MORE than €27 million given to Vocational Education Committees (VECs) for school sites and improving health and safety went unspent for up to three years, the Comptroller and Auditor General John Purcell has found.
He has recommended capital grants should not be made to Vocational Education Committees by the Department of Education until the transactions are ready to be finalised.
He found €21.5m allocated by the department between autumn 2005 and late the next year for five VECs to buy sites for schools remained unspent by the end of 2006.
The amounts given to county VECs in Donegal, Dublin, Sligo and Wicklow, and City of Galway VEC, ranged from €1.3m to €6.3m and at least three of the purchases were still not finalised when the department responded to questions from Mr Purcell on the matter in February of this year.
He also reviewed funds held by VECs which had been advanced by the Department of Education for health and safety projects in schools in 2005 and 2006. Under the €12.5m scheme announced in late 2005, the department paid each VEC a grant to address risks in technology workshops at their schools. In eight large VECs, Mr Purcell found that less than €700,000 of about €6.8m allocated to them had been spent by the end of 2006.
Co Kildare and Co Wicklow VECs had spent none of the €782,500 and €610,000 which they had been paid respectively, to upgrade technology rooms. Co Dublin VEC had only spent €35,000 of its €1.5m allocation and City of Dublin VEC spent less than €60,000 of its €690,000 grant.
Other VECs which spent less than one-fifth of their allocations included Co Cork (€1.4m unspent), Co Kerry (€410,000 unspent) and Co Louth (€427,295 unspent).
Department of Education secretary general Brigid McManus replied to Mr Purcell that since early last year, payments to VECs for sites are only made when purchases are imminent.
She said even short delays in executing contracts can give vendors the excuse to seek to renegotiate previously agreed financial terms, and this can lead to higher prices.
Mr Purcell said that where funding is disbursed on the basis of future commitments rather than on the basis of need, there is a risk of financial loss to the exchequer. He also concluded that the allocation of scarce resources to projects before they are clearly in a position to proceed may unnecessarily delay other projects of equal merit because of a perceived lack of available funding.
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