations in the 2013/14 school year, finding one with a €50,000 surplus but the source was not investigated by the department.

Eight out of 20 schools in the Department of Education’s DEIS programme to tackle disadvantage had fewer pupils than the number for which payments issued, resulting in estimated over-payments of €42,000.

The department said the differences were less than 10 pupils in seven of the eight cases, and changes to admissions, student absences and closures can make it difficult for schools to predict school meals take-up.

Separate bank accounts will now have to be operated for organisations getting more than €10,000 a year and for any schools joining the scheme, according to the department.

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